My parents have bought me Mills and Boons when I was growing up; they are both very cool dudes like that. Plus they knew reverse psychology all too well with me. During the course of that phase, I read several dozen of them. A while ago, I wrote them a tribute. Last week, it got published in Talk magazine here. My friend Sajai there at the magazine is one of the very few copy editors I know who I feel safe giving my stories to. But like a mother's blind love for her baby, I cannot resist posting the original here too.
Reader, I married him.
By the time Jane Eyre tells you, the reader, this, you are rooting for her and Mr Rochester, rooting for the strings of happiness Jane is trying to hold on to, rooting for love and companionship and all that. More than that all, through the lives of the unlikely couple, you root for the love story that we each secretly hope to be ours, even if not in the manner of Bollywood excesses.
And that is the clever sales pitch that always works, be it in a rom-com starring American sweethearts or in chick-lit or in the ultimate temples of romance, Mills and Boons.
I have no qualms whatsoever in admitting I read Mills and Boons (M&B) through my teens and through the idyllic conquer-the-world early 20s. On my Kindle device, I still keep a few handy, for long commutes and the lunch hour. After a long day at work, after a fight with mother, after a heavy book, there is no better feel-good than an M&B. Or even Silhouette. Or Harlequin. Or their other offspring. It is perhaps like what ice-cream is to most people, you don’t need a reason to have it; and it always makes you happy.
Apart from being the ice cream on a rainy day, to me, the M&B books have helped hone my writing skills as well, something I realized, like the proverbial bulb above my head, the other day when some of us were discussing the new phenomenon ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (which I don’t think I will ever finish). The subject veered to romance novels in general and listening to each of us talk of how we discovered and came to be hooked to them, I realized my association went a wee bit deeper.
It was my school principal who, unwittingly of course, introduced me to M&B when I was in class 7. During a routine PTA meeting, mother complained to the principal that I read more novels and less of my textbooks, often staying up into the night. Madam principal asked me what I read and I told her; I don’t remember what my answer was. She then turned to my mother and said as long as I was not reading Mills and Boons, it was all right, given that I was not slacking in the academics anyway.
In the 1990s, we school girls were still of the kind that did not know of nor had access to such books. My interest was obviously piqued; there is no greater reason to do something than to be told not to do it. As if the universe was conspiring, I found a worn M&B in a sack of second hand books dad had bought for me from a distant land. Never having bothered with the name of the publishers on the cover before, The Stars on Fire or some such like was thus my very first M&B. I still remember the story of a young actress who comes as a replacement for another and the director, while thinking the worse of her for supposedly manipulating her way in, cannot help but fall in love with her. There is drama and heartbreak and fights before the mandatory happily-ever-after. In hindsight, I nearly giggle when I remember that it was quite a racy book to be reading at the age of 12!
I remember narrating the story to a friend whose parents were stricter about what she could read. Mine, bless them, having seen the folly of the principal and knowing the theory of reverse psychology all too well with me, let me be. From then on, I must have read several dozens of them; most of them one summer in high school that I spent in the city house of an aunt with access to a whole library dedicated to M&Bs!
As I began writing in several forms and at several places, the value of these soapy, theatrical novels came to the fore. A sunset in these novels is never just a sunset, it is always a golden caramel yellow light that bursts upon from behind the island, yet pales before the glow of the heroine’s face. A face that isn’t just beautiful but is likened to the moon and the sun and the sunset and to the flowers in the meadows. Over the top, yes of course. But no one is telling you it is literature.
In those initial years of reading them, what I perhaps skipped were parts that talked of history of an island (not always fictitious, mind you), of food and little phrases from the local dialects and of culture. Much later, while revisiting some old ones and picking up new titles, I used to be struck by what I could only think of as travel writing in those passages between the heroine’s blush and the hero’s show of all-maleness. I would not claim to have found inspiring sentences and quotable phrases in any of them; now that would be too farfetched. But in the two-three hours that it takes to read one of them, if you pay attention, there is a little bit of history, some intro to food and clothes and language and culture of turquoise beaches and emerald islands to be found in those pages.
There are Indian versions as well, which were launched with a much publicized competition where winners got their stories published by M&B India. I read one of the first few that came out, and stopped at that. We have our Bollywood for our unbelievables. In romance fiction, I find the unrelatable-ness of foreign characters with blond hair and the French accent better to ‘get’ than the dusky dude in a sherwani wooing his fair, lithe bride in a ghoonghat. But that is just me.
This thought process started with the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon for me. I have an e-book version that I thought I would read, just to see what the fuss was all about. But a few pages down, I gave up after the girl began blushing in every seventh sentence. It is supposed to have revived erotica, but if that book is erotica, it is snowing in
today. I stopped at a point when the heroine says of her blush, that she was
the colour of the Communist Manifesto! That made me laugh, doubly so because I
don’t think that was the writer’s intended reaction from her readers. But then I
read somewhere that she is making one million pounds every week (!!) from the
book now. That robs me of the amusement. Bangalore
Apparently, M&B has come out with fan fiction for Fifty Shades… as well. I am not sure I want to read them. I like my clichés in my romance fiction. I like the emeralds and TDH men and the perfect stories. I might still skip over the sightseeing bits of the book, but like your vanilla ice-cream, plain and simple, there is nothing like a good, straightforward love story when real life gets bit of a bore. Plus I get to learn another way to describe sunset on a beach.