“In many ways, Chandigarh has the big town aspiration value for younger people who see it as the place to get a job and settle down. But it also has the idyllic charm of a small town in the foothills for those who’ve already made it in life or have the money to not bother too much about opportunities.”
Renowned journalist & writer Aarish Chhabra who recently released the first-of-its-kind book on Chandigarh, ‘The Big Small Town’, insists on saying one thing first, “It is not a book about architecture.” His book is a collection of observatory articles, and stories, about the City Beautiful. It engages with the city’s history, its culture, its politics, its life, its monuments, and its interesting people, all in a witty, humorous, but disarmingly honest way. PU Mirror speaks to him to know more!
Q: Your book has the tagline ‘How life looks from Chandigarh’. How would you describe life as it looks from Chandigarh in one sentence?
A: Depending on your mood at a certain time, life can either look painfully organised and drab here, or fantastically organised and pretty.
Q: What makes you call it ‘The Big Small Town’?
A: Chandigarh is always confused if it’s is a big town or small. In many ways, it has the big town aspiration value for younger people who see it as the place to get a job and settle down. But it also has the idyllic charm of a small town in the foothills for those who’ve already made it in life or have the money to not bother too much about opportunities. For the title, I was confused between ‘The Small Big Town’ and ‘The Big Small Town’, and decided on the latter only because it sounded better! I am not so sure if it is a big town that’s just small in terms of size; or if it is a small town that’s, size-wise, bigger than usual small towns.
Q: It is often assumed that turning an author from being a journalist is jumping from one end to another, because you report facts in as precise wording as can explain the news as a journalist, whereas a book is a beautiful play of words, a manifestation of your own idea or your story. What do you have to say on that?
A: That’s the tough part. When we write or edit for the paper in terms of news reporting, we have to be economical. But I have made it a point to remain in touch with the feature, long-form, and opinion-wiring side of journalism, as a conscious decision. Even when I edit others’ work, the target is not just to be precise and short. It depends entirely on the type of story. So, if a fascinating story deserves a mysterious, indirect beginning, I would go for that. My writing style for the opinion/feature pieces that I write — if I could describe it — is to build things up, turn them around, tease and argue before coming to the point. The trick is not being boring.
Q: It is difficult to stick to stories especially as time passes by. Is the final print what you wanted it to be since the beginning, or has the storyline changed in the process of writing?
A: Since it’s a collection of pieces written over time, I have excluded mostly those that are too embedded in their time. Of the 150+ pieces, I have picked 65, some for their universal or historical value, others for the sheer fun of writing and reading, and some for the interesting choice of subject.
Q: What does literary success look like to you?
A: Since my work is more of chronicling and not high-brow literature, my simple target is to be informative, interesting, and engaging. To ignite laughs, tears, and curiosity. And that’s all specific to this book.
Q: Which is your favourite chapter in the book? Why?
A: There’s one about the Indian Coffee House and Valentine’s Day that I liked writing. The book also has a section about the hills, which are never too far from Chandigarh, so there’s one about committing ‘herbal’ sins in Kasol, one of the favourite destinations for a holiday if you live in Chandigarh.
Besides the issues, the people and the city’s defining traits, the book also has a section dedicated to Lahore. After all, if Lahore had not gone to Pakistan, there would probably be no Chandigarh since there won’t be two Punjabs and we won’t need a new capital. It derives from my visit to Lahore and our shared culture. That is very close to my heart.
The last few pages are dedicated to ‘misfits’, such as a piece about Pran and his creations Chacha Chaudhary and our love for comic books, and another about the charm of cafes. My family owns a cafe, called The Rumour Mill in Chandigarh’s Sector 7, which is what ignited this thought in me.
Q: Books that have fortified you as a writer/ journalist?
A: I will mention two books for now. In light of my book, I’d mention ‘Karachi, you’re killing me!’ by Saba Imtiaz. It is a work of fiction as a novel, unlike my work which is a collection of smaller articles and stories. But I feel an affinity towards the theme. I also recently re-read ‘Battle of Bittora’ by Anuja Chauhan, because I love her style of not caring too much about who’ll say what about using certain words. Such works are honest, an essential and endearing quality of any writing. Since I mostly read journalistic writings anyway, I also have got immense respect for Aman Sethi’s ‘A Free Man’. And a book that I like for its sheer compassion is ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel’ by Mohsin Hamid.
Q: What is the best/ worst thing about Chandigarh that you’ve learned, so far?
A: The fact that it is a big/small town makes Chandigarh lovable, because you can alter your perception of the city according to your mood. Convenient!
Q: A final message for the readers.
A: Belonging to a go-between generation at the age of 30, I cannot give Gyan. But I would humbly request people not to surrender their curiosity. Never. Even if it makes you cynical, so be it. It’s better than being dead in the mind.
About the Author:
A stout believer of the doctrine of karma, and definitely an optimist. Bhavya suffers from a childhood syndrome, of laughing at serious situations and the same translates in her writings in the form of disastrous wit. Food, music and books are the definition of immense happiness.
Picture Credits: Mukesh Rawat