Class Vs. Masses

A few years back, the Indian publishing scene exploded with Indian writers trying to make their mark. Today we have hordes of so called authors who have published not one but many books and they are being lapped up by readers across the globe. How many of them are global citizens, I can’t say. But having been an avid reader, I can tell you for sure that many of these authors write for the masses – Indians who like to read simple books, not literary sagas, people who want to finish books in a day or two and buy them for less than 5$.

I wrote this piece a few years back, and thus might be a little dated in terms of the comparisons I have made. But here it is nonetheless. First published on The Indian Trumpet Magazine, page 61.

Summer Edition_Page_37

India is the land of the Upanishads, Vedas and Kamasutra. When seen from a very broad perspective, all these were written in our very own language – Sanskrit. For centuries, Sanskrit was the language that united us. It evolved into other languages which created divides but with the British, English became a common link; especially now where most Indians are applauded for their knowledge of the language.

Writing in English though, has been a very recent phenomenon, taking center stage in the last few decades with success either depending on sales of the books or connect with the audience.

There are also 2 categories of Indian writers which I have named as:

1. The Rushdie Type

2. The Bhagat Type

In this article I have explored and compared the two categories – their writing styles, success factors and limitations.

The Rushdie type:

Novels and stories on serious contemporary issues with fluent and verbose English or poetic style, for people looking for a thought-provoking, knowledge enhancing and debate ensuing experience, most of whom (barring students) are native western, people of Indian origin in the west or highly educated upper class Indians living in India.

Who are these writers? Salman Rushdie in the forefront, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, V.S.Naipaul, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Khushwant Singh, Rohinton Mistry, Amitava Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor and Aravind Adiga. I am sure I haven’t missed many names. A bit of research shows that most of them have lived a large part of their impressionable age outside of India. Also, though Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Aravind Adiga have been recipients of the Booker prize, they are typecast as their subjects mostly include gender inequality, marital difficulties, poverty and corruption in India and lack of experimentation on other subjects. How many of them have NOT shown Indians as underdogs? So have the Indian writers forgotten about creating an interesting plot wielded well with a new theme altogether?

The answer lies in understanding the sentiments of the global audience as well. Somewhere in the last decade, India and China have drawn people globally to know more about them. The image of India being a land of elephants and snake charmers is fading and a stronger image of a country of over 1 billion people with complex issues like casteism, poverty, corruption and illiteracy is taking center stage. Most people around the world include all of us once in a while, wonder how we are functioning with so many intertwined issues. And this mystery is what people want to read about. India is an underdog, will perhaps be for many more decades but an underdog that has potential to overcome any obstacle.

The success of these handful writers has had a corrupting influence on Indian writing in English and this has made British and American publishers pick novels that will sell in their markets. According to an article published in the New York times written by Manu Joseph, Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger received mediocre reviews in India and the characterization and portrayal of Indian cities was considered naive and inaccurate. But the book went on to become the Booker prize winner. This is where my point of most of these writers spending impressionable years in US and Europe gets validated – they can tell Indian stories in a way that foreigners get enticed by, irrespective of the fact that they might showcase an inaccurate and unreal picture of India.

The success of these books/authors depends primarily on the connect that they make with worldwide audience – to give them an enriching experience of knowing more about India and provoke them to think. Sales and recognition follow.

The Bhagat type:

Mass litera-tainment – for readers looking for a quick and entertaining read with everyday experiences and stories presented in simple language, witty style with which most people can connect. These are the first books some of their readers would have ever read, priced very low by publishers. The readers come from all corners of India (but India alone) – students, casual readers, first time readers who are too afraid to pick up a heavy (literally) book and finish it, or think it’s too risky to invest on expensive books and never be able to read it without sleeping through it. The aim is to tell a simple story and make the reader laugh or at least smile, not THINK.

Why did I name this type as the Bhagat type? Because Chetan Bhagat was the one who was disruptive in this style of writing. He broke the monotony of the Rushdie types and connected with Indians in the language they speak and others followed. He has created this category in India. They are populist writers whose books are best sellers – Chetan Bhagat, Advaita Kala, Karan Bajaj etc – who have attained success because they treat their stories exactly how masses in India want them to be treated. The current scenario is that though a lot of Indians understand and speak English, it is Indian English that they are comfortable with – simple words, ‘Hinglish’ sprinkled in most books with education, romance and modern culture as backdrops and this is what is given to them.

The definition of when a book is called a best seller in India is also skewed. Ravi Singh, Editor-in- chief, Penguin Books India says “If it’s a hard cover, selling 10,000 books is a reason to party, across fiction and non-fiction categories. However, for a paperback, priced between Rs 99 and Rs 150, the figure would be 25,000 copies. In 2012, around 40-50 titles out of over a thousand titles published by us crossed the bestseller mark.”

These numbers are a far cry from millions of copies being sold on the NY Times bestsellers’ list, which is one of the best-known lists. Only Chetan Bhagat has managed to break the million copies record. What then is keeping these authors from writing on new themes, for a wider audience and more enriching language? It’s an established model which is easy to replicate that deters the writers from exploring new territories. Getting a book published is no great pain today and the goal is myopic – to attain instant success in the shortest time possible.

The success factors for these books is primarily sales. It wouldn’t matter if the book had a lasting impression on the audience. As one can see, there is clearly a large market for both the types of books – it’s a ‘different strokes for different folks’ scenario. In conclusion, it wouldn’t be fair to argue that the Rushdie type is better than the Bhagat type or vice-versa as their writing styles and successes are meant for two very different audiences. But one thing that readers of both the types can definitely demand for is experimentation in themes – adventure, crime, science, despair, war, love and more. As Irving Wallace once said “Every man can transform the world from one of monotony and drabness to one of excitement and adventure” and what better way to do it than taking readers to a magical place that they have not experienced before.


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