Sunday, March 15, 2015

Panditji : A Real Life Story

When I was a child, there used to be an extremely old Panditji from a nearby temple who frequently visited our home. He had been our family Pandit, much like family doctors. His was a tall and lanky figure who was fond of preaching young kids like me. His long lectures used to irritate me so much that I preferred to hide in the inner room to not confront him when he had come over for puja. Hailing from a very religious Brahman family, hardly a month went without there being a puja at home, which was presided none other by the Panditji. 

The never-ending religious chores and my evergrowing interest in science, logic and rationality had turned me averse to the every little process that was related to God. I became a skeptic first, followed by brief stints at being an atheist, an agnostic to my ultimate state (that I still carry) - indifference to God. My father encouraged me to question traditions, beliefs and he never took my curious questions and extreme opinions as blasphemy. Despite being moderately religious, he entertained my skepticism patiently with logic and had just one advice for me: I am allowed to keep my views as long as I was not hurting anyone's sentiments. I was too young to understand what exactly he meant with the word 'hurting sentiments', so I presumed it to refer to verbal/literal disregard of any religion or religious activity and I carefully avoided them in my conversation. By accepting my non-religious views, my father very had intelligently induced tolerance in me and made sure that I accepted his advice without any further questions. 

We lived in a big three-storeyed house of our great-grandfather in Patna, along with some other relatives. There was a big field around a kilometer away from my place, where I played football everyday. On my way to the field, I used to cross the temple where Panditji lived. I was just 9 at that time. It was summertime, when I was returning in the evening after two hours of my favorite sport, when Panditji called me from inside the temple. Being tired and disinterested, I pretended not to listen to him at first. But he summoned once again, louder. I turned and greeted him. 

'Harsh, everyday I see you crossing the temple, but you never bow in front of Lord of lords, Shiva. You are a Brahman! At least uphold some samskaras that your parents have failed to teach you.'

I was terribly annoyed. Who wants a lecture after an intense football match? I didn't reply.

'Now, bow in front of ...' his monologue was interrupted with his acute coughing, until he caught hold of his breath. I remained mute, exasperated with the ongoing preaching and looked at my maxima watch. 

'Bow to the great Shivling and say sorry to the Lord of the Lords,' he ordered and followed it up with his tender words, 'and take this prasad.'

I bowed with folded hands and a sly smile at the idol, went back to him. He handed me some anardanas with dried-rice(chooda), that I grabbed in my fist and ran away, saying irritably, 'Pranam Panditji.'

Next day, my ankles got sprained in the school and I was bedridden for one long week that implied no football. On the coming Sunday, much like our regular affairs, my mother hosted a puja at home. I went with my father on the car to seek the Panditji from the temple, the thought of his arrival had already vexed me. We were stunned to find that the temple was locked. When my father inquired from the neighbours, they informed us that Panditji was suffering from tuberculosis and had passed away one day ago, in the hospital. I still remember the tears that I saw in my father's eye upon hearing the bad news. He related to me about how Panditji had selflessly served our family for over two generations.

I didn't feel sad. Rather, I felt a little relieved that I was saved from boring lectures. I was too small to feel any remorse. The regular Sunday puja was postponed as my parents went to a bigger Shiva temple along with me to pray for Panditji's soul to rest in peace. I was thoughtless. I remained just a mute skeptical spectator to the proceedings. 

I observed no change in me and soon the much-awaited day arrived when my ankle got completely healed. While returning from the football field all alone in the dusk, that night, I was unconsciously drawn towards the temple and I did something that I could have never imagined myself doing. I entered the temple premises and sincerely bowed. But not to the lifeless Lord of the Lords that resided inside, but to the full-of-life God that resided inside the devoted new Panditji who had took over. When I came out of the temple premises and said, 'Pranam Panditji', my tone carried immense sincerity and for the first time in my life, heartfelt remorse. The dusk had given way to the night and I was glad that no one could have observed my wet cheeks as I strolled back to home.

15 years have passed since then. Even now, I never miss visiting small temples that come in my way. I like to pay my adieu to those who have given their entire lives serving the idols without life with just one firm belief that that little lifeless piece of stone had given them lives.

Written for housing.com, watch the embedded video and #StartANewLife like Panditji got me started with.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Go-Getter

The year was 1986. She was 25, a university topper with high ambitions, when she had got married. If she were given a chance, she would have studied more, enrolled herself in a Ph.D. and become a tenured professor. But as her parents and the society desired, she got married.

She moved to her in-laws’ house, two hundred kilometers away, in a big city. A patriarchal house at that, with a joint family of over ten members (including a couple of cousins, IAS aspirants, of her husband). The first day, she was handed over the kitchen; the mother-in-law heaving in respite that now, after all these years, she could relax. Three times a day, she would spend hours in the kitchen, making dal, subzi and over fifty chapatis each time, feeding everyone before she could. It wasn’t the kind of married life she had anticipated for herself. She thought of a more academically stimulating household that encouraged women to go out and chase their dreams. But the society wasn’t so back then.

She kept quiet; her tedious routine silently took her dreams away. Two years later, a son was born. Life became busier. Now, with the kitchen, she had to take care of the baby, too. The joint family helped, but soon, her husband was transferred to a rural village in North Bihar, without electricity, without proper water. She accompanied him taking their little son along. The kitchen became smaller now, but the upbringing became difficult. She took it upon herself to teach the kid – read out books and stories to him, taught him alphabets and numbers and readied him for school. By this time, a daughter arrived. The process continued. The husband was transferred back to his sprawling city, just before taking care of the two kids could go out of hand. Two kids and kitchen followed her everywhere she went, until the son turned 17. She worked day and night to assure that her son, who was preparing for the JEE, had proper nourishment and rest. She would make coffee for him at two at night, 6 am breakfast before the school and the 2 pm sumptuous lunch when school got over. Her years of hardwork reaped a result. The son cleared the JEE. All of a sudden, she found something that she never thought she had. Time.

