'Chick-lits' Hit Indian Book Stands

In a stark change to conventional Indian literature, chick-lit novels are gaining popularity in Indian society. As a part of the program's Next Big Thing series, author Swati Kaushal discusses her novel, which many call the first Indian chick-lit, and the necessity for this genre in Indian culture.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, actress Regina King is starring in a holiday film this Christmas. We find out what she likes to listen to off the set. And my take on the Oprah campaign swing. It's my Can I Just Tell You commentary.

But first, if you take Bridget Jones, give her an MBA, put her in a sari and send her to New Delhi, you might just have the next big thing: Indian chick-lit - books about 20 and 30-something Indian women desperately searching for love while balancing their professional careers. It's a story women in the U.S. and Europe know perhaps all too well. But in India, the genre is just beginning to blossom.

To discuss the emergence of Indian chick-lit, is Swati Kaushal. She is the author of "Piece of Cake." It's a story of 29-year old Minal Sharma who struggles between her mother's fervent wish that she find a suitable husband and the demands of her high-powered corporate career. Her novel is what many consider to be the first successful chick-lit offering in India.

Swati Kaushal joins us now from Minneapolis. Swati, welcome.

Ms. SWATI KAUSHAL (Author, "Piece of Cake"): Well, thanks for having me here.

MARTIN: Now, first of all, you wrote this book in Minnesota. Now, that's kind of cheating, isn't it?

Ms. KAUSHAL: No, because I just moved to Minnesota. And I - my head was full of images of India and my life that I had spent in India.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. I was just making sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And the book is thoroughly Indian. You talked to me about Minal, your protagonist. She works for a big multinational. She experiences, you know, the usual kind of corporate gamesmanship. But I got the impression that, often, in a lot of her teams that she was working on, she was the only woman. So is it customary for women to have these kinds of jobs now?

Ms. KAUSHAL: You know, that's a great question, Michel. When I started working in India back in 1993, there were very, very few women that were working in India. The business school that I went to, in my batch, there were 115 men and there were 12 women. So the picture is changing very rapidly. But, yes, about 20 years ago, you had very few women who pursued corporate careers.

You know, this book is kind of based with that. When I saw that this trend was growing and every year, more and more women were graduating and pursuing professions of their choice.

MARTIN: She lives by herself. She drinks beer. She goes clubbing. Of course, in, you know, Minneapolis or, you know, New York, that would not be a big deal. But is that meant to be a little scandalous? Or is it meant to be - hey, this is the way young ladies live these days?

Ms. KAUSHAL: I was trying to balance the fine line between not really being scandalous so much as being able to address how women saw themselves or would like to see themselves. You know, they might not necessarily drink beer, but they kind of thought it would be kind of cool to drink beer, or they might not live alone. But they would have loved to live alone for a little while, at least. So I was trying to touch that little point of inflection in Indian society from the very traditional to now, what you see they're really modern. So it was more, you know, capturing the aspirations.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Of course, there is the whole marriage question. Now, Minal is 29 and starting to feel the heat - maybe used to feel the tick tock of that biological clock. And I'm sure a lot of women in the U.S. can relate, although, in this country, I have to tell you, she have to be 35 before people would take her angst seriously.

Ms. KAUSHAL: On this point…

MARTIN: But Minal's mother is very involved in this whole process of her personal life. And it's kind of funny because on the one hand, you know, she's an independent woman doing her thing…

Ms. KAUSHAL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …you know, fighting over a parking space and, you know, dealing with the guys and now with their little head games that they're trying to play with her at work. On the other hand, her mom is placing ads, you know…

Ms. KAUSHAL: Right.

MARTIN: …for her to get married. So…

Ms. KAUSHAL: Right. You know - and when I contrast and, you know, Indian society with what I see out here, when I moved to Minnesota - and, of course, you know, what you read and see on television - well, the one, big glaring thing about Indian society is the whole concept of arranged marriage, where you have actual ads that publish in the newspapers, and they run over like four or five pages of matrimonials. And they're graded by very specific demographics. So pretty much like the ad that I used in the book that talks about how tall she is, how old she is, what her educational qualifications are. And…

MARTIN: Skin color.

Ms. KAUSHAL: Skin color - there you go. You know, almost like you're a car ad, and it's kind of degrading. And women feel that it's degrading. And yet, you know, it's a very, very prevalent and, you know, strange part of Indian culture that it's so mainstream and so accepted.

MARTIN: That's what I was going to ask you. Is this still accepted even among, you know, trendsetters, which Minal is clearly meant to be?

Ms. KAUSHAL: Well, you know - and so she is very embarrassed that her mom has put this ad in the newspaper. And that's how - kind of how women these days view the whole arranged marriage phenomenon. They don't like it. They don't - they feel kind of embarrassed about it. But when you're 29 or like, say, 35, there are very few avenues for dating or meeting other single, eligible people of the opposite sex. And so you're kind of left with, you know, talking to your friends and relatives and feeling bad - putting ads in the newspaper.

MARTIN: Well, who's doing all this clubbing if these aren't eligible singles? If you're one of these people who are already married, going to have dancing? What is the club scene for if it's not for meeting someone eligible, or you're just - that really isn't considered a place to meet eligible people?

