Jaya Posts

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.


“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015

Literati – “The Critic” ( 19 July 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 18 July 2015) and was in print ( 19 July 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-world-of-books/article7429521.ece. I am also c&p the text below. 

In a column on January 11, 2015, The New York Times published Michiko Kakutani’s review of Harper Lee’s much-awaited Go Set A Watchman(@GSAWatchmanBook ) — on the front page, no less. There have been energetic nitpicking conversations about this review. But the truth is that any space given by a mainstream newspaper to a book review is unusual. For, despite the 50-year gap between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, the latter has a two million print run. Lee’s resurrection of Atticus Finch has excited readers. According to Bloomberg, US, “it is the most pre-ordered book in her publisher’s history.” (July 9, 2015, http://bloom.bg/1HXxgij )

This pre-publication hype is any writer’s publicity dream. Space for reviewing books in print media is fast dwindling while rapidly gaining momentum on social media, prompting many writers to be creative in getting their books discovered. Popular writer, Ravi Subramanian has launched an app to help promote his books. Booksellers too have to be innovative — curating literary engagements or as the portly owner of Haji Suleiman and Sons tells Hafiz in Anis Shivani’s lengthy debut novel, Karachi Raj “Shelving is an art. Mixing the old and the new on the same subject is more important than getting the alphabetical order just right.”

An important part of the publishing ecosystem is the critic. The few well-read critics like James Wood, Amitava Kumar, Tim Parks and John Freeman are known and greatly valued for their honest, straightforward and informed observations. Whether in print or virtual space, by critics or others (publishing professionals use their Facebook walls to air frank opinions), a good review should generate conversation. Recently, Daniel Menaker — writer and former Editor-in-Chief, Random House Publishing Group — said of the new Harper Lee novel : “Here’s the thing: it is natural and inevitable for readers and experts to compare these two Harper Lee books to each other. But the comparisons have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of each book. They are two different objects. You can get historical perspective about an artist by comparing an early landscape to a late one, but the value of both remains entirely independent of their relation to each other. Rembrandt’s series of self-portraits is an excellent source of historical, biographical comparison, but as works of art they must be judged on their own merits. [Alexander] Alter’s piece in The Times is where it should be — outside the review arena. Kakutani’s “review” should have given no more than a nod to TKAM in discussing GSAW, if you ask me. The rest of the review would have been actually more useful if it had addressed the merits and problems with GSAW on its own terms. Seems to me.” (Quote reproduced with permission.)

With this, Menakar sparked off a crackling literary conversation about the merits of reviewing. To be a professional critic is never painless. It is particularly tough when the critic is an integral part of the literary set of concerned editors, publishers and authors; some of whom have acquired demi-god status. Thus Shamsar Rahman Faruqui’s The Mirror of Beauty and The Sun that Rose from the Earth, and Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, which are rich longwinded tapestries of the past, have had reasonably good sales and glowing critical acclaim. In his Afterword to Mantonama, Saadat Hasan Manto declares: “know-it-all pundits” can have a powerful impact on an author, but solace lies in realising that “literature…is a self-existent entity. …Literature is as alive and exuberant today as it was before it was discovered.” (My Name is Radha: The Essential Manto, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.)

In ‘Bad News’, an essay in his splendid book, Lunch with a Bigot, Amitava Kumar sums it: “With all their beauty and artifice, novels often hide the ordinary grit of reality. …It is the irrepressible bubbling-up of the everyday, not the unbending demand of a rigid aesthetic, that makes a novel satisfying, that connects it to life.” Saikat Mazumdar’s exquisite The Firebird and K. R. Meera’s disturbing novella And Slowly Forgetting that Tree (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika) are fine examples of such satisfying literature.

15 August 2015 

Abeer Y. Hoque “The Lovers and the Leavers”

Abeer HoqueBut it hadn’t been the smell of Indian food that had offended Sailan. It was Appa. Gabriel had never considered their father’s post-work rituals consciously until that day. Upon returning home, Appa would go upstairs and remove his suit, uniformly grey or navy, leave on a thin white singlet that stretched over his ballooning waist, and tie on a well-worn lungi. Downstairs, he would gather the newspapers from the hall table where his mother had discarded them, and get an apple from the kitchen. Then he’d squat in the corner of the living room, eat the apple, and read the papers. What was wrong with wearing pants? Sailan had asked. Or maybe squatting in the study instead of the living room? 

‘The study is crowded,’ Appa said mildly, choosing to reply to the second query, combing through the few remaining hairs on top of his head. 

‘Because you use it for storage,’ Sailan said. 

