Anuja Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora. I explain why on the chick lit blog.
I wrote a new post on the chick lit blog here. Actually there are a few new posts. Go read.
Read about it here.
After some thought, I’ve decided to move my chick lit posts to a separate blog. I’ll still post a link to them here, and post non-chick-lit book stuff here, but I’d appreciate it if those of you who are interested in chick lit follow that blog.
The first few posts will be a repeat of some of my first few chick lit posts here. I will make it clear here when the post is a repeat.
I’m still tinkering with the layout – WordPress seems to have done away with the theme I’m familiar with – so bear with me.
Please read the first post, which describes my chick lit journey, here.
In this series, I write about chick lit novels, focusing on chick lit outside the Anglo-American context. I started out calling this series Indian Chick Lit Hall of Fame, but I’ve realised that I’m going to be reading and writing beyond that geography, and just because these are novels are neglected by the Western world, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place in global chick lit listings.
The novel: Girls of Riyadh
Author: Raja Alasanea
Published in: 2007 (orginally in Arabaic, translated into English)
Publisher: Fig Tree (a Penguin imprint)
Claim to fame: A chick lit novel set in Saudi Arabia
I should have read this novel during my PhD, but not so surprisingly, I didn’t have time. Having read it now, I have mixed feelings about not having read it earlier. On the one hand, it would have enriched and broadened by analysis (I referred to a study on this novel, but didn’t end up reading it); on the other, it may have changed my entire focus.
Either way, I’m glad I got my hands on it because I LOVED IT.
I totally did not expect to love it, and that’s why I kept putting off reading it (even though given my PhD specialisation I knew I had to read it). I expected it to be a superficial brand-name-dropping Sex and the City sort of thing. It was not.
Yes, the four women at the centre of the novel – Sadeem, Michelle, Gamrah and Lameez – belong to the ‘velvet class’, the Saudi elite, and yes, within the first few pages, one of them refers to her dress being Badgely Mischka. But the book also has stunning poetry, religious verses, social critique and what we love best about chick lit – a reflection of the lives of young women, their struggles, their loves and their friendships.
Like all other chick lit novels, these women are single and the pressure they are under to marry is similar to Indian women. The difference here is that more than Indian chick lit, the question is ‘how’ and not ‘if’ or even ‘when’. Like Indian chick lit, though, there is a ‘love’ versus ‘arranged’ marriage dichotomy, except that despite their elite status and relative freedom, most of these women will have arranged marriages – or at least marriages that absolutely cannot go ahead without family approval.
How these women go about finding love, and how they come up time and again, against the strictures of their society, is the subject-matter of the novel. In her wonderful study of love in new Bollywood cinema, Sangita Gopal, points out how love has always been a trangressive force, possessing the capacity to upset the social order, and she shows how Hindi cinema contains this force by reconciling the individual and society. The transgressive power of love comes up time and again in Alsanea’s novel.
But how does this trangression even take place? Isn’t Saudi Arabia supposed to be one of the most repressive place in the world for women? Because, you know, what else would it be given that the women have to go about dressed head to toe in black, right? Okay, we know they are apparently shod in couture underneath, which they reveal only in the presence of women, but that only makes them weirder, right?
My first window into wealthy Saudi society Princess by Jean Sassoon would have me believe this. Fabulously wealthy, yes, repressed and ultimately terribly sad and not-so-latently barbaric – also yes. There is a little vignette in Almost Single along similar lines – exotic princess, rich but unhappy. The recent detention (assisted by our very own Indian coast guard if you please) of the princess from the UAE seems to confirm this view.
Of course, reality is a bit more complex, and Girls of Riyadh exposes this. We meet our protagonists at a wedding where, yes, the women are separated from the men (and again, this should not be utterly unfamiliar to us in India where Muslim communities are not the only ones to practice this segregation) but they are dressed to the nines and dancing seductively. Women dancing with abandon, and generally letting their hair down, again, should not seem so strange because isn’t this every farewell party in a convent school and generally, why we have girls nights out?
