Falling in love was once a spontaneous process. It was romance that demanded effort. But as we began looking for love in the corridors of the virtual world, the heady concoction of anticipation and excitement was replaced with the basic parameter of who could hold our attention the longest. No wonder then romance looks a lot different now, because it is having to compete with the swipe of a fingertip. Love still exists, but romance has changed. And books and films have a way of defining what it could look like.
Love and romance were also different in the 2000s when men and women were still consumed by the idea of following their dream, but companionship wasn’t sacrificed at the altar of ambition. It was during this time that Durjoy Datta began writing romantic fiction that enjoyed immense popularity. Prior to 2008, when his first book Of Course I Love You… Till I Find Someone Better released, Datta had checked many boxes of conventional life, armed with degrees that could support a comfortable life. But the success of the book meant that he saw a future in writing romantic fiction. “When you are young, there are only a couple of things in your mind — the person you are dating and where your career is going. I was sorted in terms of career, it was the other question that remained important. Hence, I decided to write romantic fiction,” he says.
Two of a kind
Today, Datta, who’s detoured to thrillers and dystopic fiction but still enjoys immense popularity for romantic fiction, lives in Dubai with his wife Avantika Mohan, a travel and lifestyle influencer, and their four-year-old daughter Raina. It is in how they lead their lives that one truly finds the essence of modern relationships and how it plays out on a day-to-day basis. For example, Datta and Mohan seem to have found their calling in two very different worlds. As a writer, Datta loves his isolation to a point where he jokes, “I’d rather shut down my Instagram if you promise to buy my books.” On the other hand, Mohan finds interaction with people as the biggest perk of her work as an influencer — “I am an influencer because I like talking to other people,” she says. Chalk and cheese, you say? But then remember that opposites attract.
Romantic ideas, it is said, can destroy your chance at love. But not when those very ideas are rooted in real, lived experiences. Our conversation, for example, begins with an understanding of privilege and both Datta and Mohan draw from their own experiences to define what it means. “My parents were struggling to make ends meet,” Mohan tells us in her neatly appointed home in Ghoroob. “I used to do door-to-door selling for this beauty brand called Oriflame with my mother. My dad’s businesses were not working, so my mother started working and I’d help her.” Datta adds that prior to meeting Mohan he thought he was the one who belonged to the middle class. “My dad was an IITian who worked in a government job. We took it for granted the monthly ration would come, and it was the tuition fee one had to worry about,” he says, adding that it was only when he met Avantika that he realised what middle class and its aspirations were made of.
Following their own dreams
Those concerns took backseat as Mohan went on to secure a job as a flight attendant and moved to Dubai. As with most NRIs, the initial months were rooted in nostalgia for everything she left behind — from Indian food to Bollywood films. And then came the books — romantic fiction penned by Datta. If the connect was immediate, it was also because the principal character in Of Course I Love You… was named Avantika. “I felt she looked and behaved like me,” says Mohan. One book followed by another and Datta already had earned another fan. In the pre-TikTok and Instagram age, Facebook was the social platform where fans would connect with celebrities. “When I ultimately found him on Facebook, I wrote a message, ‘Durjoy, I love you.’ I did not even care to say I was a fan,” laughs Avantika. A few conversations followed, before the duo met in Delhi and then eventually decided to tie the knot.
Matters of heart aside, Datta does not subscribe to this notion of getting to know someone better by meeting them. In a writer’s world, most people are interesting case studies that come alive on the pages of one’s novels. “Avantika often asks me what if I were to meet Sourav Ganguly. I have seen his best work on television, why would I want to meet him in person? My interest in people is just as characters. For example, if Avantika describes you in extreme detail, tells me how you are with your family, friends and acquaintances, I would not need to meet you because in front of me you are likely to put up an act.”
Putting up an act is not something Datta is entirely unfamiliar with, having worked for some time in the Indian television. At the peak of his popularity as an author, Datta was invited to write for TV shows (he’s already written screenplays and script for Kuch Rang Pyar Ke Aise Bhi and Ek Veer Ki Ardaas… Veera, among others). “When I first got the call to write for Indian television, I did not know shows were being written,” he says. “I used to think a director gathers the actors and asks them to say a few lines.” But as he sunk his teeth into screenwriting, he realised that television is a writer’s medium. “What you write is what comes out on the screen.” Prior to the rise and rise of the OTTs, Indian television was primarily characterised by soap operas revolving around the domestic conflict between mothers- and daughters-in-law. While formulaic shows like these never received critical nod, Datta says the pressure on the writers is immense. “Any great show in the West will have 12 episodes in a year, whereas a soap has to come out with 200 episodes. That does not mean Indian writers aren’t talented; it’s just that they have to write those many episodes,” he says.
But didn’t writing for television mean dilution of personal brand? “I didn’t care. These were writers who were writing for a living. Can you imagine that? The job was cut out — find ways in which you can have a mother-in-law fight her daughter-in-law. I found that exciting. The science is set — NaCl will make salt, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law will create conflict. Now we have to find different ways in which they can do it. Is she making tea the wrong way?” he chuckles.
A temporary pause
Just when both Datta and Mohan were pursuing their own dreams, both were confronted with the question — who will move cities to be able to live together as a couple? Mohan says it was always easier for Datta to shift base because writing could have been done from anywhere. “Also, I never wanted to stop working because I had seen what my family had to go through.”
This resolve to work all her life did come to a halt briefly when Mohan lost her job as a flight attendant during the pandemic. “I had knee surgery twice. Then there was childbirth. I had taken two years off and that reflected on my record,” she says.
The loss of job imprinted something deeply in Mohan’s mind — the fact that she could never not work. Today, she runs her own marketing agency and admits to working round-the-clock for it. “It’s because somewhere I feel guilty taking those two years off,” she says. “I feel if I am not working all the time, I will be replaced. This feeling just doesn’t leave, and it makes you feel guilty about not being grateful enough.”
That gratitude is evident in the social posts on her feeds that routinely offer glimpses of the couple’s lives together with their daughter. Datta admits he has most fun on social media when they are posting something with their daughter because “parenting can be quite boring”. “When you start posting pictures with your kid, and everyone starts participating, it elongates the good parts. Otherwise your kid is always cribbing and crying.” Mohan is mindful of how much exposure is too much exposure for their child. “We used to vlog very often, where a lot of our daily routine would be documented. We stopped doing that because we realised that when we are switching on the camera, the child is behaving 10x of what she actually is. We don’t want her to act for the camera. So, we drew the line.”
Modern love is peppered with moments when two individuals with strong worldviews navigate a relationship together. It is spontaneous and not-so-spontaneous in parts, especially when the two selves want to thrive. For the zillennials who inhabit a totally different landscape of love, the challenges are different. As a writer, Datta says that he cannot claim to know how 18-year-old romances work in India anymore. So he does the next best thing. “I write about love like a fantasy. For example, The Lord of the Rings is set in a world that does not exist, but it’s still a world one aspires to be a part of. We live in a world that’s extremely distracting, and love is structured in a way that you will only fall in love if you are not distracted. I write in that spirit.”
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