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What Makes an Indian Bestseller? Secrets Beyond Chetan Bhagat & Co

Vani via Quint

I had only been four months into the launch of my first novel, The Recession Groom, when my aunt said to me: “Ah, you must have sold 20,000 copies by now.” It felt as if someone had punched me in the face. The moment she saw Chetan Bhagat posting his selfies with Arjun Kapoor from the sets of Half Girlfriend, she suggested that I send my novel to Bollywood producers. The other day she conjectured that I was making more money than Amish Tripathi – for how else could I afford to sit at home and write all day.

"She is so naïve,” I thought – but so are countless others who think bestselling authors are created overnight.

“Well, that takes time,” said the marketing head of one of the top publishing houses of India, pointing at the ubiquitous “clutter” of books at bookstores across the country. “There are 2,000 to 5,000 titles released in India every month. If you want to be a bestselling author, get past that clutter as fast as you can, and you could join the party too,” he said to me.
His observation piqued my curiosity and I set out to deconstruct an Indian bestseller.

Is a Bestseller All About Sales?

“A bestseller is a book that sells the maximum number of copies,” said Vinita Dawra Nangia, Associate Editor, The Times of India.
A decade ago, a novel had to sell a minimum of 10,000 copies for it to be a bestseller. Not so now. If we plot sales in terms of a pyramid, the bottom rung is occupied by Bhagat and Tripathi, both of whom have sold more than a million copies of their novels.

“My four books have sold 3.5 million copies generating Rs 100 crore in revenue,” Tripathi revealed to me.

The next rung is occupied by those authors who sell between 1,00,000 and 2,00,000 copies, and then the sales taper off. At the very peak of this pyramid are the one-time-one-book wonders, some of whom struggle to even sell a 100 copies, and get so frustrated by the end of it, they never write another book.
However, sales are not everything – what also matters is the rate of sale of books, insisted Vaishali Mathur, Executive Editor & Head Language Publishing and Rights at Penguin Random House India.


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Jayaraman’s ‘Who Me, Poor?’ Tells The Stories of the Broke Millennial

This article is also available to read on Quint:

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine suggested that we go out for lunch to Barbeque Nation – not the first time she asked me that, and once again, my answer was the same as it’s been for the past four years: NO. Being a full-time novelist and one who has yet to experience breakout success, I’ve thus far been able to wiggle myself out of anything that requires spending a lot of money (shopping at glitzy malls, eating at top end restaurants, catching Olas and Ubers for meetings being a strict no-no for me). “There’ll be a time for that,” I often remind myself. Many of us, however, are not that lucky – not even that savvy, I guess.

Meet the urban poor.

“…relative to a vast majority of Indians, they aren’t ‘poor’ at all. But they’re certainly hungry and broke a lot. These are the metro-dwelling twentysomethings who’ve internalised the pressures surrounding them, and spend a majority of their salaries on keeping up the lifestyles and appearances that they believe are essential to earning those salaries,” says journalist Gayatri Jayaraman in an article on BuzzFeed, titled: “The Urban Poor You Haven’t Noticed: Millennials Who’re Broke, Hungry, But On Trend.” The article which went viral last year led Jayaraman to write her first non-fiction book, “Who Me, Poor?”, in which she takes a closer look at “urban poverty”, asking some really tough questions, making insightful observations, and reminding us of one of the most hard-hitting debates of our times:

Can you be poor if you own a smartphone?

The answer to that is an unequivocal YES, even though the society may not think so.

“A primary reason for this is that while our indicators of poverty have not changed since poverty was first defined, our indicators of wealth have. So we tick off the TV, the laptop, the two wheeler or car, as signs that the person in possession of them is doing well enough…(However), a man with those wealth indicators may still struggle to make his ends meet, irrespective of class and income,” Jayaraman says in the book.

True that! – and we need just look around us to see how a lot of people who are otherwise so capable of putting up pretences on their social media accounts, may actually be struggling to pay their bills on time.

The book is replete with personal stories of millennials, many of whom have had a rude awakening to a new idea of success, one that has nothing to do with their educational degrees or the sort of work they do in those swanky offices.

