Published: Verve Magazine, Features, April 2007
Single career women filling reams with the sardonic and witty prose about the angst of their lives, loves and non-loves, create a space for female readers who are tired of romances that talk about the exotically beautiful and the perfectly endowed. Increasingly, women writers are willing to pen the trials of the real woman in a real world where Mr Right may not exist. Chick lit romance is contemporary and true, with a sense of humour that stands the test of modern roles and expectations. It’s another matter that few writers can complete the final chapter without a Mr Right! Sitanshi Talati-Parikh attempts to unravel the attraction of this feel-good genre
With cosmopolitan women choosing a martini over kesar-pista milk, the face of the contemporary Indian woman is changing and so is the writing to keep up with the new form of Westernised liberalisation.
Discovering an empty niche between perfectly real literature and unrealistically perfect romance, books featuring the lives and loves of young professional women, aka chick lit, comes as a form of salvation to the average woman who wants reality on the rocks, with a twist of humour. Smoothly banishing the heavy-handed depressed monotone of philosophy, and sardonically diminishing the fluffy picture-perfect description of fantasy, international chick lit queens like Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones’s Diary), Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City), Lauren Weisberger (The Devil Wears Prada) and Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (The Nanny Diaries) have set the standard for chick lit across the globe.
Seeing modern Indian women identify with these books and protagonists, Indian writers, like that of other countries across the world, have adapted this space in the local context. chick lit writer, Kavita Daswani, believes that a woman anywhere in the world is a Bridget Jones in the making, and that her angst is not much different from any working middle-class woman. Daswani points out that today’s woman anywhere in the world is probably looking for a boyfriend/husband, satisfaction in her career, good friends, enjoyment; she has money issues, she gets involved with the wrong men, and she might have conflicts within her family – all those things that any 20 or 30-something professional woman encounters on a day-to-day basis, probably anywhere in the world.
Rajashree, a Mumbai-based writer is pleased with the similarity. “I can identify with her (Bridget Jones). I was so delighted to read the portions about Bridget’s mom – even British mothers bug their daughters about getting married!” And this is how we find amusingly disgruntled, unmarried career women, filling pages with the sardonic and witty angst of their lives, loves and non-loves, create a space for the average woman, who are tired of the romances that frontline exotically beautiful and perfectly endowed women, and are willing to read about the trials of the real woman, in a real world, where Mr Right may not exist.
Women, however, being who they are, find the perfect satisfaction when Mr Right comes around and says ala Bridget Jones, “I love you just the way you are!” Every woman’s writer is selling a fantasy, it may be more real in chick lit, where the romance is contemporary and stark, with a humour that stands the test of modern roles and expectations, but no writer can complete the final chapter without a Mr Right!
This person may be an unexpected springer from the sidelines, overshadowing the ‘perfect’ man, who more often than not turns out to be the bad guy, but Mr Right inevitably appears, satisfying every reader that however unwholesome she may be, she can most certainly hope for the man of her dreams to swing by her street.
This is the actual brand of hope for those Indian women who struggle with the pressure of family expectations, arranged marriages and an optimum work life, and attempt to find a way out of the muddles of society. Swati Kaushal, author of the best-selling Piece of Cake, believes that the Indian marriage scene is not so different from dating abroad. “An arranged Indian marriage as it happens these days in India (where the girl and guy do meet a few times before they say yes),” she says, “today starts to appear as not so-very-different from arranged dates in the Western world (where a girl and guy meet a few times before they decide to go ahead). Everyone wants to have a relationship that succeeds. It’s just a question of how you get it started.”
All said and done, arranged marriages (however similar they may be to the Western dating culture) haven’t left the lives of Indian women. It seems difficult to imagine Indian chick lit bearing substance without the angst of arranged marriages in tryst with the love lives of protagonists. Rajashree agrees, believing that arranged marriages are to Indian chick lit, what dating is to Western chick lit – full of comic possibilities.
Though Swati Kaushal’s Piece of Cake upholds the same themes, where the protagonist’s mother is constantly trying to get her married to the ‘right’ man, Kaushal, herself, feels a deeper sense of worth in the novels: “I think of the bulk of my generation of middle class Indian women as torn between tradition and modernity, between what we learned from our mothers and what we learn from the Internet. Our angst derives from wanting to achieve more, to do more, to be more and quite unlike Bridget Jones, whose ambitions and preoccupations were steeped in the middle class cynicism of a mature, western economy.” Piece of Cake succeeds in bringing this out as Minal (the protagonist) comes through the pages as a character that avoids succumbing to the infinitesimal terrors of not having a mind of her own.
In Beyond Indigo, the heroine, Nina, struggles with the formula of marriage: “My mother and father made it work. Although it wasn’t the best marriage in the world they were still together and in their own way, they loved each other. Raj was a good man and that was the most important thing. He was practical, stable, kind, and he loved me and would never do anything to hurt me.” Eventually Nina has to choose between stability and risk, arranged marriage and love, tradition and loving a foreigner.
In its essence, all these novels are encouraging a coming of age of the Indian woman – whereby she cuts through the bonds of social obligation and stands up for herself. This is breaking free from the shackles of a patriarchal society, where women of a previous generation encourage the next to continue subservience to the male factor. Thus, encouragement from the written word comes at a time when women face the most insecurities and frustrations associated with an independent career-oriented life.
