2019 Literature power list: From historian Amitav Ghosh to thrill seeker Ashwin Sanghi

Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy which deals with the opium trade between colonial India, Britain and China is being adapted by Shekhar Kapur as a TV series.

Published: 29th December 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st December 2019 05:50 PM   |  A+A-

Writer-activist Arundhati Roy

Writer-activist Arundhati Roy (File Photo | PTI)

Many historians have admitted that it is Dalrymple who made Indian history colourful, easy and accessible to the youth and to the West without distorting facts.Amitav Ghosh

Literary historian

Because he is the daring literary explorer of India’s uncharted and lost frontiers. One of the country’s most celebrated writers in English, Ghosh made history as the youngest and only Indian English writer to get the Jnanpith Award—India’s highest literary honour.

His Ibis trilogy which deals with the opium trade between colonial India, Britain and China is being adapted by Shekhar Kapur as a tele series.

The low-key Ghosh, along with Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri, was one of 260 signatories of the PEN America statement requesting the Modi government to reverse its decision, revoking the Overseas Citizen of India status of writer Aatish Taseer, who had authored a lead story in Time magazine calling Modi ‘India’s divider in chief’.

(Photo | Shamim Qureshi, EPS)

Fifteen books down the line, his recent novel, Gun Island, which deals with climate change and human migration, landed in bookstores this year. Born in 1956 in Kolkata, Ghosh studied at Doon School in Dehradun with Ramachandra Guha, Vikram Seth and Karan Thapar for contemporaries. His work largely examines the diaspora, displacement and our complex relationship with identity. Though Ghosh writes in English, he constantly draws from the vast imaginative resources in Bengali literature. The Padma Shri winner is a powerful social media force in creating awareness that the Earth is hitting back at us very, very hard for man’s transgressions.

Lived in the servant quarters of a Defence Colony (Delhi) house

Guilty Pleasure
Gourmet cooking

Lit weapon
Wrote first two books on a small typewriter

The Sunderbans and Venetian lagoons

A Van Dyke beard

Apt description
“He is a sailor among novelists.” - Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Arundhati Roy

Dissident diva

Arundhati Roy (File Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

Because her persistence in being a perennial nuisance to the powers-that-be makes her the best-known champion of lost causes, loved by the Western liberal media. Born Suzanna Arundhati Roy, she won the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things.

This year, she published a collection of essays titled My Seditious Heart, which protests the authoritarian system’s control over creativity, intellectual freedom and self-belief. The Doctor and the Saint arrived in bookstores this year too.

2019 Power Lists

Art and craft: India's Banksy and other cultural czars and czarinas

Design: From a master illusionist to an affordable modernist

Bollywood: From outrageous poster boy Ranveer to budget superstar Ayushmann 

Tollywood: From fantasy king SS Rajamouli to new rage Vijay Devarakonda 

Performing Arts: From habitual offender Vir Das to piano boy Lydian

Fashion: From rebel with cachet Sabyasachi to bad boy Rohit Bal

Parvathy Thiruvothu: Mollywood's braveheart with sense and sensibility

Monica Shergill: The woman who kickstarted India's streaming revolution

Roy is the standard against which what-the-patriotic-Indian-must-not-do can be measured; she waxed eloquent against the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir. Some of her passions hover near the pale border of idiosyncrasy—she is an intellectual for all seasons and subjects.

Love her, hate her but you can’t ignore her. Roy’s public stances on nuclear weapons, globalisation, neo-imperialism, environment crisis, support for Kashmiri separatism, criticism of the Narmada dam project, championship of Maoists, tirades against Narendra Modi-led government have made her controversy’s favourite child.

She had sedition charges filed against her, too. Roy said in an interview that she has issues with the word ‘activist’ and for her, writing encompasses everything.

Gamut girl
Full-time writer, baked and sold cakes in Goa, aerobics instructor, artist, and actor

The God of Small Things is part of curriculum at various colleges and universities

Favourite Beatle
John Lennon

Pawsome Moments
Owns two dogs, both strays she rescued

Returned National Award for Best Screenplay in protest against social and religious intolerance in India

Amish Tripathi

The mythmaker

Amish Tripathi (Photo | Vinay Madapu, EPS)

Because he tapped the superman potential of Indian mythological heroes and got paid for it. The pioneer of contemporary Indian mythological writing in English was appointed director of London’s Nehru Centre, under the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in late 2019.

His latest work, Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta, is the third in the Ram Chandra series after Scion of Ikshvaku and Sita: Warrior of Mithila. His Shiva Trilogy is being made into a Hollywood film.

It is the fastest-selling book series in Indian publishing history, while the second is the second fastest-selling book in a series. He is reportedly the best paid Indian writer and the first one to be given over Rs 5 crore by an Indian publisher.

His works have been translated in 19 languages. The credit for taking mythological heroes out of their staid niche and catapulting them into the imagination of millennials as action heroes goes to the banker-turned-writer.

