One of my most enduring memories of Ravinder Singh is on Instagram. In hindsight it does not seem incongruous for the 38-year-old bestselling author has a staggering social media presence — more than 100k followers on Instagram, over a million on Twitter—and a deliberate will to sustain and further it. Singh is also aware of the term one inadvertently earns due to this, the moniker any self-respecting author would consider as a downright slight: content creator. It does not rattle him. “Content creator is not a bad word at all. I take pride in the content I create which people later engage with. I am happy as long as they say it is creative content.”
This irreverence towards his perceived image is evident in the way he shares stuff on the photo sharing site which covers a wide range of topics from his characteristic maudlin musings to flippant posts regarding the virus, PUBG and petulance over less likes. Despite the pain taken to choose different colour backgrounds — white for messages and black for jest —there runs a thread of commonality between them: one signifies who he is and the other points toward who he can be. But none carries the burden of who he is supposed to be.
Last year, a friend had shared a Durjoy Datta post — one of the many cutesy photos of his daughter that generally crowds the author’s feed — with me. The image was of the child plopped before a Salman Rushdie book, as if reading. I ought to admit it made for a really satisfying content. Bypassing the crafted charm of the moment, Singh had left a comment which, if not verbatim, loosely read like this: “Don’t make her read these books. She will reject ours once she grows up.” I remember laughing back then and when I remind him of it, he laughs too visibly impressed with how well the joke had landed. But the real takeaway here is that Singh can make and take a joke on himself. For a member of a community which builds and sells illusions for a living, such self-awareness is revelatory. “I don’t understand different demarcations within fiction, I get various genres though,” he adds. This is no confession but admission that no-offence is his defence; a caution that the only way to laugh at him is to do it with him.
But this sincerity also threatens to infuse frivolity in the idea of an author. Singh refuses to be rattled by this either because, for one, he does not perceive an author as a social construct. Rather, his definition is personal and pertains only to himself. “The only perception of an author in my mind is one who should be able to speak his thoughts.” An extension of this is noticed virtually as well as in his interviews where comments like “I don’t want to write literary fiction” routinely make headlines. If anything, a decade spent in writing professionally has taught him is to own his opinions, this being one of them.
‘I gatecrashed the world of writing’
This, however, is a recent phenomenon. For the first four to five years, Singh admits he was struggling. “I kind of gatecrashed the world of writing.” His first book was an outcome of a personal tragedy and writing was his way of getting closure. When his fiancée passed away five days before engagement and eight months before the wedding, he was devastated. A romantic then (his engagement date, as decided by him, was on February 14) he liked the idea of a relationship before being in one. Growing up in Odisha, he was told college would be the place. He burnt his chances by enrolling in an engineering course and later took things in his own hands by opening a matrimonial account for himself. It is this that paid off. When things ended the way they did, he wanted his story to outlive the relationship.
Devastated and emboldened by loss, he went from one publisher to another to preserve his story. “I believed my love story was the most profound because it was mine.” After a series of rejections — making incessant calls to publishers at Delhi, boarding a train from Chandigarh to visit them on not getting a response, being told that they must have thrown it into trash (years later he worked with them though he doesn’t divulge the name) — his effort bore result and in 2008, I Too Had A Love Story was published. More than a decade later, the book still makes it to innumerable 10 Love Stories You Should Definitely Read lists on the Internet.
Glamour of the corporate life eventually paled before the thrill of readers coming up to him to express their admiration. He soon quit his job at Infosys to take writing full time and has been strikingly prolific since, churning out a new novel every two years along with writing e-books and collaborating for audiobooks.
But Singh, along with fellow authors like Datta, Nikita Singh, Ravi Subramanian write what is known as commercial popular fiction, a sub-genre in itself that broke out with the emergence of Chetan Bhagat and since then has been only thriving. Novels written by them are characterised by accessible language and hurtling narrative speed. They are more descriptive than introspective and more colloquial than erudite. In a postcolonial country like India where there exists a gap between the language of our experience and the language we read our experience in, they help in bridging it. And they do so by Indianising the English Language without an overt political agenda like a postcolonial author Rushdie does; by prioritising representation over identity. For instance, language for Singh is less of a tool and more of a means to reach more people. “I don’t understand many difficult words and If i don’t, why would I expect someone to? When you keep it simple, you connect to a larger audience and if I need to make a bread and butter, I would rather connect to a large audience.”
