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There is no method to the madness in the shelves that line Ram Advani's eponymous bookstore.
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Maharaja of Mush
Pitting his 'bol-chaal ki bhasha' against 'dictionaryoriented' literary fiction, author Ravinder Singh is on a roll.
At an awards dinner last year, Ravinder Singh congratulated an author of literary fiction who won that evening. The author said, "This is just an award;by morning, you would have sold another 200 or 2, 000 copies. Why praise me?" Singh quickly responded, "At least you were in the running for an award tonight. I was not even chosen. "
Not that Singh, leader of a new tribe of mass market fiction writers whose stupendous commercial success has led Indian publishing houses to hang on to their every word, has much to complain about. His first book, Can Love Happen Twice?, published by Penguin India in 2011, sold over 3. 5 lakh copies while I Too Had a Love Story sold one lakh copies in three months. Singh's publishers expect great numbers from his latest release, Like It Happened Yesterday. "It's not a romance and yet it is doing well. Once you connect with readers, it becomes more about sharing experiences, " says Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor at Penguin India.
An engineer and MBA originally from Burla in Orissa and "author by chance", Singh feels his chatty style of writing, which he calls "bol-chaal ki bhasha", struck a chord with readers. Most of them are between the ages of 18 and 24, many from tier two and three cities across India. They read mass market fiction because it's cheap (priced below Rs 150), the language is simple and milieu familiar. "Names like Tom, Dick and Harry may not make sense to them, they are comfortable with Ram and Shyam, " Singh says, adding these readers would be intimidated by "dictionary-oriented literary fiction". The six lakh-plus 'friends' on his Facebook fan page also seek relationship advice and Singh, with his dashing good looks and desi boy vibes, has become their guide. "I don't want to be an agony aunt but they think I am a champion of romance, " he says, modestly.
A heartbreaking, real-life account titled I Too Had A Love Story earned him this reputation. The book, published in 2008, is based on Singh's experience of first love, which ended tragically with the death of his fiancêe Khushi in a car accident. The book is an intimate recount of their romance, starting online with pinky-swear passion, deepening as they discover shared values and common goals. Lacking poetic language or nuance, the book scores in earnestness and ardour. "I may lack literary skills but I speak from the heart, " Singh says. His new book Like It Happened Yesterday delves into the "adventurous, curious, anxious moments" of childhood but retains the conversational flourish that has become his calling card. "I'm a story-teller, the way our grandmothers, etc used to tell tales, " says the raconteur who was once the life of every party.
While the new book has opened to good numbers, the search for a publisher for I Too... back in 2008 was a challenge. It was tough for Singh even to get the manuscript read. He had written the book three months after Khushi's death, not knowing another way to cope with his grief. "I was fighting with god, saying you have left my story incomplete, " he says, dramatically. "I said to Him, now you see how I complete it. Years from now, when even I won't be in this world, Ravin and Khushi will persist in the pages of this book. " Their story almost didn't make it - most publishing houses turned him down, until he met Delhi-based Srishti Publishers, who saw the potential in Singh's tragic story. They offered to print 2, 000 copies of the book but had no budget to market it. That's where Singh's business background came into play - a former Infosys employee, he reached out to Narayan Murthy and asked him to write a foreword. The launch was sponsored by Shaadi. com, the matrimonial site where Singh and his fiancêe met. "Word-of-mouth was the biggest boost, " he says, of the book that he claims "became viral on its own".
Women constitute 70 per cent of his fan following, and among them was a lady named Khushboo, who Singh met and married in 2012. At the time, he was recovering from a break-up, channeled loosely in Can Love Happen Twice. Khushboo, though not his biggest fan, was moved enough by his plight to pray for him at Delhi's Bangla Sahib, asking God to find him a good match. He's unwilling to reveal any more details of their romance, saying, "You may read the third part of the trilogy at some time. "
The ghost of a girlfriend past has not intimidated his wife, says Singh. He has boundaries for how much he will share with readers and despite repeated requests, won't publish a photo of his late fiancêe. Not everyone shows him the same respect and he says, "Someone once said to me that you are a helluva businessman because you know how to sell your girlfriend's death as well. That hurt. "
Initially, he was also upset by the lack of attention his work received from the mainstream press. But today he feels differently. "There are those who feel we are spoiling the world of writing, " he says. "But if there is demand, there will be supply. " The perception that literary works are better than mass market fiction is changing, Singh feels, and he's doing his best to turn the tide in his favour. For starters, he's quit his management job to pursue writing full-time, and he intends to mentor new writers of mass market fiction as part of a 'Three Interesting Storytellers' project which he will pay for and publish under his label Black Ink Books. Despite this initiative, and his success, the author still refuses to consider reading recreational. "I read maybe, three books a year, for a reason, not for entertainment, " he says, unperturbed at how this makes him sound. "I believe in honesty and so far, it's worked for me. "
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