Of Spooks & Ghosts: In Conversation with Abhirup Dhar

Abhirup Dhar

Do you enjoy ghost stories or stories of haunting that send shivers down your spine? Meet Abhirup Dhar, a young writer of horror who juggles a corporate job with his love of writing. He puts on his writerly shoes at night – like ‘Nina, Pretty Ballerina’[1] – to create horror stories that are not just taken up by reputable publishing houses but also by Bollywood. His books[2] have been endorsed by a renowned filmmaker, Vikram Bhatt, and Dhar is now scriptwriting for a number of films based on his own books and more. His earlier book, Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari (2021) was picked for a screen adaptation even before it was published. The book is based on a real-life event where a young paranormal researcher, Gaurav Tiwari (1984-2016), was found dead… And did Dhar, while writing the script, have a visitation? Read on to find out more about the genre, visitations by spirits, the author and his fascination for the paranormal…

You are a banker by profession. What made you turn to writing? Since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?

Firstly, thank you for having me for the interview. I have been a banker for many years after which I changed the sector and am currently into travel. In the corporate world, it’s important that one keeps a track of the market and switches when it is the right time rather than continuing in a saturated atmosphere.

Coming to writing, I have always been a writer much before I was anything else! As a child, I used to write stories on notebooks and keep them to myself. Some went for the school and local magazines. When I was in college, I blogged and did some freelancing too, also wrote movie reviews for certain portals. It was during a break between my postgraduate course and first job that I utilised a few weeks and wrote my first book at a stretch. Getting published was never in my mind and I had written only for the sheer joy of it. Then I got busy with my job till a few years later when I began writing movie reviews for a portal again. It was then that I had shared the manuscript with a few people who loved the book. They said it was fun and struck a chord and that I should get published. So, I did! I was an amateur then but that’s where my writing career began. My first book was out in 2015 and it was an extremely special and emotional moment for me holding its copies! Passion is what keeps me going. It’s been an interesting and worthwhile journey of learning from successes and failures, unlearning, persevering and also importantly for me, multi-tasking.

Why horror? What made you choose this genre of writing? Your first book was a story of relationships. Why did you move into horror?

I was always a big horror buff. The first book I read was horror. The first movie I watched was horror. The first story I wrote was horror. And I enjoyed visiting deserted and supposedly haunted places. Anything supernatural intrigued me and I was curious about the afterlife. I still am. I was actually supposed to debut with a horror book which came out later. Based on a short story I had written while studying at a boarding school in Darjeeling, The Belvoirbrooke Haunting didn’t really shape up earlier. I guess for a difficult genre like horror, a little more maturity is required. So, I came out with Once Again… With Love! first as the manuscript was ready. My second book — Stories Are Magical — had six stories from six genres, including horror. While writing the book, I went back to my childhood days and realised it was horror which I enjoyed the most. It was a genre hardly focused upon and I knew it was risky. But I just wrote Hold That Breath without thinking about the repercussions. It went on to surprise everyone including me! The idea was to tell horror stories just the way I like them and have a common link – urban legends. It was followed by The Belvoirbrooke Haunting and Hold That Breath: 2 after which we now have Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari and HAUNTINGS. My horror outings have been enjoyable to say the least though I personally enjoy other genres like thrillers, murder mysteries and romance too.

Would you view horror as the voice of the age or as a genre which brings catharsis to masses? Does horror only entertain or have a larger value than appeasing the appetite of the people who read or watch a film?

We all lived through horror during the pandemic, didn’t we? It’s relevant, relatable and now a voice of the age. I wouldn’t say it is a massy genre in India yet but for those who enjoy reading it, horror provides relief. It also teaches you how to overcome fear and come out strong in life. So, it isn’t only about entertaining. Though I do think, it’s very important for a writer to make the genre fun. My books are relatable, relevant and entertaining for sure. It also helps that I have been a huge horror buff myself so I know how the genre and also a few tropes work for readers.

Your horror novels have been picked up by Bollywood. Tell us a bit about that.

Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari was acquired for screen adaptation much before its release itself. There are talks on about other books too. An upcoming book is going to be adapted for the screen and I’m writing the script myself. Screen adaptation deals are important because they begin reaching out to a wider audience right from the announcement itself. While the entire process is a very lengthy one, it’s a good validation for writers apart from other aspects. Horror has come a long way now. Thanks to efforts made by Suhail Mathur, a literary agent from The Book Bakers, it is getting noticed by the big traditional publishing houses. I’m sure it will have a better position in the film world too. There are very few filmmakers who have focused on it yet and the best way is to adapt horror novels or get good writers.

