On the write track: Pandemic inspires many to wield the pen

The pandemic has given rise to many debut authors. How has the situation served as inspiration and what prompted these writers to take up the pen? We seek some answers

What prompted a sea of submissions from new authors was a combination of factors— ample time in hand because of the switch to work from home models, some treated the pandemic as a break to finally take up writing, while others found solace in penning their thoughts during the chaos and for others it was the layoff or decision to change career paths.
What prompted a sea of submissions from new authors was a combination of factors— ample time in hand because of the switch to work from home models, some treated the pandemic as a break to finally take up writing, while others found solace in penning their thoughts during the chaos and for others it was the layoff or decision to change career paths.

Reya Mehrotra

When the longlist of the 2021 JCB Prize for Literature was announced in September this year, literary enthusiasts were in for a pleasant surprise. Six out of 10 authors on the longlist—Rijula Das, Krupa Ge, Daribha Lyndem, Shabir Ahmad Mir, Lindsay Pereira and Keerthik Sasidharan— were debutants or first-time writers.

Although Malayalam writer M Mukundan eventually won the prize for his novel Delhi: A Soliloquy, the inclusion of several first-time authors in the list has not only boosted confidence of such writers but has also laid bare the fact that the pandemic inspired many to wield the pen.

Leading publishing houses agree that they saw a surge in the number of submissions from debut authors. What’s better, their works were worthy of being published and recognised, they said. This would mean more acceptability of new writings from both the publishers and the readers and hence, more visibility to the debut writers. Rahul Soni, executive editor, literary (HarperCollins India) says, “It’s a matter of pride for us at Harper that we publish so many exciting debut writers from Avni Doshi and Madhuri Vijay to Naheed Patel and Sonal Kohli more recently—and many more to come. It’s one of the fundamental things, I think, a publisher is supposed to do—find new voices, shape and hone them, support them, get them to the right audience.”

What prompted a sea of submissions from new authors was a combination of factors— ample time in hand because of the switch to work from home models, some treated the pandemic as a break to finally take up writing, while others found solace in penning their thoughts during the chaos and for others it was the layoff or decision to change career paths.

Teesta Guha Sarkar, head of editorial, Pan Macmillan India, believes that the pandemic, while a “devastating experience around the world (and perhaps because of this very fact), has also been a time of reflection and introspection. We saw many writers turn to their craft perhaps as a means of coming to grips with it.”

New authors crowding shelves of bookstores have also given the reader an opportunity to experiment and discover new writings and there has been a shift from reading only well-known authors and works. Elizabeth Kuruvilla, executive editor of Penguin Random House India, explains that established writers for sure have a dedicated readership that debut novelists cannot boast of.

“But the best of all writing has a way of making themselves noticed. Many writers did use the pandemic, particularly the lockdown period, to complete book proposals they would been dwelling on, or their manuscripts,” she adds.

What has also helped the debut authors in getting the attention is the strength of the social media platforms, says Tarini Uppal, associate commissioning editor at Penguin Random House India.

“Spending all our time scrolling through the Internet has helped discover newer voices. Literary prizes like the JCB Prize also help put these books on the map and give them a lot more visibility,” she says. Although most of the times, first timers in our country get lost in the crowd of thousands trying to be heard, the pandemic has given people more time to focus on their reading and now they consciously make effort to seek out new authors, she adds.

We bring you a few debut authors who not only published their books this year but also gained recognition for their writings on diverse subjects.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare

Author, Breathing Here is Injurious to Your Health: The Human Cost of Air Pollution and How You Can Be the Change (Hachette)

For Jyoti Pande Lavakare, 54, who is also the founder of Care for Air, an independent organisation committed to clean air in India, the alarm rang when she moved back to Delhi from California in 2009 and noticed the smoggy skies. Having breathed in clean Californian air, she could feel the difference in Delhi. As a mother of two, she was worried and as a former journalist, she couldn’t help but embark on a journey of research. “At first, I couldn’t believe the things I was reading—I was almost in denial —but by 2015 with the help of the expat parents, joined by aware Indian parents, some public health researchers and atmospheric scientists, we had formed a clean air awareness and advocacy group and called it Care for Air,” she says. When in 2017 her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer that had been triggered due to air pollution, it hit her hard. She began writing the book in 2018 after her mother’s passing to process her grief and educate people about the human cost of air pollution. For her, the pandemic was rather a busy time with her college going children and husband at home and her book progressing as well. However, she agrees that the pandemic has given writers time to write during the lockdown.

