Anjan Sundaram Posts

2016: Reading Order ( Asian Age, 3 January 2016)

books_32016 is an exciting year for books in India. Aravind Adiga, William Dalrymple, Aman Sethi and Romila Thapar will return in 2016 with new offerings, along with some exciting biographies and memoirs, including by Pranab Mukherjee, Karan Johar, Bhimsen Joshi. By Jaya Bhattacharji Rose ( The url for this story is available at: http://www.asianage.com/books/2016-reading-order-009 and it was published in print on Sunday, 3 January 2016)

The 2016 reading list is a wonderful balance between print, digital and self-published books. 2015 saw the launch of two publishing houses — Speaking Tiger and Juggernaut Books, with the latter focusing primarily on phonebooks. 2015 also saw the launch of new imprints like Aleph spotlight which features short books by India’s greatest writers and thinkers on current issues in the country; Harper Black focuses on criminal fiction; Seagull Books announced its Arab List; Juggernaut Books is the digital partner for some of Tulika Books children’s titles and Mapin has a Rethinking Conservation Series in association with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

According to the Nielsen Book Market Report on India 2015 trade publishing by genre is divided by 30 per cent adult fiction; 45 per cent adult non-fiction and 25 per cent children and young adults. Readers’ preferences are contemporary fiction, children’s fiction, crime, thriller and adventure, fiction. The 2016 highlights represent these categories.

Non-fiction
There is a very strong collection of non-fiction titles. Two unusual collections focus on an India not heard of regularly: Landscapes of Unequal India, edited by Jyotsna Singh and Akshay Deshmane where Indian journalists write medium form essays of original reportage about contemporary India and First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India (edited by Orijit Sen) is an anthology of non-fiction comics, featuring works by reporters, activists, artists, anthropologists and oral historians based in India. The authors use the medium of comics to reflect upon experiences of displacement, consumption, activism, legal history and more. India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani published to accompany his BBC series explores the lives of 50 Indians from Buddha to Dhirubhai Ambani. Noted journalist and Hindi writer Mrinal Pande’s Dhvanion ke Alok Main Stree by is about the vast contribution of professional women musicians (largely tawaifs till the mid-20th century) to Hindustani classical and semi-classical music in post-1857 India. Red Light Dispatches: Survivor Stories from India Brothels edited By Anuradha Joshi; The Gender of Caste by Charu Gupta; Beyond Caste by Sumit Guha, India’s Polity in the Age of Akbar by Iqtidar Alam Khan and The Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke which documents the fascinating exchange between the Persian-speaking Islamic elite of the early Mughal empire and traditional Sanskrit scholars. Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj by Omar Khan is the story of some of the most beautiful and popular postcards during the Raj and it talks about the first postcard publishers between 1892 and 1947.
Curation by Michael Bhaskar is on the art of selecting useful information to form meaningful collections.
With so much digital immersion happening, Cyberpsyched: the impact of human technology on Human Behaviour by Mary Aiken has to be read just as Prabir Purkayastha on net neutrality and the Internet. Some other must reads include Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audio Politics of a World Musical Revolution with an introduction by Naresh Fernandes; Kohinoor by William Dalrymple; Bad News by journalist Anjan Sundaram is an account of the battle for free speech in modern Rwanda. In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is about a writer’s passion for another language, in this case, Italian. Invisible Libraries by Lawrence Liang, Monica James and Danish Sheikh where the authors explore various aspects of bibliophilia, especially in the way it manifests itself via our love affair with libraries.

Biography/Memoir
Biographies always enthral readers. They are also a time capsule captured in the account of a personality’s life consisting mostly of politicians, film idols and successful businesspeople. Look out for Gandhi: An illustrated Biography by Pramod Kapoor, The Turbulent Years (1980-96) by Pranab Mukherjee, Vol. 2; memoirs by Margaret Alva, P. Chidambaram and Teesta Setalvad; Turnaround by Tarun Gogoi, Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art, edited by Dr Parul Dave-Mukherjee; The Biography on Sunil Dutt by Priya Dutt; The Unsuitable Boy by filmmaker Karan Johar; Emraan Hashmi Memoirs by Emraan Hashmi with Bilal Siddiqi; Memoirs of a Singer’s Son: Bhimsen Joshi, My Father by Raghavendra Bhimsen Joshi (Translated by Shirish Chindhade); Shashi Kapoor: A Biography by Aseem Chhabra, Rishi Kapoor: Autobiography and Leonard by William Shatner and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw: Biography by Seema Singh, Anand Kumar: The Man Behind Super 30 by Anand Kumar, First and Last Loves: An Autobiography by Ruskin Bond, Pallavi Iyer’s Motherhood Memoir and an unusual biography of the mango — Mangifera Indica.

