Uncertainties of pandemic era build traction for the common man’s biographies
The Covid-19 pandemic shutdown when life came to a grinding halt led to common people writing their autobiographies, memoirs, or biographies of their family members, and publish them on their own.
In March 2020, during the first Covid lockdown, Binita Hazarika Dutta, a resident of Gurugram was leafing through some old family albums with pictures of her father. This, she says, triggered a flood of memories and a desire to write the book on his father that she had in mind for a long time.
In October 2021, she published Untold Stories of an Unforgotten Soul, a biography of her father Bimal Kumar Hazarika, who was an engineer with Oil India and died in 1998. “I lost my father at a young age. He was among the first oil exploration engineers in the country and helped set up Oil India in the late 1950s. He led an exceptional life as a person and as a professional, and was admired by hundreds of people, including his colleagues for his kindness and talent,” says Hazarika, a garment engineer by training. “ I did months of research, did phone interviews with my family, my father’s friends and colleagues during the lockdown.”
The book, essentially a daughter’s remembrance of her father, begins in Digboi, Assam, where oil was discovered in the 19th century, and where her father got his first job with Assam Oil Company ( AOC) in 1956. “My book is as much a story of my father and my bond with him as it is about crude oil exploration in India. My father was a master in crude oil drilling.”
Hazarika’s treatise is among several other such endeavours. The Covid-19 pandemic shutdown when life came to a grinding halt led to common people writing their autobiographies, memoirs, or biographies of their family members, and publish them on their own.
Notion Press, one of India’s biggest self-publishing houses, for example, has brought out over 900 titles in the autobiography-biography category during two years of the pandemic -- up from 50 a year before the pandemic. Some of the recent titles include: Dear Mom, A Daughter’s Diary, Memoir of a 90’s Kid, Across the Desert: Autobiography of an Obscure Indian.
In self-publishing, the authors pay to the publishing platform for creating, publishing, and distributing their books.
Vikram Thakur, director, Evincepub Publishing, another major self-publishing company, says the pandemic has given an unprecedented boost to the industry. “Earlier, we had people approaching us to publish fiction, now a majority of them want to write their autobiographies or biographies of their family members. I have published over 400 biographies and autobiographies in the last two years, unlike the pre-pandemic days when we published only 20 to 30 a year,” says Thakur
Most writers of these books are not driven by their love for writing or literature but a singular desire to tell their or their loved ones’ stories. If Hazarika has written a book about her father, last year Surabhi Ahuja published ‘The strength of their past: Naani , Pitaji’s journey from Partition to Pandemic’—a book about her maternal grandparents.
“Why don’t you write a book on our story. We’ve lived such an eventful life, my grandfather often joked. That really struck a chord in me. They have witnessed and lived through heartbreaking history, lost all of their material possessions, and started from scratch but still managed to stay calm and make a wonderful life for their kids. It’s given me perspective in my times of struggle. I knew if I didn’t write this book, most of their life and their lessons would remain untold. The book is my gift to my grandparents” says Ahuja, who grew up in Faridabad and is currently based in Singapore, where she is studying homoeopathy.
The research for the book, she says, involved asking her grandparents endless questions almost every day, and speaking to family members spread across the world. “It was an amazing experience. I was almost forcing my entire extended family to open the doors to their past and relive some moments that had not been shared so far. It brought me closer to my roots and gave me an opportunity to know my family better, and write about them.”
Naveen Valsakumar, CEO of Notion Press, says that the Covid lockdown provided the much needed break from the stressful lives and allowed people to think about existential questions—a reason why a lot of people want to tell their own stories and document the life and times of their parents and grandparents.“Many are writing autobiographies because they have this sense of having lived a successful, fulfilling life, which others may find motivating. The pandemic gave them time and opportunity to write, ” says Valsakumar.
In March, this year, Virender Jain, 82, a resident of south Delhi and a former superintendent engineer of Uttar Pradesh Agriculture department released his autobiography, simply titled My Autobiography. His book moves from his family’s arrival in Delhi from Panipat in Haryana in the 1950s to his post-retirement life. “ This is essentially the story of a small town boy’s difficult journey to a megacity who eventually found success as an engineer and worked on some of the most important development projects, including, the Western Gandak Canal in the 1970s. A lot of people will find my life story inspiring,” says Jain.
Dr Ganesh Pai, 70, who in October last year, published The Accidental Dermatologist, his autobiography, also thinks so. “Most people can only admire the life of a famous genius, but may not be able to emulate him or her,” says Pai who was born and raised in Dhanbad. “I wanted to be a journalist and even got admission to Madras Christian College in Chennai. Soon, I came to Mangalore to spend time with a surgeon uncle and a gynaecologist aunt and was fascinated by the world of doctors, surgeries and care, and shifted course. Initially, I wanted to be a physician, but during my internship after MBBS, I was posted to the dermatology department, and eventually decided to follow it,” says Pai.
Written in tight, lucid prose, his book, published by K Books, a Rajkot-based publisher, apart from telling his life story, offers several lessons for young doctors. Priced at ₹499, it has sold over 2,000 copies—quite an impressive number, considering that a self-published book, on average, sells about 1,000 copies. “I wrote the autobiography during the lockdown when I was free. What matters in this age of social media is not who publishes your book, but how well you can market it,” says Pai.
Shalini Gupta, who runs Zorba Books, another self-publishing house, says: “The sales of these books often start with family and friends.”
Ask Surabhi Ahuja why she went for self-publishing her book and she says, “ Honestly, the story is about my family and so personal to me that the idea of pitching it to an agent or a traditional publisher seemed daunting.”
Most of these are first time writers. “But many of them write very well. Unlike writing fiction, telling their own stories or those of their family members come easy to most people,” says Gupta, who has published several biographies including that of Hazarika’s father.
Many families and individuals are also turning to publishers such as Family Fables Co. which calls itself a ‘bespoke publishing company’, helping families document, preserve, archive and share the life stories of the previous generation before they are lost forever. “We use oral history as a tool and provide our clients a personal historian. We take care of everything from interviews, research, and writing to design. In the last two years of the pandemic, we took up around 21 projects that include personal memoirs, legacy books, and family cookbooks. About half of them are from Delhi,” says Samrata Salwan Diwan, the founder of Family Fables Co. whose tagline is ‘memories to a memoir’.
In the meanwhile, Hazarika is planning a second edition of his father’s biography. “I feel there is more to his story than I have been able to tell in the first edition book,” she says.