Literature Posts

A. F. Harrold’s “The Song from Somewhere Else”

It was music of a short she’d never heard before.

She was suddenly filled with shoals of fish, darting and moving like one great whole, darting and flowing this way and that, darting and flashing, hundreds and hudnreds of silver fish all moving as if they shared one brain. That was what she saw as she heard this faint, distant music. 

No piece of music she’d ever heard on the radio or in the background of a TV show had ever made her feel so special, had made her feel so cared for, so improved.

The smell of the house, the foresty smell, was stronger now. The air was cool on her face. She heard birdsong, smelt moss, rivers, evening. 

But it was unfair, wasn’t it, keeping such beautiful music, such kind and forgiving music, such perfect and clear and mysterious music, to himself? 

It wasn’t his music now though, was it? It was hers. It was in her ears, in her brain, sparking electricity through synapses in ways that made her unable to resist it. She was hooked like a fish.  

A. F. Harrold’s The Song from Elsewhere is about Francesca Patel or Frank as she is often called and her unlikely friendship with her classmate Nick Underbridge, who is often shunned by others for various reasons, probably because he is a large child, quiet and smells odd.  During the summer break Nick rescues Frank from a bunch of boys who have been bullying her for more than a year now. Afterwards Frank accompanies Nick to his house where she encounters this extraordinarily soothing piece of music.

The Song from Elsewhere may be about fantastical creatures and wormholes or leechways opening a passage to another dimension but is also about friendships, exploring boundaries, relationships and bullies. It is an astonishing novel for young readers with a touch of magic realism. Although having said that the novel is positioned well in that space for impressionable minds for whom imaginary friends, elements of the fantastic and other dimensions run in continuum with their reality. It is beautifullly illustrated by Levi Pinfold.

The longlisting of this book for the CILIP Award 2018 is well deserved.

A. F. Harrold The Song from Somewhere Else ( Illustrated by Levi Pinfold) Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 299

22 February 2018 

 

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

“Time Shifters” by Chris Grine

Time Shifters by Chris Grine is about young Luke who is devastated after a day in the forest spent with his brother. Due to an unfortunate encounter with a bunch of bullies Luke’s beloved brother drowns. Luke is heartbroken just as is his mother. One day while sitting on the back porch he spots a blue light in the forest behind his home. He ventures closer to take a look and before he knows it he is pulled into an adventure that involves time travel, a bunch of strangers and a dinosaur. When in the forest strangest of devices gets clamped on to his forearm. Apparently it enables time travel through the multiverse. It had been accidentally dropped by an odd bunch consisting of a mummy, a skeleton in a spacesuit, and “vampire Napoleon”. Luke is given chase by this extraordinary team who want the device back otherwise they will incur the wrath of their evil master. Fortunately Luke is rescued by an equally odd team: a robot Abe Lincoln, an Asian-featured ghost named Artemis, a dinosaur named Zinc, and Doc—the white inventor who looks a lot like a caricature of Einstein and as it turns out had invented the device on Luke’s arm. To escape from the clutches of the evil creatures Luke and his new friends shift to an alternate Earth where spiders the size of humans inhabit what looks like the Old West. It is a very engrossing read even though the evil folks come across at times like pantomine characters. A spellbinding adventure that works well for young readers particularly for introducing the concept of time travel. The unexpectedly though-provoking conclusion imaginatively opens many conversation spaces with youngsters and old alike!

Highly recommended!

Chris Grine Time Shifters Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2017. Pb. pp. 270 

19 February 2018 

“Suragi” by U. R. Ananthamurthy

The  distinguished Kannada writer and public intellectual U. R. Ananthamurthy ( 1932-2014) dictated his “memoir”, rather memories to Ja Na Tejashri, Kannada poet and professor, in the last few months of his life. He was extremely ill and was being dialysed regularly. The notes were structured in U. R. Ananthamurthy’s lifetime under his guidance. Initially his preference had been for a conversational and informal approach. When he saw the first few trasnscribed pages, he found the style difficult to read and called for a more formal approach. Eventually, Tejashri helped him find a balance he was comfortable with: she recorded him, scribbled notes, touched up her trasnscriptions, and rearranged the episodes in chronological order. Ananthamurthy was keen to see this work translated in English. It only happened a year and a half after he passed away when at the behest of his son-in-law and novelist Vivek Shanbhag who requested S. R. Ramakrishna to translate the 450-page book Suragi. Shanbhag was merely reiterating the request Ananthamurthy had asked of Ramakrishna. 

U. R. Ananthamurthy was honoured with the Jnanpith Award in 1994 adn Padma Bhushan in 1998, and was one of the finalists of the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. 

