South China Morning Post, April 1999
A new breed of Indian writer emerges
“I thought I should write a book that I would like to read,” says Rohini Nilekani of her decision to write her debut novel Stillborn, a medical thriller recently published by Penguin India. “I didn’t want to write literature. I just wanted to write airport reading.” Bold words for any writer, even more so for an Indian writer in English. After all, successful Indian writers, especially after the triumphs of Rushdie, Vikram Seth and most recently, Arundhati Roy, have so far been associated with highbrow, tragedy soaked, catchall epics, brimming with characters, allegories and magic realism. Hardly the sort of stuff that qualifies as airport reading.
There’s a new breed of Indian author emerging though, one that doesn’t write for the foreign reader eager to understand India, nor solely for the Indian literati. Nilekani is one of them. “I don’t expect the intellectual to like my book,” she says without apology. There are obviously people out there who do though; the book has climbed to number ten on the Indian bestseller list. (which includes foreign novels). Mysteries are now a popular genre for rising Indian authors, with Penguin India and other big names publishing a slew of mysteries in the last year and more on the way. Many of these are by debut authors; some are not even set in India. One, The Gabriel Club, by first time author Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya is set in Budapest, and does not have a single India character.
“The mystery is coming of age,” agrees Nilekani’s agent Jayapriya Vasudevan. Vasude van’s fledgling literary agency Jacaranda Press, one of only two agents in India, also represents Shashi Warrier, one of India’s earliest mystery writers. Nilekani admits writing a thriller was a risk, especially considering that most Indian readers are reared on the potboilers of Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon, and John Grisham. “It was a completely untested market,” she says. “I knew I had to approximate the quality offered by foreign writers; my book had to be gripping, well researched and very modern.”
Well researched and modern the book certainly is, though the pace doesn’t always move fast enough to qualify it as a thriller. Stillborn is about the race among global and Indian pharmaceutical companies to develop the ultimate contraceptive vaccine. Set mainly in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, the action also moves to tribal settlements in the nearby hills and to the high-tech world of medical research in new York. The heroine, a feisty and flippant journalist, discovers that the vaccine was tested on Indian tribal women, resulting in a deformed foetus. The book also touches on other controversial subjects – the impending changes that India will have to make to its patent laws by 2005, the impact this will have on local drug companies, and the use of third world dwellers as guineapigs for medical research..
Nilekani spent the better part of three years researching the book, talking with dozens of people in the medical industry. Several doctors then vetted the book before it was sent to Penguin India. “I knew I wanted a vaccine, but what on earth does a vaccine do?” says Nilekani. “I had to work backwards, and take the help of a doctor friend to devise a plausible vaccine. “ Still, in spite of its contemporary subject and the modern setting-or perhaps because of it- Stillborn is not a novel that is likely to appeal to a western audience. There are no richly descriptive passages about Indian festivals or culture, no rehashing of Indian history, no philosophical explorations of the Indian identity, none of the usual “mysterious India” bait used by Indian writers. This was deliberate, says Nilekani. “I wanted to write this novel for Indian readers, for apna log (our own people). Not for the western reader who is interested in Indian exotica.”
That isn’t a strategy that has paid off in the past, with many Indian writers winning Bookers and bouquets abroad, but still losing out to western writers back home. As a result, most Indian writers have preferred to launch their books and aim for readers overseas. Nilekani thinks this state of affairs may change, especially after the unprecedented Indian sales of Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things,” which has so far sold over 100,000 copies, and is still third on the Indian bestseller list. In some cities, it outsold such Indian favourites as Grisham, Ludlum and Sheldon. “ It has established the fact that there are a growing number of people in India who can afford a hardcover book,” says Nilekani. Vasudevan agrees that post - Roy, everyone has a story to tell, and sell. Since Jacaranda was set up just over a year ago, she claims to have received over 60 manuscripts, most from Bangalore writers, despite the fact that all her business is through word of mouth.
