The Mag This Week

The Books page has two reviews:

A Gardener in the Wasteland, reviewed by R. Krishna, and

Between the Lines, reviewed by Karishma Attari.

There’s also a list of ten books that will be released between August and December and should be on your wishlist. But for one, they’re all fiction titles, which warms the cockles of this fiction-lover’s heart.

Elsewhere in The Mag, I wrote a piece about the ideal desi woman as depicted in our English pop fiction. I’ve heard so much — from publishers as well as readers — about how this genre is “rooted in reality” and uses English the way India really speaks it that it’s starting to make my hair curl. (My hair, like the rest of me, is rather flat, boring and straight in its natural, unprovoked state.) So “What Men Want” is part of a campaign in which I would like to posit the theory that pop fiction is about as unrealistic as steampunk. It’s just less imaginative and badly-written. I say “campaign”, but let’s face it, I’m not sure I have the fortitude to endure much more of prose like what I read in That’s The Way We Met… Kya Life Hogi Set and Revolution 2020. 

I can’t find a link to the article in the newspaper website so I’m putting up the unedited (word count woes) version up here. Enjoy.

What Men Want

Looking for the perfect woman? Deepanjana Pal pieces her together from the most recent novels by two bestselling male authors, Chetan Bhagat and Sudeep Nagarkar

 

According to the data collected by the 2011 census, the sex ratio in India stands at 914 girls against every 1,000 boys under the age of six. Logically speaking, this should mean women get to lounge about like the Roman emperors of yore while men feed them grapes and hover around tentatively, desperately seeking the approval of mistresses. Sadly, this does not seem likely despite the statistics. As most women will confirm, the ratio of males to real men – the kind who can sweep a girl off her feet and make her believe in happily ever after – seems to be worse than the country’s sex ratio. (The plight of gay men is, no doubt, a minefield of disappointments and we’re steering clear of that for the purposes of this article.) Net result: the pressure is on women to be perfect in order to appeal to men. Perfection, however, is a difficult thing to ascertain, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

We decided to turn to popular Indian fiction in English, which according to its authors, fans and publishers reflects the thinking and beliefs of the Indian youth, to figure out what the sons of the soil want. After going through Chetan Bhagat’s Revolution 2020 and Sudeep Nagarkar’s That’s The Way We Met…Kya Life Hogi Set carefully, here’s what we’ve gathered. Ladies, take notes.

The Good News
The twenty-first century is truly here – both novels have working women as heroines. Admittedly, the job is one that allows her to be at the hero’s beck and call, but the lovers are supportive of their girlfriends’ careers.

She isn’t intimidated by either alcohol or marijuana. The first she partakes of with as much enthusiasm as the men. As for the latter, she may not be a pothead but she doesn’t balk at the sight of a joint either. In fact, Revolution 2020’s, Aarti even tries a puff.

Finally, the new Indian woman has premarital sex. This does not make her a creature of base instincts and loose morals. If anything, it makes her all the more alluring to the hero. Not just that, Bhagat and Nagarkar don’t dwell on virginity. Neither Aarti and Riya exhibit any stereotypical virginal coyness about sex. Aarti, in all probability, has had sex with at least one other man, but this isn’t something that even briefly affects the desire that Gopal, the protagonist of Revolution 2020, feels for her. We hope Bhagat’s fans take this leaf out of Gopal’s book.

Beauty and the Beholder
Predictably, if you’re not beautiful, you don’t get the guy; particularly since it seems guys have an eagle-eye gaze for the specifics of their girlfriends’ appearances. Here’s a description of Riya by Aadi in That’s the Way…:

“Her black eyeliner highlighted her already pretty eyes. Her glossy lips added colour to her face. She hadn’t worn any accessories, which I was glad about, as it would then seem overdone.”

In case you were wondering, Aadi is not a fashion stylist.
Bhagat and Nagarkar’s heroes both frown upon make-up, stressing upon natural beauty. Lip gloss, however, has their approval and is encouraged.

The Other Side of the Coin
Curiously, both Riya of That’s The Way… and Aarti of Revolution 2020 belong to families whose financial situations are significantly better than that of the heroes’. Aside from this adhering to an age-old setup of ‘poor little boy meets rich little girl’, it makes her career a casual matter rather than a necessity.