The year was 2007. She was 47, an age where most people comfortably cocoon themselves in the familial comfort zone. However, she had other plans. She resumed her studies, something that she had dreamed of pursuing twenty-two years ago. It took her time and efforts to regain her confidence, to brush off the layers of dust enveloping her prior knowledge and once she did, there was no looking back.

The year is 2014, the son is a graduate from IIT, the daughter is a graduate from DU; however, both of them are pursuing unconventional careers, careers that require one to shun away the comfort zone – one, being a full-time writer; the other, a freelance photographer. On a stuffy summer afternoon of 2014, the son receives a call from their mother, a lecturer now, who has some news to convey. After much jubilation and celebrations, the son changes the mobile contact name of his mother from Ma to Dr. Ma.

~


This is the story of my mother. For twenty-two years, she gave up on her dreams to fuel mine. She resumed her studies when I entered college. Seven years later, she completes her Ph.D.

Ma, I'm proud of you! Your passion, resilience and determination continue to be my biggest source of hope.

Written for Housing.com's new lookup. Check it here: https://housing.com/lookup

Darkness

This story is of my friend Gaurav, who used to race.

‘Give me a reason to live,’ he said.
‘I can’t give you any...it’s something you must find out on your own,’ she said knowing it would never have work for him if she tried to help.
‘This is not fair. Nobody knows me better than you do and at this critical juncture, you can’t leave me alone. Please.’
‘I’m doing it for you, baby. This time, you have to fight it alone,’ she said. He heard receding footsteps disappear into nothingness, followed by the sound of the door shutting.

One month ago, he had lost his vision in a car crash. He had suffered from injuries to his head that sent him to a coma for two weeks. With the crash, his promising career as an F1 racer ended and all his ambitions tied to the sport were crushed head-on. He was one of the youngest racers to have made it to the F1 circuit and his skills were unmatched by any other racer in his country, they said. Five days ago, when he came out of the coma and realized what had happened, he couldn’t accept his fate. When the doctor informed him that his retina was ruptured and he wouldn’t be able to see again, he refused to believe it and strained to disprove it. He whimpered for several hours. The darkness taunted him. The thought of never being able to escape this darkness pressed down on him until he dropped into the chasm of depression.

All throughout the past seventeen days, she remained by his side. She loved him like no-one did and he loved her like no-one could. When he cried in fear, she hugged him tight and cried along with him; when he cursed his fate, she tried to reinforce his faith; when the darkness irked him, she told him stories he could visualize, that could help him see the world as it was before, through his mind’s eye. Or was it her eyes? But despite her love, she couldn’t stop him from falling into that abyss. At first, she tried to conquer his negative thoughts by countering them positively but that didn’t help. She followed it up with motivational stories of people who made it big even after being afflicted with disability, but even that didn’t induce any change. 

He had lost hope. He had lost his determination. And in his last conversation with her, she was dismayed to find that he had even lost interest to live. Upon hearing his words, she realised that it was her persistent care and presence that had made him so negative. It was only when he knew she was around that he would curse his fate – to seek her sympathy. He swore at God to make her stop him from doing that. He ridiculed the stories she read out to him so that she would come up with a new one. Though most of his injuries had healed by then, he didn’t try to walk on his own even once, he didn’t figure out things on his own – he was too used to her help. Although it demanded immense self-control on her part, she saw that the time had come to withdraw herself from him. Come night-time, she would leave him all alone to fight his fears by himself for the first time.

Without her by his side, he lay on his bed still, thinking. He couldn’t believe that she had left him all alone in such a situation. The silence frightened him. He started talking to himself. All alone, cursing his fate didn’t seem like a very entertaining option. He started reciting his favorite poem – Darkness by Lord Byron, which left him awed, for his favourite poem was actually an omen. After reciting it , he exclaimed loudly to himself, ‘I love Darkness like nothing else, thank you Byron,’ and laughed hysterically. It was the first time after the accident that laughter paid a visit by his bed-side. It tickled his bladder and he got up from his bed on his own, and placed his feet on the cold marble floor. He imagined the white of the marble. Carefully, he took guarded steps and grabbed the wall next to him. After knocking against the almirah, hitting his feet against the table’s leg on the way, he finally located the loo and let himself loose. When he came out, his sense of direction got skewed and he failed to locate the bed. Fear captured him once again and he panicked. He started running frantically, hit against furniture and toppled on the ground.

Before he could cry for help, someone pulled him up, with utmost care and took him to bed. He recognized the smell. It was her. She didn’t speak a word. He moved his palms near her face. It was wet.

‘You didn’t leave, did you? You were right here, weren’t you?’ he asked.

‘How could I leave you? I’m so glad to find that in just one hour, my son has started to love darkness,’ she whispered, followed by two tearful smiles.


Written for Housing.com's new lookup. Check it here:
 https://housing.com/lookup

Thursday, April 24, 2014

God of Big Things

Have you ever wondered why cricket enjoys the status of the most sought after game in the country despite the fact that our national game is hockey? What is the first thing that strikes your mind when you hear the word cricket? What is the one popular name that had been unblemished and glorious right from the first time you'd heard it? Who is the one person whose achievements seem as important and make you as proud as your own would? No points for guessing, the answer to all the above questions is the little master, Sachin Tendulkar. The name that fills the heart of each and every Indian with pride that is unprecedented.

Well, I won't be boring you with stats and figures that adorn the scintillating track record of the greatest cricketing legend ever in the cricketing history. But instead, I would like to bring out what he means to us - Indians - by relating to you reminiscence from my childhood.

