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Headlong into Wonderland

Summer is a great time to read. Or so everyone says. But what are we reading? And are we reading at all? Is the Indian reader of English rather like Alice — falling heedlessly through the rabbit hole?
Last Updated 30 April 2023, 00:22 IST

To spout a cliché, English’s place in India is an odd one. Indians who know English are not defined by geography and the Indian English reading market is difficult to clearly pin down. In particular, the likes and dislikes of this diffused market are hard to completely comprehend owing to the fact that local and regional issues and tastes do not necessarily dictate preferences. Given these factors, is it possible to try and figure out who this elusive creature is — the Indian reader of English? What is he reading? Does he prefer fiction to non-fiction? And the genres? In short, what sells?

What the numbers say

One place that could possibly provide some insights into the mind of the Indian reader is the Nielsen bestselling chart which compiles data from a huge selection of bookshops throughout the country and has established itself over the last decade as a very reliable source of information. Based on publicly available information, among the recent bestsellers in non-fiction according to Nielsen were Atomic Habits by James Clear, The Psychology Of Money by Morgan Housel, Get Epic Shit Done by Ankur Warikoo, Life’s Amazing Secrets by Gaur Gopal Das and Doglapan by Ashneer Grover. Colleen Hoover’s It Starts With Us and It Ends With Us, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, When I Am With You by Durjoy Dutta and Amish’s The War Of Lanka held the pride of place in fiction.

According to industry sources, while non-fiction does hold the dominant share of the market (55 per cent), fiction in the last couple of years has been growing and growing steadily. Figures indicate that the growth rate of non-fiction is about 4 per cent while fiction has been growing at about 20 per cent. Fiction, it appears, is making an unnoticed comeback.

But what are publishers, booksellers and readers saying?

What the publishers say

Nandan Jha, who heads sales at Penguin Random House India, and has seen the book market evolve in the last quarter of a century, agrees that non-fiction is still exceedingly popular. But he is also of the opinion that the books at the top of the non-fiction pile have been there for over three years now — books like Atomic Habits, Rich Dad Poor Dad and Ikigai.

“The two Booker titles — Tomb Of Sand and The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida sold extremely well last year, and so did Colleen Hoover’s books and some other titles in fiction. However, not much has emerged in the recent past and this has prompted the comeback of fiction in 2021 and 2022,” he says. The dominance of international titles in bestseller lists, he says, is slowly eroding and a number of Indian titles are making their way in. Even in genres like crime and thrillers, historically dominated by foreign titles, a couple of Indian titles have done exceedingly well — The Girl In The Glass Case by Devashish Sardana and That Night by Nidhi Upadhyay, for instance. And of course, Indian translations were a talking point even before Geetanjali Shree won the Booker.

So, is Indian writing set to dominate the lists?

“It’s a work in progress, as a new book by a Malcolm Gladwell or a Dan Brown could very quickly reassert the dominance of international titles,” Nandan reckons.

Manasi Subramanian, Editor-in-Chief, Penguin Random House India, believes that this is an exciting time for South Asian literary fiction, particularly women’s writing. “There have been several new exciting writers who have emerged in the last few years —Madhuri Vijay, Megha Majumdar, Deepa Annapara, Avni Doshi, Leesa Gazi, among others.” Even though she believes that fiction is an unpredictable space, she says something that’s greatly positive: “The stories we tell are our real soft power.”

Himanjali Sankar, Editorial Director, Simon & Schuster, also broadly agrees that fiction is doing well. “Some of the translations we have published — A Red Necked Green Bird by Ambai (translated by G J V Prasad) and An Educated Woman In Prostitution by Manada Debi (translated by Arunava Sinha) have done rather well.” But equally, she maintains that serious non-fiction too — for instance, The Truth Pill by Dinesh Thakur and Prashant Reddy and The Dismantling Of India by T J S George — have sold in significant numbers. Himanjali’s observation is that commercial fiction seems to have stolen a march over literary fiction and it has done so quietly, perhaps by word-of-mouth since reviews of commercial fiction in the book pages are rare.

Karthika V K, Publisher, Westland, is however doubtful that fiction is growing across the board. “Colleen Hoover has done very well in the recent past and her dedicated band of readers, readers of romance largely, have something to do with the recent growth in fiction numbers in India,” she reckons. “Also, Tomb of Sand winning the Booker has impacted the fiction numbers. If you go by data alone then, you might be persuaded that translations from Hindi into English are doing particularly well. But that’s just a skew, it’s not yet a trend.”

So, in light of all this, can one state unequivocally that fiction is making a comeback? Not yet maybe, but it is certainly showing something of an upward trend.

What the booksellers say

Subodh Sankar runs Atta Galatta in Bengaluru, a bookstore that only stocks Indian writing. On an average, his store sees 30 to 40 new books by Indian authors hit the shelves every quarter, most of it, fiction.

“When readers walk into the store and look at our collection, they are often surprised by the wealth of Indian writing that is available,” he says. “Often, they ask me for the Indian equivalents of foreign authors or titles — the “Indian Murakami” or an Indian counterpart to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” he remarks with a smile. History, he says, has been brought back into the reckoning owing to writers like Manu Pillai and William Dalrymple. And the demand for translations has been in part spurred by readers who have lost touch with their mother tongues and ache to capture some of that feeling once again. Subodh also notes that children’s books of all sorts are in great demand, spurred in part by mothers buying books for their children.

Anuj Bahri, who runs the Bahrisons chain of bookstores in Delhi, Gurgaon, Chandigarh and Kolkata, vouches for the popularity of non-fiction, specifically popular history and self-help. “Books on Buddhism are once again big,” he observes. “Foreign authors still continue to be popular, though translations of Indian books are gaining in popularity,” he says. Dozakhnama by Rabinder Bal and the works of Premchand are two names that he mentions in particular.

Going by the observations of people in the industry, it appears that fiction is experiencing a resurgence. But even as booksellers and publishers are observing certain trends, it is the journey of a few readers which might actually give us something of an insight into how reading habits develop, and therefore, what kind of opportunities exist.

Readers’ journeys

Poonam Sharma, who works with a consulting firm, has been a reader almost her entire life. Today, she consumes books of all sorts by the shovelful — literary fiction, popular non-fiction, especially in the psychology/self-awareness space and mysteries. She reads both Indian and foreign writers though she opines that in the mystery genre, good Indian writers are not many. In the recent past, she has enjoyed Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya, a book which has enjoyed considerable literary and popular success.

Benson Oommen, who works in an engineering firm, is widely read in non-fiction. He developed an early interest in history, philosophy and science and once he embarked on a professional career, those constituted the bulk of the books he read and continues to read. He admits that he is not well-read in Indian writing though he has read R K Narayan, Khushwant Singh and a few others. He has not kept up much with the explosion in Indian writing in recent years, either, both in fiction and non-fiction.

Going by the journeys of Poonam and Benson, it is clear that there is much scope for Indian writing to make plenty of inroads. There are readers who are willing to experiment and are ready to explore Indian writing of all sorts and there are readers who have been left untouched by the growth of Indian writing and therefore represent a huge, huge opportunity.

To resort to a cliché again — there’s possibly a good time comin’! And it may not be a good time comin’. Carpe Diem?

The writer is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.

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(Published 29 April 2023, 19:33 IST)

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