'My books reflect the sexual repression in our society'
Madhuri Banerjee describes herself as "a new age writer who's trying to break the mold with newer stories." And it would seem that she's succeeding if sales figures are anything to go by.
She started off her career as a media professional and assistant director to Subhash Ghai. But she's given up on her filmmaking aspirations to write stories instead of project them on the big screen.
In an interview with rediff.com, author Madhuri Banerjee discusses her latest book Mistakes Like Love and Sex, why she hates the term 'chick lit' and how the characters and erotic scenes she writes hold a mirror up to us as a society.
Presenting edited excerpts from an interview:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family background.
My father was an IAS officer and my mother ran a school. I was born in Delhi, raised in Lucknow and America and then returned to Delhi. I moved to Mumbai to work after completing my English honours and pursued a film-based programme at the MCRC (Mass Communication Research Centre) at Jamia (Jamia Millia Islamia University at Aligarh).
I thought I would become a filmmaker, so I joined Subhash Ghai as an assistant director. I finished four years of training in films and ad films and then I made my own documentaries. While studying at Jamia I won a National Award for my documentary Between Dualities, a 30-minute film on women and psychiatry.
I've now come to this stage in my life where I'm a fulltime author. And I'm loving it!
From director-producer to scriptwriter and now author, tell us about the journey.
(I became a) Director because I studied direction at Jamia Millia Islamia, at the MCRC. I directed two films there and after that I thought I would get into directing, so I joined the film industry here as an assistant director.
But I've always loved writing, so I was writing scripts throughout, I would get ideas throughout...I considered writing a novel, because I always had a full-fledged novel in my head.
And it was only after my daughter was born that I was able to release that novel from within me, because she slept at night and I couldn't sleep, so I wrote it.
That was my journey.
So writing was something you always wanted to do...
Yes, I actually wrote a 'mini' book when I was 12 years old, I've been writing poems since I was nine, and these are some things I do for myself. Short stories, family anecdotes, writing in a diary every single day for 20-25 years...Whenever we went on a family vacation, my father would say write about it, so that we can tell everybody where we went -- so I would.
And that continued, even through different things. Every experience I now put on my blog (madhuribannerjee.blogspot.in) -- whether I'm on a radio show with somebody, or whether I've gone to a conference, I blog about what I did there, what I was feeling, what happened before, and then I put up pictures alongside.
How much of your stories is inspired by your own life and experiences? Are there anecdotes in there that you've been through?
I think your first book is always a huge part of who you are and what you went through. Because you draw from your own experiences and encounters when you start writing and remembering. Your second book is a little more evolved and confident and a little different in style and tone, when you have honed your skill by then.
So with the first book I did draw a lot from my life, my friends' lives, how we would react (to a situation) and the different characters we came across.
But with the second book, very few of the characters are people I've met in real life, and Kaveri has evolved into a different person -- much more sure, much more confident. And that's who I think I've become after the release of my first book.
Is (the protagonist) Kaveri a reflection of you?
Kaveri's not exactly a reflection of me. Earlier she was a little hesitant -- at the beginning of Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas -- so back there she was a little like me, (the person) that I was in college.
But later Kaveri takes on a completely different role, and she's not like me at all. I'm not blunt, I'm not so open, I'm not so adventurous -- and she is. You know, she has a sexual encounter in a hot air balloon; she moves to Barcelona for the love of a man...I don't know if I would be able to do that.
What made you decide to pick up where Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas left off, with the same central character for Mistakes Like Love and Sex? Do you think that Kaveri still has more of a story to be told in a forthcoming book?
Yes I do think that Kaveri has more of a story to be told, because she has met somebody in the second book; and I do want to see how she is able to explore different dimensions of herself.
I think maybe every woman has different stages in her life -- from being a student, to being somebody who's single and fancy-free, to being somebody who's married and who's a mother...I've explored those earlier stages of Kaveri, so I do think there's a third stage in her life and want to see how she tackles that.
Also, Losing My Virginity... sold 40,000 copies, so my publishers requested me to take the character, Kaveri, forward in the second book as well, but not dwell on (what happened in) the first book. So you should be able to read Mistakes Like Love and Sex as a book in itself, without having to read Losing My Virginity...
And that's what's going to happen with the third book as well -- even if people haven't read the first two, they'll easily be able to pick up the third.
I don't mean to compartmentalise your work, but it would seem that most books by and for young Indians today feature a formula -- relationships, love, sex and humour. Do you see yourself fitting into this description of light, entertaining reads? What else would you say you're bringing to the table as a writer?
I guess so...We live in a society that is perpetually demanding something which is a light read. So if I have an anthology of serious short stories, no publisher actually wants to publish it, because the market is deciding what an author should write as well.
And while I completely enjoy writing what I do, I don't think I can compartmentalise my work with other authors. My stories stand out as they contain Indian characters, foreign characters, there are different locations, amazing scenes...
And I'm the only author who's bold enough to write sensual, erotic scenes that nobody else has. That's what sets me apart. I'm trying to hold up a mirror to society with my different characters as well.
