When your debut novel is a commercial success, you might find yourself leafing through it while writing the second one. Sally Rooney has published three novels, all of which assemble to tell one kind of diaristic story: a white woman who writes, and has a tenuous relationship with a man she can’t quite have (yet), concurrently remaining impossibly waifish even while scarfing down an entire cake by herself and getting publishing without so much as reading her work over before sending it into an editor.

If that sentence is heady, imagine what I described happening more or less in three different books. Under the Goodreads page of Rooney’s latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, a commentor asks, “So this is basically a copy-paste of Conversations with Friends, but with slightly older characters and an even weaker plot?” The only thing that changes in Rooney’s novels are the ages of her characters, who are almost always the same age as she was when she wrote them. Rooney, undoubtedly, is the Millennial Writer, and the equivalent closer to home is Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan.

Madhavan cannot be accused of succumbing to the calls of “Encore!” that I suspect comes from publishers and agents caught in the merry-go-round we call conglomerate publishing. But out of the eight novels and one collection of short stories she has published, five are bildungsromans set in urban India, sashaying with the problems that chaperone young adulthood – parental expectations, identity, sexuality, societal pressures – manufacturing a tête-à-tête between the reader and characters who pontificate. At worst, her characters are “relatable”, at their best, they're “universal.” Out of some of the novels I’ve read, at least two have characters who work in either PR or marketing, and don’t mind their jobs but aren’t all that excited about them, quasi-mother figures they don’t care for, and a cigarette perpetually dangling between their fingers.

Rooney and Madhavan worked with the same publisher, Faber & Faber and Penguin India, respectively, for all their novels about millennial women. Publishers, especially those who’ve published you before, find it easier to market and position a book if it fits neatly into a kind of authorship they've built for the writer. Rooney’s prosaic writing style and incisive characterisation of complex intimacies and relationships among millennials branded her as a voice of a generation. Madhavan’s blog Compulsive Confessions – which landed her a book offer – helped her publisher ladle her to the reading public as an Indianised Candace Bushnell. Their publishers made sure that Rooney and Madhavan became voices that readers recognise.

In the late 2000s and 2010s, commercial fiction written by Indian writers started gaining more traction with books by a host of authors who, at first glance, don’t have all that in common: Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Datta, Sudeep Nagarkar, Ravinder Singh, Anuja Chauhan, Novoneel Chakraborty, Twinkle Khanna, and others, including Madhavan. Many of these writers were published by Penguin India, but the one who started it all – Bhagat – was primarily published by Rupa Publications. Although one wouldn’t box their writing as “YA” – adult fiction usually caters to more mature readers, and comparing the two precarious genres might come off as an attempt to undermine the adult work’s complexity – the engaging writing style, coupled with conversational story-telling was “readable” and relatively light themes sold across age groups.

Crème Brûlée: A Novel by Ramona Sen was published by Rupa Publications against this backdrop. It seemed to have received mostly positive reviews, even if that did not make her a permanent resident of the list of writers I just mentioned.

The beginnings

When Sen published Crème Brûlée, she worked for t2, The Telegraph, in Kolkata, where she “regularly [wrote] about food, books and fitness.” Now, Sen is the co-founder of Allcap Communications, a content and communications company based in the same city. Her journalistic work on food was a significant part of her branding as an author, especially since Crème Brûlée revolves around Aabir Mookerjee, described as "a quintessential Bengali anglophile" who studied at Oxford and is now back in Calcutta as a restaurateur. His establishment sells British food and is served by waiters in tailcoats – unironically. Devapriya Roy noted that Crème Brûlée “[broke] ground in chick lit by casting a man”, and even recommended the novel’s sequel, Potluck (published on the Juggernaut Books app, which was discontinued in 2022) in an article by Women’s Web in 2018.

The novel has a premise that is all too familiar: Aabir’s mother and a family priest are trying to find him a suitable bride, just as a new place called The Mad Hatter pops up on the same street as E&B, his restaurant. Also featured in this cast are Aatreyee, his monosyllabic sister; Rana, Aabir’s “oldest friend” and brazen womaniser; his late grandmother, Thakuma, as he calls her, watching from the afterlife, dangling from the coconut tree in her house; and a host of workers employed at the Mookerjee household, ranging from chefs to odd-job boys to personal attendants. (And of course, not to mention his love interest, Kimaya Kapoor, who incidentally is his British ex’s friend.) There's no hiding that Aabir is filthy rich, as are most of the other characters the reader encounters in Crème Brûlée.

Onto the now

Where Crème Brûlée is light and fluffy – where all ends well for everyone, even the in-house workers who barely seem to get any rest as the Mookerjees can’t fetch anything on their own – Sen’s latest, The Lady on a Horse and Other Secrets, is dense and solid. All that Sen has retained is the thumbprint of her authorship: family dynamics, identity, and social class. In her debut, she masked the larger implications of these vexing themes with sugar. But there’s no room for that in her new book. Sen, presumably, didn’t need to wield her authorship as a static brand.