Yet, it is not exactly the same, and Alsanea doesn’t present it as so either. At the wedding, at some point the men came rushing into the room “like arrows” with the groom and the women hurry to cover themselves (this is apparently part of the ritual). Only the groom stayed, though, while the men went home leaving the women to continue the party late into a night (a reversal of expectations). Later, when the girls unique pre-wedding celebration (their version of a bachelor’s party – they eschew the Western form because in their community it would involve inviting everyone and including a famous Arabic singer, which would not only be expensive but also too cliched), they drive to a mall and are besieged by young men trying to pass them their numbers.
This is how young men and women ‘meet’ – the men hold up cards with their numbers, the women memorise them and call them if they so desire and their romances are conducted over the phone and if possible, the internet, often without meeting but very intense nevertheless. The behaviour of some of these men (e.g. following the girl in her car) might seem stalkerish but their advances are not exactly unwelcome, because it is the only way.
Did you notice I said ‘drove’ to a mall? But Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive, right? Well, as ever, women find a way to get around these things. Michelle, who is half-American, learnt to drive and because the cars have highly tinted widows (to prevent men peering into them), they have the advantage of making the driver invisible to the outside too. The point is not to say things are la la la – they’re not – but that people always find ways to circumvent repressive laws.
Moreover, on this excursion, a young man presents himself, and joins them by pretending to be a relative. So while apparently there are security guards who may question men who are with women, this is easily dealt with if the women are willing to say that that man is a relative. The whole rakhi brother syndrome, if you please.
And what of these men? As our protagonists meet and fall in love, they are often disappointed by the objects of their affection, who ultimately refuse to defy their families in the name of love. And while the narrator has no sympathy for these characters, the novel exposes that it is not only Saudi women who are trapped in their social system.
Apart from the young single women, I found myself drawn to the aunties, a category I’m increasingly fascinated with, now that I’m one myself. In a patriarchal society, some older women – such as the mother of a man who ditched one of the girls and Gamrah’s mother – wield a fair amount of power. There is Lameez’s mother, who stomps into her school and insists the principal stop picking on her daughter. And most intriguing of all, is the divorced woman next door who hosts their conversations and sometimes their rendezvous.
The treatment of divorced women caught my attention . The aunty next door is reviled more for the possibility of her son being gay, than her divorced status and she continues her job as a school teacher. When a man divorces a woman, this is almost accepted as par for the course by the family, and there doesn’t seem to be the possibility of them not taking her back (as some Indian women seem to face) although life becomes harder from her as she becomes a suspect person, a walking display of sexual possibility because of her limbo state – single but not ‘pure’ – and so her family must closet her till she is married again. Even if she is pregnant, it is taken for granted that she and her child will be taken care of by her family, and even her ex-husband’s family might show interest in the child. In some ways, it seems like the society makes provisions for divorced women.
Apart from the four protoganists, there is a fifth character – the narrator. The entire tale is apparently related in a series of emails and I initially found this is a little annoying. However, later, I realised that the purpose of the narrator was the reflect the comments of society on the story. Thus, she comments on reactions from both conservatives and liberals alike, and people from different sections of society, and responds to them. She notes that it is the women who respond most angrily to her story and the men most sympathetically, for example.
The narrator is also a critique of readerly fascination with the author and the reader’s tendency (a tendency especially pronounced in chick lit, which as realist fiction presents itself as a direct reflection of life) to identify the author with the protagonist or in the case of multi-protogonist novels, to guess “which one the author is.”
Throughout, it is clear that this is a religious society and that the women live according to their interpretations and engagements with a religious code. But it is pointed out that there are varying levels of engagement with religion and that this engagement is split along gender lines so that conservative men’s engagement takes different forms from conservative women’s. Our four protagonists are of a liberal bent, but even the most bold of them, might after marriage, decide on her own to adopt the hijab.
Finally, I happened to read some reviews of the novel in the West and I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that what these Western reviewers took away from the novel was that it was not feminist enough, because basically the women did not throw off “Islamic fundamentalism” (when none of them were fundamentalist in the first place, so why or how would they throw it off?) or for the crime of seeking liberation in setting up a party planning business (failing to recognise how radical this step is, especially for a divorced woman). In his groundbreaking book Orientalism, Edward Said shows how the West created it’s self-image in contrast to an uncivilised and barbaric Other and how Western modernity – and colonialism and its ‘civilising’ mission – is predicated on this contrast. In the reviews of this novel, I see that Orientalism is alive and well.
