Where Girls Dare

Meet Bhavna Chauhan, army woman and author of Where Girls Dare, novel on Indian women in army jobs.

Meet Bhavna Chauhan, army woman and author of Where Girls Dare, novel on Indian women in army jobs. 

By Aparna V. Singh

Graduated from the School of Planning and Architecture, served as an architect in the Indian Army’s Corps of Engineers, married an army Engineer and now a full-time homemaker and mother ; Bhavna Chauhan has packed much experience into her years.

Not content with that, she decided to add one more feather to her cap – the result of which is the novel Where Girls Dare recently published by Penguin Books as part of its Metro Reads series. An easy and entertaining read, the novel is set in the Officers Training Academy where a batch of young women endures the grueling regimen to emerge as officers in the Indian army.

Over to the interview, where Bhavna talks candidly about women in the army and discusses her writing.

Aparna V. Singh (AVS): Given your original training as an architect and then your life as an army engineer, how did you don this new ‘writer’s hat’? Did you just decide to write a novel, one fine day? 

Bhavna Chauhan (BC): (Laughs) My life’s curve takes a tangent every now and then; more often than not, based on pure impulse and ‘heart’ rather than logic and ‘mind’. I’ve loved books and reading since I can remember and it was my silly, childish dream actually to write a book one day. I thought writers and book-signing events were the coolest thing on the planet – one of those things one plans to do some day in life. I’ve been writing articles and short stories intermittently for magazines and journals. But yes, one fine day, I just got down to a novel in all earnestness.

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Writing a novel

AVS: Tell us a little bit about the writing process itself. What were the highs, the lows? Were you a born writer to whom the words just came naturally or did you have to push yourself to complete the novel? 

BC: I can’t call myself a ‘born writer’- that’s a heavy-duty tag! I think I am more of a ‘born story-teller’. I’ve always been the yarn spinner since childhood and even now, my most enjoyable part of the day is reading (animatedly) bed-time stories to my son.

I wrote the book when I was going through a tough personal phase. But, otherwise, I had the characters very vivid, alive and strongly visualized in my head and it came out on paper. The story took a bit of time and discipline. Plus honestly, my book’s language is pretty conversational and easy.

 I had the characters very vivid, alive and strongly visualized in my head and it came out on paper.

AVS: Now, a question all writers claim to hate: how autobiographical is ‘Where Girls Dare’? Is the narrator Vartika really Bhavna in disguise? 

BC: I don’t hate that question. It’s natural for any reader; even I ask that question when I read some books. ‘Where Girls Dare’ is a work of fiction but it is based on my personal experiences and people I’ve met – not only in the Academy but elsewhere too. Vartika is not me! She’s a fictional character, she does a lot of things I would never do but there are a lot of startling similarities too.

Women in the army

AVS: In the novel, you address briefly the issue of sexism in the Indian army, though on the whole the impression the novel leaves is that the army does have the systems to deal with it. What is your take on it? Given that women in the army are still a relatively recent phenomenon, how are things shaping up for them? 

BC: In spite of the fact that the Army started women’s entry pretty recently, I personally think, they have a wonderful system in place. Your rank, uniform and work defines you. More than sexism and harassment, I feel the core issues here are numbers and novelty. The overall strength of lady officers is a small proportion still. And novelty results in the ‘fear of the unknown’. It’s natural to be wary when you are dealing with something for the first time.

The Army has a very transparent procedural system compared to any other organization – govt. or civil. It’s a great organization to work in and has all the required systems and stops in place. Any misdemeanour is quickly and appropriately redressed.

AVS: Recently, the Delhi High Court has passed a ruling asking the government to treat women officers at par while granting permanent commissions. Having served in the army yourself, what is your take on this issue? 

BC: It’s a gigantic step in the positive direction and will define the ambiguous areas in the terms of service of lady officers. Basically, give them the option of permanent commission which they did not have until now. But it still has to go to the SC and get implemented.

 I wanted to write about real girls, with imperfect bodies and their own irreverent take on food.

AVS: Coming back to the novel, it’s interesting that food is so critical for the lady cadets – the craving for food, the tucked-away snacks, food as a making-up device, the hogging at parties. Given that chic-lit novels dwell on food, if at all, in terms of women having to “control” appetite, did the army setting completely change the way you wrote about food?

BC: Cadets and food definitely have some weird karmic connection. Yes, being in the academy changed my perception of food. I ate to my heart’s content and weighed the least I’ve ever done in my life. More than Army, it’s the training academy that sees this affection for food! Plus, I think food and women have a deeper connection than men. Women express love, anxiety, anger, joy, self-esteem when they consume and prepare food. You’ll know what I mean if you watch the movie ‘Chocolat’.

My book is a contrast to the usual ‘cool’ chick-lit issues of anorexia, weight-watching and calories, isn’t it? I wanted to write about real girls, with imperfect bodies and their own irreverent take on food.

AVS: Lady and Gentleman Cadets – the sense of rivalry and yet the promise of romance – that was quite interesting. Tell us more, especially about the romance bit.

BC: Nowadays, the man-woman equation is so dynamic, edgy and unpredictable. There is this whole gamut of emotions to experience. I think the contrasting emotions of rivalry and attraction are extremely engaging and amusing  in a man-woman relationship…that is when you start liking someone you are ‘not supposed’ to like !

Sometimes, the mental notions and stereotypes ring the alarm bells in your mind and scream ‘beware’, but the heart just starts liking someone.  This angle is quite underplayed in my book as the setting is in the academy, but in the next one, I hope to explore more of this.

AVS: Having got your first novel published, what next? Was this a one-off effort because you wanted to tell the story of girls in the army, or do you see yourself writing in the future too?

BC: I’m working on my next novel that carries the story of these girls forward to their relationships and work. Let’s hope for the best and see !


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