Politics
Politics is a subject of enduring interest in India. AAP and Kejriwal: The Promise and Pitfalls by Venkitesh Ramakrishnan explores what this party and its leadership means to India. Modi and His Challenges by Rajiv Kumar explores the efficacy of the Prime Minister’s approach to structural reforms and governance. Rana Ayyub’s self-published investigation of the expose of the Gujarat fake encounters will be the one to watch out for. And then there is Prashant Kishor, a key strategist in the landslide victories of Mr Modi and Nitish Kumar. Kishor dissects what influences Indian voters today, their aspirations and what they now demand of their leaders. Aman Sethi’s The Making of Riot, Violence Studies edited by Kalpana Kannabiran and Tabish Khair’s The New Xenophobia will be good additions too.

Business/Academics
Politics is closely intertwined with the world of business. So noted economist Kaushik Basu’s An Economist in the Real World: The Art of Policymaking in India, Ruchir Joshi’s The Rise and Fall of Nations and business journalist Pravin Palande’s The Fundamentalists: Czars of India’s Financial Markets should be interesting.
Academic publications that can easily crossover into layman’s reading would be the fabulous The Historian and her craft: Romila Thapar (4 vols) which provides her complete trajectory as a scholar. and historian. Other titles in this strain are Literary Activism: A Collection of Essays edited by Amit Chaudhuri and Intimate Class Act: Friendship and Desire in Indian and Pakistani Women’s Fiction in English by Maryam Mirza, An Uncivil Woman: Critical Readings of Ismat Chughtai by Rakhshanda Jalil, Modern Indian by Giles Tillotson, 100 Design Classics by Jahnvi Dameron Nandan and The Oxford Readings in Indian Art edited by B.N. Goswamy.

Translations
Translations are rapidly acquiring a niche that sells well. Translating Bharat by Yatra Books in collaboration with Oxford Bookstore is a collection of essays that focuses on the specifics of translation. Some other titles to look out for are Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures by Muhammad Khalid Akhtar (translated by Bilal Tanweer). Dilli Tha Jiska Naam by Intizar Husain is an evocative tale about Delhi translated for the first time into English (Ghazala Jamil) and Hindi (Shubham Mishra) simultaneously. Tamas translated by Daisy Rockwell commemorates the centenary celebrations of Bhisham Sahni. Then there is Pyre (Tamil) by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan; The Fire of Aoling by Anurag Mahanta, translated by Manjeet Baruah; Death Anniversary by K.P. Ramanunni, translated by Yaseen Ashraf; Indira Goswami’s Three Novellas: Breaking the Begging Bowl, The Blood of Devipeeth and Delhi: 5 November 1991 translated by Dibjyoti Sarma.
Narratives of Healing: Partition Memories from the Two Punjabs translated by Jasbir Jain and Tripti Jain; Bara: Drought (translated by Chandan Gowda) and Hindutva or Hind Svaraj by U.R. Ananthamurthy, Shahenshah by N. S. Inamdar, Zindaginama by Krishna Sobti, Shah Muhammad’s Tonga by Ali Akbar Natiq and The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol 3, edited by Rakesh Khanna. A&A have some wonderful titles translated from Norwegian like Wafflehearts by Maria Parr as Meri Best Friend Aur Main and the Pim & Pom stories by Mies Bouhuis, illustrated by Fiep Westendorp.

