Terms of Endearment

India’s male and female romance writers follow opposing codes

In the current crop of romantic fiction by Indian men, every hero is a version of Raj Malhotra from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
01 March, 2015

“AVANTI’S LIPS ARE NOT ONES that you can look at, ignore, and move on,” her boyfriend, Devrat, thinks as he considers his next step, sitting across from her in a pub. Around them couples are getting drunk and making out. “He has wondered about how it would be like to kiss them. Not the carnal I-eat-you-you-eat-me way, but something more tender, that tells her he likes her but it’s not sexual. It would be tender and lovely and awesome.” Later, in the most intimate scene in When Only Love Remains, the latest novel from India’s favourite romance writer, Durjoy Datta, we see Devrat inside Avanti’s luxurious bathroom, she naked beneath a layer of soap bubbles, he sitting on a stool at a safe distance and saying sweet nothings.

There can be no better publicity for the Indian man than male characters in the current crop of popular English-language romantic fiction written by Indian men. He will cook you dal and chawal if you’re homesick in a foreign country; he’ll remind you that you’re drinking way more than you should, but still carry you home after you’ve thrown up all over the bar and wrap you in his soft blanket; and he’ll tell you that no matter how little you care about following rules, he will only marry you with your dad’s permission. In short, seemingly every hero in these books is a version of Raj Malhotra, Shah Rukh Khan’s character from the Bollywood classic Dilwale Dulhaniyan Le Jayenge—the perfect mix of tradition and modernity.

He is also, it seems, increasingly monogamous. Datta’s heroes have gone from regarding every girl as a sexual object to believing in everlasting love. If Devrat were to meet Deb, the protagonist of Datta’s 2008 debut, Of Course I Love You! … Till I Find Someone Better!, he would faint from revulsion. “Sex was engulfing every part of Delhi,” as Deb describes it. “It was everywhere, schools, office, backrooms, movie halls and parking lots. Secluded places were paradise. Tinted glasses were in.”

Datta, a fresh-faced 28-year-old, has always been popular with women, but none of his books prior to When Only Love Remains was received with comparable female adulation. To promote the novel, Datta asked his fans to upload selfies taken with it. For weeks afterwards, his Facebook page was a battleground of twenty-something-year-olds from across the country competing to out-pout each other while clutching the book to their chests.

Datta is not the only star in the field. His contemporary Ravinder Singh set a new sales record when his third book, Like It Happened Yesterday, sold 250,000 copies on the day of its release last June. Singh, who is now 33 years old, published his first novel, I Too Had a Love Story, in 2008, after his real-life sweetheart, whom he met on a matrimonial website, died in an accident five days before their engagement ceremony. It tells the story of a young man who falls in love with and proposes to a girl without ever meeting her. Released by Srishti Publishers, a small outfit credited with a big role in the rise of mass-market fiction in the country, the book reportedly sold about a million copies and led Singh to be crowned the “maharaja of mush” by the Times of India. It also encouraged a rash of imitations by other Indian men with broken hearts.

Tragic love stories by young Indian men are now a genre unto themselves, and occupy pride of place in big bookstores and on railway platforms alike. Besides Datta’s book, recent examples include It Started with a Friend Request, Love Happens Only Once… Rest is Just Life, One Life One Love, If It’s Not Forever It’s Not Love and That’s the Way we Met... Kya Life Hogi Set? Last month, in Ranchi, I met Rachit Bhushan, a 26-year-old cardiac surgeon who too had written a love story. The book, By Losing You I Found How Much I Needed You, starts with a one-page recommendation from Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain of the national cricket team, who calls it a “reflection of a common man’s story.”

The entry of male authors has broken the sexist tradition of romance writing being a primarily female realm—even though there are many more women publishing romantic fiction now than ever before. Comparing recent romance novels by male and female writers reveals a much-needed male counterpoint on matters of the heart. This literature may not, even considered as a whole, paint a comprehensive picture of love in the new India, since for the most part the authors portray heterosexual, urban and upwardly mobile people much like themselves; but these books are perhaps our best window into the romantic preferences and prejudices of this group.

IF THE MEN ARE WRITING MALE CHARACTERS who live by the classic Shah Rukh Khan shtick of “Hum ek baar jeete hain, ek baar marte hain, shaadi ek baar hoti hai and pyaar bhi ek baar hota hai”—we only live once, and die once, marriage only happens once, and so does love—the women are writing female characters who really aren’t into that type of man. It’s as if male and female writers are guided by different codes of romance—the former follow that of Bollywood, and the latter of Sex and the City.

