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Love, actually: How female novelists are rewriting romance in India

India’s romance writing in English is, unusually, dominated by men. See how that happened, and meet some of the women writing novels about desire and passion, but tackling love differently.

From Jane Austen to Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn of the Bridgerton books to Alyssa Cole, romance writers in the West have tended to be women. These are the romance writers most Indian readers grew up on too; these and of course the vast repository of heaving bosoms and impassive males in the Mills & Boon repository.

About a decade ago, Mills & Boon published its first book by an Indian author. Romance writing by Indians in English began to see an uptick. That first Indian M&B writer was a woman, Milan Vohra, but most of the others in the growing genre were, unusually, men.

“That surge was associated with authors such as Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta or Sudeep Nagarkar ,” says Milee Ashwarya, publisher with the Ebury and Vintage divisions of Penguin Random House India. “That’s mainly because, unlike the West, there is a huge section of men, between the ages of 15 and 35, who read romances in India. We are an emotional lot in this country. Here, boys equally dream about who their romantic partners will be,” she says.

The women romance writers who have since emerged say there’s an additional factor at play. Romance novels must, almost by definition, include writing on sex, and this was not comfortable territory for women. Women aren’t really allowed as much freedom of expression in general, let alone when it comes to something like writing about romance, is how romance writer Nikita Singh, 30, puts it.

“The Indian reader was used to the idea of the male gaze, or a man speaking for women,” says Swati Daftuar, senior commissioning editor for fiction at HarperCollins India. It was so in the greatest romance factory in the world, Bollywood, where directors, producers, writers and those calling the shots remain overwhelmingly men.

The women who did begin to write romance in India, then, felt compelled to stand out. So they played to the strengths they did have: the female gaze, and lived experience. They aim not merely to titillate, but to speak to the woman reader, as a woman who inhabits the same world. “Every book of mine comes with the message that one can live with self-respect; that women have a right to claim their place in the world,” says Sundari Venkatraman, 60.

Unusual themes have been adopted in these romance tales: some protagonists are tackling divorce or depression; there are discussions of abuse and consent; stories of college dropouts reinventing themselves and women and men overcoming childhood traumas. In many of the romance novels written by Indian women, the women protagonists tend to be the focus, and the drivers of the plot, rather than just the objects of desire. Some are struggling to rebuild confidence, some to see themselves as beautiful, some to define what they want.

Always, there is a search for love. But there is a search for other things too: the self, survival, happiness in, as Vohra puts it, “more than just one room”. After that first Mills & Boon, she moved away from the template too. “I wanted to tell stories where romance is part of the story, but it’s not the only goal… stories that reflected my understanding of women in India,” she says.

Wknd sat down with six women writers — Kiran Manral, Andaleeb Wajid, Venkatraman, Vohra, Singh and Payal Dhar — to talk about what it’s like to write romance novels in India today. What are their conflicts and reservations, on and off the page; the stereotypes they can’t stand, and the ones they can’t do without. Where do they hope to take the story next? Take a look.

I want my readers to be less critical of themselves: Kiran Manral

Many of India’s male romance writers are dear friends, says Kiran Manral, 50, laughing. But they do have a rather unfair advantage: the female reader (and most readers of the romance novel are women) can turn the male author into an aspirational romantic interest; very rarely can a woman romance novelist hope for that.

The advantage that women have is the female perspective, the female gaze, Manral adds. “We write about romance the way women experience romance. It comes from lived experience.”

In Manral’s romance novels — books such as Once Upon a Crush (Leadstart, 2014), an office romance; All Aboard! (Penguin, 2015), set on a cruise ship; or Saving Maya (Bombaykala Books, 2018), a romance between a divorced single mother and a mysterious man who moves in next door, tackling trauma from his past — the landscape is familiar, but the details are intricate and lived-in. There’s the search for love, but it occurs amid divorce, or turning 30 while single and not wanting to be, or in the aftermath of being left at the altar.

Love actually How female novelists are rewriting romance in India
‘I like to give my readers the sense that there will always be another chance and you just have to pick yourself up and keep going,’ Manral says.

Manral, who married her college sweetheart and personally holds on to old-fashioned ideas of romance (one person, happily ever after), says she wants her readers to experience hope and joy through her books, but also see themselves and their lives reflected.

