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Published: Nerve Books-Trend, Verve Magazine, August 2013

While John Grisham turned from criminal lawyer to legal thriller novelist, our local boys are also finding dramatic success in writing. What makes the finance geeks and diplomats turn into vivid storytellers?


A banker friend looks enviously at my job description and makes a comment about how much fun it all seems to be. There’s some talk about doing something because you love doing it, not because of the money. Ahem. Who needs money, today, right? With inflation, it’s so easy to live on air, water and ink. And then an email pops into my inbox, informing me that the ‘John Grisham of Banking’ is out with a new book. Ravi Subramanian, winner of the Economist-Crossword award for The Incredible Banker is going to be jumping headlong into financial scams, university intrigue and politics, all of which will lead to murder. Subramanian is an alumus of IIM-Bangalore and a banker by profession. Sounds familiar? The often impudently positioned Chetan Bhagat comes to mind. He brought the IIM-havens into our homes, making us feel one with his world particularly through his clever non-language. Bhagat, for those unfamiliar with India’s educator-of-the-masses, is an investment banker hailing from IIM-Ahmedabad. He quit his career to become a full-time bestseller writer. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in the world.

And there’s the case of Shiva taking on the avatar of Lakshmi! The brainchild of an alumnus of IIM-Calcutta, Amish Tripathi’s The Shiva Trilogy has broken records in terms of book sales, becoming the fastest selling book series in the history of Indian publishing, with 1.7 million copies in print and over Rs 40 crores in sales. His books have been known to displace Bhagat’s on bookshelves. It’s surprising there hasn’t been any mass uprising against that. Forbes India has ranked him #85 in the 2012 Celebrity 100 list, while Dharma Productions has optioned the movie rights to his book, The Immortals of Meluha.

Vikas Swarup, from the Indian Foreign Services (IFS), and currently Consul General of India in Osaka-Kobe, Japan, has found an alternative career in writing to go with his day job. For those unfamiliar with Swarup’s name, he’s the mastermind behind Slumdog Millionaire – in its original novel form of Q&A.

They’ve made literature sexy – because of their success stories, but does the fact that they have come from management backgrounds and position their pen against the end goal of a fat bottom-line enable them to write themselves into money? If Tripathi is to be believed, the right kind of marketing can be the key to success, after all, his marketing and finance background have hugely helped him in the process. He approached bookstores to distribute free copies of the first chapter of his debut novel. He created video trailers and screened them at multiplexes for his sequel. For the last in the trilogy, he released a music album – all of these being marketing firsts for books. Bhagat is a player in the field of self-marketing, whether direct or through his opinion pieces and articles.

Finance and marketing geeks work hard and tend to get burnt out. They make a pot load of money and then ship out to a more reasonable version of their current profession. But is it that simple? With the way the banking and finance world runs and the state of the world economy, is it just timely and brilliant that these smart mavericks have found a way to quit a strenuous job and make a mark in the world of the Arts? Can it be a happy marriage? Tripathi’s read up on how to write (Stephen King’s On Writing), he’s made Excel sheets with date plans and character sketches in Word documents. Eventually, he learned to go with the flow. Not to forget his first attempt got rejected 20 times. But then a merger and acquisition deal or a marketing pitch can take months of hard work before falling through. Does that give you the patience and inner strength to deal with rejection and wait for success?

These men would have us believe that it’s possible to write a good story and have the readers flocking to you. Each of them has found a hook – even if they often get critiqued for poor writing and editing. Bhagat is proud of the fact that he has got those who never read to start reading. But they are selling a story – and it’s a good one and largely, ‘in the language of the common man.’ While writers write, and wait for a good peg, these young men have stories to tell – the writing is incidental to the tale. It’s like a business proposition – you think of a good business idea and kick-start it; making it happen is merely execution. So you lose the beauty of language and the metaphors of thought; you don’t get literature, you get entertainment. Popular culture provides your money’s worth, something worth writing home about, and these are the kings of pop culture.

And the applause comes from everywhere. Their books get sold for movie rights: Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, became Slumdog Millionaire catapulting him to more fame than he would have envisioned. Bhagat, already hugely successful in his own right, reached new peaks with movies like 3 Idiots and Kai Po Che being made from his books. We’ll have to see where Dharma’s version of Tripathi’s story takes him.

But more importantly, it seems they may have set the benchmarks higher. A woman today may no longer stand back and say, ‘I wish to have a man who can serenade me with wit – or money.’ Instead, she is more likely to say, ‘I wish to lie with a man spinning tales of sweet fortune.’ Can any ordinary man ever measure up? And while we are at it, can there ever be an Excel spreadsheet that outlines how one can become a successful writer, mathematical formulae et al?