The new true stories

The new true stories

Sonia Faleiro wrote four books—books, not drafts— about the story she had been chasing for five years. Aman Sethi switched jobs, publishers and continents before he could bear to take a second look at the book he had been writing since the start of his career as a reporter. Samanth Subramanian travelled the length of India’s coastline on weekends when he wasn’t working. Rahul Pandita has followed his subject for the last 13 years.

Each of these Herculean labours has produced very different books, all published in India in the last couple of years. They form part of a small but growing number of works of book-length, narrative journalism. Over the last couple of years, these books have become part of a new cultural conversation. They don’t dominate best-seller lists, but that is not a measurable goal for their influence, any more than a work of literary fiction can be judged by its sales. They grab attention, sometimes by the nature of their subjects, sometimes because they meet controversy, and often because of great critical acclaim, mostly in India and sometimes abroad. They are written for serious, if not outright highbrow, Indian readers, who may not always find what they are looking for in Indian newspapers—or not enough.

Moving away from the civilizational narrative of the grand “India" books and scholarly histories, these recent releases invite us to look at the country through their unique, specialized prisms. Taken together, they show us a glimpse of a possible future for the writing and publishing of non-fiction, where new spaces are opening up for new kinds of journalism—and perhaps new kinds of India stories.

For Meenal Baghel, editor, Mumbai Mirror, this newness is about both India and the story she has been following since 2008. Soon after the murder of television executive Neeraj Grover, Baghel got a call from Chiki Sarkar, then editor-in-chief of Random House India, to write a book of reportage on urban crime. Death in Mumbai, to be published later this year, recounts the crime that Baghel has been tracking through its sessions court trial which ended in June, with defendants Maria Susairaj and Emile Jerome both held guilty.

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“This is as much a book about a particular crime as it is about the aspirations of the young in a hyper-urban environment," Baghel says. “And it is especially about the new dynamics between men and women."

Would a story like Baghel’s have found a place on a shelf of the “India books" of the past, few as they were? Would Uttar Pradesh’s Gulabi Gang have found themselves the subject of a book like Amana Fontanella-Khan’s The Pink Sari Revolution (out next year from Picador/Pan MacMillan India)? And do these books come because of, or in spite of, India’s growing media industry?

In his history of the nation post-1947, India after Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the relative paucity of books about modern history, suggesting that writers would have to “fill in the blanks". His hopes for a body of literature that addresses the present in “the most interesting country in the world" might have taken a first step to fulfilment.

“This grandeur," he says of India’s modern condition, “can only be captured partly in fiction. But while a young writer 10 years ago may have wanted to follow Vikram Seth, there are more and more today who want to write non-fiction." He says he has noticed a “redressal of the balance in the last five or six years". Even at the New India Foundation, where Guha is a trustee, applications for the annual fellowships, to write books about independent India, have been increasing in both number and quality every year.

“Beautiful Thing was the sort of leap of faith only a 20-something could take," says Faleiro. “I gave up my job, spent days and nights between Kamathipura and Mira Road, lost touch with friends, and frankly, perhaps even with reality. “I knew no one would read the book, but I didn’t care. I wanted to write something that represented who I was as a person and what I stood for, and I wanted to write about the people who could most do with their story being told."

The depth of Faleiro’s engagement with the people and milieu she writes about is a reason for her book’s success. Short cuts are not easy to take in serious journalism. “If you spend a day or five with a subject you won’t get a narrative," Faleiro says. She is currently researching a new book on the short- and long-term impact of poverty on children across India, tentatively out in 2014.

Aman Sethi, whose A Free Man was published last month, also spent five years tracking the lives of labourers at Bara Tooti in Sadar Bazar, Delhi. His acclaimed book sprang from an early article he wrote for Frontline magazine about the area. Part of his intent with it, he says, was to find new ways to write about labour, so long confined to a sort of anthropological look at the “poor and oppressed".

“The book and my journalistic career have run on parallel tracks," he says. But his book also departs from journalistic practice in significant ways. Sethi’s book is a platform for men whose story he tells, and he “enters the space of biography", as he says, which complicates the whole story. “You also have to have the humility to let your subject narrate his story as he sees it, not as you see it," he says. “It’s the way the act of someone talking to a camera, in a documentary film, makes it a sort of ‘truth machine’."

We might say all these books are, in some ways, reactions to the growth as well as the limitations of journalism. Writing about the Grover case at book length, Baghel says, “gave me a chance to spread my elbows on the table, to take a story that fascinated me and explore it in a manner that newspapers and magazine can’t afford any longer. It made me fall back in love with journalism."

Media critics have worried about the shrinking space for reflective, considered print journalism, but in India, the growth of the industry in the last decade has also ensured some space for long-form writing. Magazines and newspapers also offer powerful support for writers, not to mention a vital “day job", to pay the bills and sustain what is still, essentially, an alternate career.

“I think it’s a coincidence that a bunch of good books have come out around the same time," says Subramanian, author of 2010’s Following Fish, which won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize late last year (Subramanian is a former employee of Mint, and worked at the newspaper while writing the book). “Because on the whole, as a writer of non-fiction, you’re still unlikely to get research grants, or an advance that will allow you to live. Unlike a novel, with due respect to novelists, you need money for the travel and the legwork."

“If book 1 works, then book 2 seems more viable," says Sarkar, now publisher, Penguin India, of prevailing publisher attitudes. “But the non-fiction you see now is just the result of some extremely hard work."