Children’s Books
Children’s literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Tara Books continues to publish titles that make handicrafts a relevant art for children such as The Cloth of the Mother Goddess. Red Turtle’s Exploring India series by Subhadra Sen Gupta, illustrated by Tapas Guha, will interest readers who want to know more about various facets of India.
The Ray Collection translated by Arunava Sinha et al is a collection of the best stories by the Ray family writers: Upendra Kishore, Sukumar Ray and Satyajit Ray and The Fox’s Wedding by Harindranath Chattopadhyay is illustrated by Atanu Roy. They are also publishing Monkey Trouble and Other Stories: The Ruskin Bond Comics Book 1.

Duckbill will publish for children Invisible People: Stories of Courage from India’s Streets by Harsh Mander. Excavating History by Devika Cariappa for children delves into stories about archaeological sites. Duckbill will publish Special Agent Nanju by Zainab Suliaman, an unusual and action-packed book set in an integrated school for children with special needs. Scholastic will continue with its diverse fare but particularly exciting are the travelogues for children written by Jerry Pinto and Parineeta Shetty and Malgudi-style stories of growing up by Lalita Iyer called When Appa Bought a Buffalo and Other Stories. HarperCollins India is launching its Beebop series of graded reading and publishing Wattpad star Estelle Maskame’s Did I mention I Need You? And Did I mention I Miss You? Tota Books and Mango Books have a delicious collection of picture books lined up for 2016.

Fiction
Fiction, as always, is overflowing with choices. Debut writers Kanishk Tharoor, Shubha Mudgal and Sunny Leone will publish short story collections. Other well-known authors who will return with new books are Mridula Koshy, Aravind Adiga, China Mieville, Don Delillo, Helen Oyeyemi, Maha Khan Philips, Tahmima Anam, Meg Rosoff, Graham Swift, Samantha Shannon, Lucia Berlin and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni. Hindu mythology is being retold: The Story of Hanuman by Mala Dayal, illustrated by Taposhi Ghoshal, Arshia Sattar’s Hanuman, a beautifully illustrated edition of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, The Oxford Mahabharatha Series: Women (Vol. 1) by Nrishina Bhaduri.

6 Jan 2016

Modern day travelogues

Modern day travelogues

Punjabi ParmesanTravel writing has always had a special place in literature. Readers have been fascinated by stories of other places, cultures, people. In the past it was understandable when there were text-heavy descriptions of people, dresses, cities, architecture, food, vegetation and terrain. But today? To read modern-day travelogues when it is the “image age”, the most popular news feeds on social media platforms are photographs. It is akin to being immersed in a National Geographic-like environment 24×7. There are websites such as Flickr, Pinterest, Mashable, Tumblr, and YouTube, wonderful repositories of images and movie clips uploaded by institutions, media firms and individuals. So to read three books — Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from Europe in Crisis, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi and Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes — was an intriguing experience. Except for Sam Miller’s book that is peppered with black and white images laid within the text, the other two books are straightforward narratives. I would deem them as travelogues written in the “classical tradition” of relying solely upon the narrator/author taking the reader along a personal journey through a country/city different to the land of their birth. They make for a sharp perspective, intelligent analysis and just a sufficient mish-mash of history with a commentary on current social, political and economic developments, without really becoming dry anthropological studies. The writing style in all three books is lucid and easy.

Pallavi Aiyar’s Punjabi Parmesan is a fascinating account of her travels through Europe from 2009 onward–at a time of economic gloom. It is part-memoir, part-journalism and part-analysis ( mostly economic) of what plagues Europe. It has anecdotes, plenty of statistics and footnotes, accounts of the meetings, conferences she was able to attend as journalist and have conversations with influential policy makers and politicians. After spending a few years in Beijing she moved to Brussels, so is able to draw astute observations about the decline in Europe. Having been a foreign correspondent for over a decade, reporting from China, Europe and South East Asia, mostly on business stories from the “frontline” of action, she has an insightful understanding of the depressing scenario in Europe. It is a book worth reading.

