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Can the Hindi novel keep up with social media? Its new readers are signalling a revival

Critics must drop their haughtiness to accommodate new writers ushering in a new era where readers play judge, jury and executioner on social media.

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Since the days of one of the greatest Hindi writers, Munshi Premchand, the Hindi novel has associated itself with one thing: jan sarokar (public interest). The novels which don’t follow this norm are called lugdi sahitya (pulp fiction). The early days of the Hindi novel were marked by a stark sense of idealism. Starting from Gandhian social reform and Nehruvian modernity to Marxist aesthetics and the Ambedkarite consciousness the novel form accommodated a wide range of tropes but steered clear of the ‘forces of Bazaar’. However, in the age of social media, it is set to change.

In the past, writers emerged from universities, journalism, activism or simply from the coterie of a big writer, but now they belong to various professions such as management, banking, engineering, film-making etc. The new writers are the products of post-liberalised India who are more interested in maintaining a lifestyle rather than partaking in activism. They are well-read, but their experiences are largely different from their predecessors. They have broken the language barrier and frequently use Hinglish as well. They chose taboo subjects without any prejudice or self-inflicted intellectualism.

This literary generation has invented a new ‘literary tool’: social media.

New writers have embraced the market like never before, thriving on social media. Contrast the famous image of Premchand in torn shoes to the current hip Hindi writers sitting in the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) with an aura of a celebrity. These writers demonstrate independence from the literary critics, respond to the liking of the audience and are concerned with the market of literature and cinema.

Shailesh Bharatwasi, the founder of the publication Hind Yugm, says, “Earlier, the validation for a writer came from literary magazines but it didn’t provide an equal platform to all. Now even the first-timers are also being published. It is democratic but carries its own fallacies.’’

The new novels are proudly called: Nayi Hindi, and have found unprecedented popularity among the youth. The present Hindi novels appear to reflect the mood of a generation rather than some ideology. The interests of previous generations have been replaced by middle-class aspirational values with urban realism.

Aditi Maheshwari, Director of Vani Prakashan says, “Hindi novel is exploring new vista and new geography. Every time period has its own hero, star and subtle artist and so will happen in this time too. At present, the underrepresented voices are being encouraged.’’

But the writers today are also caught in the vortex of social media, fan followings and the pressures of writing. It may appear that social media is the driving force behind Hindi novels. Young author of book Pitri Vadh and critic Ashutosh Bhardwaj says that “social media platforms have transformed the creation and reception of literature. If writers seek their earliest readers on Facebook, they will be looking for ways to catch the reader who’s always scrolling down. Writing thus becomes a performance, a hurried act to address this impatient reader. Self-promotion becomes a norm, and writing is defined by the cruel matrix of likes and retweets.’’

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Successful Hindi books and the silence of critics

The novel Chaurasi by Satya Vyas was a huge success and has been made into a successful web series. The novel is based on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and is set in Bokaro. The premise of the story is sensitive and demands examination of the society and individual mindsets, but the nonchalant hero of the novel becomes a rioter in order to ‘save’ his sikh girlfriend and doesn’t seem to repent his act, or stand trial.

Similarly, in another successful novel Ibne-batuti, the story touches on a delicate subject — finding the former lover of the protagonist’s mother and does so without any stigma or prejudice. However, it fails to examine the issue of reservation and caste despite its role in the background of the story.

The novel, Vaidhanik Gulp, is a thriller laden with existential crisis and narrative of love jihad. Interestingly, one character is named after a popular social media figure indulged in nefarious activity.

In another hugely popular novel, Aughad (2019), there is a fight against caste-feudalism but the lower-caste hero is devoid of Ambedkarite consciousness, which is difficult to imagine in this age. Though the writer has taken a dig at the failure of left-wing politics in caste conflict and also shown the importance of capital, it leaves the system undisturbed. It is a brave effort but avoids the real conflict: an upper-caste confronting his own hypocrisy.

However, the traditional Hindi literary circle is silent at the success of Nayi Hindi novels. The social media buzz of these novels has turned the critics into a part of an ancient illuminati group that is waiting for a messiah to resurrect Hindi novels from the grip of ‘the devil’ — social media. The irony is that everyone — right from old writers to new ones, from critics to readers — is on social media. It is the prime mover for any activity related to Hindi literature, particularly Facebook. It looks like this unholy alliance of literature and social media will go on for a while because it is the reality of our lives.

The author of Aughad, Nilotpal Mrinal, makes an interesting point: every time period has its own writers and its own critics also. There must be objective literary criticism of novels because the lack of it may hamper the growth of literature. Another popular author, Nilima Chauhan, says, “the critics should not ignore the reality of today’s literature.”

However, the authors who are skiving from social media, are lost in oblivion. For example, the experimental novel Kaljayi Kambakht by filmmaker Amit Dutta is largely unknown because he avoids social media.