“The idea of success in our heads – what it ought to look like and its signifiers – are largely peer-ordained,” Jayaraman observes in the book and corroborating her claim are models, techies, BPO employees, marketing executives, fashion assistants, entrepreneurs, financial consultants, even Bollywood stars, for that matter. Excerpts:

“If you don’t socialise, you’re the small town girl from Assam,” says Soma Bhattacharjee, Associate Creative Director of a start-up advertising agency in Bengaluru.

“I traded sex till I bought my iPhone,” says Shruti Sharma of Mumbai.

“We lived on glucose biscuits for a few months,” says Aakarsh Prasad, a graduate of BITS Pilani.

“We are all leading a certain lifestyle so we fit in,” says Lisa D’Souza, a PR professional from Kochi and Ahmedabad.


“You realise that no matter how hard you work, you will never fit in,” says Neeti Sharma, who is from Lucknow and works at a tech start-up in Mumbai

For one who has had a close brush with “urban poverty” and has seen far too many young, suave looking professionals struggle with massive amounts of debt, Jayaraman’s book is a biting commentary on this particular brand of poverty, the reasons for which are not hard to find.

“There are several systemic pressures outlined in the book, from modes of migration, lack of urban planning, affordability of housing, public transportation, basic infrastructure and facilities, employer work ethic and rewards systems that need to change,” she tells me in an email. “(And), I do blame these for the pressures laid on young people.”

Is financial literacy an answer to this problem, I wonder? “I think financial literacy is only a part of it,” she replies back. “(We need to) fix the system, force it to have vision and inclusion, and then what’s left can be fixed by financial literacy. Else it’s like filling a bucket with a hole in it.”

In as much as the book shows a mirror to the policymakers, it exhorts its readers to identify what success means for them. “It sounds clichéd,” she says in the book, “but being yourself is seriously the best thing you can do for your personality projection and your bank balance” – and we cannot not agree with that.

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Published on October 24, 2017 22:30 Tags: book, book-review, gayatri-jayaraman, millennials, poor, poverty, urban-poverty, vani, vani-author, vani-kaushal

How to Travel ‘Light’: An Author Pens a Journey Through Depression

This article is also available to read on Quint:

July 2007, a young man opens his eyes to find himself tied to a hospital bed. “You are bipolar,” he is told a little later – a revelation that will change the course of the rest of his life.

How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia is journalist-editor Shreevatsa Nevatia’s roller coaster journey through depression and mania to find lucidity and perhaps, a sense of closure to his painful past. “The only thing that I pursue and seek now is a whole lot of fun,” he tells me over an email – doesn’t sound like much of a problem to me, except, happiness seems to have eluded him, at least till now.

Describing his experience of writing his memoir as cathartic, Shreevatsa doesn’t mince words in telling me how light and better it makes him feel to let it all out of his system. This, among other things, includes stories of sexual abuse that left him feeling angry, and served to further aggravate his bipolar tendencies. “Under warm blankets and hot showers, I started admonishing a world that had wronged me. My adolescence came to be subsumed by a single, stubborn question – why me?” he says of his initiation to sex at a tender age of eight.

Poignant, yet fascinating, Shreevatsa’s story is one of resilience and perseverance in the face of inner demons – he has been fighting them for over a decade now. “I walk the line and keep my nose clean. I feel I can better understand my mind now, and that helps me better manage my condition,” he tells me. However, it is not always as easy as it sounds. “Every once in a while when there is an imbalance of chemicals in my brain, my mood swings wildly. I find myself euphoric. This euphoria or mania worsens until treated, and is followed by a crash.”

A crash? – As in a mood swing?

“A crash as I now understand it is a debilitating depression,” he answers, and adds how one needs a proper diagnosis to understand that terms such as sadness, depression, mania, elation, fear and paranoia are all different things. “At any given point in time, it would be hard for us laymen to distinguish biological distress from everyday emotional upheaval (or what we call mood swings). That’s where the therapist, psychoanalyst or psychiatrist comes in.”

