The thing about romance novels is that you want to imagine yourself in them. That’s why generations of girls have spent all their school and college years devouring the Mills and Boon books. It’s you in the Spanish villa, with the lingering scent of hyacinths, darting about rose gardens, anguished and confused, waiting for the dark, handsome man who attracts you in inexplicable ways. In the mirror, you may be a foul-mouthed tomboy in yesterday’s cargo pants and dishevelled hair, but within the pages of the romance novel you are doe-eyed, flighty and delicate.
Fantasy is the foundation of romance and this makes Kama Kahani, a new series of historical romances, an easy read but a difficult fantasy.
It is India’s first historical romance series in English, to be launched tomorrow by Random House India. Three titles— Mistress to the Yuvraj, Ghazal in the Moonlight and The Zamindar’s Forbidden Passion—will be out this month and a fourth will follow in November. The books are set in the 18th and early 19th centuries in Rajasthan, Lucknow and Bengal, respectively.
History reload: Will the Kama Kahani series be as popular as the last successful historical romance in film, Jodhaa Akbar?
The basic sketch is typically Mills and Boon: a strong (“hard chested”), tall (“towering”), handsome (“bronzed”) man riding horses, camels and carriages. The heroine is fragile, yet with a spark. The man is rich, the girl’s family is not. There is conflict, the potential of an uprising, the threat of partition; and through it all an attraction that is confounding, yet powerful.
While the premise of Kama Kahani is interesting, it is so far removed from anybody’s reality in 21st century India that it takes away the joy of fantasy in the romance. And it is here that the books stumble. Sample this: “But she looked forward to exploring the inner chambers, the outer yards, and she couldn’t wait to meet the zamindar himself. Just imagine, meeting a real zamindar!” It’s safe to presume that imagining a real zamindar is not a prospect that rings any level of excitement in this age of reality television and MMS.
And you know you are in trouble when you find yourself mentally rolling your eyes at your heroine. Milee Ashwarya, who edited the series for Random House India, differs. “We grew up hearing stories about princes and princesses and people still love them,” she says. “The romance of an IT girl does not have that special element in it.”
The novels capture the essence of that time well. Ghazal in the Moonlight intricately depicts 18th century Lucknow. The author of the book, Alessandra Shahbaz, says: “I feel the decision to write about Lucknow practically made itself... The opulence of the wazir’s court is legendary. Innumerable colonial documents describe the awe British traders felt when first glimpsing the city’s domes and spires, when catching sight of the elaborate peacock-shaped pleasure boats moving up and down the Gomti. Lucknow was, to a certain extent, a city of illusion, where ideas of East and West became fetishized to an almost delirious extreme.”
If Shahbaz’s research came from books, Sangita Rathore, who authored Mistress to the Yuvraj, wrote about a past she knew and a culture she lived in. “Luckily, I belong to Rajasthan and the culture is a part of me. A few conversations with my mother about Rajput festivals, an afternoon lunch session injected with information with Narendra Singh Sarila, author of Once a Prince of Sarila, and a few museum visits to better understand the clothes they wore back then was the extent of my research for the book,” she says.
Kama Kahani: Random House India, Rs150 each.
Both Shahbaz and Rathore are first time novelists, and the books are considerably overwritten. Reading them is an exercise in either skipping to the dialogues or groaning past pages. How else can you survive this: “A flower of such wild beauty was bound to be plucked. The nurse only hoped the hand would not be rough.” Or “That is not yours for the taking,” she said. “You will be so kind as to unhand it at once.”
This is the problem with Kama Kahani: The impossibility of placing yourself in a situation where you say “unhand”. Ashwarya says, “Hey, it’s still Prince Charming, not executive charming.” True, but I prefer my Prince Charming in chinos, not churidars and when he comes riding in, I would rather he’s on a Harley than a horse.