Thursday, March 29, 2012

Oh Ramon! Ramon!

Some years ago, I’d been shoveled up on stage to discuss women’s literature and romance. The head of Mills&Boon, India, was also on the panel and the proceedings descended rather quickly into hilarity. A feminist editor-publisher read out an extract from a Mills&Boon book, wherein the protagonist of the novel was in bed and, despite not wanting to, was moaning out loud: ‘Oh Ramon! Take me! Take me!’

When the laughter died down, I made a public confession, which is necessary to repeat before I go on with this review. My last encounter with Mills&Boon was in 2000. It ended with me flinging the book across the room.

When I first began to read Mills&Boon novels (I call them ‘Millsies’), I thought they were just silly, harmless fun (discounting the sad loss of tree-lives). College friends would underline ‘relevant’ bits and read them out loud to share either information or the laughs. But after four or five of them, I stopped reading Millies.

At home, if I was caught reading one, I was embarrassed; not because of the ‘relevant’ bits as much as the literary contempt in which these books were held in my family. The heroines were weak-kneed wimps – always wanting to be controlled, always needing a rescue, always being proved wrong, never able to say ‘no’. The heroes were always in control and, although they were never poor, they had workmen’s muscular bodies. The love scenes were mostly predictable: rarely was the woman ever in control. I grew sick of the stereotype and then I began to resent it.

I am now an unapologetic feminist, a much less tolerant reader, and somehow, I am holding a copy of Aastha Atray’s His Monsoon Bride.

It would be unfair to criticize a book for being what it is – an unabashed Millsie. If readers are looking for stories where women are beside themselves with lust, and are lucky enough to meet a sexy men who incidentally turn out to be loyal and rich and honest and… well, then, that’s what they get.

What we get here are protagonists Mehtab Rathod and Amrita Piramal, who belong to the swish set in Mumbai. He is a gorgeous, super-rich, playboy type with ‘society’ ambitions. She is a poor little rich girl – motherless, virginal, not size zero, a reporter who wants to write about real (read: poor) people.

His Monsoon Bride has a distinct local flavour. Marriages being brokered or arranged is par for the course in India. But in classic Millsie format, this romance breaks no caste, language or even class barriers. Rathod may have been an undernourished kid but he looks like a prince, and he lives like one. She looks like an Indian princess – all curves and chiffon sarees – and needs to be kept like one.

But daddy faces financial ruin. Ever daddy’s dutiful daughter, Amrita bails him out by agreeing to marry the hunky Rathod. We know how this will unfold, but that’s fine. We pick up a factory-made product for its conformity to the template, not because it shattered the mould in which it was cast. We don’t pick up a Millsie to look for insights into the meaning of life. We pick it up because we want a dip into shallow, sensual waters, with zero risk to the self.

So, suffice it to say that the first kiss arrives in the first chapter, more or less as Harlequin mandates. As the blurb suggests, this is a marriage of convenience, so the wedding is fixed within the first three chapters.

But the real test of a romance is its middle. Mr and Mrs Rathod must first misunderstand and then understand each other. We already know that much. So what complex route will they traverse towards love?

His Monsoon Bride’ falters in this respect. There are at least two plot contradictions within the first few chapters. Besides, the same bits of information – such as Amrita’s relationship with her family, her apprehensions about size non-zero, Mehtab’s desire to forget his poverty-bitten past – are repeated, so that little room is left for a full picture of these characters. Mehtab is supposed to be rude, but he doesn’t come across as rude. He seems civil, if not charming, at almost every encounter. Amrita is supposed to be confused, but about what? Her sense of betrayal isn’t allowed space to grow into a real obstacle, and there isn’t enough time spent on the ‘only for public appearances’ aspect of their marriage.

Another problem is that the supporting cast of characters is too sweet. Father, nanny, housekeeper, boss – nobody helps to twist and turn the story. An ex-boyfriend poses a small challenge but he is quickly squashed. Subsequently, the plot banks too heavily on mis-communicated feelings. This makes it reminiscent of a ‘family drama’ from 1980s Bollywood. Or perhaps the current crop of TV serials, especially considering the fact that the story takes a giant leap of about nearly two decades.

That’s another problem. Writing a Millsie, it is a cardinal sin to look beyond. You put the heroine’s heart into the capable, large hands of the hero, and then you break the pen. It goes against the grain of a reader to think about the children these lovers will have, or whether they are still in love when they retire. The future must be a golden blob of fuzzy feelings. That’s what a Millsie allows us – an impossibly bright picture without any scary details of age, kids, health, politics. The book should have ended at page 148, but it lingers on and launches into a whole new romance, which wasn’t needed.

In her author’s note, Atray says she wanted to write a love story about how people don’t fall for each other’s exterior, but for a heart of gold. She has also worked in her own experiences as a reporter (a prize-winning one!), and some very real angst about size zero bodies. But reality doesn’t do a Millsie much good. Perhaps Atray should have chosen a different publisher for a broader (yes!) age- and size-defying love story. The Harlequin factory churns out old hat; there’s no scope for variation on its lust-hard-and-you-will-lusted-for-and-then-you’ll-be-happy theme.

In this factory, an independent woman’s shape, her innocence, her rebellious streak is only useful to the degree that it turns on a man. And I couldn’t understand why any self-respecting woman buys from this factory. But while reading His Monsoon Bride, I discovered why.

I was reading the book on the local trains and wondered what other passengers thought. Did they worry about my self-respect? I looked around. Scarred faces. Women who aren’t ‘curvy’, just thin or fat. They go home to arguments. They are numb from having fallen in love. They will never meet a man like Mehtab Rathod. They don’t believe in such men, or such luck. But over 179 pages, they might allow themselves the mirage of a world where a lonely woman lusts after a near-perfect man, and he loves her for who she is, and their clothes are nice, and the sex is perfect, and their health is perfect, and they are not finally betrayed by a perverse destiny. Who can grudge anyone such a mirage?

1 comment:

Dr Mandeep Khanuja said...

aargh..hated mills n boons !
its all horseshit

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