The Real Fairy Tales

I have to admit that I really, really, enjoy reading fairy tales. Yesterday, my mother found an old tattered illustrated book (or what was left of it) of fairy tales in a box. The book had no cover (I am not sure what happened to it) and the frayed and curled edges barely held the pages together. It was obviously well-read, if not so well taken care of. I think (though without the cover, I can’t say for sure) that it was Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales, since it included Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.

This was the sanitized version of the tales, naturally. I wasn’t reading the Grimm brothers’ original tales as a child. These were tales from far-off lands, of princes and poor girls who found unlikely love, vanquished dragons and lived happily ever after. Wait a minute, did I just describe every romance novel ever written?

Let’s see. We have the main protagonist—a young, incredibly beautiful woman battling peculiar odds and seeking happiness (though she doesn’t always know it)—like Cinders and Sleeping Beauty. We have a charming Prince who, while he’s a leading character who will eventually rescue the heroine, doesn’t have a major role in the story unless it’s in connection to her. We have evil stepmothers/stepsisters (read jealous ex-wife, ex-girlfriend or meddling mother-in-law) who do everything they can to drive a wedge between the leading lady and her one true love. We have friendly souls who only wish the best for the heroine and help the lovers come together (the best friends, the romantically-inclined aunt or grandmother). And we have a dash of magic—the universe conspiring to connect these two lovers—that lights the spark, like the kiss that wakes up Sleeping Beauty or turns the frog into a prince.

This isn’t a new thesis. People have been comparing modern-day romances to fairy tales for decades now. In fact, the biggest criticism of romances has always been that they create unrealistic expectations in women who read them. Are we measuring every man we meet against our own Prince Charmings? Are we dreaming of castles and white knights, of seven little men who will wait on us hand and foot while we wait patiently for our hero? Which begs the question, are little boys forever seeking the most beautiful woman in the land for their bride, ready to ride high and low and across the world to find the woman with the prettiest foot that fits the glass slipper?

I wonder about ‘false expectations’ we should be on the look out for if our romance novels were modelled on Grimm’s original fairy tales. Do the critics of the romance novel worry about stories where a mother urges her daughter to cut off her big toe in order to cram her foot into a golden slipper (in the original Brothers Grimm tale, Cinderella wears golden slippers)? Or where a thieving husband readily gives away his firstborn to a wicked enchantress in order to save his own life? Do they worry that parents will be instantly driven to save themselves over their children, leading them into forests and leaving them to fend for themselves, if they read too many stories like Hansel and Gretel?

Rapunzel and Her Parents

From the Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke
From the Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Harry Clarke

I haven’t read all of Grimm’s original tales, but the one that stood out as being the most altered was Rapunzel. Unlike the Disney take in Tangled, Grimms’ tale is a vicious little story of a 14-year-old girl trapped in a tower. Her prince, when he comes, impregnates Rapunzel, sneaking into the tower at every opportunity. When the wicked enchantress finds out (through a stupid slip of Rapunzel’s tongue—“tell me, dame gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young king’s son”), she banishes the girl to a desert, ‘where she had to live in great grief and misery’. The prince, tricked by the enchantress to climb the tower, leaps out of it in order to save his life and falls into a bed of thorns. The thorns pierce his eyes, blinding him and leaving to roam the world in despair.

He does, in time, find Rapunzel, who is raising twins, a boy and a girl, in complete ‘wretchedness’ in the desert. And they do return to the prince’s kingdom to live happily ever after together. The enchantress, however, lives on. She isn’t vanquished by the prince (quite the contrary). And Rapunzel isn’t a long-lost princess whose parents are pining away for their first-born. Her father, in fact, got her into the mess by stealing rare rampion that his depressed wife desperately craved from the enchantress’ garden. When he was caught, he readily acquiesced to paying for the rampion with a child.

More than the obvious violence in these tales is the underlying callousness of human beings, parents in particular. In the original Cinderella, her ‘kind’ father is as much to blame for Cinderella’s plight as her stepsisters. When the prince comes seeking the mystery woman belonging to the golden slipper, Cinderella’s father describes her as a ‘stunted kitchen-wench which my late wife left behind her’. The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin faces death because her father, in an effort to make himself appear valuable to the king, lays false claim to her ability to spin straw into gold. And despite the clear evidence of the King’s greed, the girl’s fate (her happiness at becoming queen, perhaps?) is tied to his in marriage.

