Gone are those days when the couple cuddled and kissed. Today, there can be sex. Values have changed in society.
Of all the romantic novels, those published by Britain’s Mills and Boon remain the hot pick. Interestingly, these romances are now being written by Indians, placing their heroes, heroines and even villains in a very India milieu. Not satisfied with books just in English, Mills and Boon is planning Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam and Marathi versions. The firm is also planning biographies.
Also, Mills and Boon can be explicit. Gone are those days when the couple cuddled and kissed. Today, there can be sex. Values have changed in society. Whether it is in the USA, the UK or in India, there are multiple levels of values, and these books reflect them.
Mills and Boon has a range of novels for India that arc from the very soft to the very bold. Interestingly, the novels that sell the most in India are the sexually explicit ones.
Mills and Boon — which is the romance imprint of Harlequin – was founded in 1908 by Gerald Rusgrove Mills and Charles Boon. The firm began specialising in escapist fiction (does that remind you of most of Indian cinema, which offers escapist entertainment) in the 1930s.
Harlequin’s Publishing Director and Country Head for India, Amrita Chowdhury, is obviously pleased at the way her company’s romance is taking off. During a long chat with her at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel on a balmy afternoon some weeks ago, she tells me that she is excited about the Mills and Boon’s India affair.
“At the moment we are publishing in 31 languages in 114 countries”, she smiles over coffee. So, I can say that romance is very important in our lives. We all want to be loved, accepted and needed. Love is a very basic human emotion, which connects everybody”.
And stories about love and lovers are as gripping today as they were a thousand years ago. Of all that Shakespeare wrote centuries ago, his Romeo and Juliet is the most sought after even today, having lent itself to innumerable plays and films. What is more, the Bard’s work, first published in 1597, has been interpreted and reinterpreted, and hundreds of romantic tales have drawn their inspiration from the young lovers of Verona.
In India, the romantic tragedies of Heer Ranjha (the most famous version was written by Waris Shah in 1766) and of Salim and Anarkali in the court of Akbar during the 16th century haunt popular imagination even today, enthusing novels and novelettes.
Queen of Romance
However, later-day Western writers have been less inclined to climax their romances into tragedies. A classic example of this, was the undoubted Queen of Romance, English author Barbara Cartland, whom I once met at her palatial Hatfield mansion (just an hour away from London), brimming in her pink dress and with a glass of gin (which she happily passed off as lemonade!) in her hand.
The year was 1999, and she was 98, but what a remarkable woman she was, humming with life, and dashing of romantic novels by their dozens. After a two hour chat with her, I realised that it was romantic love that drove her, that kept her youthful. And she enchanted millions and millions of readers with her unequaled tales of pure romance, handsome heroes, beautiful heroines, and of course, her trademark happy endings.
Let me not forget, Dame Barbara believed in virginal purity, and her women, though passionately in love, never, never had sex before they exchanged the marriage vows.
Dame Barbara had many peers, who were published by among others by Mills and Boon. Mills and Boon books have been as immensely admired as they have been intensely hated.
While millions read and savoured them, there were others who saw these works of fiction as “low brow, formulaic and rape fantasies…and even responsible for poor sexual health and failed relationships”.
Be that as it may, Chowdhury avers that Mills and Boon novels let us peep into countries other than where we are living.
“Before I moved to Australia, I read a lot of Mills and Boon stories set there. They did give me a picture of that continent. Maybe not in great detail, but something to go by”.
Mills and Boon India may well do that. She says that Harlequin came to India for two reasons. One, books written by Indians can go global and help the world understand this country. It is a limited view, but a view all right.
Two, Indians have evolved a lot, and what they want to see in the fiction they read are characters like themselves — young, contemporary middle class professionals. Given that the readership is mostly female, women like to see themselves in the pages of romantic novels as bankers, lawyers, doctors PR girls and so on in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai….
Today in India, Harlequin has about eight writers, and 12 books in English have been published. Next year, it will add another six authors, and publish another dozen romantic novels.
“We invest a lot in our writers. There is a lot of hand-holding that happens in our firm, unlike other publishers. So, we groom the authors editorially.
“The story is theirs, the characters are theirs. But we teach them how to build the romantic emotion, how to create romantic intensity. It will, therefore, make sense if each of our writers pen at least two or three books for us,” Chowdhury contends.
But do all Mills and Boon tales end happily.
She smiles, and says, “Well, yes. Of course, we have a second romance running in the same book, we have a romance taking off after a broken relationship, after a divorce…Yes, but all of them end in joyous fulfilment”.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]