Asia Uncensored: India’s new readers–why an entire nation is only buying commercial fiction?

Editor’s note: This is the first of Asia Uncensored blog debates that we are kicking off our Blogs section with, curated by our blogs editor Rheea Mukherjee.

The influx of commercial fiction in India is an undeniable fact. Is it good? Is it bad? Two writers–Soumyadipta ‘Shom’ Biswas and Tanuj Solanki– share their perspectives on this volatile topic. We would love to hear your thoughts on this subject too!


All a person needs is the first good book

by Tanuj Solanki

Tanuj Solanki
Tanuj Solanki

I live and work in Bombay, and so, for me, traveling to my hometown Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh entails reaching Delhi first and then taking a bus or a train. For the Bombay to Delhi journey, I find the Rajdhani trains to be the best option, because of the overnight comfort and the promise of being able to squeeze in four hours of solid reading into the seventeen hour journey. In November 2014, I had, for personal reasons, to take three trips to visit my family there.

Reading is quite prevalent, at least as much as it is reasonable to ask for, in Rajdhani compartments. In my six train rides in November, I noticed some glaring patterns. There, middle-aged men leafed through newspapers and magazines, older men read books about the art and grace of living (typically those in their mother tongues, which was heartening), women above a certain age did not read, young men almost exclusively read Half Girlfriend by Chetan Bhagat, young women preferred taking the top berth and cozying up to a Sidney Sheldon or a Chetan Bhagat (not necessarily Half Girlfriend), adolescents of either sex read Half Girlfriend (which was strange to me), the kids troubled their elder siblings for being absorbed in the book, and the babies wailed, which seemed to me a demand for their own Half Girlfriends.

On seeing this deluge of Chetan Bhagat (and this was the story of every compartment; I took walks through the trains just to ascertain this), I was reminded of Amit Chaudhuri’s short essay “What is literature?—an Indian story” on the Antiserious website. There, Chaudhuri presents literature as an imponderable, something that cannot be presented as having absolute, defining characteristics, but posits that we may have a better chance at understanding this organism negatively, through what it is not. For enabling this negative deduction in India, Chaudhuri credits Bhagat. I quote below from the final sentence of that essay.

“…Bhagat, by inadvertently electing to become the norm of what’s anti-literary, has contributed to creating, in circumscribed, ‘aspirational’ Anglophone India, a constituency for literature–where literature, inasmuch as it isn’t Bhagat, remains an imponderable (as, inevitably, it should).”
But sitting in those compartments, looking every once in a while at the reading all around me, I wondered, where is that constituency for literature circumscribed? Where is that imponderable beast? Yes, airplanes offer a bit more variety among adult readers, with a very specific airport genre consisting of business books and thrillers coming into play as well. But in no way does that genre seem to be a negation to Chetan Bhagat and his ilk. I have never seen, in a train or bus or airplane, any Indian reading Agyeya or Mistry or Foster Wallace. Truth is that if a constituency for literature existed, one would see a healthy mix of titles being read in a public setting. Instead of that, what one sees in the sites where ‘aspirational’ Anglophone Indians are forced to congregate, are titles of terrible banality. If your fantasy is to bump into your great love through a complex book that you find him or her reading on a train, India is not the country you should be having that fantasy in. The long tail is really thin for you to bump into someone reading great stuff.

I’m told by a friend who works in Amazon that the top six fiction writers in India (all of whom write in English – Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Dutta, Amish Tripathi, and so on), account for more than 90% of all fiction sales in the country. As an approximation, this number probably shouldn’t be quoted much, but my friend is sure he isn’t too far off the mark. And so Amazon too, a site for the congregation of ‘aspirational’ (Anglophone) Indians, and in that, similar to a Rajdhani or an Indigo flight or a Starbucks cafe, seems to support my puny primary research. Literature, or literary fiction and poetry, however indefinite its boundaries, has next to no market in India. All we know is that this India can and does make time for some reading.

In one of those Rajdhani rides, I found myself on the side berth, sitting opposite a girl of my age (late twenties). She was reading Half Girlfriend, while I had in my hands a novel called Manan, by Mohit Parikh. Manan is one of the superior English novels to come out from India in 2014. It is about a boy of fifteen who, although relieved at the onset of long-awaited puberty, begins a hyper-conscious enquiry into his oncoming loss of innocence and what it may mean to be an adult—of all these phenomena, the young protagonist is shown to be deliciously and clumsily aware, and the novel derives much of its humour and power from that awareness. Manan was released by Harper Collins around the same time that Half Girlfriend hit the market. Where the Bhagat book will definitely sell (or has already sold) millions of copies, Parikh’s tiny gem is most likely to go out of print before the next year. Quite simply, the muscular version of Pareto’s principle that works in the Indian fiction market does not allow players like Mohit Parikh to have any chance whatsoever.

