On any bestseller lists these days are a few names that have become unlikely agony aunts. They are beacons for male wrestling matches with emotions, love and dating. These are men, mostly in their 20s and some in their early 30s, clubbed together as romance writers. At most literature festivals and book readings, they are feted as hidden bestsellers, catering to a young adult segment. This young adult audience is an ambiguous ocean of readers, ranging from those who are 13 years old to those in their late 20s. What they have in common is that the words of writers such as Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, Sachin Garg and Sudeep Nagarkar reach out to them, more than anyone else. “These books and their authors have, in a sense, become the mouthpiece of the youth,” says Vaishali Mathur, the senior commissioning editor at Penguin books. “These are the stories of the readers, with characters they can relate to, in environments that they live in. So the readers are extremely involved.”
Often, this genre is traced back to Chetan Bhagat and his 2004 book, Five Point Someone. Like him, many of the writers (Garg, Datta, Nagarkar) are engineers, who topped up their resumes with a management degree before branching out into writing — first as a form of catharsis, then as a means of expression and, finally, an avenue for gentle activism. Where women writers talk about navigating the world of romance, boys’ problems are more specific — how to talk to a girl?
“My concern in college was how to find a girl to date me,” laughs Sachin Garg, whose first book, I’m Not Twenty Four…I’ve Been 19 For Five Years came out in 2010. “My engineering college was in a remote place, so I had actually forgotten how to speak to a girl,” he says, referencing the skewed female-to-male student ratio in most colleges. His first book follows the adventure of the heroine, a young girl with a man’s name, working in a village in Karnataka, and what happens when she meets a hippie man. Like others of his generation (he is 29), Garg first flexed his writing skills on a blog (which still exists), before committing to a novel. In 2011, he joined forces with Durjoy Datta to start Grapevine Publications.
Datta has a similar story. He is 28, lives in Mumbai and has a degree in mechanical engineering, business management, marketing and finance; he also wrote about the life of people around him, and one would think he would not have had problems getting girls to notice him (his dimple gets more mentions from readers than his plots). “I didn’t set out to be a romance novelist. I was writing about things that were happening to me and to people around me. I have written about body image issues, impending death, the culture of anger, fanboys and discovering sexuality. But if there is a sliver of a love story in the plot, you get slotted as a romance writer,” he says. Datta’s first book, Of Course I Love You (he co-wrote it) came out when he was 21, and still in college.
His friends also grappled with the same issues. “I kissed a girl; now I have to marry her. When guys broke up, they would retract into a shell; you didn’t talk about it among your friends. We’d hear about some guys who would bawl.” There were tales of dangerous levels of drinking, depression and self harm. “My stories are not plot-driven,” Datta admits candidly, “They are character-driven. Many readers will come up to me and say they don’t remember what happened in the book, but they remember the characters. I suppose that’s what resonates with them.”
The thought is echoed by Sudeep Nagarkar, who is 27 and lives in Mumbai. His first book, Few Things Left Unsaid, was literally autobiographical. “I presented my diary to the publishers,” he says. It is roughly an account of his first relationship. It came out in 2011, sold 3.5 lakh copies and by 2015, there was talk of it being adapted into a Marathi feature film. His last book, You Are Trending In My Dreams, released not six months ago, has already sold over one lakh copies.
Nagarkar’s book titles are emblematic of his target audience, easily lending themselves to cheesy hashtags — It Started With A Friend Request, You Are The Password To My Life, You Are Trending In My Dreams. Nagarkar feels he writes about situations and places that are extremely relatable — teenagers, youth, social media, homosexuality, “I feel that the real essence of love and friendship is lost in social media. Readers write to me saying we broke up because of a Whatsapp conversation. There are so many misunderstandings, because we don’t interact person-to-person any more.” Digesting the import of his words, Nagarkar’s agenda is to always convey something positive in his books.
This is much like Ravinder Singh, who at 34 is the senior citizen of the genre. “My USP is being myself,” says the Gurgaon resident. Singh is also a MBA, and used to work in the IT industry. His first book, I Too Had A Love Story, was released in 2008. It was based on his relationship with his long-term girlfriend, who passed away before they could be engaged. “My first book had a purpose — to transport the thoughts in my mind to any other mind. I am an emotional guy, and I write about emotions. No one is reading my books for sex or drugs. I am serving pure emotions, and a majority of readers are going through the same emotions. The stories make them reach out to me. At book readings, they’ll get me a beer and tell me their stories. They take solace in me.”
His audience is also in the Class X (15) to early corporate (26) age group. “Love, these days, has different pressures,” says Singh. “The readers are not mature enough to understand what they are going through and have no one to reach out to.” The fact that most of these writers are so close in age to this reader base is what makes their work relatable, and they are often classified as tellers of small town or campus stories. “To them [the readers],” says Mathur, “these books also provide catharsis and solutions to dilemmas that they face today.”
With each book release, the author matures, taking the reader along with him — thus the feeling of solidarity as they journey together. “I am a flag bearer of hope and optimism,” says Singh, when asked to pin down his literary voice. “I take a stand in life and through my books, want the youth to take a stand too — about traffic, littering, taxes, politics. I had no desire to move abroad; I always wanted to make my country have the amenities we move abroad for,” he says.
During his book tours, he ignites minds with questions. “I’ll ask the audience, ‘How many of you pay taxes?’ Five per cent will raise their hands. Then I point out that they pay tax every time they eat in a restaurant or buy a movie ticket, and I ask whether they shouldn’t be interested in knowing where that money is going.” Singh is moved by what he reads in the newspapers every day, and Delhi University elections, strikes and agitations are research material for his books. His next book, which will be published in June or July, is described as a romance for a mature audience. When he talks to an audience, he also takes the opportunity to crease out patriarchal notions. “I tell them that my wife goes to an office. I stay at home and wash the dishes, do the laundry and also write books. I point out how we are also oppressed by patriarchy,” he says.
Garg also sees himself more as an author than a romance writer. His latest book is about the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman islands. On a trip to the islands in 2013, Garg was faced with the racial connotations of tourist interactions with these native inhabitants, while on a ‘ human safari’. Subsequent trips, research and liaising with London-based NGO Survival International opened up the complexities of relocation, monetisation and integration of tribal peoples. His eagerness to be approved as a serious author and not just a bestselling one is palpable. Datta tried his hand at the fantasy genre a few times before burying it. “I could not create the canvas, build a new world and sell it,” he says of his attempts. “If I could not buy it, how could anyone else? So I stuck to what I knew; what was happening around me.” He is working on a couple of books currently, one of which is a thriller, but is unsure whether he will publish it. Till then, it seems that men will be selling more romance in India than women.