Stillborn’s relative success may have much to do with Nilekani’s charismatic and sassy- some might say smart alecky- heroine Poorva Pandit. “ I wanted her to be like the spunky women protagonists of PD James, Sue Grafton, and Patricia Cornwell. But I also wanted her to be a bit like a Hindi film heroine- the kind who does everything and is everything, conquers the bad guys, and also manages to be a good wife and mother.” says Nilekani of her creation, tongue firmly in cheek.
Poorva certainly manages to pack a lot into her day— eyeing men’s rear ends, falling in lust, hacking into the cyberspace records of villainous drug giants, all while living at home with her parents, wearing traditional Indian clothes and doing yoga. She is supremely confident, incorrigibly reckless, and mercilessly irreverent. Take Poorva’s take on the new sensitive Indian man, for instance. “ Complete men in the nineties have developed an obsession for doting fatherhood. He launched into an account of crawling prowess, gurgling abilities and nutritional problems.”
Not a typical Indian lass, but Nilekani thinks the time has come for a more updated version of the Indian everywoman.“ The modern Indian woman can hold her own in any situation. I think Poorva’s looking over men, and having premarital sex didn’t turn off readers,” she argues. “With satellite TV in your kitchen, sex is not such a big issue as it used to be.” Nilekani admits though that some readers, especially those used to the sober and more diffident literary heroines of yesteryear, did complain that Poorva was too full of herself and too “in your face”. Still, enough fan mail has come in for Penguin India to commission Nilekani to do a sequel to Stillborn, featuring Poorva’s exploits in Mumbai.
Does it help to be a glamorous woman? After all, India’s best selling author pre- Roy, former model Shobha De, is widely considered to owe her success to her carefully packaged glamorpuss image, which ties in perfectly with her sex and shopping bodicerippers. “I hope so, “chuckles Nilekani impishly; she’s not exactly a loser in the glamour stakes herself. “If you want me to be glamorous to sell my book, I will be. But as to how much it really helps...I think De is a phenomenon which is not replicable.” Nilekani’s own image has been carefully downplayed for Stillborn; there is no picture of her on the jacket, and she is described baldly as a journalist.
So what are Indian publishers looking for? Vasudevan admits that a lot of publishers are still looking for lushly descriptive, “magic surrealism” sagas because “ people abroad still like to read that kind of stuff. But I think some publishers are managing to get out of that rut,” she says, citing the example of breakaway Indian presses like the Delhi based India Ink, Kali and Seagull. With many foreign publishing houses following Penguin into India in the past year- including Harper Collins and Picador- Vasudevan thinks things can only get better. “I am handling a lot of writers who are very unlike Arundhati Roy, even though they are usually autobiographical. Its up to us to create the market for a different type of book."
In spite of these encouraging signs, Indian writers have a long way to go. To begin with, sales are climbing, but still laughably low by western standards. In India, any book that sells more than a few thousand copies is considered a good seller; 10,000 copies makes it a bestseller. Stillborn has sold about 2000 copies in the few months since its release; copies are still moving. “The gap between Roy and De (who sells an average of 30,000 copies) on the one hand, and De and the rest of us on the other, is quite wide,” admits Nilekani. This is partly because cautious Indian publishers often order very small print runs, with books often selling out before the reviews are out. Low sales mean that advances are almost unheard of, especially for debut authors. Roy’s record breaking million-dollar advance was an aberration. Nilekani thought herself lucky to get an advance of Rs 10,000 from Penguin India. “The average Indian publisher pays about 7 and a half percent royalty, or at the most ten percent,” says Vasudevan. “You can’t make a living in India from writing books. You have to have an independent source of income.” agrees Nilekani.
Then there’s the question often asked of Indian writers who choose to write about “un-Indian topics”. Should they be focusing on the tiny minority of well heeled, westernized, wine sipping yuppies when the majority of Indian women are illiterate, abused and poverty stricken? Nilekani is quick to react to that one. “So many Indians read Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartland and other romantic novels. But nobody in India actually leads the life of a Cartland heroine. People want to read aspirational novels, to dream of better lives. After all, what’s wrong with a little timepass? (an Indian colloquialism for a light or entertaining diversion) Put that way, who could disagree?