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The rise of India's pulp fiction

As literacy grows, so do the ranks of inexpensive and sometimes racy paperbacks that appeal to youths.

By Correspondent / December 28, 2010

A book seller seen in Mumbai, India, Oct. 29. A rise in literacy rates in the largest democracy in the world has also come with a flood of cheap and sometimes racy books for youths.

Rajanish Kakade/AP/File

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New Delhi

Indian novelists have joined the canon of modern literature, earning critical acclaim and topping bestseller lists in New York and London. Writers like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth are known for colorful epics that weave Indian history and culture into personal dramas. Each book is a labor of love, a door-stopping tome.

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"Stilettos in the Newsroom," on the other hand, has far fewer pretensions.

A slender, slangy story of a female reporter on the make, it is aimed squarely at young, impressionistic Indians who can afford its 95-rupee (about $2) cost. It has sold 20,000 copies since February, according to its author, Rashmi Kumar, a journalist and first-time novelist.

It's one of hundreds of similar English-language novels set in the offices, schools, and homes of India's booming cities. Known as quick-read novels, they tap into the aspirations of young Indians between the ages of 16 and 24, a bul­ging demographic in a country of more than 1 billion people.

While critics sniff at the sloppy grammar and colloquial prose, booksellers welcome the genre as a relief from epic novels that earn respect but don't move volumes. "It's the only thing that gets us the money," says Anuj Bahri, who runs Bahrisons, a venerable bookstore in Delhi, and also works as a literary agent.

The rise of the quick-read genre

India's dominant booksellers are small shops that don't use computers, making it difficult to compile sales figures. But publishers agree that the quick-read genre is rising exponentially as more Indians learn to read and have more disposable income.

This rise in literacy means that India now has the world's largest circulation of daily newspapers, ahead of China. Books are also popular: A recent survey by the National Book Trust estimated that India has 83 million regular readers between the ages of 13 and 35. Seventy-five percent of those readers read books at least once a week. Their favorite leisure activity, however, was watching TV.

Many trace India's quick-read phenomenon to the success of Chetan Bhagat, an investment banker turned bestselling writer. Since 2004, his four novels have sold millions of copies and three have been made into Bollywood movies, vaulting him onto Time's current list of the world's 100 most influential people.

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