As far as my childhood goes, I remember that before every cricket match where India played, I, with the help of my friends, would go to the market and bring three to four big bottles of Pepsi (the brand he used to endorse) and my mother used to make pop-corn for each one of us, who would be glued to the TV until our hero, our idol, stylishly played his master-strokes. At each and every shot that our hero played, all of us would raise our glasses of pepsi in air and shout 'cheers', with our glass tumblers hugging each other, making sharp sounds which always used to worry my mom that we would break them, because there occurred a glass-banging once almost every over and sometimes even twice or thrice during the same over. A boy amongst us would take note of the scores at every ten overs so that we could compare the scores when the other team batted and revel at the chances of our winning. In fact, I maintained a cricket copy scoring every match Sachin played in and batted in. At every lbw appeal or run out appeal to the third umpire that the opponent side made against Sachin, we would inwardly pray to God to save our god on the pitch. Such was the fever not to miss even one shot by the little master and we made sure to pump up our inverter batteries, even had a radio on just in case the battery failed, and if nothing worked, run all the way up to the main market and find a shop that streamed the match live thanks to the generator they had. People, like bees, would buzz across their TV screen blocking their customers, but no one cared, since the shopkeeper himself would be busy watching the TV.

And if by any chance, the pride of the nation lost his wicket, the sheer delight of the match would go in vain, and without wasting a single moment we would turn the TV off and go out and practice Tendulkarship with our tiny bats carrying the little hand-made MRF signs and a tattoo of the signature of the little master stuck at the back. Interestingly, courtesy to the man with the MRF bat, in those days none of us wanted to be a bowler because when it came to being a cricketer, which was our evident dream, it meant being like Sachin Tendulkar. Almost all of us, no matter how lousy a cricketer we were in the childhood, tried to imitate the star batsman when we were with the bat - right from affixing a stressed Sachin-like smile on our face to bending our knees intermittently while the bowler was taking a long run-up, from proudly lifting our bats parallel to our right hand when we hit a century and then thanking the Almighty by looking at the sky to hammering the pitch near our crease of no reason just because our idol did the same. Sachin lived in our very blood.

My father being a great fan of Sachin himself used to take us to restaurants for dinner every time he hit a century, most of which were already jam-packed by people celebrating the little master's success. Such was his fever, which remains unexampled even today. 

As I grew up, many more stars came into the picture, but none of them could leave an equal impression on my mind as our master blaster did. Some lacked consistency, others lacked elegance and style of batting and the remaining ones lacked modesty. No-one could replace Sachin as my hero, and I doubt anybody ever will be able to. Though I stopped following the game of cricket so keenly as time passed, but the assurance that Sachin was still going on with great splendour kept my heart satisfied.

But the most spectacular moment in the cricketing history was when Sachin achieved the most stupendous feat for any batsman. 200 runs in an ODI. Perhaps, it was the only record that was not in his name. I saw some amazing things that day. Thanks to Sachin, people who never knew that there was a space for status message in facebook or people who haven't changed their gtalk status messages since ages, had got a status message to praise his genius! From children to uncles, from our hostel's guard saheb to celebrities on TV, Sachin was on everybody's mind. Even the rift between political parties could not stop the unanimous praise coming for the maestro. It was the only day when Cricinfo's traffic trounced IRCTC. It reminds me that I've to ask my Dad to take me to a restaurant 'two times' for his 200.

If only we had the essential TV features that StarSports.com now offer which would save me up on all those minutes invested into gathering information into my cricket copies. Startsports.com's INFOGRAFIX provides snippets of information with visual twist, making caricatures and funny cartoons of the players, animating the field but at the same time offering information digging up the history of the player, his country and world records across. I wish Sachin played to this day, so that I could use Starsports.com's infografix to explore his uncountable records that could turn even the best of the world's talent green with envy.

P.S. This post is a part of Cricket just got better! Activity by starsports.com in association with BlogAdda.com

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Fired before Hired!

This story is about December 1 - the first day of placements of IIT Delhi.


For the first time in the year, I had woken up before 7 am. For the first time in my four years of engineering, I had taken a bath so early. Other than occasional shivers, slight panting and feeble 'I-am-so-cool' feeling, I experienced numbness all over. It was the day of interview. Job interview. My interview with a major consulting company was scheduled at 8 o' clock in the morning. In such a cold weather, it sounded pretty insane, but my arse was willing to go through any torture as long as it promised me enough money to buy bread, butter and a BMW at the end of the day. The company was reputed having many credentials and worldwide standings by which I was completely wooed. Besides, it offered the highest package in the campus - a whopping 19 lacs. So, at 7.00 am sharp, I baffled myself by being completely suited-up, much like Barney, except for the awesomeness. I rushed to the interview room, after having completed three circles of agarbatti in front the miniature Saibaba sculpture in my room praying for success.

Other interviewees, some of them my batch-mates, were waiting already. All of them smelt quite good, most of them, who otherwise wouldn't bathe for weeks, didn't seem to belong to an IIT, but rather a model hunt. Envy greeted me before the interviewer. After ten minutes, I was allotted an interviewer, a Sardarji whose name I don't exactly remember. His seemed quite scary. No, not by the face or voice, but by his serious walk. He advanced towards me as if he was gonna give me a pugaree-butt, making me retrace my steps at first. But soon sense hit me back. If I run away, I'd lose the job. In absolute cold and lull, I tried to make some noise with my newly bought Hush-Puppies and advanced towards him. Soon, a firm hand-shake took place under the shadow of the cloudy sky. Firmer from my side, just to let him know that I was not scared. Or rather let me know that I wasn't.

'Hello, I'm Harsh,' I said, in a crisp and soft voice.

'Hi.' I waited for him to continue, while we advanced towards the slaughter house. He didn't.

'Your good name please,' I asked. Being curious is considered good, isn't it?

'Hmmm.' That was all that he said.

