February 18, 2020
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Inscrutable Americans, The King of Bestsellers, Workshop Writers

IT'S a mystery that his publishers are only too happy not to solve: how did a small, quite silly book with Peter Sellers' brand of humour, climb on to the notoriously transient Indian bestseller list, in spite of being panned by critics, and stay there for an astounding 10 years? Now in its 19th edition, The Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur is unlikely to vacate the spot, with a film based on the novel slated to be released soon. Even the new Madonna, of Indo-Anglian fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri, has only 14 editions of Interpreter Of Maladies. Not that 14 editions is something to scoff about. Most Indo-Anglian writers rejoice if their book sells 5,000 copies. And 10,000 copies is a respectable figure even for such giants as Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth.

But if Anurag Mathur is gloating, as he is wont to do, about his 19th edition, he should visit a publisher tucked away in Calcutta's College Street called Dey's. They have a novel now in its 71st edition. No, it's neither by Rabindranath Tagore nor Satyajit Ray, but by a contemporary corporate executive who writes after work as a communications director in a major industrial group in Calcutta. With a title that would make our babu fiction writers flinch—Heaven, Death and Hell (Sargo Marto Patal)—Shankar (Mani Shankar Mukherjee) is possibly the king of bestsellers in India. The secret of his success, say less successful writers in Bengal, is that his books are the ideal wedding gift: cheap, handily gift-wrapped, and popular with newly-weds.

Sceptics of the new school of "workshop writers" like Jhumpa Lahiri and Manil Suri point out that this new breed of writing spawned by creative writing workshops is suspiciously bland. "These workshops force writers to iron out all their idiosyncrasies," says Amit Chaudhuri. And what's a writer without his kinks?

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