The New Heroes of MBA Lit

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The rise of authors from the IIT/IIM milieu gives Chetan Bhagat’s audience the stories of the homes they adopted and the ones they left behind—in Devanagari
A young man from a middle class family in a small town has just ‘finished his graduation’ from a local college, and is sent off to the nearest big city to attend coaching classes for the CAT, that gateway to the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). There will be all-night parties in hostel rooms where he will drink beer. He will slowly get to know girls; both good girls (who will keep it to coffee dates at Café Coffee Day) and bad girls (who will kiss him after getting him tipsy on vodka they have stolen from their father’s cupboard). There will be some drama, but he will make it to a decent-enough MBA school and find the girl he will eventually take home to his parents. One of the set models of thriving IIT/IIM-centric English fiction, inspired by indefatigable financier-turned-author Chetan Bhagat— except this is the plot of a Hindi novel, Kulfi & Cappuccino (Hind Yugm Prakashan, 2014), by Ashish Chaudhary, a 28-year-old content writer with the BBC.

Chaudhary, too, was once a young man, packed off from his hometown in Udaipur to the state capital, Jaipur, to attend coaching classes for MBA entrance tests. Today, he’s a man on a mission: “Hindi mein popular fiction ko zinda karne ki chaahat pale baithe hain; pagal hain” (The writer’s cultivated the desire to revive popular fiction in Hindi; he’s mad), says the bio. His ‘madness’ is the result of deep frustration with the dominance of the English language over the imagination of the young. ‘Saare love story angrezi mein hi kyon, Hindi padhne wale pyaar nahin karte kya?’ (‘Why are all love stories in English? Don’t people who read in Hindi fall in love?’), asks one of his posts on the book’s Facebook page. Earlier this year, Flipkart agreed to open advance booking for a Hindi book for the first time, and 200 copies of his book , priced at Rs 132 on the e-retailer’s site, were booked before it released in April, says his publisher, Hind Yugm Prakashan’s Shailesh Bharatwasi. “If Chetan Bhagat’s books sell more in Hindi translation than in English,” he argues, “we haven’t even begun to meet the demand for Hindi popular fiction.”

Chaudhary isn’t the only one dreaming. Over the past five years, a whole crop of young Hindi writers has risen to challenge the monopoly of English-language publishing over the readership for Indian commercial fiction (in the same price bracket), and to re-establish the idea that reading a Hindi book is no less fun that watching a Hindi movie or listening to a Hindi song. Mostly made up of men—Divya Prakash Dubey, Chandan Pandey, Nikhil Sachan, Prachand Praveer, Ashish Chaudhary—the new wave also features some women, like Anu Singh Choudhary. They are upper- caste and upwardly mobile, from engineering or management backgrounds (IIT, BHU, Symbiosis, Roorkee), and have left small towns in the Hindi-speaking belt (Benares, Munger, Lucknow, Barmer, Devaria, Ranchi) to make it in the big city (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Gurgaon).

Most Hindi writers market their books through the internet and social media, more so than their English counterparts, perhaps. Chaudhary is in the middle of producing the second music video to promote Kulfi & Cappuccino; Praveer’s website already has a video outlining the premise of Alpahari Grihatyagi (Harper Hindi, 2010), and Dubey uploads a video trailer on YouTube, using cinema, animation and text, before the release of every book. Almost all contemporary Hindi writers have active Facebook fan pages for their books; for many, the internet is the only way to cultivate a reader base.

Aapne dekha hai Hindi books ko kahan rakhte hain Crossword mein (Have you seen where they keep Hindi books in Crossword bookstore)?” Chaudhary asks. “At the very back, piled atop each other.” Chaudhary wanted his book to be launched at a shopping mall, because that is where his potential readers were going to be, “not at India Habitat Centre”.

Not everyone is writing in Hindi for the same reason. Some do it because they are more comfortable in Hindi than they are in English, some because they believe there are stories that can only be told in Hindi, and some because they feel they can only be honest as storytellers if they write in Hindi. The success of Hindi blogging, the faith of indie Hindi publishers and the emergence of e-retailing and social media mean that these young writers are telling the stories of their time in their language, as well as bringing back characters and ways of life that no longer appear in popular Indian fiction.

Coaching institutes are their first point of contact with the big bad world, and many of these writers are doing wonderful things with how they impact the social life of small towns; the stories of Divya Prakash Dubey, for example, sharply explore how a family’s social capital is interlinked with how well its children do in entrance tests. In ‘Time’, a story from Dubey’s Masala Chai (Hind Yugm Prakash, 2014) an IAS couple in Kanpur keeps up a subterfuge that will alienate their son forever: they see no reason why their friends and family should know their son isn’t at IIT but at a bottom-rung college in Delhi.