Appa shrugged. ‘There’s enough space in the living room for all of us.’

‘The space is not the point. We can’t use the living room for entertaining. I’d just like to bring my friends over without feeling as if we’re entering a television programme about displaced immigrants.’

It was true that their living room didn’t look like any Catalan living room Gabriel had been in. The paisley print curtains didn’t match the plastic-covered furniture, and there were piles of papers in all the corners. Appa never cared for how things appeared, but his contempt for Sailan’s tone overcame his disregard. 

‘We are displaced immigrants,’ he said, in an uncharacteristically sharp way. 

( p.125-7)

Abeer Y. Hoque’s first book, The Lovers and the Leavers, is a collection of twelve interlinked short stories with photographs and poetry interspersed. The stories revolve around a bunch of characters, spanning a few years, though it is never let on in numbers. You can only gauge time by the different points of life the characters are at. Some were toddlers but when the book comes to an end, they are married. These are stories told from different gendered and social perspectives. These stories are about different kinds of love and inevitably the pain of being rejected that are at the crux of the stories. But it is the manner in which these are told that is so refreshing.

About a decade ago, fiction written by the subcontinent diaspora, especially of those settled in America was popularly referred to as ABCD or “American Born Confused Desi”.  A story had to be told by the immigrants. There are many writers who have established their name doing it but there is a new generation of writers emerging. Writers who are poised, at ease with their dual identity — of being Americans and of belonging to the land they originated from, it shows in their confident style of writing and the wonderful ability to blend the various cultures they are privy to. Abeer Y. Hoque belongs to this category. Gently, forcefully and with grace she is able to flit between cultures evident in the use of language — “sophomoric sexuality”, “old-fashioned bideshi manners”,  and “coloured monkeyboy”. To be able to talk about different cultural experiences without being patronising and yet, with searing insight she communicates the feeling of alienation apparent at times. For instance the reference to “their ‘gora’ meals as they called them, more for the pale shade of the food than the race of people. Bags of potato chips, popcorn, rolls of cookie dough on special occasions.” (p.206)

The Lovers and the Leavers is a fine example of stylish storytelling. It is by a writer who seems to be at peace with being identified as a Bangladeshi American writer, born in Nigeria, and with no qualms about discussing life as she has experienced it — a mixed bag of cultural influences. I love it.

Abeer Y. Hoque The Lovers and the Leavers Fourth Estate, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015. Hb, pp. 240. Rs. 499

14 August 2015 

Alex Bellos, “Alex Through the Looking Glass”

9781408845721I spent the better part of a morning reading bestselling author Alex Bellos’s absolutely delightful book Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life. ( The American edition is called The Grapes of Math.) He uses anecdotes and examples from real life but neatly dovetails it with the history of modern mathematics, interweaving it with accounts of legendary mathematicians. Some of the text is very technical but is still accessible. This book is written for the layperson, not a specialist. But golly, this man is informative. I love the way he has strung together maths trivia with crucial bits of knowledge effortlessly. I admire the way he talk about eminent mathematicians as if they were his buddies but very respectfully places them in context. It could be Newton, Leibniz, Archimedes, Brahmagupta et al. He makes you chuckle when making reference’s to Euclid’s Elements reads like a recipe book.

And then I discovered this tweet. The book has been shortlisted for an award.

Alex Bellos (@alexbellos) tweeted at 3:22 PM on Wed, Aug 05, 2015:
Thrilled to make @royalsociety Winton Prize shortlist w @matthewcobb @WanderingGaia @jimalkhalili @jonmbutterworth +https://t.co/5y2aKNm7VP

His previous book, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. Alex Bellos writes a blog for The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/profile/alexbellos It is worth browsing through. He makes maths fun!

He helps rearrange one’s muddled significance and timeline of eminent mathematicians through the ages but contextualises them very well, it won’t be easy to dismiss as “boring maths”.  For instance, “Thales is ..the first person to have a specific mathematical discovery named after him: Thale’s Theorem, which states that the triangle inscribed inside a semicircle has a right angle. He also used his deductive powers to predict the solar eclipse of 585 BCE, and improve after a few bad years. He bought all the olive presses he could at rock bottom prices and when the upturn came he got rich. A century later, the comic playwright Aristophanes made fun of the great sage by having him fall in a ditch because he was lost in thought, gazing at the sky. Thales is not just remembered as history’s first mathematician and philosopher, but also as history’s first absent-minded professor.” (p.59)

Or the story about The Scottish Book

Between the First and Second World Wars, a clique of mathematicians in Lwow, Poland, met regularly in a coffee shop, the Scottish Cafe, to discuss mathematical morsels such as the pancake theorem. Hugo Steinhaus, a principal member of the group, wondered whether the theorem could be extended into three dimensions. ‘Can we place a piece of ham under a meat cutter so that meat, bone and fat are cut in halves?’ he asked. His friend Stefan Banach proved that such a cut is possible, using a theorem attributed to two others in a group, Stanislaw Ulam and Karol Borsuk. Banach’s result has subsequently been popularized as the ‘ham sandwich theorem’, because it is equivalent to stating that one can divide a ham sandwich in two with a single slice that cuts each slice of bread and the ham into two equal sizes, no matter how each piece is positioned and whatever is shape.