Rana Dasgupta, CapitalRana Dasgupta’s Capital is about Delhi, the capital of India. Delhi has been settled for centuries, but became the capital of British India in 1911. The first wave of migrants who formed the character of modern Delhi came soon after the country became Independent in 1947. Over the years Delhi grew but at a moderately slow pace. Twenty years after post-liberalisation ( 1991), Delhi transformed so rapidly that the old world, old rhythms and culture became quietly invisible. Delhi continued to be a melting pot of immigrants. It became a city synonymous with wealth, material goods, luxury and uncivil behaviour, bordering on crassness. It is a city of networking and networked individuals. Rana Dasgupta’s book is a meander through the city. He meets a lot of people — the nouveau riche, the first wave of migrant settlers post-1947, members of the old city families who bemoan the decline of tehzeeb in the city. Capital is a commentary on Delhi of the twenty-first century, a city that is unrecognisable to the many who have been born and brought up here. Rana Dasgupta moved to the city recently — over a decade ago–but this brings a clarity to his narrative that a Delhiwallah may or may not agree with. It certainly is a narrative that will resonate with many across the globe since this is the version many want to hear — the new vibrant India, Shining India, the India where the good days ( “acche din”) are apparent. There is “prosperity”, clean broad streets, everything and anything can be had at the right price here. It is a perspective. Unfortunately the complexity of Delhi, the layers it has, the co-existence of poor and rich, the stories that the middle classes have to share are impossible to encapsulate in a book of 400-odd pages. It is a readable book that captures a moment in the city’s long history. It will be remembered, discussed, critiqued, and will remain for a long time to come in the literature associated with Delhi. (The cover design by Aditya Pande is stupendous! )

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller is a gentle walk through the history of India, mostly written as a memoir. William Dalrymple’s blurb for the book is apt —a “love letter to India”. When India was celebrating its fiftieth year of Independence there was a deluge of books and anthologies reflecting, discussing the history of India. To read Sam Miller’s book is to get a delightful and idiosyncratic understanding of this large landmass known as India, a puzzle few have been able to fathom. The author is not perturbed by doing a history of the things he truly likes about the country or that he has been intrigued by conversations he probably had. To his credit he has done the legwork as expected of a professional journalist and discovered people, regions, histories, spaces, cities for himself. For instance he states he is an “aficionado of cemetries and of tombs”, but discovered “many Indian are scared of cemetries — except when they house the tombs of ancient emperors and their consorts. They often find my desire to visit graveyards a little strange, as if I were a necrophile or had a perverse desire to disturb the ghosts of the dead.”( p.232) A fascinating observation since it is true — cemeteries are strangely peaceful oasis of calm. If you say that out aloud in India, people will look at you in a strange manner.

Anjan Sundaram, CongoModern-day travelogues are many, available in print and digital. Two recent examples stand out. Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey into Congo about his time in the African country. Fabulous stuff! Very reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s writing ( especially his diaries) written in Africa. And the other is a recent essay that physicist and well-known speculative fiction writer, Vandana Singh wrote on her blog, “Alternate Visions: Some Musings on Diversity in SF” ( http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/alternate-visions-some-musings-on-diversity-in-sf/ ). It is a long and brilliant essay about her writing but also a though-provoking musing about diversity, different cultural experiences and writing — elements that are at the core of travel writing, have always been and continue to be.

6 July 2014 

Pallavi Aiyar Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 320 Rs. 599

Rana Dasgupta Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 460 Rs. 799

Sam Miller A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 599 

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit, PubSpeak, June 2013

PubSpeak, Jaya
( My column, “PubSpeak”, for June 2013 is on What constitutes good literature? It is published in BusinessWorld online. The link is: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/good-lit-versus-saleable-lit/r964342.37528/page/0 . It was uploaded on 29 June 2013. )

Good Lit Versus Saleable Lit

What is good literature? The fine, complex and well-crafted story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well? The debate is on…

Some of my happiest childhood memories are sitting curled up in a chair and reading. I read and read. I bought books, I was gifted books, I inherited books. My brother and I browsed through encyclopaedias, books on art and museums, read fiction, non-fiction, and anything else in between. Call it by any name, but the pleasure of holding and reading a book was tremendous. In fact one of the canvases I painted was of my brother reading a Leslie Charteris “Saint” novel, borrowed from the library its red jacket visible while he lies on the bed absorbed in reading. We read voraciously. We read whatever came our way. I don’t recall anyone telling us that books were strictly by age or category. We liked a good story. Period.

