Amitav Ghosh Posts

Krupa Ge “Rivers Remember” and Manu Pillai “The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History”

Non-fiction books are the biggest sellers in the Indian book market. A testament to this fact are the number of books being commissioned. Take for instance two recent Westland/Amazon publications. Immensely readable and well-written books by award-winning authors — Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood and Manu Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin. It is fairly obvious why they would capture the lay reader’s imagination. They are easy books to dip into with plenty of anecdotes.

Manu Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin has fascinating essays about figures from India’s history. It is primarily a collection of his articles from the weekly column he writes for Mint. So each essay is a self-contained story. It is a mixed bag of characters from rajahs and sultans, maharanis and begums, politicians, travellers, courtesans, devdasis and plenty more. The chapter headings are very inviting as well such as “The Italian Brahmin of Madurai”, “Rowdy Bob: The victor of Plassey”, “A Forgotten Indian Queen in Paris” and “The Seamstress and the Mathematician”. As he says in his introduction:

We live in times when history is polarising. It has become to some an instrument of vengeance, for grievances imagined or real. Others remind us to draw wisdom from the past, not fury and rage, seeing in its chronicles a mosaic of experience to nourish our minds and recall, without veneration, the confident glories of our ancestors. The collection …tells stories from India’s countless yesterdays and of several of its men and women. It is an offering that seeks to reflect the fascinating, layered, splendidly complex universe that is Indian history at a time when life itself is projected in tedious shades of black and white. There is much in our past to enrich us, and a great deal that can explain who we are and what choices must be made as we confront grave crossroads in our own times.

In his column “Why women hold the key to a new India” ( 29 June 2019, The Mint) Manu Pillai adds, “The colonizing of Indian minds in the colonial era by Victorian sensibilities was severe, added to which is generations of patriarchy—it will take time and patience before change comes to how history is imagined. Clubbing a courtesan with a mahatma may not immediately be understood or approved of by some. But that is precisely where the courtesan belongs, for, in the larger scheme of things and the big picture of our civilization, her role is no less significant than that galaxy of saints and monks we have all been taught to venerate.”

This is a magnificently well researched book where the lack of bibliographical citations to corroborate the quotes used in the text is an oversight that was not to be expected. For instance, the chapters on “William Jones: India’s Bridge to the West” and “A Brahmin Woman of Scandal” quote Jawaharlal Nehru and E.M.S. Namboothiripad respectively but there is no citation given. This despite every chapter having its own bibliography; yet these two men are quoted but not included in the bibliography. Compare this to the recently published Richard Evans Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History where even when Prof. Hobsbawm himself is quoted in the text, Richard Evans footnotes every quote with the relevant citation.

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin is a pleasure to read in snatches. To read it from cover-to-cover would be too noisy as there are far too many characters from different periods of history and different backgrounds. But to read a couple of essays at a time is a delight. The book has been fabulously illustrated with charcoal drawings by Priya Kuriyan.

Award-winning journalist Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood was probably spurred by the devastating loss of her parents’ home in the 2015 Chennai floods. It is a slim book that is more a heartfelt reaction to the floods. Here is an extract from the book published in The Wire. It has plenty of anecdotes with responses to the floods. Here is a witness account of the floods published on 11 December 2015 in the Hindu Businessline. While it encapsulates the immediacy of the moment it also highlights the dangers that the residents faced during the floods. Unfortunately the book publication is a missed opportunity as it could have been used to discuss in greater detail Chennai’s water problems, perhaps even included a thematic map or two depicting the natural waterbodies upon which the local population depended, the water consumption patterns and location of natural aquifers; instead there is one map of Chennai from 1914 as a frontispiece. Writing a book on a natural disaster requires a fair bit of understanding of the various issues at stake. A critical area is that of gender issues in disaster management. It is imperative that it is understood for immediate relief efforts but also if it is to be analysed with hindsight in a book such as this. For example, instead of stating in a one-sentence paragraph “Srinivasan and his friends rescued a new mother of twins and took her to safety with great care”, this could easily have been expanded upon to discuss the many issues involved in such a rescue mission. To quibble about the improvements a book could consider are an indication too of the author’s capabilities. The dissatisfaction as a reader stems from is that the potential is visible but has not been exploited to the hilt.

