Romance publishers, especially those based in the US, often seem to lag behind in recognizing how culturally diverse and international their readership is. Harlequin/Mills & Boon is neither US-based nor unaware of its global reach, but their book lists are still overwhelmingly tilted toward white characters, and the majority of their non-white heroes and heroines are either fantasy types like sheikhs and princes or located in separate lines like Kimani. But last year M&B put its money where its mouth was and released the first book in an Indian line, written by an Indian author, and this year they released a second. Unfortunately, the books are only available in print versions and through Indian vendors, which makes it much harder for the rest of us to read them. Then this November, Harlequin released an Indian-set book by an Indian author in its Harlequin Romance line: Monsoon Wedding Fever by Shoma Narayanan (if you missed it, Jayne’s terrific review is here).
I happened to be in India last year during the month that the first Indian M&B book, The Love Asana by Milan Vohra, was released, so I picked it up and read it immediately. This year I ordered the second book, His Monsoon Bride, by Aastha Atray, directly from M&B India and had it sent to a cousin in Mumbai. She passed it on to another cousin who was visiting her, and eventually it wound up in my hands. And of course I bought and read Narayanan’s book.
All three books suffer from the kinds of problems that frequently plague new authors. The characterizations rely a bit heavily on standard romance tropes, and the conflicts keeping the heroes and heroines apart are a bit formulaic as well. But these are the types of flaws that can be overcome, and I can easily imagine future books improving as authors figure out how to showcase their unique imaginations within the category framework.
On the plus side, the Indian-written HMBs have a much stronger sense of place. The character relationships, the family backgrounds, and the context reflect the India that Indians know, rather than depicting the exotic India that you tend to find in Indian-set novels written by non-Indians. In Narayanan’s book, the workplace, the wedding scenes, and the interactions among the older and younger family members felt spot on. In the Indian M&Bs, there were a number of scenes where I could visualize what was going on and where. It’s the kind of thoughtful, rich context I appreciate so much in many of my favorite romances set in the US or the UK, but which I almost never get in books set in India.
But there is a tension in these three books between genre expectations and demands and the Indian culture depicted here. One that stands out to me is the frequent tendency for romance heroines and/or heroes to be loners. In order to focus on the relationship, authors often write main characters who are orphaned, or estranged from their families, or in some other way separated from a supportive kin network. This can strain credulity in a western-set contemporary romance, but it seems even odder in an Indian one. In The Love Asana, the heroine has almost no family around her, and in His Monsoon Bride the heroine is an only child with a widowed father. Monsoon Wedding Fever‘s heroine is part of a happy and supportive family, but the hero has sworn off love because of his parents’ unhappy marriage.
I found the first scenario the most plausible. There are certainly some small families in India, especially today, and it is certainly possible that one’s parents were estranged or otherwise lost touch with their siblings, cousins, etc. The widowed (very wealthy) father worked less well for me, because while it’s possible, it’s not common. Men, especially wealthy professional men, need the institutions of marriage as much as women do (in terms of fulfilling their social and religious obligations). The scenario propelled the plot, but it momentarily took me out of the reading experience, because I was trying to come up with a substantive reason for him not to remarry.
The third scenario was the one I had the most trouble with. Marriages go bad, and children get hurt. But one of the positive aspects of Indian extended family life is that children see more than just their parents’ marriage; they see those of their grandparents, uncles and aunts, elder cousins, friends, and neighbors. Until very recently, nuclear family living arrangements were the exception, not the norm, even for middle- and upper-class urbanites. So you might, as a child, be scarred by something in your nuclear family, but there’s a good chance that you’ll gain support and a different perspective on an issue by watching how other adults you love approach it. In my own family, there were awful and wonderful parents, and awful and wonderful marriages, and they were all people I was related to and being raised by. My parents were the most important people in my life, but they weren’t the only very important people.
So the grounds for the hero’s rejection of marriage felt quite western to me. The author emphasized his time abroad, but it didn’t persuade me because his attitudes toward marriage were established well before that. He was willing to make an arranged marriage, but not a love marriage. This choice could have been explored in interesting ways, but instead we just had the standard “I’ll never fall in love” trope, which has mostly run its course in mainstream romance, thankfully.
I’d love to see a marriage of convenience plot set with a contemporary Indian twist. There are still plenty of men and women who voluntarily find spouses that way, and MOC is a popular trope among readers. Would you be willing to read a modern MOC using an arranged marriage scenario? Would it have to be transformed into grand passion, or could it be a quieter type of falling in love?
The final tension that seems obvious to me at the moment is the sexual one, or the lack thereof. These three books, as well as one Jayne and I reviewed jointly a few months ago, are fairly low on the heat meter. The HMB books have sex scenes, but they’re much less explicit than you find in many other category romances, including some of the “sweet” ones.
I’ve noticed that there are quite a few romance readers online who make it clear that don’t want to read “tame” books, or books that stop at the bedroom door. While I’m only talking about four books here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the HMB authors continue to write low-heat romances. There is absolutely a market for steamy fiction, but I don’t know how easy it is for Indian women writers to write that type of commercial fiction, or for Indian women readers to openly read it. So is the tradeoff worth it for non-Indian readers?
These books give me hope that as authors from other parts of the world get the opportunity to write and publish romance, we’ll have the greater variety and richness that we as readers are always seeking. This is how you get true diversity: when the people whose stories are being told are well represented among the ones who are doing the telling. And the more we acknowledge that our “exotic” settings are someone else’s normal, the more that every author who wants to will be able to write about a wider range of characters and settings. Love and romance are universal, but the context in which individuals can seek romance varies. The new authors at HMB and elsewhere help us to see that variety.
I believe, though, that we may have to make some adjustments about what we consider the “standard” romantic storylines. I think many of us would welcome more stories set in an extended family context (think of the series possibilities!), but at least for a while, reading other-culture romances means accepting some aspects of other cultures that aren’t part of our usual genre expectations.
My starter list of what I’d like to see: sympathetic treatments of arranged marriages. And unsympathetic ones, i.e., where the women are trying to avoid arranged marriages with people they don’t like and find the heroes on the way. Daughter-in-law stories, with conflict not between the hero and heroine but between the heroine and the family. Scientist and engineer and doctor women (there are plenty in India).
How about you? What’s on your wish list?