The mathematicians who gathered in the Scottish Cafe kept a thick notebook of all the questions they asked each other, which they entrusted to the care of the head waiter when they went home. Eventually known as The Scottish Book, it is a unique collaborative work, and not just because of how it was written. ( It was never published as a book, but some of its problems appeared later in journals.) 


Ulam later joined the Manhattan Project.

I would strongly recommend buying this book. It is the kind of nonfiction book you dip into and come away feeling time has been well spent. It would also be a useful addition to the reference section of a library, particularly of schools.

Alex Bellos Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life Bloomsbury, London, 2014, rpt 2015. Pb. pp. 340 Rs 399.

13 August 2015 

“A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces”, an interview with David Davidar, Kitaabnama

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Episode 85, Kitaabnama, 10 April 2015An interview with writer, publisher and anthologist, David Davidar regarding his new book, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces. It is a collection of 39 short stories by Indian writers. It consists of translations and those written originally in English and has been published by Aleph Book 20150811_090538Company. This episode of Kitaabnama was recorded on 10 April 2015.

Kitaabnama is a weekly programme on national television, Doordarshan. Conceived by writer and literary activist Namita Gokhale, the programme will have a participatory and inclusive format and showcase the multilingual diversity of Indian Literature. Addressing literary issues of contemporary through dialogue and conversation, Kitaabnama features books, readings and encounters with writers from the spheres of Hindi, English and various Indian languages, as well as guest appearances from International names and voices.

11 August 2015

Anis Shivani’s “Karachi Raj”

Karachi RajAnis Shivani has been a writer for many years. He is known as a short story writer and a poet. Karachi Raj is his debut novel. It was nearly ten years in the making. It is about a group of people across social classes who meet. Their lives get intertwined in a manner that is not easily expected in a very class conscious society existing in Pakistan today. Anis Shivani is a critic too. An example of his literary criticism is this splendid three-part essay he wrote for Huffington Post on contemporary American Literature. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/we-are-all-neoliberals-no_b_7546606.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in ;
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/part-ii-the-new-genre-of-_b_7577230.html?ir=India&adsSiteOverride=in ; and

After reading Karachi Raj, Anis and I exchanged a few emails discussing his novel and craftsmanship. With his consent, I am publishing a small portion of the correspondence.


Dear Anis,

Somewhere I get the impression your novel is a response to the “plastic realism” you speak of in contemporary American literature. If that is the case I like it. Karachi Raj without being voyeuristic about poverty or making one cringe with morals, arrives at that fine balance of moving cleverly across socio-economic classes in Karachi. The scenarios represented are plausible making the novel seem “realistic”.

I would love to know how you plot and create your fiction.



Dear Jaya,Anis Shivani

Upon further thought, I think the way you put it in the email below is the best way to express it, better than I did.

You noticed that the book doesn’t give the impression of voyeurism about poverty or make one cringe. The challenge from the beginning was not to write a novel that was sensational or melodramatic or gave you the feeling of unwanted intrusion. Also to avoid the trap of unrelenting misery. It is the dailiness, the ordinariness, the everydaynes of poverty that is the most shocking thing, if you think about it, one doesn’t need to exaggerate or melodramatize it. In early drafts I did have a bit of a problem with melodrama, but I got over it quickly. To do that I had to be honest with myself as to what the characters were all about; if I could be true to them, then I could avoid melodrama and sensationalism. Even the poorest people don’t unrelentingly face violence and tyranny all the time, most of life is drudgery and going on with one’s business as best as one can. And humor is a big part of how one handles problems for which there is no easy solution, certainly I do that, and so humor is a critical part of the novel. In all these ways, the novel begins to feel plausible.

I should also give a lot of credit to my editor at HarperCollins, Manasi Subramaniam, who labored hard to help me get rid of all the exposition that was getting in the way of the fluid telling of the story. That made a huge difference. You need to be under a dream spell when you read a novel and whatever interferes with that–such as any unnecessary exposition–is going to disrupt the spell and take you out of the story and make it less believable, so we worked ruthlessly on that.

