My characters don’t have that moment in the book where they say ‘I love you’,” says Sonali Dev, the Mumbai-born, Chicago-based architect and writer of “Bollywood romance” novels, quickly adding, “They will express their feelings but there’s no singular moment with para breaks where the declaration of love takes over the scene”. It may not seem like a big deal, but in romance, the world’s most widely read and written genre, the “moment” carries weight — for many, it is the reason for them to rapidly turn the page, clocking events leading up to that crescendo of emotions; to hold one’s breath till those three little words can set it free; and to delight in the possibility that no matter how dark and doomed life may seem, love will still find a way.
Dev, 44, waves her hand through the air, almost dismissively and says, “The genre structure is such that you are ensured a happy ending, but for so long, romance writing has been about nabbing the man/woman. But I think of the journey of a love story as one of wellness. How can somebody who feels broken or damaged embark on the road to a place where they can open themselves up and let love in? This is where romance and women’s fiction intersect, because they both are hoping to give their protagonists agency and power over how they want to live their lives.” We’re at The Bagel Shop in Pali Hill, Bandra, and Dev has just come from a meeting with the production company that is set to adapt her critically-acclaimed novels for a TV show; this month, HarperCollins is releasing her second novel, The Bollywood Bride, in the Indian market.
Since the publication of her first novel, A Bollywood Affair, in 2014, Dev’s work has found mention as one of the best books of the year (romance) in NPR (National Public Radio), The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal; in the first year, she won the American Library Association’s award for best romance and has also been a RITA finalist, the highest award of distinction in romance fiction, presented by the Romance Writers of America, a trade association for romance fiction authors. “I’m not a best-selling author as yet,” she says, humbly. But Dev is aware that her success in America, in a genre that is written predominantly by white women about white protagonists, and controlled by white men, is part of a not-so-quiet revolution led by people of colour (POC) and other minorities to have their stories told, and sold commercially. “When I began pitching my work to literary agents, they’d ask me if I could change one of the leads to white, so that readers could relate. If, for over 200 years, POC have been able to read about white women living on farms or estates in England or America, and relate to their struggles, why can’t they read about our lives and feel the same. That is no longer enough or acceptable,” says Dev, who went on to self-publish A Bollywood Affair with independent publishers, Kensington Books, New York.
It is clear that Dev approaches the structure of the romance genre as an architect. In each of her novels, right from A Bollywood Affair to The Bollywood Bride (2015) and A Distant Heart (2017), she maps out her stories in the mould of the genre, ticking all the major boxes — boy meets girl, conflict leads to a moment of reckoning and, finally, love triumphs against all odds. In three of her four books so far, she uses a “Bollywood” setting. It is a clever trick, for it invites international readers to a world they are somewhat familiar with. “Of course, Bollywood inspired my understanding of romance! What I take from it is the heightened drama, the emotions dialled to 11— not the stalking or eve-teasing, or other problematic depictions of romance,” says Dev, who doesn’t skimp out on the lush details about clothing, food; and there are plenty of dramatic Balaji-meets-Yash Raj moments. But what is remarkable about her work is that in that milieu, she addresses the inequalities in gender and class; the social stigma surrounding mental health; child marriage and its intergenerational repercussions. She’s not afraid of throwing her characters smack in the middle of an illegal organ trade in A Change of Heart (2016), if it allows her to address the ever-widening gap between poverty and privilege, and still give her characters a chance at happiness.
Dev knows that she doesn’t need to be a writer of literary fiction in order to weave in weightier elements into her love stories. “There’s a perception that lit-fic is the genre for serious themes. In the West, they expect Indian writers to be lit-fic writers too. That genre — where everything ends horribly and you’re punished for being alive — doesn’t work for me at all. And they’ll say ‘that’s reality’, but I think life can be joyous as well. Romance is fundamentally the literature of hope,” she says.
Her growing readership include Indian women, POC, and much to their amazement, white women. “White female readers express surprise at how easily they could submerge themselves in Indian culture, and how by using humour, I ‘Americanised’ it,” says Dev, wryly, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. Her Indian readers, though, reach out to her to give thanks for writing elaborate sex scenes in a way that is different from pages 154-157 of the old Mills & Boon novels, where “bodies are in the throes of a dance known to man since time immemorial.”
“Many of them are thankful that they are reading about Indian women in charge of their bodies. To me, a sex scene is about showing vulnerability, it’s about opening your body and heart. Culturally, there is so much shame associated with female desire — we’re taught to think that we don’t own our bodies, we don’t own our sexuality. I think it’s crucial to write female characters who have sexual agency in a space where there is overt consent from all parties involved. More than ‘I love you’, I want my readers to really enjoy a ‘heartgasm’,” says Dev.