Author Jaishree Misra on her approach to writing and attitude to free speech.

Jaishree Misra's latest book has been publicised by Harper Collins as a work of commercial fiction. With a title like Secrets and Lies, the publishers hardly needed the label.

"These terms have come, I think, from the retail and marketing guys," says Jaishree, in the country for the launch of the book's Indian edition, brought out by Harper Collins' Avon imprint. "As a writer you have to be pragmatic," says Jaishree, with whom one associates a lyrical and literary style of writing, a somewhat more in-depth approach to storytelling. Compare Secrets and Lies to Afterwards or to Rani, her work of historical fiction, and one can't help exclaiming, 'Jaishree Misra in chick lit territory?'

Special skill

"The chick lit tag doesn't bother me," clarifies the London-based author, adding, "Some very clever people are doing it." Many popular writers touch on serious social topics, she points out, and it takes a special skill to weave important issues into a light, fast-paced narrative.

Secrets and Lies is the racy story of Sam, Bubbles, Anita and Zeba, former schoolmates whose final year of school in Delhi - a grisly past they have been trying to bury - comes back to haunt them 15 years later. Not that the author's style is otherwise heavy. Her first book, Ancient Promises, she recalls, got her a warning from her agent: to be wary of "falling between the two stools" of literary and commercial fiction.

Coming from an Indian writing in Britain, it is hardly surprising that issues of multiculturalism, the institution of marriage and a woman's right to be herself figure in Secrets, even if those who discuss them are dressed in designer wear, fragrant with perfumes from Paris. The author smiles at the frequent mention of brand names in her story, remarking, "You sort of roll over sometimes and say okay." On the whole, commercial fiction makes less demands of concentration, allusion and the like, she notes.

Take a look at the books she has authored so far, and it is not difficult to believe her when she says she wasn't "deliberately shying away from" the more serious approach to writing - especially her foray into historical fiction - but merely taking a break. If her first novel in 2000 was a poignant semi-autobiographical tale, the second was the hilarious Accidents Like Love and Marriage and in between was a book of poems, The Little Book of Romance - both came out in 2001.

Troubled times

After thee publication of her historical novel on Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Rani, she was accused of tampering with history, the novel banned in Uttar Pradesh and her effigy burnt. "It's not necessarily a bad debate," she says of the arguments between votaries of freedom of expression and those of sieved and siphoned information. Unqualified freedom of expression is not a good thing, she feels.

Jaishree should know, being on the British Board of Film Classification. When someone's idea of freedom of expression is harmful for society, then "somebody has to step in," she explains. However, she continues, "People feel they have a right to ban because they've taken offence. Offence is such a big amorphous thing."

Besides, she points out, "In India there is confusion about historical fiction." The genre is about filling in the gaps in documented history; "what prompted her to write this letter, what motivated her to go into battle."

Jaishree, certain that the uproar was really a political ruse to deflect people's attention from the drought then prevailing in the Bundelkhand area, is however, presumably safe from any more such onslaughts for the time being, with the two Avon imprints on the way. However, as she points out, the challenge is not to be "boxed" into the category. Time will tell if she can meet that challenge. And seeing her prolificacy, that time is likely to be sooner rather than later.

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