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Love among the sceptics

There was a joke that went like this. Men don’t like romantic fiction because it puts too much pressure on them. Women don’t like porn because it puts too much pressure on them. Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve tended to have more chick lit than romance. Does this mean love is dead?

books Updated: Apr 14, 2011 14:08 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

There was a joke that went like this: Men don’t like romantic fiction because it puts too much pressure on them. Women don’t like porn because it puts too much pressure on them.”

Novelist Anuja Chauhan chuckles as she shares the joke, but this conversation is not going well. Chauhan doesn’t see herself as a genre writer. She just writes, she says. “What’s all this fuss about slotting books into categories,” she asks impatiently.

Yet, though her publishers don’t specifically market her books as romances, Chauhan’s two novels, The Zoya Factor and The Battle for Bittora, are love stories. The basic storylines feature a young woman and a young man attracted to each other but in conflict because of circumstances. And there’s a happy ending. Clearly romantic fiction.

Love me tender
Genre writing is still new in Indian writing in English. While it’s true, as Chauhan says, that a story is a story, some stories are certain types of stories. You read them because they give you the kind of storyline you are looking for. In detective fiction, it’s a crime and its hard won solution. In science fiction, it’s universes outside your experience. And in romantic fiction, it’s “a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending,” according to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) website.

Worldwide, romantic fiction has been one of the highest selling categories of novels for at least a decade and, in the US at least, it seriously sizzles. The latest reports by the RWA show that in 2009 in the US, romantic fiction earned $1.36 billion out of total books sales of $10.274 billion, giving it a market share of 13.2 percent – the highest of all categories.

In the UK, a survey carried out by the Romantic Novelists Association in 2008 showed that 24 million books with romantic content were bought in 2007, and that represented 22 per cent of all adult fiction. And in India? Well. As of now, it’s a different story.

In India, romance doesn’t really exist as a category. It generally falls under the genre of chick lit (as almost all women-oriented fiction does). So there are no numbers for romantic fiction.

But let’s try observation. Not long ago, wherever you looked, you’d see women reading a highly identifiable kind of book. A Mills & Boon romance, better known as an MB. Mostly, MBs were borrowed from circulating libraries. By the 2000s, however, there weren’t a lot of circulating libraries around, and MBs seemed to have vanished. So was that an unhappy ending for romantic fiction? “Actually, that was the trigger for us to launch in India,” says Manish Singh, country manager, Harlequin Mills & Boon India. “We realised that Mills & Boon books were hugely popular and that we had brand equity here without marketing and management. So we decided to get in.”

Though M&B India doesn’t have numbers to offer, Singh claims the books are doing very well and says that, over three years, they’ve upped the number of titles they release every month from 10 to 16 – with a further four a month to be added soon. “Research showed us that our core group is single women aged between 21 and 32-33,” says Singh. “That’s because the age of getting married is going up. These women are financially independent, they have money to spend and they’re aspirational. And like them, Mills & Boon novels have also changed.”

All passion spent?
Much has happened between the period that circulating libraries began to go out of fashion and now, a period when MBs are on the shelves of bookshops. For one thing, Indian writing in English has really taken off since the mid 90s. Next, two categories of books became very popular. Campus novels (usually with men) and chick lit (usually with women). “Indian chick lit felt like a phenomenon when the first books came out,” says Rani Tyagi, a 20-something marketing executive in Mumbai. “It talked about people like me – young women making their way in their professions, navigating all kinds of people, and hoping for love. Indian chick lit felt real.”

While MBs were becoming harder to find, some publishers attempted to launch indigenous romantic fiction series, much like Thums Up trying to replace Coke. Unlike Thums Up, however, we didn’t create a taste for indigenous romances. Rupa & Co tried it in the mid-90s, but the series wasn’t a success. More recently, Random House India launched Kama Kahani, a series of historical romances, to which the reaction has been mixed.So is India perhaps not open to pure romance any more? Does chick lit rule instead? “All romances may be termed chick lit, but all chick lit need not be romances,” says Milee Ashwarya, senior commissioning editor at Random House India. “I don’t think chick lit can be called the romance of today. That would be a too simplistic view for books targeted at women readers.”

Chick lit has a complexity that romances do not have. As the editors of Mills & Boon UK explain, “Chick lit tends to be heroine focused and follows her search for Mr Right. Romance offers both heroine and hero points of view! Chick lit heroines are often single, independent, urban women, while in romance the heroines are in a variety of situations and stages of life. There can be a whole host of secondary characters in chick lit, but in romance the focus is on the hero and heroine.”

That certainly makes a romance more direct than chick lit. But in the last 10 years or so, we’ve tended to have more chick lit than romance. “What worked in the ’90s doesn’t necessarily hold true for 2011,” says Kapish Mehra, MD of Rupa & Co. “A couple of years ago, we reintroduced books by Barbara Cartland who wrote classic romantic fiction. They did very well, but I think they worked more because of nostalgia than anything else.”