These phases of “crash” or “debilitating depression” have seen Shreevatsa do strange things – break up with his girlfriends, disrupt office meetings, fall out with his colleagues, smoke cannabis, and, almost always – hurl abuses at his parents. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“My mania followed a defined pattern. In the days of its early onset, I would invariably have long, funny and winding conversations with my mother at five in the morning. I would sneak up on my father and hug him from behind. This affection, though, would soon be punctured by sudden flares of an unforgiving rage. I would accuse my parents of apathy, neglect and even malice. I would demand that we separate, and I would insist I never wanted to see them again. Choosing exile over dependence, I would leave home. I would hit where it hurt.”

Of his affliction, he quotes a friend as saying: “…the trouble with your mania is that we see another Shreevatsa we never knew existed, and the trouble with the depressed Shreevatsa is that he is nothing like the affable Shreevatsa we loved.”

And yet, it is his support system of friends, family and colleagues who have all come forward to help him time and again – that, when they probably don’t even understand what he is going through. “When I suffered mania for the first time, my friends and family did not know what had come over me,” he says. “Everything I said was exaggerated and some of what I did was even dangerous. Once enough alarm bells had rung, they took me to the doctors who were able to tell me what was wrong. Since then, they have grown more familiar to my reason, and its sudden lack is now easy for my support system to detect.’

For one whose version cannot be completely relied upon (a psychotic subject is an unreliable narrator, he says in the book!), Shreevatsa’s narration is lucid, straightforward and barenaked honest. The book is episodic with a non-linear narrative, and I wonder if that was how he chose to write it. “Themes, I felt, explained my life better than chronology,” he tells me, “and that’s why I chose to forsake linearity.”

As I end the book, I only wonder if years of therapy and rehab have done him any good. Have they improved his connection with the outer world, for instance? “Mania does a strange thing,” he tells me. “On the one hand, your attention sharpens, and you feel like you have come to possess an impossible alacrity. On the other, however, it becomes impossible for you to hold that grand, new attention. My manic flirtations with social media are proof of that fact. My expansiveness also costs me my relationships. I cannot sometimes concentrate hard enough. Now that I feel I have been able to arrive at a semblance of stability, I like moderation in all my worlds, those virtual and real.” Need we ask anything more?

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Published on January 05, 2018 16:21 Tags: book, book-review, how-to-travel-light, quint, shreevatsa-nevatia, vani, vani-author, vani-kaushal

Their World is Shrouded in Silence: Author of Book on Bar Dancers

Vani via Quint

At thirteen, Munia has just had her first period when her so-called father sells her off to Babulal Dadua, headman of their bedia community – and a pimp. Without Prejudice by Devasis tracks the journey of this young girl from an indiscreet village in the heart of Chambal Valley, to becoming Pallavi Singh, one of the most famous bar dancers of Mumbai.

In his debut novel, the author not only commentates on the social stigma attached to the profession of bar dancers in India, but also asks some pertinent questions – is a woman’s body her own? How far does her freedom extend? What can she do when social traditions, laws of the land and above all, prejudices of individuals, bind her down; make her a commodity to be bought and sold? How can she turn back the tidal wave of social events set loose by the origins and consequences of various social traditions?

Without Prejudice, which took about eight years of intensive research, had initially been written in the non-fiction format, the author tells me. It was however while revising its second draft that he saw a storyline emerging – one that celebrated the triumph of human spirit. “It is the story of a socially excluded yet courageous young girl, a maverick, scheming yet lion-heart, middle-aged mentor, and an introverted, sincere young man, surrounded by years of taboo and social exclusion. So, instead of a non-fiction, I wrote a novel,” says Devasis of his book – which, by the way, has a nice romantic angle to it.

But, why did he write about bar dancers when he could have very well written about anything else? “Well, the problem is that whatever we know about these girls is fed to us by the administration. Look at the media reports, they only carry versions released by the police. Where is the reportage from the dancers’ point of view?” Devasis argues – and I cannot not agree to that, considering as a book around this theme was long overdue, more so after Maharashtra government’s ban on dance bars in 2005 that rendered about “one hundred thousand dancers redundant”. Just as I am made aware of this statistic, I begin to wonder if Devasis’s characters were inspired by real life.

