July 30-August 2, 1997, Chicago
International Communication Division
Radhika E. Parameswaran
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
205 Communications Center / The University of Iowa / Iowa City / IA 52242
(O) (319) 335-5811 / e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Popular Literature and Gender Identities: An Analysis of Young Indian Women's
Anxieties about Reading Western Romances
This paper takes an ethnographic approach to analyze young Indian middle-class
women's interpretations of imported Western romance fiction, particularly their
responses to representations of sexuality in these romances. My analysis is
based on participant observation and interviews with forty-two women, teachers,
parents, book publishers, and library-owners, which were conducted in Hyderabad,
India during May-August 1996. I demonstrate that Indian women's engagement with
Western romances in postcolonial India is an experience that is mediated by
their socialization within Hindu patriarchal and nationalist discourses. My
emphasis in the paper on the struggles young Indian women experience is to draw
attention to the complex nature of women's responses to Western popular culture,
responses which include accommodation and resistance.
Popular Literature and Gender Identities
Popular Literature and Gender Identities: An Analysis of Young Indian
Women's Anxieties about Reading Western Romances
Radhika E. Parameswaran
School of Journalism
Ernie Pyle Hall
Bloomington, IN 47408
(O) (812) 855-8569 (H) (812) 339-8689
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Submitted to the
International Communication Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
AEJMC Convention, Baltimore, MD, August 5-8, 1998
Popular Literature and Gender Identities: An Analysis of Young Indian Women's
Anxieties about Reading Western Romances
I don't understand why everyone fusses so much. I read Mills &
Boons for fun--I really am not going to do all those things the
heroines do in these books. I am tired of explaining to my mother
why I like these books. She says I can read these books and do
whatever I want after I get married but until then she has to tell me
what to do. She says my Mills & Boons are not for decent girls
whatever that means.
I was listening to Rachna, a young college-educated woman, as she showed me her
favorite romance novels on her bookshelf in her small room. She looked anxious
and sounded defensive as she pointed to the bookshelf where she stored her
favorite romances and explained her parents' dissaproval of her romance reading.
The brightly-colored paperback romance novels that Rachna referred to as "Mills
& Boons, " which are exported to India from the United Kingdom, are popular all
over urban India among young, English-educated middle- and upper-class women
(Baghel, 1995, p. 17). These readers of romance novels in India constitute the
largest market for Mills & Boons barring the United States, United Kingdom, and
Canada (Dasgupta, 1996, p. 8). Rachna who had cheerfully and generously given
me her time was one among numerous young Indian women I spoke to for my research
on romance reading in India. In this paper, which takes an ethnographic
approach to romance reading, I explore the significance of the popularity of
Western romances among young urban middle- and upper-class Hindu women in
postcolonial urban India.
Scholars who have studied audiences interpretations of popular culture have
demonstrated the potential of ethnographic research to provide a rich portrait
of the meanings that people make of the structures within which they live and
draw from to fashion their identities (Ang, 1985; Derne(, 1995; Gillespie, 1995;
Mankekar; 1993; Morley, 1992; Press, 1991; Radway, 1984). These scholars have
argued that ethnographies can give us a glimpse of the dynamic and complex
cultural interaction between audiences' everyday experiences within social
structures and the pleasure they derive from the texts of popular culture. In
the United States, within the field of audience studies, feminist media scholars
have used ethnographic methods to reveal the impact of patriarchal norms on
women's responses to genres such as soap operas and romance novels (Brown, 1994;
Christian-Smith, 1990; Jensen, 1984; Moffit, 1990; Press, 1991; Radway, 1984).
While ethnographic media studies in Europe, Australia, and the United
States have made a valuable contribution to our knowledge of female audiences in
Western nations, there is little work on woman as audiences of popular culture
in the Third World. As feminist scholar Leslie Steeves (1993, p. 41) has
pointed out in her review of scholarship on women and media studies, we still
know very little about non-Western women's interactions with the mass media.
Commenting specifically on the lack of academic work on romance reading in
non-Western contexts, Margaret Jensen (1984) wrote, "The home market [United
States] is nearly saturated, but Harlequin's sales abroad have steadily
increased. . . What messages do readers in developing countries receive from
North American romances? What impact do romances have on diverse national,
racial, and ethnic cultures?" (p. 161). Analyzing women's responses to popular
culture in postcolonial nations such as India can provide a glimpse into the
impact of patriarchy and nationalism on women's lives.
My research on romance reading by a group of young, middle- and upper-class
women in urban India contributes to the literature on global audience studies
and to feminist media studies. There is very little work on the reception of
Western popular culture among audiences in the Third World, particularly the
reception of popular literature, a phenonmenon that becomes marginalized in
comparison to the attention paid to television. The field of feminist media
studies, which continues to be dominated by the experiences of women from the
Western World, will be enriched by my analysis of the consumption of Western
popular culture as one practice where Indian women negotiate the politics of
ideal Indian womanhood.
The broad ethnographic question I pose in this paper is: How do young
middle- and upper-class Indian women who have to conform to social norms that
constrain women's sexuality negotiate their own sexual identity in the process
of reading Western romance fiction? Young Indian women's engagement with
Western popular culture takes place within the social context of a patriarchal
Hindu culture, which has been shaped by the ideals of the nationalist movement.
Young urban Indian women who are expected to be modern yet traditional
experience contradictory messages from their culture. Women are encouraged to
pursue careers and be successful in the public sphere of paid work and
professional employment, but continue to lead restricted social and private
lives. The most prevalent form of marriage for young, single women is the
arranged marriage system which demands that women be virgins. In addition,
young women's behavior is controlled in various ways; they have to be home
before sundown, they are formally initiated into housework and cooking, and they
have to seek approval from parents or authority figures for their activities
outside of home. Young, single women are told repeatedly that the honor of
their families depends on their sexual behavior. Most young urban Indian women
also live with their with parents or relatives, even if they are economically
independent, perform a bulk of the domestic chores, and after marriage are
expected to take care of their families and elders in their husbands' families.
By contrast, Indian men enjoy much more freedom than women; men are rarely
warned of the consequences of losing their chastity, of being single, or of
having poorly developed culinary skills. Although young middle-class Indian
women are not constrained in terms of intellectual achievements, when it comes
to the realm of sexual politics, they experience considerable constraints on
their behavior (Nandy, 1976).
It is also important to examine the impact of the rising tide of
nationalism in India on women's lives. Since India achieved independence from
Britain in 1947, there has been an effort on the part of the government,
entertainment industries, and politicians to recast the idea of nationhood, the
ostensible purpose being the construction of a genuine and authentic Indian
cultural identity. One of the ways in which this identity is being constructed
in postcolonial India is by exalting traditional images of womanhood in India,
drawn from upper-caste Hindu patriarchal texts, to emphasize the chastity and
purity of Indian women. Young women who read Mills & Boon romances in India
read these novels, which describe the courtship rituals and sexual lives of
Western women, against the backdrop of such a nationalist rhetoric.
Additionally, the path of modernity for women in India was charted by Hindu
nationalist reformers. These reformers urged Indian women to enter the public
sphere to struggle against British colonialism and encouraged women to be
successful in certain spheres of education and employment, but discouraged them
from imagining their lives without being dutiful wives and mothers. Given the
contradictory ways in which nationalism has liberated Indian women in some ways
yet maintained control over their sexuality, an analysis of romance reading in
India can provide a glimpse of how media practices become implicated within the
nationalist vision of modernity for women.
This analysis of romance reading is part of a larger project, which is
based on an ethnographic approach to romance reading by young Indian women. I
conducted my interviews and participant observation in the city of Hyderabad in
South India over a period of four months beginning from May through September of
1996. My ethnographic approach encompassed the following; reading Mills & Boon
romances; interviews with 42 women in group sessions; individual interviews with
30 romance readers; and interviews with readers' parents, teachers, library and
book-store owners, publishers, and used-book vendors. In addition to the
interviews, I also spent time observing and participating in various activities
connected to romance reading. I visited lending libraries, used book vendors,
and other bookstores with several women. I spent time with many young women
eating snacks at cafes, going to the movies, dining with them at their homes,
and shopping. At my request, twenty three readers also volunteered to write
essays in response to the question: "Why do you prefer reading Mills & Boon
romances over other reading material?"