At this point of time, three separate thoughts swayed in my head simultaneously.
1. Either he had not heard my question. Quite possible.
2. He could have forgotten his name. He might be trying to recollect.
3. He didn't like me asking his good name. Stern interviewer, you see?

Okay, so I was lost in my mind and in his 'hmmm', when he opened the door to the torture room. What I saw left me parched. Those three thoughts merged with each other and brought me at my most confused state.

'Harsh, have a seat,' Hmmm said. Let's call him Hmmm, for ease. I was glad to know that he could actually frame sentences.

'Thanks a lot.' I grabbed the opposite chair, which was as cold as ice. With my butts frozen, I felt like a scapegoat in the making. I was wearing cotton trousers for the first time in my college life. I tried to make myself comfortable, but soon his serious face espoused its sadistic course.

'So, you're?' Hmmm shot the trigger straightaway. I was startled.

'I am... I am Harsh Snehanshu, student of Engineering Physics, 4th year...'

'No, no, don't go ahead. I just forgot your name. So Harsh, what do you like?' Hmmm asked.

'Definitely not a creepy Sardar in the chilly morning!' I thought.

'Hmmm...' I said and began thinking in a similar manner to Hmmm. Despite my liking for Hmmm, he didn't seem pleased. I continued, 'I like writing. I like business. And, I like people.'

'What's the order of liking?' He asked.

'The reverse. People, business and writing.' I said. The first big mistake.

'When it's your first choice, then why did it come at last?'

'I saved the best for the last,' I tried to please him with my wit. He didn't know appreciation.

'Hmmm.' He said. I think he liked his name too much. His eyes were deadly.

'Okay, so tell me about this the-witty's-hit dot com that you've mentioned in your resume?' Hmmm asked. He wanted more wit. No problem, I had plenty.

'So, thewittyshit.com is my start-up, which I co-founded around 6 months ago. It caters to people who are good with one-liners. As a writer, I realized that there was no platform which promotes common-man's basic creativity of crafting quotable one-liners and no way to popularize or gain incentives for the grassroot level of creativity that every common man possesses...In this...'

'Interesting? You're a writer too...what have you written?' Hmmm developed some interest. His scary eyes turned a bit green.

'I've written a novel, titled "Oops! 'I' fell in love!" which I got published in Aug, 2009. Besides that, my stories have been published in various books of the Chicken Soup for the soul series,' I said, rather proudly.

'Is your novel autobiographical?'

'No, it's fictitious. Autobiographies tend to be boring, you know.' My confidence was sky-rocketing. A day 1 job was on the cards.

'Why are you interested in consulting?' Hmmm asked. He was good at changing topics.

The rocket encountered a sudden drag. 'Hmmm, consulting is a field which would offer me great insight into the field of business and people, which I'm really passionate about. It would give me a chance to....blah blah blah ... tell me to stop licking your boot, you sucker...blah blah blah. Or at least smile. Your serious face is killing me...blah blah.'

He looked convinced. Boot-licking, who doesn't like that - that too at the start of the day?

'You're a writer as well as an entrepreneur. And you're making money as well from both the places. If I'd been at your place, I would have pursued the venture full-time. Why don't you go full-time?'

'I am going to go full-time. I am sitting here just to please my Mom.' I uttered, irritably. The second mistake. That turned out to be quite heavy.

'Thanks for the interview. Great to meet you.'

'Hmmm,' I said, in a contemplative tone. I stood up and said, 'It's the-witty-shit dot com, by the way.' For the first time, his serious face broke into a smile. It reeked of sarcasm. The serious face was much better. I banged the door in frustration before leaving and didn't sit for the subsequent job interviews.

My Mom couldn't have been more pleased. She did not talk to me for a month after December 1. #ConditionSeriousHai

P.S. If this story seems boring, it's autobiographical. If not, then it's fictitious. You know what it is.

Written for Indiblogger's contest #ConditionSeriousHai by Cadbury 5 Star 


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ishiguro, please call me home

The first time I read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go, I couldn't let go of the novel. Its limpid prose weaved a literary world that I had never experienced in my life before. I wanted to meet Ishiguro, to learn from him in person, to write like him someday. Little did I know that his book's influence would soon prod me to follow his footsteps, by aspiring to become a part of the programme that nurtured him as a writer.

I am 24 now, having been writing for over six years. In the past six years, I have published four books. Three of them have been in the genre of light fiction, and the fourth one, a serious fiction. Over the years, my reading has exposed me to many such masters, from Amis to Barnes to Rushdie. The more I read them and about them, the more I understood that honing the craft of writing can best happen in the company of good writers, something that all of them had access to.

Last year, while travelling across India, I attended the Delhi launch of the book Calcutta by the acclaimed writer Amit Chaudhari. Chaudhari mentioned, during his conversation, that he taught prose writing at the Creative Writing programme at the University of East Anglia, the same programme that polished the craft of my favorite writer, Kazuo Ishiguro. I came back home and read about the UEA's school of literature and drama in detail. Reported to be one of the most reputed writing programmes in the world, having renowned faculties and alumni, it sent me into an aspirational frenzy. I wanted to be a part of it.

The entire 2012 and half 2013, I travelled across India with the motive to grow as a writer. It was a conscious step to broaden my experiences of life, to understand which stories are worth telling by discovering India and a little bit of myself. This journey had a life-changing impact on me. It made me realize how little I knew, and gave me the time to read more. Two years later, last December, as I was weaving those strands of my journey into a travel book, I felt a dire need of a mentor, of a circle of writer friends who could critique my writings, give me suggestions to polish it. And there was just one such programme in my mind, the one which bred my idol Ishiguro. For a Japanese writer now living in the UK, Ishiguro is a living testimony to how welcoming Great Britain is in promoting literature, arts and drama. I checked the website of the University of East Anglia. To my surprise there was a fellowship offering for the South Asian writers.

