I had always imagined my first book would be like Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood—dark, gloomy, full of suicidal tendencies and existential angst. I’d had dreams of how it would havelonely hearts who look for love in many dysfunctional relationships, only to end up alone in their Delhi barsatis and Mumbai’s Bandra ‘bungalows’ with a cat for a companion. And then one day, it would win the Booker, followed by the Pulitzer.
At least, that’s what the plan was. But the powers up there, who had obviously been laughing at my delusions, chose a funny way to let me know exactly what would be good for me. And in retrospect, I humbly agree with them.
But let’s rewind to the day I came home after a tiring assignment in a far-flung corner of Mumbai, sure that the visit would be a waste, since the story would eventually not even be carried as it just wouldn’t be up to the ‘mark’. Forgive the bitterness, but being a journalist for nine long years can make Mr Happy just a T-shirt.
As I sat in front of a computer in a dark room, I knew I was meant for better and bigger things. On Facebook, I noticed that there was a Mills & Boon contest on—write a short story, win, and you could write a novel for them.
It was five hours to deadline, and in a wave of emotions that ranged from fury (at all those who said I wasn’t a good writer) to a renewal of self-esteem (I knew I could do this), I wrote a short story about a curvy, gentle, rich heiress with a heart of gold and a ruthlessly handsome, arrogant man who would fall madly in love with her. As I hit the submit button, I felt exhilarated. For the first time I had written something without the fear of ‘judgment’ hanging over me.
And it felt good.
It must have read good too, because I won. I was applauded, and newspapers mentioned me (oh, how lovely it was to see the tables turn). My detractors said “How lovely” in amused tones, all the while cringing inside. But my friends and family said things like “Oh, we knew you would win. It’s no surprise.” Wasn’t it? Had everyone seen the M&B romance writer in me, something that I had never imagined I could be? Had all those years of conditioning myself and my style according to what ‘intellectuals’ thought was good writing and bad writing killed the writer who once wrote only what she felt like (Enid Blytonesque novels about my friends in school, and sappy ‘I love him but he doesn’t’ short stories in college)?
But a lofty task lay ahead and there was no time to think. The short story had to be converted into a 40,000-word novella. And if I had ever thought that writing a romance was easy, I had another thing coming. The first month was spent in figuring out the characters. Why was Amrita (my heroine) so different from other South Mumbai brats? Why did she dislike her body so much? Why did she want to wait till marriage to have sex? Why was Mehtab (my hero) such a sour puss? Why didn’t he live with his family? Why was he so ruthless?
It had to be all there in my head, even if I didn’t use the information later, explained my able editor. Otherwise, how would I justify the independent Amrita’s decision to marry the arrogant Mehtab in a manner that made it seem like a business transaction?
Then came the time to write the first three chapters, and I waited for those much-heard-about M&B diktats. Now they would tell me when the first kiss was supposed to take place and when the first fight—it would all be planned out. But nothing happened. I was told to set the tone of the story in the first three chapters, or else I would lose the reader. But no diktats, no strict guidelines—they had just support and a deep understanding of my characters and their lives to offer.
There was one important, life-changing question asked, though. As an Indian writer, how much sex was I going to be okay writing about? I knew what to say—there would be sex for sure. After all, one of the challenges of being an Indian writer is to portray modern India, not one where flowers meet when couples kiss on screen. If Bollywood had progressed to long-extended smooches, some sex in a Mills & Boon novel was granted, right?
And so, the 10 chapters progressed, slowly at first, and then rapidly, years of journalism experience kicking in. I had never been this happy or free. Free to write what I wanted, free to experiment, innovate and create stories that had nothing to do with the outside world. Happy, because finally there was no one judging me. Or once again, that’s what I thought. Writing an M&B meant you were not a serious writer, people seemed to say to me through their eyes. Some more blatantly so. A recent magazine article on the ‘Mills & Boon strategy in India’ referred to my novel as ‘a cheesy romance with a cringe-worthy plot’ without even reading it. The writer, after having had a long conversation with me, didn’t even consider it fit to mention my view. After all, writing the ‘love conquers all’ kind of romance had to be the task of a silly, flighty, second-rate writer, they seemed to say.
But writing a romance meant that I had to revive the optimist in me—the one who didn’t bleed sarcasm and cynicism in the frenetic, fast-paced, dog-eats-dog world we live in today. I had to only look at my husband who sat with me as I guiltily watched Keeping Up With the Kardashians and know that love stories do exist. Some less perfect than others, but they exist all the same. I had to let go of my inhibitions and be the one who didn’t give a damn anymore about how she was perceived. And today, I can’t be prouder to introduce myself as Aastha Atray Banan, journalist and an M&B writer. Writing one has made me aware of who I am, and even more acutely of who I am not, and never could be.