Posted On January 28, 2015 by Print This Post

Jane Austen’s South Asian Sisters with Zeenat Mahal

Help me welcome Zeenat Mahala romance author from Pakistan who wants to broaden your reading horizons. =)

IMG-20120728-00348-3_edited-1-300x291I grew up in Pakistan, far, far away from Pemberley, dreaming of Mr. Darcy. For those who know my country only through the jaded eye of media-lens, Pakistan and romance as a genre, must seem like an unlikely combination. In a land where only 25% of the population can read and write in English, those who like reading for leisure, are fewer still. I grew up in a literary household, where the most precious things were books. It was a house full of women, where men tread very carefully indeed.

For me, reading was an ordinary, everyday thing all of us did. My parents read and wrote in regional languages, and my sisters and I, in English as well. We were encouraged to read classics, avoid comics, and the concept of age appropriate books did not exist, unless there was sexual activity involved. I first read Emma when I was eleven, and I continued to read children’s literature even when I was in secondary school, when at last, I discovered romantic fiction. Tall, dark, and handsome men, who had to be ‘tamed’ by one very ordinary woman, with nothing more than the occasional gleam in her eyes, her intelligence and indifference to said untameable man to recommend her, became my favourite theme. It was somewhat familiar. It features a lot in Indian/Bollywood movies, which I loved.

I began to write well enough to be published by daily newspapers at the age of eleven. I began to realize that I was happiest when I was reading. Or writing. The final realization of ‘I write, therefore I am’ came in my late teens, when all those people who populated my head, and had interesting conversations with each other were at peace only once I had inscribed them on paper. I wrote a great deal. Romantic fiction amongst other things.

SLMHLMN-cover-final-683x1024I found innumerable books with the arrogant hero and intelligent/spirited heroine theme at their heart. Some of them were considered ‘high-literature’ as in the case of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, though their objective was very similar to the ‘trashy romance’ novels I had to hide and read. Why the former were not considered as objectionable as the latter was, perhaps because they were not explicitly sexual, they had withstood the test of time, and the prose was much more refined.

Now, as my third romantic novella comes out on Valentine’s Day this year, I realize that I am still writing in the patterns set by women, and men (yes men!) in another century and in a completely different culture. However unlikely it may seem, it is not entirely surprising. Not because I grew up reading them. No, it goes deeper than that. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela could very easily be the story of a Pakistani woman—in present day. Lily Barton’s life would have unfolded exactly the same way if she was born in Lahore even now, in the twenty-first century. Time, space and relativity was never simpler. Most of the concerns in Jane Austen’s universe, like the importance of marriage in a woman’s life, even as escape; discrimination in property inheritance, fear of spinsterhood, elopements and honour, are rife in Pakistani society.

So, when I write a South Asian romance, set in South Asian culture, seeped in the colours, smells and tastes of my country, I am unwittingly, still looking back to Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy and perhaps even D. H. Lawrence, who brought into literature the idea of sexual desire as a natural, human trait, rather than as sinful and satanic, as had been so long depicted in novels. Men were not bestial for desiring women, and women did not necessarily feel repulsed by it. And that became the basis of most romance novels ever to be written.

However, these may be old shades in the western romantic genre tradition, they are still unfamiliar in popular fiction in South Asia, as is popular fiction itself. South Asians are known for ‘literary fiction’ not pulp fiction. These days, however, South Asian sensibilities and tastes are embracing, and include, contemporary and paranormal romances, historical romances, chick-lit, and fantasy, all with a flavour of our ‘local colour’ in varying degrees and forms. Local writers are trying to deal with the darkness of cultural constraints, while making their readers laugh at themselves. Characters fall in love, dance at weddings that last weeks, and even as they despair of it at times, they celebrate it all. Gods and goddesses roam the South Asian textual universe with ease. Magical Realism has found a new home in South Asian pulp fiction. Writers, writing in English, are no longer apologetic if their creativity takes expression in a genre less coveted. Romance writing has been accepted as being almost respectable.

Almost.

Most women writers are still using pseudonyms to avoid any labels patriarchy might choose to throw at them. They are cautious but unafraid. Mills and Boon India and Harlequin are thriving with several titles coming out every year. Indireads, an e-publishing company, with which I have published three romance novellas, is making some major waves amongst the South Asian readership, which is growing, and it is eclectic.

Most South Asian writers of popular fiction today have done a superb rendition of culture, story and context and some of them have pushed boundaries that have hitherto been barely seen in genre writing. To incorporate such challenging themes as gay couples, finding love as senior citizens, lustful female ghosts, pre-marital sex and the ‘consequences’ of these choices in romance, chick-lit and fantasy romance, is something new in South Asian tradition. It is a commendable feat because it brings taboo subjects into the realm of every day, without ramming it down their readers’ throats in ‘heavy prose’. These are easily relatable, ordinary tales of love and heartache, and South Asia is thirsty for more.

South Asian popular literature today has a complicated legacy. We are writers from various ethnic backgrounds, Punjabi, Marathi, Balouchi, Pathan, Tamil and so many others, writing in English. The various Western writers we have read and loved and who have left an indelible mark on our consciousness, are never far from our stories. Neither are the writers and literature of all the regional languages we know. South Asian writers have multiple traditions on hand to mine their stories from, and to take inspiration from and this makes for a heady mix indeed.

Try the flavours, the multi-coloured versions of love stories, fantasy, thrillers, and chick-lit South Asia has to offer and believe me, your palette will be the richer for it.

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Ok RU Readers, you’ve been challenged to read South Asian authors – or have you already? Do tell….

