The Secret of the Nagas
Tara Press, August 2011
The Immortals of Meluha
Tara Press, February 2010
Once upon a time a blue-necked man descended from his home in Tibet with his warriors to a city in Indus valley in order to save it. Thus goes a popular folklore from Jammu and Kashmir, the northernmost state of India. In his bestselling Shiva trilogy, Amish Tripathi, an investment banker-turned-writer, transposes Lord Shiva of mythology into the valley of Srinagar, gives him a thoroughly modern makeover and brings him, cussing and swearing contemporaneously, into our present world.
Lord Shiva is a revered God in the Hindu trinity whose popularity is pan-Indian. Known as the Destroyer, he has a softer side to him as well: in his avatar as Nataraja, he can dance the bells off the ankles of the most proficient dancer. For a God, he is sufficiently layered: he puffs chillum, a pipe for smoking cannabis that the Rastafarians made popular in the West. He is also a superb warrior, skilled in the use of weapons and hand-to-hand combat, and a heroic leader of his people. To cut a long story short, Shiva was ready for a writer to spring him into the 21st century in his metrosexual avatar—Tripathi has done just that.
Book 1 of the Shiva trilogy, The Immortals of Meluha, has sold over 100,000 copies since its launch in 2010 and Book 2, the recently-released The Secret of the Nagas, is currently on the bestseller lists in India. In a market where less than half a decade ago English-language bestsellers were books that sold 5000 copies, the phenomenon of English-language fiction selling in the tens and hundreds of thousands has blown apart the glass ceiling for publishers.
The question naturally arises: what is Tripathi doing right?
To answer that question, let’s first get acquainted with a few facts. India is the third-largest publisher of English language books in the world after the U.S. and U.K. Traditionally, Indian writing in English (it even has its own acronym: IWE) has been synonymous with literary fiction, dominated by writers who have either won prestigious prizes such as the Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel—Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, V.S. Naipaul, to name a few—or have been lauded by the West which has then lent them the badge of credibility-that-ensures-salability back home.
In 2005, this placid sea was to experience a tsunami when another investment banker published his coming-of-age story set in a prestigious Indian school. Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat shook the IWE publishing scene by selling several hundred thousand copies.
The lad-lit has since spawned a generation of people who have boring banker-type jobs by morning and are writing novels by night. The successful ones—like Tripathi—go on to quit their careers (Tripathi describes himself as a “boring banker turned happy author”) while the others are either promoting their newly-published novels or are tapping away at the keyboard en route to the novel they’re convinced they have in themselves.
Chetan Bhagat, of course, is responsible for setting off this torrent and continuing to contribute to it. He has published a total of four novels, three of which have been made into Bollywood films, and has landed himself a place in Time’s 2010 list of the 100 most influential people. Widely regarded as a youth icon, he writes for leading English and Hindi newspapers on issues dealing with youth and national development, and is a motivational speaker.
That is huge, and, for the young Indian reader carries far more heft than a Booker. In the hothouse of Indian academics, where exam scores of 100% may not be enough to ensure admission into a school of choice, writing is no more seen as the pursuit of a loser.Traditionally, a professional degree in medicine, law or engineering was seen a necessary pre-condition for success in life and love and the pursuit of art as vocation didn’t fall into the set of careers under consideration.
But writing now is cool and the new breed of writers, propelled by the burgeoning media and their own MBA-school personas, are cool people who give great interviews, conduct snazzy presentations, look good and deliver great sound bytes. The media loves them fortheir marketability.
And the young like them because they are aspirational even when telling their stories in a language they can easily comprehend. While critics have harped at the poor grammar and lack of sophisticated English used by the popular fiction writers—the influential daily Indian Express has labeled such writing “illiterature”—the writers themselves trumpet their writing style as a trump card. You could call it the Booker backlash.
They insist that they use language that their readers can relate to—a savvy point since their readers are young people for whom English is a second or third language. As several reading surveys have shown, most such readers read not for pleasure alone but to learn—in this case, learn the English language.
