Anuja Chauhan is the author of Zoya Factor, Battle for Bittora, Those Pricey Thakur Girls and The House That BJ Built. She worked in the advertising agency, JWT India, for more than 17 years, before quitting to pursue a full-time literary career.
Listen to Anuja Chauhan's most vital parenting topics
In a freewheeling interview with CNBC-TV18, the author and screenwriter talks about fostering creativity in children and raising young independent adults.
We are all very curious to know how you have raised your two daughters Niharika, Nayantara and your son Daivik and learn something from it but we are also curious to learn something from your own upbringing. What you think helped foster your creativity while you were growing up.
Firstly my children think it is highly hilarious that I am giving ‘gyaan’ on parenting because I don’t think they think I make a very good job of it.
But, creativity and growing up, I think we were four sisters and we did have one brother and he was born with very severe challenges and my mother had to look after him for 13 years when he finally passed away and that kind of atmosphere – it could have been a very depressing house to live in because he grew quite large and she had to carry him around and there were no disposable diapers and it was hard on her but I never got a sense of that.
For me, my childhood memories are incredibly happy. My mother had this amazing talent for milking joy out of life. She used to make happiness if there wasn’t any around. She taught us to appreciate little joys and little happiness and our life is just full of those.
One of those many little joys that she taught us to suck up and appreciate is the joy of reading. So we did a lot of reading, it was an army family. So we had access to library, we could borrow four books a week. So with four sisters we are talking 16 books a week and that was a huge part of our upbringing. I think maybe that is like – creativity was something that I was surrounded with and so that was it.
So many of us now struggle with the fact that our kids don’t read as much as they used to with all the digital influence. Is there anything specific that you did? Did your children read a lot while growing up?
I didn’t have to foster it. I find that children don’t listen at all to what you say but they very carefully observe what you do. So I think that whenever you want your kids to do something, you should do it yourself. If you want kids to eat healthy, you should be eating healthy. If you want kids to exercise, you should be exercising or be disciplined then you have to be disciplined because they never listen to what you are saying to them but they will carefully follow what you do.
If you don’t do it, of course it is thrown back in your face and you are a hypocrite and you are saying you should read but you don’t read. So if you read a lot and you have lots of references, which you throw into conversation and saying now you are acting like so and so from so and so book and you make it into – so characters of books are like people in your lives or instances that you can quote and stuff, then children automatically gravitate towards reading because at least when they are very young, they do want to emulate you and be like you. So they will also pick up books.
My husband and I would both read a lot, he reads a lot of non-fiction. I read a lot of fiction. So I think we got them hooked on to both.
What about your home? I know currently your home is full of colours, full of new ideas and different things. You have painted empty cylinders and made them into bar stools, it seems like a home with very creative, novel ideas. Has that been a conscious part of raising your children in a very creative environment?
We got married really young and I had my kids early. By the time I was 30, I had three children. So we weren’t earning a lot of money. So it was very much about like the gas cylinders that you mention was just a function of not being able to afford fancy bar stools and we did want fancy bar stools so we had to come up with them ourselves.
So there were two things. One is that things had to be cheap and the other thing was that things had to be durable because children break everything. So you cannot put a lot of fancy things in your living room because everything will end up broken.
So our house was like that and I did not want that and we had dogs also and then we had children and dogs and I didn’t want it to be the kind of house where you say, this is the good living room, you are not allowed here and stuff. So everybody was allowed everywhere and when they had these loud birthday parties, I would have them in my proper living room not like you go to the other living room or you have it in the park or you have it in the restaurant. It was like, this is our fancy living room and it is your birthday, so you get to entertain in a fancy living room. So I don’t like it when there are zones where you are not allowed and where you are allowed and stuff like that. So it was always very… my husband says this house is like a railway station, people are just walking around but that is how I try to keep it. I didn’t want zones and stuff.
So basically open spaces, allowing them to mess up when they want to?
Yes, not like vandalising stuff for sure because the thing is that if something breaks then it doesn’t matter. I am like, let us not cry over things like a tear in a furniture couch and things like that. So simply because I didn’t want to constantly be yelling at my kids you cannot come here or we have the 'jhula' in the living room and don’t swing the 'jhula' too hard because then you will bang into stuff like that and they would say why do you have the 'jhula' in the living room in that case if you don’t want us to swing it which is a very valid point.
