Indian authors are still finding their feet in the West, and it is only the universal themes that work: love, family, conflict

Three literary agents talk about readership for Indian authors published abroad and the increasing interest from Hollywood

Updated - July 02, 2022 05:04 pm IST

Published - July 01, 2022 04:18 pm IST

How well do Indian books travel to the West?

How well do Indian books travel to the West? | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“It was an Arundhati Roy moment,” says Jayapriya Vasudevan, a partner at the Jacaranda Literary Agency, of Geetanjali Shree bagging the International Booker Prize 2022. The prize did more than recognise an Indian author: it put the spotlight on Hindi. But how well do Indian books travel to the West? Literary agents Vasudevan in Bengaluru, Shruti Debi in New Delhi and Priya Doraswamy in the U.S. address this, readership for Indian authors published abroad and the increasing interest from Hollywood.

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‘People want authentic voices’

Jayapriya Vasudevan

Jayapriya Vasudevan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“What the publisher is looking for is excellent writing and universal themes: love, conflict, family, displacement. That is the kind of book that will travel,” says Jayapriya Vasudevan who has represented Nisha Susan, Samhita Arni and Anjum Hasan. “But the assumption is that only those that get published in the West get recognition. The truth is that if anybody believes in your book and undertakes to spend time and money on it — edits it, designs it, prints it and distributes it — it is something to be proud of.” Crime, Vasudevan believes, is going to be the next big thing. “It is a genre that readers around the world are curious about. A Death in Shonagachhi [by Rijula Das] for instance, was such a big hit.” People are looking for authentic voices, set in different countries and cities, with a definite sense of place. “If you see streaming platforms, you see content from different cultures and the same curiosity is translating into the book world.”

‘Hollywood is looking for Indian content’

Priya Doraswamy

Priya Doraswamy | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Interestingly, there is considerable curiosity for Indian books in Hollywood. “Agencies, directors, producers and studios are all looking for books to adapt,” says Priya Doraswamy, founder of literary agency Lotus Lane Literary based in the U.S., who has represented Perumal Murugan and Arshia Sattar. “In the last five years there has been a surge of interest in Indian books, whether by diaspora or by Indian authors who live in India.” With HBO setting up office and Apple making a presence in India soon, everyone is trying to get a piece of the Indian pie, she says. “Hollywood is looking for Indian content not just written in English, but also in Indian languages.

‘No one really believes the readership is better’

Shruti Debi

Shruti Debi | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Publishing abroad has acquired a distinct “snob value,” says Shruti Debi, whose clients include Vivek Shanbhag and Akshaya Mukul. “Authors believe the editing is better, the reviews are better. But no one really believes the readership is better.” The hard truth is that there is not quite as much interest in India as there once was, she says. So, Indian writers are increasingly writing for a readership at home.

“You’ll notice that we rarely see the kind of criticism that used to be levelled, if somewhat cruelly, at ‘IWE’ [Indian Writing in English] folk in the 2000s, about ‘writing for a foreign audience’.” But there is another category of books that spurs international debate: academic books, crossover books, commentaries on politics or history or economics or gender, she adds. “These may not be for the general reader in the U.K. or the U.S., but Indian scholarship definitely makes it across.”

Says Debi: “So now, except that the really prestigious literary prizes are located abroad, and to be eligible one should have been published by a legitimate local publisher there, I don’t think acceptance abroad matters as much as it used to. Or, it shouldn’t!” Indian publishing too has become more respectful of the submitted material and less enamoured of the tag, co-published by so-and-so press in the U.K.., for instance, she says.

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