Attack of the Penny Dreadfuls

Indian writing in English was once dominated by the Salman Rushdies and Amitava Ghoshes, occasionally leavened by the simple pleasures of RK Narayan*. The writing was usually excellent (if sometimes pretentious) but definitely not mainstream.

Thankfully, enterprising authors are coming to the rescue. As far as I know, Chetan Bhagat set the ball rolling with his formulaic potboilers (“Combine subjects close to India’s youth — like cricket, romance, the ennui of unsatisfying jobs, IITs. Sprinkle a dash of sex — but don’t take it too far. Serve up the inevitable and utterly foreseeable conflict. Roll in the moolah.”) But now there’s a new author in town.

Amish Tripathi is an ex IIM-Calcutta banker (brand: check) who turned to writing. And he’s written book called the Immortals of Meluha (part one of a planned trilogy) about the god Shiva, set about two thousand years ago when he was still a man, leading his rather primitive tribe to the relative comfort and safety of Meluha, a city that appears to be part of the Indus Valley civilisation.

I believe this is a great idea — there’s lots of amazing stories in India’s mythology and legends, and the world would be a better place if these stories were told, or even retold with a modern spin.

So I eagerly googled the book and lo and behold: the first chapter is available to read on the web. So I dug in. And promptly winced. After reading this passage, I really didn’t feel like reading any more:

Nandi requested Shiva to wait outside as he went into the office. He soon returned, accompanied by a young official. The official gave a practised smile and folded his hands in a formal namaste. ‘Welcome to Meluha. I am Chitraangadh. I will be your Orientation Executive. Think of me as your single point of contact for all issues whilst you are here. I believe your leader’s name is Shiva. Will he step up please?’

Shiva took a step forward. ‘I am Shiva.’

‘Excellent,’ said Chitraangadh. ‘Would you be so kind as to follow me to the registration desk please? You will be registered as the caretaker of your tribe. Any communication that concerns them will go through you. Since you are the designated leader, the implementation of all directives within your tribe would be your responsibility.’

Yikes! If everyone here spoke like this, it’s clear Amish Tripathi has discovered what killed the Indus Valley civilisation: too much bureaucracy and a glut of corporatese. Don’t invent an “Orientation Executive” before you invent electricity, kids!

To be fair, I have only read one chapter. The rest of the book may be much better (although I have lost what little appetite I had to read it). But the point of this post is not to rag on Meluha’s pedestrian prose. The point is — people are reading this!

Yes, I hear you sneer, people read dreck of all sorts — to wit: James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer and half the books in the WH Smith chart. But I firmly believe that reading trash is better than reading nothing at all.

We’ve been here before. Some of the penny dreadfuls of the 1920s were truly dreadful, but they did pave the way for a lot of good genre fiction, including science-fiction. And, importantly, it made reading accessible to the masses.

I’m hoping books like Meluha can do the same in India. A vibrant publishing market can find space for all kinds of readers and all sorts of books, and it’s just not healthy for Indian writing in English to remain confined to the sorts who read Rushdie or Ghosh or Narayan. Which is why I will hold my nose at Meluha, but will wish it well.

* Yes, I realise I skipped over Shobha De’s kiss-and-tell tales and Khushwant Singh, who combines literature and bawdiness into something that’s unique to him. And for that matter, genuinely talented writers like Amit Varma who bring an authentic Indian voice into Indian English fiction. But this is a blog post, not a literature paper.

One thought on “Attack of the Penny Dreadfuls”

  1. No such luck. The prose is uniformly bad. And no, books like these are an exercise in dumbing down, so don’t wish them well.

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