Jaya Posts

Jin Yong or Louis Cha, “Legends of the Condor Heroes”

Jin Yong was the nom de plume of Louis Cha. He is considered the maestro of the wuxia genre, a form of martial arts-heavy fantasy literature set in historical China. A native of Zhejiang province, born in Hangzhou, Jin moved to Hong Kong in 1948. Cha began writing wuxia serials in the 1950s after settling in Hong Kong. He enjoyed almost immediate success, and his career as a novelist enabled him to found his own newspaper, the influential Ming Pao Daily News in 1959. Many of his editorials were highly critical of Mao Zedong, especially during the Cultural Revolution period from 1966 to 1976. His novels were banned in turn. But one of Jin Yong’s earliest readers in mainland China was none other than Deng Xiaoping, the leader who pushed for economic reforms and opening-up in the 1970s and 80s. As was another former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, Cha said, was a great fan. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, the novel that cemented Cha’s reputation as the king of wuxia, is likely best remembered more for its numerous film and television adaptations over the past four decades. ( Strange Horizons, “A HERO BORN BY JIN YONG, TRANSLATED BY ANNA HOLMWOOD“, 18 Feb 2019)

The Legend of the Condor Heroes was first serialised in a newspaper. Over the years then it was collected and published as books. According to reports the series is spread over 12 volumes and has sold over 350 m copies in Chinese. His stories often feature heroes who defend the powerless. (Lily Kuo, ‘China’s Tolkien’: millions mourn death of martial arts novelist Jin Yong“, 31 Oct 2018) Some call it fantasy whereas others are saying it is really a heroic epic set in medieval China. Also comparing it to the Arthurian Romance cycle for the minor characters in this Chinese epic are given equal weightage as the main characters. Yet others are referring to Jin Yong as the Chinese Tolkien. If media reports are to believed Jin Yong began writing these stories as serials in a local Chinese newspaper while residing in HongKong. So these stories can be construed as political allegories that were anti-Mao and really spoke of the Chinese refugee situation. The first story appeared in the late 1950s.

According to Nick Frisch, a doctoral student at at Yale’s Council on East Asian Studies who met the then 90-year-novelist and was granted a rare interview, the “Master Hong of the Mystic Dragon Sect, the antagonist of his last novel The Deer and The Cauldron, alludes to Chinese leader Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution [Hong is a cult leader with superlative martial arts skills, but he is also ruthless and loves nothing more than power and flattery]. If you look at his past statements on the matter, he never completely denied it, but said that fiction that satirizes only an individual moment in politics would not have lasting value. But using allusions is a big tradition in Chinese literature, and he was so involved with current events as the editor of Ming Pao. He was threatened during the Cultural Revolution and was put on an assassination list by the communist underground. He had to leave Hong Kong briefly for safety.” He wrote 15 wuxia novels. The last was published in the early 1970s after which he stopped writing. ( Grace Tsoi, “New translation brings literary maestro Jin Yong to the West“, Inkstone, 19 April 2018)

Writing in The New Yorker, Nick Frisch says:

The success of “Condors,” his third novel, allowed him to found his own newspaper, Ming Pao Daily News, in 1959. In the paper’s early years, Cha wrote many of its front-page stories and editorials himself, decrying Maoist excesses during the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution. At first, Ming Pao hovered near bankruptcy, but it was kept afloat by its must-read fiction supplement, which serialized other people’s novels as well as Cha’s own, in genres ranging from dime-store noir to Lovecraftian horror. Cha staffed the newsroom of Ming Pao with classically trained historians and poets, mostly refugees from mainland China, and this gave his newspaper, along with his novels, a classical texture that Communist cultural reforms starched out of much post-revolutionary literature (including most contemporary Chinese books translated into English today). Cha’s stridently anti-Maoist editorials earned him credible death threats from Hong Kong’s Communist underground, and, in 1967, he briefly left Hong Kong for the safety of Singapore. When he returned, his reputation as a political journalist who risked his life for the cause of his fatherland had grown.

In 1981, Cha’s prominence in Hong Kong earned him an invitation to Beijing, to meet Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s pragmatist successor. Deng treated Cha’s family to a private dinner and professed himself an avid fan. Cha returned the compliment, telling reporters that Deng had a noble bearing, “like a heroic character in one of my books; I admire his fenggu,” the wind in his bones. Then, as the 1997 termination of Britain’s colonial lease of Hong Kong approached, Cha was appointed to a prestigious political committee charged with implementing Beijing’s vague promises of political “autonomy,” the price extracted by London in exchange for a peaceful handover. Hong Kong, a city full of refugees from the regime, watched nervously as Cha staked out conservative positions on democratic representation. Supporters of his anti-Communist editorializing felt betrayed, finding his new positions too accommodating to Beijing; others wondered if his desire to participate in the politics of his fatherland, and his newfound coziness with the Communist Party, had an ulterior, authorial motive: to be read. Deng, by lifting the Communist Party’s censorship ban on “decadent” and “feudal” wuxia novels, uncorked a reading craze. The timing was good: after Mao’s vandalisms, many Chinese sought to xungen, or return to their roots. Cha’s novels offered narrative pleasures steeped in the splendors of China’s past.

… But Cha’s books have resisted translation into Western languages. Chinese literature, which traditionally prizes poetry over fiction, derives much of its emotional force from oblique allusions, drawing on a deep well of shared cultural texts, and Cha’s work is no exception. In February, the first installment of Cha’s most revered trilogy, “Legends of the Condor Heroes,” was published in English translation by Anna Holmwood by the U.K. publishing house Quercus. (An American edition is currently under negotiation.) It is the first time a trade publisher has attempted a translation of the trilogy, which begins in the year 1205, just before the Mongol conquest of China, and ends more than a hundred and fifty years later, after approximately two million eight hundred and sixty thousand Chinese characters—the equivalent of one and a half million English words. (Over three times the length of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series.) Holmwood’s translation offers the best opportunity yet for English-language readers to encounter one of the world’s most beloved writers—one whose influence and intentions remain incompletely understood. ( Nick Frisch, “The Gripping Stories, and Political Allegories, of China’s Best-Selling Author“, 13 April 2018)

