An author, a successful advertising professional and a mother of two, Milan Vohra’s infectious enthusiasm percolates to those around her with ease. In a tete-a-tete, she reveals her tryst as the first Indian writing for the famed M&B, her career in advertising and her passion for life.
Twin bookcases replete with books and interspersed by framed photographs greet you at Vohra’s living room-cum-workspace. What better introduction to an author than her collection of books which reflect to her taste in literature? The twin shelves are an amalgam of genres, ranging from humor to crime fiction, not to mention mystery. Between the two shelves adorning the living room, there is a tiny stand, separated from the other two. It holds books written by Vohra till date. As I stood there sizing up the shelves and feasting my eyes upon the delectable collection, in walked the author of the first Mills and Boon series in India, Milan Vohra, draped in black, holding a bowl of fruits topped with yoghurt. “I love yoghurt. You know my kids make fun of me for being such a yoghurt addict, but I can’t help it” –she starts by way of greeting. Common perceptions of authors entail grave faces with occasional smiles. Some people go as far as to claim that authors must necessarily have a tragic life. Milan Vohra certainly defies all these stereotypes. She goes on ear-to-ear effortlessly and strikes a conversation on writing her way to fame without any trace of melancholy in her voice. Milan was born and schooled in Delhi, a city which resonates with fond memories for her. An economics graduate, she unearthed her love for reading quite early in life, a habit she credits her mother with. “My mother was a professor of literature, so I grew up listening to Yates and Shakespeare and was exposed to classic literature at home,” says she. With age, Milan found books which mollified her in every phase of life. From the unconventional writing of Franz Kafka to humor pieces by Spike Milligan and John Irving, she devoured books at leisure. Having been brought up by parents who worked as professors at Delhi University (mother as a literature exponent and father as a political science professor), Milan was conditioned with an academic bent of mind, except that she wanted to opt out of Masters Degree in Economics and enroll for Masters in Communication at IIMC. She excelled at the latter and during her studies found a calling in advertising. Later, she took up a career in it. “Advertising is fun but a thankless job in many ways, that’s why both my husband and me advised our daughter against it when she was keen on pursuing it,” says Milan who’s a veteran in the ad industry. Among others, has worked as a Creative Director for JWT for more than a decade. Now an ad consultant based in Bangalore, she continues to enjoy the creative aspect of an ad and works on it until wee hours of the morning. “Being an insomniac helps. And I’ve trained my neighbours to the kind of music I like, so no one really minds,” she taps with a wide grin. Vohra moved to Bangalore in 1988 after her husband, and subsequently she, took a transfer from Delhi to explore life in another city. After a couple of years in the city she moved to Delhi, only to return in September, 1999. Despite having spent more than a decade in Bangalore she is not at-home with the ways of the city. However, having lived away from Delhi for the last 15 years, she refrains from calling herself a Delhiite either. “I have lived in both the cities for a very long time now but I don’t think I fit into either of them, so I don’t call myself a Bangalorean or a Delhiite because I lack the quintessential traits of citizens from either city.” For Vohra, home is where her family is. Now that her son and daughter are based in Delhi, she plans to visit the city more often. Vohra currently resides in Bangalore with her husband and her pet dog Santy. However, the doting mother that she is, she does miss her children a lot. “My daughter has been away for a long time now, and recently my son has left for Delhi to pursue higher studies. It’s a bit lonely in here now,” sighs she. But Milan has a lot of work up her sleeve besides consultancy and writing. She runs her own book club in the city called Book Masala. Talking about how she found the name, she says all of it was an immediate outcome of her ideation at an eatery in Bangalore. A few of her friends and she had been to egg factory and while having an egg masala the idea of a book club occurred to her. Book masala was born that evening and today has about 17 to 20 people on board. They meet every second Saturday of the month at her place to discuss the latest trends in the literary world. At this point of our conversation she notices me looking at the bookcases more often than not, and asks me if I have taken a look at the second set of twin bookcases placed at the end of the living room. On hearing a no, she walked straight up to the book cases and called me over to have a look at them. Pointing at one of the shelves she says, “This is my happy space. It has all the books I have really enjoyed reading.” A romance enthusiast, Vohra enjoys reading chick-lit by the well-known authors in the genre. Nora Roberts, Sophie