Note: As part of India’s #MeToo movement, Chintan Ruparel has stepped down from his role at Terribly Tiny Tales after multiple women described his inappropriate interactions with them at work and elsewhere. I do not want to remove this interview, since that would be tantamount to denying the fact that it happened. I put this note at the beginning to indicate that this conversation must be read with the information of his subsequent resignation owing to his actions, in mind.
You know all those pages of micro-fiction you see now on Facebook? For us Indian readers, it started here. Chintan Ruparel, co-founder of the world’s biggest micro-fiction platform, Terribly Tiny Tales, was in town for a workshop at Artsy- Coffee and Culture, Kolkata, and despite it being fully booked and sold out days before the event, I managed to sneak in for a chat.
Here’s what we talked about:
On Literature Becoming Business
Anuj (Gosalia, co-founder) started TTT as a Facebook group in 2013, and you joined later, in 2014, from an advertising background. What made you shift to this kind of storytelling?
I had done the marketing kind of story-telling, and the problem with that is- I mean, you just learn to live with it- is that a lot of your ideas and stories get shot down, due to brand problems, you know, and their own motives. So some of your best stories never make it. I just felt that you should have a canvas wide enough to tell all kinds of stories, and that’s why we partnered and sort of took it from there.
What is it like working with a friend, especially for a start-up related to literature? There must have been a lot of pressure…
Yeah, but the good thing is, we balance each other out! I’m slightly more outspoken, I used to play the bad cop earlier! He is very calm and composed and balances my enthusiasm. He is super dependable and pragmatic, and very very solid when it comes to Google and numbers.
So it’s great to have him, and now we have Anshu (Anshuman Ghosh, Chief Technological Officer), so it’s a complete team. He’s like a mix of both of us: he is calm as well as he’s driven!
What tips do you have for new, young start-up owners?
What tips? I think we can give tips only once we’re successful in what we do!
You don’t think you’re successful, with the world’s biggest microfiction platform under your belt?!
I mean, how do you measure success? I don’t know how you do that! I think if we’re popular with the youth today, I think it comes down to consistency, the fact that we had the courage to keep going and not let the quality of stories down. I think that’s the most important thing. I think we took the right decision when we embraced, with storytelling, data as well as technology, too.
How was the experience of turning literature into business? Especially considering it’s notoriously not profitable…
The thing is, we still don’t look at it as an out-and-out full-fledged business, even though our entire revenue depends on brand collaborations. The motive is still just to tell stories.
We tell our brand team that the customer is not the brand manager. We don’t have to sell the story to them, we still have to sell it to people who read us, so they don’t get disappointed with the story. The branding can be a by-the-way, and it comes as support, but you know, like with the government, when you run a business you don’t sell it to the government, you just make sure you comply with the government.
So we comply with the brands that work with us, but we still make sure that the customers are the people who read us.
How important is it for you guys to create a commercial ecosystem for writers, given that writing is not exactly money-spinning?
As an overarching thing, we want writers to get paid. Why is there is this image of writing, ki whoever pursues it usko jhola lekey suffer karna hain?! Zaroori nahin hain! You can still travel, you can still meet people, you can still do things while writing. You still run a business while writing!
Ultimately, we don’t want more parents to say, don’t be a writer because if you are one, you will not get paid. If that happens, no one will write anymore. So we do want writers to be paid in the future, and proper amounts, the kind that you might get anywhere else.
On What Makes Terribly Tiny Tales So Unique
How did you guys come up with that signature white-on-black template of TTT?
Anuj came up with the idea of putting white text on black, which in design terms is an absolute no-no, because it’s difficult to read. That’s why people usually write black text on white. But to cut through the clutter of the timeline visually, because it’s mainly white, he decided to experiment with a black background and then that just sort of became our ‘look’, what we’re known for.
You’ve said that this format is liked by readers with shorter attention spans. But why did you guys gravitate towards this?
When we started up, social media was becoming more conducive towards shorter content, and if you ask me personally, I am anyway somebody with a shorter attention span so it matches my way of thinking!
On ‘Literature’ being Over-rated
You said once, in an interview, that you don’t need a degree in literature to be a writer. I’m studying for a Literature degree!
Thanks! I wondered why you feel that?
I don’t put all emphasis on degrees or studying. I think it helps you in a certain way, it helps you to propel yourself in the right direction and gives you the right tools, but really it’s your drive or your motivation that makes you do things that you really want to do. I also think the word ‘literature’ is slightly overrated! There’s a lot of snobbery and drama around the word ‘literature’. I think we need to be slightly more accepting of all kinds of literature and make it more about ‘expression’ and less about ‘literature’.
I was going to ask about this, because Manoj Pandey’s ‘Tales on Tweet’ features 140-character stories by people like Salman Rushdie, Teju Cole, Jeet Thayil and Margaret Atwood. Do you think this lends more institutional validation to microfiction?
I don’t think the fact that someone like Salman Rushdie wrote about it makes this kind of form more ‘acceptable’ necessarily, because I don’t think he’s on some kind of a jury on literature for the world. If people are liking stories, I think he got on the bandwagon, let’s put it that way!
So you measure success of a story by the number of people that like it rather than someone putting a certificate of approval on it?
Exactly. An elite bunch of people on a panel don’t get to decide everything.
On the soon-to-be-launched Terribly Tiny Tales App
After TT Live and TT Talkies, you’re launching the new Terribly Tiny Tales app! How did this come about?
Anshuman: We get a lot of submissions, and we’re able to put only something like eight to ten pieces a day on Facebook. A lot of really good stuff is still not getting a chance to be shown because of the sheer volume and flow of content. So with this app, the community, that is right now in follower mode, this platform they take control of their own content and they find each other. So somebody who is maybe just missing the mark on some of our tales, because there are other stellar tales competing for the spot, but are still really good, get a chance to shine.
So it’s like social media for writers?
Anshuman: Yes, pretty much!
Chintan: And readers!
Amrit (Paul, writer at TTT): An ecosystem!
Chintan: Today, the focus was the workshop, of course, but we wanted people to submit through the app instead of through email or through type form. The idea was to see if people are comfortable with it and how they react to it: sort of testing it in a small way. I think, right now, we don’t want to corrupt the idea or talk about commercialization of the app yet. I think we’ll let people get a taste of it and get the hang of it, and when the time is right, we’ll open it up to possibilities of collaboration. But as of now, our focus is still very much on story-telling.
On His Own Writing and Travel
You write short verses as well, as I noticed when I stalked you on Instagram! Tell us more about that.
There’s no particular reason or purpose or concept for it- it’s me just playing around with words and seeing if people are liking it or if I’m being able to express myself. It’s more like experimentation. I don’t call myself a poet. Usually something that happens in my life, or if I have a nice idea, I will explore it and write about it. It’s spontaneous, not too much thought through. It’s instinctual.
Finally, you went to Shantiniketan! Tell us about that.
So I went there on my last proper trip five years ago! It was a birthday gift to myself. I went to both sides of the Khoai nodi.
I haven’t been to Shantiniketan!
You should go there! I went to Visva Bharati University also. At that time, the vacations were on, but I got a taste of it and I loved it.
What do you like the best about it?
I think the peace. It’s so quiet.
Hey! Thanks for reading until the end. Which is your favourite Terribly Tiny Tale? Tell me in the comments!
This interview would not have been possible without the help of Amrit Paul, whose stories you must have read on TTT often enough. All the pictures of Chintan, Anshuman and I from the event are by him, and he was the person I approached about the interview, and he made all the arrangements, apart from helping to organize the event itself. God bless you, you very good egg.
See you soon, with another exciting interview and about three dozen book reviews!