Consequently, while we hear about Aadi’s mundane job in great detail in That’s The Way…, Riya simply works in an office (which is, conveniently, located close to Aadi’s). Aarti, in Revolution 2020, decides she can’t give the competitive exams because they’ll be held the week Main Hoon Na is releasing and she can’t miss possibly miss the film. But naturally. She also says she’s determined to be an airhostess and yet, she idles years away while the two men in the novel build their careers. Essentially, the reason for a girlfriend’s existence is to stand by her man until she must break his heart.

Check Mate
In case you were getting excited about the Indian woman’s sexual liberation, a word of caution. Foreplay, as far as these new age heroes are concerned, is a curious thing. Gopal, for instance, “plundered her neck, planting as many kisses as the raindrops on the window”. Aadi recalls in That’s The Way…, “I touched her back with my fingertips and heard her moan. … I … gave her a deep kiss on the lips. She moaned in pleasure, returning my kisses with ardour. I took a strawberry and rolled it all over her. She could no longer hold herself…”.

Clearly, a woman must have two qualities: low expectations in matters of sexual technique and a willingness to moan. A healthy appetite may be advantageous, given the leit motif of food in Nagarkar’s seduction techniques. On one occasion, the couple splatter cake on each other’s faces and lick it off. When strawberries and chocolate appear in the bedroom, she “devours” the food. The reaction to her naked lover, on the other hand, is a moan. This behaviour earns her the label of being “a wildcat in bed”. Her response is not a moan but a coy, whispered “Shut up, Aadi”.

Terms of endearment
Charm isn’t just about lip gloss, but also about the words those lip-glossed lips speak. In Revolution 2020, Bhagat, using the via medium of Gopal, presents a number of observations about women and their characteristics, which are presumably among the factors that make them irresistible to the opposite sex. For example, “When girls are hiding something, they start speaking like boys and use expressions like ‘cool’.” Also, “If girls got to set grammar rules in this world, there would only be exclamation marks.” It’s another matter that this is the opinion of a character whose expertise with language may be glimpsed in observations like, “But she could never understand that losers, even if they do not have a brain, have a heart”, which suggests all losers – in the world? India? Varanasi? – share a single heart. Not to mention the fact that Aarti’s grammar is being mocked by an author who titled one section of Revolution 2020,“three more years later”.

In addition to these chief characteristics, there are other less critical qualities, like coming up with idiotic nicknames for your boyfriend (like “bachhu”) and being inclined to shed a single tear when faced with anything ranging from orgasm to heartbreak.

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The Mag This Week

Here’s what’s in the Books page today:

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, reviewed by Advaita Goswami.
Shadow of the Titanic by Andrew Wilson, reviewed by Joanna Lobo.
Of Birds and Birdsong by M. Krishnan (ed. Shanthi and Ashish Chandola), reviewed by Bijal Vachharajani.

And in other news, I talk to Indian publishers about English pop fiction in India. 

The Hunt For The Next Chetan Bhagat

Last year at a literature festival held in Mumbai, author Chetan Bhagat raised hackles when he claimed he’d changed Indian publishing by writing stories that ignored the foreign market and India’s Westernised readers. “If 50 intellectuals read my book at a lit fest and enjoy it, that would be impure to me,” said Bhagat. He stressed he was the first to write English novels for the masses. It took Bhagat’s fiction, which critics have savaged, to wake Indian publishing up. “Publishers are not as interested in Booker prizes now,” Bhagat said smugly.

Bhagat’s take isn’t completely baseless. “I think the turning point has to be Chetan Bhagat’s success,” said Saugata Mukherjee, publisher of Pan Macmillan India. “Of course one had authors like Anurag Mathur, but their success was not anywhere close to Bhagat’s phenomenal rise. I can’t say if publishers ignored mass market books before Bhagat, but there certainly was an apathy towards such writing.”

The bestselling novels that Bhagat wrote delivered an epiphany: one need not be well-versed in literature or display sophistication in one’s use of English to write a book. This led to writers coming out of the woodworks. Most had no literary background, no agents and no big publishing houses to back them. But their books became quick bestsellers, much to the delight of small publishers like Srishti, which entered the fiction market in 2006 and cheerfully accepts unsolicited manuscripts.

Like Rupa, which picked up Bhagat after his manuscripts were rejected by several publishers, Srishti benefited from pricing the novels at around Rs.100.

