Mills & Boon has come to India, and its romantic novels featuring Indian love interests are being embraced by the middle class. Jerry Pinto looks at the genre that it is finally taking root in a country that has been modest about amorous entanglements. He's tall, dark and handsome. She's beautiful, doe-eyed and chaste. His eyes flame when he sees her. She wonders if it is wrong to feel "this way". For decades, Indian middle-class women grew up reading about men with hard thighs and women who didn't even know how beautiful they were. Of course, they were all white people, although a Latin lover might sometimes be permitted, so long as he owned a castle in Spain.
The good news is: Mills & Boon has come to India. Last year, the world's largest publisher of romantic fiction ran a contest to discover new talent, and Milan Vohra won it with a short story called Love Asana, in which Shioli Dewan, a yoga instructor (height: 5ft 1in; eyes: delicious warm honey-brown; hair: a rich, dark auburn mane that tumbles to her shoulders in careless abandon) finds love with one of her students, Sujay (height: 6ft; legs: long, lithe; hair: charming jet-black hair that flip-flops any old way). The catch is that he's 28; she's 30 and a battle-scarred veteran of the love wars.
There's always a catch. In the 2009 mockumentary, Paper Heart, Chinese-American Charlyne Yi talks to a romance novelist in her search for what love means. The lady tells her that it's about two people who love each other. The reader knows it's love when one of them is willing to sacrifice something for the other. That sacrifice is the catch. Can Shioli get over her past? Can Sujay change her mind about men? Does their age difference matter?
And does it matter that Indians are now reading about Indians? Will reading about an Indian man and an Indian woman in an Indian setting allow Kiran Kohl, author of Passion In The Punjab, "the opportunity to get Indian women sexually charged without the need of a man", as she puts it? "I think the race of the protagonists certainly played a role in the way these books were read," says Radhika Parameswaran, a faculty member at Indiana University in the School of Journalism. Her PhD was titled "Public Images; Private Pleasure: An Ethnography Of Romance Reading In India".
"At the time when I was doing my research in Hyderabad, the exotic pleasures of Mills & Boon included the notion that these characters were exotic people in exotic locales. But more than that, it was about the associated pleasures of the upper-class consumer experiences. It was about racing about in Ferraris and soaking in bathtubs." Professor Rachel Dwyer of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and author of All You Want Is Money, All You Need Is Love: Sexuality And Romance In Modern India believes this may have something to do with the rise of the middle class, "I think it's that the new middle classes have money and are looking for consumerist and other pleasures, including romance and dating. Romantic stories have been popular in India for a long time but the new differences are that these are in English, but not aimed at the old middle classes and the "art novel" readers. They are popular in style and content. The readers may be readers of popular fiction in other Indian languages and/or readers of non-Indian popular fiction."
It's not as if this hasn't been tried before in India. One of the earliest attempts at genre romance came from the 72-year-old publishing house, Rupa & Company. The journalist and writer Amrita Shah had the basic idea for a series of romantic novels set in India. When the collaborators with whom she was working dropped out, she shelved the idea. However, as she tells it, "a sprightly woman from the Delhi publishing house, Rupa & Company, called to say they were looking for writers and did I have a book in mind? I don't know about a book, I said, what about a series? The answer was yes - with flowers and lunch and letters signed off with a heart. A propitious beginning, but I was warned to be pessimistic. If sales did not cross 1,500 there would be one book and no more."
Three books did come out in the series. One of them, Sandstorm, was by Amrita Shah, writing under the slightly improbable pseudonym, Nikki Pasha. This was the best of the lot. Perhaps that had something to do with how Shah constructed her hero: "My hero was a nice guy - mature, sensitive, enterprising, a little more human than the conventional alpha male hero. Of course, he was rich and handsome in the way a M&B hero has to be. The sparks came more from the heroine who was a bit of a spitfire."
Veena Adige's Love Conquers All has a rich spoilt young woman, Sheela, who "gets a job under false pretences and is baffled by her boss, Anil Shenoy's behaviour. After initial resentment, he seems to like her but something holds him back from declaring himself. Also, there is an aura of mystery around him as her mother behaves strangely whenever his name is mentioned." Vidya Puthli's Tender Years had Pari, "a tempestuous teenager - headstrong, impulsive and madly in love with Prem!"
