Chasing the truth: How COVID-19 has changed reading habits

Authors are experimenting with subjects that are both serious and entertaining with the changing writing style, often with description and dramatisation thrown in.

Published: 28th March 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th March 2021 06:35 PM   |  A+A-

Covers of 'The Nine Lives of  Pakistan', 'Let Me Say It Now' and 'The Automobile'

Covers of 'The Nine Lives of  Pakistan', 'Let Me Say It Now' and 'The Automobile' (Photo| Special Arrangement)

The year 2020 brought about a paradigm shift in our lives. We began thinking differently, eating differently, living differently, and even reading differently. According to Nielsen's report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the India Book Consumer, reading time has increased from nine hours a week to 16 hours a week.

The fear of going out, contamination, unpredictable political climate, sudden death - the year was stranger than fiction. Readers reached out to relate and find an explanation in nonfiction. They sought answers in Science, Technology, Self-help, Spirituality, History and Enterprise to figure their place in a new, unsure world.

As serious nonfiction started flying off shelves or online ebook portals, the numbers told the truth. Adult nonfiction revenue for Amazon grew 22.8 percent in the last five years. Amazon Health, Fitness and Dieting, Politics and Social Science.

In 2020, YA fiction sales rose 21.4 percent and nonfiction sales increased 38.3 percent. The Nielsen report said that Indian nonfiction readers bought historical/political biographies followed by self-help/personal development and self-study like learning new languages.

Indian authors writing in English are looking beyond fiction. So are publishers. For every Samit Basu or Megha Majumdar, there is Urijit Patel writing about the credit market, Manan Ahmed Asif foraying into South Asian history in the context of majoritarianism, Sonia Shah writing on the next migration wave-provoked climate change and Raj Tilak Roushan uncovering real crimes in The Good, The Bad and The Unknown: Deep, Dark And Captivating Crime Stories from India.

"When publishing Indian writing in English got going in the 1980s, it was mainly fiction by a generation of great writers such as Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, etc," says William Dalrymple, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The reason is that Indian publishing ecosystem has got more sophisticated and smart. India has the youngest readership market, which is a curiosity-consumed demographic.

Technology and travel have exposed youth to accessible vectors. Hence Indian readers will pay for a book like, The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative by Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran, which explains how India can shape the world’s future.

The rise of Dalit politics and Hindutva is a heated topic that make the translation of I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS by Bhanwar Meghwanshi a read in demand. Reading trends represent current topics of interest.

Currently, it is Medicine thanks to the pandemic, the Constitution because of debates over its sanctity, and Hindutva because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's charisma as well as escalating attacks on Muslims.

In Republic of Religion: The Rise and Fall of Colonial Secularism in India, Abhinav Chandrachud argues that though many of our laws are based on the British legal system and our parliamentary democracy being a colonial derivative, Indian secularism is an atypical and forceful imposition by the British.

The past is the fertile valley of belief for nationalists and secularists alike. Author Ira Mukhoty believes that in India, society has changed a great deal in the last 20 years and the structure of families is changing too. "The usual storytellers, grandparents for example, may not always be integrated into these new family units. This means that we have lost some connectivity with a sense of our past," she explains.

According to her, the growth of nonfiction is fuelled by this need to better understand the past, and incorporate a mature and vibrant sense of identity. "There is greater awareness that a lot of the history we have been taught in the past, was quite literally written by the victors. There is a greater desire for alternative histories," she adds.

There is history you know and history that is forgotten. People Called Lucknow: 45 Narratives Unlayering Time in Awadhi Andaz by Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah and Siddharth Srivastava narrates a secret Lucknow told by 44 Lucknowphiles about the forgotten queen of Awadh and Farid Faridi legendary for his hospitality.

Says Yashaswini Chandra, author of The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback, "The divide between literary nonfiction and academic literature is shrinking as more and more scholars are writing for a general audience and making their work accessible."

The Pandemic Effect

The pandemic had a host of memoirs flooding the market. Aarti David, Director-Publishing at SAGE Publications India, believes the reason is that the lockdown gave people time to focus on their book writing projects as events and physical meetings took a backseat.

According to Alliance of Independent Authors, indie authors account for 30-34 percent of all e-book sales in the largest English-language markets, and are making forays into the audiobook market. "Once people got fed up with binge-watching series/shows and trying out their culinary talents, reading brought hope and comfort," David says.

