Editorial / The royal touch
Love elsewhere
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

The massacre of the king of Nepal and his entire family by his son and heir apparent and the latter’s subsequent suicide is the stuff potboilers are made of. Once the sensationalism that envelopes the tragedy has cleared, there will be cause to ponder the event’s repercussions on Nepal’s politics and on the future of royalty in Nepal. The killings have an air of madness about them. It could be the product of a diseased mind which was driven to violence and self-destruction because it could no longer suffer the constraints and protocol that go hand in hand with royalty. The heir apparent, Dipendra, if the initial accounts are to be believed, went berserk because the queen, his mother, was opposed to his choice of partner. The queen, Aishwarya, had held that the girl chosen by her son was the daughter of a minister and not good enough to marry into royalty. Another version says that the queen disapproved of the match because of a prophecy which predicted that if Dipendra married and had children before he was 35, his father would die. These, of course, do not explain why the killer opted for the path of complete annihilation of the king’s entire family. There is nothing in science that quite accounts for the behaviour of a mind that is unhinged and is therefore beyond the pale of ratiocination. But there are dimensions to the gory incident which royalty-watchers should take cognizance of.

The existence of monarchies in the modern world is an obvious anachronism. It is a throwback to the medieval world. The codes that govern royal conduct have no relevance in a world that is committed to the equality of merit. Royal families, wherever they exist — even deposed ones — live in simulated grandeur and harbour the illusion that they are different from and superior to the ordinary run of human beings. This delusion informs all the rituals and protocols that govern the daily routine of royal families. These range from forms of address to forms of dress, to how engagements and weddings should be conducted. A young royal is not allowed to enjoy life in the way a normal human being should. This creates personality disorders which are at times inexplicable. One has only to recall the tortured persona of Diana, princess of Wales, who, because she was chosen to marry the prince of Wales, had to submit herself to a medical examination and prove to the royal family that she was a virgin and capable of bearing children. There is evidence that the prince of Wales was forced into marriage. These circumstances, and Diana’s failure to accept the innumerable constraints that the stigma of royalty put on her behaviour and personality, destroyed the marriage and contributed perhaps to the tragedy that followed. It may also have vitiated prince Charles’s relationship with his father, prince Philip. Royal archives, if and when they are opened, will reveal many other stories of untidy and neurotic lives. What happened in Kathmandu can be read as an extreme and perverse manifestation of such a damaging and unnatural existence.

Royalty is surrounded by the bizarre. In Kathmandu, for example, a man declared to be clinically dead was named the king. This was dictated by the peculiar convention that a crown prince has to become king. The fact that in this case the crown prince was a murderer did not seem to matter. This only underlines the monarchy’s distance from the realities of modern life. The concept that a group of people, for reasons of blood and family ties, should have access to certain special privileges has no place in modern society. This principle applies equally to royalty as well as to the beneficiaries of the caste system. The practice of constitutional monarchies, like the one that prevailed in Nepal, has diminished royal power and prerogatives but has not eroded the exalted notions royals have of themselves. Royalty believes that it is above law and reason. Ironically, Nepal’s royal family has been eliminated by one of its members who lost his reason and ran amok.


I began reading romantic fiction in Class III (or, as schoolboys used to say then, the third standard). I had older female cousins so getting hold of them wasn’t a problem. Denise Robins, Hermione Black, Lucy Walker and the boiled down sixty-four page romances that the Women’s Weekly Library supplied became weekend reading. Weekend reading because that was when we visited my aunt and the cousins who owned the books. The reading landmark of my tenth year was discovering Georgette Heyer: I read her Bath romance, Black Sheep, serialized in Woman & Home. The adults were mildly amused that a young boy should read romances but nobody minded because the conventions of the genre ruled out sex.

In all the time I read romantic fiction I can’t remember anyone saying a good word for the genre, except for the novels of Georgette Heyer who used the conventions of romance in a superior way in Regency novels and found respectable literary admirers in Anthony Burgess and A.S. Byatt. Romantic novels were bad as fiction: formulaic pulp writing, churned out to conservative male guidelines. The genre was invented by Messrs Mills & Boon in 1908. The books they published were pseudonymous, and even when they weren’t, the authors were unimportant. The books were products, assembly lined and mass produced with strict “quality” controls. Mills & Boon were to romantic fiction what Henry Ford was to the automotive industry.

Mills & Boon supplied their writers with a list of dos and don’ts, where they nominated the extent of desire allowable, the degree of explicit sexuality (none), the permitted euphemisms for arousal, the number of pages, and pretty much everything else. Later, as the market matured, books were organized into types, graded by the sexual freight their narratives carried.