The women I interviewed and observed for my exploration of romance reading
were middle-and upper-class, single, college-going women, between the ages of 17
to 21 years old, a majority of whose parents were teachers, bankers,
entrepreneurs, government officials, and various other professionals. I decided
to focus on this group of readers because my own personal experience of living
in India and anecdotal evidence suggested that romance reading is intense among
young middle- and upper-class Indian women of these ages. I gained access to
romance readers through two channels: women's college campuses and lending
libraries. The colleges I visited were women's colleges because higher
education in the city of Hyderabad in India, particularly for junior college and
for undergraduate education, is segregated except for a few engineering and
medical schools. I selected the four most well-known and largest women's
colleges; three undergraduate colleges and one junior college. Three out of the
four colleges I visited were private, Catholic institutions and one college was
a public institution, which was affiliated with the local state university,
I visited ten lending libraries and became a regular member of three
libraries. Lending libraries are one of the main sources for young Indian women
in Hyderabad to obtain romances because it is much cheaper for them to check out
books on a daily basis than buy them from bookstores. The lending libraries I
refer to here are different from public libraries in the United States. In
India, there are no public libraries that are funded by the state other than
university libraries, which stock educational material and are only accessible
to students, faculty, and staff of the university. Lending libraries in urban
India are small, privately-owned stores, where only popular fiction, popular
magazines, and maybe a few video and audio tapes are stacked on shelves, and
there is very little room to sit down and read. The purpose of these libraries
is for the customer to walk in, quickly browse, choose what they want, check
them out for a daily fee, and leave. The books themselves are rented out by the
library-owner (not a librarian, since the people who set up these libraries are
just entrepreneurs and not trained librarians) and these libraries can be best
thought of as similar to the video stores in the United States such as
Blockbuster, except that these are not glittery chain stores, but small
businesses run by individuals who live in the local communities.
I used snowball sampling as a means of finding my informants. Snowball
sampling is a technique of sampling where the ethnographer starts with a small
number of key respondents, usually referred to as informants, who introduce the
researcher to others (Douglas, 1985; Lindlof, 1995). The strength of snowball
sampling lies in its ability to locate informants who have attributes that are
central to the research problem and are also involved in an active social
network (Lindlof, 1995, p. 127). I arrived at a sample of thirty readers by
drawing on the logic of "creative sampling." Jack Douglas (1985) describes
"creative sampling" as a method of sampling in which researchers conduct as many
interviews as needed to explore the issues being posed and continue until they
stop hitting new issues. Feminist scholars Janice Radway (1984), Lana Rakow
(1992), Purnima Mankekar (1993a), and Andrea Press (1991) who used ethnography
as a method to study audiences also relied on this technique of snowball
sampling. To minimize the bias that may arise in this sampling method, in which
all the informants in the snowball may be connected with one another, I visited
four colleges and three lending libraries that were far apart and found seven
groups of readers.
I located the women I interviewed by approaching groups of women at the
college grounds or outside lending libraries. Among the forty-two women I spoke
to in group situations, I identified thirty women who regularly read Mills &
Boon romances (over three books a week) and interviewed them in individual
one-on-one situations. I refer to these thirty women as "informants" in this
study. I use pseudonyms wherever I quote or cite the people--informants,
parents, lending library owners, publishers, and used book vendors--I
The romances that these young Indian women read are popularly known as "M &
Bs" or "Mills & Boons" after the British publishing company Mills & Boon Ltd.,
which exports these books to India. The British company Mills & Boon is a
subsidiary of the Harlequin company in Toronto, which publishes the well-known
Harlequin romance novels, which are popular in North America. Although these
books have been read by generations of middle-class Indian women, there is no
research that has studied the popularity of Mills & Boons among readers in urban
India using ethnographic methods.
While exact sales figures of Mills & Boons are not available for India,
we can get a glimpse of the popularity of these Western romances among
middle-class women in urban India through the comments of Vijay Joshi (1994), an
Bashful Indian teen-agers for years have secretly lived out
their fantasies in the pages of romance novels imported from Britain.
Known among aficionados as "MBs," the British publishers' series
has provided a daily fix to a generation of Indian women who devoured
the novels between classes, at beauty parlors or while commuting to
work on buses. (p. 7A)
The popularity of imported Mills & Boon romances among urban Indian women has
prompted the Indian publisher Rupa Books to produce romance novels written in
English by Indians to capture some of the profits that multinationals were
The readers I interviewed in Hyderabad picked the "Contemporary Romance"
series, one among eight other series offered by Mills & Boon, as their
"favorite" line of books. Books in the Contemporary Romance series of Mills &
Boon were 188 pages in length and the distinctive covers of these novels, which
were in single bold colors consistently bore the logo of a rose that was spread
out horizontally on top of the multi-color illustration. The Contemporary
Romance series, the oldest of all the sight series, represents an evolution of
the romances that were first published by Mills & Boon and defined by the
publishers as "simple, modern love stories." As the word "Contemporary"
suggests, these novels are always set in contemporary times in the United
States, United Kingdom, and other "exotic" locations all over the world. The
basic formula for the romantic story was based on a hero and heroine, always
white, who meet and fall in love but they encounter obstacles to their love,
which included lack of communication, pressing family responsibilities,
conflicting loyalties, problems in the workplace, and occasionally social class
Heroines were usually young (in the early to mid-twenties) and sexually
inexperienced while heroes were older with much more sexual experience. While
heroines in earlier decades were mostly secretaries, governesses, clerks, and
waitresses, since the 1970s, heroines have also been journalists, advertising
copywriters, filmmakers, artists, and designers. In contrast though, heroes are
predominantly upper-class and ranged from being rich business-owners to
self-employed professionals. The focus of the story was the developing
relationship between the hero and heroine, however, an important part of the
plot development was also the descriptions of houses, cars, gardens, meals,
clothing, and everyday rituals of the main characters.
Public Images, Private Pleasures
When I began interviewing young women in their colleges, I noticed that
some women, particularly those who identified themselves as heavier readers of
Mills & Boon romances, would say to me half-seriously and half-jokingly, "You
mean you want to talk to the bad girls?" On probing further the meaning behind
the phrase "bad girls," I found that these readers were referring to their
enthusiasm and interest for reading Mills & Boon romances, which often carried
fairly sexually explicit descriptions. According to my informants only "bad
girls" in India could express an interest in sexuality. To explain concretely
what they meant by the phrase "bad girls," Ritika and Mythili, who read at least
one Mills & Boon a day, pulled out two books and showed me short, scribbled
messages that they said were written by men in the neighborhood on the margins
of those pages that had descriptions of sexual encounters. I was surprised to
see that there were sentences marked in red on the sides of these pages such as:
"You bad girls, why do you read these things," "You should be ashamed of your
selves," and "Do your parents know you are reading this" all of which indicated
to me that these young women's interest in sexuality was seen as shameful and
deviant by certain men in their communities. These women who showed me these
scribbled messages immediately clarified that their strong preferences for Mills
& Boons did not mean they were actually interested in "sleeping around." Some
others even defensively argued that good girls who did not read Mills & Boons
were probably hiding their promiscuity under the guise of following society's
prescriptions for good behavior.
How does the culture's disapproval of female sexuality affect these young
women's Mills & Boon romance reading, especially in their everyday lives at home
and in public where they have to conceal their interest in sexuality? Some women
discussed their parents' strong disapproval of Mills & Boon romances and said
that they rarely or never read their novels in the living room area or while
guests or relatives visited. These women did most of their reading in their
rooms or at college and since they could not visit the lending library in their
neighborhood frequently without raising their parents' suspicions, they visited
the library close to their college and also relied on friends for their supply
of romances. Out of the eight women who reported various degrees of parental
disapproval of their Mills & Boon reading, three even asked me not to visit
their homes to interview them because they feared their parents might find out
that they regularly read romances. Others said that their parents either
tolerated or mildly disapproved of their reading romances and did not openly
complain as long they complied with rules such as not staying out late, not
talking to strange men, helping with chores, and doing well in their studies.
