The problem with India's literary popstars

I am sure you have heard about this one thing that happens often in Bollywood. A young star is “spotted” by a producer or a director somewhere out there in the wild. They are hired to play the lead in a big budget movie and the movie somehow skyrockets. During promotions and celebrations, it is not uncommon for these “discoveries” to say things like “I never thought I will be an actor”.

Every time I hear them say this, I imagine a veteran actor somewhere — someone who has gone to acting schools, studied and honed their craft their entire lives, and been part of critically acclaimed, award-winning films — shake their heads and say, “Honey! You are not an actor now.”

Something similar has been happening in India’s literary circles for some time now. We hear “I never thought I will become a writer” often enough for it to not register as anything out of the ordinary. But some of India’s most popular authors are not really writers in the way most writers are. They did not spend their lives honing their crafts. They did not undergo literary scrutiny. They never had to go back to the drawing board to sharpen their skills.

And it shows.

I don’t, for example, think that Amish Tripathi reads a lot. I am sure he reads the news, and perhaps also non-fiction books. But it does not seem to me that he has had any kind of extended exposure to literature in the English language.

In his book Scions of Ikshvaku, there is a girl called Roshni in Ayodhya of Ram’s time. Roshni is not a word with a Sanskrit base. Amish has also had Shiva tell Parvati to “chill” in another one of his books. His much-loved books seem like first drafts that have not even spent time in the same room as a story editor or even a copy editor. I would have thought that writing this amateur could not possibly have passed any discerning author’s notice. But apparently it did. Or maybe it didn’t and Amish did not think he needed to hold his books to higher standards.

I am a huge fan of Indian writers telling Indian stories to Indian readers. But it wouldn’t hurt to have these stories told better. The reason I am pointing out these limitations is because between them, authors like Amish command a huge chunk of the country’s book-reading attention. My point is not that they shouldn’t. It is that they should use it better. Our literary pop stars are not bad, but they can be way better with the help of decent editing.

The generation of writers that follows Amish Tripathi and his contemporaries will attempt to emulate their qualities. And I would like at least one of these qualities to be attention to detail and high-quality writing — not just publishing success.