So while there may be fun and laughter and the search for true love, I think my books also have a bit of philosophy and a bit of realism in them that no other author has.
Image: Madhuri Banerjee
Photographs: Courtesy Madhuri Banerjee
'I don't take the term 'chick lit writer' as a compliment at all'
As far as sexual content goes, I would there are other young Indian authors out there who do write in a similar style, but yes, you're daringly descriptive in the passages describing sexual situations. In fact Mistakes Like Love and Sex starts with one. What kind of reaction does that leave you with from readers, and from your own friends and family?
I think a lot of readers enjoy reading them (sexual situations) and thinking 'hey, this is a fantastic new thing that I can do!'
Half the readers ask, 'Why must you write about sex?'
And my friends and family support me wholeheartedly and they love my books.
So these are the three different reactions that I get. But honestly I'm not too overwhelmed by what people say because I think sex is a natural reaction in everybody's lives. I mean if it's not happened (to you) yet, it will happen and if it's already happened then why shy away from it?
I'm just describing something that is a primal feeling, and to deny yourself any form of love or lust is to not live a full life. And I'm just writing about that in my books.
So it wouldn't make your stomach churn if your father or mother were to pick up the book and read it, which I'm sure they have?
No it wouldn't really, because they are not my target audience! (laughs)
No, they've appreciated all my work and they've never turned around and asked 'Oh, but why have you put in those passages?' My parents have always supported me in whatever I've chosen to do, so they're not squeamish about what I write. They are proud that I've written a book, that I'm a bestselling author, they enjoy seeing photographs and articles about me both online and offline. And they tell all their friends about it -- none of their friends' children have written a book and I've written two! They are proud of that and I'm super-thrilled.
Your work is classified as chick lit. Do you take that as a compliment? Do you ever see yourself moving away from the genre?
I hate the term 'chick lit', because as soon as you apply it, you're limiting your audience to women. And while I might have a female character as my protagonist, the story is not only about her, it's actually about the different men in her life and the different men in her friends' lives as well. They are really powerful characters and are extremely well written -- I dwell a lot on the male characters.
I do a lot of research on how men think, how they respond and where they're coming from. A chick lit writer might say that men are bad, or that it's the bad boys women are looking for -- I don't portray them like that.
So I don't take the term 'chick lit writer' as a compliment at all. I would say I am a new age writer who's trying to break the mold with newer stories. Even the covers of my books are very different from the others -- I make sure that they are far more exciting. My first book is Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas, the second is Mistakes Like Love and Sex -- I'm the only author who's brazen enough to use taboo words on the cover of her book. And I'm a debut author.
I don't frame my sentences like 'they went into the bedroom and did what they had to'. That's what chick lit writers would do and I don't.
A lot of Indian publishing houses are also churning out chick lit books by the dozens; there's been a boom of sorts in the genre lately. Do you think that has led to sub-standard writing flooding the market?
Yes. I think it is horrible that pockets of publishing houses are coming up and printing anything and everything labelling it a bestseller. I honestly feel that the publishers should think less commercially and more quality wise.
If I have a manuscript and it's trash, I would prefer that a publishing house tell me, 'We won't print this because we don't want it going out in the market -- it will be labelled trash.' I'm not going to take it to 10 different publishers after that and say okay fine, just print it out, I want to make some money on it and be labelled an author.
People should strive to become better -- let's not become a mediocre society and read mediocre things. I think we should try and reach far above. I am trying as an author to hone my skill so much that that people will want to read me, people will go into a bookstore and ask, 'Do you have any books by Madhuri Banerjee?'
Let's not dumb down our society, let's set some standards and maintain them.
How do you think Indian chick lit measures up against Western works within the same genre (such as Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series and Bridget Jones by Helen Fielding)?
I think Indian chick lit is far better in every way. The people in India who are writing today are far better educated and literate and have gone through a gamut of experiences to draw from in their writing.
Whether it's chick lit or any other genre, I think ours are far better than our Western counterparts'.
Some of their chick lit books have been made into films -- you watch them and think they are wonderful. Then you go back to reading the book and feel like it's not that great.
So I think the West makes better films in the chick lit genre, but I think we write better books.
Do you think young people in India know how to handle casual sex, multiple relationships and failed marriages like Kaveri and Aditi in Mistakes Like Love and Sex? I also mean those who have not had the kind of life youngsters in metros are exposed to -- an education abroad, the names of French fashion houses, the art scene...Do you think youngsters in Tier II and III towns will be able to identify with your characters?
You know, in both Losing My Virginity... and Mistakes Like Love and Sex, both these girls (Kaveri and Aditi) had very particular notions about love and the man that they wanted. And these notions are seeped very deeply into middle class women and small-town India.
I lived in Lucknow for many years and I honestly believed that I must wait to get married and then lose my virginity. And I had a friend who knew that she would not wait till she got married; she would fall in love with the perfect man. You see, both of us were wrong in our own way, because you don't know when you're going to get married and you're basing all your hopes on that one particular night and on the other hand, there is no such thing as the perfect man either.
