The story of their lives: Priyanka Chopra Jonas to Malala Yousafzai, decoding irresistible charm of autobiographies

February 14, 2021 2:45 AM

There's also a trend of writing multiple autobiographies over the course of a few years. The best example of this would be Obama whose three autobiographies became instant hits

There is a good market for autobiographies and memoirs in India, making it one of the hot-selling genres.There is a good market for autobiographies and memoirs in India, making it one of the hot-selling genres.

By Reya Mehrotra

From Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Unfinished to Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala, public figures are increasingly choosing to pen their autobiographies long before their sunset years. But in an age where daily fragments of celebrity lives are sprinkled all over on social media, how relevant are such memoirs?

Former Miss World and actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas created ripples when she announced her memoir titled Unfinished. Published by Penguin Random House, the unconventional title hints at the fact that Chopra has many more story-worthy years to live.

Interestingly, the title also points to another trend in publishing: of global figures choosing to tell their stories long before their sunset years. Chopra is the latest entrant in that club, which includes former US president Barack Obama (A Promised Land, 2020, Dreams From My Father, 1995, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, 2006), Soha Ali Khan (The Perils of Being Moderately Famous, 2017), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969), Michelle Obama (Becoming, 2018) and Malala Yousafzai (I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot By the Taliban, 2013).

No age limit

A number of influential people across professions and around the globe have in recent years penned down their tell-all tales—some of them as young as Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and climate change activist Greta Thunberg (Scenes From the Heart, a 2018 autobiographical book, which she co-wrote with her mother, father and sister) who wrote their stories in their teenage years. Editors at leading publishing houses say that as long as the story has meat and piques the curiosity of fans and readers, age is no bar to write an autobiography. Kapish Mehra, managing director of Rupa & Co, believes an interesting life needs to be captured irrespective of the timing or the age and that it will be of interest to the reader.

Every autobiography, even though written early on in life, has a purpose, feels Nandini Mehta, non-fiction editor at Juggernaut Books, which recently published Tahira Kashyap Khurrana’s memoir The 12 Commandments of Being a Woman (2020). “It depends on the story you have to tell and how compelling it is,” she adds.

Mehta is right and the success of such autobiographies points to readers’ interest in the lives of their icons, however young they may be. In fact, almost every profession in the public eye has a string of such memoirs. In sports, tennis star Sania Mirza’s autobiography Ace Against Odds (2016) made for an inspiring read for youngsters, badminton champion Saina Nehwal’s Playing to Win: My Life On & Off Court (2012) exposed the shy sportsperson to the world, ace cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s Playing It My Way (2014) was an instant hit and so was Sourav Ganguly’s A Century is Not Enough (2018), as well as memoirs penned by boxer Mary Kom, cricketers Yuvraj Singh and Kapil Dev, and sprinter Milkha Singh. When it comes to Bollywood, Chopra’s memoir isn’t the only one, as there have been several others, including Rishi Kapoor’s Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored (2017) and Karan Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy (2016).

When it comes to politics, though, such autobiographies are more common abroad than in India. Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (2019), Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices (2014) and Pranab Mukherjee’s The Presidential Years: 2012-2017 (2021) are a part of the list. In India, Pranab Mukherjee’s The Presidential Years: 2012-2017 (2021) and LK Advani’s My Country My Life (2008) are some prominent ones. However in this part of the world, one would find very few autobiographies by politicians as they hardly retire. If they do write, they write after having lived quite many decades and having aged in the political sphere as in the case of the mentioned ones—Mukherjee’s book was published posthumously.

One thing is clear: the autobiography has great appeal. Priya Kapoor, editorial director at Roli Books, says, “All these examples are of people who have a great and important story to tell regardless of the fact that they may not be in their grey days. Lisa Ray’s (Close to the Bone: A Memoir, 2019) is a beautifully written book that is remarkably candid about her days in Bombay, her own personal trials and, of course, her cancer. Who wouldn’t want to hear from the horse’s mouth?”

