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'A many-splendoured thing': Love and its recent Indian literary manifestations

It is the most cherished, yet complex, not to mention a much misunderstood human emotion. It can make one person break out in song and another into tears, transform a person from rage to meekness, and make people amenable to giving up personal freedom for commitment and togetherness. It is called love.

"... Love rules the court, the camp, the grove, / And men below, and saints above; / For love is heaven, and heaven is love...," wrote Sir Walter Scott once and the sentiment, in its romantic manifestation, that is, has always remained as entrenched in literature as well as human affairs across the ages.

For why this is so, the same work, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" (1805), goes on to declaim: "...True love's the gift which God has given / To man alone beneath the heaven; / It is not fantasy's hot fire, / Whose wishes, soon as granted, fly; / It liveth not in fierce desire, / With dead desire it doth not die; / It is the secret sympathy, / The silver link, the silken tie, / Which heart to heart, and mind to mind, / In body and in soul can bind..."

Despite those who would question its centrality and want it to be replaced by more abstract political ideals, or at least, regulated firmly, love -- frustrated, opposed, lost or realised -- is celebrated in epics, plays, poetry, and novels, in more manifestations that can be enumerated.

And as Valentine's Day has gone by, from a glittering galaxy of the genre, let us look at a handful of modern Indian examples from the last few years dealing with what singer Paul Young termed "Love of the Common People", and deserve to be better known for a newer generation.

There is the question of why we should read romantic novels, dismissed by some as "chick-lit", when we know the outcome for the protagonists, who after overcoming obstacles from their families/rivals/societies/fate, or created by themselves, will be living "happily ever after".

Simply, for the same reason why we read other genres when we know the hero or heroine will rarely be unsuccessful in solving the mystery/defeating the villain/saving the world or whatever the goal is? The fun is in the details. We may already know the destination, but our interest in the journey is the thrill of what we may find on it.

Then, to those who pass off these as "chick-lit", this term, which has acquired a dismissive connotation, ignores the fact that we may be eager to see this in most of our films, newspapers' page 3 sections, and glossy magazines, but seem to scorn it in books.

Let us begin with Swati Kaushal, whose further exploits of the spunky Himachal cop Niki Marwah are much missed after the first two installments. Her debut novel, "Piece of Cake" (2005), chronicles the (mis)adventures of the rather sassy Minal Sharma in juggling her personal and professional lives.

While there is a colleague, from down memory lane, who seems keen on running her down, on the other hand, there are family pressures for an arranged marriage and the dictates of her heart in choosing her life partner. Sounds like a tall order, but there is a lightness of touch and flashes of comedy -- right till the denouement where she does something innovative with her engagement ring -- that keep the story engrossing.

Kiran Manral's "All Aboard" (2015) takes us into the life of a middle-class, working woman, Rhea Khanna, who, right at the outset, is jilted by her long-time boyfriend days before their marriage, and is invited by her aunt to accompany her on a Mediterranean cruise.

There they run into an affluent entrepreneur, who turns out to be her aunt's former student and is consequently very solicitous of her and Rhea -- who finds that the proximity of the gorgeous hunk leaves her weak-kneed. It is obvious that a romance will develop and also that there will be the usual obstacles.

But the cruise setting ensures that there will be a definitive timeframe for the issue to be decided while there is a crime element to add some sparks.

Love may be thought of as carefree and exuberant, but does it fare when the music stops and normal life resumes with its pressures and pulls?

That is the focus of Donna Dias Manuel's debut novel, "Love is Never Easy" (2017), expressed through three women, friends from their school days, but now dispersed around the world, who meet up in Goa for a Christmas holiday ahead of their old school's centenary celebrations.

But it will be no ordinary vacation, for each of them -- Nina Hariharan, a US-based career businesswoman; Rhea Khambatta, who runs a dance school in Melbourne; and Aisha Kapur, who works in an architectural design company run by Rhea's father -- are harbouring secrets which will not only change their own lives, but also their relations with each other.

There are twists and turns galore before a climax few would anticipate, showing love is not mere heedlessness, but a force for redemption, and transformation.

Think of a modern-day tale of love with a cricketer and is it "The Zoya Factor" that comes to your mind?

Think again for Sakshama Puri Dhariwal's "Man of Her Match" (2017), takes a gifted but scandal-raising cricketer and a woman marketing executive, who was once his best friend in their childhood, but since estranged after a "misunderstanding", and throws them together after many years.

It tells of Nidhi Marwah, who finds to her horror that she has to collaborate with the cricket team's enfant terrible Vikram Walia, for her Delhi paper's education mission after Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan pulls out at the last minute. A Bollywood actress, media managers, family pressures, and so on, contribute to the makings of a typical Indian potboiler.

A clutch of loyal retainers, an English-mangling but straight-talking manager, imperious and micro-managing bosses, manipulative parents, entitled and sexist male suitors add extra flavour.

Rachna Singh's "Band, Baaja, Boys!" (2016) is an entertaining, near-farcical romp through non-metropolitan, "mofussil" India that most of us have come from and not yet forgotten, where tradition and modernity co-exist (though uncomfortably), bad English is no bar to expression, lack of opportunities do not always stifle aspirations, and life is rarely dull -- though for the wrong reasons.

At its centre is newly-turned-21 Binny Bajpai, a bit naive but well conscious of her allure to seek (male) attention whenever feeling neglected, but still, a doll for her parents, with whom she must contend to determine her future which she wants to be comfortable and on her terms -- as far as possible. She is also perhaps the first character in English fiction to resort to "kalmuhi", "karamjali" and "kalankini" -- the use of the dialect, speech cadence, and slang remain a delight.

In a darker contribution, Tharun James Jimani uses Delhi's barbaric December 16, 2012, gangrape as both an anchor and a catalyst for "Mornings After" (2016), which delves not only into the tangled thought processes and emotions of an unlikely couple, both transplanted Malayalis, but also what their circle, their families and the wider world expect from them.

Senior business executive Sonya meets footloose Thomas at a small beach town in Karnataka, but he drops out of contact for months before suddenly landing at her home and beginning a relationship.

Set in Mumbai, Bollywood is not far off, and there is an engaging subplot of a controversial macho but chauvinistic male hero whom Sonya and her friends derisively call "the Torso" who can help her new venture succeed beyond their dreams, but at a price, and an interesting debate on "item numbers".

With characters like the "Gender General", the story is not only about love or various facets of its modern urban manifestation, including what the maid might think of your live-in relationship, but also of roles and expectations as well as the responsibilities and commitments it demands.

That is love's ultimate price.

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