It’s not about an unrealistic happily-ever-after, she says, so much as a “happily right now”. “I like to give my readers the sense that there will always be another chance and you just have to pick yourself up and keep going.”

For instance, in Saving Maya, the protagonist goes from a very comfortable married life to a nasty divorce. In the course of the book, she learns to support herself, rebuilds herself life. She returns to her career in the corporate world, reskills herself as she works, builds up her self-confidence, navigates being a single mother. Love comes along again, but at the heart of book is the tale of how she survives.

In Saving Maya, the protagonist is chubby. She attempts a makeover while going through a divorce, but feels uncomfortable with the superficiality of it and concentrates on building up her self-confidence. “I want my readers to know that they can set things aside. Society keeps badgering women — you’re not tall enough, not pretty enough, not fair enough,” Manral says. “We are too critical of ourselves.”

In her own life, as with women writers through the centuries, Manral finds that time is rarely her own to claim. “When you sit to write, people treat it like a hobby,” she says. “It’s very difficult to find the vacuum needed to create. But I was a journalist for 15 years, so I’m used to working amid distraction.”

Representation is vital, so I write of Muslims in love: Andaleeb Wajid

Andaleeb Wajid, 43, writes romance as well as horror. She’s prolific too. She has written 28 novels in 12 years, many of them tales of young Muslims falling in love.

“Representation is important. I’m a Muslim. I write a lot about young women Muslim women who are strong, financially independent, everything you expect a woman of today to be. And in a way I feel that also normalises this view of women within the Muslim community too,” Wajid says.

She very deliberately avoids the clichés of the Western romance novel. “Personally, I don’t know any billionaires who wear tuxedos and go to glittery parties. My heroes are all people like you and me. I don’t write about damsels in distress. My heroines can stand on their own feet. There’s no taming of the shrew. A shrew can be a shrew if she wants to be.”

1637400562 546 Love actually How female novelists are rewriting romance in India
‘Over time, my characters have become stronger, with more conviction in themselves,’ Wajid says.

In her first novel, Kite Strings (Pustak Mahal, 2009), Mehnaz, a young woman from an orthodox South Indian Muslim family, realises she won’t be allowed to make important decisions about her own life. The story follows how she breaks free of this, seeks out love and finds herself.

In Mirror, Mirror (Penguin Random House, 2021), a 17-year-old with body-image issues is on the brink of a makeover when she finds out her mother is pregnant again, and a boy she once loved comes back into her life.

“Over time, my characters have become stronger, with more conviction in themselves,” Wajid says.

She does provide happily-ever-afters. “I love the fact that when you’re reading a romance book, that’s guaranteed. There is a sort of secondary happiness that I aim to give my reader. I like them to just take their mind off things and get drawn into a world where things may go wrong, but in the end, everything kind of works out.”

In a familiar strain through these interviews, she discusses the struggle of women writers trying to find time to write. “We women are expected to do so much apart from our work — take care of the house, the kids and so much more by default. Choosing to write full-time is a privilege not everyone has. My two sons have grown up seeing me write, and I have a very supportive family. I’m very lucky to be one of the privileged ones.”

Love is eventually about trust and the ability to let go: Sundari Venkatraman

Reading was how she travelled the world as a child, Sundari Venkatraman, 60, says. She never imagined she’d one day write books too. But in December 1999, two weeks after quitting her job as personal assistant to a school principal, she went for a walk. “I was a frustrated and bored housewife. I needed a purpose. During that walk, a story came gushing like water into my mind. I started writing. I wrote 15 pages of my first book The Malhotra Bride in one go. The boredom and frustration disappeared. I finished three books in six months. Meghna and Madras Affair were the other two,” she says.

She approached publishers, 40 in all, but found no takers. “Most of them really looked down on the romance genre. Which surprised me, because romance novels are really popular worldwide.” As she waited for her big break, she began to write for a living too, as a freelance blogger, lifestyle writer and copy editor.

In February 2014, Venkatraman discovered Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform, where authors and publishers can independently publish their books directly to the Kindle Store in a revenue-sharing agreement. Venkatraman posted what were now four unpublished romance novels. They found takers, which was a thrill, even if her first cheque was for royalties was a mere 400.