Did I love this book simply because it is unfamiliar, as a friend once suggested might be why I enjoy watching any mainstream Hong Kong film?* Is it simply the novelty of the new? It is possible that I gave the book more leeway because of my pleasure in being immersed in an unfamiliar culture. Sure, the translation was not perfect – even the translator had problems with the final text, raising interesting questions about who owns a translation – but increasingly, I find myself favouring these imperfections that remind you that you are not in your same-old Anglo-American dominated context.
Finally, while many of us in India also like to think of Saudi Arabia as the weird Other and that we are “so much better off”, are we? I recall my encounter with a Saudi man on a flight. He was sitting next to me and we got chatting when I needed change to buy my Airport Express pass. On hearing that I was flying alone to meet my fiance and he would not even be meeting me at the airport, he said surprised, “I thought Indian women were like our women.” I paused and said, “There are lots of different kinds of Indian women.” My point was not that Indian women are much more liberated than Saudi women, but that there were in fact lots of Indian women living not dissimilar lives to Saudi women (yes, we have fairer laws in general, but personal life is still regulated by the different religious laws in India) and in fact, I could be the exception.
Let’s keep this in mind when we read the book, how we are more similar than we think, and how there’s work to do in our own backyards.
*This same friend also said he enjoyed the Twilight movies, so I might take his view of things with a pinch of salt.
This is the novel by Advaita Kala, who went on to write televisio and movie scripts, that gets mentioned the most often in connection with “Indian chick lit” and that’s probably because it’s pretty classic in following genre conventions.
The novel is basically a compilation of the shenanigans of Aisha, the protagonist, and her group of friends – Misha, Anushka and a gay couple Nic and Ric – as they live it up in the city. Aisha works in a hotel, which gives her an inside view into the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and she and her friends partake of a more modest version of the same.
For a single girl, we never get a description of the mundane parts of being single – like paying the rent and maintaining your own house and coming home to an empty apartment. We never even get a description of the apartment.
Instead, Aisha’s life is lived outside, in cafes, clubs, nightclubs and terraces. We have a more intimate portrait of the hotel in which she works than her home. She can apparently finance all this – and buy a Rohit Bal sari – with her customer service executive salary. Okay.
If the nitty gritty of being single may not be entirely realistic, the novels provide a series of anecdotes depicting the highs and lows of being single – being footloose and fancy free but also the not-so-fun pressure to get married and the vague suspicion from the neighbours that one is somehow a scarlet woman. The pressure is not entirely external though – these women feel that need to take matters into their own hands and find a mate.
This is a characteristic feature of neoliberalism – an economic model in which private enterprise takes its own course and survives in a market with little government intervention. Ideologically, this means that each individual is responsible for themselves, a DIY approach to life down to how we fashion our own selves.
The distinct way in which Aisha and her friends pursue ‘remedying’ their single state is symbolic of what it means to be a young, single, urban woman. They get on dating websites, but Aisha has an astrologer in speed dial. They also have a havan (which they fuel with alcohol) and meet a holy woman, who it turns out drives a Mitsubishi Lancer. There’s all this not-so-latent tradition-modernity stuff going on. The biggest indication of this is Aisha wearing a sari over jeans.
The other striking aspect of the novel’s depiction of the single life is the close-knit circle of friends. In this, the novel is very Sex and the City. The things the friends do – Sunday brunches at a five-star hotel but also taking revenge on errant exes and helping each other dress for special occasions – but also the discussions about their love lives.
The most interesting character in the novel to me was Anu, Aisha’s friend who separates from her husband. We see flashes of her life only in terms of revengeful antics, but there is real pain and in the end development there that would have made an interesting story in itself.
