Field notes

Book club boom in India

Their popularity is driven by rising literacy and growing pool of Indian authors writing in English

In one corner of a coffee shop in Gurugram, a satellite city of New Delhi, four people debated the finer points of humour and horror over chai on a recent Sunday afternoon.

One of them, 22-year-old digital marketeer Shivangi Singhal, told the group she read mostly self-help books but wanted to expand her range of reading material, and asked for suggestions.

She was inundated with replies as the others rattled off titles of books they were reading, ranging from humour to horror in genre.

This was a meeting of a book club called Bring Your Own Book (BYOB), which was founded in 2015 by book enthusiasts Nidhi Srivastava - then a content editor - and her friend Jayanti Jha.

According to its Facebook page, the club has 3,523 followers with chapters in cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. It even has its own lending library.

Members sign up for meetings on Facebook, bring along books they are reading and discuss them with other members. The number of participants varies from four to more than a dozen each time. Discussions usually take place in someone's house on Sundays, twice or three times a month.

"I just went online to see what book clubs I could join and this one had an event. I want to pick up the reading habit which I had when I was in school," said Ms Singhal.

The New Delhi government has said it will help set up Hindi-language book clubs and will even finance book purchases and provide meeting spaces in an attempt to encourage reading in Hindi, which is one of India's official languages.

Old-fashioned book clubs, many driven by social media, have become popular in New Delhi and other Indian cities amid rising literacy of up to 74 per cent, a boom in Indians writing English novels and busy professionals like Ms Singhal who are trying to get back into a reading habit.

Some book clubs begin life as informal gatherings among friends to discuss a book over coffee or tea and snacks at one another's homes.

Others operate online through social media, bringing together strangers with one thing in common: an enthusiasm for reading.

Besides Bring Your Own Book, clubs with a substantial following include Delhi Book Lovers with over 4,100 members, former Bollywood actress Sonali Bendre Behl's online book club with 3,100 members, and Gurgaon Book Club, which is followed by more than 1,000 people.

NOT JUST READING

Most of the book clubs focus on English-language books, whose market is thriving due to the emergence of local authors such as Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi. Bhagat, whose books have been turned into movies, writes about young, urban middle-class Indians, while Tripathi has written books based on Indian mythology. Together, they have sold millions of books.

The New Delhi government has said it will help set up Hindi-language book clubs and will even finance book purchases and provide meeting spaces in an attempt to encourage reading in Hindi, which is one of India's official languages.

"More book readers are enjoying the new era of not just reading but sharing. Social media is playing a big part in getting these people together," said Ms Gurmeet Wasu Kaur who started the Mumbai Book Club three years ago.

She has since set up book clubs in Hyderabad, New Delhi and Pune through Facebook.

Even celebrities are latching onto the trend. Ms Bendre, 42, started her Facebook-based book club, called Sonali's Book Club, early this year. It now has 3,100 members.

"I have with me Preeti Shenoy. I am so excited that after all this line-up of authors, I have a woman author. I hope this is a kindred spirit," Ms Bendre said in a recent interview with Preeti Shenoy, one of India's top five best-selling English-language women authors.

The session, posted on Ms Bendre's book club page, has been viewed more than 33,000 times.

WORD OF MOUTH

According to The India Book Market Report released in October 2015 by market research firm Nielsen, the book market grew at a rate of 20.4 per cent annually between 2012 and 2015, and is likely to expand by 19 per cent yearly till 2020 .

Book clubs have played a role in this burgeoning scene, by serving as venues for budding authors to showcase their works.

One such club is Delhi Book Lovers (DBL), which was started almost six years ago by two friends: 38-year-old IT consultant Kunal Gupta, and Ms Meenakshi Goyal, a 36-year-old financial consultant.

What began as a humble club of seven people now has more than 4,100 members. DBL organises regular book discussions, and frequently invites authors to talk about their books .

"We started by discussing books by Charles Dickens or something like Jonathan Livingston Seagull over a cup of coffee," said Mr Gupta.

"And when we started growing, we were approached by authors and publishing houses who said, 'Why don't you hold discussions on books?'.

"People continued reaching out to us and we started holding creative-writing workshops and book launches for first-time writers."

In August, DBL organised a session with opposition Congress party politician Shashi Tharoor, the author of An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire In India.

Past DBL events have included sessions with Anand Neelakantan, who has written books based on the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and is writing three series based on the hit movie Baahubali.

Publishers say book clubs are a way to get the word out about new titles.

Book clubs "have done their homework and it is meaningful from a publishing point of view. It doesn't necessarily increase sales but its a good marketing method", said editorial director Priya Kapoor of publishing house Roli Books.

"Books are sold through word of mouth. From that point of view, they are quite useful."

A BOOK CLUB FOR EVERYONE

There are also book clubs that cater to a certain demographic. GurgaonMoms book club, as its name suggests, focuses on mothers who often squeeze in some reading when their kids are in school.

The club is an offshoot of Facebook community and lifestyle website GurgaonMoms, which has more than 3,500 members.

They meet monthly to discuss one title. At the last meeting, earlier this month, around 11 women showed up for a discussion on The Small-Town Sea by Anees Salim, an award-winning Indian author.

"We meet in coffee shops at 11.30am when our children are in school. The only thing that is mandatory is that everyone has to read a book," said Ms Upasana Mahtani Luthra, who is in charge of public relations at GurgaonMoms.

For 55-year-old Ritu Sharma, book clubs are a good way to keep in touch with friends while trying to get back into reading.

She started a book club three years ago with a group of friends and they try to meet at least once a month. The last book they discussed was Into The Water, a thriller by best-selling British novelist Paula Hawkins.

"I think it's a meeting point for women. Most of our kids are in university, so a lot of the women have free time and they want to do something constructive," said Ms Sharma, a travel agency executive.

"This club motivates you - when you meet, you are forced to read a book. I definitely got back into reading because of the club. I read my book club book and always pick up another which I never did before. I now read two books at a time."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Book club boom in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe