*Spoilers galore, mind*
UPDATE: I deleted this paragraph before posting first because it seemed too corporate & 'pat', but I really want to make the conclusions explicit, so I'm putting it back in...I think the big change is Chauhan's increased confidence - in her content (#1 below and #5) and in the business (#3 & #4), and in her craft (which comes across in #6 and #2 below, where the confidence wasn't as warranted). Content and business are maybe easier to learn than craft? Or does the learning curve for craft, as opposed to content/business take up some funny plateaus on its way? Or worse, does success lead to a flattening of the only learning curve that truly matters for a fiction writer - craft (as opposed to a technical writer for whom content is key)? Anyway, here are my thoughts.....
First, let me just state how much I love the casual feminism in Bittora:
- The plethora of fantastic, fully realized female characters here makes this book easily pass the Bedchel Test, and I’m not sure The Zoya Factor does that.
- She wins!!! She wins!!! They have a political battle, and she wins, fair and square. I was dreading reading the ending of the book because I was expecting it to be something like Zain winning, and Jinni totally making an unbelievably submissive cop-out at the end, like realizing at the last minute that she never had wanted the seat, and then Zain offering to make her his second-in-command, which would’ve left such, such, such a bad taste in my mouth.
- I love how she has an internal life and a purpose throughout the book, and that the reader can believe that she has a life path ahead of her after the ending, too. Unlike Zoya, where the romance was the main story, and you were left wondering if she quit her job afterward or something.
- The protagonist’s last name is the same as her maternal grandmother’s, and there is no explanation of this. None whatsoever. Smart writing, too, because saying anything there would’ve just sounded contrived and defensive. This is an unlikely scenario, but not all that unbelievable, especially in the anything-goes world of Indian politics (Indira Gandhi appropriated the ‘Gandhi’ name quite randomly, for instance).
- No Disney-dead-mother syndrome here, thank you very much. And the woman character gets a cool, permissive mom, too, the likes of which usually cool male characters get. The women get cool dads and dead, or absent, or subservient moms.
- Chauhan dismisses Rahul Mahajan categorically. I wish she also dissed Salman Khan less subtly.
- How fantastic was Ammaji’s comment about wanting to ‘settle’ her granddaughter - i.e., her career, not her marriage. For all her religious bigotry, how very, very far-thinking and impressive.
Second, and hopefully not caused by the first point above: somehow for me, the romance isn’t that very strong. It’s still amazing, and better than most other books, but Zoya Factor wins, very slightly, here. It’s not for lack of a fantastic hero in Bittora - if anything, Zain Altaf Khan is even more ‘eligible’ than Nikhil Khoda - he is equally handsome, of royal blood, is an environmental engineer and an MIT graduate, and as a teenager, wrote a superhero series - and has compelling vulnerabilities! All of this should’ve totally made him more compelling than the sports-quota-type, back-story-missing Khoda, at least for someone like me (erm, I still swoon over liberal young handsome Indian Muslim men with the nostalgia of my own love. But, TMI). What gives, then?
Maybe it is just the fact that this is a repeat performance, and nothing beats the first, unspoiled, original version.
Maybe it is the fact that the first book was focused more on the romance and less on the Zoya Factor phenomenon, and the second book was focused equally on the political battle and the romance (actually this one is hard to say. I think both were equally split!).
Maybe because Zain never does something completely unexpected and out-of-the-blue in the romance, he’s never pushing the envelope, unlike Khoda with his ‘I’ve been wanting to kiss you all evening’ and his random intimate text messages especially in public, his popping-up-in-her-hotel-rooms when least expected, etc.
Maybe it is because all the back-story of the romance is between sixteen-year olds and thirteen-year-olds in Bittora, and that for me was borderline creepy and often boring.
Maybe because the first time they meet, they instantly jump into their make-out session, with no build-up for the reader. Anticipation is half the fun.
Maybe in said ‘first-for-the-reader-make-out-session’, Zain disregards her non-consent and kisses her. Somehow that wasn’t as hot as I think the author set it out to be. Khoda does a similar thing towards the end of the first book and that played out as playful (ha!), here I found it distasteful.
Maybe it is because I was put off by the crude ancillary references, e.g. Tawny uncle’s son The Rapist, the crowd’s groping at the mela, etc. that were all supposed to be casually laughed off (and were pretty much correct-for-context), but which totally put me in a defensive, disgusted mood, not receptive towards the actual romance. In Zoya Factor, the ancillary references are equally crude, but they refer to sex (not rape).
Maybe it is because the supporting cast in Bittora - especially Ammaji - was so solidly crafted that your attention was split, vs. in the first book where no one else apart from the main characters got to monopolize reader attention & affection.
Maybe it is the fact that in the Big Contest in the book, Khoda won his battle, but Zain lost. Did ‘loser stench’ ruin the latter’s alpha male scent?
Maybe it is that Khoda kept his hands and nose very clean and never lost the high moral ground during the book, even in times of stress with Jogpal & Sons. Zain was doing as much mud-slinging and dirt-throwing as his competitors in the electoral battle. A Bauji-type honest man would’ve called for suspension of disbelief, but wouldn’t’ve been totally impossible, would he?
Maybe it is that Khoda was shown to be a leader of men, literally, but Zain was only shown to command his friends’ loyalty, which is admirable, but less sexy.
