Something has happened to the Indian publishing industry in the last decade. It has discovered a market of first-time readers. It has also discovered first-time authors. And it has brought the two together with cheap books. HarperCollins sells chick lit for Rs 195, and Penguin publishes “fun, feisty and fast” Metro Reads at Rs 150. But this is not as low as prices go.
Cheap lit: The number of low-priced, quick-read novels available in the market is growing.
Indialog, Orient Paperbacks, Diamond Books and Mahaveer Publishers have all brought out books priced at Rs 100 or less. Rupa & Co. has possibly the most successful sales in this segment, as it publishes Chetan Bhagat. But the most prolific publisher is Srishti Publishers, a small Delhi-based operation that concentrates almost exclusively on the Rs 100 novel. These publishers, some of which are vanity presses, are a boon for both never-before readers who want to read something that isn’t too challenging; and for aspiring authors who want to see their names in print.
But there’s a dark side to the Rs 100 price point and it’s this: If everyone can be an author, anyone can be an author. With a few honourable exceptions, the 100-rupee novels aren’t just mediocre, but awful.
Most of them are similar. They’re written by young authors, usually just out of college—some are still in college or even in school. The protagonist is almost always male and north Indian. The books follow three general trends. There are thinly disguised autobiographical coming-of-age stories, with the writers admitting that they’ve based their books on diaries or their experiences in school or college. There are didactic novels, which use a story to hammer home what the author thinks is a big idea, but is actually a sophomoric generalization about sex, society or spirituality. And finally, there’s the out-and-out wish-fulfilment novel—usually featuring a protagonist who is such an idealized self-image of the writer that the book comes across as painfully narcissistic.
Creative: All talk is italicized in Mallik’s LOVE Happens Like That. Amit Agrawal/Mint
Srishti’s CEO Jayantkumar Bose believes that English language publishing, like the organized retail industry, is reaping the benefits of India’s large pool of young English-literate people. Srishti is enthusiastic about this market, and chose the Rs 100 price point specifically so that a teenager could fit a book into his monthly budget. Srishti also believes that the market potential is highest in small towns and rural India, and does not want to count on the chain book stores, which operate only in the metros. Srishti’s authors say its distribution went into the remotest bookshops of India.
Srishti’s books are notable for the titling—capitalization, ellipses and subtitles are used liberally and without regard for grammar. Srishti’s titles include that thing called LOVE: An Unusual Romance… and the Mumbai Rain, Nothing For You My Dear: Still i Love You….!, and Patyala Down De Throat: A sweet melody from pegs to riches. It’s not surprising, then, that Nothing For You My Dear’s Avinash Jain thinks that “grammar is some bullshit for crammers!”
The bizarre typography isn’t restricted to the titles. In Ritwik Mallik’s LOVE Happens Like That, all conversation is italicized. The writer explained that he wanted the “dialogues to be in italics” to differentiate them from the “narratives”, and so a reader who was flipping through the pages in a hurry could “catch on to most of them”. It’s unclear why Mallik felt that quotation marks were not up to the task, or why he assumed his readers wouldn’t read his book through.
Along with its typographical innovations, LOVE Happens Like That is also significant because it disproved one of my pet theories. I used to think that the glut of college novels was because nobody in India actually gets to do anything without adult supervision until they move to college, and preferably one with a hostel. So unlike the US, where coming-of-age stories are teen movies, India’s coming-of-age stories are college novels. However, LOVE Happens Like That and Tishaa’s Pink or Black (published by Rupa) defy the trend and are set in high school.
The trend which they don’t defy is an inability to portray a meaningful coming of age. The Pink or Black protagonist’s quest to discover herself is limited to deciding what her favourite book, colour and cuisine are. By itself, this banal quest is bad enough; what makes Pink or Black intolerable is the sanctimonious moralizing with which the protagonist discusses drinking and her friends’ attitude about boys. LOVE Happens Like That is little better. It’s full of SMS-speak inanities, brand name-dropping, and blatant homophobia; and is long on description and short on insight.
Pink or Black and LOVE Happens Like That actually represent the median quality of Rs 100 books. The high end is represented by Love, A Rather Bad Idea… all it gives is a lousy hangover, whose protagonist sticks to the cliché of the morally questionable IIT-ian, but is much better written than the rest of the pack.
At the moment, the low end is indisputably Chandraprakash Mohata’s Patyala Down De Throat. It is yet another college memoir, but two things set it apart. The first is how atrocious it is. Mohata’s grasp of the English language is tenuous, and he admitted that he hated reading and the only books he had read before writing his own were Chetan Bhagat’s four novels. Mohata felt that if Bhagat could write, he could too, and came up with a first novel that he sent to at least 50 publishers before it was accepted at Srishti.
The second thing that sets it apart is that it was printed by not one, but two publishing houses.
Among the 50 publishers Mohata contacted was Diamond Pocket Books, which was willing to publish it as a vanity project, and offered to print 2,000 copies if Mohata would pay for the privilege. Mohata agreed over email, but received no further communication, and so signed a contract with Srishti in May. Two months later he discovered that Diamond had printed his book without a contract. Mohata then attempted to carry out a sting operation. He arrived at Diamond’s Delhi offices, impersonating The Times of India Ahmedabad’s assistant editor. To use his own words, he “provoked them about their last position in the market” and lack of a fiction catalogue. They then assured him that they did indeed publish fiction and that Patyala Down De Throat by Chandraprakash Mohata was among their many titles.
When I interviewed him, Mohata was almost embarrassed about the whole affair. Srishti had sent Diamond Pocket Books a legal notice, and he says that Diamond now wishes to settle out of court. He said that his sense of ethics restrained him from seeking publicity, and that he was happy with the Diamond CEO’s personal apology and promise to destroy the unauthorized copies.
This incident has not deterred Mohata from further literary pursuits. He is working on his second novel, titled Love Lies Ever Corner—I should be moving in a circle (sic). So is Mallik, who started a sequel even before his first book was launched. Srishti continues to publish debutant writers who should not write. The deluge of dreck in Indian book stores will continue.
Representative samples from the Rs 100 novel
Ritwik Mallik’s LOVE Happens Like That… as long as you are my angel; my miracle (Srishti)
She kicked his carrot hard and he shouted out in pain.
“You chose pain over excitement… you GAY!” she pushed him.
Tishaa’s Pink or Black(Rupa)
As far as Tiana was concerned there is nothing known as a social drinker. Once you get addicted to that vice, you’re trpped for good and there is just no turning back.
Initially, it was just a handful of people who were under the brand spell. But these very few were highly successful in sucking everyone into the brand cult. So much so that these guys started gifting expensive gadgets like PSPs and cell phones to each other for their birthdays! Come on, get real.
Chandraprakash Mohata’s Patyala Down De Throat… A sweet melody from pegs to riches (Srishti)
It was in a short time we had made ourselves comfortable with the computer machines; a bomb shell babe attracted our attention with an interruption. She seemed pretty with a perfect ten. Long hairs, sharp nose, thin lips twisted in a snarl.
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