India's Cheeky 'Chick Lit' Finds an Audience

Advaita Kala, author of
Advaita Kala, author of "Almost Single," says her book's heroine is witty, outspoken and happily single. (By Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 23, 2007

NEW DELHI -- Indian bookstores these days are stocking up on a new kind of English-language novel -- the kind in which twentysomething urban women put their careers first, ridicule arranged marriages and wrestle with weight gain.

The internationally trendy fiction genre known as "chick lit," popularized by "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Sex and the City," now has an Indian avatar.

In a country where marriages are usually arranged by parents in consultation with astrologers, and where women are traditionally expected to sacrifice their own aspirations in the interest of family, the cheeky chick-lit heroines are being embraced by readers who see the lighter side of Indian mores.

The plots reveal Indian city-dwellers confronting the amusing vagaries of daily life -- a working woman puts her family astrologer's number on speed dial on her cellphone; another woman dumps trash on a boy her mother sends for an arranged marriage; a couple's romance blossoms through a series of Post-it notes stuck on a car in a parking lot; a mother bemoans her bad karma because her 29-year-old daughter is still single.

Indian chick lit is the latest and most irreverent entrant into the world of English-language fiction here. But publishers and critics say it is also a reflection of the growing confidence among women in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and elsewhere.

"This is the story of the new Indian woman in the cities. She is single, has a career and is willing to have fun, take risks and find a man her way, and not necessarily her family's way. It is a woman we have only read about in books from the Western countries and now, suddenly we are finding her on Indian roads," said V. K. Karthika, the publisher and chief editor at Harper Collins India, who launched "Almost Single" by debutante writer Advaita Kala. The book has sold 10,000 copies in the past four months and is now in its fourth printing, a huge success by the standards of English-language fiction in India.

In the past five years, a handful of novels geared toward young women, including "Girl Alone" and "Piece of Cake," have drawn a following in India. But the success of "Almost Single" has revealed the larger, untapped market for a girls-having-fun genre.

"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," said Kala, 30, the witty author of "Almost Single."

"They inhabit a world where women enjoying a drink in the bar are not social outcasts. They are not tragic figures because they are single."

Kala, who has a liberal arts degree from Berry College in Georgia and works as a job trainer for the Taj group of hotels in India, says the protagonist in her novel is witty, outspoken and comfortable with her single status. She will not be forced into an arranged marriage with someone she sees as incompatible.

The heroines of chick lit skillfully balance cultural traditions with 21st-century lifestyles, trying to observe fasting rituals while adhering to the Atkins or South Beach diet, choosing to hang out with gay friends or facing a mother's disapproval.

"I like such books because they resemble my life and the conversations I have with my friends and parents," said Jyoti Trehan, a 25-year-old advertising executive who was browsing a New Delhi bookstore on a recent day. "We have the baggage of culture imposed on us. We have to be a good daughter, be chaste, marry at the right age, be a good wife and a good daughter-in-law. But all we want is to have fun like everybody else."

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