So for one thing, there is identification with a lot of people from Tier II cities -- I don't like to call them Tier II, I think anybody who reads is an intellectual. So whether you're in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune or Lucknow, you never know what 'Tier II' actually means. But everybody will be able to identify with the characters in my book, everybody has met somebody like a Kaveri or an Aditi or an Arjun.
Also, apart from them there are characters like Bela Bandhan and Siddharth in the second book who are slightly more aspirational. And maybe what we all need, whether in small-town India or in big cities, is a little bit of aspiration, a little bit of ambition and a rosy outlook to life, thinking that maybe this could actually happen to us. Maybe we can have a wonderful older man who'll send us a gorgeous designer handbag and while we won't even know what brand the bag is, it'll be beautiful.
So you know, somewhere it's aspirational as well. That's what comes out in both the books.
'I'm not too great with negative feedback; I don't have thick skin'
What is your take on the 'Western immorality' that orthodox Indians say is creeping into and corrupting our youth?
Both my books are a reflection of the repression of sexuality in our society -- it's explored in an extremely fun manner, with a story labelled by the media as chick lit. But it's actually a take on how we're so repressed that we are not even able to have any form of dirty talk in the bedroom with the one person that we love! I've dealt with that issue in a small way in Mistakes Like Love and Sex.
I honestly feel that if we have khap panchayats saying that Chowmein corrupts the people and that is what incites rape, this orthodox mentality of Indians needs to be washed away with a heavy detergent as soon as possible.
Western immorality in its own place might actually be good for our society -- we might actually start communicating about sexual repression and needs in our households. We could maybe stop sexual abuse if there were open dialogue between people. Instead of living in a traditional, orthodox household where we switch the TV channel if somebody is kissing on screen, if we had somebody who said 'This is who I am, let's talk about it', maybe it would improve our society more.
What feedback have you received from readers regarding Mistakes Like Love and Sex? How does it match up to your expectations?
I think it surpasses my expectations, because I was extremely apprehensive with my second book. I'm the only author who's actually taken a character forward with a second novel. Most authors stop a character in their first novel and it's an entirely new story for their second.
So I was extremely nervous about how people would receive a sequel -- sequels are far more difficult to write and far more criticised. But everybody has loved Mistakes Like Love and Sex, I've received posts on my Facebook Wall and tweets from people saying they've enjoyed the book and are even buying copies as gifts.
So I'm overjoyed with the response, I'd bitten off all my nails before the release of it!
How do you feel about negative feedback?
I'm not too great with negative feedback; I don't have thick skin. I'm an extremely sensitive person, so I take it personally. 'Why did he say that?' 'Why did she feel that way about me?' 'Didn't they see the kind of hard work I put into it?' 'Didn't they see that there are so many levels to it?'
This book on one level is just a story, on a second level it's about the depth of the characters, a third level carrying a message -- if they (critics) haven't been able to see all these levels, how can they criticise me?
But after some time I do pick myself up and write more, because I am determined to prove that I am far better than you think.
'If you haven't liked this book, wait and watch, you're going to like my third. Or my fourth. You don't like my tweet? You'll come back and follow me on Twitter.' I take it like that, I take it upon myself as a challenge to do better, but I honestly do not like criticism thrown in my face.
What kind of books do you like to read? Do you read chick lit novels and about young people's life experiences? How does it measure up to read such a work as against writing one?
I love reading. I have two bookshelves at my house and seven at my mom's in Delhi stuffed with books. I go to Crossword at least once a week and spend half my money buying books.
I love reading different authors -- Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, Chitra Banerjee's The Palace of Illusions, Michelle Moran's Nefertiti, Indu Sundaresan's Shadow Princess...Even contemporary authors, I read Jaishree Misra, Naomi Datta...I love reading different authors and their stories.
Reading is far better and easier than writing, because writing involves a lot of personal stories, personal emotion, character growth, a structure in a book...And yes, I read lots of chick lit books.
Any advice for aspiring writers? Is what you're pursuing lucrative, career-wise?
What is lucrative to people? I mean, if you think that you can get a Mercedes-Benz by writing, I don't think so! I mean I have not so far. If you think that you can buy a house and fancy new shoes then really, it's not going to work that way. It's going to take you a couple of years to establish yourself and do that -- and if you are miraculously lucky like an Arundhati Roy.
Writing is a personal development of your soul and your spirit -- you should do it because you cannot sleep if you cannot write, and because you cannot eat if you cannot write, and because that story needs to come out in any way, you need to have it out. That's why you should write; it should not be a completely professional choice.
My tip to aspiring writers would be stay disciplined. Don't think that you're going to have divine inspiration and write, don't think that you're going to wake up one day with this great story or have plenty of time to write.
Set yourself some time every single day -- even if you have a job, even if you have other things to do -- an hour, or two, or five, of writing everyday. And write your story. Continue where you left off, do not edit it, write it out first.
In your own opinion, which is a better read, Losing My Virginity...or Mistakes Like Love and Sex?
Mistakes Like Love and Sex. Losing My Virginity...was my first book and it was very raw, and very passionate, but Mistakes has very well etched characters, more thought-out plots and a better graph as a book to read.