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Engineering a good novel

Heena Khan
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Chetan Bhagat
Chetan Bhagat

What is it about India's engineering and management campuses that are making them a breeding ground for fiction writers?

Want to get between the covers? Ahem, the book covers? Creative language, strong imagination and an observing nature are essential skills for aspiring fiction writers. But, of late, it appears that the ability to bell the CAT or crack IIT-JEE is fast becoming another necessary qualification.

Glance at the fiction bestsellers list today and chances are that a graduate from an IIT or an IIM is ruling the charts. Chetan Bhagat set the trend. Soon, a host of biz-kids with white collar jobs started jotting down their experiences. Karan Bajaj, Sangeeta Mall, Ajay Mohan Jain, Prashant John, Nilesh Srivastava, Paritosh Uttam, Swati Kaushal, Sidin Vadukut, Anirban Mukherjee … it's a long list.

So what is so special about these campuses that are making them turn out not just top engineers and management whiz kids, but also a crop of authors? “An IIM/IIT graduate typically works in a cross-cultural environment. He has exposure to interesting minds, travels to multiple geographies and it is his rich experiences that become a fertile ground to pull out stories,” says banker-turned-writer, Ravi Subramanian, an IIM-Bangalore alumni.

WINNING STREAK

Subramanian, the award-winning author of four bestselling books — If God Was a Banker (2007), I Bought the Monk's Ferrari (2007), Devil in Pinstripes (2009) and The Incredible Banker (2011) — says, “Today, anyone with a little time and some interesting anecdote to share can write.”

But the one thing that differentiates IIT or IIM graduates from the crowd, he says, is their degree of aspiration. “They are desperate for success. Writing for them is a means to achieving an intellectually glamorous status.” Although Subramanian claims that writing is not another management project, he does write in an organised methodical fashion. That probably helps, too.

Ravinder Singh, the author of I Too Had a Love Story, whose more recent work, Can Love Happen Twice, has been ruling at the top of the Landmark bestsellers list and sold more than 1.5 lakh copies since its release in December, has a somewhat different story to tell. Unlike the others, he did not become an author after passing out from B-school. Rather, his first book helped him secure a place at the top B-school — Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

“I am an author by chance. I have never been an avid reader. I lost my girlfriend in an accident in 2007 and to come out of the trauma, I began to pen my story. I wanted to share my grief with the whole world,” he says.

“For me, engineering was a platform which led to Infosys, and Infosys was where my story took place. In fact, Nandan Nilekani was the first person to review my book,” says Singh.

MARKETING ANGLE

He admits though that his ISB training helped him, especially in marketing his books. “The theories of negotiations, networking and brand value have all been put to use,” he confides. Of course, it's not that the IIT/IIM writing brigade did not have a creative spark to begin with. Many of them admit to having written poetry and such, but their creative instincts just got buried in the rat race of competitive exams to join the top institutes. Take S.V. Divvaakar, alumni of IIT-Chennai and author of The Winners Price.

“I used to write poetry at school. Over the years, I got caught in my career. I am now 51 and have had the fortune to step back, re-plot my life and revisit writing in a serious fashion,” he says. And how! Divvaakar is not just churning out books, he has penned songs like Dilli Hamari Hai, which became an anthem during the Commonwealth Games of 2010. He has also written a song for Karan Johar's upcoming adaption of Chetan Bhagat's Two States.

He does admit that his IIT training is proving handy. “The analytical and rigorous research ability learned at IIT helps in writing as well. I have so far written equivalent of 100 books in the form of analytical reports. So I am qualified to produce texts on which people are ready to put their money,” he says. “Writing is one part, but making sure the book hits the stand and is marketed to capture the pulse of the generation is a humungous task,” he says. Vivek Kumar Agrawal, an IIM-Ahmedabad alumni, and author of To Catch a Smile, To Catch a Butterfly and Love, Me and Bullshit, too, gives credit to the management campus for his creative output.

An aspiring theatre actor, he has written, acted and directed many plays both on and off campus. “I could never see a secure career in acting. Before IIM happened, I would write poetry for personal consumption. However, it was only after entering IIM that I realised that writing can be taken seriously,” he says.

“IIM was a huge confidence booster and helped me assess my self-worth,” he says. He would write for various dormitory functions at IIM-A and contribute to the general notice board. “I wrote some impromptu poetry for girls and my batch mates responded well to my writing.”

WELL-TIMED

The timing is probably also right now for aspiring writers from the IITs and IIMs. With platforms such as digital coming up, writing is no longer the preserve of the arty intellectuals.

New imprints such as Metro reads from Penguin are also giving first-time authors a good platform. As Vaishali Mathur, Commissioning Editor at Penguin, says, “These are the best times for first-time authors and fresh writing, as both are getting accepted by readers and publishers. There is a boom in new writing in India.”

(This article was published on May 4, 2012)
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