Help me welcome Zeenat Mahal, a romance author from Pakistan who wants to broaden your reading horizons. =)
I 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.
I 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.
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.
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…
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.