A sizeable percentage of the top sellers in the bestsellers list on Amazon.in comprise of books in mythology, epics and historical fiction. A cross reference to one of the most organized platforms of ranking books, the Nielsen’s Bookscan that consolidates sales through online as well as brick and mortar stores further reinforces that books in these categories contribute to almost one fourth of the titles in the bestsellers lists, in the country.
While this may be an important information for those in the business of publishing and book sales primarily to get profit making publishing plans and merchandising lists, in place, it also is important for us as a country to understand how and why the reading preferences have evolved over a decade. These lists more importantly reflect that more and more Indians are reading stories written by Indian writers with heroes of Indian history and mythology. There is a significant shift from what the lists looked like up until a decade ago.
The decade of mystical Mythology
Up until the beginning of 2010, mythology was mostly rejected by main stream publishers. Between the early 2000 for almost a decade mythology was monopolized by Devdutt Pattanaik’s stories of the subjective truth. His unique take on our Puranas and Shastras and the retelling of the same especially from the perspective of the women and the queer in them, through illustrations was well received by readers. It ensured a strong reader base among the literary readers, as is one of the segments identified by publishers.
The trend continued and the fascination for this retelling from a position of power of those who were otherwise not at the forefront of our epics, grew.
Devdutt started out in early 2000 and was promoted as the only authority on the subject of Hindu mythology. The retelling of these stories not only suited the palette of Indian publishers and their view of our epics, Puranas and ancient history but also went down well with the western audiences.
The feminist take of these epics and retelling of these tales from the perspective of especially the women in them, was absorbed well by literary readers. Chitra Banerjee Devakurni who was an award winning writer and poet in the literary space, wrote the Palace of Illusions, a powerful retelling of the Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi which continues to be among the top 50 sellers. The success of Devakurni and Pattanaik proved that there was always an unattended need of the Indian readers for more tales from our own ancient history and mythology.
But there was still a dearth of writers who would retell these stories from different perspectives and not just through the narratives of the one or the other. Certain perception of what to provide the Indian readers of Mythology with, and retelling of epic tales was an editorial call that had a very clear outline of what would be a suitable retelling of the Indian Puranas and Shastras, largely rejecting to explore the narratives beyond.
So when Amish Tripathi set out to publish his first book, in his now record breaking Shiva Trilogy called The Immortals of Meluha in 2010 which portrayed lord Shiva in a human avatar, that of a heroic tribal warrior, it naturally went into the slush piles of main stream publishers and had to be self-published. Within the year of publishing the book, his recreation of Lord Shiva in a human form backed by an effective marketing campaign, helped Amish sell millions of copies. It also helped him land a publishing contract from an Indie publisher, to begin with and discover a big set of readers who were yearning for their own superheroes that were less of the western view and more of an Indian version of them.
Around the same time as that of Amish, and following the encouraging success of the narrative, many writers started exploring the genre and experimented with retellings of stories from our ancient history and mythology. The last decade, therefore has seen a rise of several narratives and variety of retellings of the great epics primarily the Mahabharata and Ramayana for every kind of reader. Replete with characters and personalities in each, these timeless tales provide great fodder for the creative minds to build multiple narratives. These narratives built around the men and women in them, have since attempted to tell the stories from the perspective of the good, the bad and the evil. Anand Neelakantan, delved into re-telling the Ramayana from the point of view of Raavana in Asura which again features among the top sellers after so many years since it was first published and then again we found Amish using his storytelling to take us into the heroic side of Raavana.
Another of the top selling writers, Ashwin Sanghi, took this genre further and set himself apart by weaving mythology with contemporary plots adding a unique dimension to them. His The Krishna Key that released in 2012 continues to be a top seller as he added to his body of work in this particular genre, with The Keepers of Kalachakra and The Vault of Vishnu. After the success of the Shiva Trilogy, Amish too successfully added to his body of work the Ramachandra series, which again received a great response from the readers.
Like Amish, Neelakantan and Ashwin, the last decade has therefore also seen many writers including Kavita Kane, Christopher C Doyle and Kevin Missal explore multiple narratives from the point of views of other characters from the Mahabharata and Ramayana and achieve great success in doing so.
Therefore when you view the bestsellers today, while Devakurni continues to find success in stories that are narrated in the voice of the women in these epic tales and Pattanaik’s interpretations continue to be received well with an audience nurtured over two decades, there are more writers finding success and sitting tightly on the bestsellers lists.
Growing fascination for the Indic civilization
There seems to be a never ending and ever growing appetite for not just the re-telling of these epic tales but also for the stories of the lost heroes and forgotten times in our history. Quite like the non-fiction space in Indian history which found more literature on the Mughal and the British periods, fiction too was largely governed by stories set in the Mughal period or the British Raaj.
There was an unexplored reader base that was craving for more stories of the men and women in our history that had been erased from our collective memories. While many may attribute the growing fascination to learn and read more about these forgotten times in our history to a nationalist sentiment but in reality, the success of mythology over the last decade was what laid the foundation for the increasing interest in the forgotten history.
Vineet Bajpai’s success of Harappa Trilogy, the thriller that moves between the times of the Indus valley and the current Delhi, had a record breaking success for this genre. He followed it up with another one on a forgotten hero of Delhi called Mastaan. Around the same time as that of Bajpai’s trilogy, Maha Khan Phillips came out with her thriller The Curse of Mohenjo-Daro which was again set in the Indus valley civilization and the book continues to feature among the major sellers in the category. Since then there have been several writers who have successfully treaded the path with Harini Srinivasan who set her detective fiction The Curse of Anuganga in the Gupta era on which very little was to be found in our history text books and Venkatesh Sethuraman whose thriller Kaalkoot brought together mythology, pre-independence era and the current times went on to become an instant hit.
And now we have Amish Tripathi out with a historical thriller set in the times of the attacks of Ghazni. The story revolves around a war hero King Suheldev, who stood against the Turk to defend his country in Tripathi’s Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India. Over the last decade Tripathi has built his audience whose enthusiasm, has ensured that his latest book hits the top of the bestsellers charts as soon as it released. While in the current times, when the business has impacted and priorities have changed, it is to be seen if this book, like Amish’s previous books breaks new records but for now what is becoming clearer is that this fascination of readers in retellings of our epics and the forgotten history of India has laid the truth bare on the publishing myth a decade ago, that of lack of readership for mythology and historical fiction. Today the demand has driven to many new writers finding a voice in this genre.
Whether we attribute this to a rising nationalist sentiment or the unidentified and unaccepted need of people to revisit their roots through reading about epics, lost heritage and forgotten empires erased from our memories over decades, it definitely is the time for writers to tell more stories of the real India.