You have moved into scriptwriting from novel writing? How is it different?

I write both books and scripts now and I enjoy them equally. Though scriptwriting and books are two different mediums, they are both about one common thing – storytelling. Very different! Books are a lot more about descriptions and one can play with words. But in a script, it’s visual storytelling which means that one needs to be very specific. It’s more about the action and dialogues while books are more about characterisations and inner thoughts.

Your novels are in English. What language do you use for screenwriting for Bollywood? Are you bilingual and is it an easy transition?

Scripts are mostly in English these days. It can later be translated by the dialogue writer. It has become very professional in Bollywood now and smart filmmakers know or should know that the story is the king. I’m fluent in Hindi as well so that certainly helps but I don’t write in Hindi. I love Hindi films though.

What makes the most impact to create the semblance of horror in books and in films? How is it different?

Relatability. And this is extremely difficult in a genre like horror. Most people can relate with a genre like romance as most have fallen in love and even if they haven’t, they want to fall in love. With a genre like horror which is driven on the basic of fear, it becomes important that a reader relates with the characters and the events because most would not have seen a ghost. But they have experienced fear. In a book, a writer can scare readers with the situations. However, what a book misses out on is something extremely integral to the genre – background music. You get that in movies. I wouldn’t say that jump scares and scary faces are the most important things in horror as I personally like to find fear in moments, silence and circumstances.

You are associated with some paranormal societies too. Do you believe in ghosts or the paranormal? Please tell us more about it.

Just one and they are the pioneers of paranormal research in India. I’ve collaborated with Indian Paranormal Society which was founded by Reverend Gaurav Tiwari in 2009. Yes, I do believe in ghosts, the paranormal and the afterlife and I have a theory which I have researched on. The Afterlife or ‘The Other World’ as I call it is simply a phase after death where we wait for reincarnation. The better the karma in the life we led, the quicker the time. But again, there is no concept of time there. One needs to read my books to understand the theory as it is a very detailed one. To make it understandable to the layman, ghosts or spirits dwell in The Other World due to some baggage or unfulfilled desires. They may not even want to accept that they are dead and try to latch on to the living physical world to make their presence felt. There are boundaries not to be crossed either by us or them. That is how the balance remains.

Have you ever had any out of the world/ paranormal experience?

I used to visit many deserted and supposedly haunted places as a child. Also tried calling ghosts with friends. But nothing really happened. I won’t lie here. But something did happen after I completed the manuscript of Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari that I discussed with the folks at Indian Paranormal Society. I mostly write at late nights because that’s when I get time. And it’s also the best time to write horror. So, I mailed the manuscript to the erstwhile publisher Westland (the book is getting republished by Rupa now) and tried to sleep. It took me some time to close my eyelids as I felt a little uneasy. I dreamt about Gaurav Tiwari that night. I don’t really remember much but there was something he was trying to tell me. I don’t know what it was. I had a word with IPS the next morning and was shocked to know that after Gaurav’s death in 2016, most of his team members had a similar dream. He always wanted a good writer to write a book about him and his cases so I’m guessing he had come to thank me!

Share a few of your most interesting experiences as a horror writer.

Every time I sit to write something, the experience is interesting! My imagination takes me to different places, and I get to meet different characters. But researching on both Ghost Hunter: Gaurav Tiwari and HAUNTINGS took me to a different aspect of being a horror writer – Empathy for the dead is important because they lived once too.

What are your future plans? Do you plan to juggle all your jobs or would you focus on one that is your favourite?

I’m an aspirational person. By being aspirational, I don’t just mean being ambitious about studies, job or career but life as a whole. While I can focus more on writing if I stop juggling it with my job, I see a future in both – of course, in different ways. But you never know. However, in present times, a writer can’t just live in a bubble. One needs to make money out of the craft as you need to pay the bills. So, a more feasible option would be to become a ‘writerpreneur’. If a writer can’t be that, he or she needs to have other avenues of income. No writer earns a living only through books and the royalty. Screen adaptations and scripts are good ways to expand for sure.

Thanks for giving us your time.

