Exposé on 2002 India riots publishers wouldn’t touch becomes a sensation

Undercover journalist Rana Ayyub’s self-published investigation into the deadly Gujarat riots and related events, largely ignored by mainstream media, is flying off the shelves as politicians squirm in their seats over its revelations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 11:21am

All the angst fades when you’re India’s latest self-publishing sensation who has, pretty much single-handedly, managed to sell 32,000 copies of a book nobody would touch. It also feels nice to be on the verge of paying back the bank loan you took to do this. To go from new author with no credit line to favourite customer at the country’s largest commercial printer in a couple of months. It’s great when the country’s biggest English language book distributor takes you on board because they know it makes commercial sense, political affiliations be damned.

Along the way, independent journalist Rana Ayyub was called a jihadi on Zee News; Newslaundry’s Madhu Trehan asked her in an interview, that aired live on Facebook, if she wrote her book because she was a Muslim.

One reviewer of Gujarat Files: Anatomy Of A Cover Up said Ayyub’s claim the mainstream media was ignoring her book because it was scared of the ruling establishment was simply a “marketing” or “positioning” device. That’s not entirely true.

While the book has been reviewed by most print publications, television has largely ignored it. Newspapers and magazines have been reluctant to carry excerpts. While the regional media have been extremely supportive of the book, even exhorting readers to buy a copy, only one English language publication, Frontline, interviewed Ayyub.

That’s probably because she rarely thinks before speaking. It’s this couldn’t-care-less attitude that makes Ayyub a hit at college campuses such as new Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she spoke to students from midnight to early morning in June.

Even the relatively sophisticated crowd at the Bangalore International Centre, where she launched her book last month, seemed impressed by the resolve of the then 26-year-old reporter who went undercover as filmmaker Maithili Tyagi for eight months in 2011 to investigate the 2002 Gujarat riots, custody killings and the 2003 murder of Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya. The investigation, originally commissioned by news magazine Tehelka, was never published. Several years later, Ayyub has self-published it as The Gujarat Files.

“Don’t you ever feel scared?” philanthropist Rohini Nilekani asked Ayyub in Bangalore. She admits becoming addicted to sleeping pills while she was undercover in Gujarat (because she was too scared to sleep at night) and that she does see a therapist regularly, but she says she worries more about her father (a prolific Urdu writer) falling ill than anyone trying to get back at her for her work.

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India’s two biggest political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, have ignored the book (its revelations are uncomfortable for both parties), hoping it will quietly disappear from the shelves. That it’s not been debated to death on prime time by rival politicians may have actually contributed to its success. In an age where news is noise, surely readers wonder about the silence?

The abuse from paid foot soldiers on Twitter bounce off her spiral curls smoothly. When some people tweeted images of her book in the toilet, saying there was only one use for it, she responded: “Thank you for buying my book in huge numbers to use it as toilet paper. It’s boosting sales each day. Gratitude.”

That nobody has denied anything that appears in the book or filed any lawsuits against her in the three months since its release has also worked in Ayyub’s favour. The biggest criticism has been that the book is shoddily edited and lacking in context – nobody has criticised its content.

Ayyub is now in the process of translating the book into several languages. The Hindi, Urdu, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam and Punjabi editions will be out by November.

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Her former editor Tarun Tejpal, whom the author alleges refused to publish the sensational series of interviews she recorded in the elaborate sting operation, said he didn’t carry her story because it was “simply incomplete”.

Ayyub says publishers refused to touch her book because it was controversial. Publishing industry sources say Ayyub was unwilling to provide additional narrative context to the interviews that appear in the book.

Last month, India Book Distributors (IBD) jumped on board to distribute the book and they have already sold about 8,000 copies. “I thought it was a controversial book, why not distribute it,” says Harkin Chatlani, chairman and managing director of IBD, whose political views differ dramatically from Ayyub’s. That doesn’t matter – commerce comes first.

Not bad for an author who set aside a mere 350 copies of her book to sell on Amazon (and 500 copies for the launch). Within days, supply couldn’t keep pace with demand. Amazon was taking 20 days to deliver the book.

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Small distributors from Ansari Road in Old Delhi demanded copies. Mumbai’s Kitab Khana bookshop wanted to know how to get its hands on the book. Khan Market’s Bahrisons Booksellers decided to stock it. Bookshop owner and literary agent Anuj Bahri appointed himself Ayyub’s literary agent. “I’m so tired,” says Ayyub. “My dad says don’t stop the push to promote, publish, distribute and get it reviewed. I’ve given myself till December – my life is a hashtag #GujaratFiles.”

Not bad for a book that was never going to be a book.