At 26, Durjoy Datta is the author of eight best-selling novels, which have collectively sold more than two million copies till date. His latest, Hold My Hand, published by Penguin-Metro Reads this month, was commissioned by the tourism ministry of Hong Kong.
“They felt if I set my next book there, it might be a good way of promoting Hong Kong as a holiday destination among the younger crowd in India,” says Datta. “So I spent 10-15 days there on the ministry’s invitation and wrote a story set in several places in Hong Kong.”
Datta, who went to engineering college and B-school, is a full-time writer now and co-founder of the publishing house, Grapevine, with his friend Sachin Garg who, also 26, is a huge success in mass-market English fiction in India.
Garg’s latest offering, Come On, Inner Peace! I Don’t Have All Day!, sold over 40,000 copies in the first week when it appeared last month, and had re-orders for 2,000 copies. It topped the AC-Nielsen best-seller list on 22 June.
Towering over Datta and Garg is Ravinder Singh, whose new novel, Like It Happened Yesterday, out from Penguin-Metro Reads last month, had a pre-launch order of 200,000 copies. This is staggering even by Chetan Bhagat’s standards, each of whose books have sold over a million copies.
“The concept of the author as celebrity is actually a thing now,” says Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, blogger-turned-“chick lit”-novelist. “Popular fiction has become a phenomenon, more than a genre.”
How did writers like Singh, Datta and Garg get such a following and how are they changing Indian publishing?
“There are some who wake up one day and decide they will write a book,” says Garg. “I am one of them.” So are Singh and Datta—and thousands of Indians yearning to tell their stories.
Some 10 years ago, the aam admi woke up one fine morning to find novels, written in English, that they could read, enjoy and, more importantly, buy without feeling the pinch. The moment was ushered in by Bhagat’s Five Point Someone (2004), which, priced at Rs.95 in its first edition, sold a million copies in less than 100 days.
The book also spawned a deluge of mass-market fiction dealing not just with campus life but also with matters mythical and matrimonial, which seemed to put thousands of hearts in peril across small-town India. Publishing suddenly woke up to a treasure trove of local—or “lo-cal”, as critic Sheela Reddy memorably put it—talent.
Big publishers like Penguin Books India (PBI) started imprints dedicated to mass-market fiction. As Vaishali Mathur, who runs Metro Reads, says, “There was a huge untapped market of young, solvent readers who wanted easy reads for a modest price.”
Increasingly, newer, if smaller, imprints like Fingerprint (with books like Cough Syrup Surrealism by Tharun James Jimani and Lost Libido And Other Gulp Fiction by Salil Desai) have a decent presence in the market, selling anything between 10,000-20,000 copies for their more successful titles.
Suddenly, love seems to be cloying the Indian literary air.
“I don’t take a prescriptive stance towards literature,” says author Namita Gokhale. “I don’t think there is a replicable formula to successful writing. India is a land of intense love stories, especially so the Punjab, where Singh has his roots. No wonder people love him.”
In India, the romance genre has seen stylish, sassy and sophisticated writers like Anuja Chauhan, Advaita Kala and Madhuri Banerjee. Their books, priced higher than those by Singh and Co., sell in healthy numbers too (Chauhan’s newest, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, published by HarperCollins India and priced at Rs.350, has sold around 20,000 copies since it appeared in January). Yet none of them gets the film-star treatment Singh or Datta do.
“Chauhan will spend time developing characters,” says Garg, who has no illusions about his target readership. “Durjoy, Ravinder or I won’t. We will go straight for the story and move it quickly.”
Datta, who was alarmed to learn I had been reading his books, has been called “an Indian male Candace Bushnell”. Dating, sex, one-night stands, smutty dialogue—he stirs up a lethal cocktail.
His looks also help. “How can sum 1 have such cute dimple..!!! :-) :-* <3” runs the typical female sentiment on Datta’s Facebook pages. Male fans are more reticent, and stick to “awsum” or “handsome”.
Singh’s fan pages, official and unofficial, record over 500,000 Likes. Each day he spends several hours interacting with fans, soliciting their opinions, listening to their gushing and grumbling. People take it to heart when he doesn’t respond to their messages personally. “I feel I should engage with my readers directly,” says Singh, who exudes an Olympian calm. “How many literary fiction writers will take the trouble?” asks Garg.
