Brunch Posts

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

It is a novel worth reading.

Here are a few more related links:

9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499 

Literary festivals in India, Brunch, Hindustan Times, 12 Jan 2014

Literary festivals in India, Brunch, Hindustan Times, 12 Jan 2014

Today my article on literary festivals of India has been published in the Brunch, Hindustan TimesThe title in print is called “Booked & Hooked” and online it is ” Your guide to litfests this season”Here is the link to the online version: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/your-guide-to-litfests-this-season/article1-1171368.aspx. Meanwhile I am c&p the longer version of the article published.) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

“I attend literary festivals to meet authors, to see another dimension to their life, listen to the heated conversations, introduce my four-year-old twin sons to famous people, and inculcate a sense of reading culture in them,” says Umesh Dubey, first-generation entrepreneur who takes his family to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) for the entire week.

A literary festival can be defined as a space where writers and readers meet, usually an annual event in a city or as “literature in performance”. Must-have elements include panel discussions with a healthy mix of new and seasoned writers, Q&As with the audience, author signing sessions, workshops related to writing and publishing, book launches, bookstores, a food court, and entertainment in the evenings. And – hopefully also – intellectually stimulating conversations, a relaxed ambience, picturesque setting, good weather (no dry days!), and networking possibilities.

In India, literary festivals came into vogue with the astounding success of Jaipur Literature Festival, which began in 2006 . The timing was right, soon after the Christmas holidays/ winter break, in January, when Rajasthan is a favourite tourist destination. To organise a festival in the Diggi Palace Grounds, chatting with authors most readers have only admired from afar while sipping the hot Diggi chai in earthen cups, basking in the warm winter sun, listening to crackling good conversations and at times heated debates, and as darkness descends, preparing to hear the musicians who will perform… it made for quite a heady experience. And if at any point you get weary of the crowds and the conversations, it is easy to step out for a jaunt as a tourist and explore Jaipur. This basic template has begun to be emulated across the country.

jaiput-lit-festAccording to the Jaipur Litfest producer, Sanjoy Roy, the intention is to create “a democratic access system of first-come-first-seated where we treat everyone as our guests and do not make a fuss over VIPs. The colour and design create a sense of an Indian mela.” Of course prior to JLF, India did have a fair share of literary “festivals” like Ajeet Caur’s SAARC Literature Festivals, or those that were organised at the Sanskriti Anandgram in Delhi or even the early editions of the Katha festivals, but admittedly none were on a fabulous scale, nor were they open to the public. According to Maina Bhagat, director, Apeejay Kolkata Festival, “The city is the biggest player in the festival”.

So what explains the runaway success of today’s literature festivals? Says poet K. Satchidanadan, “There is a whole urban and semi-urban middle class youth eager to meet authors and listen to them in a festive atmosphere. The publishers are interested in releasing their books there and having their authors on the platform. The authors are interested in meeting other authors and also readers. Cities also get to be on the literary map of India with such celebrations.” Ananth Padmanabhan, senior vice-president, sales, Penguin India, says, “With social media dominating mind space, festivals are a great place to sit back and connect readers to writers; such an engagement opportunity was lacking.” In fact, festival-hopping has resulted in a modern-day phenomenon of the festival junkie: People who move from festival to festival.

Of late the Indian economy may have been in the doldrums but there is no denying that post-liberalisation, more and more people have disposable income, they do want to invest in culture and what better way than to make it a family outing? It is a democratic patronage of the arts. It is also a reflection of how much India is becoming a writing culture rather than a reading culture.

Arshia Sattar, who through Sangam House organises Lekhana Literary Weekend  (an extension of the Sangam House international writers’ residency programme that is run outside Bangalore) and is also jury member, DSC Award for Literature 2014, says, “My concern is that we are moving further away from ‘literature’ and closer to writing. I think if we had fewer ‘festivals’ and if they had  a focus rather than being all things to all people (which is probably what their sponsors want in terms of ‘footfalls’) . . .we might see people stepping out to literary events with dedication.”

Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India, says, “There is not a single real benefit any festival brings to a publisher. And there are a number of cons – it costs a lot to get your author up there for almost no returns on investment, and zero promotional benefit. Yes, if you switch off the business aspect, for the audience it’s a great platform to see your favourite authors, and for authors a great platform to cross-commune with other writers. For editors it’s a good networking and ideas engagement opportunity. But in terms of sales or author brand building, go back to every single festival and put down the authors and their titles and see the impact of either media coverage or sales, and you’ll see not one has moved beyond their earlier levels. Some very successful (read great stage performances) sessions do result in immediate brisker sales at the venue bookshop, but even those are minimal – anything between 30 copies to 100 copies.” Adds Diya Kar Hazra, publisher, trade, Bloomsbury, “There are so many literary festivals these days – sometimes two or three in one city. The writer is expected to do more than just write these days – they blog, they tweet, they have pages on FB. They appear at festivals and events reading from their books and having conversations with fellow writers. The reader–writer relationship has changed, as a result. Authors are much more accessible than they ever were.”

Author Shovon Chowdhury who released his debut novel, The Competent Authority, earlier this year says that attending literary festivals “feels good. You feel special. I’m not jaded yet, so I enjoy it. I also love meeting lots of interesting people, including some super-intelligent ones. It gives me a dose of much needed perspective and humility. Plus there’s free meals.”

An attractive feature of a literary festival is the free entry. This requires the festival management to scour for private sponsors, funds and collaborations that will help in putting together the extravaganza and these could be either in money or in kind. In many case, corporate house are willing to assist with sponsorship for the brand visibility and media coverage. Recently tourism departments and state governments have partnered with festivals which is understandable given the positive impact festivals can have on the local economy. For instance, in a dipstick survey the JLF management did last year, it was estimated that approximately Rs 20 crores of additional spend could be attributed to JLF in Jaipur on account of accommodation, restaurant and shopping. Even this is set to change. The inaugural edition of the Pune International Literature Festival had ticketed entry. Comic Con too proposes to sell tickets in 2014.

Much of the success of the festivals depends on the programme created, parallel sessions, selection of the moderators and if necessary, themes selected. It is also heavily dependent upon the curation, storyboard to the chemistry between the panelists.  Altaf Tyrewala, Director, Chandigarh Literature Festival, says “The organizers and I were struggling to think of how CLF could be different from other literary festivals. We realized that in the circus, we often lose sight of the book, the very foundation of literature! So we decided that CLF would showcase the book, and nothing but the book. We decided to let active literary critics nominate that one book that had stayed with them over the past decade. There was a general agreement on what constituted a good book. Naturally, the discussion between the author and the nominating critic was focused entirely on the book in question. It made every session riveting, and more importantly the invitees realized that their presence was crucial to the festival’s format.” It helps to do some thinking in advance to avoid embarrassing incidents as happened at a recently concluded festival. The moderator was informed just before stepping on to the stage that the authors lined up were commercial-fiction authors. The response, the moderator shuddered and said, “I would never read such authors!”

The buzz around festivals is tremendous. But the bubble may soon burst as has happened with book launches. People will weary of them if they happen too often. They will lose their charm for various reasons. As writer Ravi Subramanian points out, “The divisions between the literary and commercial authors are becoming apparent at these festivals.” Second, most of the festivals are conducted predominantly in English, though slowly this too is changing, to reflect and represent the local languages and the international participants. There are writers who have begun to feel bored and disillusioned  with these festivals that often sustain and strengthen the hierarchies among writers, dividing them into “stars” and ordinary writers. Even the most ordinary Indian English writers acquire “stardom” while the best of language writers are often time-fillers invited most often to show that they too are represented.

Over the years the festivals have come to align themselves before and after the December/Christmas holidays, making it easier for authors to mark their presence at more than one event. The length and dates of the festivals are also determined by collaborating partners. In fact Surya Rao, director, Hyderabad Literary Festival, says, “We avoid a clash of dates with other major lit festivals because we check the dates of other fests. The Jaipur fest happens to be the closest to us.”

Maybe Indian festival organisers will collaborate with each other as happens in other countries like Australia.

A possible “classification” of literary festivals. 

There are so many literary festivals being organised in India that one has to create some sort of “classification”. For instance, festivals that have stood the test of time of a minimum period of three years, grown in popularity (as measured by the increasing audience participation), established a brand in their name and proven to be sustainable in terms of the sponsorship would probably be at the top of the list. These would be the major milestones in the festival calendar – Jaipur ( Jaipur Literature Festival), Calcutta (Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Kolkata Literary Meet) , Chennai (Hindu Lit for Life), Mumbai (Kalaghoda, Times of India festival), Hyderabad Literary Festival and the Sahitya Akademi’s Festival of Letters.

