How it All Began

A year and a half ago, Naheed Hassan of Indireads (Indirom back then) approached me to ask if I would be interested in writing a romance novella. She had this crazy idea that there needed to be better representation of South Asia in the popular fiction market (English language books, that is). Besides large populations in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who read English, South Asia has the largest diaspora in the world, and she thought romance with a flavor from home would appeal to them.

It turns out we have a much larger audience. India, and the 3 satellite countries that form South Asia, is an exotic in-fashion culture that everyone wants to know about. Then I read this review of a Harlequin romance about Indian royalty, and nearly pushed my head through a wall. Really? I mean, this is the age of Wikipedia, of information literally at your fingertips. Are we still equating India with elephants and exotic Maharajas and palaces straight out of The Temple of Doom? I haven’t read the book myself, but the review was Just. So. Detailed.

So, back to Naheed’s great idea—I said yes, of course I would write a romance novella. Yes, I would pepper it with pop culture references and represent the real South Asia to the world. Yes, of course I would write in sex scenes that other authors seem to be avoiding. Just give me a week (ah, the hubris!).

It took considerably longer. Almost three months before I came back with a strong enough outline. Another month (more or less) to write it. And another three months after that to get it into shape (beta readers, panel discussions, editor feedback). I blame Naheed for not preparing me beforehand. She made it sound so easy, “it’s short, less than 40,000 words (!!!), it’s a love story, it’s Bollywood in writing.” How hard could it be?

As it happens, writing a romance was much tougher than I realized. Regardless of the genre, it was a book and it needed to be exciting. It had to be sexy, unique. I had to create believable characters, plausible scenarios, a gripping conflict, and a satisfactory ending. Since I was from Pakistan, where being liberal means writing a book, creating a scenario outside of the traditional arranged marriages was a real challenge.

So, I cheated. I killed off the parents (yeah. We can do that in a book.) and took my heroine out of Pakistan because, for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with a boy-meets-girl scenario that didn’t include work or family (my first book wasn’t going to be standard fare! I was/am different, after all). And I followed the example of some of Pakistan’s best Urdu romance writers, wrapping the romance around a social issue—a woman’s right to decide her own future.

To that end, I found a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi (technically nothing to do with Pakistan—he was Persian. But he was a Sufi poet, and we’re kind of the cradle of sufism), and wrote in Rumi’s predicament based on these lines:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

Thankfully, Naheed liked it. It’s not as light as she would have liked, but it is a romance written by a South Asian, and about a country in South Asia. If you’re curious to know more, you’ll have to buy the book 🙂 It releases on March 20, 2014.

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