It depends, of course, on what your idea of a romance is. If you’re reading a Mills & Boon, then you’re reading a book that’s less than 200 pages – and that means there’s not much space to focus on anything but the main characters. But there are other romances, such as those by UK’s Katie Forde and India’s Anuja Chauhan (who may hit us for this) that, while focusing on the relationship between the heroine and hero, also extend the story to the heroine’s life, trials and tribulations. And the MBs of the 2000s encompass a surprising variety of settings and situations, some mindbogglingly modern. “Romance has changed its shape,” says Rhea Saran, author of the chick lit novel Girl Plus One. “It’s picked up aspects of chick lit. I grew up on Mills & Boon, romances by Georgette Heyer, the early Daphne Du Maurier and Barbara Cartland. Then, women were expected only to grow up and get married. Now, it’s about everything else too. A story would not be believable if the love story was all it was.”

That’s what Chauhan believes too, which is why she’s so anti-category about her books. But chick lit, she believes, has spoiled romance. “Chick lit is more realistic. It’s not dewy-eyed. It’s taken the romance out of romance.”

And that’s when you find people still love love – once in a while. “It’s fun, light and you can finish a romance in a couple of hours,” says Shivani Kotwal, a 30-something banker who recently bought a Mills & Boon out of curiosity. “And the best part is you know that the heroine and hero will get together. Doesn’t that make you smile?”

{Milan vohra}
‘I thought it would be fun’

Pari gulped.
“I need your help,” she said simply.
“Do correct me if I’ve got it wrong,” Vivan drawled. “All you want from me is the money for your brother. Nothing more.” He shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
“I just want to get out of this!” Pari’s patience had run out abruptly as she walked up to Vivan with her sari trailing around her...
— From The Love Asana by Milan Vohra

An advertising professional, Milan Vohra made the news early this year when The Love Asana, her first book and Mills & Boon’s first Indian novel, hit the bookshops. Milan had won the first prize in Mills & Boon India’s first short story writing contest called Passions. The winners get the opportunity to turn their stories into novels for M&B. In The Love Asana, Pari, a yoga teacher, becomes the instrument of Vivan’s revenge against her brother – a man who apparently drove Vivan’s sister to suicide.

What made you enter the Passions contest?
I thought I’d have a whole lot of giggles writing the story, have fun on my own. But when I did, well… with me, if I do something, I have to take it to its logical end. So when I wrote that short story, I saw it already as a full Mills & Boon novel. But I did have some concerns. People tend to judge you by what you read and write.

How did you come up with the characters?
I looked at myself and people I know, and also the heavy-duty aspect of the emotional journey that an M&B takes you into versus the slightly cockeyed-ness of real life. The inner journey is always pretty intense because of the circumstances in which you grew up and so on.

Did the story change when you worked on it as a novel?
Yes, in the short story, I’d plotted an older woman and a younger guy. But on a train journey, I met a woman who was reading an M&B in a corner. She was a very together person who happened to be living in three cities – studying in one city, travelling to be with her kids in another city and her husband was working elsewhere entirely. This was quite an eye-opener. My first interface with an M&B reader. So I thought, why not attempt to write about someone not like me? So my heroine’s mother died, her father was a control freak who threw her out of the house. She was on her own. And since the book came out, it’s been interesting to see responses from readers – so many say my heroine is just like them.

Is pure romance, such as in an M&B, still popular, especially now that chick lit is such a rage?
Both Mills & Boons and chick lit have developed strong, distinct identities. In chick lit, the romance is done with self-effacing humour in a girl-bonding way. Romance is more emotional. Both coexist in your life. You can’t say one is less real than the other.

{Ram Nagarajan}
‘Never again’

“Manasa,” she said, “you’re quite right. Marrying someone you love would be terrific. But you are 25 now, and haven’t found love in all this time. What makes you think it’s just around the corner?”
— From Arranged Love by Ram Nagarajan

Ram is a professor at IIT Madras. He was a runner-up in the first Passions contest, but chose not to write a full length M&B.

Why did you enter the Passions contest?
I like to write and I don’t care what genre. So I ignored the guidelines and wrote a humorous romantic story. It turned out very well.

So why not a full M&B?
I don’t think I’ll get a sabbatical to write a romantic novel! But this was my first and last foray into the romance genre.

{Aastha Atray Banan}
‘Bollywood is the format’

“You are mine for the night. Daddy’s orders,” he now said into her ear, and she felt her knees melting.
“Fine, then let’s get it over with.”
— From Aastha Atray Banan’s prize-winning story, The Poor Rich Girl and the Man With the Menacing Grin

A journalist with Tehelka, Aastha won the Passions short story writing contest this year. Now she’s accepted the offer to write a Mills & Boon novel.

What made you enter the Passions contest?
I thought I’d enter for fun. I think I wrote my story in 25 minutes.

What was the story about?
The heroine is the daughter of a business tycoon. But she thinks she’s fat compared to the South Bombay size zeros. So she’s worried about how she’ll look when she has to go to an important party. Then she bumps into a man who tells her he’s been told by her father to take his daughter to the party.

Was it difficult to write?
No, it was very easy, even though the last time I read a Mills & Boon was maybe 10 years ago. But I’ve grown up on Bollywood and that’s the M&B format.

How did you come up with the heroine?
Weight is a subject that bothers our generation. In a way, she’s a reflection of me.

And the hero?
I’ve been married for five years and my husband is not an M&B man! But he’s the perfect man for me. I made up my hero.

Do you worry that you’ll be slotted as a romantic writer forever?
When you work with Tehelka, you get slotted as a person who only reads Jhumpa Lahiri. But I’ve always wanted to write. Though I never thought of romance as a genre, maybe that’s my forte. Tehelka and Mills & Boon – why not?

- From HT Brunch, March 27

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