In the current deluge of romantic novels by Indian women, the heroines tend to be single girls in the city—living alone, living together, dressing up, going to work, going to parties, spotting cute guys, discussing cute guys, getting drunk, having crushes, going on dates, hooking up, breaking up. And somewhere along the way, in this one-day-at-a-time life, they fall in love and hope it lasts forever.

If the man of principle appears at all in these novels, he comes across as the stereotype of a boring guy that a girl chooses to settle down with because he’s nice and reliable. In Cold Feet by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, one of the most popular writers of the genre, Amisha is engaged to an Australian boy who exactly fits the description. Once Amisha believed “marriage was not for a certain kind of woman.” Now she was marrying a man who washes the dishes before hitting the bed after a party, and takes photos and notes on his tablet as the couple look for a house to settle into after the wedding. She felt “lucky, lucky and blessed.” Meanwhile, among her friends, Ladli’s steady boyfriend has become a stranger after she brought up marriage; Akshara secretly loves the close friend she is sleeping with but can’t refer to as her boyfriend; and Shayna is involved with a divorced colleague 20 years her senior, who’s taken her under his wing.

In Madhuri Banerjee’s Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas, a 30-year-old virgin finds a perfect guy, but he’s already married. courtesy Madhuri Banerjee

There comes a point, in nearly all of these books, when the girls must confront the matter of marriage. They are getting older; their parents are breathing down their necks; they have found men they can imagine spending the rest of their lives with; and, really, what difference does it make these days? Often, it’s after deciding to tie the knot that they realise the men in their lives could not think more differently. “Did he ask or did you ask?” a girl’s mother grills her in the story ‘The One That Came Limping Back,’ from Annie Zaidi’s brilliantly imagined Love Stories—a question so crucial it forms the essence of many urban Indian love stories. Frustrated with her family’s constant nagging, the girl has been telling her boy that they should get married and get it over with. “Okay, let’s get married then,” he says one day, shrugging. “Yes,” she says in reply. A few days later, after the relatives have been invited and a bridal outfit bought, he asks her, gently, if they shouldn’t push the date back. Doesn’t she feel it too, the need to be sure, he wonders aloud.

The memory of saying "yes" when no question had been asked rang shamefully in her ears. If she could take back any one thing, it would be the sound of her own voice squeaking out that blighted "yes."

It is this matter, of settling, that makes Kaveri, the 30-year-old virgin in the former media professional and now bestselling writer Madhuri Banerjee’s Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas, leave the man she loves. She finds the perfect guy to finally lose her virginity to—a “Greek God” who is tall, has dark, wavy hair, light brown eyes and a chiselled body. She’s flattered enough by his attention to ignore that he says things like “so you are partly south Indian and partly beautiful.” He can talk art and film and books, is chivalrous enough to offer her his shirt after she drops ketchup on her skirt, and rich enough to arrange for a private yacht and personal butler on the first date. She thinks she’s finally found the One, but he has an admission to make before they go any further: he is married, but is deeply unhappy in the relationship and shortly to come out of it. She’s shaken, but carries on with the sex, which turns out to be great, and with the “no-strings-attached friendship” that comes with it, until she leaves him after realising he would never have an answer to the question “where are we going?”

Of course, it’s only after the men have failed the women in these stories that the heroines set out to find themselves or be what they’ve always wanted to be. It’s after Kaveri decides to get over the “great love of her life” that “she becomes a woman.” She leaves her job, participates in a reality-show swayamvar where she beats a dozen other girls in a challenge involving rock climbing, swimming and trekking, and has wild sex with the prize man in a hot-air balloon, goes back to college to study art history, and gets an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In Cold Feet, it’s after her boyfriend refuses to be tied down by marriage that Ladli finally lets herself be led by her impulses—to leave her job, wander around Goa, enjoy the attention of a married man, and end up with the nice and caring son of a family friend she had last met at the age of ten.

The men imagined by female writers most often fall into the category of drifters: freelance writers, filmmakers, advertising professionals, graphic designers, deejays; men who feel no wish, or urgency, to submit to any kind of order; who don’t have home loans to pay off or parents to keep happy; men who clearly haven’t watched enough Bollywood films. Compare these to the male characters created by men, perhaps best described as settlers: men brought up with family values, who dutifully sat through entrance exams, spent years slogging their way through engineering and management colleges, presented their best selves at placement interviews, landed salary packages big enough that their parents could walk with their heads held high. And men who want nothing more than to settle down after all this has been achieved; men who set up their own accounts on matrimonial websites.

