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The Mills & Boon ladies

She the sweet kid with a sassy mouth. He the brooding loner with the golden heart. They meet, sparks fly, then passion ignites, before a bitter misunderstanding threatens to ruin it all. But all is finally made good when they clear up the confusion and melt into each other’s arms for everafter.

That, in short, was my first Mills & Boon. And that, in short, is pretty much every Mills and Boon I’ve read since. Now, you might say that’s a bad thing. But there’s something to be said about the comforts of the familiar. I had stopped reading MBs since 1997, not because I grew out of hot romances but because I fell in love with something hotter — Agatha Christie murder mysteries. So when a couple of Indian-origin MBs landed on my desk last week, I was curious to know if things had changed in MB-land in the last decade and a half. A few pages into Bootie and the Beast by Falguni Kothari, I was relieved to find out that the hero still brooded. “But that was Krish. He was a brooder. He brooded on a daily basis with no provocation whatsoever.”

Ditto for Samir of Twelve Hours of Temptation by Shoma Narayanan, who looks “hot in an intense brooding kind of way” and exudes “an aura of sheer masculine power”.

And the heroine? According to Amrita Chowdhury, MB publisher Harlequin India’s country head and publishing director, “The current-day MB woman is someone who first and foremost respects herself. That reflects in how she fashions her life, what work she does, how she dresses and behaves, the type of friendships she has, and finally how she treats a relationship and level of respect she expects from her partner. In essence, she is the feisty and fabulous woman of today.”

Well, Diya, the heroine of Bootie and the Beast, is all that and more. Except for the fact that she became a globally renowned supermodel only because she wanted the man she loved to treat her like a “grown-up”, marry her and give her a dozen rugrats. Oh, and guess what gives her strength as she goes about seducing her man in a see-through tee, panties and nothing else? A baby’s woolly bootie! Ah, the comforts of same-old!

But in that matter, Melissa of Twelve Hours... is head and shoulders ahead. After a rough and tumble in the hotel room with her new boss, here’s what she had to say: “I’m flattered that you think I’m ambitious enough to sleep with you because you’re a big dude in the advertising world, but it isn’t true. I slept with you because you’ve got a good body and sexy eyes, and ever since I met you I’ve been wondering what you’d be like in bed. Best way to get you out of my system.” Attagirl!

But of course Mel doesn’t get Samir “out of her system” with one wild night and what follows is a sweet romance with just the kind of ups and ughs that you and I are likely to go through in 2014 India.

The one big difference between then and now is possibly in the age profile of the typical MB reader. While it’s still women who pick up MBs, “they are aged 20 and above, living across metros and smaller cities,” says Amrita of Harlequin. Well, that’s possibly because Young Adult as a genre of fiction didn’t really exist back then. And compared to the graphic and rampant sex in these YA novels, today’s teens are likely to find our good ol’ MBs a tad tame.

Sidharth Pansari, who describes himself as the “chief storyteller” of Story, the big bookstore on Elgin Road, says Mills & Boon is still quite popular in Calcutta. “There is no real alternative. And we have noticed customers connect better with the Indian MBs.” He however points out that the advent and growth of Indian chick lit fiction in the same genre of young romance has thrown a serious challenge to MBs.

Gautam Jatia, the CEO of Starmark, which sells about 100 MBs a month in Calcutta, says Mills and Boon continues to be popular among romance reads. “There is a steady readership for this publication and also the brand value is still there.” But he says the classic MBs sell more than the new Indian entrants.

For many of us who grew up in the pre-Internet Stone Age aka 1990s, our first encounters with the hot stuff happened through an MB. But in a post-Fifty Shades world, he “drinking in the sight of her near-perfect body” and “making wild, passionate love to her all night” might seem rather vanilla. But then who says simple can’t be sexy?

Shoma Narayanan is the author of Twelve Hours of Temptation [Harlequin India, Rs 150], her fifth Mills & Boon. A t2 chat over email...

Is the MB heroine changing? Tell us a bit about the heroine in your book...

Melissa, the heroine of Twelve Hours of Temptation, is a talented young copywriter in an ad agency that is about to be bought over by a large media conglomerate. She loves her job and her friends and she’s made peace with her rather unconventional past. The only thing bothering her right now is the inconvenient attraction between her and her brand-new boss, Samir Razdan!

Tell us a bit about yourself...