Internet fandom is easy to build up these days (pop-hero Justin Bieber, followed by over four million people on Twitter, gets retweeted some 68,000 times and favourited 46,000 times for tweeting, “Haha”). But when stars like Singh and Datta embark on promotion tours, the real craze of their appeal becomes palpable.
Last month, at the Jaipur launch of Like It Happened Yesterday, a painstakingly detailed account of Singh’s own childhood and adolescence, the crowd included giggling girls, shy boys (some had come to get signed copies for their girls), and moony-eyed aunties.
“I love the simplicity of his style,” sighed Garima, in her 40s. “I have no time for difficult books.” When it was time for Singh to read, she volunteered her own copy, turned to the chapter where Ravin, the protagonist, is ogling his luscious English Ma’am, and sat through the reading, her eyes agleam with admiration.
As the evening came to a close, a scramble ensued to get copies signed and photographs taken with Singh. A mini fight broke out between two girls who had stepped on each other’s toes. One guy begged me to take a photo of him with Singh on his cellphone. A young mother tried to shush her infant as he wailed plaintively, before plonking the child on its bemused father and joining the queue of admirers.
Singh’s first book, I Too Had a Love Story, was inspired by Eric Segal’s Love Story, the first ever English novel he had read in his life when he was in his mid-20s. I Too is based on Singh’s real-life girlfriend, who died in a car crash.
“I chose not to drown my sorrows in alcohol but to transform my own mortal love story into an immortal saga,” Singh explained to me solemnly.
In I Too, Khushi and her fiancé, Ravin, meet on shaadi.com and fall for each other hook, line and sinker. They call each other Shona and Shonimoni and carry on a phone-and-SMS romance that will make Middle India blush.
“Ravin” is a cross between Mr Wickham and Mr Collins. When speaking to a “gora” he affects an accent. “Wudgyaa mind tellin me whom they were caallin for?” he asks a “white-skinned man”, while waiting to catch a flight.
On discovering Khushi’s feminine charms, he goes ecstatic: “This is why we keep hearing, ‘Men build houses, but women make homes’. And now I had found one such woman.” One can almost see the desi Mrs Bennets swooning over Ravin, the perfect son-in-law.
Written as a therapeutic exercise while Singh was working at Infosys, I Too was blurbed by N.R. Narayan Murthy, the co-founder of the company, who found it, “Simple, honest and touching.”
It is precisely these qualities about Singh’s prose that make so many boys and girls hopeful of seeing their own love stories in print one day. Even those whose introduction to reading is not through Singh fall for his charms—because he makes the art of writing look so easy.
One Anshuman Sinha writes on Singh’s website, “To be honest, when I first started reading your first novel... your language seems (sic) too childish, for I have read many works of R.K. Laxman, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.” He goes on: “I thought you were worse than Chetan Bhagat. But soon, the way the story started picking its pace, I was mesmerized in (sic) it.” He concludes by saying he is a “big fan now” and “Uh, just out of anxiety: I’m just 14 and trying to write a book about my teenage love story. Any tips?”
For some, writers like Singh, Datta and Garg feel like a cruel joke. Brinda Bose, who teaches English at Delhi University, is alarmed by the rise of the School of Singh. “Not because I’m a purist or a snob, but because I think this kind of commercial writing is going to be detrimental to the richness of serious writing in Indian English we have seen for half a century now.” Bose feels this genre in India is mostly “puerile and badly written” when it could have been “edgy, subversive and transgressive”.
“Publishers will have to go where the money is, and I can see that happening, from PBI to Rupa to Random House India,” she adds. “I think this means the death of Indian English Writing as we knew it.”
Others are more charitable. Aruni Kashyap, a writer of literary fiction, says, “Any longstanding literary culture is sustained by pulp fiction. These books are not meant to change anyone’s world view but are to be read on the go.”
Srishti Publishers, a low-budget venture, was responsible for introducing Singh, Datta and Garg, along with several other best-selling sensations, to Indian readers. Arup Bose, its proprietor, says there’s no fixed formula to mass-market success. “A good story that’s new and touches a chord with millions is the most important ingredient. The language must be colloquial but also make grammatical sense.”
