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‘A’ literature for Rs 100

Isn’t the ‘a’ in the headline wrong? Yes. But grammar isn’t necessarily the big thing in India’s booming mass market for quickie English paperbacks.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
June 27, 2010 11:51:36 am

Isn’t the ‘a’ in the headline wrong? Yes. But grammar isn’t necessarily the big thing in India’s booming mass market for quickie English paperbacks.
Start with a horny male protagonist,describe everything from sunset to smut,don’t worry about dictionaries,and you have a bestseller.
Our correspondent Dutta takes a walk on the wild side of India’s English language publishing

Language is no barrier to writing a novel.” Not a statement that can find its way into any author’s Ten Rules to Writing but Animesh Verma,24-year-old author of two novels,is sure,solemn even,his voice free of any irony,as he spells out his manifesto. “Grammatical errors,spelling mistakes doesn’t (sic) matter that much. I am not writing a (sic) literature,” he says.

In all fairness,that charge — of writing literature — is not one that could be brought against Verma. He could perhaps be tried,though,for outraging the modesty of the English language. There he is,in one of the early chapters of his debut novel Love,Life and Dream On: an IITian’s story of romance (Srishti Publishers,Rs 100),describing with bungling earnestness a character in love. “The girl gazed at Aniket for a moment and smiled. The small glance made Aniket reach cloud nine in a moment. He began to Dream. (Prof) Mr Banerjee kept on stressing the types of bonds and Aniket realised the formation of a new bond. Bond of LOVE.”

And yet. For all its mangled expressions,wafer-thin characters and outlandish editing,this campus novel set in Delhi’s Hindu College has made it to bestseller lists and is in its eighth print run (since its publication in January,2009). So,Verma,a postgraduate in chemistry from IIT,Mumbai,who in a different world would be happy solving chemical equations and not experimenting with grammar,is an author with a readership.
And you haven’t even met the man responsible for the most striking description of a sunset in the history of Indian writing in English.

“Evening breeze gusted across,and the intensity of natural light dwindled as sun took cover behind tall buildings”. That’s the work of Mandar Kokate,author of ‘Oh Shit,Not Again!’ (Expression Publication,Rs 150),a book set in Pune and written with the finesse of Amar Singh at a press conference. The protagonist of the book is “the flirt chap” Raj (“I’m Rajendra Jedhe,alias Raj”),an “Arts stream student” in Pune,with a glad eye and plenty of testosterone,the said combination inspiring the author to produce several passages of sleazy prose. So Raj flips through the pages of Debonair and thinks,“Hot women on the paper chilled my brain and body to rest them in peace.” Perhaps because Kokate is a civil engineer,ever so often he slips in words that would make the writer of The Civil Engineers Construction Manual proud: “His globular tummy was hanging cantilever to the hips”. He also does pathos: “Tears resumed their flow,I didn’t try to stop them and neither did they stop on their own”.

This novel about the antics of Raj and friends has sold around 40,000 copies since its publication in 2008. (By the modest standards of Indian publishing,5,000 copies is the bestseller mark.) At Crossword bookstores across the country,it sold 16,500 copies over 12 months (till March this year); it was Number 5 on the India Today bestseller list for March. Durjoy Datta and Manvi Ahuja’s Of Course I Love You..! Till I Find Someone Better (Srishti Publishers,Rs 100),which has been on all bestseller lists,is the biggest seller in this genre characterised by a single,male,horny protagonist and his sexual romps (or simply desperate longing for it). The publisher says it has sold close to a lakh copies. The story of Deb,an engineering student who cannot stay in a relationship for too long,it is peppered with the lingo of Delhi’s student hubs and a significant amount of clumsy sex.

Since Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone jolted the somnolent market for Indian writing in English in 2004,bestseller dreams simply haven’t abated. Every publisher is on the same page (or getting there),angling to get the attention of a new generation of young readers. Nothing excites them more than an engineer with a workmanlike plot. Penguin has a new imprint,Metro Reads,which will only publish mass-market fiction. Rupa leads the pack with Bhagat. HarperCollins has just entered the Rs 100-market with Karan Bajaj’s Johnny Gone Down.

Turns out,though,that there is a subaltern twist in the tale. While the New Reader might pick a book over a Rs 100 mobile recharge coupon,he/she has also taken a fancy to books that scrape the bottom of the slush pile. Rajeev Kapoor,manager of Crossword Jaipur,confirms that books by Datta,Kokate,Ravinder Singh (I Too Had a Love Story..) and Tushar Raheja (Anything for you Ma’am: An IITian’s Love Story) are among the fastest selling in the city and a “craze” among those in the 16-22 age group. “Most of these books are in Hinglish and about hostel life or light love stories,but it has drawn younger readers,” Kapoor says. Rajendra Singh Shekhawat,owner of Books and News Mart,one of Jaipur’s oldest bookstores,agrees: “Though the English is quite atrocious,casual readers are lapping them up.”