While both the books are fascinating to read perhaps the editors could have guided the writers a little more. The birth of every book is a constructive process between the author and the editor. It is a coming together of expertise to make a product that will hopefully be read by many. Both these books are timely and relevant but would definitely have benefitted by editorial advice to add more value to their texts. While non-fiction sales are booming it is a good idea to pause and reflect upon the importance of bringing to the fore academic editing skills while editing books that are positioned for a trade list and a lay reader. Cross-pollination of such skills is increasingly becoming a crying need as the boundaries between subjects that were previously considered to be exclusive academic domains make their way into trade lists and general book markets.

Despite these slight “technical” hiccups these books are must reads. Manu Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin is unputdownable and Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood as Jnanpith winner 2018 Amitav Ghosh says is an “absolute must read…[for] it brings …the full horror of the catastrophe”. More so when three and a half years later Chennai is facing a drought — a crisis highlighted by Hollywood actor Leonardo di Caprio’s in his instagram post.

30 June 2019

Book Post 39: 9 – 22 June 2019

Book Post 39 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

25 June 2019

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 3), 25 June 2019

Dear Reader,

I have just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s magnificent novel Gun Island. It is about Dinanath Datta, a rare books seller whose life gets entangled with an ancient legend about the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. It is a fascinating story that begins in the Sunderbans to New York to Venice. Gun Island has a fantastic cast of characters but it is also a story very relevant to our times for its focus on the situation of migrants and climate change.

At the New Delhi book launch held on 13 June 2019, India Habitat Centre, Amitav Ghosh was in conversation with Raghu Karnad. It was a very special evening as it occurred two days after the untimely demise of the playwright, Girish Karnad. So the book launch morphed into this public memorial for Girish Karnad too. It began with the new Jnanpith winner Amitav Ghosh’s tribute to another Jnanpith winner Girish Karnad. The conversation began with Raghu Karnad, son of Girish Karnad, saying, “My father was a chronicler of Karnataka and of this country, I consider you to be a chronicler of this planet. Interconnecting the countless parts we are in the midst of but miss. They are forces of language, war, or even eco-system.” These opening remarks triggered off a fascinating conversation about “unlikely coincidences” and “meaningful resonances” that exist between space and time. Also what does it mean to try and rationalise events that defy rationalist thinking but at times it is impossible to do so. A significant proportion of Gun Island dwells upon the global migrant crisis. During the conversation Amitav Ghosh commented that “the central literary question is how do you talk about the slow violence that eats itself into peoples lives and never finds its way into newspapers? In the papers every day there are so many reports about violence but this slow violence does not get attention. We have learned to turn our eyes away from it. The issue is how do we find ourselves back to recognise the violence unfolding around us. Poetry is better able to respond to the catastrophe and cataclysm we see around us. Poetry does not have that commitment. Poetry has always responded to every natural event. You see it in Byron and in pre-modern Indian poetry which is not poetry for the sake of poetry — it is devotional. We have to find ourselves back to that…back to being able to talk about other things apart from us.”

Gun Island is an unputdownable book. It will sell well but more so because of the old fashioned word-of-mouth recommendations. At the book launch there were whispers overheard of Amitav Ghosh probably being a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the coming years. Who knows?! But for now it would be interesting to see if this book makes it to the shortlist of the more prominent literary prizes around the world like The Booker Prize. It is certainly a book that cannot be ignored!

Of all the books I read in the past week Gun Island was exceptional.

More anon,

JAYA

25 June 2019

HarperCollins India celebrates 25 years of publishing with special editions of 25 of its most iconic books

HarperCollins India celebrates 25 years of publishing with special editions of 25 of its most iconic books

HarperCollins Publishers India, which began its journey in 1992 with twenty books that year and a team consisting of just a handful of people, has come a long way. Twenty-five years later, HarperCollins India boasts a list of over 180 new books a year in every genre possible, be it literary and commercial fiction, general and commercial non-fiction, translations, poetry, children’s books or Hindi.

2017 marks the silver jubilee year of HarperCollins India. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, HarperCollins India is bringing out special editions of 25 of its most iconic books, calling it the Harper 25 Series, which will be available for a limited time.

