AT AGE 10, my response to the passionate rages and recriminations of the protagonists of my very first Mills & Boon (set in the Australian outback) was: Where are their parents?
Growing up, I had read whatever I could find in my disorganised household. To the adults who bought me Russian folktales, Enid Blytons and abridged illustrated classics, I said: keep them coming. I read them happily. But I was reading things I suspected they didn’t want me reading. The Bible, cover to cover, as if it was a thriller. Margaret Mead on Samoa. Any number of eye-popping, buttockwaving Harold Robbins. War and Peace during a bout of measles. A humongous Freud biography. Some I enjoyed tremendously (The Bible and Harold Robbins). Some were good in parts, like the curate’s egg. Some I found truly baffling (Erewhon!) But none of these excursions prepared me for the romance novel.
The only other genre I knew, from this goat-like approach to reading, which carefully documented minute costume changes the way romance novels did, was porn. But two more M&Bs down and I was hooked. At 13, I could already pick, out of hundreds of identical-seeming paperbacks, particular romance authors who would give me a good time within the strict confines of 200 pages and a happy ending. The ones who were funny, the ones whose heroines were likely to drive a bulldozer (verbal or actual) into the hero’s pretensions (verbal or architectural), the ones where the hero was (surprise) a virgin, the ones involving time travel, the ones involving the insertion of unlikely objects into even more unlikely orifices. I knew I could not stomach wide-eyed pollyannas who healed the wounds a cold upbringing had inflicted on the hero. Far better the practical, scheming Regency period minxes of Georgette Heyer’s novels, who only laughed when they were caught.
Romance novels taught me to read. They finally explained what was going on when I returned to (the now unabridged and unillustrated) classics. I finally got the puzzling excitement over the plump arms of a minor character in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. And the sadness of Pip’s love for Estella. And finally, I understood what narrative conventions a 23-year-old Jane Austen had found hilarious about romance novels when she wrote Northanger Abbey.
Romance has been the subject of the worthiness debate from the very moment of the novel’s birth — at that point the Romance was synonymous with the Novel. Austen had been among the first generation of readers (and writers) both embarrassed and defensive about romances. Of course, it was not ‘improving’, but the pages filled with lost heirs and villainous uncles and dramatic deaths turned stormily and almost by themselves. Austen, then writing her astonishing social comedies, made space for her own diamond-hard, diamond-brilliant versions of romance. Now romance lay in tiny moments between ballooning afternoons of boredom and terrifying thoughts of poverty.
Romance continues to embarrass. Literary fiction today is too nervously self-conscious and too much in thrall of irony to implicate itself in the plot of romance. Meanwhile, romance paperbacks remain a huge source of revenue for the Western publishing industry. In pop culture, romance is the stuff of song, the staple of cinema, but it is a poor dessicated thing without heart, blood or nerve. Too often it’s missing the valour — of American romance goddess Jennifer Crusie, or of Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, or of Tamil filmmaker Selvaraghavan in his latest feature Mayakkam Enna (Why This Delirium) — to remind you how love can feel like a building falling on your head.
As in previous years, TEHELKA maintains its commitment to producing an annual issue of original fiction in the face of the news cycle juggernaut. This is our fourth edition and, as before, the anthology — the theme, the writers — has been our way of navigating the frequently tiresome debates of high and low culture and getting to the good stuff. Hence our deliberate attempts each year to juxtapose all kinds of able practitioners, from literary novelists to fable-spinners to graphic storytellers to writers working in cinema and television. So we have folks like Amitava kumar, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Siddharth Chowdhury sitting alongside film writers like Akshat Verma (Delhi Belly), Sourabh Ratnu (The Players) and Kalki Koechlin (That Girl in Yellow Boots). So we have an excerpt from Jugal Mody’s Toke, the first of (we predict) many desi zombie romances, alongside the master fabulist Suniti Namjoshi, the graphic artist Prashant Miranda, and young-n-early gunners like Sneha Rajaram and Rahul Soni. So also our gratitude to be able to include the energy and genre-bending abilities of highly accomplished bhasha writers, such as the Malayalam writer KR Meera whose complex novel The Hangman is being serialised every week in the popular kerala magazine Madhyamam; and Nabarun Bhattacharya, who has never looked back after his iconically anarchic Harbart. And so, last but certainly not the least, our excitement at juxtaposing all these voices against SR Faruqi, the great Urdu scholar and poet, who gave us an exclusive first peek at the ongoing translation of his acclaimed Urdu novel Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasman.
So go on, remind yourself of why this delirium.
Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.