You asked about how I plot and create fiction. I would say that there are certain fundamental issues that have bothered me my whole life and continue to do so, and that’s the deep wellspring of my fiction. Once I’m exercised enough about a problem, then I start localizing it in a time and place, and then finally the characters emerge, which is the trigger point for the story and it takes off from there. For Karachi Raj, there was no particular point where I said to myself, Oh, I’m going to write a novel about the Basti, so let me research everything about that, then when I’ve got the research done, I’ll write the novel. It doesn’t work like that.

What I can say is that the idea that hundreds of millions of people should live in dire poverty in the Indian subcontinent seems like the ultimately unforgivable issue to me. Part of it is that people believe in ideologies that go against their self-interest, certainly their economic self-interest. That’s the case with Pakistan, and when it comes to the so-called Pakistan Ideology, it’s in the background of the novel, though I’m not didactic about it. In the West too people are always electing political parties that go against their self-interest, the working class keeps voting in conservative, even fascist, parties. People everywhere seem very keen to give up freedom, and the thing that motivates me more than anything is unrestrained freedom, without any rules, any rituals, any constraints on freedom of action. And the problem of poverty also goes back in large part to the problem of freedom.

Anyway, once I have a general interest like this then there has to be a setting that needs to become very clear to me, as the realm in which to explore the general problem, and once I have the setting down–in this case I had to imagine the Basti in very concrete terms–then the characters come, and once I have the characters then the plot is the final element. If I’ve conceptualized the characters well, then the plot will just flow; to the extent that there’s trouble executing the plot, it means there’s a problem with characterization, so I have to go back to that and fix it.


Anis Shivani Karachi Raj HarperCollins Publishers, Fourth Estate, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 410 Rs.699

Susan Abulhawa, “The Blue between Sky and Water”

Blue between SkyThe Blue Between Sky and Water was my first introduction to Susan Abulhawa’s writing. It is about four generations of a family but focuses primarily on Nur a descendant born and brought up in American but moves to Palestine on work/love and ultimately settles there. At so many levels I enjoyed the novel. I liked it sweeping across generations while mapping the history of Palestine (as modern people know it to be), from the 1940s. This novel has a very strong sense of history to the present day of horrific living conditions, camps, ghettos, food tunnels, unnecessary violence and rape. To be put together in one place ostensibly as fiction but embedded in hard facts is what makes it so astounding. Accessing information ( most of it disturbing) about Palestine is fairly easily got on the Internet today — the frisking and innumerable checkpoints at the border, visiting Palestine by applying for a visa application at the Israeli embassy etc. In fact a few days ago I came across wearenotnumbers.org and discovered that Susan Abulhawa is a mentor in the programme. Till then I had heard of the food tunnels but to read a story about a runner in it who then lost his job came home very sharply to me when I began reading The Blue Between Sky and Water . So to get a novel that puts it all in one place is fascinating. It makes the ground reality accessible to a far wider circle than speaking only to the converted. Using the technique of telling a story of four generations of women is a trope familiar to contemporary fiction. It is useful since it is familiar to most contemporary readers so they are lulled into a comfort zone. Plus focusing on women/ communal matriarch structures that seem to operate in the camps, gives the novelist ample opportunity to be relaxed, comment, observe and analyse frankly and in a matter-of-fact manner. The observation about women and their relationships is fascinating. I read about these all the time and yet this is a favourite passage of mine in the book about the relationship between the social worker Nzinga responsible for looking after Nur when she was in foster care and Nur. “…the thing between them remained. It changed as they needed it to. Its parts were made of motherhood, sisterhood, womanhood, comradeship in struggle, political activism, mentorship, friendship.” (p. 163) Or the beekeeper’s widow who inspired other women to invest in themselves and their dwellings.

The creation of Khaled too fascinated me. The evolution from an imaginary friend to a son of the family who is then trapped in his body, so in a sense remains the observer/ non -participant he was at the very outset of the story. It gives a perspective to the story which would not be easy to introduce. Being his voice could not have been an easy literary technique to create as well.

Creating a piece of fiction about a relentless, unforgiving and senseless conflict could not have been easy for the author. Where do you start? Where do you end? So to see a neat dip into a slice of history without losing focus of the horrors of violence is probably what kept me spellbound.