“Yes,” he answers, “I have met a number of bar dancers while researching for the book.”

And, was it easy to get information out of them?

“The research was very difficult,” he says without mincing words. “This world is shrouded by a blanket of silence. Very difficult to penetrate. But, once you know the dancers, you can see that they are as gracious and intelligent and full of empathy as any other human being. They have to trust you. Because of taboo attached to their social status, either they tend to avoid mainstream or get covertly aggressive/defensive in social situations.”

The book has an interesting array of characters and a fast-paced narrative that packs a lot of facts alongside fiction, and asks many questions. Here is an excerpt from the book:

“As he watched, Roy felt questions rise unbidden in his mind. How did such beautiful girls land up in a dance bar? Popular belief held that most of these girls had been forced into the profession, owing to physical threats or economic compulsions. But what compelling circumstances made them stay? While interacting with so many customers every day, they could reach out for help. Did they do that? What was the pattern of trafficking? How did the supply chain work? Roy was not convinced that brute force alone could be the reason why the girls adhered to the system…He reasoned that if dancers in bars were not in the hard-core flesh trade, then why would there be coercion or fear at all?”

As I delve deeper into the story, it becomes apparent that the author is eager to reduce the prejudices that exist against the bar dancers. When I ask him if that was his intention, he answers me with an emphatic “Yes”. “Those who discuss or write about this world do not know about it. And, those who are a part of it do not talk,” he tells me, explaining that as the reason why somebody had to write about it.

So, is there a way to rehabilitate bar dancers, I ask him in the end. “The problem of dance bars is a social issue and it needs a social solution, not a political one,” he says. “By enacting laws or by policing the problem will not go away. It is a huge discussion and needs to be done in all earnestness, not as a short-cut method.” That’s food for thought, isn’t it?

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Published on February 25, 2018 21:22 Tags: bar-dancers, book, book-review, vani, vani-kaushal

How a Man Cycled 22 Days to Reach the Commonwealth Games!

Vani via Quint

When I picked up Nataunki Diaries, it promised to open such urban and rural vistas of India for me as I have never seen – well, not on a ‘dhoodhwallah’ bicycle, at least! And having read the book now, I can safely say, the book over delivers. It is as much a compelling account of the adventure its author, Dominic Franks, undertook in 2010 travelling from Bengaluru to Delhi aiming to reach in time for the Commonwealth Games, as a manual about surviving a bicycle journey in India, including tips about how to ignore unsolicited advice that you get along the way. Franks’ candid humour, piquant wit, and nuggets of wisdom further spice up the book. Here’s an interesting excerpt to put things into perspective:

“When they (people at a chai shop) heard I was on a long cycle yatra, they told me to watch out for my testicles swelling up. They gave me all manner of preventive remedies that included coating my balls with turmeric and tying a damp muslin cloth around them before getting on the cycle. The ideas came thick and fast. I laughed at it all.”

A doctor by training and a sports broadcaster by profession, Franks always knew he would be making this trip – the seeds for it had been sown quite early in his life by his sports instructor, Shikaari. However, more than being a happy adventure, it turned out to be an exercise in self-exploration that helped him to make sense of the “tangled mass of confusion” his life had become after experimenting with love and careers. Most of all, it helped him appreciate what he had taken for granted up until that moment. The following excerpt from the book proves that:

“I thanked whoever for the good fortune of belonging to the family I owned. It was only because I’d been born Anglo-Indian that I’d become a doctor in the first place. One medical seat reserved for Anglo-Indians for the state—and it had fallen to my happy lot! And what tremendous luck to have been born in Karnataka too—other states didn’t have the same reservation.”

As the scenery changes in the book – from Bengaluru to Hyderabad, Hyderabad to Nagpur, Nagpur to Jhansi and Jhansi to Delhi – so does its tone. Start of the book, I find the author more relaxed and self-assured, only to see him getting tetchy towards the end of his 22 days journey; the heroine of the story and his travel companion, Nataunki, rivalling his mood as if by design. I wonder if it has anything to do with the hardships he and Nataunki have faced in this journey?

