When you are millennial-writer-in-chief Durjoy Datta — you know, synonymous with an entire generation — scrutiny accompanies you in every Barnes & Noble at every nook and cranny. Just like how things are for the over-exposed Gen-Y’ers (soon to lose their position to Gen-Z’ers, by the way), the author dabbles in contemporary, unapologetically young, Internet-era-friendly subject matters. His are often love stories, but freshly brewed, character-driven and, of course, ‘relatable’.
But that description is only complete if you haven’t been following Datta ever since his debut novel, Of Course I Love You ..! Till I Find Someone Better, almost immediately put a 21-year-old part-time blogger, full-time Delhi College of Engineering (now Delhi Technological University) student, into the limelight.
Of course, the title found much interest in online discourse, but it signified a brand of mainstream storytelling — almost a modern, Indianised Mills & Boon — the arrival of which was inevitable in the country. Indeed, 15-year-olds in the late-noughties couldn’t have been more pleased.
But that was 11 years ago. Yes. It has been that long since we started freely throwing the term ‘millennial’ around. Just like the gen in question, things have changed immensely for Datta, who, some 19 novels and four television shows later, is as much a different person as he is a different writer. “Earlier, I used to write about things that I intimately knew, and essentially not invest in characters who are older, but now I have written a thriller, a dystopian fiction, and this year I am even trying my hands on sci-fi. But at the core, I’ve remained pretty much the same.”
Even the reality of what first sprung him to prominence is now distant to Datta. He continues, “I’ve said it in a lot of interviews that my books sell because they are relatable. But it’s been a decade and, now, a lot of people write about youngsters. These are equally relatable stories, so they should have been read as much as my books are being read.”
Indeed, to create a relatable book is second-nature to the author, and experiments in genres that are distant from reality, and characters whose shoes he himself hasn’t filled at some point in life, is the Durjoy Datta v2 — a little bit of the old, a whole lot of the new — that we now get to see. Wish I Could Tell You, his latest offering, though thematically up his alley, is a symbol of this.
For starters, it takes place at a startup called ‘WeDonate.com’, which is much like your Ketto.org — a crowdfunding portal for everything from short films to blood transfusions. Here, the cynical and sassy Anusha, and the happy and goodie-good Ananth, meet, and their work profiles are swapped, much to their mutual displeasure. On the choice of setting, Datta comments, “Ever since I had a baby, Facebook had been showing me all these websites (ads) asking for donations. I was fascinated with the fact that you don’t need a lot of people to save a life… I just wanted to write about both sides. It’s not a commentary on the Internet, but about some people who are actively trying to be heroes even if it is a saviour complex, and others who are hating on the Internet.”
Just like that, Durjoy Datta avoids the feel-good college-life narrative that came to dominate his earlier works; he has stepped into unfamiliar territory with all sorts of characters and made them all his own. The first-person narrative shifts from one person to another, and with each transition, the tone changes with precision. It seems that here exists an author with the unique ability to let the characters dictate his writing style, and not the other way around.
“First-person writing allows you to have an intimate connection with the reader. You can very easily write it in a way where it sounds that the character is talking to you,” reveals Datta, much to the ‘aha!’ of this correspondent, who quite easily fell for the trick. “I just read it as a reader and check what is registering. Writing for me is the emotional manipulation of the reader. What they could be thinking, whether a character is likable, hateable; I essentially try to tick those boxes,” the author continues.
There has to be some sort of genius to Datta, in how effortlessly he is able to weave the narrative around what a reader will like. And this is someone who, as he says, “didn’t take writing seriously until my sixth book… then I realised that I like to sit down and write, then read about people reading it, and that would give me a high and, of course, it was extra pocket money (laughs).”
But no one best-sells, 19 books strong, unless they mean business. And there’s no one formula either. Just call it Datta’s innate ability to engage you. After all, a writer has to first be a reader.
There’s humility in his ways too: the author begins the conversation with this correspondent by saying “First of all, I’m extremely bad at talking about my books. I’m so done with them by the time they come out,” before delivering a few nuggets such as (On what sets the latest offering apart) “I don’t think that anything does. Every book is a different story,” (On his writing process) “When I write my first draft, all my characters sort of melt into each other”, and “Writing an okay book in first person is way easier, because suddenly no one thinks your sentence construction is odd. It’s my character who is speaking.”
As plenty of authors have been shifting to over-the-top (OTT) platforms to write for online content, do we see Datta too head in that direction? Yes, but not without some astute commentary. He continues, “I made the transition from TV to web and it is interesting. But OTT is going to take a bit of time. We’ve gone headlong into it, but so many players are not making any money… people assume that if viewers aren’t watching TV, they are watching Netflix. They miss the fact that people are probably on TikTok.”
The app in question presents a fresh dose of interactivity, and a medium that is both participatory and intimate will always sell more than something that is solely the latter (recognising this, Datta is on TikTok now). Interestingly enough, isn’t that exactly where he came from? This way, from a world of relatability, to another one, his journey continues.