HarperCollins India’s Publisher – Literary, Udayan Mitra, says, ‘Publishing is all about the love for reading, and in the 25 years that we have been in India, we have published books that have been read with joy, talked about, debated over, and then read once again; between them, they have also won virtually every literary award there is to win. The Harper 25 series gives us the chance to revisit some of these wonderful books.’

HarperCollins India’s art director, Bonita Vaz-Shimray, who conceptualized the design for the Harper 25 series, says, ‘The series is a celebration of the HarperCollins brand – its identity and colours – the iconic Harper red and blue have been interpreted in water colour media by Berlin-based Indian artist Allen Shaw. Each cover illustration is a story in itself – a story that’s open-ended, a story that sets the mood for what’s going to come, a story that starts taking definite shape only after the reader has finished reading the book.’

The entire Harper 25 series is now available at a bookstore near you. The books in the series include:

Akshaya Mukul Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
Amitav Ghosh The Hungry Tide
Anita Nair Lessons in Forgetting
Anuja Chauhan Those Pricey Thakur Girls
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Turning Points
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Arun Shourie Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?
A.S. Dulat with Aditya Sinha Kashmir the Vajpayee Years
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Yoga
H.M. Naqvi Home Boy
Jhumpa Lahiri Interpreter of Maladies
Karthika Nair Until the Lions
Kiran Nagarkar Cuckold
Krishna Sobti Zindaginama
Manu Joseph Serious Men
M.J. Akbar Tinderbox
Tarun J. Tejpal The Story of My Assassins
Raghuram G. Rajan Fault Lines
Rana Dasgupta Tokyo Cancelled
Satyajit Ray Deep Focus
Siddhartha Mukherjee The Emperor of All Maladies
Surender Mohan Pathak Paisath Lakh ki Dacaiti
S. Hussain Zaidi Byculla to Bangkok
T.M. Krishna A Southern Music
Vivek Shanbhag Ghachar Ghochar

For more information, please write to Aman Arora, (Senior Brand and Marketing Manager) at aman.araora@HarperCollins-india.com

Sami Ahmad Khan, Sci-Fi writer from India

I first came across Sami Ahmad Khan a few years ago when he reached out regarding a manuscript he had written and wanted it evaluated professionally. It was one of the few science fiction novels I had read set in contemporary India. I did read and made a few constructive suggestions. Then I did not hear from him for a while as he was busy finishing his thesis unsurprisingly on contemporary Indian science fiction writers. Now his novel is to be published more or less simulataneously by two publishers — Juggernaut Books ( digital) and Niyogi Books ( print). Meanwhile he has published two articles exploring Indian science fiction.

Daily O article “What if aliens one day land in India? A sci-fi writer asks” ( 8 June 2017)

Huffington Post India article “Aliens In Allahabad, Zombies In Zamrudpur: Discovering Indian Science Fiction” ( 10 June 2017)

Sami and I had a brief and intense exchange over email about his interest in science fiction and the publiction of Aliens in Delhi.  Here is an extract:

  1. Who were the authors you featured in your thesis?

I worked on select (SF) novels/short stories of Anil Menon, Amitav Ghosh, Ruchir Joshi, Shovon Chowdhury, Rimi Chatterjee, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Vandana Singh, Ashok Banker, Mainak Dhar, Suraj Clark Prasad, and Jugal Mody.

  1. Who were your PhD guides?

Prof. GJV Prasad and Prof. Saugata Bhaduri at JNU

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I couldn’t resist! I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…I love doing that. The question of ‘What if?’ really interests me. And SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a massive kick!

  1. How did the deal with two publishers happen?

I got two simultaneous offers, within ten days of each other. The first (contract) wanted paperback rights, and the other digital. I opted for both.

  1. Two Books, Two editors

I sent almost the same MS to both these publishers, and editors from respective houses worked on the MS simultaneously. It’s still the same book, but there are minor differences, such as a different sentence here, a different one there, not to mention different copy-editing. But the essence and general narrative is the same.

  1. Due dates of publication

Paperback, brought out by Niyogi, already out.

Digital version by Juggernaut in July 2017

  1. If you had to translate this novel into any other language which version would you use?

Both would do!

  1. How many years did it take to write this novel?

Almost four and a half years. The first draft was written in October-December 2012. Then I let the novel stew in my brain for some time. Then endless drafts and revisions. I kept reworking it till 2015, when I was finally satisfied with it.