In 2015, a fifth book, The Madras Affair, found a mainstream publisher in Readomania. Another thrill, she says, “because every author dreams of that”. But then she realised that the publishing deal meant she couldn’t publish anything else for six months before or after.

1637400562 236 Love actually How female novelists are rewriting romance in India
Sundari Venkatraman’s romance novels are distinctly Indian. The plots are often set in small towns, and involve parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, scores of cousins.

“I wanted to write more!” says Venkatraman. After one year with a publisher, she was sure it wasn’t what she wanted. She went solo again and, by 2017, had 17 books out, and was earning up to 80,000 in a good month.

Her romance novels are distinctly Indian. The plots are often set in small towns, and involve parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, scores of cousins. Every book comes with the message, she says, “that one can live with self-respect; that women have a right to claim their place in the world.”

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She writes steamy scenes and is proud of them. “I feel romance is eventually about deep friendship, trust and the ability to let go.”

She currently publishes six to eight books a year, all via Kindle Direct, all with messages of strength and survival. In Ryan Finds a Bride (2021), the female protagonist Varshini faces challenges because she is dark-skinned and not rich. In Shaan Gets Hitched (2021), the heroine is a victim of child abuse and overcomes that trauma to find love.

New plots keep coming to her, Venkatraman says. Now that her two children are grown, she has more time too. “In the beginning, no one understood the importance of my writing or what it means to me. I used to write in the middle of the night. Then I made it clear that I need my time and space. It helps that I can write in the middle of chaos.”

Romance shouldn’t be the only goal: Milan Vohra

Milan Vohra, 57, was the first Indian to write a Mills & Boon romance. Then 45 and an advertising professional, she won a contest organised by Harlequin Enterprises in 2009, and it changed her life.

“I’d been writing short stories for myself for years. In advertising, I was creating characters, telling stories. But none of them was romance. When this opportunity came along, I wasn’t even sure if I should try,” Vohra says.

Then her wedding anniversary came around, and turned out to be a day of demanding house guests. “I decided there had to be more romance to life. That led me to finally sit down and write a story for the contest.”

In a year, the story was a book, The Love Asana. It’s about a self-made billionaire who arm-twists Pari, a yoga instructor, into marrying him as revenge for what he believes to be her brother’s role in his sister’s death. It’s only after they are married that he begins to fall in love with Pari.

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‘Simple things like making consent clear, incorporating a condom in a sex scene are also important, because it then normalises this behaviour. I write in those bits intentionally and I hope the men who read my books also learn from them,’ Vohra says. (Nilotpal Baruah)

She wanted her novel to be distinctly Indian. So she found herself explaining to the British editors that the protagonists’ large families had to be a big part of the plot; that the hero could live with his mother and be considered a good guy for doing so. “I was teaching them about India, they were teaching me about writing romance,” Vohra says.

The book gave Vohra what she calls her “15 seconds of fame”. And then she didn’t want to write Mills & Boon romances anymore. “For them, romance is all about the hero and the heroine. Whereas I wanted to tell a story where romance is part of the story, but it’s not the only goal,” she says. “I wanted to write stories where I could talk about my characters outside of what was happening in one room, stories that reflected my understanding of women in India.” That’s what she did with her next book, Tick-tock We’re 30 (Westland, 2013), where she brought in the uniqueness of a more real, multicultural India.

Vohra has written five such novels since. Her 2019 book Our Song with Harper Collins was about a struggling music composer who falls in love with a rich corporate honcho, but it touched upon themes of gender politics within the world of Hindustani music, abuse, consent. Vohra reimagined The Love Asana in 2020, making the dynamic between the protagonists more equal and bringing in themes of domestic violence. Her latest, The Call (2021), is about a new mother faced with a decision that challenges her ideals.

“Simple things like making consent clear, incorporating a condom in a sex scene are also important, because it then normalises this behaviour. I write in those bits intentionally and I hope the men who read my books also learn from them,” Vohra says.

The one thing she wishes for for herself and other romance writers? “That we could get rid of the judgmental way people see romance novels. They can push for change in many ways and can be statements of the changing times. People should stop being apologetic about reading and enjoying them.”

