Bookshops are displaying more and more novels by first time writers. What are they offering the great Indian readership? Kushalrani Gulab finds out.books Updated: Apr 27, 2010 12:37 IST
Elsewhere in Mumbai, Mathew Vincent Menacherry, businessman and author of Arrack in the Afternoon, his first novel, also laughs as he explains why the book took ten years to finally make it to print. “I was so obsessed about getting it right that every time my editor suggested some changes, I’d come back with another full draft,” he says. “On my computer, there are six versions of this novel.” When a first time author with a book that she or he has slaved over, meets an editor with experience of readership, these are the kind of incidents that are likely to happen. And they have been happening with greater frequency in the last couple of years as more and more first time novelists take their chance with the great Indian readership.
Less than three years ago, Brunch had done a cover story titled Desperately Seeking Writers, about how publishers were looking for writers to do books in all sorts of genres. “How things have changed since then,” says VK Karthika, chief editor of HarperCollins India, who was quoted in that story. “Now there are books by Indian writers in most genres – though I still don’t think you can say there’s enough.” Still, no one who’s walked into a big bookshop recently can have failed to notice that the section called ‘Indian Writing’ has become quite big. Every month, bookshops display more and more novels by Indian writers. English fiction writing in India, it seems, is booming.
“This so called ‘boom’ in Indian publishing has been talked about for 10 years or more, I think!” says Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor, Westland Ltd. “But it’s true that you do see more Indian authors on the bookshelves, and that is great.” It isn’t just more Indian authors. It’s also more Indian authors doing all sorts of novels, ranging from the by-now fairly hackneyed campus novel and chick lit novel, to detective fiction, political thrillers, romances, historical fiction, science fiction, science fiction fantasy, coming of age novels, fiction based on mythology and folk tales, potboilers, erotica, identity crises, business thrillers, children’s books, young adult books, not to mention the good old literary novel.
There are so many books, in fact, that second time authors or writers of long standing cannot be the only contributors. There are many, many first-timers among them. And publishers, it seems, are placing large ‘welcome’ mats at their doors. “A large part of our list comprises debut fiction,” says Nandita Aggarwal, editorial director, adult and business, Hachette India. “First time novelists come with fresh ideas and diverse writing styles, with the promise of the unknown and the untried. I think they are in fact a better bet than published writers with a previous track record of modest sales and mixed reviews.”
So who are these first time writers and what are they writing? That’s difficult to pin down, given the variety and number of debut novels on the market in the last six months alone, but we’ll try.
Scanning the shelves at bookshops, on the face of it, it seems as though most debut writers focus on what’s called commercial fiction – books that make for light reading. “Anything that doesn’t tax the brain too much, can be read between the commercial breaks on TV, or for 20 minutes at the end of an office day – and relates to your own life,” says Chatterjee.But that’s not to say the literary novel is dead or dying. “It’s a staple and will always be there,” insists Chatterjee, while Shruti Debi, editor of Picador India, almost has a fit at the suggestion that commercial fiction could be ruling the market.“Ask me about it!” she says. “Picador only publishes literary novels and I receive treasure after treasure all the time. Deeply thought out, mature work is coming my way, much of it by first time writers.”
The authors come from all sorts of backgrounds and write about all sorts of things. There are lawyers, doctors, financial sector professionals, advertising and media professionals, entrepreneurs and business people, many of whom don’t necessarily have to write anything more creative than business reports. They are also mostly people who understand the realities of life – that huge advances from publishers, sales royalties that would allow them to lead lives of untold luxury, and international awards are not likely to happen to them. Instead, they write because they want to, because they have stories to tell, and also for the ineffable thrill of having a book in their hands with their name on it.
“I’m not much of a reader, but I always wanted to write a book,” says journalist Reema Moudgil, author of Perfect Eight. “Writing is a very personal thing for me, a painful urge, like having a child. When you’ve got to deliver, you’ve got to deliver. Now that the book is in the market, I’m just relieved it’s off my back and I can do other things.” Moudgil’s book, about a girl coming to terms with herself as a person rather than as a daughter, wannabe girlfriend or wife, is what would be called a literary novel – a book in which the prose matters more than the plot. “In a literary novel, the plot can always be worked on, but if the writing doesn’t work, the book doesn’t work,” explains Karthika. “In a mass market novel, what matters is a great plot and unusual situations. The prose is secondary to the plot.”
Received wisdom, based on Chetan Bhagat’s success with his first novel, Five Point Someone: What Not to Do At IIT, which apparently kicked off the trend for mass market fiction in India, says that Indian readers usually prefer mass market books to literary novels. They are faster and easier to read because they don’t require much time and concentration. Priced cheaply, at less than Rs 250, but ideally just about Rs 100, they sell. And if they work, they can be money makers. Also, for a first time writer who is perhaps nervous about writing at all, a mass market novel might also easier to write.
So what’s a mass market novel these days? One trend seems to be books set in work situations. Just out is TV journalist Amrita Tripathi’s Broken News, set in a news channel, Where Girls Dare, by Bhavna Chauhan, set more unusually in the Officers’ Training Academy in Chennai where Chauhan herself underwent training. And some time ago, corporate trainer and consultant Nirupama Subramanian wrote her first novel, Keep the Change, about a good Tamil girl from Chennai making her way through corporate life in a foreign bank, and the less than straight and narrow paths of big bad Mumbai.“Publishers want a variety of settings and it’s exciting these days. Lots of people are reading and a lot of new readers are emerging,” says Subramanian. “Typical readers are working people who want settings and characters they can resonate with. They want to read about people like them. And when I wrote Keep the Change, I wanted to stick to a setting I knew because then I could focus on my characters rather than veer off into another world.”
