The tastes of the reading public in India seem to growing beyond fiction. In what is being seen as a major evolution in the Indian publishing space, 2016 witnessed a fast and booming shift to memoirs and non-fiction while fiction titles were subdued not only in terms of their numbers but also popularity among readers. Industry insiders say this is a cumulative result of the nation’s changing reading patterns.
Opening the year with a surprise was Anything But Khamosh, the authorised biography of Bollywood icon and politician Shatrughan Sinha, by Bharati Pradhan.
The book, which was launched at the Jaipur Lit Fest towards the end of January, went on to attract readers from all age groups and even the “Bihari Babu” left no stone unturned in its promotions, retracing the many “hurrahs and heartaches” of his life at promotional events.
Following next in February was volume 2 of President Pranab Mukherjee’s autobiography The Turbulent Years, covering the period from 1980 to 1996 and a sharp-edged account of the strong political and economic decisions that, according to him, shaped the fate of modern India.
Political memoirs, often called “book bombs”, have seemingly gained popularity in recent years but that was not all comprising the non-fiction segment. Serious scholarly works on a range of issues, from food and culture to history and economics, surfaced equally during the course of the year.
Leading the way were works from the historical genre with the likes of Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Ocean of Churn; Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations: India in 50 lives; Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness and Ramchandra Guha’s Democrats and Dissenters, among others.
While Sanyal narrates the history of the Indian Ocean through medieval geopolitics and eyewitness accounts of long-lost cities to the latest genetic discoveries about human origins, Khilnani, in his highly-researched work, revisits 50 iconic Indians and pens their wonderful biographies.
Guha’s Democrats and Dissenters is again a work of rigorous scholarship on topics of compelling contemporary interest, written with elegance and wit. Tharoor, on the other hand, reveals with acuity, impeccable research and trademark wit, just how disastrous the British rule was for India.
Not to forget in the list is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene. The book, an instant hit among readers, is a biography of the gene that is as deft, brilliant and illuminating as his extraordinarily successful biography of cancer. Weaving science, social history and personal narrative to tell us the story of one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times, Mukherjee animates the quest to understand human heredity and its surprising influence on our lives, personalities, identities, fates and choices.
Another offering that faired superbly well in terms of popularity was Bollywood actor Emraan Hashmi’s The Kiss of Life. The book is the actor’s autobiographical account of being shaken up in life and describes his son’s struggles to survive cancer.
Ranjana Sengupta, associate publisher of Penguin Random House India, said that they had a spate of bestsellers in the non-fiction segment this year.
“It has been a tremendous year for non-fiction. Penguin Random House has had a spate of bestsellers. This heralds not only the ability of established authors to create accessible books on themes — climate change, political biography, foreign policy, history — that previously were restricted to a limited readership, with the growing public interest in such issues,” Sengupta said.
The question remains: has fiction suffered? Bestselling fiction writer Ashwin Sanghi admitted that there has been “a slight dip in fiction” though it may not be a long-term trend.
“The Indian publishing space is not yet at full maturity and thus it should be assumed that one will see changes in reading preferences over time. This will reflect in genre choices that readers make. For the moment, we are seeing an upswing in memoirs and non-fiction accompanied by a slight dip in fiction, but that really does not indicate a long-term trend. The changes that you see are simply the signs of an evolving readership,” Sanghi said.
Kapish Mehra, managing director of Rupa Publications, said that the space for non-fiction in India has been growing steadily for the past three years but gained “a lot more momentum” in 2016.
“The reason for that is mainly because publishing also goes through several phases, depending on the readership in the country. We have a greater, evolved audience who are looking out for consumption of information, they are very much interested in knowing about famous individuals or situations and hence this has developed,” Mehra said.
Sharing insights from Rupa’s books this year, he said: “Non-fiction overall has done really well for us. We have seen more than 20 per cent growth in non-fiction and in certain cases there have been out-and-out successes.”
“I think fiction was in trend till some years ago but it happens everywhere, there comes a time when fiction declines and non-fiction takes over. The tastes of people keep changing and as we move to a more evolved audience, they tend to find their interest in non-fiction,” Mehra added.
Taslima Nasrin’s Exile, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, Shivshankar Menon’s Choices and Vinay Sitapati’s Half Lion, among others, also created a stir among readers of non-fiction in 2016.
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