Some women also spoke about being uncomfortable with displaying their
enjoyment of Mills & Boon romances in public settings with the exception of
their college grounds where parents and others could not intrude. Sangeeta, one
of the most outspoken of my informants, spoke about covering romances with
sexually explicit covers with sheets of newspaper when she read in public so
that people would not label her as immoral:
If I am reading one of the newer Mills & Boons, you know the
books that are from the nineties, I cover them up with newspaper.
Some of those covers are really too much and then people in the buses
will think we do that stuff that they see on the covers. Just last
week I read two books, one by Anne Mather  called Brittle
Bondage and the other was Penny Jordan's Trusting Game , and
the covers were really bad. One even showed a half-naked bottom of a
woman. The other did not do that but it had the man and woman really
close and kissing. People who see those covers think we're like that
and if someone we know sees those covers it is worse because then my
parents might hear and they would be really ashamed of us.
Other women reported that they also took care to cover books with really
explicit covers when they read at home because they might be especially
embarrassed about their fathers, brothers, and other male relatives catching
sight of these books. The stigma about being seen in public with sexually
explicit material also becomes manifested in women's behavior when they go to
big bookstores to buy Mills & Boon romances. Venkat Prasad, the floor manager of
Waldenbooks, the biggest and most plush bookstore of the three bookstores in
Hyderabad that stocked Mills & Boons, pointed out that many young women were too
shy to ask him where Mills & Boons were shelved in the bookstore:
They will not ask me where the Mills & Boons are. I have seen
many new customers who will wander around this big bookstore and
spend a lot of time looking but will not ask me. I recently asked
one of my regular customers why she had behaved that way when she
first came into the store and she said that she felt shy about it.
Now, I have hired two young boys who stand around and when they see
young women wandering looking a little lost they direct them to the
Mills & Boons section.
In addition, when I discussed what guided the particular location of these
novels on the floor of the store, he continued, "I put the Mills & Boons
somewhere in the middle of the store and also put them in the lower shelves so
these women can sit down on the little stools and remain hidden and undisturbed.
I also always put them very close to the rotating cosmetics display case because
it makes it easy for women who come to buy cosmetics to see those books."
Prasad also informed me that he never displays Mills & Boons in a prominent
location in the store, especially as individual books with covers facing
customers because they were explicit. He also said he preferred to display
these books only with their spines stacked next to one another on the shelves
and never with their covers openly facing customers. In yet another bookstore
that sold romances, A. A. Husain's in Abids, one of Hyderabad's busiest and most
upscale shopping areas, some young women said they feared the disapproving
stares of the manager who glared at them when they came to buy romances. As a
consequence of his disapproval, these women said that they had devised the
strategy of visiting the store only during those hours when the manager was not
Given the strong undercurrent of disapproval for Mills & Boons as
unsuitable books for young women from good and honorable families to read, it is
not surprising that many of my informants would not openly disclose their
possible interest in descriptions of female sexuality in romances. Among the
few scholars who have studied romance readers in the United States (Jensen,
1984; Moffit, 1990; Radway, 1984; Thurston, 1988), none except Janice Radway
have dealt with the issue of readers' responses to representations of sexuality
in romances in depth. Janice Radway (1984) found that readers in the United
States expressed low interest in sexuality in romances and she argues that
romances are not primarily a titillating experience, rather one of the reasons
women read romances is because they want to experience a world in which strong
men nurture women. While Radway's analysis of readers' interest for romances as
a search for nurturance seems valid, her easy acceptance of readers' low ranking
of sexual descriptions reflects a certain loss of critical distance from
readers' responses towards female sexuality. She does not consider that these
women's expressions of lack of interest in sexual descriptions may arise out of
their motivation to present themselves to her (an academic) according to
socially acceptable gender norms in Western culture, especially when romances
are seen as pornographic trash by outsiders.
Readers' Favorite Romances: Socially Possible Fantasies
Given my own experience of the strong taboos surrounding female sexuality
as a young woman in India, I was fully aware that my informants might not
directly or immediately address the sexual content of romances in group
interviews. Therefore, I attempted to probe this sensitive area by examining
their preferences for certain types of Mills & Boons and for books by certain
authors who many readers chose as their favorite authors.
From my interviews, I found that among the eight different subgenres of
Mills & Boon romances that are made available to young women on the market, the
most popular series is the "Contemporary Romance series," slimmer books with
straightforward and simple plots set in contemporary times in which the heroines
are career women but relatively virginal and the men are older, affluent, and
sexually experienced. The popularity of these books among readers is also
evident from the large numbers of these books, more than any of the seven other
subgenres, that are stocked and displayed by lending library owners and
booksellers who try to cater to their customers' tastes. Discussing the extent
of the popularity of the Mills & Boon "Romance" series among young women, Mrs.
Khan, one library owner explained, "I spend extra money on getting the "Romance"
series books stitched as soon as I get them. I send them out to this local
binding place where I get the books stitched over the publishers' binding so
that they don't fall apart. These books circulate so fast and are read over and
over again so to make sure I get the maximum out of them before the pages fall
out, I spend extra money."
The popularity of the "Romance" series books among my informants, all young
women who are single, anticipating marriage, and with it sexual intimacy is not
surprising since these "Romance" books facilitate the greatest
reader-identification by usually tracing the sexual awakening of young,
independent, and white career women (between the ages of 18 to 30 years old) who
fall in love and marry at the end of the book. The heroines in these books are
virginal or sexually inexperienced, they are either single or have been married
once, and it is only when they are with the hero that these women become aware
of their latent sexuality. Representations of female sexuality--the women in
these books experience sexual intimacy with the men they ultimately get married
to--in the "Romance" series reach out to the comfort level of young Indian women
who are told by their culture (parents, media, religion, and schools) that
sexual intimacy with a man has to be sanctioned by the institution of marriage.
Since dating and even contact with men are considered taboo for young women who
are supposed to preserve the honor of the family by vigilantly guarding their
virginity until marriage, these "Romance" books which affirm and celebrate
marriage allow for "socially possible" fantasies pertaining to sexuality that do
not defy or violate social norms. Some other reasons these readers provided
for preferring the Romance series, among the many other kinds of romances, was
the shorter length of these books and the contemporary and modern settings.
Given the basic story of love and courtship followed by marriage, which is
common to "Romance" books, I found that the favorite authors ranked by my
informants--Penny Jordan, Charlotte Lamb, Emma Goldrick, Emma Darcy, Miranda
Lee, Carole Mortimer, and Sally Wentworth (listed according to popularity, from
greatest to least)--were those who featured young, independent, and strong women
who were sexually innocent (mostly virgins or sexually inexperienced) but were
relatively more open than female characters in other "Romance" books (by authors
such as Rosemary Carter, Sara Wood, Marjorie Lewty, Carol Grace, and Betty
Neels) to thinking about their sexuality and to also physically expressing their
sexuality with the hero. Although my informants did not explicitly mention
"more descriptions of sexual encounters" as an important ingredient for their
preferences for certain authors, they expressed the view that the most "boring"
author, the one they disliked the most was Betty Neels because the heroine was
too submissive, passive, and "goody goody." Betty Neels' books, of which I read
several, always feature prim and proper young women, have many more secondary
characters, and very little explicit sexual descriptions other than a few kisses
spaced throughout the story.  It is thus important to note that among the
books which contained socially possible fantasies of romance and sex ending in
marriage, my informants preferred books that permitted them to explore intimate
heterosexuality to a greater extent.