The Lady on a Horse is divided into parts, spanning a century, and almost non-linear. It’s not entirely impossible to read the five parts as individual novellas. The novel begins with a letter addressed to Hemanta Lahiri from his uncle, Pradeep Lahiri, a letter of consequence that nonchalantly spills many of the family secrets haunting the mansion the Lahiri family lives in. Then the reader runs into Ayesha and Pixie, two girls growing up in the Lahiri household, but under different circumstances – one as the maid’s daughter, and the other as the owner’s daughter. It’s the alcove that separates the two where Sen plants the history of the freedom struggle, the Bengal Famine, and the Partition, influencing the ancestries of these women in juxtaposing yet internecine ways.

Pixie is Hemanta’s granddaughter, whose daughter Aradhana had to lie to her daughter about her father’s death because he wasn’t wealthy the way the Lahiris were. The fact that the Lahiris are old money was a lie, as two generations ago, they were in the same place as Pixie’s father’s family. It’s a lie that’s orchestrated through a series of stories, like a corporation’s mission statement.

The book constantly and implicitly acknowledges the social status of the characters in the most quotidian, seemingly banal ways. Pixie can’t sit cross-legged because it's considered bad manners, and Ayesha can’t touch her toys unless Pixie casts them away. Except none of this is explicitly told to us – we infer it from the characters’ everyday lives, which we only get to nibble on, given that Sen tries to achieve the daunting task of writing an epic in 300 pages.

The genealogy chart at the beginning of the book only details the lineage of the Lahiris. Other characters, like Ayesha – whose contemporaries were relegated to humorous footnotes in Crème Brûlée, often as the perpetually grinning odd-boy or the blithely dressed attendant – seek redemption for all the atrocities committed against them.

A gilded dystopian void

History, in this novel, begins with DN Lahiri and his wife Pritilata, who ascend the social ladder. Once they purchase a house that later generations claim was a gift from a zamindar, Pritilata sequesters herself in a room that her bastard granddaughter Nandini makes her own long after her death. Nandini’s mother Ishwari is a former child bride brought to the Lahiri household to play married dolls with Neelratan, whose interests lie elsewhere.

Neelratan and Ishwari have three children through inconsistent loops of drunken rape and abuse. Hemanta is one of these children, who, owing to his mother’s audacity of having an affair with a freedom fighter and bearing a child who looks nothing like the rest of the family, seeks to have the life that his mother threw away. His perfectly complexioned wife dies after childbirth, and the reader encounters him as a man who hides behind the facade of his neatly ironed clothes, with a perversity that crawls onto children when they least suspect it. Sen seems to prise open a gilded dystopian void, secretly carving out some redemptive space for all the collateral damage that the Lahiri family creates in its shadow. When an older Ayesha becomes the owner of Lahiri’s mansion, there’s some wobbly reclamation.

Sen, although forced to compartmentalise her numerous characters in a mid-sized novel, presents the most concentrated characterisations, as though she has been speaking to all of them for years before she dissected them on the page. She resists the trite use of blatant feminism that spells itself out for the ignorant reader, instead challenging the reader to unspool the seemingly undesirable decisions that many of her female characters make.

They fight back, disguising themselves as men, poisoning the man who becomes a father figure, marrying a man unlike the ones she’d met before, and abandoning men altogether. Sen’s love for a pinch of spook in her narratives – through Thakuma's spirit in Crème Brûlée, and in The Lady on a Horse, Pritilata’s looming shadow and Pixie’s mother Arandhana slowly slipping into a state of paranoia – and her wittily fluctuating writing pace totters like Pritilata’s black stallion.

I remember devouring Crème Brûlée when I was a 13-year-old. Now I’m older, and my priorities have forcibly shifted, leaving little room for books whose plots fixate on the problems of characters who might at some point say, “Let them eat cake.” It’s uncommon for a popular fiction writer to grow along with their books, and even rarer to see them change how they view the world. Sen did this while honing her authorship, tweaking her craft, and stretching the limits of her writing, as opposed to falling back on her self-representation.

She resists her marketed image, the projected personal brand. She bypasses the millennial writer’s pipeline, which often earns them the tag of “derivative” because of the machinations that are supposed to help sell books. In The Lady on a Horse, Calcutta’s sprawling history, as opposed to the saccharine piece served in Crème Brûlée, seems to be making a larger argument about how we understand history – as a slice that ignores the larger cake, as timelines that we cut out at our convenience. Times have changed, and so has this writer. Sen seems to be saying, “Take a closer look at that cake you’re eating.”

The Lady on the Horse and Other Secrets: A Novel, Ramona Sen, Speaking Tiger Books.