The Hindu takes a look at the new Mills & Boon novels by Indian authors…
I discovered the world of cheesy romances at the impressionable age of 13 . It was an innocent-looking ragged, red-bound book with the rather questionable title of Stay Through the Night (I’m sure the cover page had been ripped off by some conservative librarian). I stayed up all through that night reading it. And I was hooked.
I’m not sure what makes them work — is it the image of a wild-haired woman dressed in a low-necked outfit that threatens to slide off her shoulder, clinging to the tall, Byronic hero in his pristine white, open-necked shirt and tight pants that leave little to the imagination? It is as clichéd as clichés go, but it does have its takers.
The romance is formulaic — if you’ve read 10, you’ve read them all. Innocent young woman meets jaded rake who cannot help but fall for her understated charm. The rake, a big guy (in more ways than one), is impossibly suave, extremely well-to-do, terribly tortured and oh-so-very exotic. He is the Italian painter, the Arab sheikh, the French diplomat, the British sailor, the Australian writer — basically the quintessential alpha male, out to conquer the world and every woman in it. Then he meets the heroine, a straggling wall-flower of sorts, pretty in a subdued way but very different from the calculative, ostentatious beauties he has been privy to before. And this unnerves him — he wants her but doesn’t want to face it. And she wants him back but he frightens her so she tells herself she dislikes him.
The mutual striving by both parties to overcome their attraction, despite the sparks that fly whenever their eyes/hands/any other body parts touch, takes up most of the novel. The climax is hugely predictable — the earlier novels stop at a cataclysmic kiss, while the latter ones lead to an intense sexual encounter, which is followed by the big let-down/disappointment/unpleasant revelation that results in a terrible lovers’ tiff and a vow to never see the other again.
They do of course — the twain does meet, true love conquers all, the happily-ever-after happens. And despite the essential absurdness of it all, the formula works beautifully.
The Mills & Boon brand, which was acquired by Harlequin Enterprises in 1971, has been regaling women in more than a hundred countries, for over a century now. And just five years ago, they also set up shop in India. While the classic formula remains the same, the new series of M&B novels flooding the Indian market is being dished out with a generous dose of desi tadka. According to Amrita Chowdhury, country head and publishing director, Harlequin India, “Readers want stories that speak to them. Of course, the appeal of the global M&B is of exotic locales and intense, passionate romances, and that continues to have a strong appeal amid loyal readers in India. With the Indian M&B, we hope to get new readers who prefer stories told in an Indian way.”
Milan Vohra, a former advertising professional who wrote The Love Asana, the first Indian M&B title, saysthis shift was long overdue. “Generations of Indian women I knew had read Mills & Boon with foreign characters. I had grown up with an occasional helping or two of M&Bs. Personally, I never found the counts and dukes and marquis and sheikhs I read about too exciting. They were too far removed. So the notion of being the first to write an Indian M&B with Indian protagonists and settings gave me a great buzz.”
“Also, yes, while endearments like mia cara and querido, mi amor, ma belle in M&Bs had tickled my fantasies as a teenaged reader, it was even more exciting that I could give readers that same sense of wonder by writing about so many of our rich romantic traditions, the poetry of Indian lyrics, the sensuousness of many of our rituals.”
This new brand of desi romances defines romance itself very differently — the Western notion of individuality and space, merges with the Indian dependence on family and community approval. Shoma Narayanan, who has written five of these desi romances, says, “My Indian readers, whether based in India or overseas, identify with the characters in the books, and with the familiar settings and cultural norms. As for International readers, my books give them a glimpse into a culture that they’re unfamiliar with, and that’s the main draw for them.”
Zoya Shah, a self-confessed bibliophile who claims to adore fairy-tale romances, says, “I picked up Indian M&Bs because I was looking forward to the Indian setting, but honestly, apart from the names and the elaborate marriage rituals, I could have been reading a generic M&B romance. They didn’t vary too much from the traditional format — though there were references to quintessentially Indian things like slums, yoga and the Mumbai rains — and I enjoyed reading them.”
Amrita agrees. “We are trying to indigenise the stories, of course, but keeping in line with the basic M&B premise, these books feature Indian heroines who are usually bankers, engineers, doctors, PR executives, teachers, supermodels and so on, while Indian heroes tend to be successful hoteliers, Bollywood stars, venture capitalists, or entrepreneurs, and the story revolves around their romance,” she says, adding, “There is a definite progression towards making the characters mainstream and identifiable. The girls tend to be independent working women, who could be making their lives and careers in the city. Whether families live close by or faraway, they tend to play an important role in the story.”
“In fact, this strong presence of families is where the Indian books branch away from the Western ones.”
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