I'm living my dream in a world of books: Amrita Chowdhury

Why would an IIT-ian with an MS and MBA from Ivy League universities quit her job at Harvard Business School, give up a cushy life in Australia and come back to India and take over the reigns of a publishing house that mainly sells mushy romantic novels? Amrita Chowdhury tells Dhiman Chattopadhyay about why life is about following passions and spicing it up occasionally 

I WOULD love to be a billionaire one day, maybe go live with my family somewhere off the Italian coast…” says Amrita Chowdhury sounding very much like a character in one of the Mills & Boons (M&B) stories.

Amrita Chowdhury’s first book on art forgery received critical acclaim. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Amrita Chowdhury’s first book on art forgery received critical acclaim. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

It’s funny in a way, since in real life, Chowdhury leads Mills & Boons’ surge into India, as Country Head and Publishing Director of Harlequin — the global publishing giant that owns the M&B brand.

Amrita Chowdhury’s first book on art forgery received critical acclaim. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

But then nothing else seems to add up. At least to the average Indian mindset that almost immediately relegates any person associated with mushy romantic novels to the intellectual backburner.

Chowdhury is an IITian, an MS from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper Scool of Business. She spent years working as a consultant for AT Kearney, living in USA and Australia (she is an Australian citizen) with her family, before returning to India to join Harvard Business School’s India division. She is also an author. Her first novel, Faking It, is a thriller based on the world of art forgery. Her second book will be out this year.

She could be consulting somewhere in Sydney or New York today. Why then, is she in Mumbai, strategising on how to sell mush?

“I like the idea of breaking stereotypes. I also like excitement in my life. But most importantly I love the world of books,” the nattily dressed Chowdhury tells us over a cup of coffee.

Her childhood was spent in the midst of books. “My grandfather had a huge library and so did my mother at our Patna home. By the time I was in middle school, I was reading not just novels but books on psychology, my father’s medical books and thick volumes on world history. I fell in love with books early,” she smiles.

But of course, fate had to intervene. “My family wanted me to study medicine but I fainted at the sight of blood. So engineering at IIT Kanpur it was. The MS and MBA followed and like most of my peers, I took up consulting. All regular stuff,” she says. “And then,” she adds as if it is the most natural thing to say, “I went nuts.”
Her move to India though was prompted by a family decision — her husband landed a job with one of India’s biggest private firms and Chowdhury moved to Mumbai with her two kids in 2007. “The kids were young and I took a two-year break.”

That break did the trick. She used it to write Faking It — and the response to it convinced her that her future lay with books — a world she loved anyway. “Harlequin is a huge brand. You can hate it or love it, but you cannot deny it is very big. We bring out a lot of other books. My biggest challenge is changing this perception that we publish just M&B,” she says.

With the likes of Nora Roberts, Shona Patel, Jason Brooks and books such as Monsoon Memories on Harlequin’s ‘published’ list, Chowdhury is clearly taking the fight to the next level.

Has she tried writing a Mills & Boon novel herself? “No way,” she laughs. “I don’t think I can write a romantic saga.” But she did write a novel. “That is different. My interest in art started out in IIT when I did a course in art history. Later in life, as we travelled (Chowdhury has been to 36 countries at last count), we started picking up great pieces of art. Over the years our collection has grown. And yes, we were almost conned once by a master forger while trying to buy what we thought was a Ramkinkar Baij original,” she admits.

An envious job, a happy family and a published author — Chowdhury seems to have cracked a good deal in life. But life sometimes mirrors a Mills & Boon novel — you crave for more. So does Chowdhury. “I am bad at sports so I wish I could change that. And yes, I want to live in a villa off the Italian coast. I like dreaming,” she says, her infectious laughter adding a zing to the coffee and conversation we have just finished.

My favourites
Economist and Vogue
Film: The Princess Diaries and Life is Beautiful
Book: Mills & Boon and Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Sport: I wish I could ski. It looks so elegant and effortless. I try and fail
Destination: Too many to list — Bora Bora, Alaska, Innsbruck, Umbria, too many to list. I love to travel
Hero: My mother, who passed away last year

Inside track
Born: Patna
Education: IIT Kanpur, UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University
First job: Engineer in Silicon Valley — experimenting on a new product (a computer chip making process), which finally worked
Mantra in life: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” - Goethe
Best advice I ever got: Experience never goes waste, and positivity is the key
A little know fact: I love baking cupcakes with my daughter

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