Dispatches from Delhi, Vol. 1
Apurva, Manju and Sumita sit in animated conversation at a popular Delhi café chain. The decor is an antiseptic orange, the staff haggard and weedy, the coffee a creamy mulch. The women are twenty-something professionals – two advertising wonks and a recent university grad interning at a middle-rung fashion firm. Manju and Apurva have been best friends since their boarding days at a hillside convent; Sumita fell in with the pair through a mutual friend at the PR agency she and Manju used to work at. Coffees downed, they step out into the market, where Apurva lights a cigarette, ignoring the predictable barrage of stares from doormen and scandalized old women. It’s Friday afternoon and the trio are making plans for the evening’s entertainment, deciding on a nightclub over a house party. They’ll swig cocktails, dance and grind, swig some more, and wake up the next morning to the visage of a make-up doppelganger imprinted on their pillows.
Welcome back to the world of Indian chick-lit.
In a 2006 New York Times article titled ‘The Chick-Lit Pandemic,’ Bridget Jones-author Helen Fielding generously offered that the new wave of international chick-lit was less “imitation,” and had “far more to do with zeitgeist” – in which case, India continues to be particularly drunk on the lives and lifestyles of gutsy-but-likably-neurotic bright young things. Almost four years on from the Grande Dame’s benediction, the Indian public’s appetite for domestic-brand Bridgets remains healthy, if not voracious. As older novels enter into multiple editions – Tishaa Khosla’s Pink or Black, chick-lit for tweens, went into a seventh reprint a few weeks ago, having shifted nearly 200,000 copies; Advaita Kala’s Almost Single is into its ninth impression; Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s You Are Here into its third – new releases like Ira Trivedi’s The Great Indian Love Story cement the genre’s already-established cultural presence.
The cavalcade of novels that followed Swati Kaushal’s 2004 Piece of Cake – the first major Indian publishing success in the genre, and presently in its fifth reprint edition – have, for better or worse, drilled chick-lit into the Indian mainstream, to the chagrin of its critics and detractors. These determined killjoys generally come in two flavours: the moralisers, ever-vigilant defenders of propriety and decency, and self-styled intellectuals, who invest endless energy in scornful dismissals of what is, for the most part, essentially light reading. Many of these critics miss the point, overlooking hows and whys for easier targets.
While puritanism is incurable (though sadly not terminal), decrying popular fiction for being, well, popular fiction is slightly silly. To draw an analogy, the top ten best-selling albums of all-time include the Backstreet Boys, Meat Loaf, Whitney Houston, and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack – it’s true, there’s no accounting for taste. Literariness, or lack thereof, should not be at issue anymore. Half a decade removed from Kaushal’s novel, the chick-lit conversation in India should shift to something more substantive and meaningful. Like this –
The genre’s popularity and surprising longevity are revealing insight into certain aspects of India’s national mood. Culturally, chick-lit responds to a decidedly modern, suddenly globalised, middle-class Indian mindset – one that is, perhaps, more receptive to gender equality, liberalised politics (such as they are) and other admirably progressive principles that will undoubtedly be stuffed into tedious undergrad term papers. Shoddier novels, too: they may be poorly written, but they’re poorly written with great enthusiasm and significance. The point being, chick-lit affirms and celebrates the so-called “new” middle-class energy and consciousness with keen relish.