Born in Mianwali (now Pakistan), he moved to Delhi, India as a refugee as a result of the 1947 partition of India. The event served as the backdrop for his first novel Darinday, and would leave a lasting impression throughout his career, with migration and cultural identity dominant themes of his work.
In 1971 Chawla moved to Frankfurt, Germany then Oslo, Norway in 1974 where he would he would eventually settle. His shift to Europe would bring new dimension to his writing, addressing issues of loss of culture and identity faced by South Asians migrating to different parts of the world.
In Oslo, Chawla would help in creating a literary bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Norway by translating Norwegian stories into Urdu and Hindi and South Asian work into Norwegian. He translated Norwegian Knut Hamsun's novel Victoria. En kjærlighedshistorie into Hindi and Urdu and Indian Foreteller, a compilation of stories by Indian writers into Norwegian.