  1. Who are the SF writers you admire?

Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Shovon Chowdhury, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who

  1. Why did you start writing sci fi stories?

I could see eventualities concretizing in my brain, working out and extrapolating from the current material realities…and SF I think gives me the best mode of narration to express myself. Not to say that writing and thinking about SF gives me a kick!

  1. What is that you wish to explore the most in your SF writing?

Space (interplanetary exploration), time (alternate realities/time travel) and ET life (preferably hostile to humans). I love exploring these themes through pulp.

11 June 2017 

 

Jaya’s newsletter 5 ( 1 Dec 2016)

shauna-singh-baldwinSince the last newsletter it has been a whirlwind of book releases, literature festivals and fabulous conversations. For instance a lovely evening spent at the Canadian High Commissioner, H. E. Nadir Patel’s residence for the launch of Indo-Canadian writer, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s essays — Reluctant Rebellions. Shauna read out an extract comparing the freedom women had in different geographies. She added that writing non-fiction was akin to being naked. There is no literary device as there is in fiction to hide the author’s true sentiments. Dr Shashi Tharoor spoke at the event too.

To attend the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai was award winning Australian author, Geoffrey Moorhouse. He is known for his historical fiction such as on the League of Nations. During a quiet lunch at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, it was incredible to hear Moorhouse describe the research involved for the books. He had thought it would take a few weeks but he spent nearly four years in the Geneva archives. Mostly he was the only person reading the documents.

On 17 September 2016, H.E. Syed Muazzem Ali, High Commissioner, Bangladesh released the gently told but vividfazlur-rahman-book-launch memoir of haemotologist-oncologist Dr Fazlur Rahman. It charts mostly the journey of the doctor from a village to Texas in 1969 with some insights into his experience as an oncologist, caregiver and in setting up hospices. But as the high commissioner pointed out it is in exactly such literature that the history of the subcontinent will be mapped and preserved. During the panel discussion Dr Rahman stressed the importance of empathy for the patient and caregiver and the significance of medical, physical and spiritual sustenance.

with-namita-26-nov-2016The Times Lit Fest (26-27 Nov 2016) was a tremendous success. It was a crackling good mix of speakers and the panel discussions were well curated. Everything ran with clockwork precision even though there were tremendous crowds to be seen everywhere. To discuss her elegant new novel, Things to leave Behind, I was in conversation with Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival. This multi-generations novel is set in the Himalayas, in the Nainital and Sat Tal region, putting the spotlight on socio-economic relationships, independence of women, spread of religious philosophies and the rigid caste system.

As the year draws to a close some significant literary prizes / longlists have been announced.

  1. Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize was won by Akshaya Mukul for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu Indiagita-press
  2. Swimmer among the starsTata Literature Live! Awards were presented with Amitav Ghosh getting the Lifetime Achievement Award and Kanishk Tharoor winning for his stupendous debut collection of stories.
  3. The International Dublin Literary Award ( formerly the IMPAC) longlist was announced and it included two Indian writers on it — Keki Daruwala and Vivek Shanbhag.
  4. The 14th Raymond Crossword Book Awards had an impressive list of winners. Sadly this time there were no

    ranjit-lal

    (L-R): Twinkle Khanna, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal

    cash prizes awarded instead gift vouchers were given to the winning authors.

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Jaya Recommends

  1. matt-haig-1Matt Haig’s incredibly beautiful must-have modern fairy tales A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas  ( Canongate Books)
  2. Namita Gokhale’s Things to Leave Behind  ( Penguin Random House) namita-gokhale-book-cover
  3. Ranjit Lal’s Our Nana was a Nutcase ( Red Turtle)
  4. Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari Conversations ( 1 & 2) , Seagull Books jorge-luis-borges

