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The new romance

Anita Shirodkar

Anita Shirodkar  

Popular authors like Shoma Narayan and Anita Shirodkar are shedding the limitations of their genre, and experimenting with a new, hybrid style

When they were wrapped in soft pastels and pictures of beautiful, love-struck girls, it was easy to dismiss them. It seemed all right to call them ‘chick lit’ and assume that all they contained were romantic adventures with impossibly happy endings.

It seems though, that things are changing. Now, these books we had so easily compartmentalised and segregated seem to be challenging our very assumptions. Even a quick browse compels us to think twice, and the blurbs seem to offer more than just a healthy dose of tall dark and handsome men and ridiculously attractive girls-next-door. Today, while more and more women are writing about women, and quite a few of them are still choosing a romance as the central plot of their books, they also seem to be challenging the very concept of ‘chick-lit’, making us second guess the label and the connotations it comes with.

Shoma Narayan has written her fair share of frothy romances. After all, she is India’s first Mills and Boons author to be published internationally. But in her new novel, “It’s Complex!”, published by Rupa and devoid of the Mills and Boons tag, she infuses a certain depth to the plot that refuses to just sit pretty in the chick-lit shelf. With a heroine who is anything but demure, choosing instead to cultivate a personality that borders on being dislikeable, and a hero who has little money and works as a driver, Narayan’s plot is anything but a conventional romance. “Usually, in a conventionally romantic novel, the heroine is someone the reader is supposed to identify with, an ordinary working girl-next-door. And the guy is always aspirational. I wanted to work with something different. Nikita isn’t downright horrible, but she is definitely not a likeable person. There are reasons behind it of course. And there are so many of us who are like that, independent women who have a mind of our own and are not looking to rely on a guy. And then Jai is someone who wants to write, and to be able to have that free time on his hand, he opts to work as a driver.”

Of course, while the central plot, one that brings Nikita and Jai together romantically, is already playing against conventions, Narayan also introduces ideas and issues within the novel that further distinguish the book. “I wanted to explore the idea of how people’s perceptions and behaviour change depending on a person’s job, how other drivers, friends, neighbours, react to Jai’s decision to become a driver.” Along with this, Narayan’s book also examines issues of domestic help, and the idea of money and its importance in a working woman’s life, making a clear slotting difficult, and a dismissal impossible.

While “It’s Complex!” still focuses on a central romance between a man and a woman, “Secrets and Second Chances” by Anita Shirodkar revolved around different forms and manifestations of desires and relationships. Once again about an urban, independent woman, Shirodkar concentrates on her heroine, Nandita Dharkar’s all-encompassing relationship with her mother. It becomes the story of Nandita’s quest to discover herself, in the process unveiling secrets from her past and bringing new people and challenging situations into her life. “How she deals with them, what she discovers about herself and how she handles the new relationship dynamics in her life form the essence of the book,” says Shirodkar.

Of course, men do play a role in Shirodkar’s book, and Nandita finds two “devastatingly eligible men in her life, one of whom she has to choose.

It is interesting to note that while Shirodkar does not shy away from introducing romance into the story, she doesn’t let it dominate the book either. It becomes instead, just like other sub-plots, a means of allowing Nandita to develop as a character.

Both Narayan and Shirodkar cultivate a style that steers clear of being too light or too high-brow. Both use approachable language, one that allows for reliability as well as entertainment. And most importantly, both refuse to become subjects of easy slotting.

“I would place my book in the genre of literary commercial fiction. Though aimed at the mass market and a largely female demograph, I don’t want to classify it as chicklit, which is a term I find derogatory to women”, says Shirodkar, while Narayan likes to believe that her book is more like slice of life and less like chick lit. “It’s Complex! is halfway between chick lit and women’s fiction. I have of course tried to stay as frothy as possible without distracting from the serious themes I wanted to explore,” she says.

So, for the sake of that inevitable classification that book-stores and publishers demand, what are authors like Narayan and Shirodkar writing? Is it fair to call their work chick-it, a label that comes with numerous pre-conceived notions, not all of them flattering? Or should they be classified as a new, hybrid genre, one that has retained the romance, but introduced with it a whole new layer that does not shy away from exploring difficult subjects and gritty issues?

For Shirodkar, her book is much more than just a “pure lighthearted romance”. “I have delved a little deeper into characters, professional backgrounds and back stories of the main characters than is common in this genre. Personally, I enjoy most genres of books, but I always like to read books where I get to know the characters and care about them. That is what I have tried to do here.” And Narayan too, believes that her book is more than just frothy chick lit. “It is probably a lighter read for someone used to reading literary fiction, but a deeper and more involved one for someone who usually opts for conventional chick lit.”

It’s seems like neither Narayan nor Shirodkar are very different from the women in their books, and defying both conventions and labels, they have managed to create their own happily ever afters.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 9:37:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-new-romance/article6201074.ece

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