I have never read a modern version of Rapunzel that portrays her parents as anything except deeply saddened at the loss of their daughter. Several, in fact, suggest that they were desperate to get her back. Cinderella’s father was always clueless and distant, never in total agreement with the evil stepmother in any 20th century story I have read.

The more of the original Grimm tales that I read, the more I wonder at the mind that thought these were good tales for children. Or how they turned from homilies on the evil of mankind to stories of love, beautiful women, charming princes and fairy magic. It seems to be a pretty wide leap, a centuries-old game of Chinese Whispers that has stripped the darkness from the folklore.

Children, however, grow up. It’s easy to find the original tales. Fairy tales are no longer fairy tales, but fantastically grim twists on something we associate with Disney songs. This generation isn’t shivering at the thought of Smaug in his mountain, instead it’s dreaming of owning, as pets, Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal. This generation is watching the (yet more) revisions of their fairy tales on TV (Once Upon a Time) and in the movies (Snow White and the Huntsman) and cheering on the grimy Huntsman in favour of a prince. This generation has already eschewed the sanitized versions of Disney’s Snow White for a sword-wielding warrior.

It seems that the only real fairy tales left anymore are the ones we find in romance novels. The only question is, how soon before they, too, embrace the darkness?


The Cinderella Dream (or Why Men Will Just Never Get it!)

The other day, I was having an argument with the husband and the son, both men who try very hard to see the world from the female perspective if only to anticipate what I am going to be up to next. The argument began because both of them were emphatic that wealthy men do not fall in love with their cooks, as my hero, Ranbir Dewan, does in A Scandalous Proposition (ASP).

“True romance needs an economic divide,” I told them. “The wider the gap, the better. There has to be love enough to bridge the gap. That’s why Pretty Woman works. Every girl is looking for a Prince Charming.”

“Not today’s girls?!” said the son disbelievingly.

“Even today’s girls,” I said firmly. “And it’s not just the traditional Mills & Boon TDH (tall-dark-handsome) formula they are looking for. [Nobody in India at least wants anything to do with dark, except retailers of fairness creams!] They want a man who will pamper them, spoil them and give them a lifestyle they can only dream about. They want their own fairy tale!

“Remember the nursery rhyme?” I continued. “‘Curly locks, curly locks, wilt thou be mine? Thou shalt not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine, But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam, And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream’. That about sums it up.”

“So what’s in it for the men then?” asked the husband. “It seems to me like a lot of giving and very little getting.”

I had no immediate answer. The son may be grown up, but no parent is seriously convinced their child is not still impressionable, and the argument I was taking up was not travelling along a track conducive to producing a ‘happily ever after’ scenario for the young man in the car.

“It’s not quite as mercenary as I’ve put it,” I began slowly, belatedly trying to make amends. “See, it’s about biology [when in trouble, turn to Mother Nature!]. A girl will automatically be attracted to a man who is not only attractive, but also able to provide for her and her children. So, a rich man is attractive biologically too. But when a man is attracted to a girl, he looks at her body—breasts, hips, legs—again because those are the signs of fecundity, signs that she will be able to continue his lineage.”

The son gave me one of his famed ‘Really Ma?’ looks. The husband stopped himself from also doing so just in time.

“Well, let’s look at your own book, ASP,” he said. “What does Ranbir see in his cook?”

“First of all,” I retorted. “Mira is not Ranbir’s cook. She is an English literature graduate. She is working in the office canteen because she loves cooking and because she needs money to support her family. At Dewan Kutir, she enters the kitchen only when she is asked to. She is independent, ambitious and entrepreneurial, as she shows when she takes up the annual conference dinner proposal.”

“But what does he seen in her?” persisted the husband.

“Ranbir is a traditional-minded man, even though he does not realise it himself. He may be spoilt by all the attention he is used to getting, selfish like most young men his age are.” I ignored the piercing look I got here. “But he has been brought up by his Dadi and, somewhere along the line, her values were instilled in him. When he hears about Reema and Tarun, he takes Dadi into confidence and then moves ahead with the plan to get them together. He thinks Mira is a pest till he sees how devoted she is to her sister, how concerned about her well-being. It echoes his own feelings for Tarun. He is further impressed when he sees how tactfully she handles the situation with Maharaj.”