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New Arrivals

        1. Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz ( Simon and Schuster)
        2. Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak ( Speaking Tiger Books)
        3. Uttara: The Book of Answers translated by Arshia Sattar ( Penguin Random House)
        4. Bestselling author Stephanie Meyer’s new book is a thriller called The Chemist ( Hachette India)
        5. White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas by Robert Twigger ( Hachette India)

being-a-dogamba

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Publishing News and links 

  1. Nineteen years after working at PRH India, Udayan Mitra, Publisher, has quit.
  2. The two week long Dum Pukht residential workshop with facilitators Anil Menon, Pervin Saket, Akshat Nigam and special guest Amit Chaudhuri premieres at Adishakti, Pondicherry this Monday, 5 Dec 2016. The workshop also features one-day talks / sessions by poet Arundhati Subramaniam and historian Senthil Babu.
  3. Utterly fabulous BBC Documentary on UK-based feminist publishing house, Virago Press
  4. Neil Gaiman on “How Stories Last
  5. Two centuries of Indian print. A British Library project that will digitise 1,000 unique Bengali printed books and 3,000 early printed books and enhance the catalogue records to automate searching and aid discovery by researchers.
  6. shashi-tharoorTwo stupendous reviews of Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, An Era Of Darkness. The first one is by historian Indivar Kamtekar and the second by journalist Salil Tripathi.
  7. A lovely review by Nisha Susan of Twinkle Khanna’s short stories — The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.the_legend_of_lakshmi_prasad_300_rgb_1478507802_380x570
  8. Gopsons prints Booker winner, yet again
  9. Best of 2016 booklists: Guardian ( 1 & 2) , New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2016 and Publishers Weekly 

1 December 2016 

14th Raymond Crossword Book Award ( 29 November 2016)

kinjalshahgulzar

(R-L) Gulzar with Kinjal Shah, CEO, Crossword

The Crossword literary award has been through many avatars but remains one of the most significant literary prizes to be given in India. For years there was decent prize money given to the winners. This year only gift vouchers were handed out.  Nevertheless at least books and writing is being recognised. Here is the list of prizes.) 

ranjit-lal

( L-R) Twinkle Khanna, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal

WINNERS: POPULAR AWARD

1.Fiction
Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular – fiction category

2. Non-fiction
Mrs Funnybones by Twinkle Khanna wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award – nonfiction category

sachin-tendulkar-c-boria-majumdar

Sachin Tendulkar with the Crossword trophy. (C) Boria Majumdar

3. Biography
Playing It My Way by Sachin Tendulkar (co-author Boria Majumdar) wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award for best biography

4. Business and management
Chanakya in You by Radhakrishnan Pillai wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award in Business and Management category

5. Health and fitness
Body Goddess by Payal Gidwani wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award in health and wellness category

6. Children
Gita: For Children by Roopa Pai wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award for Children’s writing

WINNERS: JURY
7. Fiction
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for fiction

8.Non-fiction
Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshaya Mukul wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for best non-fiction

9.Translation
The Sun That Rose From the Earth by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury winner for the best translated book

10.Children
Our Nana was a Nutcase by Ranjit Lal wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for the best book for children’s writing

1 December 2016 

“Penguin on Wheels: Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India”

WBF 2( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. ) 

Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”

     -Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)

On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.

This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”

The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.

Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya WBF 6Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.

WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,

“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”

India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.

The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.

Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)

Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”

In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”

The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.

In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).

Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.

“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”

The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.

The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.

Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

28 June 2016

M. A. Orthofer’s “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction”

My review of Michael Orthofer’s wonderful book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction has been published in the award-winning website, Scroll, on 26 June 2016. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/810332/no-book-can-tell-you-about-all-books-but-this-one-comes-close . I am c&p the text below. 

The Complete Review website was established in 1999 by founder and managing editor Michael Orthofer. He has so far reviewed a staggering 3,760 books on that site. His goal is to read a book a day, but he averages about 260 a year. In a profile written for The New Yorker by novelist Karan Mahajan, Orthofer says, “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.”

The Complete Review is a literary salon, gathering reviews and essays about books and literature from all over the world in a short, curated format. Orthofer launched the website after spending more than five months writing the code for it. His rationale for this website was to take advantage of the tremendous reach and connectivity of the internet. His manifesto is laid out in the book of his website:

Suddenly, book reviews from print publications, new online resources, and individual readers from across the world were just a link away. Beyond reviews, an enormous amount of literary coverage, in both local languages and English, has been made available, from traditional newspaper stories to discussions in online forums to blogs devoted to every imaginable facet of reading. Professional websites – publishers’ foreign rights pages, the sites of national organisations promoting local literature abroad such as the French Publishers’ Agency or the Finnish Literature Exchange, and the sites of international literature agencies – provide additional up-to-date information and insights into contemporary fiction from many nations. The Complete Review is designed to help connect readers to much of this information.

