x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The girls' guide to flirting and shopping

An anonymous limbo of endless drinks and romantic entanglements. S Subramanian pans the latest addition to India's chick-lit canon.

Indian models dance at the opening night of a club in Calcutta.
Indian models dance at the opening night of a club in Calcutta. "We actually do the nightclubs and the drinking and the random conversations," Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan says, "and they are just as real to us here as they would be if we were in downtown Manhattan."

You Are Here

Meenakshi Redhi Madhavan

Penguin Dh17 (Rs199)

The term "chick-lit" feels so overused that it is surprising to discover that it was only coined in 1995; one could be forgiven for assuming that critics and readers have been airily dismissing books as chick-lit for decades. Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell, who used the term as a title for a book they edited, were being ironic: it was an anthology of experimental post-feminist fiction. But irony can bite itself in the rear. Today, "chick-lit" is an entirely pejorative term, applied to fiction that is almost pre-feminist in its depiction of airheaded, shopaholic women moping for their men.

Even critics who deride the genre, however, cannot fault its essential themes - the search for true love, the scrabble for professional satisfaction, the faithfulness (or faithlessness) of family and friends, all to be slotted together like Lego bricks to build a A Happy Life. For these are the themes not just of chick-lit but also of classic lit. What is Moby Dick but an account of a whaler's rather intense spell at the office? And isn't Anna Karenina the chronicle of a dramatic, extended family meltdown? Doesn't every novel chart someone or other's pursuit of some semblance of A Happy Life?

What critics generally object to is the suggestion that the pleasures of true love, professional satisfaction, family and friends can all be temporarily replaced by, augmented, or more fully enjoyed with help from enthusiastic and conspicuous consumption. This idea - that one's life can be totted up as a series of charges on a Platinum AmEx card, that a character might be the sum of her perfumes, hair-care products and clothing brands - has found its purest literary expression in American chick-lit.

Once the American concept of consumerism took hold in India, it was only a matter of time before chick-lit followed in its wake. After all, both forces came pre-cooked in templates that had only become more lucrative with each passing year. It was the easiest thing in the world to simply adopt them as they were. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan's debut novel You Are Here is not the first example of Indian chick-lit, but it has been the most heralded. In 2004, Madhavan began writing an anonymous blog, The Compulsive Confessor, that introduced in its second post the two elements its author cannot seem to do without: a bar and a cute boy. Since then, Madhavan has posted candidly about sex, booze, cigarettes, clubs and relationships - subjects not often discussed within Indian society, especially by young, single women. Not surprisingly, her page views climbed quickly as the site drew voyeurs, cranks and young people who saw a little of their own lives in Madhavan's confessions.

The blog stuck adhesively to a limited roster of favourite chick-lit subjects, and favoured the observational form. In November 2006, she described a new quasi-boyfriend thusly: "New Boy is so pretty. He really is [...] That's not to say he's effeminate. Far from it. New Boy is very much a boy, as he proves constantly." In December, she medidated on two tops recently gifted to her, "one blue with beads, cut away in the middle to reveal navel piercing, one orange-y corset type thing". That same month she confessed compulsively from Bali, from where she lamented that a "very hot American" named Dylan did not hit on her. "AND I was wearing my new tube top," she wrote sadly.

Madhavan is a journalist by profession, but it was her blog that brought her to the attention of publishers. "Penguin contacted me to ask whether I had anything that could be a book," she says. "So I took two weeks off work, sat in front of my computer all day, and came up with the first half of the book. It had many different shapes before it turned into what I have today - but the essential structure stayed the same. There was no brief as such - just something along the lines of what I blogged about - a stream of consciousness-ish narrative and so on."

The resultant novel is, to be fair, not a naked ode to consumerism, but it is still a work of breathtaking superficiality. Arshi, the 26-year-old protagonist modelled closely on Madhavan herself, lives and drinks and pines in New Delhi. In the hoariest of chick- lit traditions, her seemingly perfect romantic relationship has just gone awry because the guy cheated on her. On the rebound, Arshi meets another cute boy at a pool party. Shockingly, he plays the guitar.

"He had a nice smile, with deep dimples that appeared and disappeared with every movement of his face, and a neat little French beard running from the sides of his rather lovely mouth to his slightly pointed chin," Arshi notes breathlessly of this boy, Kabir. Later, when Kabir divests himself of his white T-shirt, we happily learn that "his stomach had just about missed having a six-pack, but it was taut and firm and there was a hint of downy hair running from the base of his chest and vanishing into his shorts." Cue, very soon, a book-length existential dilemma of whether Arshi and Kabir are or are not a couple.