“But he’s so stupid he needs his Dadi to spell it out for him,” pushed in the son gleefully. “What a wimp!”

“He’s a typical man who can’t see what’s under his nose,” I said with a straight face. Both men were silent. Score one for me.

The son was the first to recover. “But you said women are naturally attracted to rich men. Mira’s not attracted to Ranbir because he is rich. She’s quite happy till he starts invading her space.”

I sighed. Sometimes, it’s tough being a woman among so many men.

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Untitled Manuscript IV

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Genre: Romance


I wake up to the sound of big droplets of water splattering on my window. The sky is a dark grey outside and heavy rain is pouring down. I groggily look at my alarm clock and wake up with a start. Its half past 7 already and nobody bothered to wake me up. I have to take two tuition classes today and both in the exteriors of Vashi. I won’t even get an empty bus at this time and those stupid drains near the Corporation school must have also leaked out. So now I have to be stuck in the traffic for nearly an hour, inhale all the susu-potty the primary school kids did yesterday just to go teach students who have no interest in Hitler’s history and call him ‘chote moocho wale uncle’ instead. I should have listened to my amma and married the boy with the BMW. But on second thoughts even the idea of a fancy car does not make up for his extremely sexist views. Where is my early bird mother anyway? She usually glides in to the room every morning smelling of Mysore sandal soap and Cuticura talcum powder, complaining that Lalli aunty from the third floor came down again to fight for the newspaper. Somebody needs to explain to this Lalli woman that she is not the only subscriber to The Times. Her daily curses in a heavily accented Marathi wakes me up before my hello kitty alarm.

I suddenly realise that the house is unusually quiet. No annoying milk cooker sirens or washing machine noises. Even the TV is switched off. It looks like my father has for the first time in years missed out on his morning news with the half sleepy Mallu reporters. I cannot even hear our Lalita bai loudly humming a Dada Kondke number which she usually does while lazily sweeping the specked tiles. This feels creepy. Maybe I slept through a big storm and my whole family was washed away. Maybe when I open the door to my room, the strong currents will take me along as well. I can imagine my mother calling out to me for help, keeping afloat on our 10 year old woodpecker dining table.

Just when I am trying to convince myself that I must be hyperventilating and an extra hour of sleep is making me go crazy, a gush of water enters my room through the space below. Oh God!

‘Neetuuuuuu!’ my mother calls out.

My mother must be drowning and she does not even know how to swim.

‘Ammmmmaaa! ‘I scream.

She opens my door in one swift push.

‘Ae why are you screaming early in the morning?’ she asks irritated.

I check to see if her saree is wet and if there are any furniture floating behind her. But all I can see is Lalita bai squatting on the ground cleaning the floor, a big bucket of Dettol mixed water near her hand and an involuntary frown on her face. Okay I was clearly wrong but what in the world is going on here?

‘Lakshmii! There.. there. Look properly.’ My mother screams bending over bai’s gigantic cleavage, pointing at some non-existent spot of dust.

‘Amma! What is all this? Why did you not wake me up earlier? I butt in.

‘Oh, I did not want to wake you up so early and spoil your beauty sleep’

Which beauty sleep is she talking about? I just woke up to two black jamuns for eyes and a Lasith Malinga hairstyle.

‘Amma, I have two classes today and it’s also raining. How do I reach on time now?’

‘You are not going anywhere today. Call those people and cancel. Get out of the bed so that I can apply oil on your hair. Where is that pearl necklace Jia bought you from Singapore? It cost over 15,000, you know. So beautiful!’ she says rummaging through my wardrobe and giving side glances to the bai.

My mom has this weird habit. She drops in names of some of the most expensive items we possess along with their prices in her everyday conversations. Like for example ‘I have packed idly for your tiffin today. It almost slipped out of my hand; it was that soft you know. All because of that 30,000 ka butterfly grinder we bought last week.’

