Of all things that Bangalore’s much loathed traffic jams have spawned, a viral Assamese novel is probably the last thing one would’ve expected. When Indranee Sharma, a software engineer at IBM began writing JEC on her cellphone on her daily commute in May 2019, little did she think that her serialised novel would acquire cult status in Assam.
Two months and thirty-two posts in, the love story of Aastha and Arnab, set in Sharma’s alma mater Jorhat Engineering College, which lends the novel its name, has thousands of avid readers who engage with JEC in a manner befitting a narrative that began as a serialised set of posts on a closed group Facebook group Ordho Aakaax, and continues to exist exclusively online.
JEC has spawned reams of fan illustrations of its characters (and the author), a deluge of TikTok videos of fans acting out dialogues from the novel, and multi-part Youtube videos of fans reading out the novel in the manner of an audio book. (One such video has racked up over 40,000 Youtube views in two weeks).
But JEC had its beginnings in an unusual online space- “Ordho Aakaax: Ek Ontoheen Jatra (Kewol Mohilar Babe)”, which translates as Half the Sky: An Endless Journey (For Ladies Only), which is a closed Facebook group of over 100,000 Assamese women readers and writers.
“So many women want to write — those who always wanted to write but felt too intimidated to start, those who didn’t know where to publish, those who used to write until life got in the way,” said Joyshree Gogoi Mech, one of the women who started Ordho Aakaax two years ago. “We started this group to give them a platform, and we wanted to make it exclusively for women, especially housewives. I thought people should use their time well since they are on Facebook anyway.”
The group has clear content and moderation policies: No plagiarism, no posts about religion or other controversial subjects no name calling, no advertorials or sales posts. Each post is moderated before publishing. Some members have posted about domestic violence and abuse and have received support.
As a consequence of its strict dedication to its purpose, the group has an active, engaged membership who produce a lot of writing on a daily basis, including short stories, essays, and serialised novels. Ordho Aakaax, said Dr Aditi Bhuyan, an associate professor of Sanskrit at Dibru College, Dibrugarh, is the one thing that she has to check on Facebook every day, a sentiment echoed by many members.
“I have always been a reader, but Ordho Aakaax inspired me to write. I’ve received a lot of support and encouragement on Ordho Aakaax as well as awards and accolades,” said Bhabani Pegu, a lecturer at BSC Nursing College, Silchar, who has finished two novels and is writing a third. “I’ve really enjoyed writing on the group, especially because avid readers push us to write regularly and keep us motivated to finish writing novels which would take at least two years otherwise.”
Last year Ordho Aakaax published their first collection, the curated works of 48 writers. The first edition sold out in a month, as did the second print run. JEC was not part of this anthology as Sharma was yet to write it at the time.
Sharma was a member of Ordho Aakaax for two years before she began posting JEC. In an email correspondence with HuffPost India, she described the initial response as “lukewarm”.
Her first post only had a thousand odd likes and a few encouraging comments, she said, but by the time she uploaded part 5, the audience had grown considerably.
A couple of weeks later, her friends told her that #JEC was trending in Assam and their Facebook feeds were drowning in posts about JEC, and its protagonists Aastha and Arnab. JEC had moved beyond the confines of Ordho Aakaax, as people shared chapters as statuses on their personal Facebook pages, forwarded bits on Whatsapp, and tagged their friends in the older posts and urged them to read it.
The story of Aastha Baruah, a sheltered, naive eighteen year old from Nazira in Sivasagar district, who runs into Arnab, an inexplicably angry but fascinating senior on her first day of college, was now being read by men and women, young and old alike — as long as they had a smartphone that supported Assamese in unicode. The last two instalments of JEC had over 21,000 likes each on Ordho Aakaax.
For many fans, JEC’s appeal lies in how Sharma’s characters sound believable (as well as relatable) in their quotidian thoughts and preoccupations. JEC reminds older readers of what it was like to be young, to live away from home for the first time, to make friends outside the people they’d grown up with and known all their lives, and to fall in love for the first time, while younger readers find it both relatable and aspirational.
“It wasn’t a surprise; I will say it was a shock. But I feel blessed now that people loved the characters so much,” Sharma said, of JEC’s unexpected virality. “Surprisingly, the response is still the same, people desperately wait for the next part, constantly ask for the release date of the next part. Tiktok and YouTube are also flooded with content of JEC. That’s what encouraged me to write every day.”