That I have already applied to the Creative Writing programme for writers, the Charles Pick Fellowship, by the University of East Anglia shouldn't come as a surprise to you. Holding my favorite novel Never Let Me Go, expectantly waiting for the results of the programme, I am just wishing: Ishiguro, please call me home.

Written for indiblogger's contest: Knowledge is Great

Friday, January 3, 2014

VOTES APP: What say?

How would you inspire and mobilize India's youth to vote in the Indian General Elections 2014 using social mobile apps?

A year ago, if the same question were posed, I would have deemed it to be impossible. But over the past one year, the kind of response and social media mobilization the Indian politics has been seeing is unprecedented. Not only did people discuss, criticize and put forward their ideas in relation to the government, but also campaigned their favorite political parties and lead them to surprisingly good results. A good case in point has been Aam Aadmi Party, which initially mobilized the masses through its social media handles and thereon through mobile apps and cloud telephony using VoiceTree.

India has already reached a billion mark for the mobile phone users and right from the rickshaw driver to the CEOs, everyone has an access to mobile phones. With cheap internet packs and offline mobile apps, it would be a landmark move to see the voting process be undertaken via this medium. To mobilize India's youth to go a further step so as to vote in the Indian General Elections 2014 using social mobile apps, I think some of the following creative ways could help. This can be done by an app appropriately named Votes App, which has the following features:

Prerequisite: Aadhar integration: Each person while buying the sim of his or her mobile phone should give his aadhar number for the integration.

1. It's SMS based - Since we are talking about the General Elections, we should keep in mind that unlike urban areas, in the majority of India it is mainly the poor people who come out to vote. If we assume the voters among them to have a phone, it's unfair to assume them having an internet connection to use such an app. In such a case an SMS based app works the best. Through the census, we can already assess the number of voters under one family mobile number. Each voter can add the aadhar code through which he could send in an SMS to register his vote.

2. Has finger print scanning feature: One touchphone can be installed to cast votes in villages across India. Such an app can reach out to many people who otherwise are not accessible. Under the observation of one Election Commission member, this can have wide reaching effect, since finger prints are unique and thanks to Aadhar card, these are ingrained in the computer system as well.

3. Face recognition: For urban places, this can definitely work well.  Having a camera phone where face could be scanned and matched with Aadhar cards, this can enable people to cast their vote privately.

4. Simulating Democracy: Voting game apps: The best way to mobilize youth is to generate more interest about politics. The best way for that is to create apps which simulate democracy and include a campaigning method of online voting in that simulation, so that their minds can relate to the idea on a more personal level.

5. Tying up with news sites: Political news sites with heavy traction could be approached on a barter deal to create a quizzing app based on current affairs which mobilizes interest of people along with makes them lead into a technologically sound election system in near future - by giving them hypothetical questions about online voting.

6. A movement in favor of technology needs to created now: With brands like We-Chat thinking on these lines, they should utilize their gigantic userbase to popularize this idea. Also, by incentivizing the government to pilot run such an idea over the next few months is bound to create a sound result.

Frankly, it's quite difficult to make it a reality by 2014 since it requires both technological and policy changes, but I'm sure that by the end of 2019, both the advances in technology and the strengthening of government's technological prowess will enable this dream a reality.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Chetan Bhagat Phenomenon: Boon or bane for Indian Publishing and Readership?

Note: This is an academic paper, not an opinion piece, except for the conclusion. Having been a part of this industry for over a period of five years, I have made it an honest and in-depth analysis, to give you an elaborate idea of the Indian commercial publishing industry.
Introduction
The year is 2004. A 30 year old investment banker, having just finished writing a novel on his college life, is going door to door of publishing houses in old Delhi. He has been rejected outright by twelve of them. They say that his writing style is too simplistic, unliterary, and some even call it bad; the topic he’s writing on lacks the broader societal landscape; some question his credentials and background to attempt writing a novel – his prized investment banking career doesn’t add value to his fledgling writing CV, and some conveniently choose not to reply at all. But he is persistent. He befriends the owner of a small publisher based in Daryaganj, who, seeing him in a hapless condition, takes mercy and gives him a shot. They estimate the number of copies he would sell, aware of the fact that in India, it’s only the elite who read works in English – the writings that are literary and descriptive; their bookshelves adorned with internationally acclaimed stalwarts like Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy, their writing style rich, layered and elegant unlike his.  Nevertheless he counts relatives, friends, and friends of friends on his fingers. The number adds up to, after a lot of optimistic extrapolation, slightly less than one thousand. The book is released with the first print run of one thousand. One year later, his book is the highest selling novel of India and its author, Chetan Bhagat, a phenomenon. What’s the catch here? That he is from IIT and his book breaks many myths about an institute of formidable repute? (Viswamohan) Or is it because he celebrates the loss of virginity among his characters (Mishra), which is unconventional and appeals to rebellious youngsters? 

