Booking the Net

eBooks are kind of like the garage bands, but without the girls and guitars. But wait a while

It is said there is a murderer in each of us. And a book (not necessarily a murder mystery). But very few of us get around to doing one or the other, because the odds are high. Actually, that’s true only for writing. Murder is easy, and could land you a book deal (you don’t have to know how to write).

Looking to publish his first book, Delhi-based businessman Aditya Berlia, 28, found few takers. No one wanted to bring out a novel about a leather-clad, vampire hunting heroine, in the Lisbeth Salander mould. “They were just not interested,” says Berlia. “They thought I was some foreign returned, rich kid looking to indulge a hobby’’.

Undeterred, Berlia decided to publish Tantra himself, and went virtual to publicise it. For the launch he chose Google Hangout, skipping the customary wine and cheese affair. “We figured out our target audience and tailor-made the promos. One of our promos on Facebook said, `All men are boys until they get married’, and was aimed at men between 20 -26 years. There was a massive jump in the number of people who wanted to know what this post was about’’

 The FB page, Adi claims, had 4,000 likes within the week; the book trailer on You Tube — 180,000 hits in ten days. “The struggle was to get the first 500 people to like us’’, he adds. “Once you hit that, their friends check it out and the word spreads. This is where the Net pushes frontiers”.

One, a growing number of writers in India is increasingly starting to explore. To call out a recent few: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Devdutt Patnaik and Ashok Banker, all are among those whose books were promoted on the Net through trailers.

“The net has reduced entry barriers,” says Tripathi, 38, whose first novel “The Immortals of Meluha” was rejected by publishers. The former banker decided to put his business degree to use online. “We felt we could convey the book’s feel through a trailer. We did not have the money to take it to cinema halls, so we took it to the internet. It’s no longer the case that you need a certain amount of money or the right connections to get published. You can speak your voice on the Net.”

Now, thanks to the profusion of tablets and smart phones flooding the Indian market, those voices are more likely to get heard.  A potential the Rs.10, 000-crore Indian publishing industry has woken up to as well. Publishing houses like Penguin India, Rupa Books and Zubaan Books are digitizing content to explore newer areas that today’s consumers are zoning into.

“We have 510 titles on sale, and we are adding approximately 50 titles a month,” says Ananth Padmanabhan, Vice-President Sales, Penguin India. “This includes all new titles published in 2013, simultaneously along with their print edition.”  The revenues though are negligible so far. “We are currently spending a lot of energy on having all our titles available as e-books, and creating new e products.”

The problem, Padmanabhan says lies in the lack of adequate Indian retailers. Penguin currently retails through, which entered the e-book market last year by launching 100,000 titles through its digital store Flyte. Google Books and Amazon offer Penguin e-lists to Indian readers as well. “One of the primary concerns with other Indian retailers is the lack of strategy and marketing, and the absence of foolproof security mechanisms’’, he says.

While publishing houses are testing the waters, self-publishing sites have got a shot in the arm after the entry of e-books. “We mostly deal with new content and individual authors who are finding their audience online”, says Jaya Jha, co-founder of, a self-publishing platform. “Offering digital content makes total sense for them. Sometimes e-books are offered for free by those looking to market something else, or want to spread their ideas. Print would make such experiments costly. Since nowadays books are in any case written on the computer, there is no additional cost associated with digitisation’’.

Many believe this could see new and hopefully talented voices emerging online. “In our country we need the opening up that e-books offer if one is looking to make more discoveries in the world of literature,” says Amit Chaudhari, whose latest book “Calcutta: Two Years in the City”, has been brought out in print and e-book format.

“Right now, it is sportsmen and chefs who are publishing the most anyway. Because costs are lower, it will allow fresher and more interesting voices to publish’’. 

“It is exciting to see that writing is expanding across so many genres, chick lit, lad-lit, etc.’’, adds literary critic Sunil Sethi. “These IIM grads-turned-novelists are applying those very same models and techniques they learned in business school to writing or publishing to reach audiences. They are unlikely to produce a literary masterpiece but they are ratcheting up the numbers and that is heartening”.

 Will this spell a rise in readership? In the US, e-books now account for nearly 23% of the publishers’ total revenue, according to the latest report of the Association of American publishers .Back home, the prognosis is not so bright. “It’s a myth that India has a huge market for books, print or digital”, says Padmanabhan.

 “It is a discerning audience that buys books on a regular basis, who are a small number, and within them there is a shift between formats”, Jha agrees. “In the US, the reading culture was already much stronger than it is in India. E-books took it further by offering convenience. The Indian publishing industry has to generate demand in the first place. Until then, e-books will have to play in the same small market as physical books. By themselves, they will not make non-readers read’’.

 We no longer make the kind of long-term commitment required for a relationship with War And Peace, or display the rigour for Possession. On the frontiers of the World Wide Wilderness, we’re always ridin’ the bitstream, imbibing light, sound and word in short bursts. But that’s not to mean we’re not reading. Just that the reader and reading itself has changed. Maybe the book too needs to change. And maybe the eBook is the first barefoot step down that dusty road.