Jin Yong died in 2018 at the age of ninety-four after a long illness. ( Marcel Theroux, “Jin Yong Obituary“, 12 Nov 2018 and Lily Kuo, ‘China’s Tolkien’: millions mourn death of martial arts novelist Jin Yong“, 31 Oct 2018) Despite there being generations of readers who grew up on these stories, many films, tv adaptations, games and comics of the stories being made, these books were never translated into English except for a rare one of The Book and the Sword translated by Graham Earnshaw. In fact Earnshaw began the translation in 1979 and then put it aside. Only to resume it 15 years later when he was contacted by Cha or OUP about publishing it. “Cha and OUP had created a plan with the master translator John Minford, who had done a large part of The Story of the Stone – an English version of Dream of the Red Chamber. The plan was that John would translate the entire Jin Yong oeuvre for OUP, the only exception, at Cha’s insistence, being The Book and the Sword. John did the first book to be published in the series, The Deer and the Cauldron, the last of Cha’s novels; mine was the second, published in 2004.” ( Graham Earnshaw, “I translated Chinese writer Louis Cha ‘Jin Yong’. Here’s why he never caught on in the West“, South China Morning Post, 1 Nov 2018)

Years later the entire 12 volumes of The Legend of the Condor Heroes is being translated by Anna Holmwood. The first volume A Hero Born has recently been released by MacLehose Press. The same press that published the fabulous translation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson. Anna Holmwood is a professional literary translator and literary agent based in Sweden who is committed to publishing the entire series. ( Mei Jia, “Translator thrilled to bring Jin Yong’s martial arts works to Western audienceChina Daily, 19 June 2018; Pan Xiaoqiao “A Legend is BornBeijing Review, 21 June 2018; Vanessa Thorpe, “A hero reborn: ‘China’s Tolkien’ aims to conquer western readersThe Guardian, 26 Nov 2017; Olivia Ho, “Singapore Writers Festival: Jin Yong’s English translator Anna Holmwood on translating a legendThe Straits Times, 11 Nov 2018; Feng Yu “Translator Anna Holmwood is the hero of Jin Yong’s wuxiaGlobal Times, 4 March 2018 and BBC Sounds, Last Words, an interview with Anna Holmwood)

In a speech published in 2005, Cha said “It does not matter to me whether I become a historical figure. All I want is that after one or two hundred years, there will still be people reading my books.” The backstory of the publication of the English translation as well as of the epic itself is fascinating. With the books now being made available in English the stories will probably grip the imagination of many more readers.

22 February 2019

Of Nayantara Sahgal’s “The Fate of Butterflies” and Toni Morrison’s “Mouth Full of Blood”

When two extraordinary writers Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) put pen to paper it is worth reading every single word they spell out. They select their words with care. Every word chosen is powerful. In their lifetimes the two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.

Lopez reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself.  It was far from reassuring in view of Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by ‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.

Lopez, who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’

‘Why wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.

Togetherness was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak was the only Boy Scout.’

‘But most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’ said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’

‘Most people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations spanning four decades. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.

In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.

Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.

22 February 2019

An extract from Radha Kumar’s “Paradise at War”

Dr Radha Kumar is a historian and a policy analyst who has written several well-regarded books on ethnic conflict and feminism. She was one of the interlocutors appointed for Jammu and Kashmir by the Manmohan Singh administration in 2010. Paradise at War is her latest book  on Jammu and Kashmir published by Aleph.

According to the book blurb:

Paradise at War is Dr Radha Kumar’s political history of Kashmir, a book that attempts to give the reader a definitive yet accessible study of perhaps the most troubled part of India. Beginning with references to Kashmir as ‘a sacred geography’ in the Puranas, Kumar’s account moves forward in time through every major development in the region’s history. It grapples with the seemingly intractable issues that have turned the state into a battleground and tries to come up with solutions that are realistic and lasting.

Situating the conflict in the troubled geopolitics of Kashmir’s neighbourhood, Kumar unpicks the gnarled tangle of causes that have led to the present troubles in the region, from wars and conquest to Empire and the growth of nationalism; the troubled accession of the state to India by Maharaja Hari Singh during Partition; Pakistani attacks and the rise of the Cold War; the politics of the various parts of the former princely state including Jammu and Kashmir, and the areas administered by Pakistan; the wars that followed and the attempts that Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders, starting with Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, made to find peaceful solutions, including taking the Kashmir issue to the UN, which had unintended consequences for India; the demand for plebiscite; the Simla Agreement, turning the ceasefire line into the Line of Control; communal riots in the 1980s and the growth of insurgency; increase in security forces in the state in the 1990s leading to public resentment; and the guerrilla occupation of Hazratbal, the fifteenth-century mosque. Showing that a changed Post-Cold War milieu offered new opportunities for peace-making that were restricted by domestic stresses in Pakistan, Kumar analyses the Lahore Declaration and its undoing with the Kargil operation; the morphing of insurgency into an Islamist jihad against India; India’s attempts to parley with separatist groups; and the progress made towards a Kashmir solution via peace talks by various Indian and Pakistani governments between 2002 and 2007.

Kumar’s descriptions of the contemporary situation—the impact of 9/11 and the war on terrorism; the Afghan war and the Mumbai attacks which created pressure on Pakistan to take action against radical Islamists; the blowback in Pakistan resulting in the growing radicalization of Pakistani institutions such as the judiciary and its spill over in Kashmir; the Indian government’s failure to move Kashmir into a peacebuilding phase; the trouble with AFSPA; the anti-India feelings that were triggered by counter-insurgency responses in 2010, the contentious coalition of 2014 and the killing of suspected terrorist Burhan Wani in 2016—underline the tragedies which ensue when conditions, timing and strategy are mismatched.

Drawing on her experience as a government interlocutor, Kumar chastises the Indian government for never failing ‘to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to the state’s political grievances’. Equally, she shows how Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has been ‘an unmitigated disaster’. While arguing that India can do a great deal to reduce violence and encourage reconciliation within the former princely state, she concludes that if Kashmir is ever to move towards lasting peace and stability, the major stakeholders as well as regional and international actors will need to work together on the few feasible options that remain.

Timely and authoritative, the book cuts through the rhetoric that cloaks Kashmir to give the reader a balanced, lucid and deeply empathetic view of the state, its politics and its people.

With the publisher’s permission here is an extract ( p. 339-341) from Dr Kumar’s concluding chapter entitled “Conclusion: Faint Hope for a Peace Process”.

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Looking back over the history of Jammu and Kashmir, the last seventy years have seen a tragic collision between aspirations for democracy and the grim realities of war. After centuries of imperial rule, the territorial state of Jammu and Kashmir emerged in the nineteenth century and the political state only after India and Pakistan became independent countries. From 1947, two opposing trajectories were evident. On the one hand, India–Pakistan conflict devastated daily life and severely hampered governance in the former princely state. On the other hand, all parts of the state steadily improved economically, though their economies remained heavily aid-reliant. Their residents acquired education and healthcare where once, not so long ago, they did not. Roads and rail lines were built, enabling connectivity and trade. Natural resources such as water were developed, and even though these resources were shared with India and Pakistan, residents still had more than they did sixty years ago.