Then there is what could be termed as a “sub-genre” – that is, equally strong brands, dealing with genres of literature which are not necessarily given sufficient space for intense engagement, such as Bookaroo (children’s literature) organised in Delhi and in Pune (in collaboration with Sakaal Times), ComicCon (comics and graphic novels), Samanvay (Indian languages) in collaboration with the India Habitat Centre,, Cultures of Peace: Festival of the Northeast (Women and Human Rights) organised by Zubaan, Poetry with Prakriti (poems), Mussoorie Writers Festival (mountain and travel writing) organised by Stephen Alter and Lekhana (a long literary weekend).

Finally there are the relatively new festivals that are as yet to establish themselves, but people are already familiar with them – Bangalore, Kasauli, Shillong, Agra, Lucknow, Benaras, Patna, Bhubhaneshwar, Chandigarh, Pune, and Kovalam. And there are still more being organised.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose 

On historical fiction ( My article published in HT’s Brunch, 9 March 2013)

On historical fiction ( My article published in HT’s Brunch, 9 March 2013)

http://www.hindustantimes.com/Brunch/Brunch-Stories/Once-Upon-A-Time-In-India/Article1-1023602.aspx

Once upon a time in India
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Hindustan Times
March 09, 2013
First Published: 12:11 IST(9/3/2013)
Last Updated: 19:27 IST(9/3/2013)

1860s London was agog with the Codrington case. It was a juicy story involving vice-admiral Codrington and his wife Helen, accused by her husband of having had an affair with Colonel Anderson, that was unfurling in the divorce courts. During the proceedings, front-page news at the time, the skewed slant of the legal system towards women became apparent. One of the key witnesses was Helen’s friend, Emily Faithfull or ‘Fido’, a leading member of the first wave of the British women’s emancipation movement and owner of The Victoria Press. Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter recreates the events in her novel. She relies on contemporary accounts of the period, but for the sake of story, compresses the events spread over some years to a few months of 1864. She uses artistic licence to reveal the contents of the sealed letter that were used in the courtroom but never made public.

Madhulika Liddle
The author of The Englishman’s Cameo, set her detective, Muzaffar Jang, in 17th- century Delhi. “Commercial fiction dependent upon mythology is mistakenly clubbed with historical fiction,” she says. These are the joys of reading well-told historical fiction – a rollicking good story, but pinned in facts (hugely dependent on meticulous research) combined with attention to detail.

What is historical fiction?
A historical fiction society website says, “To be deemed historical, a novel must have been written at least 50 years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).” Writer Sheba Karim (whose forthcoming novel revolves around Razia Sultan) describes them as “novels set in a past time period, which feels different from our own in terms of aspects like technological advancement, scientific understanding, political systems and modes of transport so that the author must include rich, descriptive detail to give the reader a strong sense of time and place.”

The scene in India
In Britain, it is a hugely successful genre, spawning an association, awards and wide acclaim. Jenny Barden, author and organiser of the Historical Novel Society (HNS) conference held in London in September 2012, comments that of the 13 titles longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011, more than half were in some sense ‘historical’. Of the six titles recently shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, four were historical. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and last year, the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, won the prize again. Now, the historical fiction genre is doing well here too.


Diana Preston One half of the husband-wife team behind the Empire of the Moghul series says the conflicts of the Mughals’ lives caught their imagination. “And historical fiction offered the best scope for conveying that excitement.”

The Grand Mughals
Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul series has also been a big success in India. ‘Alex Rutherford’ is the pseudonym of husband-and-wife team, Diana and Michael Preston. “We chose to fictionalise the story of the Mughal emperors after reading the source material beginning with The Baburnama – the first biography in Islamic literature – through to the court chronicles of the later emperors,” wrote Diana in an email. “The conflicts of their lives caught our imagination and historical fiction seemed to offer the best scope for conveying the excitement of what happened, since the it offers greater freedom to create dialogue, explain motivation, interpret silences in the sources than non-fiction.” According to the Rutherfords, one of the great pleasures of historical fiction is delineating the characters. “What caught our attention particularly was how the Mughal dynasty, outwardly so opulent and successful, carried the seeds of its own destruction within it. Their tradition – brought with them from West Asia – was for familial rivalries expressed in their saying ‘taktya, takhta’, ‘throne or coffin’. The Mughals’ greatest enemies were not their external foes but each other. Exploring their jealousies and feuds was absorbing.”