In India, we have writers and readers obsessed with commemorating Partition through literature which throws up another series of questions since it is a violent moment from our past. But an emerging trend is to have writers commentating about places of “conflict” that exist in our country. Where it will take us I have no idea. A few days ago I was watching Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on The Daily Show. Many of the issues he raises in the conversation about violence, hatred, racism etc could be about any other land as well. Have you seen it? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/extended-interviews/sx47nw/exclusive-ta-nehisi-coates-extended-interview?utm=share_twitter Author and legal advocate Bryan Stevenson’s moving acceptance speech for Carnegie Medal in nonfiction for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau) makes the valid point that “literature has the ability to accomplish a narrative shift”. ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/awards-and-prizes/article/67546-is-this-the-greatest-book-award-acceptance-speech-ever.html ) Such writing is embedded deeply in the politics of the land and has to be but in The Blue Between Sky and Water the precision with which it comes across is so sharp. Even a first time comer to the conflict of Israel and Palestine will get a good sense of the troubles that ail the region.

I discussed Susan’s novel with her via email. We exchanged emails furiously. But here is a snippet from our correspondence that encapsulates the essence of such fiction. This quote is being shared with the author’s permission.  “…Maya Angelou once said: ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. I understand well how a collective trauma – Slavery, genocide, Nakba, Partition, etc. – can become a nation’s center of gravity, around and from which stories go and return. I believe that’s true in part because one’s greatest wound is often one’s greatest source of strength and power. I believe it’s why we become protective of everything cultural that belongs to that wound; why cultural appropriation, and narrative appropriation are such important issues relating to identity politics.”

Susan Abulhawa will be participating in literary festivals in 2015-16 in the Indian subcontinent — Jaipur Literature susan-abulhawaFestival, The Times of India LitFest, Hindu Lit for Life festival (Chennai), and Lahore. Here is an interview with the author from 2012 by the absolutely wonderful Marcia Lynx Qualey, Editor of Arabic Literature ( in English) http://www.full-stop.net/2012/04/16/interviews/marcia-lynx-qualey/susan-abulhawa/ .

The Blue Between Sky and Water is a shatteringly astounding novel. It is a must read.

Susan Abulhawa The Blue Between Sky and Water Bloomsbury Circus, London, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 292 Rs 499

28 July 2015

India: Book laboratory of the world

India: Book laboratory of the world


India: Book laboratory of the world

By Ramu Ramanathan Friday, 03 December 2010

The Indian print industry will be $21 billion in 2011, a growth of 73%. This along with $8 billion per annum budgetary support for education will boost the book market.

On 16 September, Chennai inaugurated the Anna Centenary Library (ACL), a magnificent eight-storey structure said to be South Asia’s largest and most elegantly designed state-of-the-art library. The ACL will stock 1.20 million books in all major languages of the world, besides providing access to 0.2 million e-books and 20,000 e-journals. The $40 million which has been spent on ACL is unusual by Indian standards.


Unusual, because the Indian government is unhelpful about books. Aroon Tikekar, who is president of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai and was former editor of Loksatta says: “There was a directive that there cannot be a tax on knowledge. But the municipal corporation in Maharashtra (one of the most progressive states in India) levied octroi on books. After some protest, this was revived to no tax on essential books.” This created confusion about what was an essential book.

Tikekar says, “Should a country of this size with so many languages not have a national policy for books! Maharashtra was known for its network of more than hundred public libraries, even that is depleting.”

Having said that Tikekar is still hopeful. One reason is, he inaugurated a new initiative recently. http://www.bookganga.com/eBooks/ is an online website for Indian literature. It boasts of having the largest repository of Marathi books. And attempts to give Marathi authors a “sexier” look.

All about books
The book demand is being propelled by India’s — 8.8% growth in 2010 — and the reading habits of the burgeoning Indian middle class.

Publishers have begun to forecast that India will be the biggest English language book-buying market in the world. Today, it is the third largest after USA and UK; but ahead of major Asian competitors such as China and Japan.

The good news is, India is poised on the cusp of a great educational revolution. Today, if one averages seven textbooks per literate student, the Government prints 1.5 billion books per year. Plus another two billion exercise notebooks.

The downside is, more than seven million children in India drop out from schools. And all they need is a book. For that to happen, these books have to be created. In India, the government has made a commitment of $7.56 billion every year for a period of five years and has set aside $3.33 billion for 2010-11. This should improve the quality and availability of schoolbooks in this country.

Today, the demand drivers for education are based on the fact that it’s a young nation which has a population of 400 million between the ages of 5 to 24. Of this, 220 million attend schools and colleges. And at the present birth rate of 22 million/annum, complemented with better enrollments in primary schools; it will lead to a double digit growth.

The Indian education market
The “guesstimate” for Indian publishing is $1.9 billion. Of this educational books and higher educational books monopolise 60% of the marketshare.