Srishti has sold over 400,000 copies for its top titles, like Preeti Shenoy’s Life is What You Make It, and recently published Complete/Convenient: There is More to Men than Bromance by Ketan Bhagat, brother of—well—Chetan Bhagat.
There are some Dos and Don’ts though. Nothing sells like simplicity. Garg says writers in this genre should be prolific and turn over three-four titles each year. He usually takes a few weeks to pull off a 40,000-50,000 word manuscript.
Once in a blue moon, by sheer fluke, literary fiction can also become a best-seller like, for instance, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger (2008), which the jury glowingly commended for its readability. “We must have sold over 200,000 copies of it till date, a stupendous figure for the genre,” says V.K. Karthika, publisher of HarperCollins India, “and there is still demand for it.”
Ankur Wahal, who sells books and magazines on the pavement of Block A in Connaught Place, New Delhi, affirms the continuing popularity of Adiga’s book, though the Holy Trinity of Singh, Datta and Garg brings in the bulk of his business.
Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Halwai, who does not hesitate to kill his employer for self-advancement, seems to have a certain resonance with the aam Indian pysche, courtesy his pidgin English—Hinglish, to be precise—and his rags to riches story. Both seem to work like magic.
In Singh’s prose, Hinglish is smattered with Punjabi, his mother tongue. Like It Happened Yesterday opens with a toddler Ravin sobbing piteously to his father in Punjabi, begging him not to leave him alone on the first day of school, quite an endearing contrast to the swarthy 30-year-old who makes the ladies go aww.
Even Shobhaa De, high priestess of Indian pulp, is impressed by the “freshness...resonance and vibrancy” that connect the work of a Singh, Datta or Garg to the pulse of small-town India. “It’s the same emotive link that movies like Gangs of Wasseypur or more, recently, Raanjhanaa, are establishing with viewers,” she says. “India is finally celebrating its B-town heroes and recognizing their unique vocabulary.” Making a movie of your jilted love story, Bollywood style, may not be financially viable, but writing a book about it is easy.
As for “unique vocabulary”: “HIIEEE ravin..i read both ur novels,, dey are just awsm nd really touching i always cry wen i read ur first novel.. i also love a guy very much but i dont noe if he also.,, ndi need ur suggestion plss rly me.. :( i’ll neva eva forget both d story... <3,” writes “Ritika Kush” in the Guestbook on Singh’s website (Singh’s second novel Can Love Happen Twice? showed the world that indeed, it can, and how).
“Of the five-six submissions we get at Grapevine each day, at least one is from some guy claiming to have been ditched by his girlfriend, and wants us to help him tell his story,” says Garg, whose own initiation into writing happened partly out of his need to overcome a nasty breakup.
Datta’s books, usually co-written with a female author, are facetiously titled Of Course I Love You...! Till I Find Someone Better, Ohh Yes, I am Single..!..And so is My Girlfriend!, You Were My Crush! Till You Said You Love Me!, and feature narrators who are cocky and certainly no picnic.
"Singh’s fan pages, official and unofficial, record over 500,000 likes. Each day he spends several hours interacting with fans, soliciting their opinions, listening to their gushing and grumbling."
Bickering couples, male bonding, one-night stands—his books deal with stuff mothers usually do not want their children to read, though he does look like the endearing boy next door in nerdy glasses (our photographer had an incident of sorts when a female fan, encouraged by her mother, ambushed Datta, while he was being shot for this story).
Datta says he enjoys reading eclectically—he mentions Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo as one of the books he has enjoyed this year—and aspires to write like his favourite author John Green (best known for The Fault in Our Stars) one day.
In the mean time, thousands are aspiring to write like him. In Jaipur, Aditya Bansal, 20, who hero-worships Singh, Datta and Garg, introduced himself to me as a “budding author”. “I Had 69 Girlfriends”, he said. “That’s the name of my book.” In case I was wondering, he really hadn’t had as much luck with the ladies, though he has not done badly either. And, of course, his parents don’t know of his literary accomplishments—yet. “How can I tell them I am writing such a book?” he smiled slyly.
It may be best to wait till the book comes out and woos millions of 20-year-olds like him, all fondly dreaming of love and lucre.