How Indian publishing discovered its “Game of Thrones” and created a literary phenomenon.
WHEN the world’s highest-earning novelist launches his new thriller in January, his co-author may not be familiar to Western fans. James Patterson, an American crime writer whose estimated annual revenues of $95m dwarf even those of Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, sometimes joins forces with local writers when he sends his investigators abroad. “Private Delhi” will be his second murder mystery with Ashwin Sanghi, a novelist from Mumbai who is far better known among Indian readers for his contribution to popular mythological fiction—one of the most remarkable, but overlooked, publishing stories of the past decade.
In the age of Patterson, Potter and “Game of Thrones”, Indian authors have brought their own special flavours to the table: mass-market fiction based on reinterpretations of the two great Hindu epic narratives, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Canny authors enlist ancient fables of gods and heroes, of rival clans, gigantic battles, perilous quests and fearsome ordeals as a way of unlocking the crowd-pleasing genres of mystery, fantasy and historical romance.
These stories have helped transform publishing in a nation of 1.3bn people with improving literacy rates and—in contrast to long-term trends in the West—a growing appetite for the printed as well as the electronic book. Adult literacy rose from 65% to 74% between 2001 and 2011; the projection for 2020 is 90%. The annual value of the book market has swollen to an estimated $3.9bn, with 90,000 new titles added each year. Chiki Sarkar (who is married to a correspondent in our Delhi office) used to run Penguin Random House in India and has now founded her own company, Juggernaut Books. She believes that the establishment of book chains that emphasise promotions has meant big books are becoming bigger, just as they have in the West. “Into this landscape you’ve now got an old genre that has found new vitality,” she adds.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata have long nourished Indian popular culture, whether through village storytelling, puppet-shows, television serials or Bollywood movies. Indian novelists writing in English used to be known abroad purely as a source of strenuous literary works; now they regularly produce gaudy blockbusters that marry these ancient tales with the latest trends in genre fiction.