The bookscape is dominated by the big three: Macmillan, Oxford University Press (OUP) and Orient Blackswan, which have 40% of the market share of the national board schools.

Then there are the giant Indian print-publishers. Navneet Publications is the largest and publishes books for state board schools with massive operations in the two states, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Navneet is followed by MBD, S Chand, Palaniappa which have a presence in state board schools with “guide books”.

Hundreds of publishers publish regional books authored by local authors. The Indian school market continues to be highly price sensitive, with the price range of textbooks being $1 to $2.

Navneet Publications has restructured its division through its e-learning initiative. The company would have tied up with 450 schools by the end of 2010, and hope to close with more than 500 schools for FY 2011.

Sunil Gala, the director for finance at Navneet Publications says: “In the subsequent years, we will see many schools following these numbers and therefore we might have much more larger audience or the student community using our e-learning products in the classroom.”

What is interesting is, the company will be breaking even in the e-learning initiative. As Gala says: “We would be closing at $132 million. And the numbers in the bottomline would be better than last year.”

Navneet’s automatic storage section at Dhantali

Growth in books
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, publishing consultant, agrees: “The focus is shifting from typesetting and low-end work to high-quality books like medical journals, dictionaries, hardcover coffee table books and even magazines for circulation in the United States. Exports have been partly fuelled by duty drawbacks as printers bid for orders from international publishers in newer, non-traditional markets.”

Mike Bryan, who was head of Penguin India confirms that reading habits are going up. He says that books are not just bought, but read, and the growth is as big as 25%. Bryan has been replaced by Andrews Phillips as CEO at Penguin India. This is a significant move since Andrew Phillips began his career at the rights department but before he came to India, he was heading the  DK operations.

Today, DK has shifted it main operations to Nodia (30 kilometres from New Delhi, and a publishing hub). This holds true for Routledge, whose editorial services are being moved into India; and the team has been christened “production.”

Children’s books are clocking solid growth (this year at the children’s book fair in Barcelona, a few niche publishers performed exceedingly well), followed by books on current affairs, business and self help books. Ravi of DC Books, Kottayam, a leading Malayalam publisher feels the growth of readership is in regional language publications. He singled out Tamil which has witnessed growth in the last couple of years; along with Malayalam and Marathi.

Today the average paperbacks in India cost $4-6 which is comparable to the discounted price of paperbacks in the USA.

Hardbound books are cheaper in India, priced at around $10 as against $22 in the UK. He agreed that at these rates, publishing in India is profitable. Also, as the population gains buying power, the price of books will increase.

Interestingly, in the past few years, literary agents have increased the number of their authors from 10 to 50. One can also see the growth of translation agencies in India. And interesting models of collaborations between small and big publishers – like Mapin and Harper Collins, as well as Zubaan and Penguin. This means, a few titles by the smaller publisher are promoted and distributed by the larger one.

Print: The game changers
Only recently, HT Burda Media (HTB), a newspaper group in India bagged 16 million Euros contract.

This meant HTB would be the exclusive printing partner for Outiror for two years and will print 100 million catalogues every year for the company’s three brands—Direct Delta, Outiror and Oye Oye—at its newly commissioned rotogravure printing presses at Greater Noida. Outiror is the market leader in
France for “market on wheels” retail selling. HTB is in an advanced stage of negotiations with two large international retail brands for annual printing of 12 million catalogues.

In the more traditional book space, too, print firms like Srinivas Fine Arts (SFA), Lovely Offset, Sel-Jegat and the Noida-based Gopsons Papers are setting up game-changing plants in Sivakasi (a print hub in South India).

SFA is a good example of where the Indian book printer is heading. The company is on the verge of completing what could be the biggest book plant in India on a 65-acre plot. The unit has an array of Kolbus, Aster and Sigloch equipment on the one lakh sq/ft pillarless shopfloor.

SFA has grown into a company which produces premium diaries, notebooks and 200 paper products under its brand of Nightingale. Today, SFA is also one of the few global stationery companies with a presence in five continents – USA, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

R Chockalingam who heads the company says during a tour of the new plant: “Until now Sivakasi was regarded as a print city with cheap labour. But now, we have to innovate.” The most obvious reason is, Indian print companies are dreaming bigger dreams. At the same time, they are fearing competition from China – which has relentlessly climbed up the value chain.

Chockalingam adds: “We have to be global – and at the same time, we have to be competitive in our own domestic backyard.”

Chockalingam at SFA’s new book plant on a 65-acre plot

A journey with books

The story is similar at Lovely Offset, which is leap-frogging the company into a new league with an expansion on a 23-acre plot.

