A chat with Milan Vohra, India’s first Mills & Boon author, who was in the city to launch her second book
Remember the last time you attended a Punjabi wedding? Or maybe you saw Monsoon Wedding. Lots of noise, confusion and hilarity, carloads of people, raucous Hinglish, much music and dance, and everyone brazenly flirting with everyone else. Well, that is pretty much Milan Vohra’s latest book in a nutshell.
India’s very own and very first Mills & Boon author, Vohra has now chosen to step away from pure romance to get into the chick lit genre with her second book, Tick Tock, We’re 30. She sounds a bit surprised with my calling it chick lit, telling me that she didn’t really have a target audience in mind when she wrote it. “I’ve been surprised to find much younger and older people reading it,” she says.
I’ve heard that Vohra is an ad agency professional from Delhi, and I expect to see a sharp woman swimming in attitude and Chanel No. 5. I am pleasantly surprised to meet instead a disarmingly cheery person distributing visiting cards in dayglo colours and explaining that the hand-drawn owl represents her insomniac self while the two top hats are, of course, the two hats that Vohra wears as writer and advertising consultant. Adorned with happily unfashionable curves and a vivid red and green stole, she tells me of her first Twitter chat with readers (“I hate the word fans,”) and how unnerving it all was. “The questions come in so fast. And you want to give real answers, not just platitudes or prepared statements. But you become real only when you interact like this with your reader.”
Vohra, who now lives in Bangalore, took the Delhi bits for the book from her childhood. The ubiquitous Dilli “calony”, the masti with friends, the ‘oh teri to…’ dialogues, the pinching of flower pots from evil neighbours, the over-dressed, vacuous Kalyani with whom a best friend is besotted — these are all as real as they come although packaged with many fictional frills into a novel about a bunch of friends getting together for a ‘when-we-are-30’ reunion.
Why did she choose to leave her barely-begun career as M&B writer to get into chick lit? Well, for one, Vohra has a hilarious tale of how one’s writing must fit into a certain global template and how her Western publishers found it impossible to understand why a quintessential M&B alpha-hero in his late 30s would still be living with his mother!
In Tick Tock, We’re 30, she is clearly not writing to any global guidelines. The novel is chock-full of Indian words and curses, eccentric parents and friends, and everybody knowing everything about everybody else. It’s all one happy and slightly incestuous family. “In India,” says Vohra, “romance plays a secondary role. The primary role is played by the relationships we have with same-sex friends, other-sex friends, cousins and aunts.” The book has endless chatter but no graphic sex, although it’s clear there’s a lot of it going around, with the mandatory gay boyfriend and a girlfriend who swings both ways.
The daughter of two professors, Vohra is devoid of any intellectual pretensions and clear about her writing role. “I see something nice in every person I meet and in every situation.” This cheerful outlook is exhibited by her characters who are plain speaking and uninhibited by too many principles or ideas. If anything, Vohra’s personality and thoughts could have been used to pull off a much better book. A good editor could have tightened the plot, given the characters far sharper motivation, honed the storyline, and edited out much of the faff. Wonder if we could hope for that from her next one, already tentatively titled Oh f***, We’re 40.