Manuals on Sexuality: Negotiating the Uncertainties of Marriage
Readers' responses to my questions regarding some of their comments in
their written essays indicated that the sexual content of romances filled a void
in their lives as a form of sex education in a culture where sex education is
almost non-existent for all young people and particularly for women who feel
intimidated about discussing sexuality even among themselves. In their written
essays about why they enjoyed reading Mills & Boons, which twenty three of my
thirty informants wrote, many alluded to their feelings of resentment about
people's disapproval of the sexual content of romances:
Essay # 17: What are we doing anyhow? We are just reading
books. I never lie to my parents or hide anything from them. I
would like to know what men and women do in bed. Is that wrong? I
could never ask my parents or teachers or even friends.
Essay # 4: I never talk to guys or meet them in secret places,
which some good girls do in our college. They go during college
hours to see their secret boyfriends. I would never do something
like that. So why should my parents be so concerned about these
books? I just sometimes want to know what being with a man is all
about. No one tells us anything anyhow and I feel too shy to even
discuss all this with my friends.
During my individual interviews, several young women spoke about their biology
lessons and said that even the little opportunity for sex education offered to
them via their lessons on reproduction was denied because their teachers refused
to lecture on the topic and instead suggested that they learn the material by
themselves. Revathi who was now focusing on biology in her undergraduate work
explained, "We had a male teacher for a while in the tenth grade because our own
teacher left to have a baby and he would not even include the material on human
reproduction on our tests!" In their assertions that romances are a form of sex
education, several readers described the complete lack of sex education in their
schools, colleges, and in families and argued that Mills & Boons helped them
understand and learn about sexuality.
These young women's fears about asking parents, teachers, and even friends
about sexuality is echoed by many other young men and women in other urban areas
in India; several youngsters when interviewed in a telephone survey in Femina
magazine (Lifestyles of the young and the restless, 1994, April 8) commented on
the complete lack of information about sexuality in their lives and the magazine
notes that in the absence of information, teenagers, especially boys, learn
about sex from programs such as Baywatch on television, videos, and novels while
girls would not openly disclose their sources of information (p. 18). One
informant drew my attention to the "Letters to the Editor" columns in many
women's magazines and wrote in her essay, "Many women write and ask crazy
questions. One woman asked if she will get pregnant because a man kissed her
and another did not know what happened in bedrooms that was so secretive. I've
been reading Mills & Boons for five years and I know a lot more than these women
who show that they don't know anything when they write such letters."
The use of Mills & Boons by young women in Hyderabad as a source of
information about heterosexual activity is thus not surprising given the woeful
lack of sex education in their lives. The situation of these young Indian women
in Hyderabad is not very different from the situation faced by women all over
India who remain ignorant of the facts about human sexuality (Balse, 1976;
Femina, 1994, April 8; Kakar, 1989; Kothari, 1994; Nabar, 1995; Reddi, 1996;
Sen; 1994). Commenting on the urgent need for sex education in India, the
Indian expert on sexuality, Prakash Kothari (1994) writes, "In India, sex
education is a grossly neglected aspect even in the curricula of medical
institutions (p. 11)" and writer Anima Sen (1994) notes, "It has been reported
that most Indian boys and girls harbour wrong notions about sex mainly because
their sources of information are seldom authentic. . . Little or no information
is obtained from parents nor are schools forthcoming in imparting adequate sex
education (p. 7)." Even if my informants' construction of romances as "sex
education" is validated by the lack of sex education in schools and in families,
it is important to note that in their responses to my questions about female
sexuality in romances, these young women preferred to frame their discussions
through the framework of "sex education," a more respectable and
medical/scientific way of talking about sexuality, rather than the pleasure that
these sexual descriptions might provide.
Since dating and contact with men before marriage are taboo practices for
many Indian women who are told by authority figures that they have to remain
virgins until they are married, my informants suggested that the sexuality in
Mills & Boon romances becomes a source of knowledge about future sexually
intimate relationships with their husbands. Some readers said in their essays
that their knowledge about female sexuality learned from Mills & Boons would
help to reduce fear and anxiety of sexual relationships with future husbands.
They also wrote that that they did not intend to use this information about
sexuality to date men or to have pre-marital sex. Since the arranged marriage
system, where parents or elders choose a husband and then get the consent of
their daughters, still continues to be the dominant system of marriage, for many
young Indian women the prospect of sexual intimacy with future husbands, whom
they often do not know very well, can be intimidating. One of my informants,
Shailaja, spoke a little self-consciously about the impact of the lack of sex
education on women's married lives with husbands:
We as women should know about this. I know for sure that my
mother or grandmother did not know and I am sure they were really
nervous and terrified when they got married even though they will
never speak to me about all this. Well, since I have been reading
Mills & Boons I at least know some basic things like what really
happens when men and women make love and maybe I won't be as
terrified as they were.
Echoing Shailaja's words, Rachna described a female friend's traumatic
experience when she got married, "My friend had no clue what was going to happen
and she was completely shocked and said it was all very painful. She will not
speak to me about it of course but at least I will not be like her when I get
married. I learn something from my Mills & Boons and so I am not so ignorant."
Describing the anxiety and fear of her older sister who had recently been
married, Samhita recalled, "My sister will not of course discuss anything like
that with me. But she said her husband was very kind and they did not do
anything until a month after they got married. He wanted to get to know her
better. But all men may not be that understanding so we as women should learn
about love between men and women."
While some informants preferred to speak about the sexuality in Mills &
Boons as "sex education" that would help reduce anxiety about the prospect of
sexual intimacy with husbands, a few others who were more open reported that
their familiarity with heterosexual intimacy in Mills & Boons might help them
enjoy and take pleasure in the sexual intimacy they anticipated with future
husbands. These readers described their frustration with their parents and other
relatives who assumed that their Mills & Boon reading would lead to promiscuous
behavior. They argued that they had no intention of deceiving their parents to
indulge in secret sexual liaisons, however, they felt they had a right to enjoy
reciprocal sexual intimacy with their husbands. Two informants wrote in their
essays about how they were different from their mothers and other women from
Essay #12: Mills & Boon romances show that the women have
feelings, express them to men, and the men do not mind. I hope to
have a husband who will understand my feelings and be gentle and
loving. We know that women are not supposed to talk about their fe
elings or emotions, especially about love with husbands. My mother
would probably be horrified to know that I would like to be close to
my husband you know how and even have fun with them when we are
together in private--women like my mother do not even probably expect
anything from their husbands.
Essay #7: Well, we read Mills & Boons and so we know what all
this stuff is about so I feel like I can be closer to my husband. We
are modern women you know--I plan on doing my MBA and being in
management. I hope to be able to express my feelings to my husband
not like my mother or grandmother who probably were so shy that they
did not even try to be close to their husbands. I am sure that they
did not even think they should enjoy it.
In strongly expressing their desire for sexual intimacy in marriage, these women
were trying to find a way to negotiate the complexities of conforming to Hindu
patriarchy's stricture that women remain "pure, asexual, and virtuous" but at
the same time as modern, educated women who resented familial control they also
wanted to assert their right to experience and enjoy sexual feelings at least
within the approved relationship of marriage. Sudhir Kakar (1989, p. 22)
discusses Indian women's longing for intimacy and romance within marital
relations and writes that many Indian women long for a "missing intimacy with
the husband as a man" and for the "two-person universe" of the married couple.
Expressing their resistance to social norms that require women to be
sexually passive and deny their desire for sexual intimacy, these women argue
that Mills & Boons are a resource for them to learn about sexuality so they
could participate equally in sexual relationships with husbands. These young
women's expressions of desire for sexual intimacy within marriage is a form of
resistance because social science researchers who have interviewed Hindu women
in the past regarding their sexuality have found that many women report painful
and ambiguous feelings towards their sexuality due to societal norms that deny
women sexual feelings (Dhruvarajan, 1989; Gupta, 1972; Kakar, 1989; Nabar, 1996;
Roland, 1991). Given the religious and social norms that restrain Hindu women's
sexuality and the disapproval of Mills & Boons by authority figures, my
informants' insistence on their right to read Mills & Boons and to enjoy
sexuality within marriage, can be seen as a form of resistance to Hindu
patriarchal definitions of womanhood.