That’s what Kanika Dhillon, scriptwriter and assistant director with Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment, is doing too, with her first novel due out in September. “My book is called Bombay Duck is a Fish – because everything in this city of dreams called Mumbai and this industry called Bollywood is very deceptive,” says Dhillon. “Especially to an outsider who is from a small town and is trying to survive the city and the industry. I have observed it and lived in it, so I could write about it with a sense of realism.”
Writing novels is one thing. But are these novels any good? Well, every reader has her or his likes and dislikes, so that’s difficult to gauge. Some people find Vikram Seth a big bore, others are snobbish about Chetan Bhagat. Still, it’s important to remember that in India, publishing in English isn’t something that’s grown organically. It’s an industry in which many of the big players are internationally owned, who believe that India, with its interest in English, makes a good market. So naturally there’s always much argument about what Indian publishing is about, how good it is, how much sense it makes and where it’s going.
At the heart of this, actually, is the Great Indian Identity Crisis. If you read and write and think in English, are you authentically Indian? If you write about contemporary young people in big cities with westernised ways, are you authentically Indian? If you write in what’s called The Queen’s English without the phrasing that may be grammatically incorrect in the UK but is how we usually speak English here, are you authentically Indian? On the other hand, if you write about villages or urban underbellies, are you not catering to a western readership with a taste for the exotic, rather than a homegrown Indian one?
“It’s an extraordinary situation,” says Aatish Taseer, whose debut novel, The Temple-goers, about a young man of the westernised upper classes who enters the world of a young man from our highly ambitious middle class, was recently released. “I feel a little trapped by English. We already have a tradition of Indian language writing, but I can’t switch to Hindi because English is the financially viable language. Yet, I can’t make my living writing just for India. There are raw financial considerations involved.”
Writing for a western readership, writing for an urban Indian readership, writing for a pan-Indian readership – many first time authors think hard about who exactly they're writing for.“I understand that confusion about authenticity,” says Mathew Vincent Menacherry, whose book about Verghese Konnikara, a loser who tries to kill himself but survives to be manipulated into becoming a godman, reads both like a Mumbai novel and a Malayali novel. “I’m a Malayali, but I’m Mumbai born and bred, and I don’t want those parts of my book that are set in Kerala to be dismissed by people in Kerala as clichés. Because when you only know a place through visits, what you see are the clichés and that’s what you’d write about.”
But Manisha Lakhe, whose comic detective novel, The Betelnut Killers, about a Gujarati business family in the US who plan to eliminate their competition in the most decisive way, has just hit the market, sees authenticity in another way. “I can’t stand it when I read books that describe grandmother’s pickles set out in the sun, or red oxide floors, or visiting the old village in a bael gaadi,” she says. “India is different today. You go to your village in an SUV and tweet about the trip all day.”
Writing in English in India is always going to be a bit of a strain. While Lakhe finds Indian authors who cater to the western audience somewhat distasteful, there’s no denying that calling her book The Betelnut Killers rather than The Supari Killers does sex it up a little. On the other hand, many readers of Amish’s The Immortals of Meluha find the contemporary colloquial language he’s used very jarring. And while Madhulika Liddle, whose The Englishman’s Cameo is not only historical fiction, but historical detective fiction, writes very well, once again, to read a book set in Mughal Delhi in contemporary English seems just a little odd.
Still, at the end, what everyone – reader, writer and publisher – is looking for is a good book. And while everyone knows what the ingredients of a good book are – “Good writing, whatever the genre, a certain authenticity in the writing – you can always tell gimmickry from the real thing. A good story, characters that one can relate to,” says Chatterjee – no one can really say what makes a certain book a hit and why another one may fail to even be noticed. Well then, what does the market demand? “I wish we knew,” says Karthika, yearningly. Meanwhile, more and more first time novelists are slaving over hot computers, writing the story they want to tell.
How to approach a publisher
The sad truth, says VK Karthika, chief editor at HarperCollins India, is that most publishers look at manuscripts that have been recommended to them by people they trust, or passed on to them by literary agents. Unsolicited manuscripts are usually fated to remain unread – though this is not always the case.
Still, if you want to a publisher to see your novel, this is how you go about it, says Karthika: Send a synopsis of the plot along with two or three chapters of the book, as a sample of your writing. The chapters can be from anywhere in the book – beginning, middle or end. If the publisher is interested, you’ll be asked to submit the full manuscript.
If you have a complete manuscript then submit the entire thing. If it’s accepted, you’ll probably have to work on it again, with an editor. “That’s because with a novel, sometimes the first five chapters are brilliant, but then they fizzle out,” explains Karthika.
Books from bloggers
Internationally, popular bloggers have been commissioned by publishers to write books. Does that happen here too? Occasionally. A few years ago, Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, a young journalist, had a popular blog, thecompulsiveconfessor.blogspot.com, that inspired Penguin India to ask her to write a novel. The book, titled You Are Here, did well enough.
Now, there are several books by popular bloggers in the market. Amit Varma of indiauncut.com has My Friend Sancho, a contemporary love story set in Mumbai. Chandrahas Choudhury of middlestage.blogspot.com has Arzee the Dwarf, a novel about a dwarf in Mumbai and his life and love. Sidin Vadukut of whatay.com has Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin “Einstein” Varghese, a comic novel about office culture. And Fake IPL Player, whose anonymous blog on the 2009 IPL tournament in South Africa was a hit, has The Gamechangers, a novel about an anonymous blogger who makes revelations about the second edition of the Indian Bollywood League.