Politically, however, there was a steady decline, from the first flush of hope in a post-monarchical order to growing disappointment and anger spurred by war and conflict every fifteen to twenty years. Albeit in sharply divergent ways, each of the divided parts of the former princely state found that its status and rights were determined by conflict and its government’s powers varied according to security and economic dependence on India or Pakistan. It seems counter-intuitive to say that the people of the Kashmir valley suffered the most poisonous politics of the regions of the former princely state, when they had a greater measure of democracy and civil rights, on paper, than their counterparts across the Line of Control. But the Kashmir valley also suffered the most stifling conditions, because it was the arena of violent conflict.

Looking back over the past decade or more, it can be seen that the Pakistan Army’s hostility towards India has cumulatively increased rather than decreased after 9/11. Musharraf cooperated with the US against the Taliban on the grounds that if he did not, it would advantage India. The first few years following 9/11 saw an intensification of cross-border violence in Jammu and Kashmir. During the peace process that followed, with considerable international facilitation, violence decreased sharply in Jammu and Kashmir but terrorist attacks against India rose, both in other parts of India and in Afghanistan. Eventually, the peace process was put on hold by a beleaguered Musharraf in 2007.

The civilian government that took over in Pakistan did not build on the framework for Kashmir of the Musharraf backchannel. But they took cautious steps to improve trade, and developed customs and transit infrastructure at the Wagah border. Though the 26/11 attacks were the most horrific terrorist act in years, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India declined overall. When the Zardari administration was succeeded by the Sharif administration in 2013, the initial months were promising. Sharif and Modi did briefly try to revive a peace process, but guerrillas succeeded in disrupting their efforts and Sharif soon fell foul of the Pakistani military.

Clearly, each country has yet to come to terms with the other’s red lines. Pakistan’s red line was, and remains, that terrorism would not be curbed unless Kashmir was also discussed. For India, terrorism had to end. The hard facts were that Pakistan was unlikely to give up support for anti-India groups like the Lashkar and Jaish until conflicts over Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen were resolved. The best that could be expected was that the Pakistan Army, under pressure, might restrain them. Equally, India would not settle with Pakistan until convinced that its government was ending support for anti-India militancy, including by non-state actors. First Vajpayee, then Musharraf, and then Singh, Zardari and Sharif, learned these hard facts the hard way, through trial and error, but the learning curve in each country appeared to be individual rather than institutional or collective.

Most Indians believe that the Pakistani position would change were the military to accept civilian precedence, but the chances of that happening are nil. Many would further argue that a sustained military-to-military dialogue would also soften the hard-line attitude of the Pakistan Army. Thus far, however, such a dialogue has proved elusive. The fact that the Pakistani NSA appointed in October 2015 was a retired general gave hope of a direct line to the military. After Pathankot, the jury was still out on whether this access helped. The two countries’ chiefs of army staff do not meet and their DGMOs have met only occasionally to talk CBMs. There have been intermittent and secret NSA talks since 2016, with no discernible impact.

A large and growing new challenge for both countries has been how to deal with the media. In the past four years, the role of electronic media in both countries has been understandably but unforgivably negative. With little substantive information to go on, Indian and Pakistani talking heads resorted to such virulent slanging matches in the run-up to the India– Pakistan NSA talks in August 2015 that they had to be cancelled. Some anchors questioned whether Pakistan fell into a trap by reacting so strongly to the Indian media, but this begged the question of whether the Indian media themselves fell into a spoilers’ trap. The Indian media muted criticism to some extent in 2018, with most channels supporting the ceasefire and questioning the toppling of the Mehbooba administration.

Astonishingly, the Indian government has never failed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir. From Nehru taking the conflict to the UN and arresting Sheikh Abdullah, to Indira dismissing and replacing elected governments, to Singh shying away from taking CBMs to political resolution, to Modi withdrawing the ceasefire before it had time to take hold and the BJP toppling the state’s coalition government[i] —almost every Indian prime minister has shown the state pusillanimity at best and authoritarianism at worst.

Pakistan’s leaders have done no better. Some might argue they did worse. Expressions of dissent were severely repressed and the powers of the elected leaders of Pakistan-administered Kashmir were little more than municipal. Gilgit–Baltistan suffered decades of sectarian conflict. But neither entity was subjected to the gruelling and attritive violence that Jammu and Kashmir was. While the reason was clear—India did not target Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the way that Pakistan targeted Jammu and Kashmir—it did not mitigate the suffering in Jammu and Kashmir.

As I write this conclusion, the Jammu and Kashmir conflict is at its nadir. Levels of violence continue to rise and abduction, torture and murder of Kashmiris in the security and police forces is becoming a new normal. The people of the valley are more alienated from mainland India than ever before and Jammu’s communal polarization between Muslim- and Hindumajority districts is greater than ever before.

Ladakh is the one clear ray of hope despite the distance between its two districts, Leh and Kargil. But its light cannot be shed on the valley and Jammu since it has always been quite separate from the two, both physically and in its polity.

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[i] Rajesh Ahuja and Mir Ehsan, ‘Ramzan ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir to end, security ops will resume, says Rajnath Singh’, Hindustan Times, 17 June, 2018; ‘Mehbooba Mufti resigns after BJP pulls out of alliance with PDP in Jammu and Kashmir’, Times of India, 19 June, 2018.

22 February 2019

An extract from Snigdha Poonam’s “Dreamers: How Young Indians are Changing Their World”

Today, 21 February, is International Mother Language Day as declared by the United Nations. In India the dialects and languages spoken change every 20 kms. India is a country of 22 official languages; and a total of 19,500 languages or dialects that are spoken in India as mother tongues — not all of them even have scripts. Around the world, the rural and villages’ folk societies have depended on the oral traditions for centuries for information dissemination from generations to generations. Interestingly, more than 55 per cent of all Web content is in English even though only around 20 per cent of the world’s population speaks English, and just five per cent of the world speaks English as their native language. ( Osama Manzar, “How a Script-Agnostic Media Can Empower The Illiterate“, News Central, 20 Feb 2019).

A conversation that happens over and over again in India is whether English is to be given importance or not. A few days ago in a passionate and well reasoned out Facebook post, Bengali Dalit writer, Manoranjan Byapari wrote saying that he did not quite agree with his fellow writer from Telengana, Kancha Ilaiah with regard to the status English was to be accorded. Apparently at a recent literary festival where the two writers had been invited to a panel discussion together, Kancha Ilaiah asserted that every Dalit should learn English. In fact he said English should be taught along with the regional language in primary school. Kancha Ilaiah’s rationale being that having written in English his books had been published worldwide and the issues he raised, given due hearing. Whereas Manoranjan Byapari disagreed saying that a Dalit is inevitably so impoverished that he is often wondering where his next meal will come from or worried about the roof over his head, he can be least bothered with English, a Gentleman’s language. So he was not in favour of the imposition of a foreign language along with the mother tongue in schools. Ironically Manoranjan Byapari’s original post was written in Bengali but was accessed, circulated and discussed once it had been translated into English by Arunava Sinha and shared on his Facebook wall.

This particular post of Manoranjan Byapari written in Bengali and translated in English has been shared many times. It has become the focus of many animated and fascinating conversations about languages, mother tongue and of course, English. While all the discussions have raised very valid points, it is perhaps advisable to familiarise oneself with the sentiments of the younger generation. Indians below 25 years old constitute nearly 50% of the population. Award-winning journalist Snigdha Poonam’s book Dreamers which profiles the twenty-year-olds in India’s small towns has a chapter entitled “The English Man”. It is about a former cowherd/milkman called Moin Khan who realises that English is the way ahead. At the age of seventeen he had never spoken or read English but a decade later he was conducting “coaching classes” to learn the language. Like Moin, there were many others of his generation, who have recognised the critical importance of learning English, it is the language of socio-economic and legal affairs. So knowing English is acquiring a value-added skill and will be the preferred language of communication as opposed to those who prefer to rely solely upon their mother tongue. And in order for a language to survive, it must be spoken, otherwise it will become endangered and finally die. But as Snigdha Poonam highlights in Dreamers English is rapidly perceived as the language of social aspiration and economic freedom and thus learned by the young adults.

Following is an extract from “English Man”, Dreamers ,quoted with permission of the publishers and author:

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English makes a side entry into this universe; all this coaching will come to naught if you can’t answer questions in English. If you are lucky, you can choose to write your answers in a regional language, but you can’t crack an interview in India without explaining to a suited man in English why you deserve the job. So for every five coaching institutes offering proficiency in maths or reasoning, there is one simply selling ‘Spoken English’. Or these days, just ‘Spoken’. And the people who ‘speak’ are ‘The Speaking People’.

That, at least, is what they are termed by the American Academy of Spoken English, a fast-growing chain of coaching centres seizing the market for upward mobility. It’s a branding brainwave the organization is visibly proud of. And going by the rate at which The American is spreading through the interiors of north India—from slums in Delhi to hilltops in Dehradun—the message seems to have worked. The American has four branches in Ranchi alone, the largest of which is suitably perched on Lalpur Road. A big red arrow indicates a turn off the main road. One day in March 2015, I took that left turn. Five youngsters were waiting in a queue at the reception, where a man not much older than them was taking a father and son through the rates for various ‘packages’. I could see his face on a newspaper clipping stuck to the wall behind him. Three youngsters were poring over a pamphlet on a sagging sofa in a corner, the only other piece of furniture. The anxiety level in the room was rising by the second. ‘What can I do for you?’ the man asked me when we came face to face. I asked him about the courses on offer. ‘Basic Communication, Personality Development, Group Discussion, Interview,’ he rattled off, each capital letter loaded with the weight of practice. ‘Why should I join The American?’ I asked him. ‘Because we believe that anyone can speak English.’ From this brief exchange we had in English, Moin Khan knew I wasn’t really there to learn spoken English. Crossing his arms on the table, he asked me what it was I actually wanted from him. I said I was there to understand spoken English as a tool for life improvement. I told him I wanted to attend a course in Basic Communication. We made a deal: He would let me attend his classes for spoken English if I paid the fee (`1800). ‘Come with me then,’ Khan motioned me out of the room and up a flight of stairs, ‘I have been teaching a new batch. It’s a good place for you to watch the process. People who join this course don’t know their ABC.’ What I had to do at my end of the deal was to keep my mouth shut in class.

* * *

Moin Khan didn’t know his ABC himself until ten years ago. He was seventeen years old when he heard about the free English class. He remembers where he was at that point: in the village market, selling balloons. He hadn’t spent much time in a classroom. His family’s income came from their two cows; from the time he could handle a pail, Khan spent most of the day delivering milk from one doorstep to another. In the evenings, he spread a sheet on a pavement and sold things—‘firewood, toys, anything.’ Not in a position to waste precious daylight in a classroom, Khan enrolled in a local college where he had to show up once a year—to sit for the annual exam. He knew a few things for sure: that he would have an undergraduate degree in arts at the end of the three years; and that he had no idea what he was going to do with it. He knew that people could become rich and powerful through education; and also that he didn’t have that option. Moin Khan could neither become a software engineer and join the new elite, nor enter the administrative service and join the old. His father didn’t have the money to hand that Vinay Singhal’s had, which allowed access to a coaching centre in Delhi—or even to one on Lalpur Road.

But there was one respectable job he could land without taking an entrance examination—at a call centre. It was the ultimate cheat’s guide to the white-collar world. All he needed to do to get in was speak English. Not the English of English literature or that of official project reports, but a cut-price version called, simply, Spoken English. It required of its user barely the ability to speak a set of sentences to get through basic communication in a globalizing India. Spoken English was going to be the operative language of the new India, the currency of communication at ‘multi-cuisine restobars’, shopping malls, airport check-ins.

21 February 2019

“My Father’s Garden” by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

…on each trip home, I found my father working unrelentingly in his garden. And under his loving care, it flourished more than ever. A hibiscus tree, which had been falling over on one visit, would be propped up with bamboo staves on the next, covered with pale orange blossoms. The lime and lemon bushes woudl hang heavy with fruit in season. As would the mangoes, guavas, bananas and jackfruits. Before we left our quarters, my father had carefully plucked a litchi sapling from the premises as a memento. That, too, was flourishing. And just behind our kitchen, my mother and aunt cultivated their own little patch of earth. Thick, deep green vines of pui leaves climbed the iron grille of the verandah outside our kitchen. Tusli, dhania and pudina grew lush in the cool space near the tubewell where the water keeps the earth always moist. Birds made their home in our garden. The caws-caws and the chee-chees would start at dawn and wake us up. At dusk, their raucous homecoming would tell us that the day was at an end.