Who was Mira Bai’s husband?

Kiran Nagarkar Nagarkar’s Cuckold is one of the best known in the genre. “The book has a narrative epic. At the same time it tends to be philosophical,” says the author.
Kiran Nagarkar’s brilliant Cuckold (a tale told from Mira Bai’s husband’s perspective) leads among local historical-fiction novels by being continuously in print since it was first published in 1997. “I do not see Cuckold as historical fiction but as a very modern book,’ Nagarkar says. “I wasn’t trying to write anything factual, but luckily it fell into place. The book has a narrative epic. At the same time it does something very underhand, it tends to be philosophical – personal ruminations, state craft, and the science of retreating.”

More tales from the past
Indu Sundaresan, author of the popular Taj Mahal trilogy (The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses, The Shadow Princess) about Mehrunnisa aka Empress Nur Jahan, the most powerful woman in the Mughal empire, says she always daydreamed a lot. “My love for history, and storytelling, came from my father,” she explains. “Dad was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, and at every place he was posted, he’d take us to visit the forts and palaces and fill our heads with tales of the kings and queens who inhabited them. That’s why, I think, I write historical fiction.”
In her book The Englishman’s Cameo and The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, Madhulika Liddle sets her detective hero loose in 17th-century Delhi. One reason it’s so popular is that it lets you time travel in the city you thought you knew.

The young-adult niche
Subhadra Sen Gupta, known for her historical fiction set in ancient and medieval India, says that recreating the time and life of people is the real challenge when it comes to hooking younger readers. “I also travel to historical places in search of locations because the descriptions of places are crucial.”

Subhadra Sen Gupta The author of Let’s Go Time Travelling likes to visit historical places. “Recreating a time and the life of people is the real challenge,” she says

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the author of Neela: Victory Song, a young-adult novel set during the freedom movement, says there isn’t that much available for younger readers. “It is very important for young readers to understand history and their heritage,” she says. “It helps them make sense of the contemporary world. It teaches them about the link between cause and effect. Historical fiction, often full of action and excitement and suspense, draws young readers into that time and teaches them history in a fun way.” She rubbishes the theory that historical fiction is easier to write. “Much more research has to be done about the period. For Neela: Victory Song, I interviewed my mother, who was a young girl during that time.” The common factor binding these writers is not necessarily the genre, but their attention to detail and rigorous research. They are meticulous in getting their facts right about their protagonists and reading around the period including contemporary accounts but presenting it differently in a non-textbook fashion.

History or Mythology?
Unfortunately in India, mythology-driven fiction is often mistakenly clubbed with historical fiction. Some instances of this confusion are David Hair’s young-adult trilogy Return of Ravana (Pyre of Queens, The Ghost Bride and more); Ashok Banker’s The Forest of Stories, Krishna Udayasankar’s Govinda, and Ashwin Sanghi’s The Krishna Key.

But historical fiction is everywhere. Publishers are nurturing this genre and it has steady sales. Maybe the current outburst of publications on the Indian literary landscape such as Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer; Irfan Master’s A Beautiful Lie; Biman Nath’s The Tattooed Fakir; Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s The Taj Conspiracy and Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour bode well for those who like a good historically accurate yarn.

Prizes and readers
The market for the historical fiction genre is growing. Previously the Historical Writers’ Association (HWA) together with Goldsboro Books set up the £2,000 HWA-Goldsboro Crown for Debut Historical Fiction written by a previously unpublished-in-fiction author; now the HNS has founded the £5,000 Historical Novel Society International Award for an unpublished work of historical fiction written by any author (whether previously unpublished or not). Add these to the prizes already well-established for historical fiction, and there are now a good range of awards for any writer in the genre to aim for.

Alexandra Pringle, editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, has a suprising slant on the genre, which may well account for its popularity: “Historical fiction probably has a more balanced audience in terms of gender than much other fiction: men as well as women enjoy historical fiction.”

