Naheed Hassan and Shanti Dominic have taken to the web to bring together readers and writers of romance novellas across South Asia.

Girl from Fatehpur is an engaging, old-fashioned tale of a small-town girl going off to the big city and finding true love only when she returns home.First-time novelist Sarita Varma even throws in a bit of cricket and some Bollywood style drama at the Kumbh Mela.

For all its traditional elements, Girl from Fatehpur is being launched in a modern format. It’s among the first of some three dozen novellas that web publisher Indirom will offer when it goes online on Valentine’s Day. The English-language site’s novellas are not more than 36,000 words long, and are tablet-, e-reader- or smart phone-friendly. The publishers hope to add five to 10 books a month in the first few months, and up to 30 new books a month in the next few years.

Naheed Hassan, an economist, and Shanti Dominic, an engineer, are booklovers who abandoned lucrative careers to found Indirom, to bring together readers and writers from across South Asia and the sub-continental diaspora.

The Hyderabad-born Dominic, now based in South Africa, said the typical Indirom book is as mobile as the modern South Asian. “It’s just a short, one-hour, 1 1/2-hour read, which you can do when you’re travelling on the metro or sitting in the car. You escape from reality. You get this quick fix of immediate pleasure; then you’re back to real life.”

Varma, for example, offers engagingly natural dialogue, and a window on Indians, both provincial and urban, finding their way in a changing India that takes Girl from Fatehpur beyond the stereotypical romance. “The whole e-format and Indirom have come at a time when Indian women are becoming increasingly assertive and open to self expression,” Varma said from Pune, where her day job is helping run her local chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of India. “Indirom will not only allow us to express ourselves, but also see what everyone else is thinking about.”

Indirom does not e-publish work already available in print and most of its writers are, like Varma, first-time novelists. Hassan and Dominic also publish translations of work now available only in regional South Asian languages, including two stories from Urdu in their debut package. Their formula means readers will consistently find fresh voices, in stories priced at $1 or $1.50 a novella. Authors, who get 20 to 30 per cent of the revenue, will be able to interact on the site, an aspect in tune with the social platform of instant comment from far and wide on every aspect of our lives.

When Hassan and Dominic put out a call for romances, posting ads on freelancers’ websites and spreading the word through friends, women and a few men responded with plots that turn on love; within marriage as well as between strangers, office and batch mates, even creatures drawn from South Asian myths.

Since starting the project last year, Hassan has been fascinated by the broad range of stories from writers who are from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as India, and who live as far from home as El Salvador. She has discovered that “love anywhere and everywhere is so similar. Complete with parents and in-laws and all the other baggage South Asians come with.”

Romance, as defined by Indirom, turns more on relationships than sex, though the stories don’t lack sexual tension and longing, and intimate scenes aren’t taboo.

Michael Bhaskar, London-based digital publishing director for Profile Books, said that elsewhere in the world “romance has sort of powered e-books”. Bhaskar cautioned that e-publishers face challenges, among them ensuring readers know where to find them. Bhaskar, who is not involved in the Indirom venture, said the decision by Hassan and Dominic to focus on romance and their ability to reach South Asians living outside their home countries may give Indirom an advantage.

Shweta Ganesh Kumar published two print books before Indirom accepted her Random Rants of a Bored Housewife: A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land, the story of an Indian reporter navigating professional and personal life in the Philippines after marrying an NRI. Kumar’s first two books were distributed only in India. She believes their global settings and themes will appeal to South Asian and other readers living around the world. But the Indian publishers weren’t equipped to find stores to stock the books outside India, said the Kerala-born Kumar, who grew up in the Gulf and now lives in El Salvador, where her husband runs a call centre. E-publishing solves the distribution problem. But are e-readers waiting?

Kumar, a former broadcast journalist, taps out her novels with one hand on her smart phone while cradling her year-old daughter in the other. But she bought her first e-reader only early this year, after deciding “I can’t be a hypocrite. I can’t expect people to buy my e-books while I’m sitting around with my paperbacks.”

Vinutha Mallya, a Bangalore-based independent publishing consultant, said the e-readership in India isn’t sizeable yet, but is growing. Mallya predicts Indians will skip the e-reader stage and go right to reading on smart phones and tablets. As the Indian economy expands, Mallya said, more people can afford books. At the same time, she said, readership in English is growing. Mallya, like Bhaskar, sees potential in the overseas market for Indirom.

Hassan, Indirom’s Karachi-born partner, has studied, lived and worked in the UK, Canada, Greece, the United States and Turkey. Dominic is similarly cosmopolitan, with stints of living and working in Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland. They met in South Africa, where Dominic arrived in 2004 and Hassan two years later. Dominic worked for the South African and Dubai offices of the banking consulting firm Temenos and Hassan led the access to finance team of South Africa’s Genesis Consulting.

“We bonded over books,’’ Hassan said. Both were also juggling family life and high-powered jobs. Hassan, a mother of two young girls, is married to a former Microsoft executive. Dominic, who has a teen-age son, is married to a former Procter and Gamble executive who now runs his own company. Many other expat wives were homemakers. And they found everyone of them was at a restless point in their careers.

“It just occurred to me that there are a lot of women like me who want to work, who want to earn money, and yet don’t want a 9 to 5 job or be tied to a desk or have to travel,” Hassan said. “That was part of the idea behind Indirom, to create a platform where men and women could contribute, wherever they were, as editors, as writers, as designers. I definitely wanted that in my life, just the freedom to work on something that I was passionate about and that I could take wherever I went in the world.”

Hassan, now settled in the United States where her husband is on a mid-career fellowship at Harvard, first proposed the idea that would become Indirom over coffee with Dominic. They both invested about $50,000 each in what Dominic calls “our book store”. Hassan is in charge of nurturing writers and editors, while Dominic runs operations.

They have brought on editors like veteran Keerti Ramachandra, whose resume includes work for Katha. Ramachandra said Indirom’s new writers need guidance and mentoring, but not rewriting. “I give them feedback, ask them to fill in the gaps or expand something, make it more credible, make it more real,” she said. Indirom is looking for stories with strong characters, men and women who navigate their relationships as equals, she adds. “We definitely want their novels to reflect the modern woman,” Ramachandra said, “who is independent. Who can hold her own.”

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