These novels are not feminist in the fighting sense of the word, in fact, they believe in the male significance in the woman’s life – but without sacrificing the woman’s worth and self-respect. Daswani’s Everything Happens for a Reason where a Delhi girl, Priya, is married to a California boy, and is made subservient at their wonderful California home, seems like a trite story, but the character of Priya manages to break through with a sense of subdued independence. It ends up more as an all’s-well-that-ends-well sort of story, rather than sensitive storytelling. Daswani herself agrees that the theme of arranged marriages and in-laws might have been over-touted and over done in Indian chick lit. She believes it is now time to tackle the challenge of finding unusual ways of telling those stories, or perhaps having those particular cornerstones being less important to the overall plot: “Just because an author is Indian doesn’t mean she can only tell Indian-themed stories.”
Rajashree’s Trust Me brings the theme of the big bad men, with a difference – she chooses the Indian film industry as a backdrop to the theme, drawing upon her own professional knowledge of Bollywood. In the end, one comes to realise that despite the backdrop of California, London or Bollywood – the situations and themes are not very different, and men and women are the same everywhere. It is now up to the writers to create scenarios, characters and personalities that stand out, if chick lit is to be considered seriously.
Preethi Nair’s Beyond Indigo creates such a powerful character. Nair’s storytelling is gripping and her characters tear through the pages to reach out with the power of literature and the critical depth of real story-telling. Nair’s work, like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Queen of Dreams) crosses the chasm between chick lit and women’s literature. Where chick lit often remains fluffy and feel good in its writing style, women’s literature (not the chick lit sub-genre of women’s lit) is more serious and developed. As Nair, who doesn’t have much time for chick lit, puts it, “You just don’t think, ‘I’m going to write a novel now’ – you have to have something to say!” While Nair and Divakaruni’s books contain the basic elements of chick lit, it may be as tricky classifying them as chick lit, as may be Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Prof Dr Shefali Balsari Shah, Head of the English Department, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, has had entertaining discussions with her students about chick lit as a form of popular culture. Considered a part of the romance genre studies or the feminist approach to popular culture, she warns against using simplistic criteria to slot a women’s novel as chick lit. She however believes that chick lit is running out of steam and into repetitive and self-plagiarising mode. Where the wit and humour works, she wonders if the writing will be able to sustain itself.
Many of the chick lit writers are not traditionally writers by profession – they often come from varied backgrounds, and inspired by a story or incidents from their personal life, write successful chick lit novels. Since chick lit is about professional women in their mid 20s or 30s, who are juggling a career, a love life and social obligations, it is not surprising that the writers are using experiential techniques in the novelistic form.
Swati Kaushal, herself has an MBA from IIM Kolkata, and has worked with MNC’s like Nestle and Nokia for several years. Her familiarisation with the corporate culture formed her research and helped her portray Minal’s professional career accurately in Piece of Cake. Rupa Gulab, writer of the popular Girl Alone, also draws from her own experiences of living in a hostel. Similarly, Rajashree, a film writer and director, chose to try her hand at novels, placing her protagonist within the milieu of the Indian film industry.
Beyond Indigo was practically an autobiographical novel for Preethi Nair, who had experienced similar social and parental pressures to be in the ‘perfect’ job and find the ‘perfect’ man. She, like her protagonist, Nina, managed to break free from these obligations and managed to find success in what she really wanted to do – take the path less travelled.
The fact that these novels draw from personal experiences of women who are out there in the field, are writing about events that are current and relevant, make these novels all the more enjoyable and identifiable. Easy reads, simplistic themes and bright witty characters, make them the novel of choice for the average woman. The fact that they are popular is obvious from the number of books that populate bookstores and flashy covers and catchy titles that ape the genre that has found rapid popularity in the West.
Whether the quality of writing keeps up with the speed with which these novels are churned out, is questionable, where good storytelling and openhearted confession need to be seamlessly integrated. Instead, light and enjoyable becomes trashy and annoying, themes are becoming formulaic. Nisha Minha, a UK-based writer, whose books are most widely available in bookstores, is one such example. Lacking depth and character development, these novels are neither clever nor enjoyable for a discerning reader and are merely a notch higher than Mills and Boon, with a lot more regressive soap-opera-type sex and drama thrown in for good measure.
Daswani, a California-based writer, discovers interesting shades in chick lit by Indian diaspora. She explains that the most obvious difference is that authors of the Indian diaspora weave in their own cultural sensibilities, perceptions and observations into their work, telling their stories from a unique Indo-American/Indo-British/Indo-European point of view. She believes that “this clashing of cultures, even in its most subtle incarnations, can make for some very vivid storytelling”.
Chick lit, by Indian writers of the diaspora is less easily available in India, compared to chick lit by non-Indian writers! Most bookstores in Mumbai do not stock most of these writers – they are either out of stock and not reprinted or simply not available. It is also true that there are more writers of the diaspora attempting Indian chick lit, rather than local Indian writers. That could be due to the greater influence of Western culture and the growing influence of chick lit abroad, than locally. Interestingly, chick lit has its own domain and space in bookstores abroad. However, it is heartening to note that writers like Daswani and Nair are very popular amongst readers at circulating libraries like Shemaroo. As the latter puts it, the readers like something that they can read, enjoy and forget!
Kaushal, ruminating on the influence of chick lit, suggests that Indian society is changing, quite rapidly, as its economy is growing. She is cautious about the growth of chick lit: “I’m not sure there is enough writing out there to catalyse the change, one can only hope that eventually the influence of progressive books becomes more wide reaching than that of regressive serials.” Daswani on the other hand is more positive, opining that the role of chick lit is also inspirational, where many of these books serve to illuminate and enlighten, showing readers a life beyond what they know.
Whether the life that is displayed in these novels is beyond reality, or a fantasy that is clothed in reality, the books do serve to lighten the mood and temperament of professional women. Identification with the real-life heroines brings empathy through the pages, the wit and humour serves to remind us to take life not so seriously, the coming of age redefines our sense of self-worth, and more importantly the storybook endings play their part in negating cynicism and shining a beacon of hope.