So I just felt that let us not have very expensive upholstery or very breakable stuff because then it just creates stress in the room and you are always constantly telling your children don’t do this, don’t do that kind of things, which I didn’t want to do. It is also too exhausting.
Today parents want to foster creativity in their children because they want them to grow up as well-rounded individuals with some passion, which would make them much happier. Was that at the back of your mind when your children were growing up? Did you exposed them to art and craft, to different things till they found something they were passionate about?
No, I think that everybody doesn’t know how to do creative writing and everybody is not good at scrapbooking and drawing and stuff. You cannot force people. So I think eventually kids – you can tell when a child is excited about something and he is reacting well to it. So all of them were different that way.
One was more outdoorsy and one was more into reading and one was obsessed with mathematics and not at all good marks in English and creative writing and Hindi and all wasn’t his things. So everyone has own different things and you cannot have any rules and say that, no, now you will go for painting class and all. Poor child, if he doesn’t like painting, why are you sending him to a painting class just so that he can be creative.
I think we also have pre-conceived notions like when my kid should start learning a piano. I really thought that my eldest child, my daughter who reads a lot, who is very delicate and appreciates good things, would be the pianist because it seems like her personality type. And finally my son, who is the rowdiest, he is so out there and with so high energy, is the pianist in the family. He is the one who loved it and stuck to it and made something like it is one of his biggest things. I would never have thought that Daivik would be the one who would pick it up, and Niharika would not. So the thing is that, you cannot predict, you cannot tell. You just have to expose them to lots of things, which I think we should do and some things tick and some things don’t. I think if you have to keep on at a child saying get up and go for gymnastics, get up and go for karate and the child is not getting up then you should realise that maybe the child does not like karate. But if the child is jumping up and running of for basketball practice then you know that she likes basketball. So eventually, I think they let you know what they like and then it is just a question of you pushing them a little when they are weak and they are lazy and saying, no but you love this, go.
I think again it all comes down then, it is about communication, it is about talking to your children. If you talk to them and communicate enough, you will know what the child likes and what the child is enjoying.
But if you don’t know and it is just kind of a mechanical thing, you are coming back from work and saying go for piano, go for swimming class and then maybe if you went down to the pool with them and you taught them how to splash and paddle and corrected their strokes then you would know whether they are enjoying it or not.
Talking about work, when your kids were young, I think you were still in advertising, must have been long erratic schedules. Your husband is also an entrepreneur with his own production and filmmaking house. How did the kids adjust to it, was it hard?
We were really blessed. My house is entirely run by my housekeeper, who has been in our family for 50 years, and she has lived with me for 24 years now. So she was holding the house together in that sense. So, it was always great to have her -- not an easy person to live with, she is a very strong personality and we have had terrible clashes over the years, but we have always managed to make it work because I know they love her and they need her and I have had to cede a lot of space and swallow a lot of ego in the sense that she rules the kitchen, she is the boss and that is something I have just learnt to live with. I say okay fine, this works for my family. So, I am not a domestic goddess, I have not been allowed to be one frankly by my housekeeper and I have realised that fine, it is a blow to my vanity, but it is okay I am not a domestic goddess. So that was one thing.
Young mothers have a lot of ego about giving their children to caregivers, giving their children to their grandparents, I feel that that is very wrong. I think you should be very humble and grateful and all these people love your kids. So, please do not stand on ego and say that I will take care of everything. Firstly, you will kill yourself and you will be so guilty, you will be guilty in the office, you will be guilty at home and that is just a horrible space to be in. So, I think you must delegate to people who you love and trust.
The other thing is that you can do a lot of this delegation when your child is small because when your child is small, their needs are more physical and easier for someone else to do. However, I think when your child hits adolescence, is the time where you become irreplaceable. Nobody can replace you when your child is an adolescent. In those years, say from like 12 to forever really, till 12 I think you can have caregivers and give out your baby to grandparents, but after that you have to be talking to your kids. So, for me, in fact I stopped working in an office and started working from home when my eldest daughter hit class XII because I was like now she needs me, I have to be home. So, I did that in 2010 September when she hit the 11th– when I thought things are getting serious for her and for the younger too. So, that is my thing. Sometimes people tend to think the other way that when children are small you need to be home, but I do not think so.