Suragi has now been published by Oxford University Press India. The memoir is so named after the flower Ananthamurthy loved which gives out more fragrance as it fades. This is an incredible book recounting his life as a writer and a public intellectual through India and England. It is an exceptionally absorbing read given how he acutely witnesses, observes and reflects often upon the role of a writer, particularly that of an Indian writer, in society. There are many parts of this book that are worth reflecting upon given their relevance even today. The section on “the Indian writer’s dilemmas” is particularly powerful. For instance while commenting upon the role of writers during the Emergency his statements assume wider ramifications, echoing into modern India, decades later:

India’s biggest problem is hypocrisy. Intellectual hypocirsy has taken root deeper than we imagine. …A mind that hesitates to what must be said becomes corrupt. …The spirit of the times is such that we have compromised with everything. Nothing troubles us. We feel no psychological torment. …We are not troubled as we should be. The reason is that our spirit is feeble. There is no connection between our convictions, our actions, and our truths. …That is why speech is devalued.

Ananthamurthy’s confidently outspoken voice is to be treasured and is deeply missed. Take for instance the following extract “Moment Transcending Time and Space” which is being reproduced here with the explicit permission of the publishers, Oxford University Press India. 

Moment Transcending Time and Space

On the rare occasions we go beyond time and space, we see truths not just from the past but also those relevant to the present. I experienced this one night in Nepal. In 1996, some Indian writers spent three days with writers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. A Himalayan range loomed behind the resort where we were staying. The snow-clad mountains could be seen from the lounge and also from our rooms. It was an informal meeting, with no agenda, where the idea was to sit and chat and share our thoughts and feelings. This was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The anxiety of whether our nations could rise above communal hatred had brought us all together.
Siddhartha, a friend from Bengaluru, had organized this conclave. He has set up an ashram called Firefl ies in Bengaluru. Born a Christian, Siddhartha was drawn to Buddhism. He blends thought with action. Another writer at the conclave was my dear departed friend D.R. Nagaraj (1954–1998). He was drawn to two extremes—the Buddhist vision of emptiness that rejects even the idea of the soul, and the Nietzschean assertion of the intellect against the Christian concept of sin.

I will only name one participant who had come from elsewhere: Urdu writer Intizar Hussain (1923–2016). Each writer spoke openly about the truths of their experience, without trying to justify themselves. They spoke of things they couldn’t speak about in their countries. Women writers had come from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and I feel I should only convey what they expressed, keeping them anonymous.

Among the writers from Bangladesh was a Hindu. We gathered he was a big poet there. He was fidgeting with a palmtop he had bought in the Nepal black market. It was a device on which one could take notes. He was trying to fi gure out how it worked, and muttering in frustration when he couldn’t. He said the moment the Babri Masjid was demolished, several Kali temples in Dhaka had been brought down. ‘Why don’t any of you speak about it? I am no Kali devotee but I don’t like the hypocrisy of your secular position.’ No one argued with him. The other Bangla writers said he was speaking from the heart. Everyone was keen to break the vicious cycle of blaming the other to justify one’s own actions. Having said his bit, the Hindu writer from Bangladesh shared in our anxieties.

It has become a politically correct ritual for us to talk about Muslim violence when we want to condemn Hindu violence, and Hindu violence when we want to condemn Muslim violence. We respond with cleverness when we lose the ability to see the victims as humans like us. The objective of this meeting, with both Hindus and Muslims, was to rid ourselves of such self-justification. I share a conversation that suggests we were successful.

We were lounging around comfortably, resting on mats and lolling on cushions. A middle-aged woman writer from Bangladesh began her tale softly, with her friendly, smiling eyes closed. She was the only woman writer wearing a sari. Her luxuriant, uncombed hair cascaded on her breasts. Perhaps she was secure in the confi dence that all of us were looking at her with compassion.

When she began, she addressed everyone. As she progressed, she seemed to be directing her words to the male writers from Pakistan. Towards the end, her voice became tremulous. She was an ordinary woman speaking about the war Pakistan had fought with her country, then called East Pakistan. Her husband had been a professor at Dhaka University. He had campaigned for Bengali as a second official language. One day he routinely left for the university and didn’t return. The evening turned to night. A day passed, then two. Their two children didn’t go to school. They
stayed at home, awaiting his return. They couldn’t venture out— Pakistani soldiers were everywhere, brandishing their guns.