She says that they set up certain rules: "Boy and girl to be thrown together. Action in past tense. Hot passion, three-quarters of the way through." Neither book has much hot passion unless you count lines such as "he took his lips down on hers once more" (Puthli) and "Anil brushed a light kiss on her cheek as they retired for the day," (Adige). But they did have other indicators of modernity. There is foreign travel and holidays to Goa, and the young women are working.
"For many young women in small towns, these books provide a way of thinking of themselves," says Paromita Vohra, a filmmaker and writer, whose latest project with Penguin India is a series of investigations into how love is constructed as a concept in India. "There's a certain knee-jerk feminist response to the Mills & Boon. It's patriarchal, it suggests that marriage is the only thing a woman can want. But I think it's time to look beyond that. If you're living in a small town in India, the idea of working in a city, of dating a boy because you want to, is not just romantic, it's adventurous. It means you're exploring another possible self."
You can see what she means if you look at the blurbs of the romance novels produced by Vishv Books, another Delhi-based publisher in the early 1990s. Heaven On Earth by Maya S Achar sums it up: "With modern thoughts, romantic natured and a stranger to the unpleasant experiences of life, dream girl Reema became Deepika for a short period and went to Mahabaleshwar [a popular holiday spot up in the hills, several hours from Mumbai]. Here when she meets a stranger, she hopes her dreams will come true.
"Why Reema becomes Deepika? What incidents take place in Mahabaleshwar? Do her dreams come true? "The story is full of adventurous events, pleasant dreams and love of a beautiful girl." The Melody Of Love by Savita B P Singh is also set in holiday country. Here, a "good-looking petite girl of 22 with large eyes goes to Khanjerkote for her research study. There she meets Yuvraj [Prince] Arjun. Unknowingly she draws towards him. This love triangle also has an angle in the form of a film actress."
Manish Singh, country head, Mills & Boon India, says, "We are selling comparatively more books in metro towns but [we are also] available in more than 50 smaller towns." In 1996-97, Vicky Bhargava, then the editor of a girlie magazine called Fantasy and now the publishing director of Fantasy and O2, planned the launch of a series of romantic novels aimed at the Indian reader. "I wanted a bouquet of at least 10 books with four or five authors so that there would be a difference in flavour, some period pieces, some contemporary," he says. "We were planning a print run of 5-8,000 per book."
The series never did take off, but Bhargava feels that the market is still there. He has been toying with dusting off the idea and says that the next 12 months will be crucial. It's easy to tell why this is an important year for the tiny Indian romance books segment. A few swallows have come out and everyone's watching to see if they will foretell a thaw in the frosty reception Indian romances have received.
Random House India has launched a series of historicals called Kama Kahani (Passion Stories). Milee Ashwarya, the commissioning editor says the target audience is "women, especially in the age group of 13-30 years. But romances have been popular among women of all ages, and we do want more and more women to read the Kama Kahanis". She says the idea was "to develop our own brand of Indian romance series that would be based on our own people, places, food, art and architecture, etc. India has such a rich history and there is so much to explore within India."
With 5,000 copies sold, the series doesn't look as if it's going to make a dent on the hegemonic control Mills & Boons (or Millsies or MBs, as they are variously known) have on the subcontinent. Sanyogita Rathore, author of Mistress To The Yuvraj, puts it well: "Mills & Boon have been around a long time, our mothers read them as teenagers. Rumour has it that the publishing house sells 200 million Mills & Boon novels worldwide every year and one in four novels sold in the world is a Harlequin Mills & Boon. The Kama Kahanis don't have that advantage in terms of production or publicity, furthermore the fact that they are restricted to being historical, unlike Mills & Boon, which offers a far wider variety to the audience works both for and against them. I would like to add, unlike Mills & Boons, the Kama Kahani series has a very detailed cultural insight, the historical background is what sets it apart from regular romance novels. I think women will appreciate the series because even though it is a romantic series, it has a strong historical element to it. The Indian audience is huge and there is market for historical romance so I believe the Kama Kahanis can coexist with the MBs and even find their own place."