India has recently seen the 20th anniversary of the day when Manmohan Singh, current Prime Minister, then Finance Minister, proposed opening up the hitherto socialist economy. This measure set off an unprecedented period of economic growth lead by service outsourcing. In its wake, a new, upwardly-mobile, aspirational middle-class has arisen which is less interested in either traditional Indian fiction or that merely imported from or endorsed by the West and is instead lapping up stories which mirror their own changing experiences and aspirations.
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Set in 1900 B.C., The Immortals of Meluha opens with Shiva being called upon by the Suryavanshis for help. Their utopian land faces twin threats: from a diminishing Saraswati river and devastating attacks from the Chandrawanshis. Their only hope is the ancient legend that has foretold the arrival of a saviour. Book 1 charts Shiva’s journey as the hopeful Suryavanshis, the reader, and Shiva himself deciphers if, indeed, his destiny is to be a hero.
Not much suspense there, since everyone knows Shiva in his exalted avatar of a God. To circumvent that Tripathi has created an engaging plot where the evil Nagas, an ostracized race of half-humans with extraordinary martial skills, constantly play the spoiler.
Tripathi’s book was rejected by several established publishers before he was taken on by a small print called Tara Press. While the big publishers were probably focused on the established model – sophisticated writing, epic family drama or immigrant angst – what they overlooked was that the story of a modern Shiva who uses words like “Damn”, woos the woman of his liking by breaking into dance like a Bollywood hero, relaxes by smoking cannabis, and spurns hierarchy, would connect with the young reader. After all, prize-winning books are often seen as part of the interior decoration in upscale households – a fact that the poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar bitterly recounted at the Jaipur literary festival.
As Tripathi triumphantly proclaimed in an interview, his best compliment came from a 12-year-old who emailed him saying that Shiva was no more just his grandmother’s god, he was the dude of Gods!
Gods have always had a very real presence in Indian homes. They are bathed frequently, offered fresh flowers, served the choicest dessert, ensconced in fragrant spaces, and actively consulted before any important occasion—be it an exam, a wedding or even a job interview. Tripathi’s magic was to make Lord Shiva speak to the bored young person who usually stands listless in front of the deity as daily prayers are said.
A rise in literacy (India has the world’s largest circulation of newspapers, even ahead of China) has also contributed to the burgeoning pop fiction sales. A recent survey by the National Book Trust estimated that India has 83 million regular readers between the ages of 13 and 35. Seventy-five percent of those readers read books at least once a week. Their favourite leisure activity, however, was watching TV.
Recently, a friend from the U.S. returned to his home in small-town India and got talking to the neighbours. A young boy, keen to impress the NRI (non-resident Indian), mentioned that he was preparing for his MBA entrance exams and for English he was reading Chetan Bhagat. A decade back, an Indian youth engaged in a similar pursuit would have mentioned Rushdie, Ghosh, Dickens or Shakespeare. It’s not all gloom though—the Bard continues to be popular. A readership survey by Tehelka, a leading weekly news magazine, showed that after Bhagat, Shakespeare is second most popular choice for readers.
Affordable price points are another propelling factor. The Tehelka survey showed that the young reader compares the price of a book to that of a cup of coffee, with popular books selling at less than two US dollars. In turn, publishers make money by volume. As any consumer goods marketer in India will confirm, the Indian consumer being price-sensitive in the fast moving consumer goods market (FMCG), and it’s largely a volume game.
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As someone once said, all stories that could be told are contained in the great Indian narratives, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Undoubtedly, 2000+ years of antiquity and an audience of a billion people have led to multiple retellings of the narratives.
Book 2, The Secret of the Nagas, takes us further on Shiva’s journey to divinity as he continues with the hunt for the sinister Naga who has killed his best friend Brahaspati and is stalking his wife Sati. This adventure takes him through the length and breadth of ancient India as the crown prince is murdered, the Vasudevs—Shiva’s philosophical guides—switch sides, and even the perfect empire is revealed to have a dark secret.