The contemporary market is generically divided into two broad halves: “sweet romance” and “sensual romance”. For an imprint like Silhouette, this means two separate series of books: Silhouette Romance and Silhouette Desire. Romantic novels are rather like curry houses in England where the food on the menu is graded with chilli pepper symbols: one for mild, two for hot and so on.

It can be argued that all genre fiction shares in the predictability of romantic fiction. Starting with the penny dreadful, every popular genre (detective fiction, science fiction, the boarding school tale, the police precinct novel, the gothic novel, horror fiction, the western) is formulaic, produced to order, and aimed at massaging the reader’s feelings with predictable moves. The difference is that these other genres are allowed a certain respectability. Some genre writers even achieve literary acceptance: think of Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Stephen King, Zane Grey, J.G. Ballard. Romantic fiction is allowed no such latitude. Apart from Georgette Heyer I can’t think of a single writer of the feminine romance who is admired as a novelist.

The romantic novelist is doubly disadvantaged: not only is romantic fiction bad as fiction, it is deplorable as romance. From the Sixties on, feminist sensibilities were offended by the idealization in these books of a life-sequence where virgins moved through chaste romantic love to the goal of domesticity in marriage; marriage to an older, richer, dominant male. Betty Neels had nurses marrying rich Dutch doctors, Lucy Walker had governesses marrying rich outback ranchers, Anne Mather’s secretaries found fulfilment in snaring rich, ruthless businessmen. When the heroine was rich, it was her dad’s money, not her own.

Now all of this is true, but it hides nearly as much as it reveals about the form. This indictment tells us nothing about the reasons for the vast popularity of these books. Unless we slide to the lazy conclusion that the readership of romantic fiction is uniformly self-hating we need to make sense of its enormous appeal.

The first thing to remember is that historically, outside of romantic fiction, very little is routinely written from a woman’s point of view. Compared to the way in which women have been marginalized in arts like music or painting, the novel has been hospitable to women writers. But despite the well documented fact that the market for novels is dominated by women, in terms of authorship and point-of-view, the novel remains a largely male domain. George Eliot wrote under a male pseudonym and, more recently, J.K. Rowling was encouraged by her publishers to use her initials instead of her first name, Joanne.

Think of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, two of the world’s bestselling detective novel writers. Both are women but the central characters they are most famous for are men, Inspector Wexford and Superintendent Dalgliesh. Similarly, Agatha Christie produced Poirot. True, she invented Miss Marple as well, and James has authored a heroine in Cordelia Gray, but it is significant that successful female writers in this genre routinely create male heroes but the reverse is seldom true.

Romantic fiction, in contrast, reliably produces stories anchored in women’s feelings, thoughts and sensibilities. Unlike nearly every other kind of novel, the romantic novel is nearly always narrated from the heroine’s point of view. The emphasis on nurture, domesticity and marriage might be infuriating but at least space is made for female desire, sexual longing. The female body, however censored, is made the vessel of desire, not just its object. Radhika Chopra has pointed out in her work on masculinity that romantic fiction, unlike male pornography, always involves an exchange of desire without violence. Even in contemporary romantic fiction where the sexual desire is explicitly described and women are allowed to be lustful, the men always have speaking roles, they’re never simply sex objects and the heroine is never a dominatrix.

Seen like this, romantic fiction is a useful way of understanding the real differences in the way in which men and women write about sex and love, even perhaps a way of discriminating between stereotypes of male and female desire.

In the mid-Seventies, romantic fiction changed. Two things happened: with the landmark novel, Leopard in the Snow, written by Anne Mather, the euphemisms for sex disappeared; first the female body and then the male one was more explicitly named. Now major imprints like Silhouette and Loveswept publish books you mightn’t want your nine-year-old son to read.

Secondly, romantic fiction which used to be a British and white commonwealth affair in its locales, writers and readers, moved to North America. Earlier, Harlequin, a Canadian firm used to import Mills & Boon. In the Eighties a major United States publishing firm, Simon & Schuster, started an imprint of its own, Silhouette. The stories were set in America and suddenly the heroines were different. They were self-employed women, entrepreneurs, professionals and most significantly, their virginity couldn’t be taken for granted.

No longer were nurture and domesticity the arenas of romantic womanhood as they had been in earlier romantic novels. Even where the heroine was a trained professional, as in the doctor-nurse romances, her vocation was simply the professionalization of nurture. In novels with English and colonial settings the heroine invariably earned brownie points by mothering a child, or (as in Essie Summers’ New Zealand romances) by cooking a meal or by being such a good governess and care giver that the hero’s heart was won. They were also certified virgins.