As for books like hers that neither fall into the pure science writing nor pure grief memoir genre, she says are hard to get published from a sales point of view. She says that they are suffering from lack of resources and public and private financial support as people’s attention spans diminish in a world dominated by social media. But they are finding newer ways to survive and reinvent themselves to stay relevant in a scenario where watching and listening rather than reading seems to be the done thing.

“Newer authors are being given a better chance—publishers are hedging their bets,” she adds. Her book was longlisted in the Tata Literature Live! First Book (Non Fiction) category.

Krupa Ge

Author, What We Know About Her (Westland Books)

Krupa Ge, 35, had been thinking of writing a novel, but the idea struck when her mother, an excellent raconteur, narrated the story of her grandmother’s engagement ceremony. “It was poignant, beautiful and tragic,” says the Chennai-based writer.

“I knew my grandmother resented the fact that she was denied education. She was also married away as a child bride. I thought a novel set in her times about girls and their aspirations would be a good tribute to the life she lived,” she adds. The novel that uncovers the layered family history was completed in nine years and got published this year. As a debut author, she says the pandemic gave her time to think but the looming uncertainty took away her inclination to work. She rather calls it a stressful time.

As for debut writers’ tryst with finding publishing platforms for their works and gaining acceptance among readers, Ge says fiction is more challenging than non-fiction.

Ge’s book What We Know About Her was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature. She says, “I was quite honestly surprised to find the book on the longlist. The jury’s thoughtful citation as well as their introduction of the book during the longlist announcement was beautiful.”

Daribha Lyndem

Author, Name Place Animal Thing (Zubaan Books)

Daribha Lyndem, a 2013-batch Indian Revenue Services (IRS) officer, works as a deputy commissioner of customs in Mumbai. She hails from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. It was only when she left her hometown that her ideas of it as a place and a feeling began to crystallise in her mind.

“I knew I had stories to tell and a cache of anecdotes that I could draw from, and it was just about finding the time to sit and write,” she says, adding: “I wrote one story offhandedly and the others seemed to spill out just as easy. I wrote it whenever I had breaks between work and on my off days.”

Lyndem’s book was written before the pandemic but it halted the printing of the book for a long time. She calls it ‘disheartening’. When her debut book was shortlisted for the JCB Prize 2021, she was rather pleased. “I never imagined, sitting alone in my room pushing away at my keyboard, that such a thing would happen,” she says, adding she plans to write more in the future.

She feels publishers would now be more open to debut authors. “I think getting a book published is a feat in itself and the publishers factor in many things before they give an author a positive response,” adds the 34-year-old debut author.

Yashaswini Chandra

Author, A Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback (Pan Macmillan)

When art historian and horsewoman Yashaswini Chandra sat down to pen her debut book, it came to be called A Tale of the Horse. Published by Pan Macmillan, the novel stems from her passion for horses and riding. Through her work, she captures the bond between humans and horses and places it in the historical context of the Indian subcontinent. “I felt that the horse hadn’t got its due in the history of India, given its centrality to it, and it was an attempt worth making,” she explains.

It took her five years to complete the book as it required extensive research and she also had work commitments. Fortunately, most of her research was completed before the pandemic struck and the book came out in January this year.

As an author, Chandra feels that the pandemic gave her time to think and write. When asked if she was worried of how her debut book would be received, she replies, “I had poured so much of myself into the book over five years that I didn’t want to fret about its afterlife too much. I was hopeful that readers would recognise all the hard work and feeling I had put into it. But I didn’t expect the book to be noticed as much or sell as well as it has because I thought that there may not be many takers for a book on horses. So that has been a nice surprise.” Chandra says she will come out with two more books soon.

Chandra’s inspiration to write came between 2013 and 2017 when she was managing a project to bring out a series of books on different aspects of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and realised that she liked writing in a literary style for a general audience. 

As for publishing houses keen on publishing new authors especially after the pandemic, she shares, “There’s a demand for Indian non-fiction and some publishing houses welcome new voices and fresh ideas. Yet, most works of non-fiction that tend to be commissioned are concerned with the politics of our time. So, I’m not sure that books on diverse topics are to be had. But, as my example shows, if a publisher backs you and ensures that your book gets noticed, readers do give debut authors and unusual ideas a chance.”

Lindsay Pereira

Author, Gods and Ends (Penguin Random House)

Journalist and editor turned author Lindsay Pereira’s debut novel Gods and Ends was shortlisted for both the JCB Prize for Literature 2021 and Tata Literature Live! 2021. What clicked was the visibility he brings to the invisible people living in a city where a million dreams brew—Mumbai. He captures the claustrophobia they remain trapped in. He shows the lurking darkness in the lives of those prisoned by their circumstances that are beyond their control.