Literature nations

Ironically, though, this wide-ranging coverage, because it’s organised chronologically and minutely, does not offer a countrywise bird’s-eye view of the literary landscape. Hence The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction. It’s Orthofer’s attempt to provide an entry point as well as a foundation to help readers navigate the literatures of the world.

American readers, one might add, who live in a country where English is the super-dominant language of available books, and translated titles amount to the now legendary three per cent of all titles. One of Orthofer’s attempts in this extraordinary compendium of modern and contemporary fiction is to make these readers aware of what is being written right now in languages other than English.

Sensibly, therefore, Orthofer – who is an immigrant in the US of Austrian origin – has chosen to classify his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature geographically, with the books and authors arranged by nation and region. The sections are broadly divided into Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa, Middle East, and Turkey; Asia; Oceania; Latin America and North America. “Because writers and their fiction move across many borders and languages, national origin, domicile, and language are only rudimentary categories by which to arrange writers,” he writes.

What is very obvious is that Orthofer’s intimate engagement with books has resulted in this crystal clear understanding of the manner in which literature may be mapped. His organisation underlines the close proximity between literature and socio-political factors, a link which is often denied by many.

Talking of books available across geographies makes this a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience. Orthofer astutely observes that a major drawback of looking only at literature available in English is that it can distort the view of national literatures, as there are many languages from which only a limited number of texts have been translated. “Many nations’ fiction is highly evolved, but because only a tiny amount of it is available in English, it may seem underdeveloped,” he observes.

Orthofer admits that though he has tried to map literature mostly after 1945, there are historical gaps primarily due to some older literature being inaccessible in English. He also rues his inability to list all the translators of all the editions of world literature he has referred to, but he makes up for it by offering resource tools in the appendices.

The view from America

Obviously, the perspective on world literature is an American one. So his fascinating commentary on books and authors focusses on what he is accessible in the US. Despite this constraint, he is able to weave a magical literary web that impressively contextualises authors.

So, given this point of view, can Indian readers trust Orthofer’s pronouncement on the literatures of the world and his assessments of individual writers? One way of judging this is to examine his observations on Indian writers, with whom readers in the country are already familiar.

This is where Orthofer proves how perceptive his readings are. For instance, he says that Amitav Ghosh’s first novel The Circle of Reason embodies the restless ambition that has come to define his work. That Amit Chaudhuri’s fiction is evocative, focusing on expression rather than invention. That Arundhati Roy’s colourful The God of Small Things is undeniably affecting, but Roy has a few too many tricks up her sleeves. One cannot but agree.

What does Orthofer have to say about literature from India’s neighbours? He points out that Pakistan’s Uzma Aslam Khan paints broad portraits of life that are personal and family-oriented, but she also mixes political and social commentary into her fiction. Tahmima Anam from Bangladesh uses the experiences and attitudes of her characters to reflect on Bangladesh’s post-war transition, without reducing them to simplistic types.

Interesting insights

Of course, you might wonder at the rationale for inclusion or omission – but that will only occur to those already familiar with the literature of a region. Thus, while prominent authors of south Asian origin but living in the West, like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam and Manjushree Thapa, are mentioned, Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni or the multiple-award-winning Akhil Sharma are not.

Orthofer’s insights make for rewarding reading. For instance, that the lack of translations from Ethiopia may be due to political factors such as never having being colonised or the long spell of dictatorial rule. He observes the rise of the cell-phone novel (keitai shosetsu) in Japan, the setbacks to Russian-language fiction after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the limited exposure to contemporary fiction written in other Indian languages. Orthofer also points out, perceptively, that Indian authors living outside India continue to situate their fiction in their homeland. In his survey of Arabic literature, Othofer focusses on the recent increase in fiction titles despite political censorship, an underdeveloped and fragmented market, and a small book-buying public.

The appendices are gloriously packed with information regarding translations into English and with supplemental resources. The latter includes lists of periodical and online resources, many of which are dedicated to cross-cultural exchange. He also lists publishers who have carved out niches for themselves with translations, among them AmazonCrossing, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Hispabooks, Open Letter Books, Pushkin Press and Seagull Books.