If one has led an interesting life and, more importantly, has the words to engage, there’s no reason to wait till retirement to tell your story, believes Himanjali Sarkar, editorial director, Simon & Schuster. “We recently published Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me (2020), a beautiful, witty and poignant memoir by New York Times writer and comedian Sopan Deb who is in his late 20s. The ideal time is when you feel a strong urge to tell your story and when you know how to tell it right,” offers Sarkar.

There’s also a trend of writing multiple autobiographies over the course of a few years. The best example of this would be Obama whose three autobiographies became bestsellers as soon as they were published. The most recent one, A Promised Land (2020), sold more than 1.7 million copies in its first week, breaking the record of any presidential memoir’s first-week sales. “Apart from being a world leader, Obama is also a thinking politician, an intellectual. He published two books before he became the President about very specific periods in his life. Someone like him is expected to publish multiple books because he has that much to say and share,” says Kapoor of Roli Books.

According to Diya Kar, publisher, HarperCollins India, multiple autobiographies are produced as people change with time and have different things to say at different points in their lives. “Sometimes a person chooses to focus on a particular aspect or time in one’s life. Lisa Ray, whose wonderful Close to the Bone we published to great acclaim, is working on her second book that looks at a different Lisa,” she reveals.

Social media lens

Historically significant autobiographies like that of MK Gandhi’s (An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 1927) and Jawaharlal Nehru’s (An Autobiography, 1936) reveal their life stories that could have otherwise been buried with time. But in an age where daily fragments of celebrity lives are sprinkled all over on social media, how relevant are such autobiographies today? Very relevant, believe editors at publishing houses. Sarkar of Simon & Schuster compares social media to the cover of a book, whereas an autobiography, she says, is a “deep dive into someone’s life.” Mehta of Juggernaut agrees, saying that a memoir reveals the big picture of a life rather than its day-to-day details.

It’s true that when public figures ink their lives on paper, the reader is exposed, in most cases, to a tell-all. Who would have thought that actor Lisa Ray was once strangled by a man she was involved with if not for her book Close to the Bone or that South African TV host Trevor Noah once hid his feces as a child in his own house as his grandmother thought an evil spirit had entered the house and performed prayers to get rid of it if not for Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (2016). It’s these little anecdotal tales, some humorous, some inspirational and some personal, that hook the readers to memoirs and autobiographies.

Kar of HarperCollins India says that in an autobiography the writing is the hero. “One can write about one’s life at any point, really, at any age—there must be a story to tell; experiences or accounts that are of interest to others,” she says, adding that new-age celebrities view the memoir as an extension of their brand identity. “Those who admire them want to know more. Books have the quality of endurance. While social media gives us brief glimpses of lives, the written word, a narrative is a different beast. A reader would rightfully expect more from a book than what he/she sees on social media,” says Kar. At HarperCollins India, a number of memoirs are in the pipeline, including Ravi Shastri’s deeply personal memoir, Kubbra Sait’s inspiring life story, Jwala Gutta’s candid account of her personal and professional journey, Indian Matchmaking star Aparna Shewakramani’s unapologetic narrative about being a difficult woman and Saif Ali Khan’s no-holds-barred autobiography.

Apart from being first-person accounts, autobiographies also possess the innate quality of being archival and of great literary and historic importance. After all, it is courtesy Verghese Kurien’s I Too Had A Dream (2005) that we know how the largest milk brand of India, Amul, saw the light of day. Premanka Goswami (executive editor, Penguin Random House India), who has been working on lyricist Gulzar’s forthcoming book Actually.. I Met Them: A Memoir (in which he recounts his encounters with the stalwarts of Indian cinema, art, literature and music), shares, “It will open a window for readers to get to know some of the doyens of Indian art, culture and cinema through Gulzar’s lens. The book has immense archival value.”

However, while one can write several memoirs, an autobiography can only be written once, believe editors. Talking about how the trend of memoirs is picking up, Gurveen Chadha, senior commissioning editor and foreign rights lead at Penguin Random House India, says, “We wouldn’t call these definitive autobiographies because these are actors and personalities still in their prime and who still have years of work ahead of them. There’s a whole lot of difference between autobiographies and memoirs even though the two are used interchangeably. While autobiographies are a chronological retelling of a person’s entire life up to the present moment, memoirs focus on one or a few key moments and are not necessarily chronologically told/written.”