After two days she went to the university with other women looking for their husbands. What did they fi nd? A heap of corpses. They had to sift through the heap to fi nd their respective husbands. The writer must have told this story several times. But it was perhaps for the fi rst time she was telling it in the presence of writers from Pakistan, whose soldiers had killed her husband. I was sitting beside Intizar Hussain’s. Like his friend Bhutto, he had stood by Jinnah, believing a separate country was necessary to practise and promote Islam without let or hindrance. He had
migrated from his native place to become a Pakistani. He was a big writer in Urdu, and earned a living from writing for the Dawn. The Bangladeshi writer said, ‘Tell me, where is Islam in all this? What is the use of what the Quran says? My husband was a Muslim too but they killed him in the name of Islam. Can you imagine what I went through as I searched for him among hundreds of corpses?’

The sharp-nosed Intizar Hussain had placed his hands on his lap, in a meditative pose, and was listening to her. When the Bangladeshi writer concluded, a young woman writer from Pakistan began to sob uncontrollably. Intizar Hussain slowly raised his head. His eyes were moist, and tears rolled down his cheeks. ‘On behalf of my country I apologize to you,’ he said in English. ‘What can I say but that we are all unwittingly implicated in the murder of your husband?’ He looked at the other Pakistani writers for approval. The three women writers bowed their heads,
endorsing his words with tears.

This is an incident I will never forget. The human is dwarfed by the idea of the nation state. He loses his sense of right and wrong, and becomes a nationalist. In the Second World War, such nationalism made monsters of the Japanese and the Germans. Even ordinary folks turn blind. The atom bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed everything. Communist nations can justify their crimes using the words of Marx. Muslim nations can justify their crimes using the Prophet. It is equally true that Christian nations can use the Bible to justify
their actions. Those hiding behind nationalism wreak a lot of damage before we wake up and criticize them.

To escape the mass hysteria of nationalism, we must always fearlessly keep extending a hand of friendship to other humane thinkers. I recall an incident. When we met in Berlin, I mooted with Intizar Hussain the idea of our Sahitya Akademi publishing an anthology of Pakistani literature to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of our two countries attaining Independence. Like India, Pakistan has a diversity of languages: Punjabi, Sindhi, and others. I wrote to
Intizar Hussain asking if he could edit an anthology of stories from all such languages in Urdu translation.

At the Sahitya Akademi’s executive committee meeting, some friends expressed their reservations. How could we publish a story that might speak against India? I said, ‘Intizar is a sensitive writer. He will never choose anything that promotes hatred. Leave it to me. I will take the risk.’ As the book was being finalized for publication, we faced another problem. How do we pay the writers? The two nations had no agreement to make payments possible. I
explained this to Intizar, who then spoke to the contributors to the anthology. We got letters from them, with some saying they were honoured the Sahitya Akademi, which gets grants from the Indian government, was publishing them. Just send us some copies. We don’t expect any money. Our country didn’t have the vision that Nehru did. We don’t have an independent academy, they wrote. When I met Intizar at a SAARC literary conference in Delhi, he said, ‘We have no other book in Urdu with writing from other Pakistani languages. The anthology you published is now a
textbook in our colleges.’

U. R. Anathamurthy Suragi ( Transcribed and compiled by Ja Na Tejashri. Translated from Kannada by S. R. Ramakrishna ) Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2018. Pb, pp.380 Rs.650

16 February 2018 

 

Marilynne Robinson “When I was a child I read books”


At the church garden fete I got lucky at the secondhand bookstall and bought a pile of books. One of these was Marilynne Robinson’s When I was a child I read books . It was published in 2012 and consists of her essays about literature and faith. She argues that her writing and probably that of others derives from the myriad experiences a writer garners in life. It could be from different aspects such as one’s reading, religious practices, academic discipline etc. In her essay “Freedom of thought” from which the following extract is taken she explores this argument in depth. 

******

There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own. Words like “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are overworked and overcharged — there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instance has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness.

Two questions I can’t really answer about fiction aer (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is atendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit a dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself — forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.

When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to stimulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire — a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against one another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost,having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to asnwer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

(pp. 6-9)

Marilynne Robinson  When I was a child I read books Virago Press, London, 2012. Pp. pgs. 210 

15 February 2018 

Emma House, Deputy-CEO, Publishers Association UK, speech on Indian publishing industry ( 13 February 2018)

Emma House, Deputy-CEO, Publishers Association UK, gave the following speech on 13 February 2018 at the 32 International Publishers Association Congress held at Hotel Taj, New Delhi. The congress was held in collaboration with the Federation of Indian publishers.  Emma House’s speech has been published with her permission.  The quotes are from the book — Publishers on Publishing — and statistics from Nielsen

WELCOME TO INDIA

For many of you this is your first time to India and although we are on Day 3 of the Congress I hope you will have got a good feel for what India has to offer beyond the world of Bollywood, Cricket and Curry.

