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The Mc Aloo Tikki of Women’s Literature in India by Aryaa Naik, Gyaan Adab Centre
“Indian bookstores these days are stocking up on a new kind of English language novel, the kind in which twenty something urban women put their careers first, ridicule arranged marriages and wrestle with weight gain.” – Washington Post in 2006 on the ascent of desi chick lit novels in the Indian market. The genre was initially trivialized and dismissed as a marketing ploy or accused as Western cultural imperialism or a throwback to pre-feminism.
It has been ten years since novels like Swati Kaushal’s breezy “Piece of Cake,” (2004) familiarized the genre of Indian chick lit and it can be safely said that it has not only proved to be extremely adaptable but also very popular and has tapped into the larger socio-economic shifts in the country.
The stories of the new urban Indian women who are single, have a career and are willing to have fun, take risks and find a man their way, and not necessarily their family’s way struck a chord with the young Indian women of neo-liberal India where traditional values collided in unexpected ways with a new economic order.
The Indian chick lit is more like a Mc Aloo Tikki burger, with the frills and packaging of a Mc Donalds burger, at the centre of which lies a desi aloo tikki. This resonates in the genre’s adaptation to Indian themes like arranged marriage, matrimonial advertisements and interfering parents, along with the staples like love, work, bitchy bosses, brand names, weight loss and addiction, that mark the distinctness of the universal ‘chick-lit’.
Literary circles, be it in the East or West have often termed the genre as nothing more than “trash”, “fluffy, mind-numbing garbage”, “formulaic vapid prose”, and so on. However, in the wake of globalization and the changing Indian landscape, desi chick lit novels seem to be providing a ground for women to negotiate the anxieties of tradition and modernity. The notion of conflicting desires which reflect the challenges facing young women as they navigate careers and relationships, independence and commitment, with commodity culture and traditional values, strike a chord with the young urban independent professional women. The genre explores the reality of the new woman and the theme of urban loneliness.
Advaita Kala, author of the book ‘Almost Single’(2006) which fortified the popularity of the chick lit genre in India and did a 20,000 print run in a year said in an interview, “A generation ago, marriage was the only route to independence from parental control in India. Now women are working, living alone in the cities, hanging out with women friends, drinking, dating and having fun in spite of the enormous social pressure to get married.” The protagonist of Kala’s novel, Aisha is a 29-year-old large-framed young woman obsessed about the handsome Karan Verma and bitches about her boss. Hers is the story of every 25-plus career woman looking to shed the single tag without going the arranged way.
Among other popular books in this genre, ‘The Mango Season’ (2004) by Amulya Malladi is another book that presents young woman’s desire to break tradition. The heart-wrenching novel shows a detailed contrast between old and young women while making clear the consequences of straying from tradition.
Highlighting another significant aspect of a married woman’s woes, ‘Mistress’ (2005) by Anita Nair is a novel of family betrayal and secrets which is a deep tale of sexual frustration, passion and emotional turmoil.
Building on the confusion that comes with the tag of a “global citizen”, ‘The Hindi-Bindi Club’ (2007) by Monica Pradhan is all about coping with adulthood when you’ve had a culturally mixed upbringing. The book is about three women managing to find the middle ground between two opposing cultures.
The contemporary breed of Indian women writers are creating a niche for themselves Readers are demanding of their writers and a poorly written novel will not sell. Journalist Ben Mizra, who has written for everyone from the Huffington Post to Hello Pakistan wrote in a recent blog post “Indian writers and Western South Asian writers have and are producing some of the best Chick-Lit out there. Writers like Preethi Nair, Kavita Daswani, Anita Nair and many others are engaging in a literary revolution. Essentially, that’s what Chick-Lit is all about – revolution – but not in a radical sense, Chick-Lit is by no means communism’s red-headed sister. It’s a much more subtle and much more intelligent revolution than that.”
A recent entrant in the land of bindi, sari and Gucci is the book Fade into Red by Reshma Krishnan Barshikar which was launched at Gyaan Adab Centre in August 2014. It is about an Investment Banker in Mumbai juggling an eccentric quintessential Tamil family, a fading career and a long –distance relationship that seems to be going downhill. The book celebrates her independence, instinct and her grit and determination to take the ethical path at the crossroad of her career, even if it means that the decision might just leave her without one. The story fractures the myth of a balancing act that a woman is expected to perform with the precision of a trapeze artist in order to have it all – career, personal life and the perfect man- the protagonist cannot manage it all and ends up losing out on the ‘the perfect guy’. She speaks for every urban woman trying to juggle a career and personal life and the negotiations that accompany the joys of love when she tells her love interest: “When you meet us you don’t care about the fact that we are ambitious, that we have no interest in making idlis. We live in this shitty city where it rains half the year and we have to pretend we love it. And some of us like living alone. And then we live alone for so long that we have cats! But we can’t just throw our cats away because you decide to change your mind about the cat.”
The grit and determination of the women is not just limited to their ambitions but also lies in their will and courage to stand up for themselves and implicate those who have wronged them. In Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom it is gradually revealed that one of the main characters, Arya left her previous place of employment after implicating several members of the management in large-scale sexual harassment and abuse. The man she considered her boyfriend had attempted to drug and molest her: “She had come out of her last company a complete mess, but not without first logging an integrity complaint against not just Sihaan but his whole gang of miscreants who drugged girls at parties and lured them to the very same rented apartment where Arya had been taken. From the managers to the highest strata of the organization, a good number of people were involved in this racket. Sihaan had been stupid enough to reveal to her their names and those of the girls who had gladly volunteered for unplanned and undeserving promotions within the company.”
Desi chick lit has become a way for women to express themselves in popular culture, to explore the roles they play in larger society, to come across as strong, flawed, ambitious and vulnerable, to acknowledge their flaws and have the ability to laugh at them. However, if you peel the layers of self-deprecating humour, the pressures of being a good daughter, chaste and marrying at the right age, being a successful career woman who stands for gender equality, and the mapping of a social shift in India; at the heart of it chick lit is really a cosmopolitan fairy tale. Here, the endings are happy and the princess almost always ends up with a charming prince; the only difference is that the white horse is replaced by a white Ferrari.
One could claim it to be post-feminist or one could contend it is a reprisal to traditional feminism, but what desi chick lit most unarguably is; is a feel good factor in the life of a woman who seeks it.
© Aryaa Naik