The Romance Novel in India and Those Pricey Thakur Girls

“That’s so filmi,” I’ve often remarked on being told about an especially thrilling romantic experience. In India, romance can feel synonymous with film. Much of our imagination and enactment of love comes from the movies. Mainstream Hindi cinema, in particular, strongly influences how we express love, construct fantasies, and our expectations from romantic trysts. This comes from no little effort on its part. A romantic plot feels requisite for most Hindi cinema: songs and subplots are shoehorned into all kinds of movies. And so a hero with outstretched arms, a woman bumping into a love interest and dropping a sheaf of papers that fly everywhere, or yearning eyes meeting across a crowded room, become visual shorthands for love itself.

This is why, when it comes to cultural depictions of romance in India, we rarely think of literature, specifically Indian writing in English. After all, no romantic story I’ve ever heard has elicited the response, “that’s so contemporary Indian novel in English!” Contradictory to global literary trends–Mills and Boons, Harlequin romances, Fifty Shades of Grey–romance novels in India are relatively unestablished, especially those written by women. This is a genre that tends to draw criticisms that are both gendered and elitist, perhaps dissuading female authors from pursuing it: postcolonial literary studies, for instance, has never quite known what to do with popular literature.

In this context, reading Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls was a strong reminder of what the novel part of a romance novel can give us, especially when written by a woman. The novel has been a wildly successful genre for romance because of the interiority it affords its characters. Knowing what the characters are thinking and being told precisely what they are feeling is a powerful addition to a genre that thrives on appealing to imaginations. So when Dylan Singh Shekawat meets Debjani Thakur for the first time, the author is able to give us a sense of exactly how he is affected: “the last rays of the setting sun hit her face and he discovers that her thickly lashed eyes are the exact colour and shape as Pears soap.”  These glimpses into Dylan’s thoughts are powerful because they articulate how desire feels for him, and conversely, what it is to be desired by him.

As Emily Davis points out in Rethinking the Romance Genre, for critics, the genres of romance and political writing, the private and the public, have often been seen as mutually exclusive. This, of course, amounts to both a denial of female perspectives, and the tensions and structural fissures the process of love demonstrates. Also, yet romance is deeply contextual, both in terms of function and effect. Like many Indian women, I grew up on a diet of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. These books continue to resonate emotionally, but romance provides a space–especially for women–to reimagine and consider dynamics of gender and sexuality, and there is something to be said for love rooted in our specific context, that Pemberley and Lockwood cannot provide.

Though romance is perceived as primarily character-driven, much of its strength comes from its focus on the atmosphere and setting. An Indian romance novel, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail only a romance featuring Indian characters, and Those Pricey Thakur Girls delights in its own setting. One of the jokes running through the book is Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur’s obsession with what alphabets portend. So when D-for-Debjani meets D-for-Dylan, readers know what to expect. However, this is a story in which the city is the protagonist, its people, trees, dogs, and localities meticulously sketched out. It’s hard to miss: D for Delhi.

Moreover, Delhi offers a lot. The Emergency looms over the story, set a year after the Anti-Sikh pogrom incited and enabled by a politician Dylan, a journalist, sets out to expose. The central ideological tension between Dylan and Debjani is their respective attitudes towards the role of media during times of political conflict. The resolution of the romantic plot entails a realisation on Debjani’s part about her own complicity in furthering proto-fake news as the anchor of a channel modelled on Doordarshan. Though the book features characters who are upper-caste and upper-class, Chauhan’s engagement with this context and its centrality to her plot shows that the romance–mostly associated with escapist pleasure and accused of enabling political apathy–can be a narrative vehicle for political expression.

Chauhan also mines hilarity from the lives of her characters, using an idiom of writing that is imbued in local contexts, drawing on movies, Hinglish, and popular culture. Dylan’s wooing is rudely interrupted by Debjani’s brother Gulgul, upset about being cheated of a belly-button viewing in a song and Debjani, “by the grace of god”, has a meeting with a self-obsessed prospective suitor. In one of my favourite lines, Debjani accuses Dylan of dipping his proboscis into multiple flowers: the characters Chauhan creates are clearly catering to a female perspective. While much has been made of Dylan Singh Shekhawat, now the gold standard for romantic heroes, Chauhan’s characterisation of Debjani is equally interesting. Her narrative arc depicts her struggles to differentiate herself from her sisters, build her own life, find a career that appeals to her, and come into her own, makes. Everything that makes Debjani attractive–her commitment to bravery and kindness, her affinity for those in hard luck, and her signature way of dressing–ignores the conventional male gaze.

In Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Chuhan creates a template for romantic imagination. The chaotic denouement, featuring the reunion of Dylan and Debjani, a family gathering, and a chachi possessed by the ghost of her mother-in-law, shows that love and reason might keep little company together nowadays, but love and community-building do.

Bestsellers – Smart Women Have Hearts Too

Samhita Arni was in conversation with Anuja Chauhan today on a sunny afternoon at the Tughlaq in the Bangalore Literature Festival. Samhita made a big bang start by opening the conversation with “A fireside chat with the hottest author in Bangalore, a peek into her past work and cue into her future”.

 

Samhita’s first poser to Anuja was on the subject of her books, which are not just entertaining, but also have substance, history, and politics. In response, Anuja said that she tries to write books which she reads personally. “The vital thing a reader can give another reader is their voice. Your life experiences are your raw data”, responded Anuja, and went on to add that her father having been an army man, her experiences come into her writing. 

 

Anuja confessed that she was partial to autobiographies and hopes to write 20 autobiographical books before she dies! Her book “Baaz” relates to the crushes she had on fighter pilots, “The Zoya Factor” takes on from her stint in advertising and “The Battle of Bittora” storyline is taken from the election campaigns on which she accompanied her mother.

 

Anuja had some very interesting tips to share on how to cater to diverse audiences. She advocated to write in a light, breezy, bouncy zone, or it will scare the idea away. She suggested to talk to people who are not like you and help to enrich your life. Importantly, she said, “base your characters on traits of people you know”. As an example, she spoke about the grandmother character from ‘The Battle of Bittora’. Pushpa Pandey, the name, was based on her mother’s first name. The character is based on a three-time Member of Parliament from a north Indian village. The traits of the character are a lot like her mother, grand mother as well as her mother in law. There are readers who ask her what is the risk that people might recognize themselves in her books. She ruled out this possibility by assuring that she is good at disguising people, in bringing only traits and not the entire person into her book. 

 

Samhita quizzed her on which medium she leans towards, books or movies, considering that quite a few of her books have made it to the movies, Anuja definitely prefers the written medium since only a book is complete. She then added with a smile that a movie made from a book does have its perks such as the money and being invited to Bangalore Literature Festival.

 

Samhita gave it away when she said that Anuja is working on a web series for Hotstar that has strong women protagonists. Anuja said that this is a medium close to her since the content has to be really sticky and its structure is different from that of a book. 

 

Anuja reflected on having written five books in 10 years; and felt this is too slow. “I’m no speedy Gonsalves”, she said. She wonders how Agatha Christie has been able to complete 70 books. She quoted that Meg Cabot and Vikram Seth are her favourite writers. According to her, the best compliment an author can get is to be re-readable. Samhita added on the compliment to mention that her protagonists are staunch, feisty women.

 

In response to an audience question about her transition from the ad world to writing books, she mentioned that self-motivation is the key; she pushes herself to write at least 1000 words a day.

 

Pepsi’s Yeh Dil Maange More was one of her famous ad campaigns, which was created by building upon Pepsi’s international tagline ‘Ask for more’ and giving it an Indian twist. “Thoda dil daalke bolo – Yeh Dil Maange More”, in her own words.

 

Anuja advised that advertising was a good start to a career before getting into writing. She mentioned that the ad world crushes your ego, and you become receptive to criticism. Her humorous anecdote about Jemima Goldsmith’s father telling her that Imran Khan would make a good first husband sent the audience into splits of laughter. She spoke about the 3Rs of advertising – Rapidity, Resilience, Repertoire. “Read the masters, read, read and read”, is the one liner she had to say to the upcoming writers. Having been glued to every word that Anuja said through the half hour session, the audience gave a thundering applause, almost as if they said ‘Yeh Dil Maange More’!

 

 

 

 

About the Author: Usha Ramaswamy craves to get more creative in addition to being an avid reader, traveller, vlogger, marketer of events, mobile photographer. One day, she wants to write a book but for now, she pens her reflections at her blog and puts up photos on instagram. She also works as a software process consultant and is a mother of two. She currently writes for TheSeer.