In this sequel, Shiva has matured in confidence, to the detriment of the delightful vulnerability and confusion he exhibited in Book 1. In his improved avatar, he is unassailable, impervious to hurt as he protects his followers unfailingly and allows for contradictory opinions to flourish—which renders this democratic superhero in Book 2 a less interesting protagonist. The narrative is also hampered by what appears to be the writer’s attempt to redress his plain language—the usage of words such as asphyxiating, chutzpah, gargantuan, plethora only serve to give the storytelling the texture of sandpaper.
However, there are rewards in store for the reader who plows on. In Hindu mythology Shiva and Ganesha share a prickly father-son relationship, the furious Shiva having cut off his son’s head once. In Book 2 the elephant-headed Ganesha provides one of the biggest surprises of the story in what is an ingenious interpretation of the benevolent God.
The romp ends predictably at a precipice as the reader is left in anticipation of Book 3 in the trilogy.
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The extraordinary success of the Shiva trilogy owes something to the clever marketing drive undertaken by Tripathi who, as he has stated in several interviews, decided to deploy his MBA skills to promote the book. A sophisticated cover, a high-quality promotional video, and active marketing helped propel the book. Chapters of the book were available for digital download and in hard copies at book stores for free distribution. Tripathi also undertook book readings in smaller towns to engage with readers who live beyond metropolises.
The books are skillful page-turners and the action has a dizzyingly contemporary feel. Tripathi’s Shiva is into hell and damnation and it would be easy for a reader to forget that the story is taking place in 1900 B.C. When he encounters Sati, his future wife, he attempts to impress her with his sword-fighting skills but ends up making a hash of it. Here’s how he feels: “O bloody hell! What am I saying? I’m not going to impress her like this!”
The mostly-straightforward language keeps the narrative on track but does little to build atmosphere or evoke the ancient era. When Shiva enters the fortress city of Branga “…the buildings were superbly built and maintained, while their temples were lofty and grand.”
Philosophy is delivered in easily digestible bytes—it in fact was originally meant to be a philosophy book—and this melange of mythology and fantasy was written because, the writer has proclaimed, “Shiva chose him to write the story.”
Bollywood is not famed for literary adaptations. However, a scriptwriter-director friend divulged how the industry of late is keenly watching the fiction bestseller list. The idea being that if a book has sold over 100,000 copies it has an existing audience—which then provides a ready-made platform from which to catapult a film version of the story.
Even Hollywood seems to be in agreement: Creative Artists Agency has signed on Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy. Meanwhile, the rights to Chanakya’s Chant, another bestseller that features the ancient Indian Machiavelli as the central protagonist, have been bought by UTV Motion Pictures.
With his books being lapped up by Indian readers, Triphati has announced plans to write about the Mughal emperor Akbar; Manu, the Hindu progenitor of mankind; and his version of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
India has a legendary pantheon of Gods and a lengthy roster of historical figures that haven’t been subjected to much literary treatment. With the emergence of new genres in Indian publishing, and the success of Tripathi’s storytelling, we shall doubtless see them come in vogue as other writers emulate the formula.
It is not inconceivable that as India’s economy continues to grow aggressively, and average incomes rise, the emergence of new genres in Indian publishing and their adoption by overseas markets—Hollywood, foreign rights buyers—may end up influencing reading tastes elsewhere in the English-speaking world. And there’s no denying the relative robustness of Indian print publishing when seen in light of the well-publicized travails of the industry elsewhere.
What is undeniable is that the process begun by Chetan Bhagat has set off aHarry Potter-like phenomenon in Indian publishing. To better understand it, grab a pop-fiction title from the multitudes lining shelves in Indian bookstores and read it. You might just end up going Jai Ho!
This essay first appeared in the Asian Review of Books on 13 October 2011