I prefer a positive ending to unreal happily-ever-afters: Nikita Singh

Nikita Singh, 30, wrote her first novel at 19. She was studying for her pharmacy degree, in Indore, at the time. “I realised… I’m expected to graduate, find a job, marry and have kids. I didn’t like the way my future was supposed to unfurl.” So she decided to change it.

She had always read a lot. “And I always knew that one day I would write a book. So I went to the library and I looked at all the books on the shelves, found out who the publishers were, then found their websites, and found their submission guidelines. Then I went to a cyber café, typed out my novel, which I had written in a notebook, and sent it out to the publishers,” she says.

Love @ Facebook (Pustak Mahal, 2011) is about a 19-year-old who falls in love with a VJ and an up-and-coming actor, via Facebook. Singh, who works full-time as director of marketing for a solar energy company, has published a dozen other books since.

Love actually How female novelists are rewriting romance in India
‘I have never written about the super-rich and billionaires. I write about relationships that look like my relationships or relationships of the people around me,’ Singh says.

She avoids Western stereotypes in favour of greater relatability. “I have never written about the super-rich and billionaires. I write about relationships that look like my relationships or relationships of the people around me,” Singh says.

Her characters have passion but also career choices, family issues, deep personal struggles. In Like a Love Song (HarperCollins, 2016), a young woman quits college after a breakup, returns home, starts a business with a friend and eventually finds love. Every Time It Rains (HarperCollins, 2017) is about how trauma from the protagonist’s past affects her life, and love life. The Reason is You (HarperCollins, 2019) is about a young woman’s battle with depression and how this affects her relationship.

There’s a difference between a happy ending and a positive ending, Singh says, and she prefers the latter. “People ending up together is not a happy ending for me, because they might be completely wrong for each other. But I do always leave my readers with hope.”

As for why romance writing in India is dominated by male writers, Singh believes this is because women aren’t really allowed as much freedom of expression in general, let alone when it comes to something like writing about romance. “As a teen, the biggest thing that my parents did for me was to let me do what I was doing,” she adds. “I don’t think a lot of middle-class families in a small town in India would allow their daughters to write about romance. Men don’t have these obstacles.”

Our ideas of love, romance must change: Payal Dhar

Payal Dhar, 45, doesn’t write romances. She writes for the young adult, she says, and love just happens to be a part of their lives. What makes her books stand out is the vast array of relationship formats she explores.

Her novels feature chosen families based on trust rather than birth; single mothers raising children with each others’ support; traditional families; traditional but dysfunctional families.

Her latest novel, It Has No Name (Red Panda, 2021), is the coming-of-age story of a lesbian. The protagonist is a teen girl, who doesn’t want to be girly, and the story tracks her life after she moves back to a small town where she was bullied as a child.

1637400563 218 Love actually How female novelists are rewriting romance in India
‘Mainstream notions of what relationships are, what healthy relationships are, and so on, need to be questioned. Patriarchy needs to be challenged; notions of the family need to be challenged,’ Dhar says.

“I knew by the age of seven that I wanted to be a writer, but of course it was a long time before I figured out what that really meant,” Dhar says. “When I started out, in journalism and publishing, writing fiction was on my mind. It took almost a decade before my first novel was published.”

That first novel was A Shadow in Eternity (Zubaan, 2006), a fantasy / adventure work. It Has No Name is her tenth book. “I think we have a great deal of visibility of different kinds of people in our literature in India, but our ideas of love, romance, and commitment remain very traditional, conservative, narrow-minded even. Even stories of queer love are told from cishet norms. I would love to see that change,” Dhar says. “Mainstream notions of what relationships are, what healthy relationships are, and so on, need to be questioned. Patriarchy needs to be challenged; notions of the family need to be challenged.”

In her personal life, she isn’t romantic at all, Dhar says. “As an autistic person, I don’t ‘get’ romance, really. I also am bad at reading between the lines.But in terms of love, I think I’m lucky to have what I need.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    1637400563 792 Love actually How female novelists are rewriting romance in India

    Madhusree Ghosh

    Madhusree is a feature writer who loves Kolkata, is learning to love Mumbai. She loves to travel, write and bake

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