I’m going to give you a quick run through of some of the publishing insight I feel visitors to India should know about.

Over the past few days you will have heard some impressive statistics about India which I can add to with further impressive figures about the publishing sector here.

India is the sixth largest economy in the world with a nominal GDP of $2.45 trillion.

India recently overtook China as the fastest growing large economy and is expected to jump up to rank fourth on the list by 2022.

India’s GDP is still highly dependent on agriculture (17%), compared to western countries. However, the services sector has picked up in recent years and now accounts for 57% of the GDP, while industry contributes 26%. India is very much moving towards a knowledge economy.

India has 22 official languages – English is one of them but Hindi is the most common. Marathi, Malyalam, Bengali, Telugu and Tamil languages also have a strong culture of reading.

PUBLISHERS on PUBLISHING: Inside India’s Book Business Edited by Nitasha Devasar is a new publication specially developed for this congress and on sale here at the back of the room, and will provide everyone with valuable insights. Some of the information in my presentation comes from this book.

The publishing industry in India has a long history which has really boomed in the last few decades. It is now behind only the US and UK, ranking 3rd in the world in English language publishing. Many successful Indian publishing companies are family run businesses passing through the generations. In the last 20 – 30 years however we have seen many multi-national publishers set up their Indian offices, firstly as joint ventures but over time becoming wholly owned subsidiaries.

For many years Foreign Direct Investment into India was limited, however this began to change with economic reform in the 1990s leading to real movement in journal publishing from around 2003. The market has opened up since then. We now see over 9000 publishers, in at least 16 languages other than English forming a colourful publishing industry which accommodates the multinationals, independent and family run enterprises publishing in the English and Indian languages. English language publishing in India stands at around 55 per cent of total publishing, 35 per cent is constituted by Hindi, and other Indian languages make up the remaining 15 per cent. The Book Market is estimated to be around 7 billion dollars dominated by academic and K-12 publishing, and important to note – consumer publishing forming only a small percentage of sales.

To give you a flavour of the types of consumer books which are popular in India.

By genre – Children’s Books,  Romance and sagas, Crime Thrillers and literary fiction, Popular Psychology Mind, body and spirit as well as economic and management

BEST SELLING BOOKS 2017:  From both imported titles with world famous names like Harry Potter, Dan Brown, John Green but also home grown Indian voices, many of whom have great standing on the international stage

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Book 12
  • Dan Brown – Origin
  • Turtles all the way down – John Green
  • Harry Potter
  • This is not your story – Savi Sharma
  • I do what I do – Raghuram G Rajan
  • The boy who loved turtles – Durjoy Datta

These impressive statistics about the population, the economic growth, the size of the publishing industry would all encourage those who look at India for the first time as a market destination for either publishing, selling rights or exporting books as a market of GREAT POTENTIAL.

  • Population – 324 billion and growing
  • Increased literacy rates
  • Increased investment in education
  • Fast growing middle class
  • Much greater promotion of books and reading

However the industry faces many challenges, some common to us all, some unique to India:

  • The size of the market is under-estimated with many book sales unrecorded due to sales through pavement news stands and smaller outlets
  • A large number of publishers, especially in Indian languages do not use ISBNs
  • The pricing model is squeezed in every direction from big increases in property prices and rentals as well as staff salaries, but importantly a challenging supply chain and distribution system which often sees high discounts and extended credit coupled with low levels of pricing and minimal increase in book prices. As a result it’s easier to make sales than make profitable sales, and to be paid promptly
  • Piracy and photocopying is common place

Moving on to what I feel is an incredibly exciting feature about India which needs to be showcased – and that is Online retail. India is in a rare situation of having what The Hindu Business Line called in a recent headline  “A two Horse Race In India – Flipkart Vs Amazon”.

First to the ecommerce market was Flipkart which began its life in 2007, founded by 2 ex-employees of Amazon with venture capital funding. Starting out with books, and addressing the nascent ecommerce market by introducing a cash on delivery model that is still used today, it’s been a turbulent journey for Flipkart, including a phase of when they faded out of the bookselling picture especially with Amazon entering the market. It has however managed to attract investment from Microsoft, Tencent and Ebay. Ten years on from it’s launch, in August 2017, Japanese internet giant SoftBank invested over $2.5 billion in Flipkart to become one of its largest shareholders, with rumours that Walmart could be its next significant investor.

Looking at the ebook market – this remains a small percentage of sales, hovering at around the 5% mark. Flipkart launched its ebook store in November 2012, however the ebooks catalogue was bought by Rakuten (Kobo) in 2015 and customers were transferred to the Kobo platform in recognition of the overwhelmingly dominant nature of the physical book market and Flipkart’s decision to focus on this strategic direction.