A version of this article appeared in the newspaper Livemint


Bollywood’s Women: Caught between Idol & Item?

The darkened cinema is the space where desire is explored without fear. Each member of the audience can privately lose themselves in the moving image projected onto the great glowing screen in front of them. And over the decades, Bollywood has given us symbols of desire that have ranged from the siren to the scrubbed village lass to the struggling young widow.

Indeed, as Talaash (2012) proved, we can even be lured into the arms of a phantom even as we fear annihilation lurking beneath her papery skin.

But desire has its daemons too.

And the other end of frustrated desire is the social crime of rape. Bollywood has certainly not shied from this type of violence. The symbols are familiar, repeated in film after film — the broken anklets, the ripped sari blouse at the shoulder, the clap of thunder and shards of lightening. A shaking hand stretched across the mandir’s threshold.
A rape scene was invariably part of any commercial Bollywood film from the 1970s onwards. It was plotted as the villain’s final, unforgiveable act that then neatly dovetailed into a justification for the hero’s subsequent obsession with vengeance.
“The social fabric at the time was such that people were identified [by] the part they played within a family — husband, father, son, and wife,” explains popular poet and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, who along with Salim Khan, scripted some of the blockbusters of that time such as Zanjeer (1973) and Deewar (1975). “In that context, what [could] be the greatest source of humiliation other than hurting the hero’s sister in the most vulnerable circumstances?” The hero’s moral outrage allowed us to forgive the slaughter that would follow.
The portrayal of rape mirrored the morality of the day. “Earlier, [at] a certain level, the morality was very black and white,” says Reema Kagti, who is among the new generation of filmmakers and has directed Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) and Talaash, both of which feature offbeat plots with strong female characters. “The rape scenes were there for titillation,” she adds. “That’s why every film had one. In today’s films, the item number is the equivalent of [the] rape [scene].”
A strong indictment but simply an accurate analysis that while times may have changed and there may be fewer rape scenes in Hindi films today, the industry continues to objectify women. How else, argues film editor Deepa Bhatia, who has worked on My Name is Khan(2010) and Rock On!! (2008), can we explain Katrina Kaif dancing to ‘Chikni Chameli’ like a Barbie doll? “She is saying look at me. It is commodification and that is the way it is,” says Bhatia. “You needed to show flesh under some pretext. Now heroines are item girls so everything is up for grabs.”
The problem though, many believe, goes beyond that. It lies is in the subliminal message packaged in suggestive songs and saucy dialogue. It persists in the age-old picturisation of romance: the man relentlessly pursuing the woman, who after rejecting his advances, finally gives in. “Films unintentionally give respectability to the term eve-teasing,” admits Javed Akhtar. “It makes the act seem innocent when it is not. They show the hero singing and following the woman to woo her even when she says no and that gives credibility and sanction to the act of eve-teasing; [showing] that this is a part of love.”
The mixed message is part of the problem — not just because the woman dressed in western clothes is ‘asking’ for trouble but also because the ‘sati savitri’ innocent woman is also a target. This conveys that no matter what your persona, as a woman you are vulnerable to assault. As sociologist and film buff Shiv Viswanathan puts it: “The equation of western to immoral bothers me. The rape of the innocent, or not so innocent, this double gradient is what worries me.”
The objectification of women came under the scanner after the horrific Delhi bus rape in December. Some actresses, among them Kareena Kapoor, Neha Dhupia and Ayesha Takia, have decided, according to industry sources, against doing item numbers in future projects.
In the very least, the tragedy has precipitated debate. On one end of the spectrum are the directors who have reacted sharply to discussion linking films to the incidents of rape and sexual violence across India. “Cinema has only been around for a 100 years; men have been treating women badly for much longer than that,” argues filmmaker and choreographer Farah Khan. “So how can one blame cinema for what is going wrong in our country today?” Kagti is equally dismissive and uses an example to question people who say viewing informs behaviour: “How come people don’t [emerge from the cinema] a little [more] honest [after] watching Munnabhai M.B.B.S. (2003)?”
Other voices in the industry, albeit smaller in number, call for greater introspection. “Cinema is such a huge influence, so how can you say attitudes are not shaped?” counters Deepa Bhatia. “It has such an impact when it comes to clothes or syntax. So it does affect the way you view women. In the 1980s, when Karisma sang ‘Sexy, sexy sexy, mujhe log bole’, it changed the way women were viewed in this country.”
It appears that filmmakers who wish to challenge the dominant themes can do so elegantly (see Not Herd Mentality). Javed Akhtar for one believes that Indian audiences are ready for films which show a more nuanced portrayal of women and relationships. He cites the success of films like Kahaani (2011), Zindagi na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Band Baaja Baarat (2010)
It appears, however, that a few films do not a successful trend make. “It is difficult to find financial backing for films that tell women’s stories,” says Kagti. “There may be one Kahaani, but there are thousands of male-oriented films. Audiences, and not just in India, are not interested in watching women-oriented films.”
Cinema is, after all, a business, a big business in India. And as Bhatia argues, as long as box office success remains the goal change is unlikely. “You can’t hold a gun to filmmakers and force them to change their perspective.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 21st, 2013.