The frustration of my informants with authority figures' anxieties over
their Mills & Boon reading arises out of the great emphasis placed by Hindu
families on family honor being dependent upon young women's virginity before
their marriage and on women's unquestioning acceptance of their non-threatening
and asexual roles as dutiful daughters, nurturing mothers and obedient wives
(Gupta, 1976; Roland, 1991, p. 600). The considerable emphasis placed by Hindu
families on young women's virginity can be traced to the prescriptions contained
in upper-caste Brahminical Hindu religious texts (Babb, 1970; Das, 1993;
Goldman, 1993; Jha, 1979; Kakar, 1989; Kumari, 1988; Marglin, 1985; Wadley,
1988).  Some scholars explain that the importance placed on virginity in
Hindu texts arises out of the dual and opposing images of women as creative/good
and destructive/evil (Kumari, 1988; Wadley, 1988; Babb, 1970). Women are seen
as creative and benevolent only when they relinquish control of their sexuality
to men and in their malevolent or destructive role women are perceived as
possessing dangerous and uncontrolled sexuality and female power (Babb, 1970,
pp. 235-236). Sudhir Kakar (1989) suggests that the duality of women's roles is
related to the mother-whore dichotomy, a dichotomy that splits women into images
of the benevolent mother goddess and the dominating sexual being who is capable
of devouring men (Kakar, 1989, p. 17).  As a consequence of this perception
of women's sexuality as dangerous and uncontrolled, there is a great emphasis in
traditional texts on women's virginity and chastity.
Locating Hindu patriarchy's control over Hindu women's sexuality within a
material and historical context, Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi (1986) argue that
the ideology underlying the control of women's sexuality--to maintain caste
purity and to preserve economic resources--continues to influence the lives of
Hindu women in modern India. In their pioneering work Daughters of
Independence, Liddle and Joshi write that the control over Hindu upper-caste
women's sexuality developed not only as a symbolic marker of caste superiority
but also to fortify the economic position of the community because daughters
received movable property in the form of dowry, which they carried with them to
their husbands' families: "The more property a woman had, the more important it
was to control her sexuality, since the distribution of her property coincided
with her sexual attachment" (p. 65). Tracing the movement of certain lower
castes to upper-caste status, Liddle and Joshi (1986) note that one of the most
important characteristics that developed among lower castes that were attempting
to gain caste mobility, in addition to gaining economic resources, was increased
control over women's sexuality.
Nationalist Discourses and Gender: Sexual Identity and Romance Reading
The denial of sexual feelings to Hindu women through society's control over
their sexuality--such as the emphasis on virginity and on women's reproductive
capacities alone--affects my informants' ambiguous responses to female sexuality
in Mills & Boon romances. Specifically addressing the dilemma and
contradictions of young Hindu women who were expected to be educated, modern,
and have careers but at the same time adhere to rigid forms of patriarchal
control over their sexuality, some of my informants constructed their sexual
identity as a complex negotiation of independence and conformity. Samhita who
had expressed the greatest resentment about her parents' disapproval of Mills &
We like Mills & Boons because in a strange way the heroines in
some ways are like us. They are independent and they all want to be
economically independent. And then even if they are close to a man
before marriage, something we will not do, they at least marry the
man and are able to express their feelings to that one man. We try
to study hard and we want careers. We obey our parents in everything
important. We have a right to our feelings.
Sangeeta who was present at this interview since both of them had asked me if I
could interview them together chimed in, "We have a right to our Mills & Boons.
We do everything else they say. I would never bring any shame on my family or
let anyone say they did not bring me up the right way. I am doing well in
school and I will always earn the money I need. I have a right to at least
decide what I can read." Many other readers also constructed their preferences
for Mills & Boons as a "right" and as a harmless "youthful" leisure activity
that they should be allowed to enjoy because they deserved some independence and
choice in their lives as educated women who wanted to have careers and be
economically independent. The dilemma of these women who asserted their
choice to read Mills & Boons as a right that modern, young, and independent
career women like them deserved for their good behavior, their repeated
arguments for Mills & Boons as sexual education for their future married lives
and not for casual sexual liaisons before their marriage, and their frustration
with the expectations of being "pure and virtuous" is a consequence of the
trajectory that nationalist discourse in India charted out as modernity and
liberation for Indian women.
Many feminist and postcolonial scholars have analyzed the contradictory
implications of nationalist discourse for women's liberation in some Third World
nations in South Asia and the Middle East (Chaachhi, 1991; Chatterjee, 1989; de
Alwis, 1995; Grewal, 1996; Jayawardena, 1986; Kandiyoti, 1991; Mani, 1991;
Mankekar, 1993a; Moghadam, 1994; Thomas, 1989). Nationalist discourse
introduced some progressive changes in women's lives in nations such as India,
Iran, Egypt, and Turkey where women were encouraged to get an education, travel
around the world, and even gain success in certain careers such as medicine,
teaching, politics, and social work (Grewal, 1996; Jayawardena, 1986; Kandiyoti,
1991). In India, nineteenth century nationalism opened the doors for education
for middle-class women (Chanana, 1994; Jayawardena, 1986; Karlekar, 1994).
However, Indian nationalism conceived of education for women within a
traditional patriarchal framework; education was supposed to improve women's
abilities to perform their roles as mothers, daughters, and wives with
refinement and to enable educated women to cater to the educational and medical
needs of other women in a gender-segregated society (Chanana, 1994; Jayawardena,
1986; Karlekar, 1994). Also, while many upper-caste Hindu male reformers
campaigned against certain oppressive Hindu practices such as Sati (widow
burning), child marriage, and polygamy (Chaterjee, 1989; Jayawardena, 1986;
Mani, 1991), they did not challenge the fundamental tenets of upper-caste Hindu
patriarchy, which advocated the construction of Hindu women as chaste, virtuous,
and asexual. In fact, in their urge to portray Hinduism as "civilized" to
counter the charges of "barbarism" that were made by the British, Hindu
nationalists drew on and naturalized the conceptions of womanhood as "pure and
virtuous" described in Hindu upper-caste (Brahminical) scriptures, mythologies,
and texts as the normative definitions of ideal Hindu womanhood (Chakravarti,
1995; Chaterjee, 1989).
Partha Chaterjee (1989) locates the idealization of Hindu women as pure and
virtuous within the ideology of Indian/Hindu nationalism, which constructed a
powerful distinction between "inner/outer worlds" and correspondingly between
"home, private/material world, public." Nineteenth century nationalists wanted
to show that British colonization had not affected the inner essential identity
of Hindus, which according to them was characterized by distinctive superior
morality and spirituality. Hindu women, who were seen as part of home, the
private world, became the symbols of this unpolluted, spiritual and superior
inner life and thus became the ground for establishing moral superiority and
difference from Western society. In nationalist discourse of the twentieth
century, women were enthusiastically urged to enter the public sphere to protest
and struggle against colonialism, but they were also simultaneously exalted as
mothers and essentialized and glorified as being passive, nurturing, sexually
abstinent, and non-violent (Derne(, 1997b; Katrak, 1989; Nandy, 1983; Tharu and
Lalitha, 1993; Thomas, 1989; Zutshi, 1993).
The twin arguments pursued by Indian nationalists, that of educating Hindu
women to portray a civilized image and simultaneously asserting the superiority
of Indian women as sexually chaste and pure and as nurturing mothers meant that
Indian women, especially middle-class women were given trappings of education
and superficial freedoms, but were not really allowed to question the
fundamental premises of Hindu patriarchal structures. Partha Chaterjee writes
that the desexualization of the bourgeois Hindu woman in post-independent India
was achieved by displacing all notions of active female sexuality as promiscuous
sexuality practiced by the lower-castes and "Europeanized" or Westernized
others. The purity and virginity of educated upper-caste Hindu women were thus
contrasted with two opposing images, one of the low-caste and poor Indian women
who were constructed as coarse, vulgar, and sexually accessible and the other of
Western women as immoral and sexually promiscuous (Chaterjee, 1989).
