Olympic medal hope 22-year-old Saina Nehwal’s biography will hit the stands shortly. The recently released tell-all memoirs of 88-year-old journalist and human rights activist Kuldip Nayar are creating a stir, already.
Life is good
One doesn’t need to read between the lines. Browse time at any bookstore will reveal that biographies are selling hot and fast. Ask Strand Book Stall’s Vidya Virkar: “Current affairs is our highest selling genre. This would broadly include titles related to corruption, biographies and historic non-fiction.” Non-fiction has emerged to occupy huge space on shelves across chain bookstores like Crossword and Landmark as well as in indie, single-store bookshops, with biographies taking a big share of the pie.
Priya Kapoor, director, Roli Books, spells out the phenomena, “We are biased towards non-fiction. The Indian reader is versatile and his/her interests veer towards biographies and autobiographies. It’s reflective of their aspirational, educational and informative tastes. Publishers like us sense this trend and have a whole machinery in order to support this.” Kapish Mehra, Managing Director, Rupa & Co echoes the sentiment — “Indian readers are mature, and like to read about the good, the bad and the ugly, especially if these are Indian stories.”
Age and subject
There’s never a dearth of exciting subjects from an eclectic population like India’s, going by the depth and dynamic personalities whose lives have made it to hardback and paperback versions. World leaders, politicians, entertainers, actors, artists and musician’s lives generally get written about at a later stage in life, when there is enough about them to be shared with the wider world. While professions like sport tend to have shorter timelines. Case in point, the 22-year-old Saina Nehwal’s latest bio by TS Sudhir.
If it’s a biography, the age of the subject comes into play. “It isn’t possible to put a set an age on the time to write a memoir. It very much depends on the person and the story they have to tell,” avers Caroline Newbury, Deputy Publicity Director, Random House India. Simon & Schuster’s Shireen Quadri adds that looking at their backlist of biographies, the successful and famous have had their biographies written.
And these days, going by the drop in the average age of biographies (Rafael Nadal, Justin Bieber), it’s anyone’s guess how young the next subject will be. Kapoor puts things into perspective, “Different rules apply for different subjects. Biographies of sportsperson are done earlier in their life since their professional lives have a short span while politicians write their bios at a later stage, since their careers stretch forever, at times!”
For publishers it’s not an easy task to sift through the clutter, for a good read. “The first aspect we look at, subject-wise, is if it is interesting and saleable, and whether the access that the biographer has with individual is honest and definitive,” says Kapoor. It helps of course, if the subject is alive, and even better if the person has a background in writing — “When we approached Kuldip Nayar five years ago to write his autobiography, it was an easy task. Being a writer he was meticulous about his notes and journals; it helped in the overall scheme."
Newbury, reiterates the need for an engaging subject, “The decision on the worth of a biography or an autobiography is very much dependent on the strength of the story. If the subject has a compelling life story to tell, which we think we appeal to others, then we will publish it. Quadri goes a step further when she brings in the fact that economic viability and literary value also matter in the larger picture, for publishing houses. Bigger the name, the better the market value, clearly.
The real deal
Biographies are broadly divided into two categories: Authorised and Unauthorised. In case of authorised biographies, the biographer carries the approval of his subject whom he/she is likely to know from close quarters or he is in touch with the subject's near ones (in case of a posthumous biography). “In case of unauthorised biographies, the writer generally writes in isolation, which often results into incomplete and incoherent biographies,” explains Quadri. Readers in India might have been victim to a host of the later being thrown at them — from Rahul Gandhi to Sachin Tendulkar.
In such cases, one comes across compilations of quotes and news clippings that masquerade as biographies. Let alone an interview or validations by the individual, such books don’t even carry a single quote by them! Quadri adds that if the writer of a biography knows his/her subject well, it can do wonders by bringing alive his subject. For example, Christopher Sandford’s biography of the Rolling Stones, (Simon & Schuster), is an interesting exploration into the fifty years of the band, with Sanford following them through five decades.
“It’s very important for a person who is writing a biography to be focused about his subject and bring out the important and interesting facts and facets of the subject’s persona.” Kapoor lets us in on the dilemma in producing a bio — “it isn’t easy for the subject to trust his/her entire life story. The comfort level is a challenge for all involved. The permutations and combinations need to be worked out. Access, whether the person is alive (here co-operation, time and level of understanding) and an objective approach are the three main factors to make for a bestselling biography.”
Another aspect is the culture of a biography — “We don’t have good sources. It took a non-Indian (Katherine Frank) to write Indira Gandhi’s biography. The problem of access to genuine content and archives arise here. One must be reliant on family sources, which is a huge risk. Where will researchers go?” she asks. However, she along with the rest are bullish that this trend is here to pique the Indian reader’s imagination. Summing it up, Mehra says, “It will always occupy reasonably large space and long life on the bookshelf because of the profile in question.” Good news for the reader — you can turn the page now.
Diary of a biographer
While the subject and access to a subject are of paramount importance, the leg work involved requires resolve and patience. Journalist Dev Sukumar who wrote Prakash Padukone’s biography (Touchplay) shares that most of what he knew about Padukone was through newspaper reports and recollections by his contemporaries. “I had never seen him play, so to try to reconstruct those events in my mind, I visited some of the sites of his matches, such as Stadium Istora in Jakarta, and interviewed many of his opponents and teammates.
The experience was possibly similar to what an amateur historian must feel, the joy of discovery, like a voyager into an era that exists only in some people’s minds.” Sukumar took extra care by setting out to interview every person who played with him or knew him well.
He reveals that he was lucky to speak with a few of his Indonesian, Chinese and Danish contemporaries. “I broke down the work into a timeline, and did my research on a certain period in his career: for example, from 1970 to 1975. Once I had the material, I would get him to recollect on those events; next, I would proceed to the next period in his life, say from 1976 to 1980, and so on. Padukone was very supportive,” he shares.