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is that very rare thing: an extraordinarily detailed book where the information is easily accessed and understood. It is a splendid reference, a dependable guide, and a rich map of the world through its books.

M. A. Orthofer The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. Pb. pp. 486  $27.95

26 June 2016

‘A sponge of history’ An interview with Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer among the stars

(I interviewed Kanishk Tharoor on his collection of short stories — Swimmer Among the Stars, published by Aleph. The interview was published online on 30 January 2016 and will be in print on 31 January 2016. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/kanishktharoor-talks-to-jaya-bhattacharji-rose-about-his-book-swimmer-among-the-stars-stories/article8171724.ece )

Kanishk Tharoor about writing in his pyjamas in the company of many cups of tea.

Kanishk Tharoor’s debut book Swimmer among the Stars: Stories is a magnificent collection of short fiction. It transports one into a different world, especially with its minute details, achieving the near-impossible with words. Tharoor’s short fiction was nominated for a National Magazine Award in the U.S. He writes the ‘Cosmopolis’ column for The Hindu Business Line’s BLink. He is currently at work on a radio series to be aired on BBC Radio in the spring of 2016, and on a novel. He lives in New York City.

Excerpts:

How did these stories grow? Out of a line, character or a memory?

The stories have quite separate points of origin. Some — like ‘Elephant at Sea’ — sprang from a real life story told to me when I was younger. Others were sparked by observations, an experience, sometimes just a line or an image. The work of the story would become justifying that line or image.

How many years were they in the making were these stories? Kanishk Tharoor

About a decade. The oldest story in the collection, ‘The Loss of Muzafar’, was written when I was 19. Most of the stories in the collection were written in the last five years.

How do you start a story? Do you plan in detail?

I begin with an image or idea or adventurous premise. I rarely plan — you can get away with that in short stories more easily than you can in a novel. I find that I do my best thinking as I write, so the story takes shape in the midst of its writing.

These stories are not historical fiction yet have a strong whiff of history in them. How much research does each story require?

‘Research’ makes it sound like a kind of deliberate project. The truth is I’m a helpless sponge of all sorts of historical material, particularly of rather obscure or little-known moments in history. The only research I really did was for the last story in the collection, ‘The Mirrors of Iskandar’, which retells episodes from legends about Alexander the Great that were known in the medieval world from Scotland to the Straits of Malacca.

I get the impression upon reading Your stories seem that it is like a fine blend of political news reporting and fiction, as in ‘The Fall of an Eyelash’ about refugees or the conversations in ‘A United Nations in Space’ revolving around international diplomacy. Is this intentional?

I don’t know if I’d call it a blend of political reporting and fiction… this is all very much fiction! But I am interested in political and social issues, and that interest filters into my fiction.

What is your writing routine?

I don’t really have a routine, as I inconsistently have time to devote to my fiction. When I write, it’s often in my pyjamas and in the company of many cups of tea.

In this collection you have very distinct voices and stories revolving around languages including the title story. This fascination with linguistic abilities that you capture so well in the diction makes me wonder if at times you write in public spaces too to capture the variety of languages? Was NYC with it being a repository of many languages an inspiration?

I actually do almost all my writing at home. But yes NYC was a source of inspiration for the story even though it wasn’t set there. NYC is actually a repository of dying languages that have survived in diaspora even as they have disappeared in their countries of origin. I think, more generally, there is a lot of NYC in the spirit of the collection, a city that in many ways has as its jurisdiction the world.

What writer do you admire the most and what would you like to ask them? 

I’ll say the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago. I’d ask him about where in Lisbon his ghost likes to wander.

How do you read? In print or digitally or both? Are you an eclectic reader? 

I read literature almost solely in print. I do not own an e-reader.

I read news mostly online, though I have subscriptions to a few journals. In terms of books, I read mostly fiction but I also consume  history, politics, and other non-fiction subjects.

Who are the authors you admire and who have influenced you? 

Too many to list. Perhaps predictably, the likes of Toni Morrison, Saramago, Italo Calvino, Borges, Amitav Ghosh and so on. But also the 19th century collectors of folklore, medieval Persian poets, and ancient tellers of epic around the world.

30 January 2016

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