Nine years have passed since. The Indian publishing industry has been a dumbstruck witness to all its prior predicted trends and speculations being given a toss by one man with no background in writing, no godfather in the industry. Four other novels and a work of non-fiction, besides myriad newspaper columns and Bollywood scripts, have come from his pen during this time, all of them bestsellers which touched a million copies mark within a few years from release. In 2008, New York Times called him ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India's history’. In 2010, Time magazine named him as ‘one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World’. It looks like a life out of dreams, a rags-to-riches story and no wonder, in this country which believes in hero worship, Chetan Bhagat becomes one. But unlike the magnanimous international adulation that he has received, he has grown to be one of India’s most hated public figures for many reasons, his success included. 
For many who are his fans, he is a cult, an icon, a role model; a regular invitee to their college guest-lectures where, as he writes on his website, “his stellar education and diverse professional background make him the ideal person to share his thoughts and experiences” (chetanbhagat.com). He is someone who is approved of by parents, even those who can’t read in English as they are impressed by the very same IIT/IIM degrees in his author profile which earlier didn’t seem useful for his writing resume. For some, he’s like the superhero that had shown some spark when it arrived into the literary scene, but instead of saving the sinking ship with his popularity and reach, he has been instrumental in plummeting it deeper into the sea of mediocrity. For others, he never arrived on the literary scene – he remained an epitome of mediocrity. (Dasgupta)
It’s difficult to come up with one conclusion among these diverse and extreme opinions, each of which stands true in its own right. Therefore through this essay, I intend to analyze Chetan Bhagat’s impact on Indian publishing and readership, rather than analyzing his writing. This paper shall examine three aspects of Bhagat’s impact: (a) the birth of a massive young readership and its effect, (b) the emergence of commercial fiction and its quality, and (c) writing as a career post-Bhagat.
Readership: The birth of the middle-class Indian reader
The reason Bhagat  attained unprecedented success is because his work struck a chord with middle-class young India, the India that never read Indian writing in fiction, that held and still holds English in awe and fear, which belongs to the tier 2 and 3 cities of the country . Even to this day, almost ten years since his first book appeared in the market, his books don prime space in all the Wheeler bookstalls of even the smallest railway stations – from Guwahati to Ranchi to Kanyakumari. Kavita Bhanot, an erstwhile literary agent, relates in Forbes, “I have known young people who don’t usually read, reading his books. Most recently, I met a boy on the bus from Palampur to Delhi, who would not normally read, and was not so comfortable in English, reading The Three Mistakes..., slowly, but enjoying it, and proud too, to be reading a book in English.” This pride is what Chetan Bhagat delivered to the middle-class Indian reader, which has made his following loyal and huge with over two million fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter. Suman Gupta’s research paper sheds light on this trend:
Two surveys give some indication of the character and attitudes of this reading constituency: a CSDS-KAS (de Souza et al 2009) survey of social attitudes among Indian youth, and a NBT-NCAER (Shukla 2010) Indian youth readership survey. The CSDS-KAS 2009 survey uses data collected from around 5,000 respondents, aged between 14 and 34, more or less evenly distributed across the country with some booster samples from areas with high population density (towns); and the NBT-NCAER 2010 survey covered 3,11,431 literate youth (13-35 year olds), across 207 rural districts and 199 towns in India. The latter estimates the youth population of India to be 459 million (38% of the total), of which 333 million is literate. Of the literate youth, this survey indicates, about 25% read books for pleasure, relaxation and knowledge enhancement; and English is the preferred language for leisure reading of 5.3% of those (Hindi is for 33.4%, Marathi 13.2%, Bengali 7.7%). By these figures, the number of readers of an extraordinarily successful English language commercial fiction book is unlikely to exceed 4.41 million.

This survey was taken in 2009; five years after Bhagat’s arrival and the figures are whopping. 4.41 million constitutes a huge readership, something that India had not seen before. The author Samit Basu puts it rather succinctly, “[Chetan has] shown how wrong Indian publishers are when they explain away their failures to sell Indian fiction to large numbers of Indians by saying there are no readers. Of course there are readers; Chetan's managed to tell them they exist.” Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone continues to be the most landmark book in his literary career, being the highest selling book of India till date. The book describes the other side of the reputed IITs and was an immediate hit in the audience. For the first time, an aspirant or someone who’s grown up listening to the huge hype built around the brand of IIT could vicariously become a part of its life. Ever since its inception, IIT’s entrance examination JEE has been considered to be world’s toughest examination (The Hindu) with over half a million aspirants from all across the country, mostly from middle-class India, undertaking it each year. Bhagat’s first book, dedicated to his alma mater IIT Delhi, busted all the myths related to the IITs in a gripping story. It worked in favour of Bhagat in two ways. First, it inducted a non-reader curious about the IITs into reading, and later hooked him with its simple language, which the reader could very well identify with. Chetan Bhagat, with his illustrious degrees and later on fame as an author, became a role model for aspirants.
To cater to the mass market and middle-class audience, the publisher Rupa had carefully tweaked around with the price point. All of Bhagat’s novels have been priced at an affordable 95 rupees (now it’s 140 rupees), which makes it possible for the young small-town high-school going student to buy and read what it is to be inside the IITs, to work in a call center, to have a love marriage, and how to make it big despite not getting into the IITs. As a bonus, the low price deters piracy, since at such low cost the profit margin for a pirated book becomes insignificant.
To keep the reader engaged, Bhagat implemented a lot of lessons he learnt during his IIT-IIM days. Along with the media buzz, he happens to be the first author to have his own website, his first books contained teasers of the upcoming books, he initiated the concept of selling signed copies at a premium price (chetanbhagat.com), and spent rather lavishly in the PR campaign of his books with grand launches roping in stalwarts like Shashi Tharoor to inaugurate his book. Though Bhagat claims himself to be destiny’s child (Dasgupta), having not anticipated his stupendous success before launch and counting prospective readers on his fingers before the release of his first book, Ankita Mukherji, a former assistant editor at a big publishing house which rejected Bhagat’s manuscript, writes in her autobiographical article with the Open Magazine:
[In the slush pile[1], there] came a professionally bound manuscript with perfect layouts and typefaces. Even more interestingly, the first page had a CD stuck on it which said ‘Read Me’. Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, I followed instructions and up popped a multi-hued PowerPoint presentation. Swiftly and efficiently, it introduced me to the author (a hot-shot young investment banker) and his book (a coming-of-age novel about friends at one of India’s best-known colleges). But what came next absolutely took my breath away. A marketing strategy that would ensure the book became an instant bestseller: low pricing and buy-backs, tie-ups with the said academic institution and its alumni (all of whom, the author felt, would immediately want copies of his book). This author was clearly no pushover. If only he had written his manuscript with half the dedication he had put into his marketing plan!

