Andaleeb Wajid: The Romance of Words

Andaleeb Wajid is, in her own words, a romance writer “without a romantic bone in [her] body.” Over a Zoom video call from her apartment in Bengaluru, India, she says with a laugh: “I’m actually a very cynical person in real life!”

Dressed in a yellow salwar-kameez with a white dupatta draped in a clean V, there is something to be said about the frankness with which Wajid speaks: she is forthright without being forceful. Her dark hair is parted down the middle and tied. She wears a nose ring, and a smile as she leans towards the camera as she confesses, “I hate mushy stories–I hate the kinds of things that make normal people go, ‘Awwww!’–I hate all that!” 

Wajid’s work is extensive and eclectic. It spans everything from horror to young adult and children’s fiction. But the romance element, she agrees, is prominent across most of her work, and what she is most well-known for. “I enjoy reading romance,” says Wajid, “it’s fun to read; it’s nice to lose yourself in a world where you’re [guaranteed] a so-called ‘happily ever after.’”

The escapism offered by this genre has long been snubbed and debated by academics and novelists. Typically, it shifts on a spectrum from “romance is escapism for bored housewives” to the idea of “women needing ‘escape’ through reading romance enforces gendered stereotypes.”

Wajid, however, is an astutely self-aware writer. The reason, she says, romance finds its way into all her narratives is because of its universality. “Like it or not, [love] is such a universal concept […] what I like to write is about this attraction between two people; the dynamics of how they get together, or don’t get together, and what happens next.”

It’s perhaps for this self-awareness, Wajid writes her heroines with such care; as a writer, her characters and narratives are deliberate. Her heroines have a fair bit of snark, and hate mushy romance, it seems, as much as Wajid herself does. 

“My heroines are not just passively waiting for marriage in their lives; they have lives of their own, they have careers of their own, and marriage is something that happens to them,” says Wajid. 

As for how much these stories are her own experiences, the answer is quite clear – none. After marrying at 19 and having her first son at 20, writing is what provided her with the drive to carve herself an identity outside her family life or her Muslim faith.

“I think it all had to do with this restlessness,” says Wajid, adding, “that was a crazy age to become a mother […] there was always this part of me that wanted something more to do with myself.”

Still, being a Muslim woman writing about Muslim lives and characters for the most part, the assumption is that they are all somehow autobiographical in nature. In a world where Muslims are increasingly othered, Wajid takes her role as a writer in moderation. 

“I don’t want to be this person who has this responsibility of removing misconceptions people have about [Muslim] women,” says Wajid. “People [often] assume that I can’t speak English because I’m in a burqa.”

In India, as in much of the world, wearing a burqa often signals clichéd visions of oppressed women. In the past, Wajid specifically avoided wearing a burqa because she felt others’ gazes. 

“People would see me and stare … and I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable,” she says. 

Today, however, Wajid dresses to suit herself: 

“It’s not like anyone’s forced me to wear a hijab for these public events,” she says. “I just felt like, it made sense [to] me–I’m not worried or scared to claim my religious identity.” 

In her debut novel, Kite Strings her protagonist fights with her mother to avoid wearing a burqa to college–and wins. Yet, the win is not a vainglorious tale of a shackled Muslim girl; rather, it is a coming-of-age tale in which the heroine is working out her identity and just happens to be Muslim. 

“The characters being Muslim is incidental–I don’t [actively] think of representation,” she says softly. Then, she chuckles, and adds, “It’s not like I hate research, but it’s easier for me to write what I know.” 

And that is mostly how Wajid writes. An upcoming young adult title Mirror Mirror, to be published by Duckbill (now owned by Penguin India) focuses solely on a heroine dealing with body shaming. None of the characters, it so happens, are Muslims.

On the other hand, More Than Just Biryani was born after she learned that her son’s swimming coach called Muslim boys “biryani mamu” (“biryani uncle”). Although she didn’t think of the connection between food and politics when she wrote the book, in recent years, in India, biryani and being othered has become prevalent. 

Most recently, since Shaheen Bagh – a peaceful, four-month long protest by Muslim women against a controversial Indian citizenship law – biryani was dubbed controversial after being served at the protest site. 

“[That] was a different time we were living in,” says Wajid. Even so, since school, Wajid noticed the biryani stereotype. “People just assumed that anytime you walk into a Muslim person’s house, we are constantly churning out biryani. Iiit used to irritate me a lot!” 

And so began the book. “I wanted to write a book that showcased the different different foods made at home.” 

What started out as a recipe book eventually morphed into a work of fiction. Partly set in Hong Kong, where Wajid vacationed in annually as a child, the book follows three women and their connection to food.

Yet, 26 novels later, regardless of what she writes or which faith her characters follow, Wajid is often lazily pigeonholed as a “Muslim writer,” rather than a writer who is Muslim. Wajid’s words offer her readers comfort and connection because of how rooted they are in truth. As one reader of “More Than Just Biryani” put it, “The book gets to you slowly and steadily as would a good biryani.” 

It is perhaps just the icing on the cake (or the golden onions on the biryani) that Wajid was named after the Urdu novel “Andleeb” by Pakistani writer Salma Kanwal. 

Andaleeb Wajid’s upcoming book All Drama, No Queen is out in April, published by Penguin Random House India.