Ms. KAUSHAL: Well you know, to put this in context, I've seen a city like New Delhi, which has a population of 15 million people. You would have about 15 clubs. You know, there's a very, very small percentage of people that are actually going clubbing, though when you look at media, they're the ones that being talked about because this is exciting new trend. But this marriage is still the bulk of, you know, how most marriages happen.

MARTIN: So that's the norm. I mean, what she's really doing is bowing to tradition that is the convention.

Ms. KAUSHAL: That is…

MARTIN: And she's going to try make her piece with it.

Ms. KAUSHAL: She is making a piece with it. And so that's what I was trying to get at that she wants to be modern, she's modern in her choices in her profession, but there is this whole, you know, lingering traditionalism that's clinging to her still that she needs to kind of grow out of. And that's what "Piece of Cake" is about her journey from accepting, you know, society and what it imposes on her, to being comfortable with the idea of perhaps not getting married. Because it's ridiculous the kinds of suitors she's considering, you know, a guy who's actually giving her scores, on the way she looks, on the way she hostesses. And this was actually drawn from somebody I knew, who talked about a guy who came to check her out and was actually assigning scores to her, so…

MARTIN: No. To her face?

Ms. KAUSHAL: Yeah. Even as they got married and he told her later on that this is how he kind of evaluated her…

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. KAUSHAL: …and they're still married.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, how can I put this nicely? Some of these men don't come off to well, Swati, I must tell you.

Ms. KAUSHAL: Well, there are some nice guys out there but you kind of have to… You do in the course of going through the whole arranged marriage scenario, unfortunately, encounter lots of very pompous and irritant guys who, you know, feel that they're kind of - they have lots of choices and they're looking for someone - it's almost like going shopping, really. It's, you know, it's kind of degrading in a sense.

MARTIN: Well, I think one of the things that will ring true to a lot of people is the fact that at work she's expected to fight with the big boys, right? She expected to play the game on their level, to put up with all their gamesmanship, and yet she is supposed to switch gears, trying to set and make herself appealing to these guys who, as you put it, are kind of treat her as - this is, it's like their world and she is there to sort of please them. I think that stress up that trying to switch gears is something that a lot of women would relate to.

Ms. KAUSHAL: Yes, and I think that kind of cuts across societies because, you know, for some reason, you know, women are supposed to be able to do it all. And so it's kind of interesting I know that things are a lot more progressive in America. But I feel there are parallels, still.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the term chick-lit? I know that to some women of this country don't love - a set of women authors in this country don't love the term, but I see it as kind of trying to walk this line between, you know, it's not, you know, Salman Rushdie, right? It's not that…

Ms. KAUSHAL: Right.

MARTIN: …it's not high literature, but not you'll be debating in it at Oxford. On the other hand, it's not like trashy, trashy trash.

Ms. KAUSHAL: Yes.

MARTIN: It's trying to answer some questions that people have about their identity. And do you feel okay with that term? Does it say anything to you?

Ms. KAUSHAL: Well you know, I love the fact the chick-lit - well, I wish it wasn't chick-lit, it was women's lit or girl-lit or I don't know but I love the fact that it talks to what - how women see themselves. It talks to modern and trendy women. And I think, you know, it's important to have books and movies and, you know, other media that reflect, you know, just a more youthful and more choice-driven and independent face of women these days.

MARTIN: Can I ask this - how does your mom feel about it?

Ms. KAUSHAL: Oh, my mom was very proud of me. She was very -

MARTIN: You do have some kissing in there, so it's not, you know, always the norm. I mean, even in some Bollywood movies that are there isn't a lot of physical contact, though.

Ms. KAUSHAL: You know, there isn't and Indian society is very complex and it's very multilayered and so there will be people who would be a little scandalized by the fact that she's drinking beer or she's living alone of that she actually kissed someone. But then, there's a whole lot of tolerance for, you know, for people - you know, Michelle, she's 29 - to go ahead and start looking for someone to spend the rest of their lives with.

MARTIN: Was it difficult to get published because it's kind of a breakthrough genre?

Ms. KAUSHAL: You know, I thought it would be. When I started writing it, I was very apprehensive about whether it would ever be published just because it was completely new kind of writing and the market didn't exist for it. But Penguin, you know, they felt the market was ready for something lighthearted and contemporary.

MARTIN: Is there anybody who thinks that - who has criticized the work as being, you know, like the beginning of the end of your society going to a hell on a handbasket sort of thing.

Ms. KAUSHAL: You know the remarkable thing is, it hasn't. And so I think Indian society is, you know, has long been overdue for some lightening up and some more, you know, opening up in terms of accepting dating and accepting humor. When "Piece of Cake" was published, it was probably one of the first few books that were lighthearted in tone and an in intent and that reflected contemporary culture. You know, India has always had a very high brow approach to literature and to the arts except for the movies. And so it was really welcomed as something that was, you know, long overdue.

MARTIN: And what's your next book about? a gal who moves from New Delhi to Minneapolis perhaps?

Ms. KAUSHAL: Oh, okay. No. Actually, the other way around. It's about an Indian girl, 15-year-old, who gross up in America and most India and is kind of about reverse migration and reintegrating with a society that is very different from the way it was when your parents left it.

MARTIN: Well, we'll look forward to it.

Ms. KAUSHAL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Swati Kaushal is the author of "Piece of Cake," It's considered one of the first Indian chick-lit novel. She joined us from Minneapolis.

Swati, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KAUSHAL: Thanks for having me on here. Thanks.

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