“Not at all. The trip was as safe as could be with not a single lorry-driver, car-driver or anyone wanting to run me off the road. Everyone I met on the road were all encouragement, advice and amazement,” he says, explaining as the real reason for his irritation as not the hardships he faced, but the levels of poverty he saw the further north he went. “The mental fatigue of staying motivated, the physical effort of the journey, the emotions wrought by the people I met, many of whom lived extremely difficult lives contributed to the tetchiness.”

“So, given the experiences you had, would you do this trip again?” I ask him.

“I would do it in a trice, but I would go slower this time, indulge myself and the people I meet a lot more,” Franks replies, adding how he would also like to get off the main highways to explore the life in villages. Apparently, the India that you see from the highways is all too “taka-tak”. However, the more inside you go, through dirt tracks and kutcha roads, the more you get closer to discovering the real India.

Lastly, since the book is a bit hatke from other books flooding the literary space in India, I pose my last question to Franks’ literary agent, Kanishka Gupta of the Writer’s Side: “how difficult was it to sell this book?”

“When my editor and I read the first draft we were certain that every single publisher would offer on the book. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and the book was rejected by almost everyone,” says Gupta. “Many publishers didn’t even read the entire manuscript. Those who did, and liked it, felt it was too dated as the entire purpose of the journey was to make it to the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Ultimately, it was Dharini Bhaskar, then with Rupa and Co., who made an offer conditional to the author cutting down the length drastically. (Even so) it took her months to convince her bosses to sign it up.”

Well, perhaps the book had just as exciting a journey to make as its author and his bicycle, Nataunki.

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Published on March 23, 2018 07:48 Tags: book, book-review, dominic-franks, nautanki-diaries, vani, vani-author, vani-kaushal

Book Review: Book Review: The Best Mistakes of my Life by actor-director Sanjay Khan

Vani via Open Magazine. Link:

Candid. Charming. Poignant. Bollywood veteran, Sanjay Khan’s autobiography, The Best Mistakes of My Life is all that and much more. It’s an eclectic mix of stories about his three-decade long film career, his face-off with death, his alleged love affairs, his interactions with world leaders, and his real estate projects. Khan, who gave Bollywood many smash hits like Ek Phool Do Mali (1969), Dosti (1964), Intaquam (1969), Abdullah (1980), Kala Dhanda Goray Log (1986), writes in a voice that is neither reproachful nor sarcastic; if anything, it is reflective and tethered.

Starting the book with the fire tragedy on the sets of The Sword of Tipu Sultan that left him battling sixty five per cent third-degree burns and a bout of septicaemia, Khan goes on to recount how this one episode changed his life. Once deemed the most handsome man in Bollywood, his face was burnt beyond recognition, and needed several complicated surgeries. He writes, ‘I was devastated to see my face after many months and wondered, in moments of intense pensiveness, if I could ever face the cameras again.’ The success of The Sword of Tipu Sultan and much of Khan’s recovery after this accident are well-documented in the media, these sections in the book are an interesting read nevertheless.

For one who started his journey with a film distribution gig, Khan definitely came a long way, collaborating with the biggest writers, directors, producers, actors and actresses of the time. He even introduced some notable talents to the film industry like Parveen Babi in Chandi Sona (1977) and Rekha in Haseenon Ka Devta (1971). However, what his fans had been most eager to know about was the truth of his relationship with Bollywood siren, Zeenat Aman—and thankfully, he devotes a full chapter to it.

Khan met Aman for the first time in 1973 on the sets of BR Chopra’s Dhund, and quickly became friends with her. While shooting for the film in Mahabaleshwar, the two often sneaked out for walks and long drives to Panchgani, he says. It was on the sets of Abdullah in 1978, though, that something more serious blossomed between them. But, in his book, Khan only makes oblique references to his love affair with the actress, referring to himself and her by their respective characters in the movie. .......

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