[1] A song by ABBA where a girl transformed from an ordinary person to a ballerina of exquisite grace

[2] Hold That Breath: 2 released in 2022

(This interview has been carried out via emails by Mitali Chakravarty. The images have been provided by Abhirup Dhar. )


Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles


Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: A Seeker of Serendipity

In conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee presents the Swarna Kamal Award to Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri at the 60th National Film Awards ceremony in New Delhi in 2013. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Sandman, the mythical dream maker from Scandinavia, is said to sprinkle magical sand on sleeping children’s eyes to inspire beautiful dreams. What could Sandman have in common with a much-fêted editor who has worked with many celluloid stars and writers?

They both vend dreams – one makes dreams for children and the other is tries to fulfil dreams of writers attempting to create a beautiful book. Meet one such seeker of serendipity Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent award-winning editor, who has brought out books on and by film personalities of India as well as assisted less-known writers find a footing in the tough world of traditional publishing. His magical sand is impeccable editing and an open outlook that stretches beyond the superficial glitter of fame and delves deep to look for that hidden well from which he draws out the best in a writer.

Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has worked with famed writers like Gulzar and Arun Shourie as well as Bollywood stars like Rishi Kapoor and with the prestigious Satyajit Ray Archives. He has a book called Icons from Bollywood (2005) with Penguin on films, a set of fifteen essays. And he writes wonderful pieces on films for various sites like Cinemaazi, an archival film website,  and Free Press Journal regularly.

But, Ray Chaudhuri is not just a film buff as he tells the world. He has a well-kept secret like ABBA’s ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, who would wear dancing shoes after work and turn into a phenomenon. He emotes beautiful poetry but hesitates to publish…He does have a book of verses though called Whims brought out by the Writers’ Workshop. In this exclusive, Ray Chaudhuri, who has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and now is the Editor-in-Chief of Om Books International, tells us how he turned from a dry accountant to a seeker of serendipity and what it takes to publish with traditional publishers.

Please tell us what started you out on your journey as an editor and writer.

I have always loved the word serendipity. It accounts for whatever good I have experienced. I loved reading of course but went on to become an accidental editor. I started very early – loved books. Went through the age-specific lists – Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, and Tintin (which I love still), then slowly to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, Satyajit Ray, Feluda and Shonku, Somerset Maugham, Camus and others.

In fact, I remember, during summer vacations, my mashis [aunts] would often ask to pluck grey hair from their heads and would pay me at Re 1 per hair. So, if I managed 25, I would have money to buy a Tintin. Or novels that were sold in second-hand shops at Rs 10-15. I wanted to study literature and humanities but at the time the stream was looked down upon. People whose opinions we respected kept saying, ‘Will you be a schoolteacher after studying humanities?’ I wish I had said yes at the time.

Anyway… Science I was sure I wouldn’t take. And humanities I wasn’t allowed to. So, I took up commerce, graduated, did my M.Com, studied for chartered accountancy and cost accountancy. Then for years worked in accounts and finance. And hated it. I would leave jobs and go off quite regularly.

Meanwhile, I had started writing poems and on films (as a means of escaping the drudgery of accounts and finance). These were published in magazines regularly. In fact, I won the Filmfare Best Review Award that they had every month a few times. Then, Writers Workshop published my first book of poems. And by this time, nearing thirty, I had had enough of accounts. I realised that any creativity in accounts would lead to jail! And I was damned if I could put up with another day of matching debits and credits. I enrolled for a mass communication course at XIC Mumbai, then started a magazine on cinema on my own, and subsequently moved to publishing and editorial.

What pushed you into publishing others over writing yourself for we can see you are an excellent writer too?

I have often asked myself: do I have anything to say that will make a difference to someone reading? Can I ever write an opening sentence as eloquent as Camus’s The Outsider? Or create a character like Larry Darrel in Maugham’s Razor’s Edge? Or one line like Rilke’s ‘For the Sake of a Single Poem’. Or, in fact, a draft of an unpublished novel a young friend of mine, Ramona Sen, asked me to read recently to comment on editorially – it is so good … could well be the next big thing in publishing. And the answer has always been ‘no’.

I look at what goes for writing today. It dismays me that books have become all about posting your picture with the cover and getting likes – it has to be more than getting FB likes, more than announcing your book as bestseller on social media. I would be mortified about unleashing anything as mediocre as these on anyone.

And then there’s also the question of what being a ‘writer’ means for you as an individual. Some of these authors and poets I meet are so conceited … I have doubts about myself as a person … you know, as Matthew 16:26 says: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? These doubts about whether my writing amounts to anything, whether it says anything about me as a person have kept me from writing and more importantly publishing my writing – barring of course my columns and features on cinema.

Editing and publishing other people’s work is more impersonal – I can keep myself out of the equation. Though when you really like a book, you do tend to get emotionally involved.

You have authored a book of poems, Whims, and Icons from Bollywood. Tell us about these.

I guess both came off just like that – I wonder if there was a case of wanting to show off at the time I had published them. Today, I would think twice. The book of poems, Whims, was published by Writers Workshop, and I was rather proud at one time that Professor Lal deemed it worthy of being published. I often told myself that some of the best Indian poets began with Writers Workshop. I just sent it off to him on a whim.

Icons from Bollywood was a more organised affair. I was working at Penguin at the time. Its children division was doing a series of books on icons – the arts, science, music, etc. Since everyone knew my interest in cinema, I had even met a few of the icons, the publisher, Sayoni Basu, asked me and I agreed. Eventually as no two people could agree on the ten names for the book – all the books in the series had ten icons – this ended up having fifteen names, the only book in the series with fifteen essays. It did rather well, got some good reviews in Dawn and Guardian and a few others.

Is authoring a book more challenging than editing and publishing for another? Or is it the other way? Please elucidate.

Of course, writing a book is more challenging. When you edit, you are working on adding some value to what a writer has already put down. You are not creating the world. At best, you help the author develop his work. It is challenging because often you are the first reader outside the author’s circle and your opinion also shapes the book. But writing is way more difficult. You are literally creating something out of nothing. Even writing a single line of good poetry is tougher than editing.

Tell us what moves your muse for poetry and prose?

That’s tough. It could be anything. For instance, in my college days DTC buses used to have a single passenger seat right at the front. I would often look at it and imagine how lonely it might feel. I eventually wrote a poem on that. Or when my folks narrated the story of Gulzar’s film Lekin to me, I was moved enough to write a poem. The sight of a battered old man, dead-drunk, lying by the roadside led to a story – what if that man had a past when there was hope and love in his life. Being in love has been a muse: I once wrote 21 poems for a beloved friend’s twenty-first birthday. The sight of my son’s sleeping face, his soft breathing, when I wake up at night and look at him. Even hate inspires you. The sense of disillusionment I felt about a ‘great’ poet’s pettiness and hypocrisy led to one of my best poems. My own frailties. The light at dusk, a tired day going to sleep. Lost friends … lost ideals. A good film. A bad film. Anything really.

We have read a lot of film pieces by you. When did your interest in writing for cinema start and how did it take off? Did it ever stray to film industries in other countries?

I think the love for cinema developed once I started studying commerce. The subjects bored me. Films offered me an escape. It helped that there were 4-5 cinema halls within walking distance of both my home and my college. I would often get away from college and make my way to a theatre. In the three years of graduation, I watched 169 films in halls. I watched the first-day-first-show, 12-3, and then would make my way to the evening one 6-9. I used to make a list and write down synopsis of what I felt. This was the 1980s, theatres were in awful shape, a really bad time for films and so most of what I watched were utter crap. But that was a lesson in itself. And I really enjoyed the escape to another world, even if a trashy one.

Slowly, with the coming of cable TV, there were more options. The VCR had come in and with that a few more options. Pirated prints from Palika Bazar. I had meanwhile written a few reviews for Filmfare and won a series of best review awards. That boosted my confidence in both my writing and my understanding of cinema. I also did a course in film and TV from the XIC, Mumbai. I started contributing to journals. I ran and wrote for the journal I started in Bombay, Lights Camera Action. But things took off after I started writing on Bengali cinema for Film Companion. And then with my association with Cinemaazi. I must thank Anupama Chopra and Sumant Batra for this. Couldn’t have happened without them.

I publish primarily on Bengali and Hindi cinema but write on a lot of international films for my own self. It’s tough finding time to watch, write, while keeping to the demands of a regular job and other freelancing assignments that one needs to do to keep the home fires burning. I envy the people who have money to spare, don’t have to worry about a job, and can keep churning out books.

Please tell us a bit about Cinemaazi – is it a website founded by you? It seems to be an archive, there is mention of an encyclopaedia?