This has resulted in creating a set of binaries where commercial fiction is relegated to a spot which, if not lower, is also not equivalent to prestige fiction. That the former amass sales in millions further complicates the neat dynamic. This distinction, Singh stresses, is in his mind as well as of other authors. “Initially at literary festivals, I used to find it difficult to enter their group and mingle. They all knew me back then but I feel they were reluctant to entertain,” he recollects. “It probably hurt their ego that my books sold more.” Now he enjoys their discomfort. “I know what they are feeling about me and a bunch of others but now I have started enjoying this discomfort. Even though I know they will behave like they don’t know me, I go ahead and introduce myself.”
In many cases, this hurt ego is disguised and albeit grudging admiration. “A couple of years back, I was in Chennai to attend a festival. There was this person who had just won a literary award. I went ahead to congratulate him. He laughed and said, ‘Ravinder, kal subah tak toh tumhare aur 1000 copies bik jaayenge (Ravinder, by tomorrow morning another 1000 copies of your books will be sold). We had a cheers moment.”
‘I create value for publishers’
Being a commercial writer is a badge he wears with pride but he gained the faith to say it aloud from Shobhaa De. “I was in Kolkata for the Apeejay Literary Fest when someone introduced me as a commercial author. The implication was that the rest belonged to the literary world and I didn’t. I remember Shobhaa interjected saying, ‘Isn’t that a great thing to do? He generates value, makes money out of his writing which a lot of people want to.’ This was something which was in my mind but I was not very vocal about it.” He is aware that there are people with great command over language and enlightened minds around him but he refuses to use those as parameters for himself. “I respect everyone and I also feel it is great for me to write commercial fiction, that I create value for publishers.”
And this, he says, he will not trade for anything. Not even awards. “If you tell me that I have to change my writing style to win an award I would rather not have it. Between an award or my books selling more than 10,000 copies, I will always choose the latter,” he says, adding in jest that an exception will be made only for a Booker maybe.
But when it comes to literary awards, the aforementioned chasm is far more rigid. More often than not, commercial fiction is reliant on rewards. “In India, some books get huge media space and some that are read by more people. It is difficult to find a book that does both,” Swati Daftuar, editor at HarperCollins India states. Incidentally, it is the same publication that backed Avni Doshi’s debut novel Girl in White Cotton: A Novel in India which has been longlisted for the Booker recently. Having Singh as one of their authors ensures sustained readership. “His readership is going up with every book and that is what we are looking for. We are coming from a place where we want Ravinder’s book in as many hands as possible,” Daftuar, who has worked with Singh on e-singles and a book adds, insisting the ease with which the author responds to changes without diluting his voice.
Over the years, Singh has become a brand in itself, dabbling various mediums and catering to a readership built by him from scratch. He has also grown up before these readers as his own beliefs are transitioning: Your Dreams Are Mine Now (2014) is centred on campus politics in Delhi and This Love that Feels Right (2016) explores love beyond marital bonds. From looking at life through the lens of love, he is looking at love through the lens of life. But all through he has retained enough generosity to mock himself before he could be mocked at. For instance, when the longlist was announced, Singh had responded with a characteristic self-deprecatory joke “Last night, my latest book was long listed for the Booker Award 2020. Phir excitement mein neend khul gai” (“Last night, my latest book was long listed for the Booker Award 2020. Then that excitement woke me up”).
Last night, my latest book was long listed for Booker Award 2020. Phir excitement mein neend khul gai.
— Ravinder Singh (@_RavinderSingh_) July 28, 2020
What he refuses to have fun over is his work. “I take my work extremely seriously but not myself anymore.” With the way things are unfolding —he continues brokering lucrative book contracts, his first three eSingles Series were bestsellers on Amazon eBooks in June, and confesses the lockdown has given him at least three potential ideas for novels— it is Singh who is having the last laugh.
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