Lalita bai on the other hand, cranes her neck around in attention as soon as she hears any big amount because now; she has a hot new topic to discuss with the other maids who in turn feed it to their respective employers. So it’s no surprise to my mother when a day later Bindu aunty from Block B barges in demanding to taste the soft idlies. My mother just laughs and asks her how she knew. Oh amma!

‘What do you mean cancel? I can’t. Those kids have their exams in a months’ time and why are you taking out all my sarees Ammaaa! ‘I scream.

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Genre: Paranormal, Romance


“He was brought in yesterday,” the policeman explained. “Beach Patrol weren’t sure what to do with him – not sure of his mental state – and he didn’t actually commit any crime.”

Chloe walked with him down the long corridor. ”Inspector Bennett said he was found naked on the beach in the middle of the night, is that right?” she enquired.

“Yeah,” the policeman, Vuyo, shook his head. “No ID, no shoes, clothes, nothing. And his fingerprints, so far, have come up clean.”

They had reached the single cell at the end of the corridor and Chloe focused her mind on the task ahead. The man was sitting on the cold concrete floor, leaning back against the grimy wall. He looked up as Chloe and Vuyo approached.

“We’ve brought someone to see you,” Vuyo’s voice sounded harsh, which surprised Chloe, as she knew him to be a kind man. “This lady is a counsellor, sent here to help you, so make sure you behave yourself.”

Chloe’s senses sharpened. The light in the cell was dim, but not dim enough to hide the harsh planes of the man’s face. She stared into his pale blue eyes and felt her professional mask slip – not just because of their strange and unusual colour, but because they were the coldest eyes she’d ever seen – and she’d seen plenty. She dragged her gaze away from him as Vuyo unlocked the gate.

“You want me to come inside with you?” he asked softly.

Chloe hesitated for a second; then shook her head. Speaking to suspects in front of the police was a waste of time. “No thanks Vuyo, I’ll be fine,” she said with more confidence than she felt.

The gate banged closed behind her and Vuyo turned his back on them, folding his arms and leaning back against the bars.

The cell was small and very basic. A single metal framed bed, covered with a scratchy brown blanket, was set against one wall, a stainless-steel toilet in the corner and a small barred window, which Chloe knew faced the barren courtyard of the police station. She shivered, this was not a pleasant place to be, and in spite of the warm African sun outside, she knew it would be cold in this miserable cell at night.

Chloe sat down on the edge of the bed and tried not to stare at the man sitting on the floor opposite her. He was wearing an off-white, cotton shirt and faded, baggy jeans, which someone must have dug out of the lost property box. His shirt was unbuttoned and though his knees were bent in front of him, she couldn’t help but notice the lean, hard muscles of his chest and stomach. Despite the ill-fitting clothes; with his smooth olive skin, thick dark hair and the harsh beauty of his face, he reminded Chloe of a male model straight out of a glossy magazine. His relaxed posture only added to the illusion, but as he stared back at her, through hooded, hard eyes, Chloe knew instinctively that the laid-back pose was just that – a pose.

“My name is Chloe Webster and I’m a counsellor here at Sea Point police station,” she managed to keep her voice steady as his strange, pale eyes moved over her – not missing a thing – from her fair hair scraped back in a pony tail to her over-sized shirt and combat pants. She always wore loose clothes when she visited the station, in fact she always wore baggy clothes full stop. The Chloe who once wore feminine short skirts and tight fitting jeans, seemed like a different person from a different lifetime.

Chloe forced her mind back to the present. “Can you tell me your name?”

He continued to stare at her, until she thought he was not going to answer at all, and then, finally, he spoke. “You can call me Zack.”

His voice was low with a gravelly edge to it that sent shivers down Chloe’s spine. “And your surname – Zack?”

There was another long silence, his eyes slid away from her, staring up at the barred window. ‘It doesn’t matter.”

Chloe let out a long, slow breath. Hoping that he couldn’t notice how tense and aware of him she actually was. But then his piercing eyes focused on her again and she knew in her bones that he noticed everything.

“Ok.” She shrugged. “Do you remember how you came to be found on the beach – without any clothes or possessions?’

“Not exactly,” he leaned his head back against the grubby wall, still watching her. “But that’s to be expected.”

