MEET THE WRITER

Meet Subin Bhattarai, the bestseller-writer who’s setting book sales on fire in Nepal

‘I am okay being criticised by the so-called literary establishment as long as my readers love my work.’

At the Central Department of Environmental Science to check the result of the entrance examinations for a Master’s programme, Atit sees a name on top of the list: Saaya. The name fascinates him, and he tries to give it a face. When he finally sees her, he is immediately floored – and thus begins their college romance. But the relationship hits a rough patch, as Saaya’s parents don’t approve on the grounds of caste. Soon after their MA course ends, Saaya goes away to Norway for further studies and Atit takes up a job in an NGO in the western part of Nepal. But finding the separation too painful to bear, Saaya returns to Nepal and marries Atit without letting her parents know, before returning to Norway. Inexplicably, she grows distant from Atit after this. Spurned, Atit starts to smoke and drink heavily, and has an affair with a colleague. The novel ends with Atit trying to find the reason for Saaya’s aloofness.

The description above sounds like it’s taken off the back cover of an Indian campus romance novel, the kind that was being churned out by publishing houses after Chetan Bhagat’s phenomenal success. But the author of this book is not an Indian. He is Subin Bhattarai from Nepal, whose frothy mass market novels in Nepali have sold lakhs of copies in his home country and are even being made into major films. Bhattarai spoke to Scroll.in about his writing career. Excerpts from an interview:

Your first book, Kathaki Paatra, was not a commercial success. Did you feel like giving up on your writing?
My first book was admired by critics. Maybe it did not do well commercially because it was locally published and distributed in a small way. But I would rather be appreciated for my writing than the numbers my books make.

Tell us about the genesis of your best-seller Summer Love. Is it the first campus novel from Nepal? And were your publishers wary of publishing it after the commercial reception of Katakhi Paatra?
Literature has been grossly misunderstood in Nepal. There is a generation of writers who believe that literature means producing writing that is incomprehensible. And this is why the youth has become very disinterested in Nepali literature. When Summer Love came out, it was a breath of fresh air. Young people could identify with its themes and language.

Yes, it is the first campus novel from Nepal. No, my publishers were not wary of publishing it. In fact they gave it a go ahead right after reading the first draft.

The novel is a romance set in the Central Department of Environmental Sciences at Tribubhan University. You graduated from the same department. How much of the book is autobiographical?
A fiction writer can neither totally accept nor deny autobiographical elements in his or her work. Traces of a writer’s life do get sprayed in every work of fiction.

How much time did it take for the book to become a bestseller? Did it sell on word-of-mouth?
Never before in the history of Nepali literature was any book received this well. Till today, no other book of fiction has done as well as Summer Love. I think this is because the book deals with topics which today’s youth connect to. And yes, word of mouth did help a great deal in making it a bestseller.

Your publisher brought out an English edition of Summer Love. Have they or you ever thought of marketing your books to readers outside of Nepal? Maybe at least within the subcontinent?
It is every writer’s dream to reach as many readers as possible. Recently, I have been looking for ways to market my books within the subcontinent.

How do you engage with your significant fan following? Do you try and make yourself accessible to them, or do you prefer to let your books do the talking?
I am not a closed book. Not only do I communicate with my readers via social media, but I also often seek their opinions about the kind of material they would like to read in my books.

Several of the mass market fiction writers in India have turned to screenwriting because it’s more lucrative. Do you have similar plans?
Summer Love is being made into a big-budget Nepali movie. Several producers have indeed approached me to write a script. I would love to explore screenwriting if a project that interests me comes along.

Chetan Bhagat’s success ushered in an era of similar mass market books in India. But not many Nepali writers seem to have followed in your footsteps. Why not?
That’s not exactly the case. Many budding writers are coming up with books in which the themes and language are similar to Summer Love. They are inspired by the success of Summer Love.

“It was close to dusk when the cruise finally began. People started to enter the lounge as it was getting cold outside and I seized the opportunity to get out on the deck. There was a man, about 28-30 years of age, smoking on the other side. I felt like smoking myself and lit up a cigarette. As I smoked, I continued to watch the man. Tall and fair complexioned, he looked South Asian and was staring out at the deep sea. In one hand, he held a cigarette and in the other, something that looked like a piece of cloth.

Something made me decide to walk up to him but he did not seem to notice me coming. I stood by awkwardly, hoping he would notice me. When he finally did, I smiled at him but he didn’t even smile back.  This was strange. No matter where you are from or what language you speak, everybody understands a smile.

If he’d at least smiled back, I would have left him alone but now, he’d piqued my curiosity and I wanted to know more about this man. I deliberately stood too close so that our elbows were nearly touching. He, in turn, rolled his eyes at me and kept smoking and staring out into oblivion. 

‘Hi!’ I said brightly.

‘Hi,’ he replied.

The cloth in his right hand was a handkerchief, white in color. It had a red spot in the middle. When he realized I’d been staring at it, he pocketed it.

I introduced myself to him, telling him my name and where I was from. He was a Nepali and he opened up to me after he learned that I was too.

His name was Atit Sharma and he was from Biratnagar, Morang. He was doing his Masters in International Environmental Sciences at the University of Life Sciences, Oslo.”

— From "Summer Love"

How has Nepal’s literary establishment reacted to your success? Did you face any criticism?
Everything that is different and new faces criticism. Especially when it is a youth initiative. I am okay being criticised by the so-called literary establishment as long as my readers love my work.

Do you have more women fans than men?
I write mostly about the youth – their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and their ideas. So my fans are people of both genders in a certain age group.

Many bestselling authors turn to column writing to expand their already vast reader base. Is that why you started writing “Yuva Man”?
I always have the itch to express myself. But one can’t come up with a book about everything one thinks and feels. Column writing gives me the privilege to put my ideas across.

Are you familiar with bestselling Indian authors. What do you think of their books?
Of course I am. I love the work of contemporary Indian authors. I’ve read almost all the works of Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Dutta, Amish Tripathi, and so on. And I am also familiar with bestselling authors from all over the world.

Tell us a bit about your reading habits and literary influences.
I do not limit my reading to any particular genre or author. I revere reading so much that I read everything from sci-fi to chick lit to philosophy. Having said that, some authors whom I really admire are Anton Chekhov, Haruki Murakami, Chetan Bhagat, Paulo Coelho, Gulzar, Jhumpa Lahiri, Durjoy Dutta, and Nietzsche.

Do you plan to experiment with new genres or do you plan to stick to romance?
I would love to experiment with any topic that touches the lives of today’s youth. My upcoming novel is a motivational story with traces of romance in it.

Is there a big aspirational reader base in Nepal like there is one in India?
Readership is growing in Nepal. Even an average seller today is doing way better than a bestseller would have done a decade back. This proves that the reader base is very strong in today’s Nepal. Writers are frequently invited to programmes organised by various reader’s clubs all over the country.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.