When it comes to female characters, though, both male and female writers stick to the same classification—of “good girls” and “bad girls.” Good girls are into love; bad girls into sex. Good girls are laid-back about their looks; bad girls walk through town in dresses that should rightly be considered negligees. Good girls like to sit at home and eat cupcakes; bad girls want to slut up and party.

The distinction is clear, for instance, in Games Girls Play, the latest novel from Aastha Atray Banan, a journalist and Mills & Boon writer. Meet Siya (“as in Sita”): “I hate sex. Relationships are about so much more—compatibility, fun, conversations, and, obviously, love. Right?” And her antithesis, Natasha: “I love sex. I totally get the fuss. It’s at the top of my list, along with booze and the occasional line of cocaine. I am a sexual being and proud of it.” As they draw each other into their different worlds, Siya finds a man she can love as well as enjoy having sex with, whereas Natasha is taught by a man who loves her that there’s more to relations between men and women than just sex.

That scenario is quite obviously unlikely. Even more so is the idea of girls going to a bar in India and finding various groups of attractive men who will get their subtle hints—a slight shift in posture, a sideways look—and act on them in the most sophisticated manner, the symphony of moves ending with the girls taken their chosen ones home. Writers seem to understand this. For all their subtext of urbanity, independence and sexual empowerment, few of the single-girl-in-the-city books actually feature sex. Any sex the heroines do have is meant either to make a point about character or mark a phase in the protagonist’s journey.

Ironically, the most prominent heroine in current popular fiction who actually has and enjoys regular sex is a village girl married young into a traditional joint family. Meera Patel, the protagonist of Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s Sita’s Curse, has been into sex ever since she was a clueless teenager growing up in a Gujarati village. The first man she slept with, when she was barely 16 years old, was her classical dance teacher. “Masterji climbed over me, drinking hungrily, freely, pinning me down with his bare hands,” goes one of the book’s dozens of lurid sex scenes. Married off to a stranger from Mumbai who turns out to be emotionally cold and sexually unsatisfying, Meera takes charge of fulfilling her desires, whether by pleasuring herself for hours in the privacy of a closed bedroom—“Moving her right thumb in copious circles, Meera plunged in and out of her deeper hideaways, her hips thrusting, her cheeks flushed with the abandon of an adolescent awakening” —or giving in to men who want her, from a younger tenant in her building complex to her in-laws’ family guru.

Durjoy Datta, 28, has always been popular with women, but last year’s When Only Love Remains received unprecedented female adulation. courtesy Durjoy Datta

It’s interesting to have a woman reinterpret what, from the magazine pages of Manohar Kahaniyan to the Savita Bhabhi cartoons, has traditionally been a male fantasy: the ignored housewife giving in to sexual abandon. The only thing that might keep readers from delighting in the fact of Meera’s sexual agency is the somewhat comic tone of Kundu’s sex scenes: “‘Oh Meeraaaa…’ Guruji howled deliriously every time I stopped to take in some air, sounding like a woman in labour, his face twisted. ‘Where did you learn to make a man feel like this?’ he gritted his teeth.”

Meera is also compelling as a character who straddles the line between the good and the bad girl. Wherever there are such overlaps in other books, they involve bad girls turning good—though with one exception. A Bad Character, by the former journalist Deepti Kapoor, has things go the other way. The book deviates from several rules of Indian popular fiction, most refreshingly by giving us an ugly anti-hero as the male lead. Kapoor’s young and bored heroine assesses the older man staring at her across a posh Delhi cafe in a way that makes her suspect they aren’t headed for a sweet romance:

...dark skin, with short wiry hair, with a large flat nose and eyes bursting either side like flares, with big ears and a fleshy mouth that holds many teeth. There’s something of the animal in him. Something of the elephant and the monkey. Something of the jackal … It’s only when he dies that I’ll become the person he wants me to be. Only when he dies that I’ll let go, sleep with other men, let them sleep with me. But right now he’s alive, I’m twenty, untouched, and he’s staring at me.

The encounter leads to a relationship unrestrained by the delicacies of young love. The man, an intense character who jeers at anything that might reek of middle-class decency, teaches her how to live without the fear of consequences. There isn’t anything dangerous the good girl from the gated colony won’t explore in the following months: whiskey, drugs, Delhi at night, sex.