“The price point was made keeping in mind a specific target of consumers, namely the youth,” said Arup Bose who handles publishing at Srishti. “We have a huge young population, which is not only English literate but prefers to communicate in English. Also, the rising numbers of young Indian authors using easy, colloquial language and identifiable situations in their books have played a huge part behind the boom.” A parallel literary plane had been established and its celebrities were hitherto unknown names like Ravinder Singh, Karan Bajaj and Amish Tripathi, among others. The sales figures for their books were substantial enough for the big guns of Indian publishing to sit up and take note of popular fiction.

Literary fiction isn’t always a dud and prizes can help drive up sales. Booker prize winner Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, yet to be released as a paperback, reportedly sold 25,000 copies within months of its launch. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, has sold over 500,000 copies (which is almost five times as much as Twilight’s sales figure). Bhagat’s 2 States: The Story of My Marriage also sold 500,000 copies, but within a year whereas Shantaram was published in 2003. No wonder Indian publishers are intent upon finding the next popular fiction superstar.

Pan Macmillan recently published Jaal, which attempts to tap into India’s fascination for mythology. Random House India has titles like Girl Plus One and The 6pm Slot, which hope to encourage a chick lit readership. The emphasis is on quick, pacy, low-priced reads rather than elaborate plots and literary flair. “The key thing in the mass market category is that the sales are driven not just by the metropolitan reader, but by the mofussil and upcountry reader and, in many instances, first generation English readers,” said Mukherjee.“Audiences of the prime time television shows have finally started reading – hence a barrage of rom-coms and mushy stories in the bestseller list.”

At a time when most industries are weighed down by gloomy projections, publishing in India is optimistic about the future. Today, India is the third-largest publisher of English language books. Whereas once Penguin was the only big player in the business of fiction, now it enjoys healthy competition from companies like Harper Collins, Hachette India, Pan Macmillan, Random House India, Westland and Aleph Books. The likes of Srishti Publishers have made their presence felt and self-publishing is growing in popularity. All this means more books, more variety and more buyers. Just three years ago, a bestseller was a book that sold approximately 5,000 copies but today, to be considered a bestseller, a book has to sell upwards of 10,000 copies, which shows a robustly growing market.

“Fiction until a few years ago was restricted to ‘literary’ fiction and foreign fiction, enjoyed by and perhaps even accessible to a smaller demography,” said Poulomi Chatterjee, managing editor of Hachette India. “But more people are reading home-grown popular fiction now – younger generations that would not have read fiction perhaps. And look at the genres that are being written or at least attempted now.Apart from the campus novel and chick lit, there’s romance, humour, crime and thrillers, adventure, even science fiction. Not that it’s all proficient or prolific, but at least the attempt is being made.”

Earlier this year, Penguin introduced Penguin Metro Reads, whose catalogue comprises only cheap paperbacks. Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor at Penguin, handles this imprint. “I think the publishing world was very smug about publishing only literary fiction,” she said. “Indian authors writing commercial fiction, doing huge numbers, have shaped today’s market for the better.” Penguin Metro Reads is her attempt at righting the previous wrong. “The idea behind Penguin Metro Reads is to bring in good commercial fiction with the Penguin brand quality,” she said. “It is also a platform for newer genres and styles of writing, and introducing new authors.”

Despite the publishers’ insistence that quality is of critical importance, most of the Indian popular fiction titles are examples of sloppy storytelling and trite plots. Chatterjee conceded that often “the writing is not down pat”. Mukherjee was more forthright. “Very few of the bestselling books today in the mass market category are really ‘original’,” he said. However, even though these books are not examples of good writing and are unlikely to make any mark globally, at a local level, they mean good business. So for the time being, literary fiction can sit on the back burner, while Indian publishers desperately seek the author who will give Chetan Bhagat a run for his money.

Mumbai Fully Booked: Chetan Bhagat, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid

This is my first post from my phone. I’d thought I’d write this up after attending the session with auhors Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and Chetan Bhagat (moderated by Times Now’s Arnab Goswami) but it’s a funny thing about this business of being employed, once I’m at work, I’m, well, working. I know. Confounds me too.

Anyway, back to The Times of India Literary Carnival: Mumbai Booked. First dilemma: workshop or panel? Since Hill Road was just an unmoving mass of metal and humanity, that issue was settled for me. There are few things more embarrassing than walking into a workshop 30 minutes late, so with a clear conscience I headed to Venue A to watch Hanif, Hamid and Bhagat.