The overt construction of Western women (read white women) as "sexually
promiscuous" in nationalist discourse in India since the nineteenth century
continues to be a strong influence in contemporary India. One strong debate
that permeates discussions about youth and media consumption in India,
especially with the arrival of television and foreign programming, is the
harmful influence of "Western values" on Indian culture. A strong
undercurrent that runs through such debates over sexuality, youth, and Indian
culture is the particular impact of representations of supposedly sexually
promiscuous Western women on young Indian women; the concern here for the
behavior of Indian women becomes a matter of the superiority of Indian culture
over Western culture. Concerns about the corruption of ideal Indian
womanhood by exposure to Western culture, particularly Western women's sexually
immoral ways, is strongly manifested in contemporary popular cultural
representations on films and television (Bhaskar, 1984; Derne(, 1997a; Rao,
1989; Thomas, 1989; Zutshi, 1993). For example, Indian women are
predominantly represented as pure, asexual, and virtuous in their roles as
mothers, wives, and daughters in mainstream films where their purity and
chastity metaphorically stand in for the cultural superiority of the Indian
In the responses of the young Indian women I interviewed, I could see that
they were very keenly aware of Indian society's disapproval of women's
expressions of sexuality and they were also conscious that female sexuality was
constructed as the property of those "Western women" and not "good" Indian
women. I found that in describing their identities my informants tried to
position themselves as modern and independent--and therefore they had a right to
their choice of leisure reading and the right to expect to enjoy sexual intimacy
with their husbands--but at the same time they did not want to be identified as
women who might abuse their independence by being sexually promiscuous like
"American" (read "white") women.
In discussing and clarifying their attitudes towards female sexuality in
the Mills & Boon romances, many readers, to my surprise, defined their
Indianness by skeptically contrasting the "unreal" or "fantasy-like"
descriptions of female sexuality in Mills & Boons with their knowledge of what
"real" Western women were like. Purnima tried to express her complex sense of
reader identification--of attachment and simultaneous detachment--with the
Western heroines of her favorite Mills & Boon romances:
In some ways I feel like the books were written for us. In
Mills & Boons the heroines are sometimes virgins and sometimes very
inexperienced. I know that is not true for women in America. Many
of them have several boyfriends by the time they get married.
Virgins are really rare there! On the other hand, Indian women are
really virgins until we get married. In some of these books like one
of my favorite ones by Charlotte Lamb , Deadly Rivals, the hero
is very happy and surprised that the heroine is a virgin. In many
books I have noticed this sense of surprise and happiness in the
heroes when they find out that the heroines are virgins. My friends
and I discuss this you know and we say that in India it will be the
opposite! In India, the man will be surprised and angry if women are
not virgins because they expect it as their right.
Interpreting Mills & Boon heroes' sense of surprise at heroines' virginity to
mean that the sexually inexperienced women in Mills & Boons are the exceptions
rather than the norm in the West, Purnima found that these books echo the
reality of women in India (who fear the loss of virginity) even more than the
reality of women in the West. Like Samhita, Sangeeta, and Purnima, many of my
other informants too talked about the paradox of Mills & Boons, which featured
sexually innocent white women who were in reality rarely virginal or innocent,
but it was precisely this emphasis on innocence that they preferred because they
felt it applied much more to their own lives as Indian women.
Constructing Western women who are virgins as anomalies because they are
supposed to be "sexually promiscuous" allows these readers to negotiate their
feelings of guilt over enjoying sexually explicit material by displacing the
expression of female sexuality onto the figure of "American women." Making this
point in a guarded manner about the failure of Indian romances, Aditya Mukherji,
the editor of the unsuccessful Indian romances launched by Rupa, said, "Many
college women in Delhi joked about the lack of "Masala" [masala meaning spice is
often used to refer to sex] in our romances with my female colleague who
interviewed them. But when we asked them if we should include more "masala"
they also said they could not see Indian women in that way." Many of my other
informants also strongly expressed the point that reading Mills & Boons would
not motivate them to start behaving like Western women; in fact, some women
could not understand why the Mills & Boon romances they enjoyed were even
popular among Western women.
While many readers said they did not approve of the practice of dating, a
few outspoken readers said they would like to have the opportunity to date but
not in the way they understood it as being practiced in Western countries and
recently in Bombay and Delhi. Discussing the practice of dating and courtship
in Western society about which they had read in Mills & Boons and learned
through other sources such as films, soaps, magazines, and relatives visiting
from the United States, one reader Anuradha commented:
I think it is nice that men and women can go out and be together
and no one thinks anything. In Mills & Boon romances you know they
have a great romance, roses, wine, dancing, and then they get married
and they are supposed to live together happily ever after. But we
know it is really not like that. Women there go out with men even
when they are very young like when they are thirteen. They have
teenage pregnancies and lots of divorces because they are not
faithful. They also have AIDS now there because of that kind of
One outspoken reader, Beena, too spoke about the favorite parts in Mills & Boons
being the descriptions of dating and courtship between the heroine and hero.
She articulated her desire for a similar practice in India but under different
I think it is nice that they have dating there and maybe we too
should have something like that. But it should be only after the age
of eighteen when we know what is good and what is bad. Also, the
woman should definitely marry the guy she dates and it is good for us
not to do anything until our marriage of course. So yes, I would
like to have a Mills & Boon romance but it will be in the Indian
way. I would like to go steady with a guy after I know what I really
want and then I will marry the guy and we will be happy forever and
it will be real because in India we don't get divorces. Husbands and
wives stay together.
In her interviews with middle-class women in Delhi, Purnima Mankekar (1993a)
found that one of her informants, Renuka, similarly articulates the united and
stable Indian family as the strongest characteristic of Indianness and the
Indian nation unlike Western societies that lacked stability, respect for
elders, and fidelity in marriage (p. 385). Even more interestingly, some other
readers who discussed dating, contrasted their attitudes not only with those of
Western women but also with "Westernized" upper-class Indian women from Delhi
and Bombay and with Anglo-Indian women from Hyderabad:
Hyderabad is different. We are not like those girls in Delhi or
Bombay where we hear all kinds of things are going on--many women
wearing mini-skirts and behaving badly in public. We are not so
crazy and we don't want to imitate American women like they do. In
Hyderabad, only Anglo-Indian women do that you know--go out in public
with men all the time, dance, and wear mini-skirts.
In a nationwide survey of Femina magazine readers regarding their attitudes
towards sex, the authors (Femina, 1994, April 8) note that in many cities in
India, apart from New Delhi, Bombay, and Goa, conservative attitudes towards
sexuality are prevalent, especially in cities in the South such as Hyderabad,
Trivandrum, and Madras. The statements of many Femina readers from these cities
regarding their attitudes towards sexuality reveal that they, like many of my
informants, think that sexual relationships are appropriate only within marriage
and that women, if they date, should go steady with one man and get married to
that man. The Anglo-Indian women that my informants referred to are women from
the Anglo-Indian community, a community that was formed by the children born out
of sexual relationships between British men and Indian women who were taken as
mistresses and concubines during colonialism. As Europeanized "others," this
community is marginalized and stigmatized by Indian Hindus, Muslims, and
Christians alike who see Anglo-Indians as belonging neither in Britain nor in
India. One of the stigmas attached to this community is the stereotype of
Anglo-Indian women as loose and sexually immoral because they do not practice
the arranged marriage system.
We see here that the construction of Western women as sexually immoral and
of Western society as characterized by unstable families, teenage pregnancy, and
AIDS, in short, as sexually chaotic, leads my informants to feel a complex sense
of reader-identification with the heroines in Mills & Boon romances. Even as
they identify with young sexually innocent white women who marry strong and
successful men, they simultaneously assert a sense of moral superiority over
Western women, Westernized Indian women, and Anglo-Indian women by arguing that
Mills & Boon romances paradoxically represent the reality of their lives as
Hindu women rather than the lives of white Western women.