The serialised novel has a long and flourishing history in Assam, right from the days of Padmanath Gohain Baruah’s Bhanumoti, the first Assamese novel serialised in Bijulee in 1890, to popular magazines like Prantik (1981-present), Goriyoshi (1993-present), Bismoi (1968-present), and Nandini (2000-present) which continue to publish serialised novels with varying degrees of popularity.
Prantik, for instance, published two novels by Hiranya Kashyap that were very popular in their time — Ximanto in the late 1990s and Xomoi in 2003-04. Diganta Borkakoti, who wrote under the pseudonym Hiranya Kashyap, says that fans used to send feedback to the editor of Prantik when they couldn’t contact the author directly.
“Had there been online communities back in the day, maybe we would’ve found a dedicated forum to discuss books with each other, which would probably also have led to an increased number of readers,” Borkakoti said.
The immense popularity of JEC, reveals that fan love has moved far beyond the restrained letter to the editor, as readers frequently post their responses to each episode as short videos and memes — the default language of the internet.
Ardent readers have even taken pictures of Sharma and her husband from her personal page and posted them publicly. She has now created a separate Facebook account, a personal page and a blog and also appeared on two hour-long live interviews on Pratidin Time, a popular Assamese TV news channel.
Publishing house, magazines, as well as online content platforms have offered to host her story for a fee, but Sharma continues to write on Facebook and her blog. She juggles her writing with a busy day job as a coder, and jokes that she has had to sacrifice her Netflix binges for JEC.
“My focus right now is on making it grow and reach a mature stage,” Sharma said, explaining why she hasn’t decided to sign a deal for the book yet. “As a member of Ordho, FB came naturally to me as the first choice.”
Eventually, she said, she would probably publish it offline as the “touch of a book can never be replaced with a blog.”
Arnab versus Arnav
Not all reader feedback has been positive. Sharma’s writing has been criticised for the simplicity of its language, its liberal use of English and colloquial Assamese, typos and spelling mistakes. Critical readers include judgemental men who have taken issue with the presumed frothiness of its plot.Some readers have objected to the romanticisation of a controlling, volatile hero who is prone to pushing boundaries.
There have also been murmurs of plagiarism, with people pointing to similarities between Arnab and Arnav Singh Raizada, the similarly named (and behaved) lead of the popular Hindi soap, Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon (a wildly popular 2011 Hindi soap that perhaps spawned India’s first major online fandom). Other readers have pointed to the eponymous protagonist of Arjun Reddy, the popular Telugu film recently remade in Hindi as Shahid Kapoor starrer Kabir Singh.
Sharma has refuted these allegations in her TV interview and a Facebook post. She says she has watched IPKKND, but her Arnab has nothing in common with IPKKND’s hero other than his temper, and she is willing to clarify matters further if the other creators want an explanation.
Arnab, JEC’s moody hero, blows hot and cold; alternately terrifying and fascinating Aastha. Arnab yells at Aastha right from their first meeting, makes her squirm in discomfort when he steps too close to her, insists that she undo her bun and leave her long hair loose on a humid summer day, corners her after her first dance performance, and demands that she give him her maangtika — all before they are anywhere close to an actual relationship. In the mould of Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh, Arnab is jealous of Aastha’s male friends, and acts like he is entitled to her love because of his dark, tormented past, even as he infantilises her and laughs at her naïveté.
Sharma says that Arnab is drawn from real people and it is mostly young women who see Arnab as a romantic ideal. “While there is a certain section of male readers that admits they were like Arnab, readers of both genders have also expressed their distaste almost aggressively.”
Joyshree Gogoi Mech, from Ordho Aakaax, sees it as a fantasy where the bad boy’s good looks override his appalling behaviour. It is a sentiment echoed in this hilarious Tiktok video where a pretty young girl makes appalled faces at someone offscreen when she realises that Arnab IRL looks nothing like the Arnab in her head. “Tumi neki Arnab?! Kene dekhi dekhun he.. Aru noporhu ja!” “You are Arnab?! That’s what you look like? I’m going to stop reading JEC now.”
While the brooding, mysterious asshole with a dark past is pretty much a cliche in English or Hindi popular culture, he is a bit of a novelty in Assamese popular culture, and both Sharma and Gogoi Mech admit that this could be a possible reason for his popularity.
Most Assamese heroes usually stay within the parameters of acceptable bhodrolok behaviour, and if a hero sasses (or harasses) the heroine, she’s usually the rich shrew who needs to be schooled in the ways of “bhal suwali”s or good Assamese girls.
Arnab’s closest parallel in Assamese pop culture is the narrator of Pranab Kumar Barman’s dramatic monologue, “Aji Tumar Premot Porimei Porim, Tumi Ki Koriba.” (Today I WILL fall in love with you, what are you going to do about it?).
