The unfinished memoir! 'Premature' autobiographies are in vogue
A cricketer who's just become captain and a political hero of one protest. It may sound premature, but in an instant consumption world, biographies and memoirs can no longer wait for the story to end
Early last month, in the midst of the launch of a memoir on one of Bollywood's leading filmmakers, writer Shobhaa De, whose imprint the title had been published under, made a veritable declaration to the audience. “I want this young lady to write down her story next,” she said, pointing to a petite woman in the front row, who stood out from among her contemporaries in her mustard yellow dress. De's remark was rather coyly received as this 'young lady' immediately put her head down to evade attention. There was no mention of whom De was referring to, but, those seated around the front tables knew that actress Alia Bhatt had just been wooed for a book title in front of over a hundred people. It's irrelevant whether the star is ready to pen her story down yet. The fact is that she has already been considered.
Journalist Shivani Gupta who co-wrote Sania Mirza's biography with the tennis player and her father Imran Mirza also sees the sport star taking her auth-orised biography forward with time.
In the day and age of quick consumption, who readers want to read about appears to have superseded how much there is to actually write about them. Last July's memoir on Kanhaiya Kumar, From Bihar to Tihar (Juggernaut Books), which told the story of the former president of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union, who shot to fame after he was charged with sedition in February is an interesting case in point. Sports journalist Vijay Lokpally's Driven: The Virat Kohli Story (Bloomsbury India) that came close on the heels of the cricketer's brilliant run as skipper [India won the test series during New Zealand's tour of the country in September-October last year] and Sania Mirza's Ace Against Odds (HaperCollins India) though well-deserving, again saw critics argue if these book had come too early on in their careers. But, professionals in the industry believe otherwise.
Why wait till the end?
The question really is whether there is such a thing as a 'premature' biography or memoir. “The conventional view about memoirs has been that a person is best qualified to tell their life story when they have lived a full life and are nearing the end of their journey,” says Udayan Mitra, publisher (literary) at HarperCollins India. However, this, says Mitra who has been in the industry for 20 years, holds true only for politicians, career diplomats and public figures. “For sports persons who have a relatively short playing career, an early memoir, when the person is at the peak of their form and in the limelight, makes sense,” he says.
Mitra cites examples of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Yuvraj Singh, Abhinav Bindra and Saina Nehwal — all of whom had early memoirs.
With biographies, this space becomes more negotiable.
“A biography essentially caters to current interest in a personality, and it need not purport to telling the whole story
of a person's life,” Mitra insists.
Kanhaiya Kumar's story — a small town boy from Bihar becoming a youth icon — definitely fit the latter, says Parth Phiroze Mehrotra, commissioning editor (non-literary) at Juggernaut. “Yes, he is a public face and in that sense there was a recall value to him. But, keeping his politics aside, he had an incredibly poignant story and one that deserved to be told right,” says Mehrotra, “I don't think there is a general principle or rule to be followed on age or experience. It's the content of their life that should be the focus.”
Mumbai-based literary agent Sherna Khambatta cites the example of Christina Lamb's I am Malala, which traces the story of how Pakistani activist Malala Yous-ufzai bravely defied the Taliban. It was first published when she was only 15 years old. “It got a message across. Would it be wrong then to say that her book should not have been written?” she asks.
The story matters
If there is a story worth telling, and it's of interest, it must be written, says Mehrotra.
When television journalist Suprita Das was approached by HarperCollins to write the turbulent tale of Manipuri boxer Lais-hram Sarita Devi, who had stirred controversy after she did not accept her bronze medal at the Asian Games 2014, her story was not yet known to the world. “What Devi did was rare. I cannot think of any sportsperson who until then, had stood on an international stage and said, 'I was wronged'.
So, even though her career didn't take off like Mary Kom [Devi did not qualify for last year's Olympics] her story made for an excellent case study,” says Das, author of Shadow Fighter.
Both, Lokpally and Das were confronted with reluctant subjects. “Devi did not want to speak about the Asian Games. I shuttled between Bengaluru [where Devi was training], her camp in Delhi and hometown in Manipur, trying to convince her that her story was one that went beyond what transpired at the Games,” says Das.
Kohli too thought it was too early. “But, I have followed his career and his game closely. So, I knew what I wanted to write about. I deliberately did not involve him because I'd like him to tell his story someday.”
It's usually the restrictive idea of what a biography entails that make a lot of people hesitant to translate their lives into a book. Once they are convinced otherwise, the job is half done, say publishers.
No sense of an ending
Mitra admits that an early biography/memoir is bound to be dated, and can be forward-looking only to an extent. “But, an early biography also has the immediacy and currency that a later biography sometimes lacks,” he adds. And, then, there is no hard and fast rule of how many biographies or memoirs one can write in their lifetime, says Faiza Khan, editorial director, Bloomsbury India. “If people go on to take another avatar after their stories are already documented in a book, and they are doing things differently, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from writing a second biography. Playwright Noel Coward wrote three autobiographies in his lifetime and they were all hilarious,” says Khan.
Lokpally, who wrote Virat's book last year, hasn't ruled out a revised edition in the future. “Two years down the line, I will have to revise this book because it's likely to lose its appeal. But, it is a document on the making of Virat, the cricketer and that's not going to change. As and when his game evolves, so will his biography.”
What's hot, sells
Truth is, people's stories sell. “If there isn't enough interest in a person or their story, the whole point of pursuing it becomes a bit questionable,” argues Mitra.
De doesn't see the hype around early memoirs or biographies. “An interesting life is an interesting life! Young or old; happy or unhappy; struggle or no struggle. Alia is a symbol of success on her own terms. She is her own person. Her achievements are inspiring. She is a youth icon. This is a book about now,” she says.
That the market has played a significant role in this growing trend cannot be ignored. “Writing a biography about a young celebrity is more like writing an extended article, because there is only so much that you can put into it. But, our readership has changed. There are a lot of young readers today and they want to read about celebrities. Quickies sell, but that doesn't mean they don't qualify as ideal biographies that are well researched,” Priya Kapoor, editorial director of Roli Books. “At the end of the day, I am not going to wait it out for 20 years, so that 10 other people jump in and do the book,” says Mehrotra, adding, “I don't want to be last on the train, all because I want to plant a flag saying that this is the definitive a biography of someone. That's not my optimisation strategy.”