My analysis of young Hindu middle-class women's responses to
representations of sexuality in Mills & Boons gives us a glimpse of young Indian
women's struggles with the restrictions they experience in a culture dominated
by upper-caste Hindu and nationalist ideologies. We find that these women use
their romance reading to partially resist and subvert patriarchal norms in
certain ways; they devise strategies to pursue their romance reading without
earning the label of being bad girls and they express their romance reading as a
right that they deserve for complying with other social norms. However, we see
that these women simultaneously do not challenge dominant constructions of ideal
Hindu womanhood so they can read these books without feeling that they are
different from the so-called good girls; they justify their reading as sex
education that will enable them to experience intimacy with future husbands and
they use the rhetoric of nationalist ideology to express their sexual
identities. They construct Mills & Boons as books that speak to their own real
lives rather than the "real" lives of Western women who according to them are
rarely sexually inexperienced or virginal. My emphasis on the struggles young
Indian women experience is to draw attention to the complex nature of women's
responses to Western popular culture, responses which include resistance as well
My analysis here resonates with feminist athropologist Purnima Mankekar's
work on female television viewers' interpretations of the popular Hindu epic
Mahabharata in the city of New Delhi in India. Mankekar (1993), who carried out
an ethnography of television viewers, analyzes Indian women's responses to
nationalist constructions of womanhood on television and writes that women do
not express complete anger or "opposition" towards patriarchal norms nor do they
passively accept all the restrictions placed on them, rather they experience
their consumption of popular culture as a space where they struggle with
patriarchal norms (p. 557). Mankekar urges feminist scholars to adopt a more
complex view of "resistance" and "compliance" as being simultaneous and as never
being mutually exclusive categories.
The complexity of women's engagement with popular literature which I
analyze in this paper has also been discussed by other non-Western feminists.
Feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod (1990, p. 47) urges feminists to use
resistance as a diagnostic tool to understand power. In her ethnographic work
on Bedouin women's lives, Abu-Lughod analyzes how these women resist and support
systems of power. Drawing on Foucault, she argues that the statements "where
there is resistance there is power" and "where there is power there is
resistance" are equally relevant for women's lives. Feminist historian Nita
Kumar conceptualizes South Asian women's everyday lives as a dialectic between
expressions of agency and submission to a "repressive normative social order"
(Kumar, 1994, pp. 1-22). She points out that there is no clear cut division
between domination and resistance since structures of power and everyday life
are always speaking to one another.
Western romance fiction thus allows these young Indian women to mediate and
interpret a particular course of modernity that has been charted out for them by
nationalism--Indian women can pursue higher education and attain success in
certain careers but at the same time they are urged to be good daughters, wives,
and mothers who are virginal, chaste, and pure and nurture and support families.
However, in understanding how these Indian women struggle with patriarchy, it is
important to avoid the framework of passivity, which has characterized so many
anthropological accounts of South Asian women. In seeking a more nuanced
understanding of young Indian women's experiences with Mills & Boon romance
reading, I have tried to show that readers' interpretation of the meanings they
make from Western romances represents their struggle to find some degree of
autonomy in their lives even as they minimize the risks of violating social
My paper also shows that the reception of Western popular culture in a
non-Western context cannot be easily classified as "cultural imperialism"
because readers translate and interpret the stories in romance fiction to fit
their own lives and reveal their contempt for Western culture. The "West"
[especially, the United States] is accepted and celebrated with regard to
material culture, however, Western values are simultaneously feared and
denigrated with regard to family life and moral character. My interviews with
middle-class Indian women revealed that their denigration of "Western values" in
postcolonial India can be traced to nationalist ideology of the nineteenth
century, which embraced Western science, education, and technology but insisted
that Indian culture was morally and spiritually superior to Western culture.
The value of an ethnographic approach to media reception lies precisely in
its ability to discover and describe the complex manner in which audiences use
the media and talk about the pleasure they experience in the viewing and reading
process. In discussing my work at different forums, I have found that women
from other parts of South Asia (Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), from countries in the
Middle-East, and from Africa (Kenya, Burundi, and Zaire) have said with
excitement in their voices that they too read Western romances and could relate
to the many of the issues I brought up. Ethnographic studies of romance reading
in other postcolonial contexts could provide new insights regarding the gender
dimensions of the reception of Western media in other non-Western cultures. It
would be interesting to explore the relationship between social structures and
women's romance reading in these countries and to examine how nationalism and
modernity have affected other non-Western women's engagement with Western
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 An article in The Times of India (August 19, 1995) "Trendy Girls Walk
the Traditional Path," by Seema Kamdar discusses the strong preference for
arranged marriages in urban India by even the so-called "trendy" girls" who are
Westernized in terms of their taste for music, films, and food. By citing
arranged marriages as part of the lives of Indian women, I do not mean to make
the problematic distinction between "love" and "arranged" marriages, rather I am
merely pointing out that the institution of marriage is structured differently
 The popularity of romances in India in terms of readership is very
difficult to gauge from actual sales figures because romances unlike in the
West, are not bought regularly, but checked out for a daily rental fee from
small lending libraries.
 One young woman Rachna told me that six months earlier her father had
caught her reading a Mills & Boon romance and had slapped her on her face really
hard and screamed at her that she would not be allowed into the house again if
he saw her reading romances.
 The eight kinds of Western paperback romances that are available are
Romance, Temptation, Silhouette Desire, Silhouette Special, Silhouette
Sensation, Silhouette Intrigue, Legacy of Love, and Love on Call (personal
interview, Khaisar, paperback sales representative, India Book House, June 11,
1996). Temptation and Silhouette Desire books are as long as the Romance books
(187 pages) but the heroines are frequently older and divorced. Silhouette
Special and Silhouette Sensation also feature older heroines who are more
sexually experienced than the heroines in the Romance series but these books
also run longer (250 pages) and feature other secondary characters who play a
fairly important role in the plots. Silhouette Intrigue combines mystery and
romance and a crime is usually solved to the accompaniment of romance. Legacy
of Love features romances set in historical eras and Love on Call books are
romances set in the medical field where love develops between doctors, usually
male, and nurses, usually female.
 In her study of Tamil magazines and Tamil magazine readers (Tamil is
one of the Indian languages widely spoken in the state of Tamilnadu in South
India), K. Srilata (1994) finds that many Tamil magazines, even those written
for women, glamorize housework and feminine beauty and some of the stories show
women expressing resistance but only towards minor issues that don't really
challenge patriarchal definitions of womanhood. Srilata argues that the
popularity of these magazines for female readers lies in the fact that they
create "socially possible" fantasies where fantasy emerges out of their
glamorizing and glorifying women's mundane everyday experiences and women's
restricted lives as dutiful wives and mothers (p. 37).
 Radway (1984) shows in her own work that it is important for
researchers to consider the romances that readers say they don't like in
addition to those that they indicate a strong preference for because "failed"
romances can provide us a glimpse of how women can resist, even in only limited
ways, some patriarchal norms that they feel are particularly restrictive (pp.
157-185). In her study, Radway finds that readers reject romances that portray
rape and excessive brutalization of women. In my own interviews, I found that
readers completely rejected the whole sub-genre of romance books that are
historically based where usually rape scenes or scenes of brutalization are
depicted. For the Indian women I spoke with historical romances were "fat"
(thick], uninteresting, unrealistic, and often pornographic. Readers' views
about historical books were also supported by library owners and distributors
who told me that historical books were unpopular among their customers.
 The summer I conducted my interviews in Hyderabad, I had the
opportunity to witness an interesting debate regarding sex education and youth
in the editorial pages of the local paper Deccan Chronicle. One person, Dr. Ram
Subba Reddi, wrote a letter to the editor (Deccan Chronicle, 1996, June 21)
urging parents and schools to provide sex education to teenagers, especially
since more and more women are entering the public sphere of work and there is
bound to be more interaction between the sexes. He argued against the notion
that sex is bad and asked people to abandon puritan ideas about sexuality.
