The summer of 2007 was an unusually warm one in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, but the heat didn’t deter the flurry of guests who came to our house on that stuffy afternoon to congratulate me. The IIT-JEE results had just been declared and I had secured an all-India rank of 993. It was the second best rank in the city, and had attracted quite a few journalists as well who had come to interview me. By evening, there was a heap of sweets and congratulatory cards on the table, and my parents were tearfully happy. One of my neighbours presented me with Chetan Bhagat’s first book from his personal library, saying, “Now that you are going to an IIT, it is important to know what not to do there,” intriguing me so much with the subtitle of the book that by the end of the day’s euphoria, I had jumped headlong into its 300-odd pages.
The book had me hooked. The admission date was two months away; reading it was the closest I could get to living the IIT dream. To a boy who had grown up reading the biographies of scientists and the works of Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and the like, Bhagat’s book was a revelation — introducing me to the world of fiction and IITs. During the days of JEE preparation, I was fed into the notion that anything that came in the way of cracking the entrance exam was a waste of time, distractions that must be looked at with contempt. The television and internet were off limits except for perhaps the Discovery Channel and Wikipedia, and when it came to novels, there was no exception at all. When my friends went gaga over Harry Potter, I looked at them with derision. I could not believe 15-year-olds were reading about magic wands and flying broomsticks. After all, I was busy reading A Brief History of Time. But when I started reading Five Point Someone, having just cleared the JEE, I couldn’t stop myself from reading it cover to cover. Full of sex, friends and booze, it revamped my image of IITs being home to nerdy researchers, extremely sincere students and outstanding professors. Simple language, an unsophisticated plot and a risqué storyline made me finish the book the same night, reliving the times I used to stay up late to study for the IITs, only this time reading its antidote. The more I read, the more I looked forward, with naïve anticipation, to the life I assumed I was going to lead there, not academically but on a diametrically opposite plane, one that had fun and girls in it.
I hail from a region where IITians are considered gods. Their photos adorn the streets as ambassadors to the tutorials and coaching institutes they once studied in. Their names are remembered in schools even years after they pass out, teachers basking in the shadow of their pride while sharing their stories to inspire the younger batches. If you were to meet an IITian there by chance, you would not leave him without a photograph, such is the ridiculous craze for IITs. I distinctly remember my mother asking me to touch the feet of one such IIT Kanpur sophomore we met in our hometown — to seek his blessings for JEE. Without flinching, I obliged. It was this impressionable 17-year-old who had just finished reading his first novel, that too by an IITian. Chetan Bhagat, its young NRI author, seemed to me the coolest IITian ever, so cool that he instantly replaced the revered scientist APJ Abdul Kalam as my role model. So powerful was the influence of his book that I chose IIT Delhi over the more popular IIT Bombay, just to get a taste of the Chetan Bhagat life. Moreover, the book drastically altered more conservative views that I had held: alcohol wasn’t despicable anymore, neither was pre-marital sex “wrong”, for they were being endorsed by my role model, who I believed was progressive.
When I finally arrived at the gates of the IIT Delhi campus laden with suitcases, it was a strange sense of déjà-vu that gripped me; every corridor seemed known, every professor looked sadistic and every guy seemed to fit into a Ryan, Alok or Hari stereotype. Now that I had started reading other novels, I presumed that the effect of Five Point Someone would fade away, but I was wrong. It took me quite some time to settle down and break away from the cult. At the same time back home, my parents saw a sudden rise in the respect they got at work: their bosses invited them to exclusive parties, other parents of aspirants sought them for suggestions and tips, schools invited them for guest lectures. My IIT entrance ticket turned out to be the biggest spike on their resumes. When I went home six months later, as anticipated, IIT aspirants made a spectacle out of me, wanting to take photos of me and making notes of every word of advice that I gave. It was at this point I got inducted into writing, when my friends who were dropping a year for JEE asked me to recount my prized IIT experience. Hesitantly, I started a blog. Writing, something that I had rarely done outside my examination papers before, came naturally to me, “now that I was an IITian”. Owning a space on the Internet was exciting and gave me a sense of importance; people out there wanted to know what I had to say.
The blog, filled with boring anecdotes and pretentious philosophical musings, didn’t receive more than four to five hits a day after the initial 50 hits. I was disappointed and thought of giving up the business of blogging altogether. However, upon my return, I stumbled upon something that promised to revive it. It was a book titled Anything for you Ma’am, subtitled An IITian’s Love Story, with the tag ‘National Bestseller’ stamped on its cover. Its author Tushar Raheja, too, was an IIT Delhi alumnus. All of a sudden, I knew what my blog lacked. Now, I had to write a novel for my blog. Little did I know that the greatest impact these books had on me was that I had started to believe that anybody and everybody could write a novel, using a standard template of college romance featuring the quintessential geek, simple English sentences, developing the plot with sexual innuendos, and adding generous doses of humour wherever possible. Had I begun reading fiction with the works of Rowling or Rushdie, I would never have dared to attempt something as mammoth, as arduous as a novel.