Amazon took its first step in the Indian market 5 years after Flipkart in 2012 when it launched Junglee.com, a site which allowed customers to compare prices online but not purchase items directly. At that time, Amazon was not allowed to stock and sell its own products due to Indian regulations preventing multi-brand retailers from selling directly to consumers online.

In June 2013 Amazon launched its marketplace selling books and video content – the model which is still in operation today. And in 2016 it made its move into publishing and purchased Westland (which was a major distributor but started publishing in 2007 and fast became one of the top five English language trade publishers in the country.

The two ecommerce giants now compete fiercely, not only in books, but notably in the mobile phone market. With a fast-growing market of smart phone users, the online market place in India is one which is amongst the fastest growing in the world – so we watch this race with keen interest.

The Book Culture in India

I take a quote from the publication I mentioned at the beginning from -Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India who says “There is a need to develop a book culture first and then the retail culture”.

Certainly here in India, the book culture is changing and growing. Firstly with a boom in bookstores across the country including major chains Crossword and Oxford Bookstores as well as fantastic independent bookstores. More recently however is the rise in popularity of literary festivals and book fairs. Anyone who has visited the Delhi World Book Fair or the Jaipur Literature Festival will have seen the hunger for and love of books that is being fostered here in India.

The National Book Trust of India also plays a major role in encouraging reading and literacy, and especially in the more remote places in the country and can be commended for their campaign “Har haath, ek kitab” (one book in every hand), which is a nationwide online books donation drive especially targeting underprivileged children, and aims to build a reading habit among them.

General view all these things really have helped foster the reading culture and there is always more to do.

Self-publishing is increasing in popularity in India  – Kindle Direct Publishing is now possible in a range of Indian languages as well as the emergence of a range of other self-publishing platforms.

Another issue which has been featured over the past few days is the matter of “Freedom to Publish”, a topic which is being hotly debated here in India. India which whilst being a fiercely democratic country has defamation laws, which make publishers, not just authors, subject to criminal prosecution. A section of India’s penal code criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Such acts, which the law says can be spoken or written, are punishable with up to three years imprisonment and fines.

This played out in a very public case in 2014 with a book by author Wendy Donniger The Hindus: An Alternative History, which was banned for its controversial content, following an extensive legal battle. This case and other similar cases have prompted huge concerns for Free Speech in India

Despite the challenges that the Indian publishing industry faces, there is much to be optimistic about. It’s certainly never a dull moment in this land of opportunity and I for one look forward to seeing how the market develops, how is continues to address the challenges and seize the vast opportunities to continue to build a book loving country that produces world leading content.

 

15 February 2018 

Bear Grylls Adventures

Given how more and more children are being reared in urban settings it is getting tougher for them to be close to nature. For instance I was very surprised to watch the look of astonishment on a seven-year-old boy’s face when I was explaining crop cycles. Till then he was under the impression that the fresh produce arrived in the shop magically. Well, he was clued in sufficiently to realise people carted it in but was not curious enough to ask where did it actually come from? Where was it grown? So if urbanisation is robbing children of this basic knowledge of farming / nature under normal circumstances. Imagine how challenging it is to explain to the children on how to manage themselves in diverse ecosystems particularly at the time of natural disasters.

There is a paucity of literature on how adults should behave when a natural disaster strikes. What are the immediate responses and how to survive the long haul. ( Within this there are other complications of gendered responses, fragile situations and how to rehabilitate.) There is even less literature available for children on how they should respond in such situations. And if there is, it is mostly confined to Girl Guide or Boy Scout manuals, not necessarily accessible to the majority of children. Also books on disaster management need to be pitch perfect while communicating to the children rather than talking down to them. It will inevitably result in a brain freeze on the part of the kids and builld a resistance. This is where the Bear Grylls Adventures, a series of slim chapter books, created by noted adventurer and survival expert Bear Grylls are a delight to read. Simply told adventure stories in different settings where within the plot the young readers are shown how to respond and behave in different scenarios — earthquakes, blizzards, desert, jungles, sea and river. A pleasure to read these pitch perfect books.

In India the books have been published by Bloomsbury India. They are a set of six books reasonably priced and a must in every school library if not in every child’s personal library. In fact the importance the publishers rightly give to these series was evident at the posters displayed in their world book fair stall held in Delhi.

Bear Grylls Adventures by Bear Grylls. Illustrated by Emma McCann. Bear Grylls is an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, a Bonnier Publishing Company, Great Britain, 2017. ( In India the books are distributed by Bloomsbury India and are priced at Rs 199 each.) 