The book also pointedly includes a gay couple, somewhat ridiculously named Ric and Nic. While this inclusion is in fact a genre convention, it is also tritely done – they are fashionistas, they make lascivious comments, they like the good life. One of them proves to be more adept at traditional femininity that the girls themselves – winning a nosy and disapproving neighbour over with his skill at choosing vegetables. Eve Sedgwick has warned of the ‘inversion’ trap where a gay man is seen as an inverted woman – and I think Nic (or is it Ric) falls into this.
On the surface, these women want to get married, but there is a latent unease with tying the knot. There is not a single happy couple in the novel – except tellingly the gay couple Nic and Ric. Aisha herself seems ambivalent – she pursues Karan, dolls up in a sari to impress his mother, but also seems reluctant to actually commit.
Maybe it’s because Karan is so … vague. At least on paper. I couldn’t really get a clear sense of him – in the way that we get of Anuja Chauhan’s heroes, for example. What makes him attractive – apart from being wealthy, good looking and somewhat arrogant and in control. Basically, he is the bare bones of the Mr Darcy figure, but not fleshed out at all. This is not unique to Kala’s novel; a number of chick lit novels have love interests who are a conglomeration of certain traits, without being fully formed people. It is like the authors have a fantasy man in their heads, but can’t completely write them into reality except as an outline of a person. This does have the advantage of making the female characters much more central, which I can’t complain about, even if it does make the romance slightly unconvincing – as if the protagonist is in love with a cardboard cutout.
This lends itself to the sneaking suspicion that the novels are less about love and more about being single – they depict the single life more fully and realistically than the romance, with the mandatory happy ending almost coming as an aftermath, a tick the box to readers’ expectations. The result is that being single seems more realistic and even fun than the thing the novels are supposedly progressing towards – being coupled.
Have you read the novel? What did you think?
Is being a single woman in India mostly a footloose and fancy free experience, interrupted by annoying questions about getting married?
What does being ‘almost single’ mean?
It’s been ages since I mooted the idea of doing a series of chick lit hall of fame posts. Ironically or not, my PhD on the subject kept getting in the way.
In between, I sat down to write a post on The Zoya Factor, and felt that I needed to reread the novel to write it, but didn’t feel like rereading it. Finally, I’ve decided I’m not going to push myself to reread it and risk never writing this post, but to, as usual, just put down my scattered thoughts on the book, and hope that readers will chip in with their thoughts.
As this series progresses, maybe I will fall into some sort of ideal style; till then, it’s going to be experimentation rather than a clear-cut review.
The Zoya Factor is not the first Indian chick lit novel, but it is my favourite. If I had to recommend only one Indian chick lit novel, this would be it. So I will begin with it.
Synopsis: Zoya, “a mid-level advertising executive”, discovers she has special powers to influence the fortune of the Indian cricket team. As she is co-opted into the world of cricket, she finds herself both attracted to the team’s captain and on a collision course with the team’s captain.
In its general plot – twenty-something single woman and her adventures in romance as well as her career travails – the novel ticks all the chick lit boxes. But Chauhan adds something more – Zoya’s supernatural powers – which should make for really weird reading, except that it works. Chauhan thus places her novel in the magical realism tradition of literary greats such as Salman Rushdie, and dare I say she pulls it off.
As part of India’s anti-colonial struggle, Indian women came to be nationalistically identified with the mother goddess (Bharat Mata). Zoya, as Goddess of Cricket, the modern sport in which the honour of the nation can be preserved, continues this legacy. Zoya’s experience of the double-edged nature of being an Indian goddess is a tongue-in-cheek examination of what the average Indian woman faces as a result of being put on a pedestal. What Zoya achieves in the novel is the ability to find a way to live with her powers while refusing to allow them to be chauvinistically co-opted by various parties for their own interest.