Venue A, incidentally, is where the Anish Kapoor show was held. I was hoping Bhagat would be seated in the area where Kapoor’s cannon had splattered massive wax pellets; just so I could imagine Bhagat facing the cannon. Sadly, no such luck. Bhagat did, however, face Hanif, and that was GOOD. Here beginneth my notes and quotable quotes.

Hanif talks about an occasion when he made a joke that was taken very seriously by an extremist woman writer. She wrote a “pretty scary” article on Hanif. A senior journalist’s response: “Since you’re an English novelist, they got a woman to threaten you.”

The place is packed. I’m standing at the back and there’s a camera crane that is probably going to decapitate me.

Goswami just said “in recentness”.

Bhagat complains about being made to sit as though he and the Pakistani authors are at war. Hanif and Hamid offer to make space between them on their couch. Bhagat: “No, that’s also too much.”

Bhagat smugly says domestic publishers have shifted their attention to the kind of books he writes. “Publishers are not as interested in Booker prizes now.” He says Pakistan is benefitting from being “the flavour of the month” and that there are more stories in Pakistan because there is more strife. And Pakistani authors tell better stories while Indian authors are obsessed with writing good English. Bhagat also says there is no literary scene in Pakistan. Bhagat: “Beware of the validation that comes from the West. … Literature must come from the inside.” He sounds like he should be on Aastha channel.

Hanif is collapsing with laughter.

Lots of chatter about knowing your market and writing for a market, Western and/or local.

Hanif: “I haven’t heard writers talk so much about markets in my life. I thought I was in a stock exchange or something.”

Hanif: “I thought you’re a writer because you don’t write.” People ask what you do and you say you write but actually you’re not doing anything. Hanif says he has no idea what his market is. Also readers don’t know what they want until they discover something they like.

Hanif on the relationship of chaos and creativity: “You get up in the morning, get a cup of tea, get into your writing ritual. Something blows up in your city. And you think, ‘Ok great, I’m going to write much better today’? … A writer wants what a normal citizen wants – some peace and quiet.

Bhagat argues Hanif needed a “maverick” like Zia. Hanif points out the “delicious” crime fiction from stable Sweden.

Hanif getting applause and laughter. Bhagat looking stormy. Clearly he doesn’t like it when he isn’t the author the audience loves because that, after all, is his only cache: popularity. If the “intellectual” author is also popular, then Bhagat’s screwed. Because then all he is, is a bad writer.

Bhagat tries to curry favour by mimicking Goswami. It works: audience claps. “Would you disagree, Mr. Goswami, that you called me and told me to make it spicy?” Now that’s what I call playing to the gallery. So ironic because Bhagat has been accusing “intellectual” authors, presumably like the two sitting opposite him, of playing to a Western gallery.

As it turns out, Bhagat is bland and Hanif is the spicy one. No wonder Bhagat looks like someone took his toys.

Hamid: “We just sit at our computers, or typewriters if you’re really retro, and we make stuff up. That’s a very strange thing to be doing.”

Goswami: “Has the purity of it (Indian writing) gone?” Er, WTF?

Bhagat keeps making jibes about Indian writers being wrongly focused on English grammar. Also in his vocab, ‘intellectuals’ is a bad word. Bhagat: “If 50 intellectuals ready my book at a lit fest and enjoy it, that would be impure to me.” Bhagat says he cares about numbers and sales because he is writing to effect change.

It is Hanif who points out the many kinds of Indian literature and the multiplicity of language. He also says honestly that he hasn’t read enough and therefore can’t really opine about Indian literature. Contrast to Bhagat who a) has a take on the Pakistani literary scene, and b) sees India as a homogenous mass labelled “My Fans”, and that’s all that matters to him.

Hanif asks Bhagat why he doesn’t enter politics or become a tv journalist if he really wants to effect change. Bhagat is flustered. I don’t suppose he can say, “Because I’m lazy and it’s easier to write crap novels that are, by the grace of god, selling like hot cakes.”

With some convoluted and completely flawed logic, Bhagat says that, in a way, Hanif and Hamid are Indian writers. Goswami agrees. Audience claps. I’m appalled and nauseated by this thoughtless and rude comment from Bhagat. Worse still, this audience clapped. So I leave, because at this point I need to distance myself from both Bhagat and his crowd.

And now my battery is dying. Time to hit post.