All the world loves a lover. So wrote American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late 19th century. Well over a hundred years after he immortalised that line, lovers remain as immortal as ever.
Of all that Shakespeare wrote centuries ago, his Romeo and Juliet is the
most sought after even today, having lent itself to innumerable plays and films. The bard's work has been interpreted and reinterpreted, and hundreds of romantic tales have drawn their inspiration from the young lovers of Verona.
In India, the romantic tragedies of Heer Ranjha, and of Salim Anarkali in the court of Akbar haunt popular imagination even today, enthusing novels and novelettes.
However, later-day Western writers have been less inclined to climax their romances into tragedies. A classic example of this was the undoubted Queen of Romance, author Barbara Cartland, whom I once met at her palatial Hatfield mansion. The year was 1999, and she was 98, but what a remarkable woman she was, dashing of romantic novels by their dozens.
After a two hour chat with her, I realised that it was romantic love that drove her, that kept her youthful. And she enchanted millions of readers with her unequalled tales of pure romance, handsome heroes, beautiful heroines, and of course, her trademark happy endings.
Dame Cartland had many peers, who were published by -- among others -- Mills and Boon, which was the romance imprint of British publisher Harlequin. Founded in 1908 by Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon, the firm began specialising in escapist fiction in the 1930s.
While millions read and savoured them, there were others who saw these works of fiction as "low brow, formulaic and rape fantasies… and even responsible for poor sexual health and failed relationships".
Notwithstanding all this criticism, Mills and Boon remains a hot pick, turning in hundreds of titles every month. These romances are now being written by Indians, placing their heroes, heroines and even villains in a very India milieu. Not satisfied with books just in English, Harlequin is planning Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam and Marathi versions. The firm is also planning biographies.
Harlequin's publishing director and country head for India, Amrita Chowdhury, is obviously pleased at the way her company's romance is taking off. "At the moment we are publishing in 31 languages in 114 countries," she says, adding, "So, I can say that romance is very important in our lives. We all want to be loved, accepted and needed. Love is a very basic human emotion, which connects everybody."
Chowdhury avers that Mills and Boon may be romantic fiction, but like cinema, the novels let us peep into countries other than where we are living. "Before I moved to Australia, I read a lot of Mills and Boon stories set there. They did give me a picture of that continent. Maybe not in great detail, but something to go by."
She says that Harlequin came to India for two reasons. One, books written by Indians can go global and help the world understand this country. Two, Indians have evolved a lot, and they want to read about characters like themselves -- young, contemporary middle class professionals. Given that the readership is mostly female, women like to see themselves in the pages of romantic novels as bankers, lawyers, doctors, PR girls and so on in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai…
In India, Harlequin has about eight writers, and 12 books have been published in English. Next year, it will add another six authors, and publish another dozen romantic novels. "We invest a lot in our writers. There is a lot of hand-holding that happens in our firm, unlike other publishers. So, we groom the authors editorially. The story is theirs, the characters are theirs. But we teach them how to build the romantic emotion, how to create romantic intensity. It will, therefore, make sense if each of our writers pen at least two or three books for us," Chowdhury contends.
But do all Mills and Boon tales end happily. She smiles, and says, "Well, yes. Of course, we have a second romance running in the same book, we have a romance taking off after a broken relationship, after a divorce… Yes, but all of them end in joyous fulfillment."
Also, Mills and Boon can be explicit. Gone are those days when the couple cuddled and kissed. Today, there can be sex. "Values have changed in society. Whether it is in the USA, the UK or in India, there are multiple levels of values, and our books have to reflect them," Chowdhury says.
Harlequin has range of novels for India that arc from the very soft to the very bold. "Interestingly, the novels that sell the most in India are the sexually explicit ones," Chowdhury says. "But we play safe with our covers. They usually look innocent. We even tone down the covers of our global books if we feel that they are not appropriate for India."
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