“I believed I had something to say about a community and people who weren’t adequately represented in the national discourse as far as Indian writing in English was concerned. The book began as a series of questions I asked myself, about tropes in popular culture, and the way we typecast groups of Indians before compelling them to fit into boxes. It took me a few years to find a way of collating all the answers that came up. It was something I wanted to for years but didn’t because it took me a while to be confident enough of being able to pull it off. I eventually wrote it when I thought I was ready,” says Pereira, 45.

As a debut author, he says he wrote with the hope of finding a publisher, let alone with expectations of being on a list for any literary prize. But now he plans to write more books.

Pereira says that the readers now are more accepting of newer works and authors. “I don’t know what compels a publishing house to accept or reject any manuscript, or if those parameters have changed recently. But I do believe readers are more open because of the way criticism has become more democratised in our age of social media. There are more conversations being had over books that probably wouldn’t get much attention in the absence of these platforms,” he says. The book published by Penguin Random House India came out in March 2021.

Sahar Mansoor

Author, Bare Necessities: How to Live a Zero-Waste Life (Penguin Random House)

The idea of Sahar Mansoor’s Bare Necessities: How to Live a Zero-Waste Life stems from her zero-waste social enterprise Bare Necessities Zero Waste India that deals in zero waste, natural, eco-friendly and vegan products across categories like lifestyle, homecare, personal care and online sustainability courses.

The idea of the book was pitched in 2017. She co-authored the book with sustainability advisor Tim de Ridder who joined her Bare Necessities as a sustainability consultant in 2019. The book is a step-by-step guide on sustainability providing knowledge, personal insights, interactive activities and solutions to help the reader transition to a more sustainable lifestyle.

“We decided to create a staged approach where the reader journeys through topics that are intimate such as personal care routines and fashion choices, to more communal areas of life such as the kitchen, home care and festival occasions. The guidebook also looks at really broad aspects of life including the reader’s community as well as city scale and global impacts of waste. It has been designed to provide a holistic view of how to reduce waste in your life,” adds the 29-year-old author.

They began writing the book in 2019 and being in different time zones (Ridder in Australia and Mansoor in Bengaluru), would schedule meetings to discuss the progress. But she says that prepared them to keep the flow going during the pandemic. Once completed, the book launch and promotion too remained online.

However, now that her book has been well received, Mansoor says that she is keen on exploring new formats and new topics of course within the realm of sustainability and environmental entrepreneurship.

“What I have seen over the past few months is a more inclusive community of diverse writers or varying experiences,” she adds.

Keerthik Sasidharan

Author, The Dharma Forest (Penguin Random House)

The Dharma Forest was born from an idea and a question. The idea was simple: what if some parts of the Mahabharata were told from the perspective of different characters who experience a series of events differently. The question that followed, however, was more complicated: how does one shepherd this Leviathan-like epic into the humble abode of a modern novel.

Author Keerthik Sasidharan says, “What was clear to me, from the start, was that The Dharma Forest will be an attempt to locate the individual amid the innumerable forces that act upon a person. It will be an effort to write about individual subjectivities and not about supervening ideological demands—conservative or progressive—which are often made upon the Mahabharata in our times.”

The New York-based writer says this is the first of his trilogy The Dharma Cycle that would portray nine characters—three characters in The Dharma Forest and three each in the next two books— each of whom will embody an emotional valence, a rasa, that is intimate to an individual and is yet universally recognisable. In The Dharma Forest, we see Bhishma, with his deathless life, embody adbhuta (wonder) as he watches time destroy all that he had assiduously built at great personal costs; Draupadi as an embodiment of sringara (eros) who uses different forms of love and stratagems of arousal to ensure her diversely inspired husbands continue to wage war; and Arjuna, as the crystalline essence of veera (heroic valour), overcome the infinite sorrow of a dead son and persist with courage and righteous fury. The first draft of The Dharma Forest was finished in three years.

The idea of the book had been lurking in his mind since a long time. As a child, he would accompany his father to watch Kathakali performances in Palakkad district in central Kerala where dancers would metamorphose into Gods and transmogrify into violent demiurges of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, he says. “What they depicted was a cosmology of morals and causality that was indistinguishable from our everyday lives. In their world, the Gods hadn’t yet gone into hiding. But the more sophisticated the dancer-actor was, the more subtle were the revelations amid excesses. Over time, I realised that within the frame of traditional telling of these epics, there also lay great freedoms to explore psychological truths about illicit desire and the cathartic pleasures of violence.”