Clearly, Bhagat’s success has not been serendipitous but a carefully calculated work, targeted to capture the mind-share of people from all across India.
Publishing: Emergence of commercial fiction
Chetan Bhagat is often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing the commercial fiction industry in India. When newspapers and magazines rightfully adorn him with sobriquets like The Paperback Messiah (Perur), The Game Changer, The Trendsetter, The Golden Goose (Sarkar), it’s but natural for him to comment on the era before him. Novels before Bhagat, as he himself says in an interview with NDTV, “targeted the elite and most often Western audience, and were written to win prizes” (Perur). There was no culture of commercial fiction and even if there was, it was frowned upon and there was apathy towards such writing (Bose, Forbes).
One of the first successful commercial novels before Bhagat was Anurag Mathur’s  The Inscrutable Americans (Rupa), published in 1991, but as Saugata Mukherjee, publisher of Pan Macmillan India notes, “[Mathur’s] success was not anywhere close to Bhagat’s phenomenal rise.” The possible reason that prevented Mathur’s book from pulling off a Bhagat on the Indian publishing scene can be aptly summed up in the words of Amitabha Bagchi, author of Above Average (2006, Harper Collins) – a book about a student’s life in IIT.  He says, in an interview with Forbes, “The interesting thing is that The Inscrutable Americans, a publishing phenomenon in its time (and still selling well today) was not able, at the time, to goad the rest of the publishing business into being more aggressive the way Five Point Someone was. Perhaps that is a product of the rise of a media culture that Bhagat was able to navigate successfully.” Bhagat’s success in this view is the result of his being at the right place at the right time with the right product.
Since Bhagat’s arrival, the Indian publishing industry has witnessed drastic changes. The first being how it transformed the definition of the word bestseller. Typical Indian ‘bestseller’ sold  between 3,000 and 5,000 copies; a true success is one that remains in print for years, with reprints of 2,000 copies or so every nine or 12 months (Tharoor). Bhagat’s novels, with sales of a staggering million copies a year, sparked off a trend that made publishers escalate the bestseller slab to a minimum of 10000 copies. The expanding market saw a burgeoning of myriad publishing houses with the passing years. As researched by Gupta:
The story of commercial fiction publishing is part of a larger story about the growth of the Indian publishing sector. In terms of absolute figures this is an impressively large and diverse sector. According to Pathak (2011), 12,375 publishers were registered with the ISBN India agency at the end of 2007, with an estimated 90,000 titles being produced each year, and with the industry showing an optimistic growth estimate of 30%.

The stories of independent publishing houses bring together another astonishing saga. Most notable of the local proprietary publishing houses is Srishti which immediately capitalized on Bhagat’s opening of the market. When Tushar Raheja, a fourth year student of IIT-Delhi in 2005, was searching for a publisher for his manuscript Anything for you, Ma’am, an IITian’s love story, as the subtitle blatantly says, Srishti immediately published it with a similar MRP of 100 rupees (flipkart.com). The book was an instant bestseller. What followed was the creation of the hundred rupee fiction market and new publishers like Mahaveer and General Press jumping in to grab a piece of cake. It seemed as if every engineering college student with a girlfriend scribbled his love story, aspiring to be the next Chetan Bhagat, with titles like Of Course I Love You (2008), Oops! I Fell in Love! (2009) etc. authored by engineering students flooding the market and selling like hot cakes. Srishti churned out bestsellers after bestsellers, its raw manuscripts most often unedited, shoddy, in Hinglish, didn’t bother the mass market readers, rather it connected well with them since it spoke to them in their language and there was no need of a dictionary whatsoever while reading. There is an upward trend not only in readers but also authors. Srishti’s proprietor Jayant Bose notes, “Earlier we would get 100 book proposals a year, now we get around 100 book proposals a month,” (DNA). This alarming rate of budding writers owes itself directly to Bhagat who made novels an affordable and readable commodity. Most often these new lad-lit writers, after reading Bhagat et al, think that they too can write like Bhagat and driven by the live example of Bhagat’s success, hope to make it big. The new publishing houses only help proliferate their novels in the eager consumer market.

Giants like Penguin and Random House after keenly watching the post-Bhagat period for over three years shed their snobbery and entered the commercial fiction market to wrestle with established Indian players like Rupa and Srishti. Penguin came up with Metro Reads, which promised to publish commercial fiction books ensuring Penguin-like quality and Random House brought forth Ebury Press, to take forward the domain of commercial fiction. Unable to find the next Chetan Bhagat on their own, they started utilizing their deep pockets and lured the bestselling authors of Rupa and Srishti with huge advances. Authors like Ravinder Singh, Rashmi Bansal, Durjoy Datta, Ravi Subramanium, Preeti Shenoy have all been picked by these big houses.

The literary industry defined by Chetan Bhagat encountered another phenomenon seven years after his entry in Amish Tripathi. Amish, hailing from a similar IIM and investment banking background, owes it to Bhagat for opening up the market for unliterary fiction, but Amish had to create his own readership. His books, The Shiva Trilogy, were not Bhagatish – pertaining to love, relationships, youth, career, but rather mythological fiction, and have been a welcome change in the published genres. Amish, unlike Bhagat, is more open about the role of marketing in making his books take India by storm. In his interview with Sunil Sethi in NDTV’s Just Books, he says, ‘Books don’t sell on their own. I know so many books that deserved to be bestsellers, but lack of marketing didn’t make them become one.’ Amish has taken book marketing to the next level, having invested heavily for marketing his first book with posters and free sample first chapters at all the major bookshops before launch. For his books, he even launched the first video trailer of a book in India and followed it up with a music album with Times Music for book promotion (HT). Courtesy Amish, writers nowadays are not shying away from giving credit to marketing, and even publishing houses are coming up with innovative strategies to promote books. Penguin India, to promote Durjoy Dutta’s new book Someone Like You (2013), tied up with Barista and offered a free book with two cappuccinos. Thanks to their association with big houses, authors like Bhagat and Amish with contestable literary talents are now a regular presence at prominent literature festivals among veterans like Pico Iyer, Gulzar, and Amitav Ghosh.