I once read somewhere that the single-minded pursuit of one course over a lifetime can only be justified if one engages in two enterprises — building a garden, or raising a child. I now understand that my father’s garden is truly his child. And this child gives him the happiness and peace of mind that nothing else could ever give him.

Award-winning writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s My Father’s Garden is narrated in first person by an unnamed medical student (later doctor) and is set in Jharkhand. It is divided into three sections of unequal lengths — Lover, Friend and Father.

“Lover”, set in Jamshedpur, is a self-obsessed, narcissistic, self-centred portrayal of a young medical student for whom sex is liberating, needy and satisfying but it is also self-consuming when he is rejected by all his lovers for heterosexual relationships that are socially acceptable. It pushes the narrator to depression and a suicide attempt when he slashes his wrists only to wake up the next morning to discover the blob of blood congealing near his bed. He returns home to his parents.

“Friend”, set in Pakur, while ostensibly about a colleague Bada Babu — a successful man if measured by his genial generosity, his popularity and his ever welcoming home with a lavish party organised at every festival or birthday. The unnamed narrator becomes a permanent fixture at these parties. Yet “Friend” is also about the socio-economic horrors that plague society, particularly one where most of the locals are gullible, innocent and absolutely ignorant of their rights. There are also easy prey to be economically exploited by the very same person, in this case Bade Babu, who while being politically shrewd turns out to be the the victims’ benevolent benefactor as well. It is illustrated by the horrendous episode of evicting the people from the land where Bade Babu also has built a house, although his did not have a permanent roof. The poor people had invested their savings into buying the land not realising that they had been conned and were actually illegally squatting on government property. Bade Babu’s house is also demolished on the day everyone else’s is but to the narrator’s chagrin he discovers that Bade Babu has secretly managed to build himself quite a magnificent mansion, many times bigger than his present home, and the new place has a permanent roof. Many of those evicted had no one to turn to except Bade Babu for help which he magnanimously promised to provide. It is an age-old vicious cycle that can also be perceived as the Survival of the Fittest.

“Father”, set in Ghatsila, is about the narrator’s return home and witnessing his father’s entry into politics. It is an eye-opening journey of self-discovery not just for the father but for his family too. They watch the father become a trustworthy footsoldier in the Hindu India Party. With this is a brief encapsulation of the political history, the rifts created for political gains between the Adivasis, Santhals etc. The narrator’s grandfather was a prominent Santhal leader and an associate of Jaipal Singh. The father’s political spark probably stems from this inheritance. So he continues to give it his best including running successful campaigns at the ground level allowing unknown candidates to make critical inroads into the voter base and slowly transforming local politics. All the political ambitions that the father may have nursed come to a griding halt the day the father discovers he has been outsmarted by the very same leaders he trusted and hoped would one day support his candidature too. He gives up his political existence. After a period of self-reflection he takes to gardening with enthusiasm. With his nurturing it is vibrant, alive and bursting with health.

The garden as a metaphor is a classic literary trope. Whether it is used knowingly in this manner by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is uncertain but it certainly works very well in this story. The garden becomes the paradise everyone yearns for, and it is no less hard work than any other activity one engages on a daily basis. It is equally hard work for it is nurturing life.

And here I have to digress with a personal anecdote to emphasise the significance of a conversation about gardens and political commentary. My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was Union Cabinet Secretary when Mrs Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister of India for the first time after Emergency. At the first Union Cabinet meeting held after the new government had been sworn in my grandfather took his place in the room. According to the story he would tell recount all eyes were upon him and Mrs Gandhi rather than the agenda to be discussed. Everyone was watching expectantly to see how Mrs Gandhi would engage with Mr Mukarji given their past. When Mrs Gandhi had wanted to impose the Emergency she knew it could not be done while N. K. Mukarji was the Union Home Secretary. He would never have agreed to sign such an unconstitutional move. In a swift move she moved him to the Civil Aviation Ministry and did exactly what she wanted to. Rest is history. So when they met again a few years later in the cabinet meeting everyone present was naturally curious. Before beginning the meeting Mrs Gandhi had a quiet word with my grandfather which to all those watching seemed as if she had made her peace with Mr Mukarji and thus she very smartly and with all her politcal savviness set the tenor for a new working relationship with her Cabinet Secretary. And what did she discuss? Gardening matters!

My Father’s Garden is in all likelihood part-memoir for there are similarities between the life of the author and the narrator especially that of being a doctor in Jharkhand. But unless otherwise confirmed it is perhaps not wise to attribute too much into the fiction. Nevertheless as with his previous books Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes powerfully, borrowing heavily from real experiences, combining it with his remarkable ability of transforming these episodes into fine literary fiction. A fantastic mix of the personal, political and literary always makes for a great story. It also allows for precise detail about the local landscape. The eye for precision makes its presence felt even in the unapologetic use of borrowing phrases from other Indian regional languages such as Bengali and Hindi and letting them flow naturally in the conversations — without italicising them!

My Father’s Garden is a tremendously confident piece of writing and an absolute pleasure to read.

15 February 2019

Vikram Paralkar’s “The Afflictions”

Hematologist and witer Vikram Paralkar’s The Afflictions is a slim book with a list of diseases to be found in the Encyclopaedia Medicinae. The Encyclopaedia comprises three hundred and twenty-seven volumes, each with its own teak shelf and reading bench. The Afflictions is a description of the diseases that Senhor José, the monkish Head Librarian at the Central Library, introduces to an apothecary named Máximo.

It is a fascinating list of diseases written in fake Latin to sound scientifically authentic! Take for instance Tristitia contagiosa, Lingua fracta, Amnesia inversa, Immortalitas diabolica, Confusio linguaram, Persona fracta, Torpor morum, Exilium volatile etc. The Kirkus Review describes some as “a reverse amnesia that causes everyone you know to forget who you are; a skin ulceration that expands with sinful behavior and shrinks with good deeds; a toxin that causes people to perceive the unbearable truth about the world; an infection that causes peasants and aristocrats to talk like each other; a hallucinatory fever that compels sufferers to create mediocre art; a collective ailment that causes groups of five people to share a single consciousness; and a syndrome that makes corpses return to life—a phenomenon that threatens ‘to topple the magnificent edifice of philosophy, art and literature’ by undermining faith in the finality of death.” This list is only tip of the iceberg.