Talking about adolescence, this is a very interesting phase, probably the most difficult phase for parents and their relationship with their children. Your daughter graduated from Ashoka recently. How much did you help your children make their choices in this transition from a school to a college? How much did you hover around them, help them make up their minds?
Yes, I think we are lucky enough to have good schools where our children go to, like Niharika went to Vasant Valley and Tara moved to Aditi in class XI here in Bangalore and they had really good teachers. They have an excellent system of parent-teacher interaction which we went through. They knew Tara really well, so, they had a lot of feedback on what they felt she should be doing and so on. Again, you have a lot of discussions, you expose them to various things.
We heard about Ashoka because I was on the literary fest circuit and a lot of people on that were talking about Ashoka and that is how we heard of it and the school also pushed it. Finally, Tara made up her own mind and my husband thinks that everybody should go to St. Stephens College, but the kids also have their own opinions on everything and because he is like my college is the best college in the world and you cannot say anything to him about that, but on this he did back off and say okay Ashoka seems more right for Tara for what you want to do and anyway they do not have political science in St. Stephens in any case. So, that simplified the choice.
So, yes, I think again you talk to the child, you talk to the teachers and then you do back off. Eventually you back off because if you do not back off, they will turn around and will blame you. Like three years later this child will come and say you have completely destroyed my life, but that is par for the course. Children always say you have completely destroyed their lives which is something I learnt in adolescence. I think when everybody starts dating, the main item for bonding with your boyfriend or girlfriend late in the night on the phone is like what cows your parents are and my traumatised childhood and all the horrors I went through and so I am bonding with you on your traumatised childhood and if you ever hear it you say we were the worst parents in the world. However, then you think back to your adolescence and your dating and your bonding with your boyfriend and that is what we were talking about as well. So, I think that just comes with the territory.
Are we, in this generation, overthinking parenting because we read so much, are exposed to so much on this subject on digital mediums and keep thinking how we can do it better, how do we do it right?
From trial and error, and now my kids are big enough to give us feedback, both I and my husband have been honest, we have shared everything with our kids. So, anything that happens, they are fully in the know. Also, I personally think it is very important, though he does not agree with me so much on this. We tend to share our successes with our children and talk about our big achievements and how they should emulate them, but it is important to share your failures and traumas and whatever you were ashamed of and whatever you went through. There is this pressure on us as parents to be the person who knows better and the person who is more perfect but I think that if you say that “listen, this happened to me and I went through this” and I think that when you give out a little bit of yourself and get down from that throne and act like a normal person, then I think it just creates for a better bonding and more honesty from your child than you may otherwise get. Again, they do what you do, they do not do what you tell them to do. So, if your example is to be honest and your example is to share, then usually they will also be honest and they will also share. So, I think that is important.
At the same time you are a parent, you are not a friend, so we have always been very clear that I am not your friend and do not come to me if you want me to agree with everything you are saying. I am going to be quite brutal and I am going to say that no, I think you behaved like a complete bitch in this situation and I think you are the person at fault here and now do not expect me to defend you just because I am your mother. So, things like that also happen and they go away really hassled but that is why they call it home truths because these are truths you get to hear at home and you might as well hear them from your parents and as a parent you must be prepared to hear some brutal home truths yourself.
My children tell me that I am extremely opinionated about things that I know absolutely nothing about. So, that is something that gets thrown at me very often that you know nothing but you will hold forth like you know everything. So fine, I will try and correct myself. So, honesty and communication I think are crucial.
They show you a pretty good mirror!
Yes, you get to see a mirror early in the morning when you are feeling very ugly.
I do not really have a tagline as such, but I think you have to be honest and you have to be loving and you have to be strict. So these are the things that are key. You have to walk the talk, you cannot just say something, you have to do something. I have seen so many parents telling their children not to smoke and not to drink while they are smoking and drinking themselves. Why will the child listen to you? So maybe then the tagline could be walk the talk because you really have to do that. They are watching you, they are not listening to you, so make sure that if you want them to do something then you do it yourself.
If you were to give us a tagline which sums up your parenting experience, what would that be?