Thrillers, crime, taboo, top draws in 2009 fiction list

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Chivalrous love and family soaps spanning generations took a backseat as thrillers, crime, alternative sexualities and occult mysteries took their place under the sun and bookshelves with fiction novels finding a younger voice in 2009.

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While the smartly packaged tomes in paperbacks and hardcovers became more reader friendly in terms of prose and formats; content charted a rather esoteric path, away from cliches.

The fiction publishing industry despite a slowdown managed to stay afloat because of competitive pricing, special Indian tariffs and India-specific editions.

Literary watchers feel that contemporary Indian writing in English came of age with Penguin Books India launching a young South Asian author from Pakistan, Ali Sethi, as the torchbearer of its prestigious Hamish Hamilton imprint, and “Slumdog Millionaire” – the celluloid version of career diplomat Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q&A” – going on to become India’s pride at the 2009 Oscar awards in the US.

The tribe of fiction writers in 2009 cut their literary teeth young and there were more youthful faces than the wizened grey ones like Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie and Arvind Adiga – and their brethren – at the gala launches across the country.

A flood of South Asian fiction writers of Islamic origin from the neighbouring countries grabbed a slice of the market and review space while a spurt in translations aided by literary NGOs, foreign missions, brought stories and novels from the heartland of India and abroad to the Indian bookshelf.

Fiction, says writer and winner of the Crossword-Vodafone award Neel Mukherjee, “has managed to come out closet experimenting with bolder contents.”

“I would like to believe that writing freely about alternative sexuality is becoming a trend in India. The English educated urban centres are seeing liberalism. It’s a good thing,” Mukherjee, the author of “Past Continuous”, told IANS.

Agrees former Doon School teacher-turned-writer Palash Krishna Mehrotra, “I shone my torch on prostitutes, cross-dressers, murderers, drug addicts, students and stalkers, who roam the underbelly of Delhi, in my new anthology of short stories this year. I probed the taboos like male identities, homosexuality and male consciousness – things that people usually fail to see,” the young author of “Eunuch Park: 15 Stories of Love and Destruction,” told IANS.

Thrillers were a hit this year. The year saw four smart whodunits – “Salim Must Die”, the second in a four-part military action series based on the conflict at the India-Pakistan border by Mukul Deva, a take-off on the unsolved mystery surrounding Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s death, “The Gold of Their Regret” by supernatural and horror story writer Ravi Shankar Etteth, “Dead on Time,” the debut political thriller in the fiction category by Meghnad Desai and Partha Basu’s “The Curious Case of 221 B”.

“Indians are just beginning to enjoy crime fiction. I don’t know why people in the country say crime thrillers are inferior. It is also literature,” Etteth told IANS.

V. Karthika, publisher of HarperCollins-India, said one of the reasons “why thrillers did not find an audience in India is probably because there were no quality thriller writers.”

Lipika Bhushan, marketing manager of HarperCollins-India, said: “But we have been trying to generate interest with good books.”

The “Indianisation” of English had a role to play in consolidating contemporary English in India.

Diplomat-cum-writer-turned minister Shashi Tharoor feels that “one of the reasons why readers like Chetan Bhagat – the most popular author of the year and perhaps the decade – is because he has been able to make English a mass language taking it to the widest cross-section of readers even in smaller towns and cities across the country”.

Bhagat released his new book, “Two States: The Story of My Marriage” in October. Published by Rupa & Co, it was priced at Rs 95. “The book is India – the story of the middle class India where the boy has to fall in love with the girl’s family first to tie a love knot. It reflects the physche of the Indian middle class but in a rather funny way,” Bhagat told IANS.

“This is the course Indian writing may chart in future,” predicted the young writer, who calls himself “90 percent entertainer and 10 percent reformer”.

As the country opened up in terms of literary content – the conventional format of the novel also changed. Graphic novels – animated comic book versions of novels – are redefining the way we connect to books.

“Novel has never been an easier medium. It is always easy to understand stories narrated with pictures,” graphic novelist, writer and illustrator Manjula Padmanabhan said.

The year 2009 saw several new graphic novels exploring diverse themes.

Overall, it was a mixed bag for Indian fiction, as it broke away from cliches and ended the year with what the industry might describe – a surprising but a happy ending.

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