The Afflictions is an incredible jaw-droppingly magnificent book written with surgical precision. It is an extraordinarily scathing literary cocktail that Paralkar creates combining his scientific knowledge of medicine with ascerbic wit to comment upon society. He takes a bit of the Hippocratic humours, huge dollops of the literary canon including fairy tales, plenty of sarcasm and a generous pinch of suspension of disbelief that is required to truly appreciate the literary worth of this slim beauty and shakes it all up vigorously to spew forth a glorious commentary on modern society. A narrative that is far superior to any of the pompous pontification found on cable news, newspapers or social media. A socio-political commentary that will be commended for its longevity as it shares truths that are not necessarily fixed in time period or a geography but surprisingly transcend time for they are truths that ail social structures worldwide. The ailments presented while making the reader chuckle strike home sharply too for the perceptive observations by the author!

The Afflictions is not easily read if not in the right frame of mind for it is clever artistry at work. This book requires mental nimbleness on the part of the reader to truly appreciate its literary merit. But once in it, it is an absorbing read and impossible to put down. It is easily read and bears a second and third reading in quick succession as well without getting to be dull.

The Afflictions is a great reference manual for afflictions of modern society.

14 February 2019

Juergen Boos, President/CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair/ Frankfurter Buchmesse, on “Freedom to Publish”, 23 Jan 2019, Jaipur Bookmark

Juergen Boos, President/CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair/ Frankfurter Buchmesse, delivered the inaugural speech at the Jaipur Bookmark. It is the business conclave that is inaugurated the day before Jaipur Literature Festival and then runs parallel with the litfest. It is an exciting B2B space for publishing professionals to network. Juergen Boos’s speech is published here with his kind permission.

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Juergen Boos, 23 Jan 2019, Diggi Palace, Jaipur

Dear Namita Gokhale,  

Dear William Dalrymple,  

Dear Sanjoy K. Roy,  

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a festival of cultures, language, ideas and literature, and I feel very privileged to have the chance over the next few days to listen to so many Indian authors and personalities from around the world and to converse with them.

At this confluence of cultures, I’m pleased to address the friends from the trade at Jaipur Bookmark today. 

After all, that is the fundamental principle of any literature festival: creating an environment for interactions that promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

The free exchange of ideas and opinions – never has that been easier than today, in the 21st century.

And never has it been so threatened.

Over the past 20 years, communications technology has taken an evolutionary leap, one that surpasses anything the most far-sighted science-fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries could have imagined.

In Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” from the year 1968, Dr Heywood Floyd, an astronaut, has a “videophone call” with his daughter while at the space station.

Fifty years later, in the summer of 2018, the German astronaut Alexander Gerst used his mobile phone to take fascinating photos of his time at the International Space Station, images which were transmitted around the world.

Videophones, computer tablets, artificial intelligence, voice control – many of the things that Kubrick envisaged 50 years ago have become reality.

According to the 2018 Global Digital Report,[1] of the four billion people around the world who have access to the Internet, more than three billion use social media every month.  Nine out of ten users log on to their chosen platforms using mobile devices.

The number of people who use the most popular platforms in their respective country has grown over the last 12 months by almost one million new users each day.

What I find remarkable here is that not only has communications technology made a quantum leap, the devices that allow the world’s population to participate in the global conversation have also become so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one.

That is giving rise to a previously unknown participatory process, one that has the power to change democracy’s traditional ground rules: 

Everyone today is in a position to publish whatever they want – using blogs, podcasts and self-publishing platforms, as well as traditional publishing houses. News is transmitted around the globe in the fraction of a second, and social networks allow us to reach more readers and viewers than ever before.

In just a minute I will talk about the challenges and consequences that are resulting for the publishing industry.

First, however, let’s look at the darker side of these developments:

In the 21st century, a few select businesses have become private superpowers. They can do more than most countries to promote or prevent a free exchange of opinions.

Via social networks, phenomena like the viral spread of fake news, hate speech and slander now have a global impact. 

Professional trolls strategically destabilise political discourse online, fuelling populist, nationalist and anti-democratic tendencies throughout Europe and around the globe.

One observes that, here in India, free speech is facing a threat sprouting from religious motivations, political biases and social judgments. Attempts in the recent past to silence journalists, writers, film-makers and publishers reflect the rise of identity politics and apathy on the part of the state. Two journalists of international repute – Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari – were shot dead within a span of nine months. Publisher friends like DC Books, Kalachuvadu Publications and their authors have witnessed attacks by fanatics who may have never even read the books in question.

When I look at the hysteria, hatred and hostility that characterise the discussion in social media, the permanent state of turmoil that societies around the world find themselves in, then I begin to doubt whether we are actually capable of using the communications technologies whose development we are so proud of.

To paraphrase Goethe: “The spirits I called / I now cannot rule”.

In social media, language is used as a destructive weapon day in and day out, and it’s become clear how disastrous this can be for those individuals targeted by the bullying. It can even lead to murder.   

In his 2016 book Free Speech, which you undoubtedly know, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash examines the question of how free speech should take place.

He asks which social, journalistic, educational, artistic and other possibilities can be realised to ensure that free speech proves beneficial by facilitating creative provocation without destroying lives and dividing societies.[2]

He comes to the conclusion that the less we want to have laid out by law, the more we have to do ourselves.

After all, Ash explains, there is no law that can draw a line between freedom and anarchy – every individual must look within before expressing himself or herself and must take responsible decisions.

I would like to talk with you about this “how” in the coming days and hear your opinions.

Personally, I feel that the participatory process I mentioned before requires us – our industry, but also each of us as individuals – to take a stance. Expressing an opinion of this type was long reserved for politicians or the media. Today, in the 21st century, we all have the possibility of making our voices heard.

And we should not do that in keeping with the motto “overnewsed but uninformed,” but in a carefully considered manner.

I believe that this permanent state of turmoil is troubling, this hysteria which does not stop at speech, but which now increasingly leads to violence.

Personally, I’m alarmed at how the language we use is becoming increasingly coarse and, following from that, the way we interact with each other.  

The problem about this state of turmoil is that it usually results in the exclusion of others and, consequently, causes even deeper trenches to be dug.   

Yet how can we deal with the challenges of our time – and find solutions to them – if not in dialogue with each other?

That leads to the question: what responsibility do publishers bear, does our industry bear, today, in the post-Gutenberg era?

How can publishing houses and their products remain relevant in an age in which fake news can be disseminated faster than well-researched books?

In which rumours, supposition and conjecture are more quickly viewed, liked and shared than texts capable of explaining complex contexts?

As my friends Kristenn Einarsson and José Borghino have pointed out on many occasions, “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and make room for new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression”.[3]

Publishers in the 21st century are in a privileged position: the industry looks back on a long tradition, on the one hand, and has built a reputation. Publishers are gatekeepers – they filter and assess content, they curate before they publish.