But the Kama Kahani writers have another advantage. They're on home turf. Milan Vohra, a first-time writer for Harlequin Mills & Boon, found herself rethinking her manuscript to fit in with a globalised version of the male of the species. "For instance, internationally, people wouldn't be able to connect with why a man in his twenties would live with his mother, whereas in India this wouldn't even cross your mind as unusual," she says.
But then that's the Indian man for you. He even reads romances. At the roadside stalls and circulating libraries, most of the readers are women, but a sizeable proportion of men also read romance. "I suspect there has always been a male readership for romantic novels in India," says Sanjay Srivastava, professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi and author of Passionate Modernity; Sexuality, Class, And Consumption In India.
"One of the best-selling authors of all time and in any language in India was Gulshan Nanda, who wrote romances. But I believe the construction of masculinity is much more fluid in India. It starts with the aesthetic of the body. Almost all the Bollywood heroes up to the Seventies and Eighties had something feminine about them, if you were to examine them from the western perspective of the stereotypic V-shaped muscular body. It extends to behaviour too. Indian men have never felt anything about crying in public, which seems to have been proscribed in the West. And if you travel in India's trains, you will find men reading romantic novels or comics, with no embarrassment or guilt. There's no recognition that these are targeted at women or at children."
(It might be interesting to read this against the comment with which the romantic novel superstar Jayne Ann Krentz begins her introduction to the anthology she edited, Dangerous Men And Adventurous Women: Romance Writers On The Appeal Of The Romance: "Few people realise how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel on an aeroplane. She knows what everyone around her will think both about her and her choice of reading material.")
Srivastava feels that this may have ebbed a little with the coming of the action hero, Amitabh Bachchan, who is still seen as a superstar, and the arrival of muscular actors such as Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan. "But there's another narrative which is not about the man's man; it's about the man who wants to know what women want; about the man who is a romantic. Advertising has played an important role in the emergence of the romantic man as an aspirational ideal. So, oddly enough, an Indian masculinity may be coming back because of a new globalised environment which brought the metrosexual man in from the West."
Manish Singh says he reads the books he sells, but then that may not be so much an admission as a strategic statement. But he does say that they're "fun". "Semiotically speaking, if you look at the cover of a Mills & Boon, what do you see?" asks Rahul Srivastava, an urbanologist and a co-founding partner of Urbz. "You see a man and a woman who look like they are about to have sex. I would suspect that many men would buy or hire these books assuming that they were going to find some 'hot' passages in the books. And these days, they wouldn't be wrong."
"You know, when [the now defunct] Loveswept Romances came to India, the editor Carolyn Nichols wrote an editorial in which she said that she hoped each book would be a keeper. That was a first," says Andrea Pinto, 42, librarian and connoisseur of genre romance as she sets down one of Random House India's Kama Kahanis. "I had never been addressed personally before. And Loveswept gave us photographs of the writers, and short autobiographical sketches so finally, we could lay to rest that notion that the writers were really some frustrated old men, you know, such as Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. I got the feeling that she really understood the way women read romances. I don't get that here. These aren't keepers."
The world of genre romance, where Mills & Boon has long held sway both in terms of popularity and as a metaphor for a certain expectation from one's romantic life, is a brutal one. An M&B aficionado may read hundreds of books in a year; she will only keep one or two. The decisive factor will be: how many keepers can Mills & Boon India or the Kama Kahanis produce. And then there's Bollywood, India's dream machine, which has a stranglehold on the idea of love and romance. "I'll be watching these new titles with a great deal of interest," says Parameswaran. "Because in India, love and romance seemed tied to particular media technologies. Love's anarchic power is celebrated visually; its consumption has always been cinematic. I wonder if that will change. The very idea of romance in a Mills & Boon seems tied to a racialised fantasy of upscale whiteness. Hence Indian readers were not inclined to accept romance novels with African-American characters. The hero's whiteness always plays a role in his fetishisation as love object."
On Saturday March 6, ADIBF will be devoted to "A Day In India", including poetry readings, discussions and book signings.