In Kulfi & Cappuccino, the hero’s father wryly proclaims at the outset: “Har daur ka apna ek gur hota hai (Every era has its one big pull), while sending him off on his great journey: “Aur package iss daur ka gur hai” (and the one for this era is the salary package). He wants his son to work at an MNC, like the children of Vermaji and Sharmaji, so that he too can go around the mohalla showing off the plane ticket when the corporate executive son flies home on company expense. ‘Package’ is indeed the biggest leveller of our time, and the authors of Hindi’s new wave have personally had to contend with it. At 21, having finished a year at the coaching institute in Jaipur, Chaudhary told his parents that an MBA was not for him; 32- year-old Dubey, from Kanpur, works in Mumbai as a marketing manager at the telecommunications company Idea and has recently started writing for Bollywood.

There are other realities of the quest for the New Indian Good Life that young Hindi writers play with, such as the perceived relationship between the English language and modernity. In Kulfi & Cappuccino, the students of Total Success Academy (an actual coaching centre in Jaipur), are stunned to discover a class in personality development, where they are asked by a polished, suit-clad ‘ma’am’ to introduce themselves in English. In Dubey’s ‘Ruby Spoken English Class’, a story from his second book, Masala Chai, a similarly appealing teacher puts the students through ‘social activities’; guys have to talk to girls in English while looking them in the eye. Once this hurdle is overcome, ma’am perhaps knows, a young Indian man can conquer the world; they could be asking a girl out to Café Coffee Day next.

In several stories by contemporary Hindi writers, young people begin the life planned for them all along—of marketing targets and project reports, rented apartments and roommates, live-in partners and movies and dinners at the mall— and often end up confused or lost. The difficulty young men face in dealing with the idea of newly liberated women, which they conflate with the emphasis on self-gratification in their materialistic world, is the base for a powerful existential crisis. One of them is ‘Revolver’, an ingeniously crafted, achingly persistent story of failed love in the collection Ishq Fareb (Penguin Hindi, 2010) by Chandan Pandey, winner of Hindi literature award Jnanpith Navlekhan Puraskar (the prize is Rs 1 lakh and publication). In Pandey’s story, the protagonist doesn’t only hold his old lover responsible for betraying him, but also her new life, which set her on the path to deceit and manipulation. Would she still have thrown him out of her life if they had never left Benares, if she didn’t live alone and take her own decisions, if she hadn’t been carried away by the money-obsessed, morally vacuous world of advertising?

Many mix the stories of young people learning to live on their own with the stories of characters they have left behind in their hometowns, sometimes negotiating caste, class and religion with a maturity rare in their contemporaries in English fiction; a Durjoy Datta or Ravinder Singh. ‘Bisesar Bo Ki Premika’ from Anu Singh Choudhary’s collection Neela Scarf (Hind Yugm Prakashan, 2014) is the story of Bisesar Bo, the wife of Bisesar, whose family has worked for generations at the house of a zamindar for very little in return: a few bags of grain at harvest-time and luga-dhoti-bichiya (a gift of clothes and a silver toe ring) at weddings. Their time is spent fulfill- ing every need of the patron’s family, from bringing the right flowers for the malkain’s (matriarch’s) puja to applying a paste of chandan on the badki kaniya’s (older daughter-in- law’s) back. And now, Bisesar and his family must pass the ultimate test: the older son has asked Bisesar to send his wife unescorted to him. Never to be fazed, Bisesar Bo sets a condition that will rankle for the rest of his life: she will sleep with him if he lets Bisesar sleep with his wife. Choudhary, a 35-year-old media professional working in Delhi, grew up in the Bihari town of Siwan in a similar set-up, and the Bhojpuri wedding songs scattered through the story are reproduced from her mother’s notebook.

In one of the stories from Namak Swadanusar (Hind Yugm Prakashan, 2013) by Nikhil Sachan, Bhau Saheb, a small- time, saffron-bathed demagogue locally equated with the jungle lion, rouses the people of a Hindu mohalla, Lalkuan, to avenge the rumoured destruction of the tatti ghar ke pas wala mandir (the temple by the public toilet) by people of a Muslim mohalla, Pilkuan. An 11-year-old named Chhuttan is anointed Chhota Bhau and entrusted with the plan to break the masjid and build a temple in its place; instead of playing chor-police at school, he now leads the children in a game of mar-kutauwal, in which kids don saffron T-shirts and turbans, and pretend to turn the opposition into a pile of corpses.

