Singh says he is a risk-averse person, that he does not like investing time and money into anything that does not guarantee results. The message he got from Srishti, he says, is that they wouldn’t invest a rupee in marketing a first novel. He would have to get personally involved. The first step was reaching out to Narayan and Sudha Murthy. “I told them that this is an emotional thing that I’ve written. And that here in Infosys, which was my first company, where I had spent six-and-a-half years, I had been brought up listening to their love story, which had been an inspiration. To my surprise, the response came in 16 minutes directly from Narayan Murthy, who I had never spoken to before.” Murthy agreed to write the foreword to the book, and his blurb — “Simple, honest and touching” — has been a permanent fixture on every edition of the book. “I didn’t look at it as something that would boost the sales of the book,” Singh says. “I just wanted someone wise, someone whose wisdom we respect, to talk about the book.” He also “connected with” Shaadi.com, the website through which he met Khushi, and the book was launched in Chandigarh by Anupam Mittal, founder and chief managing director of the People Group, which owns the website.
Phrases like “connected with” flow easily from Singh. He’s a consummate networker, and highly serious when it comes to establishing himself as a writer. Earlier this year, he quit his job at Microsoft — which he joined after getting his MBA from the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad — to focus on this career (he says he’s busier now). “There was a clash of mindsets. One day, I would be at a Jaipur Literature Festival, signing books, meeting my readers, having access to the author’s lounge. Then the next day, I’d have to report to a boss.” He moved to Gurgaon to be close to the supply chain of the Indian publishing industry; he plans to branch out into publishing, much like an actor would turn to production in order to leverage his brand value.
In many ways, he is the archetypal writer of Indian commercial fiction. As a North Indian male professional, he fits the demographics perfectly, even if he didn’t graduate from an IIT. The son of a Sikh priest in the small Odisha town of Burla, his values are very conventional, with the institutions of family, marriage and even his job being rarely challenged in his writing. When I ask him about his politics, he makes vague statements about autorickshaws not going by metre and corruption in land registries. He believes privatisation is a force for good: “Imagine if the it industry was run by the government.” He’s not much of reader: “I only read light sort of books.” He has no use for the traditional structures of literature — though he does admit that the credibility an appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival affords is a good thing — focussing his efforts not on gaining the approval of the gatekeepers, but on reaching as many potential readers as possible. The only true measure of an author’s success, he believes, is the number of his readers.
His prose is what a reviewer may refer to as ‘workmanlike’, with clunky grammar and endless clichés, a common criticism of the genre. It is a lament that is by no means restricted to India; commercial fiction worldwide has for decades prompted highbrow critics to proclaim the death of the English language. Yale professor Harold Bloom, for instance, famously described the Harry Potter series as emblematic of the “dumbing-down” of culture, part of “a vast concourse of inadequate works… [that] crams the dustbins of the ages”. It is also a charge that writers and publishers counter with practised ease today, so many times have they been asked the question. Kapish Mehra, managing director of Rupa, says a colloquial language is necessary to connect with a readership that consists mostly of an upwardly-mobile, largely small-town youth that wants its own stories told in a language that they understand. Srishti’s Arup Bose says they work “with the understanding that not everyone can write a Booker-winning work, nor can everyone understand it. We just gave millions of youngsters what they had been craving to read.” Or, as Animesh Verma, author of Love, Life and Dream On and I am Broke….! Love Me (19 characters each, guess the publisher), succinctly told The Indian Express, “Grammatical errors, spelling mistakes doesn’t matter that much. I am not writing a literature.”
There is merit in what Mehra, Bose and even Verma say. Castigating first-time authors for not observing the established rules of style when writing for first-time readers smacks of elitism. (Granted, these readers will likely not, as Bloom wrote, advance to more difficult pleasures, but blaming these writers for that doesn’t work in a society where the forces of commerce overcoming the forces of art is not a recent phenomenon.) But there is much to say about what they have to say. The publishers I spoke to all insist that there is great diversity in the books they publish, but most examples of the genre are badly-written bildung-sromans, often autobiographical — in many cases, with suitable alterations — with some amateur philosophising that reads more like the conclusions achieved during a night of boozing. Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor at Penguin India, concedes there is “little innovative thinking happening in terms of plots, writing styles and genres. If a trend catches on, you will find almost everybody wanting to do the same.”
For Ravinder Singh, though, there seems plenty of room on the bandwagon. Plans are afoot for a new initiative that will invite budding authors to submit ideas for stories, with the three best entrants given the opportunity to work with their idol on fleshing out novels of their own. “Everybody has a story,” he says at the book launch. “Most people do it in 140 characters on Twitter. Some write a novel.” A collective sigh of despair emanates from the nation’s ivory towers.