Maybe it is because the captain of a successful Indian cricket team is unattainably desirable, but there are a hundred former-prince’s-son-types around?
Maybe, paradoxically, it is because there is a close real-life analogy to Khoda in M S Dhoni but someone like Zain isn’t really around today (no, not even Omar Sharief).
Maybe it is the face that the power and social status imbalance is so little, almost negligible, between Zain and Jinni, rather than the insurmountable gulf of celebrity between Khoda and Zoya. And obviously power imbalances are what make (straight?) women swoon with lust, or something.
(Oh, and of the four main characters, I only referred to Khoda by last name in my first draft of this post, then went to correct it, and stopped myself. Maybe my subconscious is telling me something. That I think of Khoda as more male? That the author thinks of Khoda as more male? She keeps calling Zain ‘Zain’, but called Nikhil Khoda ‘Khoda’ almost throughout. Men are usually called by their last names, especially in situations of power and authority, and women are called by their first names - through history, and for various reasons. Remember how everyone back in 2008 called Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton ‘Obama’ and ‘Hillary’ respectively?)
Third, the Hinglish was so much more obvious here in Bittora. There was not even the perfunctory attempt as in the first to ease the way for readers who didn’t speak Hindi or know local references. This is an unapologetic “of Indians, by Indians, for Indians” book. While I’m impressed with such confidence and a little intimidated (what to do, I’m a pasty-faced NRI), a part of me does wish they would care for their overseas readers, even if it’s just so readers like me could share the book with local friends here. But yooooohooooo for no more stupid substitutions like ‘unleavened bread with clarified butter’ for roti-and-ghee, like in English books by Indians published even as late as 2002.
This means the economics of the publishing/book selling business is so sound in desh that it can sustain itself, which is more than the US publishing business can say for itself. Despite nakli books sold by eight-years olds at traffic lights. Good for you, desh.
Fourth, and related to the above, the target audience seems to be a more mainstream Indian than the SEC A, urban woman target audience of Zoya Factor. There aren’t too many highbrow riffs on people who use unnecessary plurals (‘anyways’/‘grands’/‘butts’); instead, the riffs are now on people who ask politicians for favors. The internal demon that gets defeated is not a nation’s harmless superstitions during cricket matches but the violent, all-pervasive, gut-wrenching religious bigotry.
Fifth, and this is not a change in Chauhan’s writing as much as a repeat performance. I’ve also recently read a couple of other desi chick-lit books, and wanted to gouge my eyes out. The plot is non-existent. The heroes are vapid. There is absolutely no originality to the stories or the characters or the conflict or the treatment. There is liberal lifting of entire narrative arcs from Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’ Diary, the wannabe-ness of it all is depressing. Oh, and the editing is SO disgusting, SO terrible the editors should commit hara-kiri. In Advaitha Kala’s Almost Single, the very first line has the protagonist waking up from a ‘deep dreamless REM sleep’ and I read that and threw the book across the room in disgust. Unfortunately, in a moment of weakness I picked the book off the floor a few days later and continued reading, to my eternal regret. Another book - Kkarishma’s Konfessions, was it? - has a blatant error in the first page: someone is someone’s elder sister, then suddenly becomes the younger sister in page two and goes on. And that typo is not even an ironic insight into the idiotic world of Indian soaps. If it was an insight, it was way too subtle as irony and way too obvious as a typo.
So, compared to genre, Chauhan’s books are high literature, which is not saying much. But even by themselves, her books are well researched and grounded in their industry and setting (rural India and politics for Bittora, cricket and advertising for The Zoya Factor), have lots of in-jokes about Bollywood and pop culture, and lots of really funny random insights (“like all visiting NRIs, [mother] was obviously hoping to squeeze both a funeral and a wedding into one India trip” - Bittora, or “People who knew only one language...what would they switch to if they started getting pally, or angry, or fell in love?” - Zoya Factor)
Sixth: I love that this one had a much more satisfying ending. This book had closure. Of the relationship, and also, for the character’s individual lives. Zoya Factor didn’t. I kept turning the page to see if I’d missed the last part. That, if nothing else, makes author confidence very clear, as I'm realizing in my own writing.
So what's unchanged?
As before, Chauhan’s own stated real-life inspiration for the hero (Saif Ali Khan for Zain Altaf Khan) completely rings false (like Rahul Dravid for Nikhil Khoda. Ew.) Saif when younger was too dissolute and completely unlike current-time-Zain or even younger-Zain. And current Saif? Oh, please. The guy is more and more like a real-life Macbeth, with his insecurities and his younger, prettier girlfriend.
As before, I can imagine only Farhan Akhtar in today’s Bollywood doing any justice to Zain’s character. Stretch it to Imran Khan, or (ugh) Ranbir Kapoor. I actually know some people in real life who’d play this role perfectly, too. Jinni would have to be Ayesha Dharkar, I suppose, just to be able to do justice to the ‘abnormally wide smile’. Konkana & Kareena are good stretch choices.
Finally: if she were to ask me: dude, what should I change in my next book, I’d say:
Please have a genuine love triangle. I’m curious to see how you’ll write that. Oh, and please don’t have a creepy, precocious pre-teen male child with an inappropriate obsession (women’s panties/torture). It’s too done, and done irritatingly. And get yourself a website, woman, it is 2011 already, and even fans have needs - e.g. to obsessively stalk their authors.
Oh, oh, and write more. Please.