Thirty-year-old Sachan grew up in Kanpur, studied at IIT and IIM, and currently works as consultant at KPMG, a business advisory firm in Gurgaon. He went to a Hindi- medium school, with a deep “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS] ethos”, and fell in love with its library, where he read the whole sweep of Hindi literature, from Kabir to Uday Prakash. On 14 September, which is observed as Hindi Diwas, a Hindi news channel ran a programme that reverse-mocked the idea of Hindi as an inferior language by celebrating “Hindi Medium Types”. Sachan was the star of the show. “The occasional recognition didn’t mean my life is any easier as a Hindi writer,” Sachan says. “One day my publisher, Shaileshji, and I went all around Connaught Place asking the pavement booksellers to keep copies of my book, but none wanted to take the risk,” he said. “We are still living through a time where most English medium schools punish their students for uttering a word of Hindi. There’s a long way to go.”

Language is a contentious issue within the community of contemporary Hindi writers, marked by sharp divisions in how it is approached on the page. Choudhary’s book uses a Hindi-speaking, Tier II city-based 18-year-old’s casual vocabulary (example: “Flirt kar rahe ho?”). Dubey’s books are littered with English words, but he employs Devanagari for everyday words and Roman letters for others, with long emails between MNC employees written in the latter. Choudhary prefers her English words in Devanagari; “If Hindi can accommodate words from Urdu and Farsi, then English too deserves a chance.” Prachand Praveer, a 32- year old from Munger in Bihar who works at a company in Gurgaon, presents the stories in the second part of Alpahari Grihatyagi with this remarkable proposition: the stories, originally written in English and missing several pages, were found in an exercise book at a raddi shop in Patna and were translated—and thus completed— for Hindi readers by the great poet Pandit Sashidhar Shastri. (Praveer dedicates this section of the book, titled ‘Gul Factory Ki Mahan Dastan’, to Don Quixote.)

Many popular Hindi titles are published by Hind Yugm, a publishing company which has just moved to a middle -income apartment in Mayur Vihar; formerly run out of a room in Delhi’s Jia Sarai, surrounded by IAS (Indian Administrative Service) training institutes and academies offering mastery of 1,800 English words required to crack most entrance exams. Publisher Shailesh Bharatwasi, a 31-year-old engineering graduate from Mathura, came to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh eight years ago to prepare for the Indian Engineering Services (IES) entrance test. Like many a literary-minded Hindi-bhashi from that time, he started curating a Hindi blog, Hind Yugm, which became, with some help from Orkut, a large enough community of writers, poets and editors for Bharatwasi to venture into Hindi publishing in 2010. He identified his target readership: “People who have recently seen money. They have moved to cities, started speaking in English, but still want their entertainment in Hindi.”

Bharatwasi, who took on this last name (literally: a person living in India) at the age of 16, when he moved out of his caste-ordered village, runs a one-man operation. He receives about 100 proposals every month, many over Facebook, which he sifts for distinctive voices; a network of literarily-inclined civil service aspirants in Delhi’s Mukherjee Nagar edit and proofread; and a small press in Mayur Vihar prints the books, which are sold on e-retailing websites such as Flipkart, Infibeam and Homeshop 18, priced between Rs 100 and Rs 200. He complains about the lack of a centralised distribution network for Hindi lit- erature and the monopoly of old Hindi publishers over the existing channels, which together make it impossible for him to get his books to stores. Also, the indifference of the Hindi literary establishment, the fact that a bestselling Hindi novel is limited to sales of 2,000 copies and that he is yet to make money on his enterprise—but he doesn’t consider his achievements to be small, either. Hind Yugm Prakashan now publishes close to 30 titles a year. And, according to an update, Kulfi & Cappuccino is now sold out on Flipkart every three days. It marks a beginning. Early this September, in a first-of-its-kind initiative, Delhi’s Connaught Place outlet of Oxford Bookstore organised a panel discussion on young Hindi writing. There was an audience of no more than 50 people—readers, students, professors, writers—but the air was so taut with nervous excitement you worried you would destroy the moment even by shifting in your chair.

Internal differences aside—“Do heroiney aapas mein kabhi dost nahin ho sakti” (like actresses, Hindi writers can never be friends with each other), says Ashish Chaudhary—every- one hopes that there will soon be a day when they can live off their writing, when a Hindi writer will be able to advertise an upcoming book on the cover of The Times of India, like Bhagat. “Ho sakta hai agle JLF mein Hindi popular fiction par bhi baat ho (Perhaps the next edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival will have a session on Hindi popular fiction),” says Bharatwasi. Not so big a mainstream dream for writers who are already shaping the future of popular Indian publishing.

(Snigdha Poonam has written for The New York Times and other publications in India and abroad)