Today it is different. In June 2013 award-winning German writer, translator and Publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag, Michael Krüger, said in Publishing Perspectives, the daily e-newsletter on publishing, “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. …Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding.” Publishers are increasingly more careful about commissioning titles and work a great deal on the packaging and promotion of the books. Always with an eye on the market, reaching out to the regular customers and trying to connect with new readers. For instance titles for children are being classified according to age, to make it easier for customers to find authors.

New imprints are being launched especially for young adult literature (it is a booming market segment) – Inked (Penguin Books India), Red Turtle (Rupa Publications), Duckbill (Westland) and Scholastic Nova. The idea is to always have a pulse on the market. Some of the genres that are popular are commercial fiction, children’s literature, non-fiction, self-help, business and then there are new lists appearing – young adult/ tweens, cross-over titles, and speculative fiction.

Jaspreet Gill, a marketing executive who wandered into the industry a year ago, (and the publishing bug has bitten him) says “It is not an industry for the most part driven by Editorial (I thought it was), or the quality of content. The whole trade is driven by sales. The worth of a book is judged by how well it can be sold, or how much the author can spend and how well he can be utilised for marketing. This is also, with all due respect to them. They are smart salesmen, but that is all that they are, selling commodities, not presenting ideas, ideologies, and good literature. I sincerely believe that the reason for success of the authors of commercial fiction is not the quality of their content, but the price of the book, and visibility they are able to get at the retail stores. They are also clever marketers, and know how to sell their products to people.”

Somak Ghoshal, former literary fiction commissioning editor with Penguin Books, acquired some fine literature (Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Anjan Sundaram, Neamat Imam and Shazaf Fatima Haider) says, “Commercial fiction sells. The print runs are staggering. The success of these titles allows the firm to acquire literature that in turn develops the brand of the firm. It is a symbiotic relationship.”

It raises the (eternal) question of what is good literature? What sells? And why? Does good literature equal saleable literature? Naveen Kishore, Publisher, Seagull Books, Kolkata (with offices in New York and London), offers an explanation “Like everything else, we need to question the ‘market’. After all, it cannot exist in a vacuum. To put it another way: without content — largely implying the labour of the author, the effort of the publisher and all the other players including the vital function that a translator plays — where would the market be? What would it ‘showcase’? What would it sell? And let us make no bones about the fact that ‘content’ is not simply and only about a certain swiftly ‘saleable’ kind of book. It is also about the arts and literature and culture and philosophy and thought that go into making us human. Again if we persist with our interpretation of what the market wants we will end up by not publishing 90 per cent of these subjects. What kind of a future will that be? It is in this context that the market has a responsibility and a proactive role to play. ‘It’ (the market) cannot be lazy about this and merely sit back and expect only the books that make the grade according to ‘its’ standards be accepted! The market has to learn to cater, feed, nurture tastes for literature that do not necessarily extend to the millions . . . always remembering that the first Kafka text only sold 800 copies! If the market had behaved as it does now we would never have had a Franz Kafka! It is in this context that I suggest that the market needs to find you.” Sterling Lord, literary agent to Jack Kerouac, Ken Casey, Gloria Steinem, and Berenstains reports in his memoir Lord of Publishing of Ted Geisel, editor, Random House who published the Berenstain bear stories that he insisted on the story being a page-turner. But it “wasn’t only the story that Ted focused on; he cared about the title page, the type, the paper, every phrase, every word, every rhyme, and every drawing.” The intervention of the editor created a book that would sell and launched a new author into the market. By March 2009, nearly fifty years after publication, The Berenstain Bears Go to School had sold 3,520,554 copies in North America alone.

Of course the notion of what constitutes “good” literature is subjective but it is obviously a challenge that plagues the industry worldwide. Is it literature that is fine, complex, well-crafted and tells a good story that will survive over a period of time or is it literature that sells phenomenally well and caters to the mass market? Can literary tastes even be defined? Eric Hobsbawm says it well in Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, “… much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.” No one really knows. Is it the author that creates a market with their storytelling or does the market create an author? Publishing continues. New authors are discovered. New readers emerge. The cycle continues.

As I file this column, it is announced that Penguin Books India has signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) with Ravi Subramanian, popularly referred to as the John Grisham of banking. This follows close on the heels of Amish Tripathi, of the Shiva trilogy fame, who has inked a deal worth Rs 5 crore (approx $843,000) with Westland for his next series.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist.