The year when Indian non-fiction came of age

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Indian non-fiction came into its own in 2009, feel writers and publishers. The literary glitterati filled up the shelves with works on spirituality, politics, business and motivation.

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Western writers – barring “desi sahib” William Dalrymple – paled into relative obscurity when compared to the likes of Amartya Sen, Meghnad Desai and Gurcharan Das who studded the calendar with new releases.

The book that made the maximum impact by way of controversy and hype was MP and veteran politician Jaswant Singh’s critical chronicle of a slice of colonial history, “Jinnah: India, Partition and Independence”. As is well known, it cost the minister his party membership.

Critic, writer and political and social commentator Gurcharan Das did an unconventional “reinterpretation” of “The Mahabharata” in his book, “The Difficulty of Being Good: The Subtle Art of Dharma”.

“Every generation has to go back to ‘The Mahabharata’ to find new meanings. The corruption in government and in daily life drove me to the epic to find solutions and establish that it is difficult to be good. Every character in the epic is caught in the conflict between ‘dharma’ and ‘adharma’,” Das told IANS.

Writer, thinker and commentator Ramachandra Guha feels non-fiction needs more encouragement. “Young authors must be encouraged to write non-fiction and there should more non-fiction books,” Guha said.

The writer who struck a Rs.97 lakh-deal with Penguin Books India in March for seven books, including a two-volume autobiography on Mahatma Gandhi, spread across 2010 and 2015, said: “The deal was an acknowledgement of the imbalance that existed between fictions and non-fictions”.

Amartya Sen who released “The Idea of Justice” – one of the largest grossers this year – said his book on the “ideal system of justice” was meant for the “thinking young”.

“Non-fictions have to appeal to youngsters,” said the Nobel laureate who illustrated complex theories of social justice and democracy with “simple examples involving children”. He also drew from Indian religions to establish his arguments and make them relevant to common readers.

Lord Desai’s book, “The Rediscovery of India”, launched last month, is a look at how India has been able to stay together as a nation over the last 60 years despite the disparate forces at work and its cultural diversity.

Desai culled from the pioneering encounters between the East and the West in the 15th century and spotlighted the country’s colonial past, emergence of new classes and “its road to independence”.

“I plan to write another book on Bollywood. Non-fictions are fun to write,” the eminent economist told IANS.

Dalrymple travelled into the heart of Indian pagan mysticism with his book, “Nine Lives”. It stayed on the top 10 non-fiction list since it was released in October.

He believes “every non-fiction book is a work of research and serves as a document.

“But ‘Nine Lives’ is more about my journeys to the heart of India and talking to people who practise faiths outside the purview of mainstream religions. Almost the entire book was based on interviews with upholders of such faiths, many of which believe in blood sacrifice than the worship of Ram,” Dalrymple told IANS.

Religion, spirituality and history were the biggest draws in the non-fiction category in 2009.

Wendy Doniger, a scholar researching Indian religion in the University of Chicago, came up with “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. She writes about the non-Sanskritic popular Hindu faith that has flourished in India over the centuries, away from the philosophies of the Vedas and Upanishads.

She looks at the popular goddesses that evolved in India like the Santoshi Mata of the 1980s in Bollywood who fulfilled the “materialist aspirations” of the middle class.

“The demand for spiritual books is unbelievable. There has been too much of crime and fiction. The year 2009 has seen a sharp rise in spiritual, self-help, yoga and spiritual non-fiction books,” Ajay Mago, publisher of Om Books, told IANS.

An estimate by the Gita Press, the Uttar Pradesh-based oldest publisher of religious texts and spiritual non-fiction books in India, says it has sold Rs.3.2 crore (32 million) of spiritual books in the country.”

Almost every leading Indian publisher of non-fiction books like Pearson-Education, Wisdom Tree, Penguin Books-India, Roli, Rupa & Co, HarperCollins-India, Longman, Macmillan Publishers, and Oxford released five big-ticket books each on an average in 2009.

“The demand for non-fiction books is picking up gradually in India like in the West,” says P.M. Sukumar, the CEO of HarperCollins-India.

The country also saw more than a dozen business and motivation books in 2009, mostly based on the real life experiences of Indian CEOs and business honchos in the country and abroad.

“Business books these days are inspirational. Job and salary must not be the sole motivations for today’s young professionals. The Indian youth must set higher goals at work,” Bangalore-based writer of business and motivation books Subroto Bagchi, who released his book “The Professional” in 2009, told IANS.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])