Spin-off Writers & Writing as a Career:
Writing, no more, is a vocation pursued only by the gifted litterateur, but by anyone who can make the mass readers of India hooked on to their words. Most of these authors write ‘Bhagatized’ fictionon common themes – love, sex, college, education, politics, mythology, and cricket – the essentials of Chetan Bhagat mass market fiction. Bhagat’s readers are not only loyal to him, but to ‘Bhagatized’ fiction, which has given birth to numerous young lad lit[2] writers in India. 

In a country where full-time writing was a dream not achieved by even many critically acclaimed writers, these young writers have become money-making machines, with their novels having shifted into the category of fast-moving consumer goods (Soofi). The royalties earned by commercial fiction authors in post-Bhagat era is unprecedented source. Author Ravi Subramaniam bought a BMW from the royalties from his debut book, If God Was A Banker date, which sold around 2.65 lac copies in a year. For a two book deal, Subramaniam received a whopping 1.25 crores rupees advance from Penguin India (Forbes). Durjoy Datta cashing in on his popularity from his extremely popular books co-founded his own publishing house Grapevine along with Sachin Garg, his friend and a bestselling author. Amish recently received a five crore advance for his next series from Westland.

The publishing industry is a big money game, and writers who have found their audience are now living not only comfortable but lavish lives with their royalties (Outlook). The trend is upwards and writing market in future is only going to expand and commercial fiction writers are only going to flourish. Even seven years after his arrival, Bhagat single handedly turned away the slump in fiction sales in 2011. Anyone who has ever snorted contemptuously at Chetan Bhagat should know that the “steep growth” in the fiction market in the second half of 2011 is credited to the sales of his latest novel, Revolution 2020. (Pal)  Penguin India had experienced 500% sales growth in the same year and the Indian reader market could now compete with the entire middle-east (BookSeller). The upward trend doesn’t only affect the commercial fiction writers but also literary fiction writers, since a lot of people who get inducted into reading via commercial fiction are now migrating to the literary fiction. A literary novel like G. D. Roberts’ Shantaram (2003) has sold over 5 lac copies (DNA), though it took around five years to achieve that target, but still it’s a positive trend.

Conclusion:
Indian publishing industry, in the times to come, is going to look back at the Indian publishing history in two different eras: pre-Bhagat and post-Bhagat. Chetan Bhagat, irrespective of public opinion, continues to be a boon for the publishing industry for India has never been swept to read like this before, the sales have never been so astounding. New authors following his footsteps are only benefitting out of it, and same holds true for the old authors who could capitalize on the widening market. Some of the readers who start with Bhagat’s fiction migrate to literary novels with time, one step at a time, from Bhagat to Amish to Adiga to Rushdie. Besides, for the first time in the history of Indian publishing is Bollywood keeping keen watch on popular books, getting intricately involved with the publishing industry, after the blockbuster success of 3 Idiots (2010). Unswerving critics blame Bhagat for the corruption of the English language by using Hinglish and colloquial words, but Bhagat claims that he is not a Hinglish writer but an English writer (NDTV), which is true. Apart from a casual Hindi cuss-word sprinkled once in a while in his books, there isn’t any Hinglish usage. As long as the editorial arm of the publishing house take care to make his writing grammatically sound and less colloquial, Chetan Bhagat shall have no reason to worry. 

In terms of writing, however, Chetan Bhagat has been slammed to be a bane by many critics like Shougat Dasgupta etc. Since it has not been analyzed in this article, we aren’t in a position to draw any conclusion here, but his effect can definitely be discussed. He has created a readership no doubt, but at the same time he has developed a tawdry taste of reading among them, which has been made inflexible because of redundant plots (Forbes). Bhagat readers want to read more of Bhagatized fiction, as can be seen by following the bestsellers in the market, which often are laden with clichés and melodrama. The audience which graduates to consume literary fiction after reading Bhagat is still little, nowhere close to the size of his market. Moreover, to understand the aesthetics and subtle nuances of literary fiction, it takes an entirely new conditioning, sensibility, and motivation, which is quite difficult to build. If this state persists, the huge gap between the mass market and the elite readers is only going to widen, and Chetan Bhagat will continue to be hated by critics with literary bent of mind. However with Bhagat’s mass reach and popularity, he has the power and choice to bridge this gap if he could come out of his comfort zone and dare to walk on unconventional roads by giving up his propensity to create a masala movie-script out of his every novel, which might adversely affect the size of his readership, but at the same time would refine, add value by elevating his audience’s reading tastes. This can happen only if he wishes to become a boon for writing as well. 



[1] In publishing, the slush pile is the set of unsolicited query letters or manuscripts sent either directly to the publisher or literary agent by authors, or to the publisher by an agent not known to the publisher (Wikipedia)
[2] Lad lit is the phenomenon of best-selling books written by men, and bought by lots of men, which tell tales of masculine insecurity in relationships, problems with male identity in the 21st century, and stories which explore the state of play between men and women from an often emotionally confused confessional male perspective. (Britishcouncil.com)

About the author:
Harsh Snehanshu is an author, most recently of Because Shit Happened - What NOT to do in a start-up!, a freelance journalist, and a Young India Fellow. This paper was written as a term paper for the Young India Fellowship course on Academic Writing.

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