So there she was, reading Half Girlfriend. When the evening tomato soup was served and we both took a break from reading, I summoned the courage to begin a conversation, asking her how she found the latest Chetan Bhagat. As expected, she said it was excellent. I told her that the book I was reading was also very good, and that I wouldn’t mind if she read the first chapter. To my surprise, she agreed.
The first chapter in Manan is about the protagonist discovering his first pubic hair and getting to terms with the fact that puberty may at last be his to deal with. I could see that the girl was a bit ruffled by the book’s frank beginning. To her credit, she didn’t imagine any ulterior motives on my behalf and read on. Once or twice she remarked that the sentences were “a bit difficult”, and there was at least one place where I helped her understand what was being said. That wasn’t much, and by the time dinner was served she had read the chapter. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read yaar,” she said.

Over dinner I got to know that the girl had only read seven-eight novels in her entire adult life: four of Bhagat’s, one of Tripathi’s, two by Ayn Rand. I offered her Manan, an offer that she seemed to regard as my attempt to be flirtatious. But she finally agreed to take the book from me and promised to read it completely. As for me, I could always buy another copy.

Discovering literature that has a capital L is no easy business, especially for those who don’t have the bug that allows some of us to deal with this imponderable. One needs to have the right friends, the right inclination, the right amount of patience for any serious foray, to appreciate that the rewards are greater than, or even adverse to, the demands of mere entertainment. Those of us who know the joys of a complex work, that of rewarding intelligence, that of enabling empathy and an understanding of the world that allows for greater tolerance, have a bigger role to play than we grant ourselves. We need to step away from simply hating or making fun of whatever it is that the figure of Chetan Bhagat conveys. In my opinion, the pseudo-religious commandment that forces us genuine fiction lovers to vociferously negate him or his ilk is not the way. It is by stressing that imponderable, even unarticulated, positivity of literature, by consistently grappling with its definition, by not taking the easier path of saying “That which is not Chetan Bhagat is Literature” and by converting one reader and then another and then another, that we can have a margin of a chance. A margin of a chance, yes, but worth fighting for. Chetan Bhagat is not a signifier of the non-literary; he is merely a substitute for Candy Crush. One knows the guilty pleasures of that silly game, but one also knows that one is wasting time with it. All a person needs is the first good book. Then he or she has a chance to realize that like one’s electronic devices, one’s brains can be used for a lot of better things. The only way for literary fiction and poetry is for their readers to become evangelists. I am not unaware of the utopian zeal of this statement, but it is precisely this zeal we need to deal with what we regard, and should regard, as a dystopian scenario.

Tanuj Solanki is a writer based in Bombay, India. His work has been published in The Caravan, Out of Print, Atticus Review, and others. He was a runner-up in the DNA-Out of Print Short Story contest 2014. He is the founder and editor of The Bombay Literary Magazine.


Commercially Yours

By Soumyadipta ‘Shom’ Biswas

Soumyadipta ‘Shom’ Biswas
Soumyadipta ‘Shom’ Biswas

Once, at a literary gathering, we were having a discussion about one of those linguistically-challenged love-stories by one of the gazillion-rupees-in-advance writers. A person in our group had read through one of those books, and he was mentioning how there were five continuous pages of sms-lingo there. Hearing that, another voice, exasperated, exclaimed, “that’s the only thing that sells these days”.
This seems to be a common theme in discussions about the current state of English literature in India. An opinionated majority is in agreement that the only genre of writing that can sell in this day and age is poorly written “masala romances”.

Conversely, some of my writer friends often bemoan that reading itself is a dying art. This is the age of X-Box and YouTube. Surely, something as arcane as reading would be on its deathbed. Why are these masala romances selling so much nevertheless? Why doesn’t the reading public watch a movie instead? Surely a movie is better scripted, and has a firmer narrative? If reading itself is a comatose art, then surely these books shouldn’t be selling either.

Maybe print is dying. Maybe e-readers and audiobooks are the future. But reading can never be dead. As long as there are people with stories to tell, there will be people willing to listen. Books and movies are not in opposition. They serve the same purpose. And there is enough space for both to co-exist. The capacity of the reading public to absorb new stories is pretty immense. As long as good writing is produced, there will be a readership for the writer who produces it.

Perhaps some answers to our question lie in observing the intent to read: for many it is a form of escape rather than an intelligent pursuit. Transformers 3 will appeal to a larger viewership than Synecdoche, New York. Commercial fiction will always have a larger readership than literary fiction. But the question, in the context of Indian English literature, is that even within the ambit of commercial fiction, it’s only these linguistically challenged masala romances that have become successful. Why would, if you would pardon me for continuing with my movie parallel, Gunda be more successful than Sholay?

Here’s the answer, in my reckoning. It’s because you won’t find a Sholay on the Indian English bookshelf.

One reason for this sudden proliferation of masala romances, is the ubiquity of English in modern India. Aatish Taseer wrote in a recent article, “English, in India is not a language… It is a class”. English has been an elite language, if not a language of the elite, for a very long time. Being the language of global business only enhances its aura.