They consider it part of their job to publish content that is well-researched, documented, checked and carefully assembled as way of contributing to the range of opinions present in society.

On the other hand, they now have the possibility of reaching their readers through various channels, offering their expertise, their content and their opinion exactly where their target group is found.

Publishers and authors in many parts of the world risk their lives by writing or bringing out books that criticise regimes, uncover injustices and shed light on political failures.

On 15 November 2018, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Arundhati Roy wrote the following in a letter to the Bangladeshi writer, photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam: “How your work, your photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world – its pain, its joy, its violence, its sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy complicatedness – onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous, as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for their sake, that someday they will.”[4]

As you know, Shahidul Alam was taken into custody in July of last year after he criticised the government of Bangladesh in an interview with Al Jazeera and in various Facebook posts.[5] Fortunately he has since been freed, but the charges against him remain.

Without wanting to turn these very personal remarks by Arundhati Roy into a generalisation, I would just like to say that she has put it in a nutshell when she writes that, through their work, writers, authors, journalists and artists draw a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world.

Journalists and other authors write despite intimidation and threats. Like Shahidul Alam, they are driven by a mixture of love and anger. For that, they deserve our highest esteem and respect.

Writers and journalists are being intimidated and forced into silence all around the world because of their political and social engagement, something we condemn in the strongest possible terms.  

As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.

I hope to have the chance to speak with many of you about these issues in the coming days.

Thank you.


[1] https://wearesocial.com/de/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018

[2] (Kapitel Ideale, Seite 123)

[3] Zitiert in Nitasha Devasar: Publishers on Publishing – Inside India’s Book Business

[4] https://pen-international.org/news/arundhati-roy-writes-to-shahidul-alam-day-of-the-imprisoned-writer-2018

[5] https://pen-international.org/news/shahidul-alam-writes-to-arundhati-roy

13 February 2019

Vera Michalski-Hoffman’s keynote address at Jaipur Bookmark, 25 Jan 2019

The Jaipur Bookmark is a business conclave held during the Jaipur Literature Festival. In fact it begins a day before the litfest is inuagurated. It is a fantastic space for publishing professionals to congregate from around the world and discuss new trends and share ideas and experiences. On the third day of the conclave, Friday 25 Jan 2019, I moderated a session on “Indies vs Giants”. The scope of the discussion was: “Independent publishers with lower overheads are finding their niche position in the publishing industry around the world, even as publishing giants are consolidating their positions. This session talks about creative risk taking and the tools brave, new publishers adopt.” The panellists were publishers Vera Michalski-Hoffman (Libella group), Karthika VK ( Westland/Amazon), Jeremy Trevathan (Macmillan), and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun Publishing). Vera Michalski-Hoffman also delivered the keynote address and with her kind permission it is reproduced here.

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L-R: Anna Solding, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vera Michalski-Hoffman, Jeremy Trevathan, Karthika VK

Born in Basel, Switzerland, in a family with Swiss, Russian and Austrian roots, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in France, studied in Spain and has a degree in Political Science from the Graduate institute of International Studies in Geneva. She established a foundation named after her late husband, The Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature and Writing to actively support literary activities in different countries. She is now the publisher of the Libella group that comprises the following imprints: In France: Buchet/Chastel, Phébus, Le temps apprivoisé, les Cahiers dessinés, Libretto. In Switzerland: Noir sur Blanc, with a new line called Notabilia, Editions Favre. And in Poland: Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc. She also acquired The Polish Bookshop in Paris. 

Vera Michalski’s tremendous work in supporting literature with the establishment of Libella group and it’s acquisitions of fine independent publishing firms have ultimately benefitted the fine stable of authors as is noticeable with World Editions and it’s recent expansion plans.  “The group is unique in its total financial independence and the diversity of its editorial production: French and foreign literature, travel stories, essays, documents, music, ecology, illustrated books and creative hobbies. Priority is given to quality, especially to the quality of writing.” 

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I thought that I would focus my speech on the specificities of Libella, being neither a giant nor obviously an Indie so that this case study of an untypical small publishing house evolving into a publishing group publishing in 3 different languages could form a sort of starting point for our discussion.

Let me tell you the story of how this independent group came into existence by a succession of launching new imprints and acquiring existing ones and what fields it covers now, naturally mentioning the Indian or Jaipur connection when appropriate. Forgive me for not respecting a strict chronology for it is a complicated story unfolding in different territories.

The whole story started in 1987 in Switzerland when my husband and I opened les éditions Noir sur Blanc, a niche publisher aiming at bringing mostly Polish and Russian authors to the  French-speaking market (France, Belgium, Quebec, Switzerland) and covering both fiction and non-fiction. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall so not that obvious. Later we covered other fields, like narrative history and published quite a few Jaipur regulars such as William Dalrymple, Giles Milton, or Anthony Sattin. We now bring out as well illustrated books mainly about drawing and photography. A total of over 400 titles.

We soon decided that it was important to publish in Polish as well and opened a Polish branch in 1989 where we started by introducing famous international authors into Poland that were then still unpublished. Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Paul Auster, to name just a few. We published Umberto Eco’s novels and brought out detective stories with a travel angle. The likes of Donna Leon, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and Andrea Camilleri were unknown then. We have published so far well over 500 books in Polish.

Still in Poland but later, in 2002, Wydawnictwo Literackie, one of the  most literary publishing houses founded in 1953  under communist rule and still state owned, came up for sale in the frame of privatization. We stepped in. That magnificent company’s list and backlist never cease to amaze me. Let’s mention just a few names: Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Claudio Magris, Alice Munro, and Orhan Pamuk. Not to mention the best of Polish literature with names such as Olga Tokarczuk, recent winner of the Man booker International,Witold Gombrowicz, or Szcepan Twardoch.

In the year 2000, in Paris, we had acquired Buchet/Chastel, a literary publisher established in 1929, a well-regarded publisher of fiction. This allowed us to touch French literature which we were very keen to do, alongside some significant international authors. Buchet had been the publisher of Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, or Henry Miller to mention just a few names. However, in 2000, Buchet /Chastel was well past its glory. People called it “La belle endormie” in reference to the famous tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, but remembered the iconic bright orange covers.