8 February 2018 

 

Good Night series

Penguin Random House India recently released four titles in the Good Night series — Good Night IndiaGood Night DelhiGood Night Mumbai and Good Night Rajasthan.  These have been released as board books meant for pre-schoolers. They are fascinating little books which primarily highlight the main sights of the particular location. Apparently the Good Night Books are a series launched in USA. According to the website: 

The Good Night Books Series of board books has been designed and developed since 2005 to celebrate special places and themes in a way that young children, ages 0-5, can easily relate to and enjoy with their families. All the books are written and illustrated with a simplicity that captures the “essence” of each subject and place.

Every book is printed in bright colors on high-quality board to endure the attention of young children. All have six-inch by six-inch pages, making for large 12 x 6 open page spreads.

Each title takes its readers through the passage of a day (“good morning,” “good afternoon,” “good evening,” and “good night”). And most titles, if set in a place with seasonality, also include the seasons of the year (spring, summer, autumn, and winter). Children are further introduced to the practice of using polite salutations and greetings, all while being lulled to a good night’s sleep.

The series is, in part, inspired by Walt Whitman’s poems, such as the classic book Leaves of Grass and the famous poem “Song of Myself,” in which the poet catalogs item after item, in a process whereby the mere naming of each item draws attention to it and thus imbues it with a sense of import. The Good Night Our World Series tries to recognize and celebrate the world in a Whitmanesque spirit.

It is a good idea of PRH India to launch the books in India. There is a lack of board books meant for young Indian readers. Also the four titles selected for the local market would work extremely well with tourists as well.

Good Night Series, PRH India, Board books, Rs 299 each

5 February 2018 

Interview with Ishaan Jajodia, co-founder Bombaykala Books

While conversing with Kiran Manral I discovered that her new book is to be published by a fledgling publishing house called Bombaykala. They sounded passionate about their publishing programme. On 16 Sept 2017, The Hindu had profiled them. I was curious to know more. So I emailed Ishaan Jajodia. Here are excerpts of an interview with him. 

L-R, Raj Chabbria (Business Development), Kabeer Khurana (Design Head), Mrinalini Harchandrai (editor-at-large), Ishaan Jajodia (commissioning editor and jack of all trades), Tanay Punjabi (Logistics Director)

Bombaykala has published three books of poetry within six months of publishing. It started with Ek Chotisi Dibiya, a book of Hindi poetry, and then published When Home Is An Idea by Rochelle D’Silva. In December 2017, they launched Mrinalini Harchandrai’s A Bombay In My Beat. They are constantly trying to get the word out to more and more poets about publishing opportunities in the landscape.

Kabeer and Ishaan have known each other for a long time. Turns out, when they were around seven or eight, Kabeer’s mom taught them animation. Ishaan reconnected with Kabeer in early 2016 through a friend, and they worked on The Mumbai Art Collective together, a non-profit venture dedicated towards promoting and preserving the art of Bombay. Tanay was also part of this.

Kabeer and Tanay went to school together between Grade 1 and 10, and Kabeer and Raj went to school together in Grade 11 and 12. Kabeer and Ishaan worked on a film, Religion for Dummies, that Ishaan produced along with Kabeer’s father, and that Kabeer directed. Raj was an Assistant Director on the shoot, and also helped with casting. It was a quirky, avant-garde stop motion film (view online here). 

Ishaan met Mrinalini initially because Bombaykala was interested in publishing her book of jazz poetry, A Bombay In My Beat.  They landed up publishing her book, by the way! The team really enjoyed working with her, and she seemed to be the right fit as the team expanded at Bombaykala Books. “She’s really passionate and knows exactly what goes where. She handles poetry (or anything to do with literature) with such poise and grace. Mrinalini is curating a series of anthologies and commissioning a slew of books for Bombaykala Books. She’s also got great experience in dealing with the genre we call creative nonfiction now in her many years as a magazine editor.” What Ishaan also likes about Mrinalini’s poetic practice is that it is innovation that is not built on provocation. Provocation is the staple of avant-gardists throughout, from Hugo Ball’s poetry of nonsense to José Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization. This is similar to what Ishaan want for Bombaykala Books- “for us to change, without unnecessary provocation, and in a manner that is decidedly less brash and more systematic. It requires a certain personality and demeanour to do that, one that is far less based off sentimentality and knee-jerk reactions, and more focused on a developed and more heightened sense of working and writing.”

How and why did you establish Bombaykala Books?