She is not alone. The lockdown and subsequent WFH practice created mixed emotions in people, and books became an escape, believes Bushra Ahmed, Commissioning Editor, HarperCollins India, who says that Indian readers have always been more partial to nonfiction. "Nonfiction strikes close to the heart due to its immediacy," she adds.

People turn to different kinds of books to tide over challenging times. Contemporary concerns reflect on sales. The environment and sustainability are dominant millennial concerns, as capitalism and its global ramifications are seen as modern day scourges.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, which The New York Times called "the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring", blames free market ideology for blocking climate change.

As the octaves of nationalism rise higher by the day, the thirst to know the history of Independence has grown. The inventiveness of the Indian academic mind is the fresh change in present Indian nonfiction. For example, Meghaa Gupta in Unearthed: The Environmental History of Independent India offers respite from dusty tomes.

"Away from the screen and the internet, readers might find nonfiction an interesting gateway to information," says Gupta. True, provided it is told lucidly. New writers have a chatty anecdotal stye, which combined with extensive research makes history a lively read.

For example, the author of The Execution of Bhagat Singh, Legal Heresies of the Raj, Satvinder Singh Juss, a Law professor at King’s College London, gives such a detailed description of the martyr’s walk to the gallows that it seems we are watching it in real time nearly a century later.

The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram author Pavan K Varma, which was launched during the pandemic, says, "Long weeks of solitude and isolation, turned people’s mind towards the basic truths of life; what matters, what does not and how to acquire such meaningful knowledge that can help us grapple with life when it is so opaque and volatile."

A massive dislocation caused by the pandemic pushed people to look for answers to troubling questions. "The kind of nonfiction books that are succeeding in this atmosphere can provide such succour," believes bestselling author Amish. 

Self-help and soul-searching books boomed more than usual the difference now is that their subjects have acquired more variety. "Much of what we took for granted has been turned upside down. A nonfiction upswing makes sense. People would naturally turn to books as a way of understanding their old and new lives," says author Taran Khan.

Raising a Humanist by Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Bhatia teaches how to raise a humanist child in a divided and broken world. India's mythmaker Devdutt Pattanaik's Dharma Artha Kama Moksha uses his unique ability of talking to the common man and explaining in layman’s terms what the shastras are all about.

The pandemic has pushed sales of star topics such as food, health and travel. The pandemic became a home chef factory since restaurants were closed; out came grandmothers' recipes and family food secrets.

Home chefs experimented and won; Somali chef Hawa Hassan and American food writer Julia Turshen present 75 recipes that teach how to make the famous Ajemi bread with carrots and green pepper; or Matoke (stewed plantains with beans and beef); and Kicha (Eritrean flatbread), with evocative photographs shot on location.

Renuka Chatterjee, VP Publishing, Speaking Tiger Books, says, "Readers are looking for books that will help them cope with depression and anxiety. They want to eat healthy, build immunity, restart their businesses and recover their finances."

Knowledge is Power

The growing appetite for nonfiction in India is partly due to the fact that a new breed of writers has emerged in the last decade or so. Like Dalrymple, author Kishwar Desai believes that people are writing nonfiction because many new and forbidden areas are opening up for research, and multiple points of view are permissible. "Thanks to the internet, libraries and archives are more accessible all over the world. It’s easier now to get the information one needs," she believes.

The reader also gets credit. The slant towards reading more nonfiction has happened primarily due to a mature readership. Rupa Publications MD Kapish Mehra believes that the trend has something to do with a lot of conventional consumers of fiction moving to popular OTT platforms for bite-sized entertainment.

"Nonfiction, on the other hand, is very wide in scope, and does not have a replacement. It is therefore, unique in its own right," he says. It is a widely accepted fact that the internet is not always an accurate source of information. By filling this lacuna, nonfiction works assume a pivotal role in the modern age.

Aleph Book Company co-founder David Davidar says that nonfiction has traditionally outsold fiction. "Maybe it's because no new Chetan Bhagat or Amish has appeared," he weighs in.   

Author of A Forgotten Ambassador in Cairo: The Life and Times of Syud Hossain, NS Vinodh adds that many books are by non-academics and journalists who write racy copy without compromising on the depth of research, in contrast to the pedantry of an academic. The same holds true for children’s books.

