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A Novel Romance
Text by Supriya Nair
Published: Volume 17, Issue 10, October, 2009

Desi fantasies are the latest entrants into the tradition of popular love stories, long upheld by readers faithful to everyone from Georgette Heyer to Stephenie Meyer. Supriya Nair looks over the high arts and the cheap tricks of romance in novels through history

Say what you like about baby bargains, marriages of convenience and love at first sight: they’re the clichés that make the wheels of the publishing industry turn. In 2008, romance novels, already the best-selling genre of English fiction anywhere in the world, saw a 50 per cent increase in sales. Ask Mills & Boon India, and they will tell you that in the year-and-a-half since they’ve set up shop in the country, they’ve been growing at a mind-boggling 20 per cent every quarter.

In a global recession, it’s not hard to understand why women are falling back on something that works almost as a basic unit of consumption in literature – the slim, inexpensive, easy wish-fulfillment fantasy. So it makes sense for Random House to choose this moment to inaugurate their Kama Kahani series of paperbacks. They like to call these books ‘purdah-jharoka’ romances, historical tales of passion set in desert kingdoms, elegant sitting-rooms and nawabi palaces. There’s been precious little genre fiction of any sort in Indian writing in English so far, but you still have to wonder why no one’s attempted it before. Kama Kahani launches with three new titles, Sanyogita Rathore’s Mistress To The Yuvraj, Jasmine Saigal’s The Zamindar’s Forbidden Love and Ghazal In The Moonlight by Alessandra Shahbaz. Deliciously self-explanatory and designed to pique the attention of the most cynical browser in a bookstore, as a million books have before them, with titles like Spanish Aristocrat, Forced Bride, The Brazilian Millionaire’s Love Child and Betrothed To The People’s Prince. An Indian spin to an age-old formula: now there’s a new trick in the book. With the arrival of desi paperbacks on the shelves, Sicilian bosses and Greek millionaires, South African safari kings and English earls will have to budge up a bit to make room for devastatingly handsome Rajput princes (Mistress To The Yuvraj), smouldering sons of zamindars (The Zamindar’s Forbidden Love) and mysterious, sexy bodyguards (Ghazal In The Moonlight) to the global stock of exotic fantasy.

Perhaps, given your reading habits, that makes you laugh, or shudder, or do both. You would be in a minority, however. It’s true that the average romance novel is the embodiment of the worst fears of moralists and aesthetes since time immemorial, who condemn all fiction as escapist lies, or intellectually slack. But the romance novel is also the victim of a fair amount of sexism. The age when gentlemen absorbed themselves in novels – the super-macho Byron himself was a Jane Austen fan – and wept into their beards at the fate of hapless orphans in Victorian melodramas is long passed. Women remain in possession of the field when it comes to novel reading, and romance novels, which are usually told through a female perspective, in particular.

The peculiar accusation of ‘mushy’ female preoccupations being too stupid or too slight for male consumption conforms to an absurd double standard. It silently presumes that traditionally male obsessions like pornography, or watching overproduced sport from a couch, are shining examples of intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, romance novels themselves – like televised sport – replicate a lot of real-world sexism in their own standards. This holds true through much of the genre, including the relatively new subgenre of paranormal romance, which has been around for ages, but received a huge fillip in India with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, ubiquitous on the bus and at the airport and in McDonald’s these days.

Meyer’s series transfers the centuries-old fascination with vampires to a tiny town in the USA where the living undead captivate the heart of the adolescent Bella Swan. Our object of adoration is an immortal vampire who looks like a teenager and sparkles in the sunlight. Bella doesn’t live the high life in New York, or own several pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes, which is the other female fantasy that pushes a lot of publishing throughout the world. Unlike her bestseller counterpart, Harry Potter (or, to give JK Rowling due credit, any of the female characters in the Potter series), she doesn’t have a cause, either. She’s a classic romance heroine: special because she worships sparkly Edward with the force of a thousand fiery suns. This erasure of female personality, the creation of an Everygirl skin for a reader to slip into at a moment’s notice is a long-running cliché of the romance industry, and as soul-destroying in its way as the male fantasy of the perfect woman who exists only for him to acquire.