Bombaykala Books came out of a desire to read more of what I wanted to read. I was unhappy with the current publishing landscape, and the way that commercial pressures shaped the way that publishers looked at books. I’m a bibliophile, not a writer, so it was never about finding an outlet for my own work. There are more forms of capital than just financial capital for a publisher- human, social, symbolic, and intellectual, if we are to take the model that is found in Merchants of Culture (John B. Thompson). Another impetus for the course we’re taking is a class I took while at college on the History of the Book, by Prof. Alexandra Halasz. It opened up a whole new world, a new way of thinking.

Another thing that I found missing was an initiative to create a literature around the city. While efforts to immortalize the city have been in progress since we can remember our art and cinema, I felt that we needed to be more conscious of the city we live in. I identify more closely as someone who’s lived in Bombay all my life. That facet of the Indian ‘identity’ is one that I became more conscious off as I grew up, and that’s another reason why Bombaykala Books came into being. 

What is the focus?

The focus is to create a literature around a city, but also to publish stories that pique our interest. I’m looking for stories that are authentic, and in some way, have a go at the epistemological roots of what we know. To that end, I’ve published collections of war poetry from a former consular officer for Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars, who saw what was happen first hand. Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards is the story of war told through poetry, which makes for far more emotive reading than, let’s say, AJP Taylor, who’s as close as we get to great writing in History.

How many founders are there?

There are three- Kabeer Khurana, Tanay Punjabi, and me. Kabeer handles all the design work, Tanay the operations, and me the editorial work. Additionally, we have Raj Chhabria, who, although not a founder, takes care of Business Development and Marketing, and is a partner along with the three of us.

Who edits your books?

I do, and now Mrinalini Harchandrai does as well. She’s our new Editor-at-Large.

What are your plans for the next few years?

We want to publish a book a fortnight this year without diluting quality of any kind. I think that’s the most important part. We’re also exploring other ways to bring books to readers- audio books, multimedia expansions. I think at this point in time, planning wise the sky is the limit, but only time will tell what we can do.

Now that Mrinalini and I are both commissioning, there should be a lot more diversity in the approach to books, yielding some interesting stuff.

 How do you source manuscripts and distribute your books?

We have an open channel of submissions available via our website. People can simply go ahead and email us their work after going through the submission guidelines. We’ve been talking with agents here and there too.

In terms of distribution- we do Amazon Kindle for all our e-books. We also have an international distributor for the USA, UK, EU, Canada, and Australia, catering to the needs of our international clientele.

How many languages do you publish in?

Hindi and English for now.

Who are your authors? 

Queenie Sukhadia, Vishakha Sharma Dubey, Rochelle D’Silva, Michael Brett, Mrinalini Harchandrai, Kiran Manral, Joe and Brenda Rodrigues, Pragya Bhagat, Ramneek Singh, Mamta Chitnis Sen, Stalin Dayanand, Sreemay Rath, Anushka Gupta, Andrew Rooney, Ranjit Dahiya, Sundeep Narwani and Ishita Mehra, Mallika Iyer, Gouri Nilakantan

 Why did you decide to publish poetry apart from mainstream literature?

For me it was never an either-or situation. We launched Bombaykala Books with a book of Hindi poetry, Ek Chotisi Dibiya, and a set of short stories that works as a novel, A City of Sungazers. I’ve never looked at poetry as anything lesser than or different to mainstream literature. It is ultimately a form of literature, one that tells stories in a way that can be as visceral (or more) than “mainstream literature.”

Will you explore translations as well?

Certainly. We’re working with Dr. Jitendra Pandey to expand our repertoire of Hindi translations.

Do you publish in digital and print formats or only print?

We do digital and print.

5 February 2018 

Karthik Venkatesh on Granthika, a digital tool

Karthik Venkatesh, a publisher, who often writes longreads on different aspects of publishing. He published an article in The Hindu on Granthika . It was heavily edited. Later he reposted the longer version on his Facebook  wall. I am c&p the text here with his permission. 

RK Narayan’s novel The Vendor of Sweets set as always in Malgudi is the story of Jagan, the sweetmeat vendor, his inner tussles between his Gandhian ideals and the pulls of his business that often leave him in a quandary and his imperfect relationship with his wayward son, Mali. Mali makes his way to America to join a creative writing course and returns a few years later, totally Americanized, with a Korean-American partner in tow. Back in Malgudi, Mali comes up with a grand money-making venture in the form of a story writing machine. It’s a machine in which would-be writers would only have to enter a few details like the number of pages, the number of characters, the place and time, the type of atmosphere and so on and the machines would churn out the story for them, or so goes Mali’s sales pitch.