Ironically, his The Immortals of Meluha (Shiva Trilogy) was rejected by numerous publishers because they believed no one would read such books.

It sold over 2.5 million copies. At Nehru Centre, his mandate will be to attract young people to recast Indian myths and legends.

Favourite protagonist
Lord Shiva

Best advice
Be a good reader

Wow factor
• All seven books have sold over 5 million copies
• Wrote most of his first book while commuting to work

‘He is India’s first Literary Popstar.’ - Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur

William Dalrymple

New white moghul

(Photo | Arun Kumar, EPS)

Because he is the most powerful Indian literary figure along with Namita Gokhale at the helm of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) they founded along with Sanjoy Roy. Since 2006, he is the JLF director.

Authors crave to cultivate him and publishers would love to have him on their lists. The journalist-turned-historian has made a career out of British India even more than Clive.

At the lower end of this year, the bookstores were packed with The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of an Empire; his latest milk product of the genre which was hailed by critics and readers as another seminal work in the oeuvre.

In December, he curated in London the ‘Wallace Collection for Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’, comprising 109 works of Company Painting commissioned by the East India Company to Indian artists to portray the flora, fauna and scenes of 18th and 19th century India. His muse is where he has parked himself for over three decades—New Delhi, with a sprawling farmhouse he owns on the outskirts of the city.

This year, he showed that he was not just a writer but a photographer as well. Vadehra Art Gallery put on show ‘The Historian’s Eye’, an exhibition of black and white photographs which chronicles the people and places he met and saw in the two years spent researching The Anarchy. It includes a small selection of photographs of modern-day Pakistan.

Many historians have admitted that it is Dalrymple who made Indian history colourful, easy and accessible to the youth and to the West without distorting facts.

Favourite Delhi HangOuts
Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a circuit around the Jama Masjid and Dariba Kalan

Instagram profile
Goatherd, kabooter baz, and general badfaroosh

Secret wish
To attend regular mehfils in Zafar Mahal. Wants a whole new block of flats there demolished tomorrow

Decorative brass heads

Devdutt Pattanaik

The legend

(Photo | P Jawahar, EPS)

Because he makes the scriptures and legends accessible to the ordinary man. In 2019, the speaker, illustrator and author partnered with American yoga teacher Matthew Rulli to write his latest book, Yoga Mythology: 64 Asanas and Their Stories, with the disclaimer that “this is not a book on the practice of yoga” and “uses various yoga postures as inspiration to leap into the world of Hindu mythology with occasional detours into Jain and Buddhist mythology”.

All the five books of his were this year’s bestsellers. Through comic books, talks, television series and columns, he is credited with giving the New Age reader byte-sized doses of mythology. Pattanaik believes that his medical background enabled him to stay organised and analytical, and separate the root cause from symptoms while explaining the stories.

He believes that the biggest challenge is to change people’s conventional views on Hinduism, since most Indians follow the colonial version of Hindu mythology. Unperturbed by bouquets and brickbats, he claims, “writing clears my thoughts, refines my ideas, makes me calm and focused”.

Pattanaik, with over seven lakh Twitter followers, was anything but calm recently. In a social media meltdown, he called a woman who disagreed with him: “Chup chudail. Jalti kyon hai. Limbu mirchi band hua kya?” Not funny at all.

Funniest Mythological Tale
That God is male

Best Advice
Write for passion, fame and limelight

Tough Nut to Crack
Chinese mythology

Mythology is
•One god equals intolerance
•No god equals nihilism
•Many gods equal pluralism

Write trick
Cleans and organises his cupboards to tackle writer’s block

Madhuri Vijay

Prizey debutante

(Photo | Manvi Rao)

Because she is Indian fiction’s new rising star. Born and raised in Bengaluru and living in Hawaii, school teacher Madhuri Vijay struck it rich with her debut book, The Far Field, which bagged the `25 lakh JCB Prize for Literature 2019, and was shortlisted for the $25,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2019.

It’s long-listed for the 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, where it competes with new work by Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. She is also on the shortlist of the Tata Literature Live literary festival award.

Vijay is an alumna of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, America’s oldest and most prestigious creative-writing programme, where many of the country’s Poet Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners cut their teeth. It is known as the Harvard for aspiring authors and poets, only pickier.

While Harvard’s admission rates hover at 5 per cent, the two-year writers’ residency at the University of Iowa admits barely 2.7 per cent.

There, Vijay received the Pushcart Prize and her writing appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading while at Iowa.

She has been published by Narrative Magazine and Salon. By her own admission, the author has no knowledge of Kashmir though her novel juxtaposes the privileged background of the protagonist with strife-torn Kashmir.

• Never believe a writer who says he/she is apolitical
• Endurance and stamina are as necessary for writers as they are for athletes

It’s my job, and I have to do it

Great love
Kashmir and Kashmiris

An Indian editor asked her to soften her novel’s portrayal of the army to align with the “current climate” in India.

