Romance has always been a bestseller. But there is now a shift in the sexist culture of romance being predominantly a female terrain — with a slew of young men rewriting the rules of the heart.
When the greatest Indian bard Kalidasa had composed his most reputed love ballad, Abhijnanasakuntalam, the first-ever Indian play to be translated into a Western tongue, into English by Sir William Jones in 1789 and thereafter making it to 46 translations in 12 different European languages, little could Kalidasa have predicted that the theme of romance would turn out, centuries later, into the biggest cash churner for the indigenous publishing industry, producing some of the biggest bestsellers in the genre.
Be it an avalanche of witty, tongue-in-cheek, sassy, urban chick lit that has infiltrated bookstores since we lost our hearts to the brooding Mr Darcy in the cult Bridget Jones Diary to gooey, desi Mills & Boons populated with local characters, to tragic love sagas by young Indian male authors — there’s no dearth of the classical theme of love that has taken on myriad shades in the lit world — from women’s lib, weight woes, sexual emancipation to her soul searing search for Mr Right, classic male chauvinism, saving the damsel in distress, the vulnerability in man-woman relationships to the ultimate triumph of romantic love.
However, even as chick lit rules the roost, in terms of sales and visibility, with mummy lit emerging as a popular off-shoot, outlining the trials of young mothers balancing work and life, or finding one’s feet soirees of divorced women, there is a clear shift in the sexist culture of romance being predominantly a female terrain — with a slew of young men rewriting the rules of the heart.
Are men and women on equal footing where writing romance is concerned? Kanishka Gupta, India’s top literary agent, says of male authors infiltrating the love department, “All the big stars in the commercial fiction space, namely Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, Sudeep Nagarkar write in this genre. The figures for these authors are insane. A distributor told me he has been selling 20,000 copies of Nagarkar per week. Even the tier-2 authors in this list such as Novoneel Chakravorty, Anuj Tiwari etc. sell quite a lot. Chick lit has some big names too, but they don’t sell as much or have that kind of fan following. Sales of romance in general, barring the big names, has fallen sharply.”
India’s best-known lover boy, Durjoy Datta, with ten romance novels to his credit, is quite a hit with hysterical, selfie-struck youngsters (to promote one of his titles, When Love Remains, Datta requested his fans to upload selfies) and known to deliver the hit formulae. After having written four love stories with female co-authors, Datta struck out on his own, saying of his decision to fly solo in an interview, “When I wrote with them, there were a lot of differences, especially over the portrayal of men characters. They would portray them as extremely emotional, something I wouldn’t agree with. But I often bowed to the wishes of my female co-writers. Our conflicting views brought a touch of reality to our novels.”
Mumbai-based Sudeep Nagarkar, with five romance novels to his credit, claims all his five novels are based on real life love stories. You are the Password to my Life, published in 2014, skyrocketed on several best-selling charts. In 2013, his book It started with a Friend Request was voted as the most popular book in a reader’s poll on Amazon India in Indian fiction category.
Tuhin Sinha, who essentially began as a romance novelist, before dabbling with political writing in books like Love and Politics, The Edge of Power and The Edge of Desire is just out with Let The Reason Be Love, reasons, “Nothing sells more naturally than romance and that’s probably why I returned to the genre after nine years. I guess in today’s fast paced consumerist lives, romance has suffered. People are seldom lucky in love and this makes them suckers for good romantic stories.”
Another front-runner Ravinder Singh set a whopping new sales record when his third book, Like It Happened Yesterday, sold 250,000 copies on release day itself. Singh’s debut creation, I Too Had a Love Story, out in 2008, was based on his real-life sweetheart, whom he met on a matrimonial website, who died in an accident five days before their engagement ceremony. Published by Srishti Publishers, a small publisher that is the force behind many of these mass-market fiction titles selling nearly a million copies, Singh now enjoys the epithet of “maharaja of mush”.
Broken-hearted is no longer soppy, sad and unsalable! And yet with these young Turks bringing home the big bucks, lad lit, made internationally famous by the likes of Nick Hornby and Matt Dunn, hasn’t quite taken off in India, with most readers also unfamiliar with the term, along with publishers who seem equally wary of the tagline, fearing it may restrict readership to just the guys.
Writer Judy Balan questions, “The male voice is under represented in romance? All I see are soppy declarations of true love in romance titles by male authors. Almost makes me miss the I’m-too-macho-for-this-shit male voice.” Asked if chick lit had reached a saturation, she replies, “I think imagination is infinite. Therefore no genre can hit saturation point. As for romance as well as romantic-comedy, relationship trends are constantly changing to the point that it’s hard to keep up with the barrage of made-up relationship statuses. And that in itself, should be enough to keep things interesting.”
Balan also points out, that she’d be willing to swap rules, “If by lad lit you mean something on the lines of what Nick Hornby writes, I’d love to be able to write my very own About A Boy someday! As for gender codes, I don’t think they should exist and if they do, I doubt they’ll bother me.”
INSIDE A MAN’S HEAD — AND HEART
What if Abhijnanasakuntalam could be Dushyant’s story then? If the eternal love saga of Shakuntala and Dushyant was transcribed as a new age, zippy, cosmopiltan, multi-city romance? If Dushyant could be dishy, and yet distracted, scared to commit, and yet the hopelessly love-struck protagonist. If the forest where the mighty king lost his heart could be Asia’s largest red light district — Shonagachi? If the complex male idiom became the compelling force in the plot — if Dushyant was no longer the swashbuckling male sire, but a confused, fun-loving, guy next door? Perhaps, in times of flexible gender divisions and readers looking for more believable story lines, it’s time to re-invent the timeless tale, retold by a woman. Lad lit, finally coming of age in India, minus the strict limitations of same sex writing it. The fun in getting inside a man’s head — his uncertainties as lovable as a woman’s emotional journey. A man like he is — now.
The broadening of the love genre to include more men, and the shrinking space of done-to-death chick-lit is possibly what got me to also readapt Kalidasa’s epic novel into a modern day satire on male mush, You’ve Got The Wrong Girl (Hachette). And so my Dushyant Singh Rathore, a 30-something celebrated love writer, confesses, “Being a man can be a confusing thing. Petrifying, actually. I mean there are a million versions to choose from. Good boy. Bad boy. Playboy. Macho boy. Mama’s boy. Mean boy. Introvert. Extrovert. The one who buys roses on Valentine’s Day. The one who pops the question instantly. The guy who takes you shopping, patiently waiting outside a tiny trial room. The one who wants children. The one who calls back instantly. Talks about his feelings. The player. The cheat. The liar. The lover. The friend. The boyfriend. It’s a question of multiple choices, constantly. Who would you rather be? How will they remember you? What will they say to their girlfriends? Or mothers? Or daughters? Whose hero are you fated to be? How many hearts have you broken? When will you settle down? Do you drink a lot? Smoke? Wear pink? Do you believe in male contraceptives? Do you drive? Like to travel? Sometimes I ask myself: What if men and women weren’t that different. Would the game be simpler? The results different? The end happier?”
Literary consultant Jaya Bhattacharji Rose has the last word, “As long as there are at least two individuals on this planet there is always scope for romance and love, and, why would women writing lad lit be extraordinary? Didn’t Jane Austen raise the bar by many notches for romantic fiction by creating Darcy?”
The writer is the author of the forthcoming book You’ve Got The Wrong Girl (Hachette)