The romantic image of the writer crouched over at the writing desk pouring his heart out on paper, with the several crumpled pieces of paper strewn around the room evidence of his hard work is one of literature’s most overworked images. It was this image perhaps that Mali sought to change. With Mali’s machine, churning out a story was a matter of pressing a few buttons. Mali’s story-writing machine is of course fictional, but to look at how writers have used technology to aid their writing endeavours is to come across several little nuggets of interesting information.

Historically, writing in longhand was the way most writers worked. Many like John le Carre still put pen to paper (the occasional writer like John Steinbeck swears by pencils), choosing to voluntarily forgo the mediating medium of the machine. A few lucky ones in the past had the benefit of a scribe (a la Veda Vyasa and Ganesha), but that couldn’t have been a cakewalk either. It required the writer to compose the piece in his mind and then regurgitate as the scribe put pen to paper or palm-leaf. The odd scribe is likely to have struggled to keep pace with the writer. But, arguably, more often than not, the scribe’s lot would have been to play the waiting game as the writer struggled to put it all together in his head.

And then, the typewriter came.

In 1874, Mark Twain purchased his first typewriter (a Remington) for $125. Seven years later, a typed manuscript of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was sent to his publisher. Twain did not type it himself. In 1875, he had written to Remington to say that the machine corrupted his morals because it made him want to swear and so he gave the machine away, twice, only to have it return each time. Life on the Mississippi was dictated to a typist from a hand-written draft and was in all likelihood the first typewritten book. Among the typewriter’s other early adopters were Nietzsche and Henry James. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was also typewritten and its heroine, Mina Harker makes references to learning typewriting in the initial part of the novel. Clearly, the typewriter had arrived and for the next century or so, it was the writer’s machine of choice.

In the sixties, Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on a roll of paper which he had created by taping several together several sheets. What kind of paper it was is unclear. Among the possibilities are regular paper, a thermo-fax roll and sheets of architect’s paper. He did so because he thought the job of changing the paper would interrupt him and ‘thrust him back into the world’s inauthenticity’. Two weeks after starting On the Road, he had a single single-spaced paragraph a hundred and twenty feet in length all ready. The typewriter had played a critical role in birthing a classic.

The famously acerbic Truman Capote heard about Kerouac’s unusual ways and cuttingly remarked, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

And then came the word-processor.

Who was the Mark Twain of the word processor? There are several claimants most of them small-time with the exception of sci-fi writer Frank Herbert of Dune fame. After Dune’s success in 1965, it is said that Herbert submitted drafts of his works to his literary agent on 8-inch floppy disks in the 1970s, but no evidence exists to confirm this. The New York Times of March 24, 1981 published a rather interesting report which detailed how Jimmy Carter had accidentally deleted several pages from his memoir by pressing the wrong keys on his word-processor.

Among the early adopters of the word processor was Stephen King so much so that in the January 1983 issue of Playboy, he actually published a story entitled … “The Word Processor”! Later republished as Word Processor of the Gods in King‘s 1985 collection Skeleton Crew, the story talks of a word processor that is actually capable of altering the past and in effect, the future and whose discovery changes the lot of a frustrated middle-aged writer. Apart from King, Tom Clancy was an early adopter too and his 1984 thriller The Hunt for Red October, is often cited as one of the earliest word-processed best sellers. Since then, writing (Capote would call it typing) on the computer has pretty much become the norm.

In the second or third quarter of 2018, writer Vikram Chandra of Sacred Games fame hopes to have a beta version ready of Granthika, a digital tool for writers. While its first version will be designed for fiction writers, in the long run, a version for non-fiction writers as well, which will add all the features necessary for that genre, such as footnotes and endnotes, citations, etc. is also planned. Eventually, the goal is to build specialized versions for domains like legal writing, journalism, corporate documentation, scientific publishing, etc.

Its website lists its many components (it calls them ‘Multiple Independent Tools’): ‘a spreadsheet to keep track of dates and events, and to calculate the ages of characters, index cards to visualize the structural outline of the document, a timeline – perhaps drawn on a wall – to visualize the relationship between events (and) a word processor that doesn’t organize any of the above’.

The problem that it seeks to solve is the problem of writers making mistakes in their text and be able to keep track of all the logistics in the text. Among the instances of mistakes it cites to make its case are from Sherlock Holmes—Dr. Watson’s travelling injury (shoulder to leg) and his changing first name (John to James)—and more recently, an oversight in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Granthika is on the face of it, as cutting–edge as it gets. The creation of a writer who understands writing and coding, it might just become to the early 21st century writer what the typewriter was to the late 19th and the word processor to the late 20th. Like it or not, most writers are typing now and with Granthika, Mali, Twain and King have actually been fused together!

(C) Karthik Venkatesh 

5 February 2018