K Selvakumar, director of Lovely Offset says: “40% of book production in the new unit will be for exports.”

When questioned about the pace of investment, Selvakumar says: “Multinationals expect 40% of the world’s growth over the next few years to come from China and India. What we have realised is, we have to work harder if we have t to prosper in this booming market.”

Lovely converts approximately 11,000 tons of paper per annum. Selvakumar states: “Volume is the name of the game. A majority of four-colour work is manufactured in India. Publishers in Europe and USA prefer local print firms only for time-sensitive jobs. Otherwise a bulk of the books is produced in India; and we ship the books to Europe. The potential is huge.”

The other big news in Sivakasi is Noida-based Gopsons Papers setting up a 17.5 acre plant near Sivakasi. Vasant Goel of Gopsons, says: “We have purchased the land and will start construction by end of June.”

The company expects to begin commercial production by Q1 2011. The plant will produce books for both export and domestic market. The capacities in phase 1 will be 35,000 hardcover books per day, 1,50,000 paperback books per day and saddle wire – 1,25,000 per day.

Goel says: “It is an exciting phase for the Indian book printer. My worry is, Indians talk in terms of millions copies printed, but the Chinese measure the production in container-loads.” But Goel is quite clear that India needs hundreds of book production units like SFA, Lovely and Gopsons, if India has a serious chance to take on the might of the Chinese in the global market.

The trick he says is “straddling the pyramid” or “playing the piano”. By this he means, “serving both the publisher at the bottom of the pyramid and those at the top.”

Selvakumar of Lovely: “converting 11,000 tons of paper”

Book production: The Indian way
During the PrintWeek India Awards in 2009 and 2010, we had jury members from large India book publishing companies; and they told me that the job was no longer about, “merely following the cheapest price around the world”. While there will be some buyers out there who subscribe to this viewpoint, publishers are keen to achieve a good deal and buy responsibly at the same time.

Priya Singh of Hatchette India, feels that as part of the international media group, the Indian operations has a strict corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy, and this means that while price and quality boxes need to be ticked, the company must also fulfill its responsibility to its customers and suppliers. She says: “We have group policy norms for empanelling print firms. For us, labour and environmental approaches are as fundamental as capacity, technology, delivery and scheduling capability. Often there are independent group audits commissioned to check on the presses in India and how they uphold standards. Apart from this, there are internal QC norms and external checks.”

To tackle this, the Indian post-press company Welbound Worldwide undertook a series of knowledge sharing sessions across the country. One such session was hosted at the corporate headquarters of the country’s leading educational publishers – Orient Blackswan (OBL). The presentations had a user perspective; in order to make it relevant to the print buyer.  The OBL management shared some of their faulty book samples which had “fallen apart”. The Welbound team analysed the reasons for these failures.

The planning team at OBL felt they should pay a bit more attention during the procurement stage of materials – and focus on text and cover paper especially related to grain direction. They discussed the unrealistic pressures on production since very short time is available between planning to delivery.

Cost and quality
According to a sample survey conducted by Welbound there are 1.3 billion books which are perfect bound in India. There are approximately 1,800 printer-binder-publishers that produce these books and consume 3,250 MT of hotmelt adhesives.

What is interesting is, that the 1.3 billion textbooks are averaged at a price (or cost) of $0.66. Therefore the perfect binding segment of the Indian book publishing should be $800 million.
The numbers are conservative. But it provides an indication about the low cost for book production in India; as well as a tiny base.

Today, the Indian paper industry is poised to grow at 8% a year. This means, it will consume 11.5 million tonnes of paper in 2011-12 from 9.18 million tonnes in 2009-10. This is because per capita paper consumption has increased to 9.18 kilograms in 2009-10 as compared to 8.3 kilograms during 2008-09. These numbers are expected to improve with enhanced book production.

One reason is: the Indian book printer has become much more competitive due to improvements (howsoever slow they may be) at ports, roads and railways and communication facilities. Plus most of them are importing new and second hand kit that permits technology upgradation.

Replika Press at Kundli (near Delhi) is a good instance of a book printer who produces 75,000 hard-case and 150 thousand soft-case books per day. The company has procured another five acre land to spruce its export-base (direct and indirect) which constitutes 70% of its turnover.

Digital applications
Obviously books on demand are nothing new, companies have been offering digitally produced books for a number of years – but with even the most traditional of book printers in India, such as Repro India (Mumbai / Surat) and Palaniappa (Chennai), installing digital book production lines, it’s clear that the technology now matches the demands of the market.

Both groups are deploying digital to produce on-demand highly personalised books (500-1000 copies).