For example, until sometime back nonfiction books for children were like extensions of school textbooks. "Writers now approach the genre creatively, and illustrators add their magic," reveals children’s author Shruthi Rao.

Dr Devika Rangachari, author of Queen of Earth, concurs. She believes that authors are aware that they will potentially make more money with nonfiction than fiction. "In this age of information overload, books written in engaging prose are more popular," she says. 

Authors are experimenting with subjects that are simultaneously serious and entertaining. The writing style is changing, often with description and dramatisation thrown in.

Amish adds that many authors are writing narrative nonfiction, which makes for an easier read, and may aid to the expansion of the market. There is no doubt that readers consider nonfiction knowledge-enhancing.

Books that deal with weight loss, diets and other 'how to' books are always on top. Moreover, real life is often stranger than fiction, and can offer more excitement. Histories and biographies sell well. Celebrity writing by the likes of Twinkle Khanna get wide readership. Priyanka Chopra Jonas made it to the NYT bestseller list.

Here for the Long Run?

Is this newfound fascination with nonfiction temporary? "Sometimes passing phases leave permanent imprints behind," says Amish. Varma agrees that the trend will consolidate in the years to come. "In a world where so many ideas are contested, often acrimonious, and different viewpoints abound, readers want to find out for themselves where they should stand on issues. Nonfiction books fill that need," he says. The search to know more never ends for both writers ad readers. Publishers are listening.


Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

On renowned Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa teaching how to write the perfect script by explaining his creative process through films Rashomon and Seven Samurai. A must-read for an amateur or a professional filmmaker.

Having and Having Had by Eula Biss

On how pervasion consumer capitalism affects your life. Possessions like a new house trap you in a spiral of maintenance employment and investment. The value of an object is only worth what someone will pay for it - like down market real state becoming pricey when trendy people move in.

Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers by TM Krishna

On the role of caste in Carnatic music through the history of Dalit-Christian mrdangam-maker Sebastian and his three sons. India's most political musician examines the ironic dichotomy between such Dalits and musicians who are upper-caste Brahmins; Mrdangam maker Arulraj asks, "Why do they (Brahmin musicians) not give us the respect and importance that we deserve?" 

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

On the global pervasiveness of caste and how powerful forces determine social inferiority, Throughout history, caste is the preferred instrument to dehumanise and legitimise discrimination - note the anti-Semitic caste system of Nazi Germany, Dalits in India and racial hatred of Blacks in America.

She writes. "A caste system endures because it is  often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, and passed down through the generations." 


COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One 
by Debora MacKenzie

On how COVID-19 went from a manageable event to a global pandemic. And how we can prevent future epidemics. After informing readers about virus spread, the author runs the COVID-19 gamut laying out solutions that governments could have adopted and can adopt to stop the bug.

Panic! COVID-19 Shakes the World by Slavoj Zizek

On how the pandemic showed us what is wrong with the world: governments execute ruthless public spending cuts to raise trillions and toilet paper becomes as precious as diamonds. This series of essays by disruptive philosopher Slavoj Zizek uses the contagion to explore a new brand of communism rising in the neoliberalist landcape - a "global organisation that can control and regulate the economy" along with a "global healthcare network".

Till We Win: India’s Fight Against the COVID-19 Pandemic by Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, Dr Gagandeep Kang, Dr Randeep Guleria

On India's fight against COVID-19 and dealing with a future where more pandemics could happen. The three doctors advise politicians, policymakers and physicians on how to transform public health and strengthen the existing healthcare system. It also has advice on staying safe and gives relevant information on vaccines and therapies.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: The Deadly Coronavirus Outbreak By Tapas Kumar Koley, Monika Dhole
On the exhaustive impact of the pandemic at personal, national and global levels and on trade and commerce. The authors are a medical professional and an economist working on the outbreak's frontlines that has given them a unique perspective to the viral outbreak.


Unfinished: A Memoir by Priyanka Chopra Jonas

On the secret life of India's most successful actress. Never has such an autobiography made it to the NYT bestseller list. Priyanka Chopra Jonas's memoir reveals the PeeCee the public doesn't know - her boyfriend had to hide in the closet during her aunt's visit. Her father put iron bars on the windows to stop her stalker. Her first namaste at the red carpet was to keep her strapless dress from falling.

