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 by – 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.