It made for a real challenge to bring it back to the forefront of literary life. We hired editors for the different lines we wanted to exist: French literature, world literature, non-fiction. We then took a good look at the impressive backlist and decided what directions we wanted to keep. The founder of Buchet /Chastel, Edmond Buchet was a keen musician and a rather good pianist. He had made friends with a number of famous musicians among them Yehudi Menuhin. He published quite a few books about music. We decided to maintain that line. We opened new fields and started an environmental series. France was then not very receptive to these topics, the field being covered mostly by very politicized books on the verge of pamphlets, on marginal topics. Nobody was focusing on important issues and providing objective material, food for thought so to speak, which we aimed at doing. We decided as well to keep the famous orange covers that people remembered modernizing them by using a different cover paper and different typo. Because we all know that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water! Sometimes there needs to be a sort of continuity. Over the years, we published quite a few Indian writers, in fiction and non-fiction, among them our biggest success was Tarun Tejpal, (The Alchemy of Desire). Our list boasts as well with Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), Suketu Mehta, Rana Dasgupta, Gurcharan Das, Pankaj Mishra etc.

Shortly before 2000, we had acquired les éditions Phébus, a house founded in 1978, with an excellent reputation especially in foreign literature and stories of great explorers, or rediscovered classics, as Alexandre Dumas’s Le Chevalier de Saint Hermine. Phébus had created a paperback imprint a few years before under the name Libretto, now a very important part of the Libella group.

In 2003 we opened a brand new field, drawing, and started publishing big format soft cover beige albums typeset in a classical elegant way and printed on quality paper under the name Les Cahiers dessinés. The aim was to bring back drawing to its rightful place as one of the important disciplines of art alongside painting or sculpture. We now have more than 100 titles in our backlist and some books sold quite well, like Alberto Giacometti’s Paris Without End.

Photography is represented in the Libella group by 2 imprints: Photosynthèses which was started from scratch in 2013 in Arles, in the south of France, (the first book published in 2014 was Lou Reed’s Rhymes). Every book is considered unique and different formats co-exist in the list. They are printed with the utmost care. Libella acquired editions Robert Delpire, founded in 1951, when the founder chose to retire a few years ago. We are gradually opening the list to new authors while remaining careful not to alter the excellent image the house has enjoyed in the past with famous authors such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, or Robert Franck. Under these new circumstances, we reacted quickly when the gallery adjoining the Delpire office became available. We relabeled it FOLIA, a name that seemed to reconcile book and image, and produce now 5 exhibitions a year showing both our authors’ work and others whose work fits into the concept. The aim is to show photography with a literary angle.

Another line in Libella needs to be mentioned, practical books under the imprint Le Temps apprivoisé, a part of Buchet Chastel  when we acquired it. We decided to keep it in spite of a relative distance to the main part of the catalogue and a sector fragilized by the competition with internet sites and cheap books produced by the giants able to have huge print runs.

One recent development is very important to me. In 2016, World Editions joined Libella and we now publish in English a small list of 8 books a year under the motto Voices from around the globe. The office is in Amsterdam. The idea is to help interesting books, often from peripheral languages, to get access to translations and the world market in an age where translations, expensive as they are, tend to stick to mainstream authors and main languages leaving some authors alone.

In between, in 1991, we had intervened in order to prevent the closing of the Polish Bookstore established in Paris since 1833.This very well located shop, then selling mostly books in Polish or translated from Polish. It is now a very active general bookstore. It welcomes any kind of literary event in a part of Paris where books have sadly given way to clothes in spite of the fact that it was home to most publishers until recent years saw a consolidation of the industry bringing about the need for bigger office space that the old district of St. Germain des Prés could not offer. This happened recently as a result of the consolidation in the publishing industry, most small literary publishers had to leave the area to move in with their respective groups often located outside the historical centre of town. The bookstore and the gallery became an important part of our publicity and ensure an improved visibility in Paris.

I believe I gave you the general picture of Libella, a confederation of small almost niche mostly literary publishers, publishing in 3 languages out of offices in Lausanne, Paris, Arles, Warsaw, Krakow, Amsterdam and New York.

In spite of our relatively small size, we have a certain complexity, publish over 300 books a year. So where do we stand? Let our discussion clarify that point.

12 Feb 2019

Saikat Majumdar’s “The Scent of God”

Academic and writer Saikat Majumdar’s novel The Scent of God  is set in an elite all-boy’s boarding school run by a Hindu monastic order in late-twentieth century India. On the surface of it, it is seemingly a strictly run institution where discipline matters. Academic excellence is combined with the spiritual learnings that are to be learned every day so as to ensure the students are exemplary exam warriors. Yet despite these strict rhythms to the day the students will have their moments of challenging authority or testing limits. The opening pages of the novel focuses on the eleven-year-olds Anirvan and Kajol. And it is from there the plot begins. Read an excerpt Outlook magazine published in January 2019.

Saikat Majumdar’s previous novel Firebird was absolutely amazing to read. It was sharp and used words sparingly. It was a fine example of craftsmanship. Unfortunately The Scent of God does not live up to the expectations one has of Saikat Majumdar’s fiction. Though the premise of writing a same sex novel is a great idea but fictional landscapes also need to be cautious in how these characters are portrayed. Despite the apparent sensitivity with which the author tackles the plot in The Scent of God, it is the lack of literary awareness about the spunk and boldness in contemporary queer adolescent fiction that strikes a jarring note. It is apparent not only in the very adult-like conversations that the eleven year olds engage in but also their explorations of gauging their attraction for each other. There is a tentativeness in the prose that is usually missing in the current crop of young adult fiction. Perhaps The Scent of God is meant for the adult trade market but a little understanding of the young adult literature market that is maturing rapidly in this particular genre would have helped enrich this novel. A truly tremendous imprint is Scholastic’s PUSH imprint that is being led by the impressive David Leviathan. Or this online discussion forum about yalit — I Read YA — that too has animated conversations about queer literature meant for adolescents.

Nevertheless The Scent of God will be regarded as a significant novel to emerge in contemporary Indian fiction for its attempts to tackle a gender sensitive issue and for its excellent timing. It has been published months after the Supreme Court ended Sec 377 thereby decriminalising homosexuality. While there is legal recognition the deep seated social prejudice towards the queer community continues to exist and this will take a long time to combat. So novels like The Scent of God will play an essential role in contributing to the discourse by addressing taboo subjects such as sexual freedoms in a rabid fundamentalist society and exploring how does an individual exercise their free will? The Scent of God will also remain in public view for its very catching cover. It is a bold design by Pinaki De and in all likelihood will be recognised with a listing at a book cover prize.

11 February 2019

Book Post 26: 3 – 9 February 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. In today’s Book Post 26 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.

9 February 2019