She was trying to place his accent and for a moment didn’t register his cryptic reply. The accent was unusual, definitely not South African, perhaps American like herself?

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An Unexpected Invitation

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Genre: Romance


Nayanika came to her garden with a blue file in her hand. Glory of dusk always fascinates her. The aura of evening was suffused with vivid colors. Azure sky was mingled with a tinge of roseate hues. She looked at the flocks of birds, making different pattern, going home. This view always fills her with nostalgia. Pleasure of being at home is so sweet! It evokes a sense of serenity and security. She thought as she touched the flowers gingerly.
A cool gush of wind kissed her face and slipped smoothly as if playing with her curls. A hint of smile flashed on her fuller lips and reached to her beautiful black eyes.

Her white long skirt swayed and maroon embroidered top, completely justifying her flawless wheatish complexion, hugged her sculpted body. She put the file on the swing, hung by the large Amaltas tree, took out her slippers, absorbing the softness of velvety grass.

Her old, small yet beautiful house was fringed with lush greenery! She inhaled the fragrance of nature as she sauntered around.

After two easy rounds, she sat cross-legged on the swing and started to read the notes carefully, which she managed to bag from one of her favourite professors Mrs Aisha Sehgal. Being a studious student, Nayanika was studying seriously to perform well in her exams…like always. Even in the holidays, she preferred her books and notes.

“Niki di, your phone.” Avantika, her sister called. Nayanika exhaled an irritated sigh. She placed everything carefully on the swing and headed towards the living room, thinking to get back after a while.

The living room was permeated with delicious aroma wafting from the kitchen along with Pammi aunty’s chatters. Pammi aunty was her neighbor and right now, she was instructing some Punjabi recipe to Nayanika’s mother, Shubhra.

The telephone rested on a tiny table, beside an old sofa set, near a large window that overlooked the garden. Avni was merrily engrossed in a chat over the phone that Nayanika doubted this phone was for her. As she approached, Avantika immediately handed her the phone and sat on the sofa stuffing the cushions in her lap.

“Hello” Nayanika said, unsure about the caller.

“Hi Nikki! How’re you sweety?” Her best friend Preeti was chuckling at the other side.

“Hey, I’m fine but what happened to you? You’re twittering like a lark.” Nayanika’s irritation was gone.

“Err….” After a brief pause, Preeti continued. “Actually…I’m getting married!”

“Oho, congratulations! That’s so nice. And who is the lucky guy?”


“Okay. Shekhar sounds nice. Have you…met him?” Nayanika asked curiously.

“Yeah, he’s so cute Nikki!” Preeti whispered.

“So, this has been cooking in holidays.”

“Yes, and you are invited to have the brunch on 8th March. Just a day before your birthday.”

Nayanika smiled broadly at this coincidence. “See you’ll always remember my birthday.”

“Do you remember if I forgot your birthday ever?” Preeti said with mock anger and Nayanika couldn’t agree more. “And you have to make it for my special day Nikki. No excuses.” Preeti said.

“OK, I’ll try. Let’s see if I get permission.” Nayanika was really apprehensive about getting permission to attend any function in an unknown city.

“What about your further studies? When you’ll be arriving for the exams?” Nayanika darted instant questions to avoid the further ‘you-have-to-come’ thing.

“Let’s see. I’m not sure. Shekhar is settled in Nagaland and you know…”

“Nagaland!” Nayanika almost shouted. She had never heard anyone settled in Nagaland but that of course doesn’t mean nobody lives there.

“Yes, you know it’s in the north-east and the journey is long and really difficult.” Preeti said.

“Then what about your studies?”

“Ahem, ahem…”

“Don’t tell me you’re leaving your studies!” Nayanika exclaimed.

“You know Shekhar says he doesn’t want to live alone after marriage and… not me either.” Preeti giggled.

“Oh my God! I-can’t-live-without-you type love has burgeoned already. Don’t tell me you are in love.” Nayanika widened her smiling eyes.

“ Yes Niki I’m in love with him. He’s so adorable that anyone can fall in love with him.” Preeti said in a tone that clearly reflected her inner joy.

Nayanika was feeling strange inside. Preeti added hastily “Okay Nikki, do come to share my happiness. I’ll call you later. Shekhar’s call is on waiting.