Leonard Fernandes who oversees operations at Dogearsetc, an online book store and a print-on-demand (POD) service, says: “Of our many clients, there are a few publishers. They use POD to “test the market” in different countries. They simply ship a few copies there, mostly at book fairs, and gauge the response to their titles. POD allows them to test the waters without investing too much.”

He adds: “POD allows publishers to keep their back lists in circulation without a large print run. We have done this for a publisher in Canada. We print one copy at a time when the book is ordered and ship it to the customer. That way there are no unsold copies lying around, yet the book is always available.”

Recently, Ricoh Infoprint (a digital print manufacturer) did a sample-survey in the Delhi region. They invited quotations from offset and digital print firms for both colour and monochrome printing on the basis of fixed specifications. These quotations were then averaged and analysed.

The results revealed: printing full colour books of 75 copies or less is more economical using digital presses than going the conventional offset route. However, in the case of monochrome book printing, offset printing is more economical for any quantity from 50 books up till 500 books. Of course this would hold true for higher quantities as well. The basic point seems to be that offset printers in India are extremely competitive and willing to print much shorter runs than in other markets.

BPO publishing
Today, global publishers and service providers are outsourcing their printing and publishing services to printers like Vakils & Sons in India.

Talking about a printing and publishing BPO, Bimal Mehta, the executive director at the company, says: “Estimates put the Indian publishing BPO at $400 million with 30% annual growth. Worldwide, the industry is valued at $2.5 billion and is expected to double in India by 2009. Volume of work which is headed towards India is expected to touch approximately $1.1 billion by 2011.”

Vakils has a fleet of computers which services international clients. It ranges from financial institutions, publishers and Japanese comic book publishers.

With the dawn of new business ventures and entrepreneurial challenges, the requirement of data conversion has attained its peak. It is not an unfamiliar term in today’s business scenario.

Dev Ganesan who is the president and CEO of Aptara, a digital e-book conversion and digital publishing company headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia with operations in India is impatient with traditional methods of publishing. He says: “Corporate enterprises are recognising the e-book medium for what it is — an ultra convenient, flexible, device-agnostic format for providing information to customers, prospects, employees, partners and shareholders. Using an XML-based workflow, e-books can be created and personalised on-demand and saved in whatever format the reader desires.”

What Ganesan is saying is, that content-intensive organisations can provide the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format and language—and on the right device, be it an iPhone, Kindle, PC, Mac, Blackberry, Android or Nokia—without making readers jump through a series of technological hoops to get to the content they desire.

This is thanks to XML technology which establishes a workflow for the simultaneous delivery of content through multiple channels (print, online and multiple mobile devices) is a simple process.

And so, anything that can go digital, will go digital. From annual reports, policies and procedures, training materials, marketing collateral, technical documentation, sales literature, analysts’ reports, newsletters, white papers, and presentations—basically any content needed to run a business can be presented in e-book format. Ganesan says, “It offers readers so much more than simply the digital equivalent of the original content.”

The future
There’s a great deal of traction in the book publishing segment. Publishing houses like Katha and Popular Prakashan have entered the arena of translations; in an attempt to boost translation of Indian language authors. There’s also an attempt to ensure better co-ordination with government education and textbook boards for upgrading production methods for textbooks.

Next month, the Industrial Design Centre at IIT, Mumbai is attempting to develop a talent pool of experts who can collaborate with the best artists in the country to create children’s books.

Increasingly, European publishers (and print firms) are scouring India to find a pool of suppliers that not only meet price and quality demands, but also subscribe to the group’s own publishing aspirations. This could include: green initiatives, to Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper to ISO 14001 accreditation.

There’s Gita Press based in Gorakhpur in Eastern Uttar Pradesh which has none of the above certifications. But the press has notched up a total of five billion copies of religious books published up to March 2010. And the demand is growing. And the amazing thing is, these books are sold at a highly subsidised rate of $0.02. Future plans include: launching 100 new titles every year; adding new languages; digitising hand-made paintings and images; and harnessing the internet to spread book readership.

Clearly, the Indian book market is questioning the established approaches and definitions that traditional publishers have relied on for decades. At the same time, it is changing the way we think of publishing.

Today, with digital content, almost everyone is a publisher. That’s why it is difficult to predict in which direction the market will unfold. But what is evident is, India is a key contender to profit from the opportunities.










1st National Book Printers Conference, Trivandrum, Kerala

1st National Book Printers Conference, Trivandrum, Kerala

I am off to attend the first NBPP, where I shall be chairing a panel discussion of publishers on 18 Nov 2011.  http://www.facebook.com/nbpcindia


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