Sheila Kumar sifts through rumours of a tectonic shift in Bengaluru's reading pattern
In a tweak of the immortal CSNY song, this was a long time coming. My personal wake-up moment came via a twin-pronged route. I was scanning the sell list of a popular buy-and-sell online forum when I noticed a small heap of books for sale.
`Books I have so enjoyed reading' said the caption. The list featured only Indian authors. What made me sit up was the fact that I didn't recognize one author name among that pile. Not one. There were a couple of Sharmas, one Rao, one Sinha, two Murthys (no, not the ones known to readers in Beantown), many Mishras (not those ones, though) and as many Singhs.
Then, at an event where I read out from my book, an acquaintance came up to me and smilingly said, “Loved your book.But I had to consult the dictionary every few pages.“
Astounded, I stared at her. Because I don't do fancy language. I don't use highfalutin words.
The epiphany was that even competent language could well irk readers these days.
The slippery icefields of the printed word have shifted so there are layers of reading now, and readers in our city are no exception. Level One contains the afore mentioned Mishras and Singhs. Then come known and popular names like Varun Agarwal, Ashok Banker, Devdutt Pattanaik and Ashwin Sanghi. And in the rarified air above, sit authors like Ramachandra Guha, Vikram Seth, Am ish, Chetan B, Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra; purists will forgive me if I put them all to g ether thusly.
However, as literary consultant Jaya Bhattacharji Rose says, this is all anecdotal evidence, and segmentation among readers is becoming more apparent. Distinct lists catering to distinct literary palettes are being released, and oftentimes, a reader will read just one author or one book. But read, he/she will.
So. What is Beantown reading? A quick ask amongst fellow citizens reveals that read- and-bin has been the preferred mode for a long time. As in, people buy slimmish books which tell their story quickly, (no `lavish language appreciated) and after they read it, they bin it. Read and forgotten, and all those launches and book readings be damned.
Oh, and `too much gyan' gets that book into the bin faster. Go figure.
The real shift is that reading, always a very subjective activity, is no longer a relaxed pastime or a quest for knowledge at any level. It is pure entertainment. Books that adhere to the KISS principle are the ideal reads. This basically means dispensing with the finely wrought sentence, the adroitly turned phrase, the subtle twist. Niche writers have not disappeared, it's just that little known authors have established happily temporary niches. A keen reader told me it's all about delicious trivia.
Those aforement tioned purists may well be sighing in despair because Bengaluru has a rich tradition of writing. (I am sticking only to Indian writing in English here). I mean, even the most cursory of city lists will carry eminent names like Girish Karnad, Ram Guha, Shashi Deshpande, Anita Nair, Gita Aravamudan, Vikram Sampath, Sudha Murty, and the like. And their constituency of readers will, for the most part, remain intact. However, the larger picture here is that everyone who reads, realizes he/she has a story to tell and decides to write a book.
And there are thousands of casual readers who will read that book. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
Maybe, just maybe, the time for grand literature has passed.This is no cause for dismay. People are still reading. And if it's true that 70% of Bengaluru's current population comprises techies, then even as I write this, they are probably Googling Mark Z's book list.
So, the book is dead, long live the book!
(Sheila Kumar is author of Kith and Kin)