I’m a banker by profession — did engineering and an MBA before I got into banking. I live in Mumbai, I’m married and have two children. Three years ago, I took up writing as a semi-serious hobby (“serious” because the final output is a published book, “semi” because the process is loads of fun). Since then, I slog at my job during the day, and in the evenings and on weekends I bang away at my keyboard.

Why did you decide to become an MB writer?

I became an MB writer more by accident than by design, but ever since I read my first MB, I’ve wondered whether an MB written in an Indian setting, with Indian characters would work. So when I saw an ad in Crossword inviting entries for Harlequin India’s annual Passions contest, I went home and spent the weekend working on my entry. I ended up as one of the three winners of the contest that year, and later on, my completed book was selected for a global release. I couldn’t have been more excited!

Since when have you been reading MBs and what changes have you observed in characters, plots and content over the years?

I’ve been reading MBs ever since I was a teenager, and the books have evolved considerably over the last 20 years ago. The women are feisty and independent — they have successful careers of their own, and are not afraid to stand up for themselves. The heroes are more modern and less caveman-like than the brooding, sometimes misogynist leading men of the past. They’re still drop-dead gorgeous alpha males, though!

As for the plots, they now focus more on conflicts between the personalities of the leading characters rather than external factors such as jealous ex-girlfriends or tyrannical parents.

In times of Fifty Shades, do you feel any pressure to make your books racier or more explicit?

Not really. There are plenty of readers who prefer their romances to stop short of the bedroom door, and those are the readers I write for.

Falguni Kothari is the author of Bootie and the Beast [Harlequin India, Rs 150], which is her debut novel. Here’s her take on MBs and more...

Is the MB heroine changing? Tell us a bit about the heroine in your book.

Of course, the MB heroine is changing! The world has changed and contemporary fiction must follow the trend. My heroine, Diya ‘Beauty’ Mathur, is very much a woman of the world and times. She’s a super-successful supermodel, oft times ostentatiously outré, but within all that glitz and glamour shines a loyal and loving heart. At the end of the day, or ramp walk, as it were, it’s family that matters to her.

Tell us a bit about yourself...

Well, I was born and raised in Mumbai, got married fairly young, had kids fairly young, before moving to New York with my family. And there we’ve been for the past dozen years and counting. I was happy playing the role of a non-traditional homemaker (and still do in between manuscripts) but as my kids grew and I began to have more time on my hands, I decided I needed to do something for myself. Actually, it was my mother who literally nagged me to get off my butt. It turned out to be sound advice because the next thing I knew, I was taking a short, online course on ‘Romance writing secrets’ and having a blast doing it. That’s how I accidentally added the author hat to all the others I routinely wear.

Why did you decide to become an MB writer?

I love the romance genre and have loved it ever since I was introduced to Darcy and Lizzie and the Pembrook-ish emotions that bubbled between them. There’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than to read a really great romance… except maybe write one. That’s why I became an MB writer.

Since when have you been reading MBs and what changes have you observed in characters, plots and content over the years?

I’ve been reading MBs since my advent into my teens, as any normal girl has. The most glaring change would be the heat level of the stories. Most MB lines are no longer required to stop at the first, difficultly wrought kiss. I’m not so sure the plot has changed, I mean, the plot is to make the protagonists fall in love, isn’t it? For sure, settings are changing, becoming global, so that would influence plot in a way. And, of course, the characters — as with Bootie and the Beast’s Diya and Krish — are getting more and more diverse in ethnicity, values, beliefs and lifestyle choices.

The MB heroine has maybe seen the most change. She’s no longer required to be a virginal damsel in distress, waiting to be rescued. The new MB heroine is as much the rescuer as the hero is. And the new MB hero, bless his heart, despite his authoritative masculinity and need to right the world all by his lonesome will, understands the heroine’s need to rescue herself… and him, if need be.

In times of Fifty Shades, do you feel any pressure to make your books racier or more explicit?

Not at all. I don’t shy away from writing explicit scenes. I will write them if my story or character or scene/situation demands it. But at the same time, I won’t write sex in just because it sells. Fifty Shades was what it was because of the kind of man Christian Grey was. In the same way, it made sense for my Bootie and the Beast heroine to be a virgin because for all her flamboyance and risque behaviour, Diya has been in love with Krish since her childhood and a tiny part of her has never stopped hoping for the fairy tale, no matter what she claims out loud.