And it is this feature that has brought about the class mobility of English in modern India. The upwardly mobile have, to varying degrees, familiarized themselves with the Queen’s language. These masala-romances that pass as commercial fiction in India, are offshoots of this class mobility of the English language. Yes, some of the stories are often far-fetched, the narrative arc is often haphazard, but the stories are nonetheless about people who are just like this new reading public. The people of these stories live like the reader, think like the reader and behave like the reader. And given the choice of reading about people like yourself or reading about a person you do not know, it is normal for the reader to choose the familiar. Estha and Rahel would probably read in Malayalam. Ram Mohammed Thomas would not read at all, and Saleem Sinai would stick out like a sore thumb in his milieu if he reads in English. Ravin and Khushi, or Madhav Jha will not.

Bad grammar is not easier to read than normal, grammatically correct English. Newspapers, articles on the Internet and school textbooks aren’t written in sms-lingo. Then why are the masala romances selling like hot cakes? That’s because these books are successful despite the poor grammar, and not because of it.

For a very long time, the only consumer of Indian English Literature were the social elite, for whom English, if not the first language, was almost at an equal footing with the native tongue.
The recent ubiquity of the English language has resulted in a different reader, the first-generation English reader. Taking my previous assumption that there will always be a demand for stories, we see that for the first-generation English reader, for whom English is definitely the second language, there are two choices. One, attempting to read stories written by people very different from themselves about people very different from themselves in a language that challenges the second-language user. Two, attempt to read stories written by people who come from a similar milieu to the reader, writing about people the reader is familiar with, in a language that is more aligned with their understanding and use of English, albeit with a sense of under-reaching.

Considering that most readers expect the reading experience to be visceral rather than intellectual, what are the chances that she will pick up the former rather than the latter, notwithstanding the poor grammar?

What is in store for the future? Is it pretentious and elitist to brazenly press the literary panic button?
We can draw a quick parallel with the Hindi film industry. For the ‘80s and the ‘90s, we had the option of two kinds of movies – formulaic entertainers that possessed the finesse of a jackhammer, but ensured that the minimum expectation of entertainment is met; and the art house films, made for the critic, seen by the critic and praised by the critic. Since the early part of the new millennium, this demarcation changed with the arrival of middle-of–the-road films, strong on content but not eschewing the factor of entertainment.

And therein lies the future of Indian in-between literature in English. Middlebrow literature, if you will. There is an exciting future for this kind of literature in the country. I see similar promise for Indian genre fiction. There is already progress in fantasy fiction, in comic books and graphic novels, and in sports literature. Will our own Nick Hornby make an appearance in India? Where are our Gillian Flynn and our Tom Wolfe? Writers who have matched literary craft to familiar and exciting plots?
Where can the magic-realism of Haruki Murakami and the middlebrow detective fiction of Keigo Higashino co-exist?

But that’s in Japan, isn’t it? Wrong. The right answer is, in translation. That’s where you will find India’s Nick Hornby, and India’s Gillian Flynn, and India’s Keigo Higashino. You will find them in regional literature.

The writer really doesn’t have the choice to obfuscate, writing in her regional language. Unlike with the readership of Indian writers in English, it is rare for an Indian person to read books in their third or fourth language – And before you mention Hindi, consider how rare it is to find individuals whose first language is Bengali, Marathi or Tamil, to actively read Hindi once out of school. Thus the regional language writer cannot romanticize and present the mundane as mystical, to her writers. Obfuscation does not result in appreciation. “But Jonathan Franzen is surely middlebrow” is a (largely academic, mostly ponderous and pretentious) discussion one can only have in one’s first language.

So? So to translation. Translation has not been very popular in India. This is again for the reason Taseer proffered a little while back. In the past, the person with comparable faculty in English and the native tongue, as well as an artist’s temperament, would invariably never consider dedicating himself to the often-thankless task of translation. This is why most translations are by academics, and many of them (but of course not all) would translate the language, but not the thought.

With the ubiquity of the English language, this is about to change, and there have been spring flowers in this specific garden already. We have seen excellent translations of regional work in recent times. In my native language, Arunava Sinha has been pulling out trees single- handedly.

This will be the true hope for literature, the joy of handing over a book that you’ve loved in your native language, to a friend of a different tongue, confident in the knowledge that the transition has captured the craft and swing of the original. Confident that the translation will play to the same rhythm and dance with your friend the same way it did with you.

Soumyadipta ‘Shom’ Biswas is a management consultant and short fiction writer who splits his time between Chicago, New York and Bangalore. His short stories have been published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), Out of Print, Reading Hour, The Bombay Review and Spark. He is a boss quizzer, notably having been a semi-finalist at the “University Challenge” Quiz (2003-04) televised on BBC World, and a semi-finalist at the Commonwealth Games sports quiz, “Sports Ka Superstar” (2010) televised on DD National. He collects antique sports books, and is consistently one of the best EPL fantasy football players in the world. Shom is an active community member of the Bangalore Writers Workshop, and is known to have an opinion on everything.