Catering to the lowest common denominator are smaller publishing houses like Expression Publications. Mandar Kokate set up Expression last year to publish his novel after several rejection slips. He runs it out of a room in his house in the middle-class locality of Bibwewadi in Pune and claims it as a place “where fresh writers are preferred to high profile authors”. “Four friends who have studied literature” proof the 60 manuscripts that he gets every month. “So if you really want to make a mark and have the potential to stamp,then we are the ink that you are looking for”,its website says. Next,er,with the potential to stamp is Love Lust & Life by Azhan Ahsan. Cedar Books,an imprint of Pustak Mahal, has tried the formula with titles such as Friendship@Facebook.com and Vodka Shot and Beer Mug,both of which have sold around 5,000 copies within a month of their release.

The most interesting of the lot,though,is the low-profile Delhi-based Srishti Publishers,which,without flashy book launches,has worked the ‘bestseller’ plot generator with success. Run by Jayanta K Bose,a former hand in Rupa’s marketing division who calls Chetan Bhagat “god”,this 12-year-old publishing house entered this end of the market in 2008. Since then,it has been the address of hope for all aspiring authors eager to hammer out that one novel festering inside them. Srishti has since published books by 36 new authors,including one by a 16-year-old student of DPS Noida. Ritwick Mallick was in Class IX when he wrote his high school romance Love Happens Like That (December 2009).

At his tiny office in Shahpur Jat,south Delhi,Bose tells us he shifted to commercial fiction after burning his fingers with more serious fiction. “Not that we don’t think these are not literary pieces,” he says. “Because as many readers are reading. We are increasing the readership.” What propels books to the top end of the charts,he says,is word-of-mouth and an efficient distribution network. “You go to any bus stop or railway station,you’ll see our books. In Kota,even magazine sellers stock our books,” he says.

Srishti is,in many ways,the Balaji Telefilms of the Indian publishing industry though Bose,a small-built,greying man in his 50s,is at first glance no Ekta Kapoor. But he too has cracked the formula: it’s important to churn them out,it’s important to be everywhere. Most importantly,it’s all in the title.
If Ekta has a K-connection,Bose insists that all title names are 19-characters long—Of Course I Love You..!,Now That You’re Rich..,That Kiss in the Rain..,Anything for you Ma’am. Ravinder Singh,author of I Too Had a Love Story..,tells us that he was amused when he first heard of Bose’s lucky charm. “The title I had thought of added up to 17 characters only. I added two dots at his insistence. After all,it is a formula that has worked,” he says. The IIT tag completes the equation,and Srishti peddles it often,even in books which are not set in India’s premier engineering colleges. Verma’s Love,Life and Dream On: an IITian’s story of romance was set in Delhi University. Bose is also known to gently prod his authors into garnishing their narratives with smutty scenes. Mallick,who added a description of schoolboys watching an MMS to his otherwise candyfloss romance,tells us he was reluctant at first but realised later “how important it was to young people everywhere”.

English in India is spoken by 100 million people. But to a large number of these,it is still the other language. A language of aspiration but stilted on the tongue,meant not for the easy communication of everyday life but for one’s “awkward,polished” self,like a stiff starched suit worn with difficulty in humid weather. To the authors riding this wave of popularity,though,the sales figures reveal that,Macaulay’s Minute be damned,there is an audience for their kind of language — chutnified,if you will,but as valid as ‘cheap and best’ street signs on Indian roads.

So you are taken aback when Bose believes that the genre of fiction his publishing house is known for is ‘chick-lit’—and he is not talking of fiction written by,for and of women. The first version of Kokate’s novel had characters talking in a bewildering mix of registers: “What did they purloin?” “Come on yaar,you can’t perjure.” Some are tangled enough to be included in a dictionary of Chinglish. This is a line from Verma’s debut: “The boys took these girls to the buses,some who got signal from girl kept on peeping inside the bus to get a small snap of his babe. Boys kept waiving their hands as the bus left.”

Without exception,this bunch of authors evokes the names of Salman Rushdie,Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh every time they have to define what their practice of writing is not. And the dictionary and the thesaurus are routinely dismissed as elitist affectations. “We do not use difficult words. We write as if we are standing in front of you and telling you a story,” says Datta,author of the successful novels Of Course I Love You and Now That You’re Rich.. . Datta’s debut novel was formed out of a series of blog posts he wrote and then converted into “fiction” with the help of his co-author Manvi Ahuja. Singh,an Infosys employee whose memoir of losing his girlfriend has sold over 50,000 copies,says he first started writing on the bulletin board of his office chat room. “I am not an avid reader. I must have read one or two books before I started writing,” he says.

For a bestselling ‘full-time’ author,Kokate is is not always spectacularly articulate. But he does seem to define his practice of writing well. “You have to generate ideas,arrange them and get a book,” he says. What is the strength of his novel? “ ‘Oh Shit Not Again!’ is a practical book. I wrote it practically… means,it’s what actually happens.”
(With inputs from Tanvi Salkar and Apurva)

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