Now, in the brave new world of romantic fiction, you had sexually experienced women who sold real estate and couldn’t boil water playing the romantic lead. There were heroines who had had abortions, women who had been sexually assaulted, divorced women, women with children. The men changed too. They certainly had more lines to say and more ways of making a living. They could be (and this was unthinkable earlier) blue collar professionals: carpenters even. Their origins were ethnically more diverse. There were east European names, Russian lineages, even Native American ancestries.

This shift had something to do with changed locales and a changing world. In the context of Eighties America, the conditions of virginity and chastity were neither credible nor necessarily desirable. So they disappeared.

This may not represent radical feminism but it certainly suggests that romantic fiction as a genre was responsive to changing contexts and a different market. With the entry of Loveswept, a new American imprint, the Silhouette/Mills & Boon conglomerate was briefly challenged. A new set of elements were introduced. Authors were allowed inside-cover photographs and a brief, usually funny biography. Comedy entered the romantic novel, the best example of this being the novels of Janet Evanovich. The narrative began to lean more heavily on dialogue.

We shouldn’t overstate our claims for the genre or exaggerate how much has changed. Romantic fiction remains racially segregated. There is no inter-racial romance allowed. Physical handicaps yes, but no mixed affairs. Black heroes and heroines are allowed in those romances that are meant exclusively for a black American niche market.

This should make Indians wonder why they read them. I think we read them as post-colonial fantasy. Reading these books is like visiting a hill station: it’s fun but you know that the landscape is a kind of make-believe and it certainly isn’t where you live. Because of our unfamiliarity with the cultures that produced these fictions we misunderstand them sometimes and that’s entertaining too. For generations Indian readers thought the dark in tall dark and handsome meant skin colour. We read them as we read Enid Blyton or Harry Potter. We read them as we would any novel written by people elsewhere…which is most novels. All fiction transports us or should. Romantic fiction does that reliably.

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New way to look at things

It’s obviously the economy, stupid. But in West Bengal, where the learning capability of politicians is always somewhat suspect, the truth seems to have only begun to sink in. The latest to have come around is the speaker of the state assembly, Hashim Abdul Halim. Having won by a margin of 64 votes from the Amdanga constituency in North 24 Parganas, Halim is undoubtedly in a position to sit back and pass judgment on the sad performance of his party colleagues. Yet, Halim observes, at least nine CPI(M) MLAs, including the Left Front chief whip, Rabin Mondal, had worked hard to establish undergraduate colleges in their respective areas. “This proves that people are against imparting general education to students in colleges,” is the speaker’s deduction. But what wrong did “general education” do? Halim is sure that such education could give no jobs to young people. He is also quite definite that had the party nominees taken the initiative to set up technical colleges, the results would have been different. “Technical education could at least help youths get jobs, no matter how insignificant they are,” says the wise man. The speaker believes that the government ought to explore more job opportunities. In fact, solving the unemployment problem, Halim swears, should be top on the government’s agenda. Is Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, sorry, Nirupam Sen, listening?

Cut out for the job

It’s a different job for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. For a week or more, vernacular papers in the state have been carrying sprawling ads of one Om Prakash Singh, who incidentally holds three portfolios — irrigation, PWD and higher education. Singh seems to be the one doing all the good work in UP. And it is not without reason that CM Rajnath Singh is bearing it all with a grin. Om Prakash, once loyal to the deposed Kalyan Singh, is the BJP’s only lifeline to the OBC votes. So even if the department of information and publicity washes its hands of the matter, Om Prakash has to be wished god speed.

Give them the space

A storm brewing in 24, Akbar Road. Congresswallahs have recently discovered the urgent need for canteen reforms. Only days back, the CWC also nodded its head in agreement. The snacks the august body was being served were becoming increasingly difficult to stomach. The Congress headquarters has another perennial problem. Loos. There is an acute shortage of them. Satyajit Sing Gaikwad, party secretary, allotted a refurbished toilet for an office, has since decided to have a different entrance to his room. He is tired of having to encounter men bumping into his office to satisfy their natural urges. Another secretary, Shelja, has sealed the toilet opposite her room. So it’s a bad situation for everyone walking into the premises, which has around 500 visitors every day. May be it is time the Sulabh international made a bid. The proposition might even interest the AICC treasurer, Motilal Vora. After all, this would be one way to generate funds.