The Foucault-reading angsty dudebro rambles in blank verse about how he will stare at the “Clinic Plus, Nima Rose, Lakme drenched girl”, as she goes about her day, regardless of whether she is even aware of his existence.
His dreams are of revolution and bathing Guwahati University in blood if he can’t have her; while she, shallow thing, cares only for her photocopied notes and long phone calls to her boyfriend from the PCO booth. Like all obsessive, entitled stalkers, the object of his attention doesn’t actually get a word in edgewise — she merely exists as a blank slate for him to project onto.
Unlike the nearly mute heroines of Arjun Reddy, Kabir Singh and Barman’s poem, JEC’s readers are intimately aware of the inner workings of Aastha’s mind, particularly her confusion at Arnab’s inexplicable moods and bouts of shouting. JEC’s first-person narrative almost reads like Aastha’s diary entries, and captures the self-absorbed tunnel vision of young lovers who spend all their time trying to read meaning into each other’s words and actions.
Like Sairat, Nagraj Manjule’s excellent deconstruction of the filmy romance, JEC understands that many youthful relationships would never have come to fruit without a Greek chorus of friends and enablers who offer advice, act as go-betweens, and are suitably impressed when their shy friend dates the mysterious, tormented, and inexplicably desirable college senior.
Nisha, who first makes an appearance in part 4, is Aastha’s confidant who helps her parse her tangled feelings and is the cheerleader for this romance. Like almost every other character, Nisha has to constantly mention Aastha’s exceptional good looks, especially her long hair. She is a good dancer, the sheltered only child of a small, loving family. She still drinks milk with Horlicks, uses baby powder, and believes in God whom she addresses as “Nomu” instead of the more grown up “Bhogobaan”, much to the amusement of Arnab and Nisha.
Tiktok, the lingua franca for Gen Z, has a trove of fan videos where fresh faced, long haired young girls flutter their eyelashes and simper Aastha’s lines with a coyness that would put a Hindi film heroine from the 1960s to shame.
Clearly the naive, sheltered ”’bhal suwali” heroine has significant cultural cachet. The identification with Aastha is reminiscent of the incredible popularity of another blank slate of a heroine, Bella Swan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, because it isn’t the male leads who project onto them but their readers.
In an interesting moment in Part 1 of JEC, Aastha immediately associates Arnab with Arnav Singh Raizada, the broody asshole hero with a tormented past from Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon.
Is it an early moment of metacognition of the stories that we are told about love, and the types of behaviour that are normalised, or even romanticised by popular culture? Aastha repeatedly says that she has never met anyone as complicated as Arnab before, but at least one story that she has consumed in the past has an aggressive, jealous and unpredictable hero who is healed by the love of a child-woman.
“I just wanted to tell a story.. about how life takes a different shape once you come out of your home.. (and the sheltered love of your family),” Sharma said, when asked by she made her heroine so young and sheltered. “We learn, we grow, we fall, we rise. It’s my life. I have seen many young girls who came as clueless child and learnt to survive in the real world.”
The story itself is still a work in progress, though Sharma said she had a clear idea of her plot when she began and intends to stick to it. Whether it develops into Aastha saving Arnab from his demons because she is, according to Nisha, the only person who can fix him, or whether it chooses to be slightly less clichéd remains to be seen.
The narrative has already taken a darker turn in the 28th update where Nisha is a victim of revenge porn. Nisha’s mostly absent father reacts with anger, violence and shaming, but the narrative and Aastha’s parents are more empathetic, and treat this as a violation of Nisha’s rights. Most comments on her blog are very sympathetic towards Nisha, but of course there is that one dude who says, “if you don’t mind my saying so, please wrap up the story soon. It’s starting to drag a little.”
Like Kabir Singh fans who dislike any criticism of the film —“It’s just a film ya!” — many JEC fans are extremely unhappy when their favourite novel is criticised for romanticising Arnab’s controlling, possessive ways. Their responses range from asking the “crazy feminists” to shut up to pleading different strokes for different folks.
Choice, that preferred mantra of capitalism and a certain variety of feminism, is often held up as defence; “Don’t read it if you don’t like it”.
Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Sharma if Aastha would have responded differently to Arnab’s behaviour if she had been a little older, a little more worldly wise.
“That would be my next project. :)” came the cryptic answer.
It will be interesting to see if and how IndraneeSharma’s Aastha grows up , and whether her audience likes her just the same.