There is a terrible connectivity there and we get very few chances to talk. Bye. Take care.” Preeti finished breathlessly before disconnecting the call.

“It sounds that Preeti di is getting married.” Avantika didn’t delay a bit to inquire.

“That’s right.”

“So are we going?”

“Don’t know. You know she’s already in love.” Nayanika sighed.

“So? What’s so strange? Love is like a breath of fresh air my dear sister.” Avantika said dramatically taking a position of waltz.

“Shut up Avni!”

“Oh c’mon di! Are we going?”


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Untitled Manuscript II

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Genre: Romance


Run! Priya thought as she entered the lounge club in Gurgaon. It was crowded and loud. Though she couldn’t find fault with the place but her head had started to throb.

After the morning episode, she just wanted to curl-up and sleep. She was already regretting telling Aditi and Komal about the phone call. She felt as if she had betrayed Sameer.

‘Bad idea’ she muttered.

‘Did you say something?’ Komal asked. Priya shook her head. There was no escape. Komal and Aditi flanked her on both sides, as if she would run away. They were determined to keep her occupied and busy. ‘You both grab a table. I will take care of drinks’. Komal said.

Abhimanyu took his drink from the bar, turned…and stared. For the first time in his life he understood meaning of heart missing a beat. The girl, in yellow, was looking completely out of place with her lost and deserted look. Her long black hair cascaded down on one side. The most arresting features were her eyes with long black eyelashes. They almost touched her cheek when she checked her cell phone time and again.

‘Abhi! We are starting a new one.’ Rahul, called him from the table they had for themselves. He kept her in his line of sight and moved towards his friends. They were exchanging exaggerated stories of their tryst with girls in their respective offices. Though he pretended to listen to them, but his eyes tracked movement of the girl across the hall. She was with another tall girl in red and black. They seem to be waiting for someone at a cocktail table. The need to look into her eyes kept growing like an alien insidious weed.

Someone tapped his shoulder, he looked up with an annoyed scowl at the interruption.

‘Chal…’ Rahul was standing beside him.


‘Someone got your attention after a long time. Must be pretty special, let’s go and introduce.’ Rahul said.

‘I don’t think it’s a good idea. They seem to be waiting for someone. She might be with a partner.’

‘Well…for you my friend, I am willing to take the risk.’

Abhimanyu chuckled, ‘Leave it. You will get bashed up unnecessarily on your birthday.’ He glanced at the cocktail table again. ‘Oh that’s Komal!’ He spotted his cousin with miss-beautiful-eyes and smiled. Now things were looking up. ‘Ok let’s go…’ He stood up, ‘Wait a minute, why do you want to tag along?’

‘Why not? May be she will like me, moreover today is my lucky day!’ Rahul said and followed him.

‘Hey Komal!’ Abhimanyu said reaching their table, all along keeping his gaze on miss-doe-eyes.

He willed her to look at him. To his annoyance she dropped her cell phone and ducked under the table.

‘Rahul, Abhi bhaiya, fancy seeing you here’ Komal said and smiled. ‘I thought you were too mature for this kind of place.’ He grinned and followed the girl putting her phone together, battery, cover and all.

‘His highness has come at my insistence to grace my birthday party today.’ Rahul said. ‘You ladies can introduce yourself and wish me ‘happy birthday’ with a kiss, I don’t do presents.’
Komal introduced Priya and Aditi, and promptly pressed a kiss on Rahul’s cheek.

The girl just threw a fleeting glance at Rahul and him and continued to fiddle with the phone. This was a new experience. He was not used to females ignoring him. Priya…nice name.

Rahul invited them to join their table. They shifted to the alcove where two of Rahul’s friends were sitting. Rahul somehow managed to maneuver their seating arrangements so that Priya ended up sitting adjacent to him, while Rahul sat with Aditi. Abhimanyu noticed Komal wiggling her eyebrows at Rahul’s ploy. Rahul winked.

Priya was getting more and more miserable with every passing second. She was unable to delink her mind from that heart sinking phone call today morning, which indicated that Sameer was with some other women.