Many writers based in India face significant challenges. Amrita Shah, who is working on a book about contemporary Ahmedabad and emerging urbanity in India and the world, says publishers may just be catching on to the difficulties of producing popular non-fiction in India. Her 2009-10 Fulbright fellowship was complemented by a New India fellowship in 2008; she is currently on a Homi Bhabha fellowship. “It just wasn’t viable," points out Shah, who has written two earlier books, a biography of Vikram Sarabhai and a study of Indian television. “Institutional support, where it’s available, is usually for academic work." She says publishers, in the past, have simply not known how to market books that are seriously researched, but also meant for popular readers.

Some writers of non-fiction have found work and support abroad, as Subramanian points out. Yet they are hardly diaspora writers, unlike an earlier generation of Indian novelists: Their books exist because these journalists literally pounded the country’s pavements. They may touch global themes and audiences (Faleiro’s book released in the UK this month) but they are not meant to be “crossover" works.

The case of New York-based writer Siddhartha Deb, whose book of reported essays, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India (Penguin/Viking), is just out, makes this clear. Crucial support for the book came from the US, where a research grant from the Nation Institute, New York, and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, both funded part of his writing. “I’m interested in readers everywhere and don’t write for a particular market," he said while speaking to Mint last month. “Maybe I hope to shake up Indian complacency a little."

As Deb’s title suggests, there is an air of the Gilded Age about this moment in India, which may be what writers respond to as they dig deeper into the unseen country. Writing a new story, after all, is a political act, even if the writer doesn’t think of it that way.

Beyond narrative reportage, we are finding the outlines of “India books" that explore specific aspects of the country’s history. It’s difficult to imagine another moment in recent history when readers might have been able to look forward to popular non-fiction ranging from a history of India’s Jazz Age, explored in Naresh Fernandes’ soon-to-be-published Taj Mahal Foxtrot, to book selling in critic Nilanjana Roy’s forthcoming book of essays, tentatively titled How to Read in Indian. Rahul Mehrotra’s crisp scholarship in Architecture in India since 1990 offers readers perspective into the social and political construction of “New India".

Other keenly anticipated books take up subjects that have intrigued a generation of readers since Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City (2004), a turning point for Indian non-fiction. Books like Rana Dasgupta’s study of what he calls “post-liberal, globalized Delhi" (to be published in India by HarperCollins around spring 2013), and The New Yorker staff writer Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out from Penguin next February), will expand a tradition of urban Indian narratives. Boo’s interest in “the infrastructure of opportunity" led her to the slums of Mumbai in late 2007. “It’s not really about slums," though, she says. “The abiding reporting interest is the same as my abiding interest in the US: How do people get out of poverty and into the middle class? In both America and India I find the subject to be an under-reported one."

Untold histories: (from top) Naresh Fernandes writes about Mumbai’s jazz history (Courtesy ‘Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age’ by Naresh Fernandes (Roli Books); Aman Sethi writes uniquely about urban labour (Priyanka Parashar/Mint); Samanth Subramanian (Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint); the Gulabi Gang will be the subject of Amana Fontanella-Khan’s new book (Akshay Mahajan); and Bastar is the epicentre of Rahul Pandita’s book. (Courtesy Rahul Pandita)

That isn’t to say good non-fiction hasn’t always existed here, he argues, “but it hasn’t been adequately explored. Two things: Publishers need to pay for such books—and the books need to sell well." (One of Aleph’s non-fiction titles, due next year, is Mint columnist Pamela Timms’ exploration of food in Old Delhi.)

The non-fiction market in India still relies heavily on categories not remotely connected to narrative journalism: business/management, self-improvement, and fitness. According to book-store chain Crossword, Rashmi Bansal’s Connect the Dots was 2008’s best-selling book across every category. Numbers for more literary non-fiction are still too raw, and insignificant. But Sivaram Balakrishnan, marketing manager, Crossword Bookstores, Mumbai, says he expects the volume of non-fiction published in India to increase every year, with particular growth for categories such as biography and books related to current news.

“I don’t commission books based on ‘what’s hot,’" says Sarkar. “To make money, I’d try and get Sachin Tendulkar to write his autobiography. But if we ask: Will the India story include everyone? Who will it affect and how? I think these are questions that can’t be answered purely by fiction."

We are a long way from the steady flow of narrative journalism that is produced in the US and the UK, both in magazines and books. “If you look at the American or European tradition," says writer Basharat Peer, “it becomes apparent that we’re at a nascent stage."

But at the time Peer made his debut, in 2009, there arguably wasn’t even a conversation starter. That year, he published the lucid, eye-opening Curfewed Night (Random House), part-memoir, part-reportage about the violence wreaked on ordinary lives in Kashmir. He worked as a journalist in Delhi, reporting by day and reading and writing by night. He began work on it in a political climate that felt hostile; in 2007, when an Indian publisher first read it, he says, “I was seriously worried about being stopped at the airport by the police, or having my passport impounded."

Curfewed Night came out the summer after massive protests in Kashmir had received nationwide attention, and the brutality with which they were met by state forces had made an impact on national attention. Peer, who has spent the last three years travelling through India to research his next book on the country’s Muslims, says he’s still “completely shocked" at how positive the Indian response to Curfewed Night was. He is in the process of moving to Delhi from New York to finish work on the new book; it will be out late next year.

“For a long time I think we were at a stage where others told our stories," says Pandita, author of Hello, Bastar (Tranquebar). “Now you see more young journalists taking them up for themselves." Pandita’s book, released in June, is about the Maoist movement in central India, which he began covering in 1998. He wrote Hello, Bastar to reach out to a wider audience than the average book about Indian Maoism does.

More people are reaching for stories about which they are eager to learn more, written in voices they can understand fully.

“Today," says Peer, “every university kid in Srinagar, on meeting you, will say something like, ‘Did you read Jon Lee Anderson’s report on Sri Lanka in TheNew Yorker?’ For young reporters, young writers, there’s a space now that they never had.

“It is part of a larger opening up of the world."