Book Box: Romance Interrupted
Bound past bovine barriers to these four feel-good romances. And meet lawyer and fiction writer Simran Dhir
It’s time to be “moo”-ning. Valentine's Day aka Cow Hug Day (now withdrawn) is soon to be upon us.
Be bookish about bonding with bovines- read The Cows of Bangalore by Shoba Narayan. This book is inspired by a real-life story, of a milk lady called Sarala, who needed a new cow. Here’s a peek:
“Apparently, Dhanalakshmi’s milk is more alkaline, given her fondness for cucumber peels. Chellalakshmi’s milk has more “gas", and acid, because she has been gorging on mango peels, plentiful in the season. It occurs to me that I am hearing a new solution to lactose intolerance: Change your cow.”
Conflating cows and carnal affection leads me to Tess of the D’Urbevilles, the cowgirl whose course of love is so chequered. Read this classic by Thomas Hardy, for an elegy to a way of life and to see how inequality and hierarchies affect psychology in such different ways — all themes relevant to our present day.
I am trying to find my way back to romantic love — to the glorious Gone with the Wind and to the pleasurable predictabilities of Georgette Heyer’s Friday’s Child and such like.
Only I am interrupted, yet again, by Alain De Botton and the trenchant truths of his books that include Relationships, Essays in Love and The School of Life: An Emotional Education. Botton looks at love, at what he terms “romantic terrorism” and "the subtext of seduction".
Finally to love — Readers in these post-pandemic times, many of you say you don’t want sad stories. If you’d like something hopeful and happy, here are four feel-good romances to start you off with:
Book 1 of 4:
For list-obsessed readers who are methodical and research-oriented, read this story of a nerdy scientist who decides to look for a wife. The Rosie Project is witty and wry, and I guarantee it will make you smile. Plus, if you enjoy this book, there are two others to follow in the same series.
Book 2 of 4:
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill had me from page 1. It’s set in LA and tells the story of almost orphan Nina Hill, who works in a bookstore and organises book clubs for kids. Fascinating twists and turns ensue, Nina finds a family and love and fights to save the bookstore, it’s all pleasantly predictable and fabulously fluent.
Book 3 of 4:
Nora is a scriptwriter of romantic comedies who deviates to write a tragic story, only to have it turn into a heady romance. Set in sylvan suburbia, Nora Goes Off Script is the perfect airplane or beach read.
Book 4 of 4:
Set in the world of audiobooks, this book by audiobook reader Julia Whelan is funny and tongue in cheek, with so many fun references to other books. Thank You for Listening has a paperback version too, but this one’s perfect on audio.
And finally, meet lawyer Simran Dhir. The author of Best Intentions, a gem of a romance set in modern-day Delhi, Dhir tells us she enjoys romances which are woven into a story with a real sense of the world where it is based. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Tell us about your childhood reading.
I have four older sisters, all readers, and therefore grew up in a house in Delhi filled with books. Also, because I read my sisters’ books, I ended up reading lots of books that may perhaps have been advanced for my age (in hindsight!).
My school library in my boarding school near Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh was also full of books – old, bound editions of random novels and stories. I also came across my favourite book as a 14-year-old totally by chance in my school library – ‘A Suitable Boy’. I have vivid memories of carrying that heavy maroon hardbound edition (with lovely thin, smooth, white pages) to class wrapped in a newspaper cover and even on a hiking trip because I just could not break myself away from the world of the book.
You write legal briefs and fiction too. Does the legal style influence your fiction writing in any way?
Legal writing involves a different set of skills than fiction writing – in my day job, I prioritise being clear and to the point, and also being sparing in the use of words while fiction sometimes allows me to get into details and indulge myself in descriptions, I do try and be clear in my fiction writing too.
Has reading fiction helped you in your day job?
I think reading fiction has helped with my comprehension skills, my reading speed as well as my style of writing.
Best Intentions has such an Austenian feel to it.
Yes, I am an Austen fan! The first book of hers that I read was Pride and Prejudice and maybe because I was a young girl then, I was entranced by the story and romance in the book. It is only in later readings that I have come to appreciate the wit and intelligence of Austen, even in her observations on the most mundane turns of life. I also loved Emma and have recently reread Persuasion and enjoyed it immensely. Her sense of humour, her non-preachy manner of articulating wisdom, and the undeniable way she is relevant to this age and can move people to this day – are all things I admire and love about her.
I also absolutely love the BBC televised series of her novels – as a schoolgirl, I remember being completely thrilled when I got my hands on the VCD set of the Pride and Prejudice series from a shop in Connaught Place. I thought it was just perfect, and I still rewatch it quite frequently. The BBC has also done Emma and Persuasion very well. It is rare for a filmed adaptation to match up to a book, but that’s exactly what these series have managed.
What do you like about reading romance?
I particularly enjoy books where romance is woven into a story with a real sense of the world where it is based. That’s another reason I love Jane Austen – I experience complete immersion in her world and characters despite them being so unfamiliar to mine. I also love Vikram Seth, George Eliot, Henry James and Leo Tolstoy for this reason, while the romances in their books are interspersed with other stories, these other stories and characters in their writing enhance the romance and make it exciting. I enjoy Anuja Chauhan’s romances as well as Andaleeb Wajid’s books.
Outside of Austen, name three favourite literary heroes.
I loved Kabir Durrani when reading A Suitable Boy, found Dorothy Brooke from Middlemarch inspiring, and enjoyed the life and arc of the patriarch in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad.
What are your favourite bookstores?
I love Select Bookshop in Bangalore — it is old and quaint and has a really lovely collection of unusual books — you never know what you might come across — that quality of the best of bookshops. The new Blossoms on Church Street in Bangalore is also wonderful for its vastness and the older one for its lanes of old and new books. Bookworm is another bookstore in Bangalore that my son and I used to frequent a lot — it had a lovely white Persian cat padding about on many days. Goobe’s Republic also has a great curated collection.
In Delhi, I really like Full Circle, Bahrisons (I go to Bahrisons Kids quite a lot with my son), Midland and Faqir Chand. One great bookshop for kids (but one that I haven’t been able to frequent due to it being a little far from where I live) is Kool School in Gurgaon — they have a great collection of kids’ books that are not available elsewhere.
And lastly, what book are you currently reading?
I recently started reading Raag Darbari by Srilal Shukla in Hindi – the going is a little slow as I sometimes refer to the English translation.
That’s all for this week. Next week I bring you books that will help you be persuasive and build your influence.
Until next week, Happy Reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at email@example.com
The views expressed are personal