The Boy with Two Hearts by Hamed Amiri

On a heroic flight of an Afghan family from the Taliban which in 2000 ordered the execution of Hamed’s mother. After paying human traffickers, the family escape to the UK where Hussein could get cardiac treatment. Travelling in strangers' cars and hiding in lorries without food or drink across Russia and Europe, they meet robbers and the mafia.

Let Me Say It Now by Rakesh Maria

On the former supercop's handling of the 1993 serial blasts and 26/11 terror attacks that made him a national hero. It tells sordid tales of underworld rivalries and politics; Maria blows the lid on his transfer in the Sheena Bora case. 

Of Gifted Voice by Desiraju Keshav

On the life and music of a Carnatic music legend. Did you know that all the four films starring MS Subbulakshmi were hits? Or that Pt Ravi Shankar touched her feet when she got the Bharat Ratna? 

History, Mythology

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares by Wendy Doniger

On how the horse, an animal not indigenous to India until the late Harappan age, is a cultural and social symbol now. Greeks rode into India. The Mughals imported Arabians. The British used thoroughbred Walers. She explains the horse in society: why men ride mares to weddings and why a Dalit was murdered for riding a horse .

The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

On the stolen romance, intrigue and heartbreak that envelop Jindan Kaur, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's last queen. She inherits a divisive imperial world where she had to protect not only Punjab, but also her young son - the last surviving direct descendent of the ruler. 

The House of Jaipur by John Zubrzycki

On how royal Jaipur's Raj days hide sordid details of a monarchic family that constantly redefines its role to stay relevant even now. Teeming with hot maharanis and polo-playing maharajas, it has a gripping cast of unforgettable characters whose motto is,  everything comes for a price.

Makers of Modern Dalit History by Sudarshan Ramabadran and Guru Prakash

On how Dalit protest has upended the Indian political and social heirarchy. In late 19th century, a man rides a bullock cart in rural Kerala to express Dalit rights. Such inspiring tales of protest are relevant in current India with Dalit politics making a comeback.


The Commonwealth of Cricket By Ramachandra Guha

On how the global growth of Indian cricket and simultaneous impact on society changed the nature of the game. A first-person account from a former BCCI member on the contributions of local heroes, provincial icons and international stars to cricket.

My Life in Red and White By Arsene Wenger

On how a legendary football manager who played in the village green took Arsenal to unprecedented success and changed the game forever. A must-read autobiography for both football fans and business leaders on how Wenger made him and his team unbeatable.

The Gopichand Factor by Abhijeet Kulkarni

On how badminton guru Gopichand created a band of heroes like Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth. How did he power India's rise in world badminton?  What all stood in his way from politics to inconsistency?

The Unforgiven by Ashley Gray

On 20 black West Indian cricketers In the early 80s who went on rebel tours in apartheid South Africa. Condemned by the international cricketing fraternity for pocketing 'blood money' against their own people, they were banned for life. Some turned to drugs while others turned to God. This book tells the tragic story.


Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear By Elva Holland

On staring down fear. After a crash and facing her greatest fear of her mother’s death, Holland starts writing on fear. It is a literal investigation on the science, history and medicine behind it - she dives from an airplane to conquer her acrophobia.

This anecdotal read on complex neuroscience illustrates a team of scientists who try to cut off traumatic memories from fear using a single pill. Holland challenges readers to confront their own fears.

The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars By Jo Marchant

On stargazing and mankind. Was it in the Hall of the Bulls in France, where ancient man mapped the skies with 20,000 year-old, cattle-shaped cave paintings? A futuristic and reflective look at our relationship with the celestial bodies and their permeating influence on government, religion and science. 

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez

On eight inventions and their inventors who changed the modern world with clocks, steel rails, copper telegraph wires, photographic film, carbon filaments for light bulbs, hard disks, scientific labware and silicon chips. For example, clocks changed our sleep schedule. The technologies we shape in turn shape us.

Outbreaks and Epidemics by Meera Senthilingam

On the origin of deadly diseases, the eternal battle against infection, lessons from triumphs and failures, and meeting current challenges in eradicating disease. Examples like small pox eradication using forceful track and trace combined with a meticulous vaccination drive holds lessons for Covid-19 times. On the other hand climate crisis and drug resistance can lead to future pandemics.