Titled Oops!, released chapter after chapter on my blog, the novel delved into the tale of an ugly IITian nerd, a gorgeous Delhi University girl and her villainous mother jinxing their love story at every instant. I had least expected it to be popular but it became viral and got more than 5,000 hits in less than a month — an astounding figure for a blog which received a little less than 100 views in the past one month. Not once did I expect that book to be published one day.
Witnessing the popularity of my blog, friends asked me to approach a publisher on a dare. The first publisher that caught my eye was the one on Raheja’s book cover — Vrishti (name changed). The next day, I casually wrote to them. Vrishti was on the lookout for young authors, especially those with an engineering background to repeat Raheja’s success and capitalise on the market opened up by Bhagat. At a time when authors had to wait for months to hear from publishing houses, mostly to face rejection later, Vrishti responded to me within an hour, not via mail, but on phone. Forget English Hons. or an MFA in Creative Writing, it was an IIT degree that ensured my getting published. Vrishti’s proprietor addressed me as beta and signed all his subsequent mails with “lots of love” and “warm wishes to your family”. I was asked to double the word count, and therefore extend my manuscript, since my 30,000-word blog novel would make the spine of the book very petite and hence, wouldn’t grab attention among a pile of books at a bookstall. Besides, I was asked not to approach any other publisher, now that I was their beta. It all seemed too good to be true. A fixed non-negotiable royalty. Zero advance. Minimal editing fee. Six sample copies upon publishing.
However, there was a catch. The title of the novel, which until then was the concise and apt Oops! had to be changed into a 19-character title containing the word ‘love’ in it, no matter what. Be it superstition or sheer luck, none of Vrishti’s titles without 19 characters had worked in the market. Not having any knowledge whatsoever of publishing, I gave in, being highly obliged for all the love and warm wishes I was getting. The simple Oops! turned into a cheesy Oops! ‘I’ fell in love! with two needless single quotes around I just to fill in for the 19 characters. I pacified myself saying that my request for not including the word IITian anywhere on the cover was met. The agreement was signed.
Over the next months, the frequency of mails from Vrishti reduced. The “lots of love” was nothing but a pre-signing delicacy, served best when authors were fresh. However, Vrishti was prompt with the process. My entire manuscript was sent for editing, and returned within a month. The only significant change I could locate was that the expletive ‘damn!’ had turned into ‘fuck!’ — too tabooed a word for me at that time, but I took it as if it were a sign of a progressive writer. There were just a handful of other editorial changes; I was under the happy delusion that there weren’t many mistakes. But when I asked my friends to proofread it for me, they pointed out more than 500 grammatical errors. It was then that I realised that the editing, for which the publisher had charged me Rs 5,000, was actually minimal. I kept quiet, my annoyance quelled by the anticipation of holding my book at the tender age of 19 and making my parents proud. Exactly nine months after my signing the agreement with Vrishti, my first book was released nationwide. I was so touched that I bowed down and touched the feet of my publisher and gifted him a signed copy with a note saying, “Thank you for turning my signature into an autograph.” It was evident that he was touched, too, for his next few mails contained “lots of love” at the end. Priced at an affordable Rs 100, Vrishti’s titles meant easy access and promised less piracy. Within six months, Vrishti’s pan-India distribution network and the 19-character title reaped its results. The sales of my book crossed the 10,000-copy mark and a ‘National Bestseller’ tag now adorned the cover.
Just two years after having read the first bestselling novel in my life, I had a bestseller to my credit. Now, I had a Facebook fan page with hundreds of readers crooning their admiration for me on each of my status messages, a decent yearly royalty to splurge, and more than a dozen complimentary messages from my readers that arrived every week, some of which were worded thus: “thanq fr givin sch an intrstng nvl. it wz mah plezur 2 rd ur buk.” I felt amused to be on the other side.
I was deluded into believing that I was now going to be the next Chetan Bhagat; my book will soon cross a million-copy mark, and I will be rich and famous. Despite my megalomania, my well-read parents showed a mature indifference to my authorship. They seemed reluctant to accept me as an author, felt embarrassed in disclosing the tacky title of the book, in admitting that the juvenile prose and perverted sexual references were penned down by the very same IITian son who had brought them pride two years ago. When my father read my book, after having distributed more than 15 copies to his colleagues who didn’t say a word in response, he called me and asked, “Son, 10-15 years down the line, if you become a celebrated writer, would you be happy to see this book as your starting point?” I took offence at his statement and said self-assuredly that a starting point for any great journey was always humble. I failed to see that along with a humble starting point, it would also be considered shallow and juvenile. With that book, no matter how humorous and interesting it might have been, I had built my first impression to readers and publishers alike — another IITian author.
