When Chetan Bhagat shot to fame with his debut novel Five Point Someone in 2004, no one expected an IIT and IIM graduate to rule the Indian pop fiction charts for over the next decade.
A few years later, Durjoy Datta made his debut while still in college. His 2008 book, Of Course I Love You! – co-authored with Maanvi Ahuja – lured a number of Indians back towards reading (a habit that was almost on its deathbed).
Like Bhagat, Datta studied engineering and marketing. As more and more bankers, engineers, and marketing experts dominate the fiction section of India’s book shelves, their success stories beg the question: How? How do they connect with their readers on such a massive scale? What explains their appeal?
Transcending Barriers of Intellect & Language
No more complex language or elaborate plots that are peppered with literary devices. The trends reveal that contemporary India wants to read simple stories about love, dysfunctional relationships, life in IIMs and IITs and Hindu mythology.
If you’re turning your nose up at this, then remember that it is this very style of language and plot (or the lack, thereof) that has now opened the doors of libraries to a number of Indians, who earlier dismissed reading as a habit that was exclusive to high-browed elites.
In the years between 2001-2011, adult literacy rose from 65 percent to 74 percent, and is expected to touch 90 percent by 2020, according to a November 2016 report by The Economist.
Marketing (Read: Social Media)
Amish, the name behind the incredibly successful Shiva trilogy, and now the on-going Rama Chandra series, says that his management background (he’s a alumnus of IIM Calcutta) helped him market his book – which was rejected by some 20 publishers.
Social media has been an important tool for Amish, and other popular fiction writers.
Amish, who has over 8,10,000 likes on his Facebook page and over 6,64,000 followers on Twitter, uses social media to promote his work. His promotional strategies include Facebook Lives, video trailers of his books and regular virtual contests to keep readers engaged with his work.
Amish It’s a fallacy to think that a good book sells itself. I can give you a long list of books that I think should have been bestsellers but nobody’s ever heard of them.
Twenty-five year old Nikita Singh, who made her debut with Love @ Facebook, has close to 2,00,000 likes on her Facebook page, while Ravinder Singh, who penned I Too Had a Love Story – which stayed on the bestsellers’ list for six years – has over 7,00,000.
Social media has enabled these writers to generate a buzz around their books. Bhagat is a Twitter regular, and he often makes news for his comments on politics and current affairs, among other topics.
Are Their Books a Reflection of Society?
But now we come to the tricky bit. A couple of millennia ago in 5 century BC, Plato spoke of mimesis or representation of reality in art.
Later, in 1897, Oscar Wilde deviated from this proposition and wrote:
Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.
Now cut to circa 2500 AD – historians want to get an insight into the life and times of 21st century Indian metros. They are in a fix about where to start... but wait, what is this bluish-green-coloured thing? Hallelujah, for it is indeed a copy of Chetan Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend.
This, though, gives rise to a few questions: does Half Girlfriend represent relationship dynamics in today’s India? Are Shiva and his conundrums a reflection of our notions of religion? And, in line with Oscar Wilde’s theory, would you want your life to imitate One Indian Girl?
The Use of Language
Many readers have maintained that for a written work to be considered worthy of reading, it should conform, at the very least, to rules of grammar, language, syntax, and so on and so forth.
One of the most significant things that many contemporary popular Indian writers dismantled was the language a book was expected to be written in. Forget adorning writing with literary devices. Instead, there is a ‘departure’ from the rules of grammar, the usage of Hinglish and absolutely no convoluted sentence structure.
Popular fiction getting tied with ‘bad’ language, however, is a phenomenon witnessed only in India. So, while the West has books like the Lord of the Rings series and Harry Potter as part of their popular culture, we have:
Chetan Bhagat, Half GirlfriendHe shook Iris head... He took a piece of, dark chocolate when I offered it.
A Forever Changing Definition
And the next question that inevitably arises is: can India’s current crop of paperback bestsellers be (or will ever be) considered literature?
The very thought of this may leave some in shock. But it’s also a fact that the identity of literature is always in a flux, forever changing. There was an era when the works of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen were considered popular, looked down upon by different sections of society.
Cutting back to the present, though, while Bhagat and co may not be credited with the same literary merit as, say, the books of Vikram Seth, the works of literary writers are forbiddingly challenging for many readers.
As the owner of a top bookstore in Delhi said on the condition of anonymity:
Nobody wants to read it because it’s too intense. Hence we don’t keep it in the store anymore.
Chetan Bhagat on the other hand is available in every little cranny of nearly every bookstore. He has sold over seven million copies in the last 13 years since his debut as a writer.
So, though the pedestal of the likes of Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh, to name a few, is unshaken, many contemporary Indian writers have erected their own shiny pedestal next to it. Not lauding this would be unfair to their achievements.