Join us on Friday for a very special guest post…

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Bio: I was born in Lahore, Pakistan and grew up in that city of gardens, and saints, shrines and Sufis. It’s a rich tapestry to weave from, and I like to delve into all its shades. I absolutely love reading and writing romances. I just cannot resist paranormal and historical romances. Dragons, werewolves, witches and warlocks…keep ‘em coming, I say. I enjoy reading fantasy, literary fiction and children’s literature as well.

I’ve been published in on-line literary magazines like The Missing Slate and Running Out of Ink.

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21 Responses to “Jane Austen’s South Asian Sisters with Zeenat Mahal”

  1. I have to laugh as I grew up your opposite, reading Idries Shah & listening to my dad tell me stories of taking trains up to the hill forts & renting horses to ride into Afghanistan when he wasn’t flying for the USAF. Then I fell in love with a Persian & found myself watching Bollywood classics. Hello, sister!

    Posted by Beth Irwin | January 28, 2015, 8:16 am
    • How wonderful Beth! I have read and live Idries Shah as well. What did you think of The Book of Books? Many thanks for your comment and sisterhood

      Posted by Zeenat Mahal | January 29, 2015, 1:11 am
      • That was loved Idries Shah:)

        Posted by Zeenat Mahal | January 29, 2015, 1:44 am
      • That was never one I had access to. So many were out of print or had to be ordered via intra-library loan from universities once I exhausted the battered editions I had access to. One of my greatest joys was growing up in a house with a father who read voraciously and bookshelves where one might find a copy of Tom Swift and His Electric Car jammed next to a set of Travelogue Encyclopedias published in the 1920s just before Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered.

        But it led to emailing Tahir when his House of the Caliph came out. He was able to steer me to a copy of his grandmother’s and sister’s books and point me to research materials for a book idea I had at the time. Researching that led me all sorts of intriguing places, not least my current revise and resubmit which is nothing to do with what I thought I wanted to write when I began.

        Posted by Beth Irwin | January 29, 2015, 8:54 am
        • That gives me hope Beth. I have been working on something for two years and it has changed a lot. So not a bad thing then? Haha!
          What do you write? Would love to hear more.

          Posted by Zeenat Mahal | January 30, 2015, 8:23 am
          • Thanks, Zeenat. I write Romantic Suspense (not yet published) under a pen name. What I’ve learned is to listen to my heart when I write as it tells me when what I’m writing needs to change as I learn my craft. I’m a pantser, so learning to use a beat sheet to guide my pacing and plot points was huge.

            But the hardest part was putting away that first story, realizing I didn’t have the skills to do it justice, and writing the next, which got me to the revise and resubmit. It’s a learning process and I’m getting there.

            That two years of work will take you somewhere, even if it’s not with that particular story. No one flies solo the first time they get in an airplane. And even after you do, it’s a matter of building hours, practicing for the unexpected and getting more training on bigger and more complex aircraft. It’s the same for writing. I need more hours at the keyboard with guidance from more experienced writers before I have the experience to do what I dream without crashing and burning. But the runway is in sight at long last.

            Posted by Beth Irwin | January 30, 2015, 8:43 am
          • Thank you Beth. Look forward to reading your books. Good luck:)

            Posted by Zeenat Mahal | January 31, 2015, 6:29 am
  2. Morning Zeenat!

    I have to (shamefully) admit I’ve never seen a Bollywood movie. =) Must put that on my to do list!

    I do remember when I first started reading romance novels, I read only historicals, mostly set in England. They opened up an entirely new world to me…it was an amazing feeling. If my history classes had held stories like those I’d read, I certainly would have paid more attention in class! =)

    Thanks for your informative post – and yes, I will expand my reading horizons!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | January 28, 2015, 9:18 am
  3. Hi Zeenat,

    I’ve read a couple books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I loved Mistress of Spices.

    Renita D’Silva is one of my favorite SE Asian authors. Her first book, Monsoon Memories, sits on my keeper shelf.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 28, 2015, 5:12 pm
  4. Thank you Carrie, and Beth is absolutely right about Sharukh Khan! And as for rising out of water….now who else does that remind you of?

    Posted by Zeenat Mahal | January 29, 2015, 1:18 am
  5. Hi Zeenat. You’re so right about the growth and appeal of South Asian pop fiction, particularly, romance. With homegrown idols from Bollywood to swoon over, Mr. Darcy may be in desperate need of a makeover, right? 😉

    Posted by Adite Banerjie | January 29, 2015, 2:32 am
    • And boy have we done that, Adite! I think that’s one makeover that will last forever. As a Mills and Boon India author, I am sure you know the appeal of the Bollywood hero-type and the undying love for Darcy that is even now undiminished!

      Posted by Zeenat Mahal | January 29, 2015, 6:10 am
  6. Just bagged a copy of The Contract now that I’m not living out of hotels and can buy off Amazon via safe wifi. My house is full of workmen and it’s the perfect time to curl up and indulge. Yay!

    I’m so glad you blogged on here as I hadn’t found you yet. Now I’m following your Amazon page so I don’t miss next month’s release.

    Posted by Beth Irwin | January 31, 2015, 9:10 am
  7. how very interesting.I grew up in a house with not much reading,(only newspaper,my family focused more on political issues).i discovered meg cabot in my school library and then eventually moved on to jane austen

    Posted by karachiette101 | February 8, 2015, 7:46 am
  8. Hi Karachiite, you know we were not allowed to read Sweet Valley High, comics and the like. Classics were books. Everything else was ‘trash’. Took me quite a few years before I branched out to Victoria Holt and all!

    Posted by Zeenat Mahal | February 20, 2015, 3:17 pm
  9. “Watch the Wall My Darling” was a favorite. What about Mary Stewart & titles like “Nine Coaches Waiting?”

    Posted by Beth Irwin | February 20, 2015, 6:04 pm

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