The Accidental Author
It’s possible you’ve never heard of Ravinder Singh. Till a month ago, I hadn’t either. It might surprise you, as it did me, to know that he is Penguin India’s topselling fiction writer, with combined sales across all titles exceeding half a million. According to Anand Padmanabhan, vice-president, sales, Penguin India, pre-orders for Singh’s latest book, Like It Happened Yesterday, released just this month, were upwards of 200,000 copies. Unsurprising, since his second, Can Love Happen Twice?, sold more than 250,000 copies in its first year of publication, becoming one of Penguin’s topselling titles, second only to APJ Abdul Kalam’s Ignited Minds. Singh’s first book, I Too Had A Love Story, was published in 2008 by a small Delhi press, Srishti Publications, and re-released in 2012 by Penguin. Five years after its publication, it is still among the most popular on Flipkart.
I Too…, Singh says, is “by far the oldest book to remain in the top ten—even after five years, it’s standing”. It is number six on Nielsen India Consumer Rankings’ list of the ten top-selling fiction books in India in May 2013 (the most recent available list). Occupying the first three positions on this list is Amish Tripathi’s mythological adventure trilogy, which re-imagines the life of Shiva. Also populating the list are a couple of other myth-fics and the latest offerings from familiar bestsellers Jeffrey Archer, Paulo Coelho and Chetan Bhagat. Singh’s is the only one classified under ‘Romance & Sagas’—Archer, Coelho and Bhagat find themselves huddled together under the ‘General & Literary Fiction’ umbrella.
Singh’s books have frequently been described as ‘real’, ‘honest’, ‘simple’ and ‘touching’. Contemplating the neat stack of three on my desk, I realise they are also physically friendly. I notice that each has a little icon on its spine hinting at its theme: interlocked rings for eternal commitment; a cloud-heart, like a puff of smoke, for the distant mirage of second love; and a heart-shaped balloon for childhood whimsy. The books are pleasantly consistent in size and design, instantly recognisable. They’ve begun to pop out at me everywhere: in bookstores, at magazine stands, in the hands of traffic-light vendors—even the unglossed rip-off versions, which are sometimes sold at a price 20-40 per cent higher than on Flipkart.
Singh seems visibly pleased that I’ve noticed the icons. He is very involved in cover design—from the visuals and fonts down to the placement of his name on the cover. He points out that his name has, on the cover of his most recent release Like It Happened Yesterday, been moved along with the preface ‘Bestselling author of…’ right to the top, above the title blooming diagonally in cursive across half the page, whereas on his earlier books, it lived at the bottom. “You are a big name now,” his publishers told him, explaining that his name should be the first thing people see on the cover. (This would also explain the soft white halo around his name on the newest one.) Not one to feign obliviousness of the value of his brand, Singh was apparently amenable to the suggestion, though still stressing the need to standardise the look of all three.
One of these carefully crafted covers—the one for his second book Can Love Happen Twice?—was victim to a preemptive rip-off. With equal parts weariness and bemusement, he recounts how he’d tweeted the cover ahead of the book’s release, only to find a copycat doing the rounds even before his book hit stores and stands. The copy in question—brattily titled Love Happens Only Once…Rest Is Just Life—is a hilariously transparent imitation of Singh’s cover, title, image, font and all. Singh says there have been several such instances of copycatting by other ‘mass market books’, citing them all, without a hint of pomposity as attempts to capitalise on his popularity.
A quick scroll through Flipkart throws up the (curiously familiar) thumbnail for a forthcoming book titled It Started With A Friend Request. Based on a cursory glance at dates of publication and re-issue, it seems author Sudeep Nagarkar shares Singh’s trajectory of being first printed by Srishti Publications, then picked up by a bigger publisher, in this case Random House. It is fitting, then, that he be rebranded in Singh’s image, complete with cursive-laden covers featuring faceless couples in silhouette.
Singh is unperturbed. He published his second book as planned, confident his followers on social media know what’s what. His possessiveness and meticulousness are both manifestations not of self-importance, but of the pride he takes in his books, which he calls his babies. “No one can do justice to my babies [better] than my own self. I cannot just produce babies and give [them] to someone—it’s not a surrogate thing.” He is a hands-on parent, raising his ‘babies’ from manuscript to bookshelf. Indeed, the raising of them seems to interest him more than the birthing—he admits he enjoys the marketing and publicity process more than he does the writing.
“My job doesn’t end with the last sentence of the book,” Singh says; in fact, that’s where the bulk of his work seems to begin. “He’s an extremely involved author and extremely easy to work with,” says Vaishali Mathur, Singh’s commissioning editor whom he describes as his go-to person at Penguin, “He is very open about suggestions, methodical and stays connected.” He seems just as concerned that the books be worthwhile ventures for his publisher as for him. “I am someone who always believes in return on investment,” he says, later adding, “I believe in numbers and volumes… I believe in statistics more than [reviews].”
Might this be a result of his business degree? He concedes that B-school grads probably understand the market a little better, saying “They have a bigger perspective, they see the big picture”, but that’s about as far as he’ll go with speculating about the recent crop of young MBA-laden authors. His insight, he says, is “specific to the mass market… I cannot talk about a Steve Jobs autobiography, there’s a different market altogether for that.”