She couldn’t digest the explanation that it could be platonic. The husky bedroom voice was still echoing in her ears. Her call on Sameer’s phone was picked up immediately by the woman. But this only indicated that his phone was with the woman not Sameer. May be the woman hasn’t passed her message to him. But her call was dismissed so carelessly it seemed Sameer was with HER – Priya’s mind was having conversation on these lines since morning with different inferences and combinations. If it was innocent, then why was his phone switched off and why hadn’t he called? This couldn’t be happening to me, she thought. The whole incident had taken dream like proportion.


She Reads, South Asia

My journey to appreciating South Asian writing was a rather circuitous one.

While growing up I read widely and eclectically, which is another way of saying that I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. At that time, familiarity with the classics was considered essential for the well-read person, so my father enthusiastically supported my love of reading by buying me the unabridged works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few. The longer it had been since the author had died, the better.

By the time I went off to college, I considered myself quite well-read. Unfortunately, my knowledge of South Asian literature was next to nothing. This is something that I have tried to remedy as I have grown older and wiser, at least in terms of fiction from the sub-continent written in English. From Vikram Seth to Arundhati Roy, from Salman Rushdie to Mohsin Hamid to the wonderful Chitra Divakaruni and Kiran Desai, I discovered and fell in love with the writers and their craft. And then I branched beyond the award winners and discovered delightfully evocative fiction written by the likes of Anuja Chauhan, Advaita Kala and Rupa Gulab, who have become some of my favorite South Asian popular women writers.

As I started discussing my reading likes and dislikes with friends, I was surprised at how common my journey had been. Most of my friends had read the classics, but many of them had never even heard of enormously evocative writers like Indu Sundaresan or Anjana Appachana.

A few years ago, when I started on the Indireads journey, I was equally surprised to see how many in my reading circles had favorite Western romance writers—Georgette Heyer, Mary Balogh, Sophie Kinsella and Judith McNaught et al, but when it came to South Asian romance, most of my women reader friends were just not interested. Slowly I came to realize that, by design, accident or choice, we know very little about the amazing writing talent that lives and thrives within our own region. It is hard to be an author anywhere in the world, but to be an author in South Asia, and that too a writer of ‘women’s fiction’, can be quite a challenge.

SheReads South Asia was conceived as an initiative to allow ourselves to be inspired by these writers and to celebrate their words. Motivated by 2014 being celebrated as the Year of Reading Women and building on the success of the #ReadWomen2014 campaign, SheReads South Asia will reach out to women readers, encouraging them to support, discover and engage with our very own South Asian women writers and their works.

Through SheReads, Sabahat and I hope to make the journey of discovery easier for many readers.

Over the years, I have also been drawn towards spirituality, and there, the masters point out how the discovery of oneself is a long, winding road. Maybe the path to discovering yourself, your roots and your stories, was never meant to be straight either. The journey may be long and circuitous but we hope SheReads South Asia will take out at least a few bends on the road, allowing you and us to get ‘home’ faster. May the journey begin!


Favorite Romance Writer?

When I read my first Mills & Boon romance, I was young and thought it was the height of raciness. A friend loaned me a couple of books that were listed as ‘bestsellers’, and while the thrill was there, I caught on to the obvious formula pretty quickly. The tall dark hero was always contemptuous of the spirited heroine, and due to a slight misunderstanding (which could have been cleared up with a couple of sentences that are never uttered until the final chapter), there was friction between the protagonists. This friction led to heightened tension, which translated into sexual tension. They’re horrible to each other through most of the book (or at least, the hero is), but everything washes away when they say ‘I love you’. Magic words.

This was all well and good for the first two or three books that I read, but the formula palled quickly (Penny Jordan’s writing make me want to shoot myself. How can she be a bestselling author???). I was bored out of my mind with what M&B considered bestselling authors. I would have stopped reading them altogether, except that I discovered Susan Napier.

I think the first book of hers that I read was a story of a film director and the disapproving aunt of his big star. The hero wasn’t tall. He wasn’t forbidding and enigmatic. He was flighty and articulate. He was a flirt and funny, not someone to be taken seriously.