The confident men

Nationalist Congress Party leaders PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar had been feeling a bit out of sorts ever since the assembly elections ended. In Assam and Kerala, the NCP has fared miserably. Yet Sangma had threatened to teach the parent party a lesson. To help matters, big brother, Sharad Pawar, took the two to his Maratha stronghold in Kolhapur and Satara. The huge gathering there restored some confidence in them. The irony is that these men also have to move on — beyond the two specks on the Indian map.

Old guard still guarding

Never say die. So the former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, is still on the prowl in Alimuddin Street, if not in the Writers’. The old guard is apparently still in regular contact with the new king, Buddha, and the CPI(M) state unit secretary, Anil Biswas. This apart, Basu is said to be constantly interacting with the Left Front leaders. Sources have it that the leadership is now trying to convince the veteran leader to address a few public rallies in districts where the front has fared badly. But there are other things that take up Basu’s time. The Marxist is supposedly upset over the defeat of his election agent, Gokul Bairagi, from the Satgachhia constituency, Basu’s captive seat formerly, which returned Trinamooli Sonali Guha this time. Basu is reported to have already expressed his desire to have the matter probed. Very much the superboss he is reputed to be.

Footnote / Speak up and watch the effect

Careless remarks are not as dangerous as they are made out to be. Take the allegation of the former chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, IS Bindra, made at the height of cricketgate, that even international matches at Sharjah were fixed. He named no players nor gave much supportive evidence. But it was enough to make the Sharjah cricket authorities order an inquiry. Bindra was asked to testify and he was only too happy to oblige. The Sharjah people reportedly flew Bindra first class from Chandigarh to London, where the inquiry was being held, offered to put him up in a five star hotel, besides paying a handsome daily allowance. The fare pleased, but could these people raise the allowance if Bindra made his own arrangements to stay in London? Agreed, the Sharjah cricket bosses are supposed to have said. And with that aye, Bindra apparently had to himself the enhanced allowances even as he bunked in with a relative in London. The perfunctory appearance before the inquiry committee was made and no substantive evidence provided to back the charges. So what, the holiday was enjoyed.    


Aiming to educate

Sir — Any scheme that aims to provide education to the poor is welcome. However, such an initiative must be backed by adequate resources and a commitment to make things work. The decision made by the Rabri Devi government in Bihar to revive the charwaha vidyalaya project may well backfire in the absence of both these factors (“Revolt threat sends Laloo back to school”, June 1). Moreover, Laloo Prasad Yadav will also be giving his detractors an opportunity to claim that he is trying to find work for his newly elected panchayat heads. Either way, this project and similar ones will not succeed until the government is willing to prioritize education instead of using it as a means to gaining political mileage.

Yours faithfully,
Sunita Kar, via email

Way off base

Sir — Brijesh D. Jayal’s article, “Fair game in uniform” (May 1), has succeeded in sidelining the main issues that were responsible for the killing of Indian soldiers by the officers of the Bangladesh Rifles. One cannot help feeling though, that Jayal’s assessment of the situation is way off base. There is no reason to assume that the Indian armed forces are in any way disenchanted with the government’s policy of maintaining friendly and peaceful relations with our neighbours.

It is difficult to accept Jayal’s statement that the Indian forces have been routinely exploited. Given that there have been innumerable border skirmishes over the last 30 years, it is likely that India has been the aggressor on many occasions.

Yours faithfully,
M. Ahmed, Dhaka

Sir — The article, “This is not submissiveness” (May 29), is a futile attempt to justify yet another cowardly foreign policy decision made by the Indian foreign-policy makers. India should not have endorsed the controversial idea of a National Missile Defence, as envisaged by the George W. Bush administration, in the first place. The United States has come up with a unique excuse to justify its reasons for developing a missile defence system. Its claims that such a system will protect it from the so-called “rogue states” is unconvincing. It is common knowledge that the states that the US has identified as rogueish are too feeble to pose any serious threat to it. Moreover, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have seen the emergence of the US as the only superpower in the world.

By dumping the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the US has shown that it would not hesitate to revoke other treaties if doing so would be in keeping with its interests. It is difficult to accept the US claim that it has been reducing its nuclear arsenal over the last few years. In all probability, it is utilizing this opportunity to get rid of obsolete weapons and developing better ones. By reacting promptly to this proposal and endorsing it, India has compromised its integrity as an independent nation.

Yours faithfully,
Shankha Roy, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — The entrance examination of physiotherapy in Bonhooghly has coincided with the law examination conducted by Calcutta University. While the former has been scheduled to be held at 10 am on 17 June, the law examination has been slotted for 12 noon on the same day. As a result, students who have already paid to appear in both would be unable to do so. The authorities could postpone the law examination or reschedule it for 3 pm.

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Dutt, Calcutta

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