“Mass market,” Mathur says, “is a simple formula—competitive pricing aimed at doing volume business. The idea is to reach as many readers as possible, and therefore the writing and content is as accessible as possible. Simple, straightforward writing, from the heart as it were, with characters that readers can relate to.” For his part, Singh reasons mass market fiction is largely bought on railway stations and bus stops by people wanting to spend their journeys engaged in something more pleasant than failed attempts at sleep, so it must be light, not full of plot-lines and characters to keep track of. “I still forget many characters from Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter—they’re big series to me. I can’t read [them]. I just see the size and I say, ‘This is not my cup of tea’.”
Singh isn’t much of a reader, apart from the daily newspaper, which he reads from cover to cover. On being asked about it, he attributes this to having grown up in a very small town, but is otherwise not at all self-conscious about being a writer who doesn’t read—nor about being a male writer of romances. He sees this more as a challenge than anything else. Walk up to any given railway station bookstall, he says, and you’ll find dozens of mass-market romance titles; the trick is to take one “to a level where the entire country salutes it”. Being the leading romance writer is something to talk about; else, there are lots of male authors writing romance. “Men have more sad love stories to narrate than women, is what I’m finding.”
Perhaps because he has already said he trusts statistics more than anecdotal evidence, he is moved to qualify that statement, explaining that he connects with many ‘wannabe authors’ via Facebook, and most of them want to write about their sad stories and college crushes. “I think it [is also because of] the screwed-up gender ratio. When 1,000 men try to find [someone] where there are 800 girls… that could be a reason. But I think men are more vocal about beating their own drums, you know, ‘I loved her but she left me.’” Singh has already helped many such aspiring writers find their feet in a collection of stories titled Love Stories That Touched My Heart, edited by him and published by Penguin. He has just launched his own publishing imprint, Black Ink, through which he hopes to launch new writers, this time by publishing full-length novels. This is his way of giving back some of the overwhelming support he says he has received over the years through fan mail and social media.
Singh’s Facebook page, which he manages himself, is followed by over 289,000 users. Each post gets hundreds of ‘likes’ and dozens of comments, mostly admiring and emotional, some solicitous of responses or visits to the commentor’s own town. On a recent post announcing an appearance in Kochi, a user named Azmath Unnisa commented, ‘Such aap ki story padh kar toh aankh num ho gaye (truly, reading your story brought tears to my eyes)’ and, as an afterthought, ‘shayad hi koi kisi ko itna pyaar karey (it is rare for someone to love another so much).’ Sujit Kumar Mishra commented: ‘Ravinder, aap rulane ke liye nobel likhte ho (do you write novels just to make us cry)?’ More often than not, someone will comment asking him to please, please post a picture of Khushi.
Most of these comments pertain directly to Singh’s first book, which is not a novel at all but a memoir, written in mourning for his fiancé Khushi, who died in a car accident just days before their wedding. Singh says he wrote the book as a way of immortalising Khushi, of working through his grief after her death. Khushi has her own Facebook fan page, with 48,848 followers of its own. Singh hasn’t published a photo of her anywhere and doesn’t intend to.
He speaks about Khushi with great reverence, and his grief as a major pivot in his life. A Sikh, he broke a taboo by cutting his hair after her death: “I lost my faith in God.” He matured, gathered the conviction to take his own decisions. Most of all, he wrote, and found a path forward. Trained as an engineer, Singh says he’d never been sure about what he wanted to do with his life. The immense support and encouragement he received from readers gave him a career. He hadn’t planned to go on writing, but readers urged him to continue the story and sent him their own.
In the years following the books’ release, Singh was able to move on himself. One of the fans who wrote to him, Khushboo, went on to become his wife. After they were married, she told him she’d said a prayer for him at Bangla Sahib: “This guy is a good guy. Please get him a nice girl. He should really move on.” He laughs. They have now been married for three years. He keeps in touch with Khushi’s family, and Khushboo has met them too, often encouraging him to visit Khushi’s mother in Faridabad. He is tentative, but not in a way that implies unease. It’s simply a tender, deeply private subject. “I have always got positive vibes from Khushboo when it comes to Khushi.” She understands. There is nothing more that needs be said.
His second novel—a fictional sequel to his non-fictional first published in 2011—draws from some of the stories he received. Some of these, he says, were dishearteningly defeatist, so the sequel was also a way to move his character Ravin’s story in a hopeful direction for his readers. He expresses something almost like disappointment in those who can’t make their love stories work, who give up too easily, or are flippant about their love. Compared to his own insurmountable obstacle, those faced by most who write to him must seem small, even petty. Singh opts instead to focus on the testimony of those who write in to tell him that his books, particularly the first, have saved their marriages and inspired them to hold on to and cherish their relationships, realising that their own troubles were not so great.
Though he promises to complete the romantic trilogy at a later time, with a book that tells the real story of his marriage, his newest release is a step outside Ravin’s romantic arc—heart-shaped balloon notwithstanding. Instead, it describes Singh’s years growing up in Burla, Odisha, where his father was a priest at a gurdwara. This book, Singh tells me, is in part an attempt to “undo the legacy that I have created”. He is, of course, referring to his professional legacy as a massively popular writer of romances. But this new book, possibly the best written of the three, is also a sort of unspooling of his story of himself—now that he has been able to live, and write, past the heartbreaking moment that defined his life, and thus even go back to before it happened and reassemble his life from the start.