Cinemaazi is the kind of serendipity I have been looking for as editor and film lover. It’s an initiative to document the history of Indian cinema across languages under the umbrella project Indian Cinema Heritage Foundation, a public charitable trust. The Foundation is also creating a freely accessible digital archive and encyclopaedia of Indian cinema and its people. No, I am not the founder. It’s entirely the brainchild and vision of Sumant and Asha Batra. Sumant is the kind of collector you can only be in awe of. I met him first at the Kumaon Lit Fest that he runs. And we shared a common love of cinema. In 2019, he started talking of a site to document the history of Hindi films, using his huge collection of film memorabilia. My only contribution, if you could call it that, was suggesting we make it a site on pan-Indian cinema, not just Hindi. He agreed and I worked on getting some material on Bengali and some other languages. Also kept contributing to it with articles and some video essays – we did a six-hour-long oral history project with Dhritiman Chatterjee. Cinemaazi got off to a very good start in January 2020. But by March 2020 we were all locking down. And it affected an endeavour taking its first steps. But it kept on working thanks to a small dedicated team. And now it’s poised to take off in a big way. I would have been very happy to engage in a bigger way with Cinemaazi, but as Sumant says, ‘he can’t afford me’, whatever that might mean. Sigh! I guess one ceases to be useful after a time. I am happy to have been a part of it in a small way in its first years.

You have worked with many icons of the Indian film industry like Rishi Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Gulzar. Please share with us a few of your more interesting experiences.

The big names I worked with like Gulzar and Rishi Kapoor and Arun Shourie were like perks of the job. Yes, they were FB like/share moments except that I seldom shared those days. I miss Rishi-ji a lot … and often go through the WhatsApp messages he sent me… With Gulzar-ji, it was all about poetry and translations. Never worked on a book of films with him, though I did commission a series of monographs on three of his films that came out after I had left the publishing house.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri in conversation with Gulzar and Meghna (Gulzar’s daughter) in Jaipur Literary Festival

The Satyajit Ray association was immensely satisfying. We ended up publishing five very rare books that I think not many editors would have dared to – imagine doing a book on Satyajit Ray’s unmade film on Ravi Shankar! The ones I really enjoyed were the first-time authors I was privileged to publish, people like Balaji Vittal, Anirudh Bhattacharya, Akshay Manwani, Rakesh Bakshi, Parthajit Baruah … and so many. They had no reason to trust me as editor and publisher. I have never been a big-name editor. But to have had them trust me with their books, books that did well, was quite humbling.

I was privileged to have someone like Vishal Bhardwaj trust me with his first book of poems in English. And through Vishal, I came to know Rekha and worked on a series of festival appearances with her – she has so many stories that she should do a book. With Sharmila Tagore, I worked on a book on Mansur Pataudi that did very well. Authors like Krishna Shastri, Sathya Saran and Gajra Kottary became close friends. Rakhshanda Jalil … whom I love and admire – she did a wonderful book on Shahryar with me and a couple of other translations of Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi. There was Nasreen Munni Kabir and her book on Zakir Hussain…

The more interesting encounters are the ones that ended badly. An author, who again published first with me and went on to publish 4 more, turned on me because I took on his rabid right-wing wife on the CAA and their obnoxious reference to ‘urban naxals’ … I was abused and received a lot of threatening messages and calls … I lost a friend and an author, but I am glad I could take a stand on a matter on which many of our ‘liberal’ friends and authors remain silent. Another ‘great’ poet, someone I considered God, turned out to have feet of clay and whose behaviour I find traumatic even today. But those are for my memoir! They taught me a better lesson than anything else could.

You have worked with big multinational names like Penguin and HarperCollins and even brought out collection of books on films. And now you have moved to working with one of the oldest and most iconic publishers from India. Is the experience any different?

Well, the best thing about not being with an MNC is that one is not part of the toxic environment they breed. It was killing after a point. And often they wouldn’t take on an idea just to spite you, even though some of the books that got commissioned were unbelievably bad, had me scratching my head, wondering what I had missed. And they can be very demeaning to authors. And short-sighted too. I remember signing up Rahul Rawail’s memoir of Raj Kapoor. And the publishing house actually reneged on its commitment after sending him an offer. It put me in such a bad place with him. Thankfully, I could get him another MNC publisher. And the book is now getting such rave reviews.

Yes, it’s challenging working in a smaller space. You have nothing going for marketing –  not that the biggies do anything much on this either, unless you are already a big name which makes it easy to market. Then you don’t have budgets for advances and for marketing. So, immediately your commissioning acquires a different take. But that also makes you look for good young talent. I am glad I have found quite a few, thanks to agents like Suhail Mathur and some goodwill I might have built up in the last few years. Authors I am sure I wouldn’t have been allowed to publish in the MNCs. Now, whether they sell and work in the market is a gamble.

