A Look at India's Best-Selling Novels
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s good practice to know a bit about the reading habits of one of the largest economies in the world.
By Sanjena Sathian
Some of the best-known writing about India over the last century has come from observers writing from afar. From E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and the poems of Rudyard Kipling in the colonial era to Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories and the novels of Vikram Seth, globally popular writing about India is more often about exile, about the “imaginary homeland,” as Salman Rushdie called it, than it is about the nation itself.
But on the very real subcontinent, publishing is a booming $2 billion industry. The nation poised to be the world’s third-largest economy by 2030 has also birthed the second-highest count of Booker Prize winners since 1997, when Arundhati Roy took the title for The God of Small Things. It’s a good time to be in the book biz in India, says Anuj Bahri at Bahrisons Booksellers, a bookstore and publishing house in New Delhi. OZY dug in to see what’s topping the charts. So settle in with a steaming cup of chai and read up, yaar.
1. The Accidental Prime Minister, by Sanjaya Baru
The nation’s politics are all a-flurry these days as a new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is stepping forward with promises of morning in India. But apparently many Indians would rather look back — at the memoirs of Baru, former PM Manmohan Singh’s media adviser. Bahri told OZY that Baru’s book sold around 20,000 copies in its first week (a great sign). The tome, a straight-out evisceration of Singh, came out in India just in time for the hectic elections earlier this year. And while it was certainly talked about, Bahri said many saw the book more as a publicity stunt than a truly impactful text.
2. Sita, by Devdutt Pattanaik
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Not everyone’s been a fan of Pattanaik’s popular revisiting — as one reviewer said, he’s a bit afraid to rock the boat, “as if he fears causing offence to some imaginary unquestioning devotee.” Not so imaginary, though — it was just this year that University of Chicago Hinduism scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was banned for offending those very unimaginary devotees.Pattanaik is India’s best-selling mythologist. Yep, you read that right. Indian consumers have a seemingly endless appetite for hearing religious stories retold in quotidian fashion — from calendars depicting gods and goddesses, common in most Hindu homes, to the soap operas that retell classic Hindu epics on television. So it makes sense that one of the most popular books in the country would be a retelling of the epic the Ramayana.
Sita’s so important in India that she makes two appearances on best-seller lists. Also topping the charts is Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu. Better known as India’s version of 50 Shades of Grey — a lusty, erotic tale, proving that irreverence is still possible, even in a nation with a penchant for censorship.
3. The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee
This one is India’s big hope for the Booker Prize this year. The book traces the domestic entanglements and troubles of the wealthy Ghosh family, whose lives take a dark turn when one member of their ranks abandons the comfort of upper-middle-class Kolkata existence in favor of political radicalism. Since Roy’s controversial win in ’97, India’s taken the prize twice more — with Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Americans are now allowed to win, which places Mukherjee as India’s representative in one of the only truly global literary prizes around. Mukherjee comes from the state of Bengal, also home to India’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Rabindranath Tagore. It’s also the region that Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters travel back to in The Namesake and that they’re constantly yearning for in The Interpreter of Maladies.
4. Word Power Made Easy: New and Revised Edition, by Norman Lewis
Oh, and there’s a best-selling novel about those call centers, too.Exactly what it sounds like — a primer for “building superior vocabulary” and facility with the English language, written by a New Yorker and two-time editor of Roget’s Thesaurus. The 2012 edition remains a best-seller on Flipkart and Infibeam (Indian Amazon). These kinds of books are extremely popular in a “nation obsessed with learning English,” says Bahrison’s Bahri (in impeccable Queen’s English). Titles like this one are evergreen, Bahri says, selling as many as 50,000 copies a year well after their original release date. Though many Indians attend schools where English is the primary medium of instruction, acing a vocabulary that prepares young Indians for a global world is still a huge challenge. Having a good vocabulary is the key entry point for many young Indians into a desirable first job … dealing with angry customers at a call center.
Nick van Osdol contributed reporting