The Book of Indian Essays By Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

On middle class India spanning Victorian Calcutta, feudal Kerala, and cosmopolitan Mumbai, to the bureaucratic Delhi, Buddhist Benares, and Civil Lines, Allahabad by 'Indian writers'. An alternative history

You're Not Listening by Kate Murphy

On the tyranny of cellphones and their impact on psychological and community health. People no longer have meaningful conversations, maintain eye contact or see virtue in listening. Over the past century, the average time people spent listening to one another is down by almost half. 

The Automobile by Gautam Sen

On India’s love affair with cars and how they changed both royalty and the common man. It sent girls to study and women to get to work. Not just cars - bikes, auto shows and even vintage cars also find place here. An anecdotal drive through.


Superhuman River:  Stories Of the Ganga by Bidisha Banerjee

On how the Ganga, venerated as a divinity in India is ravaged by human and industrial pollution. Its sacred denizens like the river dolphins are nearing extinction in spite of a rejuvenation budget of Rs 20,000 crore six years ago. Banerjee’s decade-long research has resulted in a despairing question–will the river be saved?

The New Climate War the Fight to Take Back Our Planet By Michael E Mann

On the three-decade-old campaign by fossil fuel companies to deflect responsibility and delay action on climate change. The respected climate scientist submits a plan to force governments and corporations to let renewable energy compete fairly against fossil fuels. The book is an invitation to ordinary people to take up arms to save the plant from petrogreed and petrocrats.

Food and Climate Change Without the Hot Air: Change Your Diet - The Easiest Way to Help Save the Planet By Sarah Bridle

On how food causes a quarter of our carbon emissions. Food production impacts the climate and vice versa. Vote driven taxes can save public health costs through diet changes. 

From Soup to Superstar By Kartik Shanker

On marine conservation in India that focuses on saving sea turtles. An account of local, national and global efforts to save them from the fisheries in Odisha, where over 1,00,000 of them nest on the beach.


Karma: A Yogi’s Guide to Crafting Your Destiny by Sadhguru

On Karma and how it can positively enhance our lives. 'What goes around comes around' applies also to good actions and thoughts. Go deeper into yourself to understand its true meaning.

In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration by Shane O'Mara

On putting your best foot forward and the countless benefits of walking for our bodies and brains. Its origins can be traced back millions of years. Walking together is the social glue that has aided the survival of our species. Think migrations from Africa.

Preparing: For Death by Arun Shourie

On meeting death stoically. Divided into a section on the death of Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave and a reflective second half dominated by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama who is a family friend. 


Battle of Belonging by Shashi Tharoor

On exploring the idea of the modern Indian Republic through destructive nationalism and patriotism. Divided into six sections, its central theme is the perennial question: Why some Indians are more equal? But all is not lost. There is a prescription for rebuilding India as the Constitution envisages it to be.

The Nine Lives of  Pakistan by Declan Walsh

On unravelling the mystery that is Pakistan. This New York Times correspondent who covered governments, spies, warlords and idealists, is perhaps best-suited for the task. The descriptions are vivid: a supercop's office "had the gleam of a mortuary and the furtive bustle of a mobster's den".

Red Fear: The China Threat by Iqbal Chand Malhotra

On the centuries-long war between India and China. A deeper, darker history lies beneath the conflict -Indian soldiers were the first to attack China and there were Sikh policemen in its cities in the 19th century. Beijing’s present challenge and how India responds will decide the future for both.

Bag Man by Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz

On the federal investigation into the vast criminal enterprise of Vice President, Spiro T Agnew who almost became the US President while Watergate-obsessed America had eyes only on Nixon. Based on the award winning podcast, the book details how he didn’t go to jail and resigned - and a deal was cut with George HW Bush's help.

Sixteen Stormy Days: The Story of the First Amendment of the Constitution of India by Tripurdaman Singh

On how Jawaharlal Nehru h got enacted the First Amendment of the Constitution that curbed freedom of speech, brought caste-based reservation, restricted the right to property and created a special schedule of laws free from judicial action and laid the foundations of authoritarianism in Indian democracy.


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