Sasidharan’s nomination at the JCB Prize awards came as a surprise as he had never heard of it till his book was longlisted. “Then, when I read more about it, my sense of gratitude only increased to see my book placed among some of my literary heroes,” he adds. 

The 41-year-old author is now working on the second volume of the three-book series and is under contract to work on a non-fiction on Indian history. He also plans to write a novel set in the worlds of India and Pakistan’s intelligence services, the R&AW and the ISI, respectively.

According to him, the human attention span has become the biggest enemy of the book industry. However, he says that readers now have the abilities to go in search of a niche they find of interest, with authors from around the world offering their works. In this sense, we live in a golden age when readers can gravitate towards books. The challenge for publishing houses—whose resources are finite and limited—is to identify books that will help keep the lights on and books that will survive, burnish a reputation, and live on in the minds and hearts of readers.

Rijula Das

Author, A Death in Shonagachhi (Pan Macmillan)

It was a twin treat for debut author Rijula Das, 34,  as her novel A Death in Shonagachhi was not only longlisted for JCB Prize 2021 but also won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award (Fiction). When the New Zealand-based author heard the news, she was delighted. “There exists a video of me jumping up and down in my living room with much glee. I can say I existed in some grey land of simultaneously expecting to be listed and dreading that I won’t be, as I suppose all writers do with major awards,” the writer says.

When asked what made her write the novel, she says that it’s hard to say. “But in a technical sense, I wanted to experiment with form and polyphony. I think we are at an interesting time in Indian writing in English; we are bringing the spirit and linguistic quirks of regional Indian literature that we grew up on, in our books in English. I wanted to preserve a certain regionality and form of Bangla literature in this book. I wanted to tell a story about life and death and the deaths that we let slip through the cracks,” she says.

Writing and rewriting the book took about seven years for her and now the writer is in the process of proofreading the manuscript for its North American/ World publication. It wasn’t a conscious choice for her to write a book till about 2013 when she changed my PhD in literature to one in Creative Writing.

She disagrees with the fact that the pandemic gave time people to write. “It’s hard for me to say if the pandemic has given new authors the right time to think and plan their books; the pandemic was an unprecedented time, and there was, at least in me, a child-like desire to regress to comfort. I don’t think there’s ever really a ‘right time’ to plan and write a book. There’s only time, and what we do with it.”

As of now, she is not working on any other book. She believes that when debut works receive this kind of support, the readers are more likely to pick them up. “Much of what we buy as readers is what gets talked about in the media, awards, reviews and bookstores,” she says.

According to her, debut books have long been a darling of the publishing industry and it is important to publish well, and that invariably takes time. “There is space for good books in the world; contrary to popular opinion, the book industry is not only driven by economics, but also by love, and an obstinate championing of art. A good book will find its publisher, and its readers,” she adds.

Shabir Ahmad Mir

Author, The Plague Upon Us (Hachette)

Kashmiri writer Shabir Ahmad Mir brings out the conflict in the land of conflicts in his debut work The Plague Upon Us. He says that it was “conceived out of desperation”.

“We had a long, cruel summer of 2016. The whole valley was on boil and effectually cut off from the rest of the world. In the never-ending curfew that was enforced all around there was nothing else to do but to escape into the memory land and reclaim the past,” he says.

Mir took no more than three to four months to ink a lifetime of memories and experiences into paper. “And in that sense, it was a work that took years in making,” he says. The idea was to write a short story but then the characters took a life of their own and he let them go wherever they wanted to, and it eventually shaped up into a novel, he says. The circumstances in which he wrote were not very different from the pandemic, according to the writer.

“We could not venture out of our homes, our daily routine had come to a standstill and we were cut off from the rest of the world: pushing us into an existential crisis of sorts- much like what Covid-19 did to the rest of the world,” says the Pulwama-based writer.

Mir believes the pandemic experience for writers was an individual one—those who needed hermit-space to write or plan writing, the opportunity was perfect and for others it was mental fatigue and ennui of such a kind where no writing whatsoever would have been possible. For him, the idea that publishing houses and/or the readers are more open to debut authors right now is a skewed inference. “I think the publishing houses held back the work of established names as they were not sure how the supply lines of books would turn out. They didn’t want to risk losses. That gave some extra room for new authors which in turn makes it look like as if new authors are having it easy now,” he explains.

The 2020 book was shortlisted for JCB Prize 2021, and it took him by surprise. “I didn’t think that it was going to be on the radar of readers anymore, but the JCB shortlisting changed that. The book enjoyed a second lease of life and reached out to a much wider readership,” he adds.

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