Why does Twilight, with its alien geography and mythology, captivate so many readers in India? For the same reason that Coca-Cola and chips do, you suppose – tastes and marketing cut across cultural boundaries. It will be worth seeing if the Meyer phenomenon can pan out into the long-term relationship Indian readers have with an author of the same genre but of a very different stripe, the Regency romance writer Georgette Heyer. Her books may be stacked alongside Twilight in bookstores today, but they have a long history in India; lent and given as gifts between friends, and passed on as heirlooms from mother to daughter. They are heady chronicles, replete with feisty heroines, stylish young bucks, plenty of swashbuckling. Heyer’s lightness of touch contrasts with her awesome capacity for historical detailing. Not all of us who pick up The Masqueraders or Cotillion may know or guess that her novels, written in the first half of the 20th century, shaped our ideas of the dress, rituals and slang of the Regency way before academic historians could actually confirm it – but we thrill to it with all the appreciation we can muster in our Macaulay-educated hearts.

With Heyer, romance is a part and parcel of her true subject, which is the social history of early 19th century England itself. Anyone who opens The Spanish Bride, for example, will be delighted to find a lovingly-detailed account of the Peninsular Wars taking precedence over the torrid love story that its packaging leads you to expect. But packaging has strange effects on novels about ye olde England, in general. Amused as she may have been to see her books shelved in the Romance section, she is hardly the first or most illustrious to be so pigeonholed: that honour belongs to Jane Austen.

I found a new copy of Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s most misanthropic novel, to replace my dilapidated old one the other day. The clean, cheerful lines of the paperback synopsis announced its mass market intentions right away: ‘Why are the most irresistible men always the most unsuitable?’ It seemed puzzlingly inaccurate to me, either because of my very different view of the novel’s plot, or because of the firm mental image I have of Alan Rickman playing the resistible-but-eminently-suitable Colonel Brandon, who ultimately gets the girl, in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of the film.

For a while now, publishing houses have been packaging female-written classics to read as paperback romance bonanzas whether they really are or not. It’s proven that women finance the considerable romance machine in publishing, so what could be more profitable than cutting your cloth according to genre when it comes to classic women writers? I wonder what it must seem like to expect your run-of-the-mill rake, and then acquaint yourself with the truly frightful Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), or Edward Rochester of Jane Eyre, who keeps his first wife locked up in the attic.

But would we splash the cash on the Brontës if their works were sold as the outpourings of literary geniuses with an uncanny understanding of the female psyche and the horrors of Victorian sexual repression? If we marketed Pride and Prejudice as a mordant social comedy that speaks to the vast majority of Indian Elizabeth Bennets who struggle with financial insecurity, relatives out of touch with their hopes and dreams, and the constant threat of an unsuitable arranged marriage dangling over their heads, would many people read it? A staple problem of popular Indian romance is the dilemma of women who can handle falling in love, but are unable to forego familial bonds to pursue it. Austen would understand Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge perfectly. Nothing in the modern education of women covers the genuine heartbreak of having to choose between two ways of life. (Macaulay really ought to have done something about that.) The ease with which it applied to 21st century Amritsar in Gurinder Chadha's rom-com Bride and Prejudice is telling. Perhaps this is partially why the Darcy fantasy works for so many women, after all; what we are really responding to is the not the Everygirl in Lizzie, but her extraordinary spirit and common sense and humour. The fantasy of catching the eye of the suitable boy is accompanied, at least subliminally, by an aspiration to the self-awareness and self-respect that are among Lizzie’s chief charms.

And perhaps that’s what really takes a romance from the realm of junk food to cordon bleu: the sense that true love is possible because of the quirks and character of our shared humanity with the other sex, not in spite of it. This is what makes Austen, and the Brontës after her, achieve classic, memorable love stories within their equally classic, complex universes.

Can we even justify this broad categorisation of high art and 99-rupee seduction stories in the same genre, then? We could protest about the line modern culture has drawn between male and female pursuits, making it difficult to convince men that we don’t just read Regency classics for the empire waistlines. We could shake a fist at the publishing industry. We could dissect the fake dichotomies between chick-lit and ‘real’ novels – marketed to a thinking public which chiefly consists of women, anyway – until the cows come home. But after all, a category is just a cosmetic limitation. It’s up to the culture at large to recognise that Austen and Arab princes with throbbing manhoods have less in common than Maxim Gorky and Maxim magazine.

For better or for worse, fiction does exactly what its detractors say it will: it makes sense out of a senseless universe, creates an outlet for all desires. In that sense, Mansfield Park will find a sort of distant bond with Mistress To The Yuvraj, just as that book, I suspect, will find its kinship with fantasies about vampires who sparkle in sunlight. In the meanwhile, the wheels will keep turning, and publishing will stay afloat thanks to the legion of readers in love with love.

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