Kinsella, Cecelia Ahern, Elizabeth Gilbert and works of other authors line the shelves. Milan’s body of work also belongs to the chick-lit genre. She enjoys infusing romance in the plot allowing her characters enough scope for mush, although she refrains from overdoing it. “Dialogue is an integral aspect of writing any piece, whether romance or not. It’s very important that you get the meter right. I found myself intently listening to a conversation between two individuals while on a metro ride in Delhi and I could immediately connect with the words they were using. You know as Indians a lot of people have their own way of speaking English, blending it with vernacular and it is actually interesting to note how people set a tone for certain words,” says Milan. On being asked if she has always been an observant person, she says she has never been one consciously. “Sometimes when I tell my friends about a particular incident they end up saying it is scary how much I observe and that they need to be wary of my observation hereafter.” Milan has been writing for a long time now. She kept it to herself mostly and never thought of getting her work published. So how did Mills & Boon happen to her? “Oh that’s an interesting story and I’ve repeated it tirelessly each time,” she says. It was her anniversary and she was out for dinner with her husband when her friends informed her of a short story contest by Harlequin. Although she had guests at home to attend to and an anniversary to celebrate, Milan jumped at the opportunity and ended up writing a story with just a day left for the deadline. The plot construction didn’t take too long for Milan who has a vivid imagination. She had been attending yoga classes and imagined what it would be like to have a female yoga instructor as the female lead in her story. Milan’s efforts in fabricating a wonderful romantic tale paid off as she emerged as the winner of the contest. As a winning prize her story was to be published and she was given an opportunity to train with the editors in the United Kingdom. The experience gained thereafter has provided her both an insight and a foothold in the literary world. “It was a challenging phase to introduce the Indian sensibility to the editors in the UK. They were not well-versed with the idea of an arranged marriage or the way Indians look at romance and it took a year to come to agreeable terms,” opines the author. Milan agrees that the challenging part was writing for a franchise, which already had a set pattern of written work, and ensuring that her story ended up fitting in that frame. The Mills & Boon passion writing contest did not win her a book contract. It was the training which helped her to blend the western and eastern sensibilities together. While working with the editors in the UK, she embarked on a journey of developing her story and characters in conjunction with the editorial perspective outlined before her. The consequence of building on the short story resulted in the novel which Harlequin wanted to publish. When The Love Asana was released in the market, it gained immense popularity with the romance buffs. It also made Harlequin consider India as a serious market for the M&B franchise. Earlier India was just a market for consumption of the romance giant, now, world has started looking at it as one which could also produce authors. And Milan became the harbinger of success for Mills & Boon in India. She was interviewed by BBC and several iconic publications on writing M&B from an Indian perspective introducing a new brand of romance and passion in the market. But Milan did not write another M&B novel after the success of her first one. On being asked why she says, “I didn’t want to be boxed in with Mills & Boon alone and so didn’t think of another book immediately after the success of the Love Asana.” However, she does not rule out the idea of writing another M&B sometime later. Post the success of her first book, Vohra was flooded with book contracts but she was hesitant because she wanted to enjoy the freedom to write as she pleased instead of going by what the contract demanded. She likes working with a set deadline because that helps her time the progress of her script and can write a number of things simultaneously from a short story to a screenplay. When she isn’t writing Milan can toss up scrumptious salads with a dollop of wasabi. “I love the pungency of mustard, and my son and I enjoy it a lot,” smiles the author. Milan is active on social media for ease of access to those who want to reach out to her. She enjoys her daily cup of coffee, is a fitness fanatic, and enjoys the company of her friends. At the moment she is working on a screenplay and a chapter for the #100sareepact, a campaign she has actively participated in. Her recent book Tick-tock we’re 30 has received positive reviews and marks her foray into chick-lit. The idea of having a gang of friends bordering on thirty, planning a reunion came from reflections on much of her growing up years spent in Anand Niketan, Delhi. As the cover says, the book reveals the whacky side of India’s first Mills & Boon author. Well, one has to read it to venture into the ever-smiling, feisty author’s world of fiction.`