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The readers’ dilemma: to click a photo or not?

Reading produces empathy, but social media has changed the meaning of both. Readers now have a shorter attention span and are quick to shift their empathy.

A new Hindi readership comprising the politically disenchanted and internet-addicted young population of Hindi speaking states, has emerged. For the first time, they have found direct access to writers via social media as opposed to the past where writers were considered ‘more intellectual’ and were out of reach of the audience.

They are endorsing the literature which caters to their imagination, politics and range. These readers seem to be not aware of the literary treasure of Hindi and have started their readings with contemporary novels, which are shaping their intellect. But on social media, they have virtually replaced the literary critics.  They behave like a ‘pressure group’ that is difficult to ignore. However, more than writing about the book, they prefer posting selfies and reviewing them with memes. The serious litterateur can’t undermine them because of the fear of being trolled mercilessly. They seem to equate it to brain “exercise” for a “higher purpose”. Conservatism is often akin to preserving cultural values and modern thought is considered to be a “foreign invasion”. Ask any writer who has been a target and they will be on the verge of a breakdown, trying to erase those memories.

If one goes by the reactions about a book on social media, it would appear that this is a Nordic country from the movies where everybody is having fun and there are no social fault lines. Young critic Suresh Kumar, expressing his disappointment, says that the pretence of social reform has already harmed literary growth by being exclusive, and now this nonchalance is worsening it. The young authors have to be aware of the root of India’s problems.

There is one pertinent question: how will novels compete with the entertainment provided by social media? In an era when The Economist is using a scene from the movie Jaws to explain climate change and the reading itself is diminishing, how can a novel afford to retain its conventional form? The answer lies in inventing new forms of writing rather than surrendering to such inhibitions.

Still, one can’t ignore that the new writers and novels have added lakhs of new readers to the Hindi novel which could easily have migrated to English for good. Buoyed by the Hindi wave in the last decade, these novels have expanded their reach into villages as well. Now films and web series based on these novels are in the pipeline. Should authors worry about posterity? Have we forgotten the likes of Raymond Chandler? No. So, literary criticism must ponder shunning its haughtiness and try to be more democratic. There is no Namvar Singh now to dictate terms for Hindi literature. The idea is to help the Hindi novel grow rather than form an exclusive club based on interest.

Also Read: Uttar Pradesh had a thriving literary culture in the 1980s, but proximity to Delhi killed it

Changing promotion and distribution channels

Earlier, book promotions primarily took place in magazines, literary festivals and awards. But social media has changed the game, bringing the Hindi novel out of its cocoon of “sage-ism” to the public eye, where both the book and the writer are a commodity. These days, a young person from a village and another from a city, both proudly post their pictures with the book and the author.

Shailesh Bharatwasi says, ” Book promotions have become easy because of social media. Writers now have a huge social media following, similar to media houses and can directly connect to youth.

“Online sales comprise 70 per cent of the book distribution, and the business yield has increased. With less infrastructure, now 100 books reach at least 100 people. Before, to target 100 people, you had to send many books to many places. Reading and buying books have become closely associated with social media” he adds.

Aditi Maheshwari says that digital platforms have greatly affected the reading habits of people. Social media is now tangible. Readers are able to find books, authors and reviewers. Publishers are finding new authors. The live shows, author interactions, social media connections — all help in this endeavour.

“The theme of the book is well explained on the cover page itself. We focus on innovation on the design front, book cover, and communication about the book on social media. We make it interactive. The author’s profile is promoted in the right circles. The story of the creation of the book is also important. Readers are very aware of things. So, storytelling has changed and it is more inclusive and diverse,” she adds.

There is one interesting point regarding digitisation: it has led to piracy of the books. But if a book is being pirated, then it means that people want to read these books. Earlier this honour was limited to foreign, imported books because of their cost.

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The joy of growing with the reader

The writers are now stars and their books are showstoppers at literary festivals. Both attract crowds at literary festivals across the country. A few of the books have been translated into other languages also. The success of new authors and their books is commendable. They have created a platform for writers, books and readers where one can easily discuss any idea. This was unthinkable a decade ago.

However, a literary author doesn’t succumb to the notion of popularity and it is not their job to treat readers as consumers. Instead, the writer has to challenge the deepest beliefs of individuals and society. Social reform may not be the agenda but getting people to introspect and challenge the norms is key to progress. When Lord Krishna wanted a war that upstaged traditions, he chose not to take up arms, but words — Bhagavad Gita. The writing must hit hegemonic values that act as a barrier to a better society and instil a sense of empathy for the weak.

Since the youthful readership of the Hindi heartland will soon mature into adults and middle-aged people, the joy of growing with them should not be missed.

Rishabh is a Hindi author, blogger and has a keen interest in literature and cinema. He tweets @RPratipaksh. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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