Chauhan makes Zoya, the Goddess, seem less absurd and more believable, by crafting the milieu in which she operates – 21st century middle-class India – with finesse. Apart from her skillful handling of plot, this is why readers love Chauhan – her humorous and close attention to life as we (the urban middle-class English-educated but bilingual global desi type) know it. Thus, she has entire passages mimicking the speech of various types – the small-town cricketer, the sleazy agent, the creepy baba, the oily-haired kid reciting a speech, the Malayalee maid – and even as one can’t help giggling, the whole thing is done with affection and not condescension. This is English as Indians speak it, infused with other languages and with its own unique diction (“What to do, control nahin hota”). Chauhan made her name for exactly this kind of writing and capturing the zeitgeist that such language evokes in the slogans that made her famous in the advertising industry and it is a delight to see the novelistic version of “Yeh dil maange more” (in fact, this is what one feels at the end of most of her books).
Unlike many Indian chick lit novels in which non-middle-class and upper-class types – maids, drivers, the roadside chaiwalla – are basically background props, if they exist at all, Chauhan brings these people to the fore so that one of the most memorable characters in the novel is Zoya’s maid Eppa.
The niggling problem with this is while these portraits are affectionately drawn and intimately recognizable, there is an underlying paternalistic validation of the status quo. Eppa is loved and seems to be fine with where she is, so one doesn’t have to think too hard about what it might have taken for her to basically leave her hometown and her family (and the chance to build a family of her own – does Eppa have children?) to traipse across the country with Zoya’s (Mammy in Gone with the Wind, anyone?).
While Western chick lit has been accused of using the chick lit protagonist’s career as a backdrop of romantic maneuvering, Indian chick lit fleshes out the career trajectory in more detail. So in The Zoya Factor, one gets a pretty authentic look at the world of advertising in India at the highest level – the cola wars – which Chauhan is more than familiar with, having played a role in crafting some of those iconic campaigns. Zoya is passionate about her job, and while she sometimes feels like a minion, especially around the famous cricketers, she is no bumbling Bridget Jones.
And there’s the romance. I do not believe that Indian fiction in English offered Indian women anyone that quite so completely dreamy as Nikhil Khoda. I mean, the captain of the cricket team – come on. Immediately, one starts to wonder – who is this paragon of erotic imaginings modeled on? (Dhoni? Rahul Dravid?). Khoda, like everything else in her novel, takes the tall, dark and handsome stereotype and gives it indigenous flavour. He has all the characteristics of the classic Harlequin hero – rich, older, more experienced (sexually but also in life), generally more competent, who makes her feel like an impetuous child. This dynamic harks back famously to the redoubtable Mr Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame but also the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s fiction. To this, Chauhan adds the quintessential Indian twist of making Khoda the supremely classy captain of the cricket team, arguably one of the most admired and powerful men in the country. Obviously, he is gorgeous to boot, but he’s also a man of integrity who tries to protect Zoya even when he is totally skeptical about her powers.
So, the romantic conclusion of the novel is pretty foregone, though as per usual there are misunderstandings and kahaanis mein twists to be overcome (a little too much, IMO). At some point, one wants to give Zoya a little shake and say: “get over yourself.” This man is leading a team in the World Cup, FFS. Her insecurity is blamed on having being apparently “used” by a guy or two in the past, but it gets a bit much after the third “does he love me or love my powers” whingeing. Ouff. Still, this is the stuff of romance novels, so.
The larger tension in the novel is really how it will resolve itself by allowing Zoya to have her cake and eat it. Does she propel the team to victory, and in so doing, diminish Nikhil’s achievements as captain? Does the team win at all (remember, this is a romance novel and the romance need not be restricted to the couple alone)? If the team wins without Zoya, what happens to her? If the team doesn’t win, what a let down. The fact is that if the team lost, it would be a bigger meh than Nikhil and Zoya not getting together and that tells you something about the strength of the national fantasy that Chauhan is tapping into.
Chauhan resolves it all fairly satisfactorily, though I did feel that Zoya’s strength lay in her being passive, in standing back, which is a tad in the region of feminine cliche. Nevertheless, if one doesn’t think too deeply (which obviously is not my thang), it works.
So what did you think, dear reader? Is The Zoya Factor your favourite Chauhan novel? Is Nikhil your favourite Chauhan hero? Did you think Zoya’s ‘yes-I-mean-no’ went on a bit too long? Was it a happy ending? Do tell.