Unlike the usual M&B fare, this story was richly textured with layered characters, dialogue that required a second look, and a story that sizzled with chemistry from the first page. It seemed irrelevant that the hero and heroine weren’t perfect (I recall a scene where they exchange gloves, because his hands are as small as hers are large!), because they were so real.

After that, I hunted for her books. One of her heroines was mute, another was a psychic. Her heroes were always articulate, but not all of them were rich, or harsh, or tortured (well, maybe one). Her characters were clumsy, quiet, exuberant, and yet each was totally believable.

If I must have a favorite romance novelist, it would have to be Susan Napier, but I wonder if I’m alone in this—I don’t want the normal romantic story, and the quality of writing makes a big difference to me. What about you? Who’s your favorite romance writer?


Romance, South Asian Ishtyle

I don’t think I will ever forget watching movies as a child and seeing the hero and the heroine disappear behind a tree or under an umbrella. As a child I always wondered what they were doing under there, and the focus on the bee pollinating the rose that inevitably followed never really helped me.

Till recently, the umbrella principle largely held for us as a society. We asked Choli ke Peeche Kiya Hai? and got the disingenuous Choli Mein Dil Hai Mera as the disappointing answer. However, it seems we as a society have finally arrived at the point that we can be trusted with more daring—and factual—answers.

We see love scenes being written in great detail in books, not just couples going to bed and waking up bathed in an after-sex pre-glow. Movies are featuring one-night stands and bedroom scenes and even some TV shows are adding in some mirch and masala close-ups.

rsaishtyleSo does this advance the cause of romance in our part of the world? I don’t know. It is a breath of fresh air to see sexuality up close and not left in the realm of ‘those books’ and ‘art’ movies. And yet, sometimes it feels like a collective loss of innocence on our part. Does the longing of the couple for their wedding night lose its charm if they are already co-habiting? Can clumsy embraces and stolen kisses be more titillating than overt sexual encounters?

I feel that in all mediums—books, television and films—the characters and the stories should drive the romance and intimacy. It would probably be unrealistic to expect a modern urban couple to simper and act coy. It is, however, equally off-putting to see a woman with strong values suddenly jumping into bed because a sex scene is the demand of the hour.

Romance comes in all packages, shy and sweet, bold and explorative and sizzling hot. It is up to the storyteller to take the reader by the hand and make her experience the romance, so that in each form, it is the natural conclusion, neither forced nor ridiculous. That, to me, is the true essence of romance.


Built-in Conflicts of a South Asian Romance

In the midst of editing novellas for Indireads, it occurred to me that one of the biggest differences between South Asian romances and Western romances is the conflict a writer must create in order to add spice to a story.

Western romances are often built up around external conflicts, like ex-girlfriends (or exes in general), step-children, distance, work, or misconceptions. There are standard romance stories where the hero thinks the worst of the heroine when the novel starts off, only to fall in love as he gets to know her; once they’re past this first stage, there’s usually an ex lurking the background, ready to make mischief. There are, no doubt, many exceptions to this broad generalization (have at it!), and top romance novelists continue to prove their talent by coming up with new scenarios for their unique characters.

I think, however, that South Asia has a HUGE advantage over the West when it comes to obstacles that our storybook heroes must overcome. Romantic conflicts are built into our lives.

Let’s start with the very first obstacle in many of our societies—where, oh where, do our protagonists meet? Just getting them alone in a room together is potentially a series of hurdles and undercover maneuvers.  Then, there’s the problem of them continuing to meet—our authors have to be extremely inventive (and sometimes, coincidences just have to take over) in order to circumvent public taboos on dating (which reminds me of a particularly nasty anchor on a Pakistani TV channel who made it her mission to expose young couples hanging out in public parks. Thankfully, after immense public pressure, she scrapped that mission).

There are extended families to be worried about, meddling mothers-in-law, jealous sisters-in-law (referring to the spouse’s sister, or nand and sali), pesky neighbors and righteous religious figures. Our issues span a vast range of possible sources of conflict, including cross-community relationships, sex outside of marriage, single women living alone, relationships without parental consent, forced marriages, ‘green card or no green card’—which has its own dilemmas—and the expectations of an entire nation on how a relationship should be conducted.

We have all the ingredients available for epic love stories. Now all we need is our own Shaikh Peer to hit the jackpot!