Bestselling genre

There is a good market for autobiographies and memoirs in India, making it one of the hot-selling genres. This could be because public figures and celebrities are highly looked upto. In any case, non-fiction remains more popular in the country. “I believe non-fiction in general has a better market at least in India. There is a real thirst amongst people to read books that help them understand their world better. From memoirs and cookbooks to books on management, business, self-help and spirituality, these are all genres that do very well in India,” says Kapoor of Roli Books, which will release the English translation of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s autobiography My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan on February 19. The book has been translated from Pashto by Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada.

Mehta of Juggernaut says that the pulse of the Indian reader at the moment is non-fiction for sure, but there are several influencing factors. “It depends on who is writing and the reader’s interest. But it is certainly true that non-fiction is selling better than fiction in the Indian market,” she offers. It’s the genre’s connect with reality that wins it a large readership, believes Sarkar of Simon & Schuster.

When it comes to autobiographies, the best ones are those that offer honest and candid portraits of the person behind the persona, feels Chadha of Penguin Random House India. “There definitely has been a massive surge in readership for autobiographies compared to earlier days when fiction ruled the roost. And this is true of not just celebrity autobiographies, but autobiographies across other categories like sports and politics as well,” says Chadha.

Perhaps that’s why the publishing world is welcoming public figures with an impactful story to tell and commissioning autobiographies one after the other, be it from the world of sports, cinema, business or politics. Autobiographies and memoirs give us close access to lives we’ve often admired from a distance, says Goswami of Penguin Random House India, citing the examples of Jawaharlal Nehru’s An Autobiography (1936), a perennial bestseller which was written before Nehru became prime minister, and Naseeruddin Shah’s And Then One Day: A Memoir (2014), which was honest, funny and freewheeling.

Interestingly, it’s a win-win deal for both the reader as well as the writer. The Obamas, for instance, walked home with millions of dollars for a three-book deal—Barack’s two-part memoir and Michelle’s book Becoming. Their $65-million advance was, in fact, a first and shattered all records for fat book deals. Before them, in 2004, Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life (published by Knopf) fetched him $15-19 million, while his wife and politician Hillary got $14 million for her book Hard Choices in 2014. Then Simon & Schuster paid a humongous $10 million to musician Bruce Springsteen for his memoir Born to Run (2016). Going back further, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher got a whopping 3.5 million pounds for her memoirs The Downing Street Years (1993) and The Path to Power (1995).

Clearly, the appeal of an autobiography is irresistible for both the reader and the writer.

Popular autobiographies

  • My Brief History (2013) by Stephen Hawking
  • I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot By the Taliban (2013) by Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai
  • An Unsuitable Boy (2016) by Karan Johar
  • Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah
  • Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose (2017) by Joe Biden
  • I Do What I Do (2017) by Raghuram Rajan
  • Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama
  • Scenes from the Heart (2018)/No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019) By Greta Thunberg
  • The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (2019) by Kamala Harris
  • For the Record (2019) by David Cameron
  • Close to the Bone: A Memoir (2019) by Lisa Ray
  • A Promised Land (2020) by Barack Obama
  • Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (2020) by Mary L Trump
  • Nothing Like I Imagined (2020) by Mindy Kaling
  • Unfinished (2021) by Priyanka Chopra Jonas
  • The Presidential Years: 2012-2017 (2021) by Pranab Mukherjee

QUOTES: One can write about one’s life at any point, at any age–there must be a story to tell; experiences that are of interest to others

— Diya Kar, publisher, HarperCollins India

While autobiographies are a chronological retelling of an entire life, memoirs focus on one or a few key moments

— Gurveen Chadha, senior commissioning editor and foreign rights lead, Penguin Random House India

An interesting life needs to be captured irrespective of the timing or the age and it will be of interest to the reader

— Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa & Co

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