From its elitist bearings, Indian Writing In English has successfully expanded in the last few years, not only adding great variety to its lists but creating a lucrative Indian mass fiction category as well
When best-selling author Chetan Bhagat saucily commented that he was determined to pull Indian Writing in English (IWE) from its high horse and bring it to the masses, one simply smiled.
IWE has been a niche affair for a long time; the bastion resting with expatriate writers- its only visible and known representatives. Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh and Anita Desai… all came with undeniable literary merit and brought a great deal of credibility to the genre of IWE very early on.
Its appeal in India, however, remained restricted to the wine glass-clinking literati. This had to be disconcerting to an independent observer, firstly because it didn’t seem fitting that authors residing in the first world – no matter how good – should be the presiding literary masters of the third world. But more importantly, one was left baffled at how a ballooning English speaking class in India was bereft of a wider palette in the IWE segment.
These were concerns one had until only a few years back, but since, the whole literary scene has seen a dramatic turnaround that has made the genre not only a fairly lucrative one but has given it a kind of ‘completeness’ it never had before. Like Crossword Prize winner for A Girl And A River, Usha KR says, “From graphic novels, gender lit, the young adult novel, thrillers, biographies and so on; the pre-eminence of ‘literary’ fiction is being challenged all round.”
Such variety bodes well for the genre and the industry as a whole. A special mention needs to be made about the ‘mid-brow’ mass Indian English fiction that most publishers admit “is where the numbers are.” Chetan Bhagat with his three best-selling books, Anurag Mathur with The Inscrutable Americans, The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan, Manju Kapoor with Home and Difficult Daughters, and Abhijit Bhaduri’s Married But Available have sold in thousands. This has not only widened IWE in terms of what it stood for but has also enabled a welcome ‘democratization’ where more voices are being heard.
The non-fiction segment is getting equally strong with erudite academicians, politicians, corporate head honchos and scholars writing books. From Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Kesawan to Ramchandra Guha and recently Nandan Nilekani and Narayana Murthi, India truly has an enviable body of world-class writers in the English language.
Seeing a receptive audience, publishers are even translating classics in regional languages like Bengali, bringing a hitherto unexplored world to the fore.
There are quite a few reasons that writers and publishers cite for the growth and expansion in the genre of IWE. The most important one is a change in the demographics over the last few years. “We forget how vastly the literacy rates have changed in the last two generations. We’ve gone from less than 30% literacy to less than 30% illiteracy, and a good bit of that is in English. So there is a larger potential audience, and the publishers and writers are now talking to a different demographic,” says author Omair Ahmad, writer of A Storyteller’s Tale.
The other important aspect is the attitude of the publication houses in the country, believed to prefer well-known authors to new ones. The aspiring desi writers were left to cool their heels for a long time. “So much so, that it started becoming easier for an Indian writer to find a publisher abroad than in India. There was a toffee-nosed ‘Raj’ attitude that many publishers here cultivated...until their foreign bosses themselves instructed them to look more seriously at the Indian market, which held such enormous potential,” says Janaki Visvanath, avid reader and book store owner of twistntales, Aundh.
The publishing houses may not agree with this assessment but the fact remains that tapping into the desi market was one of the key reasons why major international publishing houses strengthened their Indian divisions. Harper Collins started its functions in India in 2003 – at a time when the market was ripe for change. Lipika Bhushan, Marketing and Sales head at Harper Collins, says, “Until last year, we had about 75 IWE titles. We’ve already seen a jump of 38 titles this year till April, taking the tally to 108. I think the favourable attitude of the Indian readers has led to the change. More and more people are globe-trotting, but the more successful books in recent times are those set in India.”
One of the major reasons readers are gravitating towards IWE is because they find it relatable. These books delve into their collective consciousness.
With more desi Indian Writing in English coming to the fore, will the genre provide a more authentic Indian experience now? “I don’t think it is a question of ‘authenticity’ as recognition of the fact that people want to read stories set in their own milieu – the small town, the metropolis, the Indian family, an IIT or an IIM. They have the confidence to recognize that in today’s world the local can reflect the global,” says Usha KR.
It wasn’t before long that publishing houses smelled the coffee and realized they were sitting on a veritable gold mine.
An important reason for IWE getting visibility is the authors themselves getting savvy and aggressive in their promotional strategies. “It isn’t like earlier when the author would be living in a hill station and write books, oblivious to the world around him. Today’s authors conduct book launches in various cities, interact with their readers and talk about their works. All this helps them ‘connect’ with people and results in more copies being sold,” Janaki says.
Pricing is another aspect that has worked favourably for IWE. Says writer and columnist Gouri Dange, “Yes – a Chetan Bhagat at Rs 95 definitely makes a difference. People then don’t mind buying even an unknown writer, perhaps. I baulk at buying so many of my favourite western writers, as they cost no less than Rs 400!” she says. Naturally then, the bar has been raised for IWE. “At one point, a book that sold 3000 was considered a best seller, today that figure has gone to 15,000,” she Lipika.
Talking of merit, so far IWE has mostly had a western fixation, where a Man Booker winner automatically becomes a bestseller in India. With the genre growing, isn’t it essential to have our own critical bodies to assess our works than rely on the West? “While there is a great flurry of writing, we still have to go through the churn where the ‘good’ or the ‘long distance runners’ will be separated from the run of the mill. This is where our own critics and literary awards have a role to play in building credibility and establishing standards but that will take time as credibility has to be earned and the readers, the media and the market must come to have faith in the decisions of the critics and juries. The Western environment has managed this interplay very well, and in good faith too,” views Usha KR
The future of IWE is tipped to have several interesting challenges ahead. Among the new trends that are expected are e-books and audio books. “What this means is that there will be more reading happening - the ultimate democratisation where you can hear a text even if you can't read it,” says Janaki.
For publishers, the challenge will be to tap into newer markers and sub-genres for IWE. Says Lipika, “Look at the childrens’ books, an area we have not explored at all. Why is it that there is such craze for Harry Potter and no Indian book for children? This is something we will be looking into. Besides that, I think our aim in the next few years will be to market our books in tier-2 cities like Chandigarh and Jaipur that carry enormous potential for growth,” she says.
Certainly it will be interesting days ahead for the publishing industry and IWE in particular.