I am starting a new series on Indian chick lit authors/books that I love. It was something I thought of doing during my PhD but basically didn’t have the time. Honestly, I don’t know if my love of Indian chick lit has waned or not. Definitely, some authors will stay with me but maybe I overdosed on the genre during my PhD or the books themselves have petered out and become repetitive. Nevertheless, since I am a minefield of information on this topic, I might as well share my hard-won gyan.
How do I define chick lit?
Having read almost all scholarly work written on chick lit up to 2017, I found the most satisfactory definition in an ABC news article by Heather Cabot: “The books feature everyday women in their 20s and 30s navigating their generation’s challenges of balancing demanding careers with personal relationships.”
Thus, chick lit has a few defining features:
- The protagonist is an ordinary woman in her 20s or 30s. Some books feature a group of friends as protagonists.
- The subject matter of the book primarily concerns this woman’s pursuit of: a) romance b) career. Both have to represented here, though the focus may be on one or the other
- A light-hearted tone. This is an addition to Cabot’s description and differentiates chick lit from romance novels, such as the Harlequin or the 80s bonkbuster (think Jackie Collins)
Classic (Western) chick lit
The book that launched the genre was Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, that I basically consider my gospel. There may have been books with the same sort of story before that (e.g. Mariane Keyes’s novels) but Bridget Jones became a popular culture phenomenon. The genre’s sensibility – stories on the lives and times of single women in the city – soon spread across the pond and to television and film. Along with Bridget Jones’s Diary, the holy trinity of chick lit comprises Ally McBeal and the Sex and the City television series. The SATC TV series was predated by a novel of the same name by Candace Bushnell, but it was really the TV series that became the pop culture phenomenon and that inspired in turn popular writing, including Indian chick lit.
How do I define Indian in Indian chick lit?
My PhD thesis covers women of Indian nationality living in India. While the first “Indian” chick lit books were published in the West (e.g. Nisha Minhas’s Chapati and Chips), I believe the concerns in the books written by NRI women and women in India are slightly different. Both have the pressure to get married, but the NRI books stress cultural conflict (coming to India during the groom search process and having a culture shock of sorts) while the novels published in India from 2006 onwards describe more broadly living as single women and building a career in India as well as the romantic shenanigans. The interest in my PhD became how economic liberalisation generated a new type of young Indian woman who is presented in these novels. However, in this series, I will also cover some NRI chick lit books.
The heydey of Indian chick lit
In my thesis, I propose that the golden era of Indian chick lit was from around 2006 to 2015. This was the time when Indian publishes woke up to the potential of locally produced commercial fiction – the period before this was described by one publisher as “before Chetan” – and foreign capital via mergers with the big foreign publishing houses began to flow into India so there was money to invest in these upstarts. Indian chick lit was one of the first- if not the first – Indian commerical writing genre to be succesful.
Indian chick lit – sub-genres
Initially, Indian chick lit novels were somewhat imitative of the Western formula – particularly Sex and the City. However, writers such as Anuja Chauhan have developed a unique writing style and forged something new.
Like the Western novels, Indian chick lit as it matured could be split into sub-genres: career lit (e.g. Nirupama Subramanian’s Keep the Change), mommy lit, divorcee lit and inevitably lad lit (the likes of Durjoy Dutta and Ravinder Singh that seem to have eclipsed the writing by female authors). A number of writers who cut their teeth in chick lit have moved on – Swati Kaushal has an excellent detective series, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan did a lovely couple of young adult novels and now is on to a mythological series.
Why do I insist on calling it chick lit?
Yes, chick lit sounds disposable. Yes, authors don’t like it. However, it is now the accepted term, and given the droves of fanpages using the term, it has been reclaimed, or at least readers who love the genre have stopped caring that others find it trivial. The Guardian uses the term in its coverage of the genre; it’s a keyword in academia. And frankly, I like how it sounds – writing that’s fun and about women.
What do I plan to do with this series?
I don’t intend this to be an academic discussion, though I might include some insights from my PhD. I don’t intend to do book reviews either. I just intend to share – as I usually do on this blog – what I like/dislike/generally think about books in the genre.