Writers find it challenging to use traditional publishing. In an attempt to make their writing visible, many are turning to self-publishing and publishing with independent small publishers. What do you think of this trend?

I think it does take a little more time in going the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing is quicker. But then authors also need to be patient. Traditional publishing can give them benefits of a good editor. Give them more time to polish their text. However, it seems more and more authors are in too much of a rush to publish. Getting FB likes and shares is more important than working on your text. Authors don’t feel like they need good editorial intervention. Publishing is all that matters, whatever be the quality of writing.

Unfortunately, traditional publishing too has failed to give good editorial inputs. Some of the stuff I read by the MNC publishers are atrocious. I think everyone wants a book out too quick. When I started out as an editor, we had months to work on a book. These days, authors tend to ask for a marketing plan even before they have completed the first draft of the text. And publishers are only too willing to get on the treadmill. And the post-publication efforts of MNCs also operate on the 90-10 principle: 90 per cent of marketing budget is spent on 10 per cent of the biggies. So, I guess self-publishing works. Some of the most successful mass-market writers we have today started with vanity or self-publishing, then were picked up by the traditional publishers. And the writing continues to be as bad.

Can you tell us as a publisher, what do you look for when you accept or reject a piece of writing?

I don’t think any publisher has figured out what makes a book work. Most of them go by herd mentality: mythologicals are selling, let’s do them, in trilogies, since it’s fashionable these days. Short stories don’t work. Fitness/self-help, yes, let’s do. 

Basically, one looks for (i) is the content engaging (ii) is the writing interesting. Take, Akshay’s book on Sahir … I found the content wonderful. And so well done. Or Balaji-Anirudh’s book on RD Burman … the research was impeccable. And though people were sceptical, saying these people had been dead for decades, one felt that these books had that special something. Or more recently, the anthology on motherhood that Om is publishing. I was immediately interested in the theme and the variety of essays on offer – to have Kamala Das and Mannu Bhandari, Shashi Deshpande and Shabana Azmi between the same covers is…. There’s a collection of essays on the pandemic that I have commissioned, coming out soon – again, from Shashi Tharoor and Vidya Balan to an anonymous gravedigger and migrant worker – the range is incredible. The book that we are doing with Borderless Journal, for example. What a wide variety of international writing! Or the book on cybersecurity. Or for that matter, Suman Ghosh’s Soumitra Chatterjee book, which gave some fascinating insights to the director-actor relationship. I knew people would think it niche, but what if we could make it big? It has the potential.

Thank you for that. What is your vision as a publisher and writer of the future of publishing and writing?

I am too small fry to talk of the future of publishing. It’s a tough time for publishers. At the end of the day, all those 500 likes on FB won’t help if those liking don’t buy books. Social media reach is no guarantee of either good writing or good sales.

The way Westland folded says a lot about how untenable big advances are. Authors must realise that. While publishers must make efforts to sell more of the books they publish so that even if advances are small, the royalty on sales works out.

I think there’s also a lot of snobbery around English-language publishing in India. On the part of publishers, authors, translators, agents, literary festivals. I know an agent, one of India’s most successful, who doesn’t deign to pitch books to me because I am not with the top MNC publishers. Though apart from a hefty advance, there is nothing I cannot deliver that the biggies can. One of the most popular cover designers, who worked closely with me when I was at Penguin and Harper, just put me out to dry when I approached him for a cover on the Soumitra Chatterjee book. He couldn’t be bothered even to respond given that I was with a smaller publisher now. The most popular translator won’t give me time of day, though I edited his/her first book. There’s this author couple I published after both their individual books had been rejected at other publishers. But once they realised that prosperity lay in ingratiating themselves with what they perceived were other more popular and powerful editors … though none of their books have worked in terms of sales so far in the last ten years.

Most editors I have come across give off vibes like they are god’s gift to the language. I mean, not even two per cent of the population engages with the work you do. What are we so uppity about? The local cobbler attends to more people than what your average book gets as readers.

And this snobbery impacts the kind of publishing we do. We are suckers for big names, big advances. We have to move out of that. And out of this herd mentality of publishing. Give new writers, new themes a chance. At the same time, new young authors need to reflect on their work and not rush into becoming a ‘published’ author. It’s not instant noodles or coffee. Books and authors take time to develop. We need to give books that time.

Thank you for giving us your time and also taking on our anthology.

Click here to read poems by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)