There were many responses to his letter in the following weeks and some letters
attacked him for advocating an immoral society where prostitution would be
encouraged and women would no longer behave modestly.
 Upper-caste Hindu religious texts are the Brahminical texts used by
the highest caste, the Brahmins, such as the epics, the Ramayana and the
Mahabharata; the ManuSamhita or The Laws/Codes of Manu the lawmaker; the
Puranas, that is, the religious popular stories; the Upanishads or what are
called the philosophical treatises; and the Vedas, the sacred scriptures. In
the feminist scholarship on romance reading in the United States, there is
little analysis of the possible connections between the representation of female
sexuality in romances and the construction of female sexuality in Christianity.
The blindness of Western feminist scholars to the impact of Christianity on
representations of sexuality in popular culture in the United States is a topic
worth pursuing as a whole research question.
 It is important to note here that Ann Gold (1994) argues that the
mother/whore dichotomy arises out of an upper-caste Hindu male ideology, which
does not take into account Indian women's resistances to this ideology in their
everyday lives. In her pioneering work on representations of sexuality in
Rajasthani village women's songs, Gold (1994) criticizes several scholars who
have proposed dualistic images of women as benevolent/destructive in Hindu
texts. She argues that these scholars who were mostly male themselves relied
on upper-caste Hindu texts and did not take into account women's own
understandings of their sexuality. Describing her own perspective, Gold (1994)
writes, "The perspective I shall offer here, drawing on Rajasthani women's oral
traditions of celebration and worship is arguably a women's perspective on
women. But it is also a nonliterate folk perspective that contrasts with
Sanskritic textual traditions (p. 38)." Gold finds that Rajatshani village
women loudly celebrate their bodies, erotic sexuality in fertility and
reproduction, and adulterous love in their songs. While Ann Gold's study of
Rajasthani songs is invaluable for showing us spaces in which women resist male
ideologies of sexuality, it is equally important to note that these songs are a
part of the everyday life of village women who have access to some oral women's
traditions whereas urban, upper-caste Hindu women do not have the same access to
more expressive and oral folk forms.
 Many of the readers I interviewed stressed that their Mills & Boon
reading was harmless because it was a youthful phase that would end when they
got older, got married, and had children. Some readers spoke disparagingly
about older and middle-aged women who continued to read these books and a few
referred to older Mills & Boon readers who were acquaintances and neighbors as
not performing an age-appropriate activity.
 The focus on eradicating certain "dreadful" practices such as Sati
and child marriage was an effort by nineteenth century Indian social reformers
to respond to British colonial discourse that framed these oppressive practices
against Hindu women as evidence of the barbarism of Hinduism. Hindu
nationalist reformers who took charge of campaigns against these practices did
so as a reaction to charges of barbarism from British colonialists and out of a
concern that these signs of the visible oppression of Indian women would
indicate a lack of "civilization" among Hindu Indians (Jayawardena, 1986). Lata
Mani (1991), follows this issue of control over women, in her in-depth analysis
of colonialist as well as nationalist discourses over Sati. Neither the
reformers nor the colonizers, asserts Mani, talked about women as agents, rather
they made women the ground for debate. Exposing the superficiality of the
British and the nationalists in the nineteenth century who claimed they were
liberating Indian women, Mani writes that both colonialists and nationalists
were only interested in eliminating certain practices that visibly represented
the end-product of women's oppression and not the process that produced it.
 Steve Derne( (1997b) critically reviews the work of scholars who have
analyzed nationalism in India and identifies different strands in nationalist
thought. While Derne( shows us that various strands of nationalism opposed
colonialism by offering differing reactions to colonialism, all these strands
agreed on constructing Hindu women as subordinate to men and argued for
controlling women's sexuality.
 Even as Hindu men embraced Western science and technology and new
forms of food and clothing, women became the preservers of Hindu religious
traditions because the honor of the nation became dependent upon "modesty and
submissiveness of the female body" (Van der Veer, 1994, p. 85).
 Sharmila Rege (1995) argues that the lower-caste female performers of
the lavani, a particular folk form of rural erotic song and dance in
Maharashtra, India, were constructed as immoral and promiscuous by the
upper-caste ruling Brahaminical patriarchy that simultaneously appropriated the
sexual and productive labor of these lower-caste women. She notes that in many
lavani songs, active female sexuality is represented through the voice of a
"whore" who demands pleasure from men while chaste upper-class wives only
express displeasure at their husband's demands for intercourse. Discussing
gender as a significant force in organizing caste and class hierarchy, Rege
argues that the lower castes were seen as impure because of their lack of
control over their women's sexual insatiability. The image of lower caste
women's strong sexual desires serves to characterize them as erotic while
denying them respectability By contrast Rege writes that "the upper caste
women, whose reproductive and domestic labor is appropriated within the space of
the familial, are constructed as gharandaaz or passive and moral, but are denied
the space of the erotic" (p. 33).
 The two areas that form the core of public discussions regarding the
corruption of youth are representations of violence and sex; while discussions
about the effects of violence on children mirror to some extent similar debates
in the United States, public debate about the impact of sexuality usually takes
on the different framework of the imposition of Western notions of sexuality on
Indian culture. Also, public discussions about the corrupting influence of
Western values rarely refer to the consequences of the acquisition of Western
material goods on Indian culture; therefore there is approval for acquiring and
possessing material objects that are seen as Western such as washers, dryers,
pizzas, Coca Cola, however, it is the infiltration of Indian cultural values by
Western values regarding female sexuality that is seen as the most important
issue for concern and alarm.
 In a front-page article entitled "Invasion of Innocence" in the local
newspaper Deccan Chronicle, the author Margaret Jemima Eliot (1996, June 31)
notes that Indian parents are usually concerned about the effect of violent
television on the behavior of boys, however, when it came to their daughters
most parents expressed concern about the impact of programs such as MTV,
Baywatch, and Bold and the Beautiful on their daughters' sexual behavior:
"While aggression seems to be the malady of boys, for girls it is the awareness
of their sexuality at a very young age. . . With satellite TV, girls are aware
of so much. They watch MTV and other channels all day and by evening they want
to look like those foreign women (p. 4)." Apart from this one article in the
local paper, several articles appeared the summer of 1996 when I was in
Hyderabad, in newspapers and magazines that expressed concern over the impact of
foreign programming on young girls' minds (Kripalani, 1996; Rao, 1996; Sharada
Prasad, 1996). Concerns similar to those expressed over the impact of foreign
television programming on young women's sexuality also strongly underlie the
anxieties of authority figures regarding the reading of Western romance fiction
by young Indian women. However, since romance fiction is consumed in private,
unlike television which is watched in a family situation where parents and other
elders may be present, there is greater likelihood that these authority figures
are also exposed to the same foreign programming that their daughters like to
watch. In addition, graphic visual representations are seen as much more
damaging to young minds than printed representations. Therefore, concerns over
the more private practice of reading Western romances are not as publicly
discussed as the impact of television.
 The perception of overt sexuality as being the defining
characteristic of Western women is apparent even in vernacular popular
magazines. In her analysis of textual and visual representations of women in
Tamil magazines (Tamil is a South Indian language), K. Srilata (1994) writes
that while the textual narrative glorifies and describes the lives of Tamil
women who ultimately conform to social norms even if they try to initially
challenge these norms, the visuals usually depict Indian women in Western
clothing such as tight shirts and T-shirts that reveal the contours of their
bodies. Srilata argues that since female sexuality is symbolically seen as the
property of Western women in India, for Indian women to even appear "sexy" and
desirable they have to wear Western clothing: " . . the face and figure of women
in these illustrations are clearly coded as Indian, even Tamilian, but their
desirability hinges on the revealing Western clothes that they wear. These
clothes also signify a certain sexual boldness. At the same time, however, the
woman's gaze is always averted coyly from the reader" (p. 30).
 My work in progress "Pleasure, Privilege, and Leisure Reading in
Postcolonial India: Romance Reading and Class Identities" analyzes the appeal of
representations of Western material culture in Western romances for the young
Indian women I interviewed.