Sometimes, the divide between good and bad girls proves to be less about lifestyle choices and more about the conflict between modern and traditional values. In It Happens for a Reason, romance writer Preeti Shenoy’s sixth book since 2008, the protagonist, Vipasha, is pitted against her mother. Vipasha’s mother is a caricature of a stupid socialite—complete with Louis Vuitton skirts, Chanel bags and Gucci sunglasses. And more, she is the sort of mother who sends a child to boarding school because the girl had crept into a bed where her mother lay with a man who wasn’t her father. Vipasha, of course, takes it upon herself to become the picture of perfect motherhood, deciding to keep her child when she becomes pregnant at 18, sacrificing a career to raise her son, and shunning men until the father of her child shows up again 18 years later.

Similar conflicts of values drive the drama in most of the popular fiction written by men. A recurring motif in Chetan Bhagat’s novels is the spunky heroine’s defiance of control; take the daughter of a dictatorial professor who falls for his most rebellious student in Five Point Someone, or the good Tamil Brahmin girl having pre-marital sex with a Punjabi boy from Delhi in Two States. It’s sad, then, that his latest female lead, in Half Girlfriend, gives in—at least at first—to what is expected of her, though her decision marks the triumph, not of her family, but of capitalism itself. Bhagat sets the pure love and family values of Madhav Jha, the heir of an impoverished royal family from Bihar, against the soullessness and consumerist decadence of the filthy-rich world of Riya Somani. Riya chooses to marry Rohan Chandak, a millionaire hotelier from London, because she wants “adventure, travel and excitement.” But she learns her lesson and leaves her privilege behind to seek true love and contentment. Madhav finally defeats not only Rohan, but also a society that allows money to buy love.

In Ravinder Singh’s Can Love Happen Twice, Simar, the love of Ravin’s life, tells the young hero just as he starts dreaming of marriage, “Ravz, I love you. But I also want to live a good life and have a grand lifestyle.” Ravin suddenly becomes aware of the differences in their backgrounds. It must, incidentally, be a consequence of the moral outrage against the 2G scam that the heroine’s father in this book, and also in Bhagat’s recent releases, is a telecom tycoon—much in the same way that spoiled rich girls’ dads in 1970s Bollywood films were often international smugglers. “Back in Gurgaon,” Singh writes,

her family was well known and her parents had a great social network with politicians and businessmen … My Dad didn’t wear a tuxedo, but humble kurta-pyjama all his life. My family had a simple lifestyle. While in my family, my mom would cook, in Simar’s family they had maids to cook.

The lovers have no option but to part. “It’s the story of our generation,” Singh says in his introduction to the book.

MOST INDIAN ROMANCE FICTION actually has very little to do with love. In our bestselling novels, that sentiment is an instrument for illuminating the realities of being young in India today—whether it is the struggle to find true love in an era of instant gratification, or the pleasures and pitfalls of living by one’s own rules. This isn’t bad in itself, because often mass-market fiction is a barometer of what’s going on with certain sections of the population. Anyone who wants to pick up a recent work of romance fiction purely to feel vicariously the thrills and torments of being in love, however, has very little to choose from.

Their best bet would be Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls, a 1980s-era love story of Debjani Thakur, the fourth daughter of Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur of Hailey Road, and Dylan Singh Shekhawat, the “wildcat” son of Thakur’s old friend and card partner. Dylan, an investigative journalist, falls in love with Debjani, an anchor with the state-controlled Desh Darpan, shortly before realising that it’s her first appearance as a heavily made-up English-language newsreader that he has just mocked in a newspaper editorial: “One last piece of advice to Miss Dolly-Dotted-Chin. Flutter those lashes. You’ll look a little less plastic.” Dylan’s words destroy Debjani forever. As Chauhan’s novel twists along from a disastrous first sighting (Debjani walks in on Dylan kicking her beloved street dog) to a heart-stopping lovers’ reunion (involving a deranged aunt throwing herself off the roof of a six-storey building), you turn the pages first hoping that the girl never finds out who the author of the anonymous column was, and after she does—that too, not from the boy himself—praying that some magic will bring them back together.

Chauhan is perhaps the best storyteller among India’s writers of popular fiction, but her novel also entices because it’s set in an earlier era, before dating became the norm. The girl and boy check each other out over a card game involving their respective fathers; they marshal their younger siblings to set up a private meeting; and are flooded with wild anticipation following an accidental encounter on a staircase. Your heart pounds against your ribcage as the boy, hovering in the girl’s house in the hope of just such a moment as this, slowly moves towards her on the staircase as she stands with a pile of curtains in her hands, his eyes sliding to her mouth.

Snigdha Poonam  was previously  an editor at The Caravan. She has written for a number of publications, including the New York TImes, The Guardian and Granta.