Meanwhile, Arshi's retinue of female friends also faces problems of - what else? - the romantic sort. Her roommate Topsy's family would never approve of Topsy's covert boyfriend, her old best friend is getting engaged and her new best friend seems to be anorexic as well as unloved. We learn on the fly that a couple of these characters have jobs; Arshi herself serves time under a gargoyle of a boss at a public relations firm. Perhaps sensing that this is insufficient grist for 255 pages, Madhavan also has Arshi make unremarkable, rambling digressions into her childhood and youth, killing time before a final, headlong dive into a literally watery climax.

Madhavan is, I firmly believe, a better writer than this. Many of her blog posts over the years have been funnier and smarter than her novel; some have been more authentic and a few have been genuinely thoughtful. Even in the December of Dylan and Bali, Madhavan engaged in introspection of the sort that hits almost every single Indian woman in her mid-20s, when her friends begin to get married and her parents start making suggestive noises. Instead of loudly proclaiming to not care about it all, Madhavan surprised us.

"The truth is, while oestensibly [sic], I'm not a conformist, I think somewhere in my secret soul I am," she wrote. Despite her love of the single life, she was still tempted to call her grandmother and ask to be set up with an eligible, parentally approved bachelor. She worried aloud about "dying or something, with no one to stand and weep around my bedstead" because she had put off marriage for so long. "The thing is," she confessed "while I made my choices, many years ago, my choices also made me." It's an honest, sincere reflection on a choice that many Indian youths, caught between two lifestyles, face; it's also more genuine than anything in You Are Here.

Madhavan is not the first writer to transition awkwardly from blog to book; sustaining interest and style over the course of a 400-word blog post is not quite the same as doing so throughout a 50,000-word novel, whatever eager publishers may tell themselves. But beyond its technical failings, there is a very Indian resonance to the weaknesses of You Are Here. As many of her blog's readers have pointed out, Madhavan's novel often rings untrue or unreal, and reflects little of her middle-class existence in India.

Madhavan disagrees. "We actually do the nightclubs and the drinking and the random conversations and they are just as real to us here as they would be if we were in downtown Manhattan," she explains. "It's a trifle condescending to assume that just because we are in India we cannot have any sort of international-seeming life at all." Fair enough. But it's also condescending to assume - as You Are Here tends to - that the international-seeming life is the one most worthy of aspiring to, or that life in India today can simply be about aping the lifestyle of downtown Manhattan, to the exclusion of all else.

Another school of critics have attacked Madhavan's writing as "immoral". "Immorality is relative," she responds. "My definition of 'morals' is purely not harming anyone else, which I don't think I do." Madhavan says that, since she was 16, she has wanted to write about "being the young, global Indian". This is a terrific aim, but You Are Here fulfils only the first two-thirds of her goal; it is young and global, but (unlike her blog at its best) not particularly Indian, and thus not particularly real or relatable. Madhavan has separated her fictional world from her real life, and as a result has produced a deeply artificial book. For if there is any country where the real world's local particularity intrudes persistently into even the most obdurate lifestyle bubble, it is India.

Arshi, however, seems to experience nothing of India today - not the fever of being in the thick of an exciting economy, not the friction of living in a country that is simultaneously deeply old and deeply new, not the taste of Kingfisher, not the view from her window, not the exasperation of Indian politics, not the pull of an extended family, not the insecurities of the New Delhi streets at night, not even the sweat and dust of the streets. As it stands, one could westernise the names of Madhavan's characters and locations and have the next Meg Cabot book.

Only in one subplot does Madhavan's book take root in its notional setting. Arshi's roommate Topsy is secretly seeing a Muslim boy, something that her large Hindu family will never accept. The biggest decision taken in this book is not Arshi's but Topsy's, and it is likely to be the most familiar, interesting and memorable part of the book to most Indian readers. With this exception, Madhavan's book wanders aimlessly through an anonymous limbo of endless drinks and romantic entanglements. You Are Here, the title assures us. But where is here?
S Subramanian, a New Delhi-based journalist, has written for Mint, The Hindu, The New Republic and the Far Eastern Economic Review.