Brave move
Writing a Kashmir novel without any knowledge of Kashmir and winning a prize

Ashwin Sanghi

Thrill seeker

Ashwin Sanghi (Photo | EPS)

Because he pioneered the thriller genre in Indian mythology. Often called ‘the Dan Brown of India’, Sanghi ranks among India’s highest-selling English fiction authors.

This year, two new titles—13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting and 13 Steps to Bloody Good Health—were added to the popular 13 Steps series, which include 13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck, 13 Steps to Bloody Good Wealth, and 13 Steps to Bloody Good Marks.

His next book, The Vault of Vishnu, went to press late this year and will be launched on January 23, 2020, at Jaipur Litfest. It will be the sixth installment of the mythological ‘Bharat series’.

The entrepreneur-writer juggles both careers, thanks to the efficiency he learned as a management graduate.

After repeated jettisons, he self-published his first novel, which went on to break records. He believes that the only thing separating good writers from success is a stubborn and thick-skinned approach of rising after failure and rejection. While his books are a combination of history, mythology, culture, philosophy, geology, and sometimes science, next on his list is a racy detective novel.

Advice to Aspiring Writers
Don’t think of yourself as a writer but as a storyteller

Know Your Author
• Included by Forbes India in their Celebrity 100 list
• Wrote bestseller thriller in collaboration with James Patterson
• Self-published first novel The Rozabal Line under a pseudonym

Favourite Books
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

They call him
India’s Dan Brown

A full circle
Ten years ago he was a businessman who was also an author. Now he is an author who is also a businessman.

Perumal Murugan

Headline to here

Perumal Murugan (Photo | EPS)

Because he is the only Tamil writer who is a national literary sensation today. Very few translations make it big in India but Perumal Murugan has not lost in translation.

This year, his twin novel-set, Trial by Silence and Lonely Harvest, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize. The autobiographical Amma hit the book stores this year. With Murugan, translated works into English have come of age.

In January 2015, Murugan had posted on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself.

"He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.”

The statement followed the controversy that lasted for the better part of 2014 over his book, Madhorubhagan, which was translated into English as One Part Woman.

Even as he went into self-imposed exile, the literary world stood up in support urging him to come back, to resurrect himself. Encouraged by a Madras High Court ruling in July 2016—which said, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at.

Write”—Murugan returned in 2017 with a poetry collection and then in 2018 keeping true to his style, his comeback novel about a black goat, which plays a silent witness to the inequities and violence.

Bengali, Kannada and Russian writing

Fun Fact
• Compiled and published a dictionary in the Kongu dialect
• Is a herbalist
• First in his family to complete school

• Writing is both his weapon and solace
• Gandhi helped him in an hour of crisis
• Writing is a state of mind

Chetan Bhagat

Romance royalty

Chetan Bhagat (Photo | EPS)

Because his bestsellers cracked the Small Town India code and made him the dumb-down generation’s favourite writer.

This year ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history’ launched India Positive—a collection of essays and selected columns which he calls a manifesto for change.

He fancies himself as the good-natured intellectual of the Bunty-Babli crowd and is not afraid to go where no unqualified person has gone before: Bhagat was chief guest at an ISRO event. It created a social media storm. India’s favourite romance novelist is financially astute; he promises to invest in start-ups in segments that interest him.

He is the brand associate of cafe chain Zorambo. The 45-year-old father of a whole new genre in Indian commercial fiction self-published Five Point Someone: What Not To Do At IIT after many turn-downs. But he was not the favourite of the Indian Railways this year; a not-too-well-read railwayman banned Half Girlfriend in railway stations terming it too obscene. Four of his books have been adapted into movies.

Next mystery
A murder mystery

People may not say that Chetan is the best author, but I want them to say Chetan is my author

Filmy funda
• Four of his books have been adapted into Bollywood blockbusters

First job
Investment banker at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong

Karthika VK


(Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

Because she is the most powerful woman in Indian publishing. This year, she launched the popular children’s imprint, Red Panda, after Context, which publishes literary fiction and political nonfiction. She is the publisher of Westland Books, an Amazon-owned company.

Karthika is the face who launched a thousand books; the editor behind bestselling writers such as Aravind Adiga, Amruta Patil, Anuja Chauhan, Josy Joseph, Manu Joseph, Rana Dasgupta, Raghu Karnad, Rohini Mohan, Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh and more. Karthika started as an Editorial Assistant with Penguin, after she cleared an edit test which she sat for “on a lark”.

She had moved from Kerala to Delhi to study for a PhD at JNU and also taught American Literature for a very brief period at the university.

Her success comes from betting on emerging talent, the occasional graphic novel and poetry, which she considers her ‘guilty pleasure’. She counts empathy as the most important element in a good editor and that there is no one kind of ideal writer, reader or text.

Stable can also be dangerously close to staid

Biggest grouse
Most book reviews are plot summaries

First book she proof-read
A novel by Shobhaa De

One book She Wishes She Could Have Published
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children


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