In Abhidha Sharma’s writing, the political becomes personal. A Hindi-language writer with a keen sense of social justice, Sharma’s work has the appearance of romance fiction, but the layers run much deeper. Born and raised in a relatively progressive family in Shahdol, Madhya Pradesh, Sharma was first exposed to the inequities of Indian society when she went to Indore for her MBA. “In my family, there is no difference between how a girl is raised, and how a boy is raised,” she says, “but when I heard the stories of the girls that were from different parts of the country, I started to see that some people are dehumanised simply because they're born female.” Sharma realised her own story was a unique one—and decided to learn more about the socio-political issues that affect women in the country. Her research on female infanticide eventually inspired her bestselling romance novel, Meri Avantika, which has received nation-wide acclaim and propelled Sharma to the forefront of contemporary Hindi literature.
The story follows the life of Avantika Singh Chauhan, a criminal lawyer with a complicated past. By lineage, she is a princess of the royal Udaygarh family—but her father intended to have her killed at birth, because she was a girl child. Her mother rescues her and runs away, and raises Avantika to be a determined, self-made woman. While she’s in college, Avantika meets Peeyush, an IAS aspirant, and falls in love. That’s when her past catches up with her, and she is forced to confront not just her father, but the culture of misogyny that permeates every aspect of society.
Meri Avantika, was first published in 2016 by Bhavna Prakashan, and received a tepid response—due, in no small part, to its relatively high price of Rs. 850. It was when Sharma posted the novel to the digital storytelling platform Pratilipi later that same year, however, that it was an almost over-night success. Founded in 2014 with the intention of bringing regional language writing to a wider audience, Pratilipi offers content in 12 Indian languages. At the time of writing, the platform has over 2.5crore active readers. The response has allowed the business to branch out into comic books, via Pratilipi Comics, and audio content via Pratilipi FM. ‘Meri Avantika’ is currently the most widely read novel on Pratilipi, with nearly 500,000 readers at the time of writing.
Sharma is part of a new phenomenon of regional Indian literature, in which writers are motivated, and indeed encouraged, to risk talking about otherwise contentious social issues. “If you look at India till about 60 years ago, we had a great culture of storytelling,” explains Pratilipi founder, Ranjeet Pratap Singh, “Writers like Premchand and Nirala had almost as much power as any politician or celebrity today.” This changed, however, when publishing became a far more commercial enterprise. The cost of distribution is often prohibitively expensive, especially for regional Indian languages, where the audience is concentrated around smaller, relatively inaccessible towns and cities. Publishers have become extremely risk-averse, choosing to publish books only on subjects that are mainstream, with a guaranteed audience, and that won’t provoke any sort of backlash. This leaves progressive content—whether it be queer literature, feminist literature, or even experimental genre-bending fiction—by the wayside. This is where digital platforms like Pratilipi, which can distribute content across the country at an almost negligible cost, pick up the slack.
Singh calls Pratilipi a “combination of 10,000 small communities,” in which audiences convene to read, discuss, share and develop stories based around niche interests and potentially controversial topics. Suraj Prakash’s Yeh jo desh hai mera, is a queer romance with an avid following on the platform. Dhiraj Jha’s, Chirraiya jo markar bhi udti rahi, a romance story featuring a transgender protagonist, has received nearly 10 lakh views. “Readers are a part of the story-building process,” Singh adds, “Pratilipi is not a transactional platform, our focus has always been to help build communities between readers and writers.” Indeed, the success of Meri Avantika prompted Sharma to write a sequel titled Aapki Avantika.
Sharma’s newfound readership got her a second edition publishing deal with Neeraj Book Centre in 2018. In 2020, Pratilipi produced Meri Avantika as an audiobook, which is now live on Pratilipi FM. Talks are also underway to develop the story as a TV series. Most significantly, Sharma’s success on Pratilipi has translated to more creative freedom—and more bargaining power with publishers. “Publishers have these specifications on what to write, how many pages to write, how many words should be on every page,” she says, “but I have so many readers now, that I don't need to follow their conditions. I write on my own terms.”