By 2010, Vrishti had become a love-story churning machine, with as many as two to three titles by authors mostly from engineering colleges released every month. As a student at IIT, I was often subjected to scorn as being one among the herd. No matter what I told myself, I knew deep inside that Vrishti had published me not because my book was good, but because of the embellishments it came with — the IIT tag and a love story, the quintessential Chetan Bhagat novel. My limitations as a writer and a reader comfortably cocooned me within the genre for a long time. Because of the success of my first book, I decided to append my first novel, which had ended on an incomplete note, with two sequels. Over the next two years, until I graduated, I published the remainder of the story in two parts, with ludicrously corny titles and sub-titles, Ouch! That ‘Hearts’.. and She’s Single I’m Taken: And We’re Committed!, both abiding by the 19-character rule set by Vrishti, using weird permutation of letters, cheesy wordplay and needless punctuation.
My father became increasingly vexed with these titles, lamenting that he couldn’t even show them to his colleagues, let alone make them read them. My equation with my father in relation to my books continued to sour. My complaints that he wanted me to write a book that could be gifted to his boss, that he preferred introducing me as an IITian rather than as a writer to his peers, remained ineffectual. It took me three years to understand him, to have sense hammered into my head; it was not the act of “gifting his boss my book” that he was hinting at, but a book worth gifting, a book that’s well-written. By the end of 2011, I was infuriated with the genre I started out with, thanks to the crop of new indigenous publishing houses flooding the market with substandard work. I began working on a medical thriller, but realised soon that it was too great a plot for me to handle with my limited reading, near-zero life experience and basic writing skills. However, no matter how much I regretted having made a hasty, unprepared start, there was no denying that, at that point, my books did serve a purpose. They sold! Sales were good, yet nowhere close to the first one, thanks to a flood of many such love stories in the market. The books sustained me after college, allowing me to continue writing.
I am 24 now. Two-and-a-half years out of college, which were spent mostly reading, writing and travelling. Last year, I moved beyond the genre where I was stuck, publishing Because Shit Happened: What NOT to do in a start-up! with Random House India. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a failed start-up, a welcome change from the previous genre and the previous publishing house. My father is still not quite happy with me, for this book, despite having a better title and writing style than the other three, contains the word shit. He is waiting for “the book” that he can present to his boss before he retires in 2018. My next one hopefully will, now that I understand how important aesthetics are. As I am writing this, I realise that even the fourth book’s title carries 19 characters, though there was no such rule. Some habits die hard.
My breaking free from the genre directly impacted the sales. Unlike 70,000 copies of the trilogy that sold, the fourth one is languishing at one-tenth the figure. Two weeks after the release of my fourth book, I received a message from a loyal reader, who after reading the fourth one complained, “Harsh, I hv stpped readin ur buks nw. U hv bcm lyk oder bad writrs, who uze big wrds tht I dnt undrstnd. Oops wz so gud.” On a whim, I picked up my first book and flipped through a few of its pages. I was surprised to find that the story flowed quite well, that its albeit clichéd plot and raw humour did manage to make me chuckle. Maybe it was because I didn’t write it with the intention of getting published. It might have been mindless, but it was heartfelt. Maybe, it’s not the book that I despise, but me being its author.
Looking back, my beginnings as a writer do not seem humble as much as they seem hurried and naïve. I often question myself, what would I have done had I known that I wanted to be a writer from the start? Wouldn’t I have practised and read extensively to become better so that I could launch myself in the market with one good book rather than a dozen such ordinary books? But then, hypotheses don’t answer my questions. Reality does. Would I be writing now if I hadn’t written that first book of mine? Most probably not. Devoid of a secondary source of income, I would have sat for college placements, taken up a high-paying job, slogged for 14 hours a day, enjoyed the money and only before going to bed, dreamt of writing a book before I died. In retrospect, it’s actually better to have written one, to have the assurance that there are publishers who would publish my work, people willing to read it, and that there is money just sufficient to keep me afloat, if not cushy. That there is a heightened sense of awareness in me as to not compromise on quality, come what may.
In 2012, one of my readers, an engineering student from Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, sent me an invitation to visit his beautiful town. His mail read: “Dear Sir, I am you’re big fan. You’re Oops! I fall in love! is first book I read and all my friends like it. Thanks to your inspiration, I write my own love story in English myself and am self-publishing it. I cordially desire you launch my book here in Warangal in front my friends. Please confirm. I will waiting. Thanking you.” I read his mail several times. Instead of cringing at such mails, I felt a deep empathy for him. It reminded me of myself, a few years younger. On a redemptive impulse, as if I were the culprit behind making him an author, I accepted his invitation. A month later, I was a thousand kilometres away from Delhi, launching his 60-page unedited novella among his friends and the local press. His modest middleclass parents were deliriously proud of their son’s achievement, as much as my parents were when I had cracked the JEE. That they didn’t know English didn’t seem to matter, as long as their son knew it so well. I was jealous. My reader had achieved something with his book that I could never achieve with mine. When asked to speak at the event, I began, “I am… umm… an author.” At that moment, I felt the same embarrassment about my authorship that my parents had been living with for the past three years.
The hitch that I encountered has diminished after my fourth book, but it hasn’t disappeared yet. But I know it will. There is still time, time to make a second first-impression.
Harsh Snehanshu is an author, and currently a Young India Fellow