In 2001, as Mumbai-based Sundari Venkatraman sat typing away at her keyboard late into the nights, it was hard for her to not feel dejected. She would write and rewrite the chapters of her second novel, while receiving a lot of rejection from publishers. She felt undermined when she compared herself with accomplished authors, especially those who were way younger than her.
Sundari had just turned 40 at the time, and was burnt out after dabbling in different jobs. Questions about whether it was too late to be an author gave her sleepless nights. She weighed the pros and cons of switching careers for weeks on end.
But eventually, she turned a blind eye to the age-appropriate behaviour standards and took inspiration from bestselling authors like Mark Twain who had debuted in their 50s. Greying hair was no matter to her for the next 13 years. At 53, she self-published her first novel ‘The Malhotra Bride’ on Kindle Direct Publishing platform.
Today, she holds the title of being a bestselling author not just in India, but also in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the US. Her literary career boasts of 52 published books in 12 years. Sundari turns 60 in September this year, and hopes to have 60 published books in her kitty by then.
“It is a question of fulfilment and giving a platform to my creative space,” Sundari tells The Better India, when asked about what prompted her to start her new chapter. “I have always been a voracious reader but never really thought about writing. As was the “normal” progression of life, I took the safe route — did my B.Com, got married, and took up a job. It was as though one day I woke up and was suddenly in my 40s.”
What makes Sundari’s journey more intriguing is her preferred choice of genre — hot romances. Having read fairy tales, the likes of Mills and Boons and comics such as Phantom and Mandrake, writing ‘happily ever after’ stories came organically.
Judgmental stares and sighs are common when she proudly tells people about her genre. “They believe writing romantic stories is reserved for young writers. What can I say, I am super young at heart,” she says.
From being riddled with insecurities and self-doubt to exploring her individuality through story-telling, and from being enslaved to a 9-5 job to being her own boss, Sundari has come a long way. She has floored critics and fans alike.
‘Why I didn’t take up writing earlier’
Originally from Chennai, Sundari grew up in a household that gave importance to reading and education. Her grandfather, who was a lawyer practising during the British Raj, helped her gain command over the English language. Sundari found solace in books and regional magazines when there were limited means of entertainment.
“Books by Charles Dickens’ and Mills and Boons, which were infused with romance and unconditional love, made me an avid reader. But I never connected with Western culture and always wondered what it would be like to have read desi versions of these stories. I would imagine the characters in an Indian backdrop. I planted the seed to work on story-telling in my teens,” says Sundari.
Considering how writing was not yet a mainstream profession, Sundari took after her Accountant father and completed B.Com. In 1984, she got married and moved to Mumbai.
Here, she would go on to work at an ICSE school, where her love for writing was further enhanced. “I was in the administration department but as additional work, I often checked essays of the first and second graders. I was stunned by their creativity. I wanted to do the same. I left the job when my daughter was in class 10. However, in retrospect, I should have taken those essays as a signal to write stories and acted upon them,” she says.
She then went on to work as a copy-editor, writer and blogger at tabloids and food-tech companies, while taking breaks in between for her children. Unknowingly, she kept pushing her career onto the back-burner, until a life-changing evening walk.
Through perseverance and grit
Call it a mid-life crisis, low self-worth or lack of job satisfaction, Sundari felt lost and directionless by the time she touched 40. For the majority of her life, she was weighed down by responsibilities and her roles as a mother and wife.
In 1999, after coming home from work, she took a stroll in the evening. She returned from the walk with an idea in mind, and wrote 14 pages straight. Although she was exhausted the next day due to work, she continued the story and 35 days later, her first book, The Malhotra Bride, was ready.
“I discovered joy. I wrote two other novels (Meghna and Madras Affair) over the next six months. Though I had a great story to tell, getting publishers was another ballgame. I took constructive feedback from friends and family and reworked the stories before approaching publishers,” she recalls.
This was in the pre-internet era, so she used the Yellow Pages and addresses of publishers behind books. She would send physical manuscripts to them and wait anywhere between six months to a year for a response. Some outrightly rejected her, and some refused to even read the synopsis upon learning the genre. The most heartbreaking rejection came from Mills and Boons. She cleared a couple of rounds but was rejected in the final one. The entire process was excruciating and lasted for two years. With 28 rejections, she almost gave up all hope.
In 2010, she turned towards blogging and started uploading chapters from her novel weekly. Four years later, her friend, Rubina Ramesh, told her about self-publishing.
“I became friends with Sundari during a writing competition. Both of us were newcomers in the writing world but weren’t afraid to explore the frontiers of the indie publishing world. I found some beautiful stories on her blog and was surprised to see that a writer would give so much away for free. I was in the USA and indie authors had established themselves in the world of indie-published books. I pushed her to try e-publishing, and soon enough, she created her name there,” Rubina tells The Better India. Rubina is a Bestselling Indie Author based in the USA.
Just two weeks before Valentine’s Day, Sundari published the book on Amazon at the age of 53. “I created my logo, uploaded the story and patiently waited for people’s feedback. Around 72 hours later, I saw hundreds of readers on the dashboard. So, I published four other books. My first income was Rs 400. In the next three years, with 17 books, I was earning 200 times more. On average, readers read 20,000 pages of all my books combined daily,” she says.
Her hard work paid off, and not just in terms of readers and money. Publishers started approaching her to publish some of her books in paperback format. In 2018, she was invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Coming to her writing style and process, Sundari spends nearly 8 hours daily on research and development of her characters. Most of her characters are a reflection of her own self, and are interconnected in different books. Travelling is another medium of collating stories. “The characters are always running in my head, so I always carry a notebook to make notes. I don’t procrastinate and avoid overthinking after writing the book. That and, of course, the adrenaline rush after each book is published, keeps me on my toes,” she adds.
Sundari believes that one does not need a degree or course to start afresh. Doing something on your own and handling rejection require immense patience, courage and nerves of steel. However, the wisdom and life experience that comes with age is something that one should bank on, she says.
Rubina perfectly sums up Sundari’s life journey, “It’s a story of dedication and discipline. She keeps a deadline and sticks to it. I found it very endearing that she is always hungry for knowledge. By bringing culture and history into stories, she has understood the true meaning of being an indie author. Sundari knows the pulse of her audience. Her journey from her first book to the 53rd one has been of learning and adapting.”
Edited by Divya Sethu