The writer is an international publishing consultant and columnist

Reading up the past
Here is a list of historical fiction novels that you could go for

Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Street
Robert Grave’s I, Claudius
Leon Uris’s Exodus
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace
Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn
Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient
Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold
Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows
Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter
Indu Sundaresan’s The Shadow Princess, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses.
Alex Rutherford’s The Empire of the Mughal series
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five
Barabara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible
Subhadra Sengupta’s Kartik’s War; Kartik & the Lost Gold; Waiting for Tansen (adults); Sword of Dara Shikoh; History, Mystery, Dal, Biryani; A Clown for Tenali Rama; Give us Freedom; Bishnu the Dhobi Singer; Once Upon a Time in India plus many biographies – Akbar, Ashoka, Gandhi and fictionalised bios of Jahanara & Jodh Bai.
Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo and The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries
Mukul Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s Victory Song
Arupa Kalita Patangia’s Dawn
Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Tiger Claw and What the Body Remembers
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies
Andrew Miller’s Pure
Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues
Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray
Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies

From HT Brunch, March 10

On literary agents, unedited and complete article

On literary agents, unedited and complete article

Literary Agents and agencies in India, Brunch (http://www.hindustantimes.com/Brunch/Brunch-Stories/How-to-sell-and-buy-a-book/Article1-826279.aspx )

BRIEF: on literary agents and agencies in India: who they are, what they actually do, whether they serve here as they seem to do in the west as any writers’s first reader, handholder and guide.

Literary agents are defined as those who represent writers to publishers, theatre and film producers. They negotiate on behalf of the author for the best and fairest deal possible. For this, they are paid a commission, which is a percentage of the proceeds of the sale that they have negotiated for their client. It is usually 15 per cent for domestic rights and 20 per cent for international rights. According to David Godwin, “usually an advance is paid over four moments–signature, delivery, publication and paperback publication.” Author and poet, Jeet Thayil says, a literary agent is a blessing, since s/he is responsible for all the nitty-gritty administrative work, including the tedious follow up required in signing a book deal, releasing precious time for the author to focus their energies on a constructive and creative output, rather than be exhausted by paperwork.

Literary agents first burst upon the scene in nineteenth century Britain. It began with A.P. Watt whose work as a literary agent appears to have begun around 1878, when he was asked by a friend, the poet and novelist George MacDonald, to sell his stories for him. By 1881, he was known as an advertising agent and a literary agent. Initially he charged a fee for the services he offered, but soon switched to taking a 10 per cent commission on the money that he earned for his clients on any transaction he completed. By the end of the nineteenth century, he was representing some of the leading writers of the time, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Besant, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. In 1893 when publisher William Heinemann wrote a scathing portrait of a literary agent, he in all likelihood had A.P. Watt in mind: ‘This is the age of the middleman,’ wrote Heinemann. ‘He is generally a parasite. He always flourishes. I have been forced to give him some little attention lately in my particular business. In it he calls himself the literary agent.’

However uncomplimentary a statement this may have been of an agent, the truth is that a literary agent is an indispensable part of the publishing eco-system, even a century and a half later. An agent has specialist knowledge of different publishing houses and is aware of the personal tastes of editors and is able to sell written material to them, matching the writer with the right stable. Agents are also able to provide an author a range of services – reading a raw manuscript, assessing if it is fit for publication, if it is then helping them tidy it up before selling it to an appropriate publisher or if there is interest from more than one publishing house, setting up an “auction” and selling it to the best bidder, negotiating terms and contracts and collecting payments and royalties. Today, agents are expected to be a filter between the publisher and the writer but also be the author’s agony aunt and professional advisor, rolled in one. They also network with agents and publishers in other territories, across the world — ensuring that the book gets published across the globe, and increasingly in different languages.

So is an agent necessary? A question often asked by new as well as seasoned authors. For well-known novelist, Hari Kunzro, “It’s now more or less impossible to access editors at mainstream publishing houses without going through an agent. The volume of unsolicited submissions means that the ‘slush-pile’ is enormous. Apart from using an agent to get connected to the right editor at the right publishing house, agents are also necessary to help you negotiate the increasingly-complex world of book contracts. Unless you know what percentage discount Amazon is going to try to negotiate for a paperback sale, or the going rate for Ebook royalties in South Africa, or whether you should be assigning Canadian rights to your UK publisher, or reserving them for your US publisher, you need an agent. Publishing is probably more competitive than it’s ever been. As the book market transforms, and thousands of hopeful new writers pile in, looking for readers, writers need to have someone on their side.” Having said that, successful translator, Arunava Sinha has no literary agent representing him, but he does realize their significance. (Arunava translates from Bengali into English, he has 14 books published in India, with 6 publishers, 2 titles have been published abroad across 15 publishers and in 11 languages, including English.) According to him, an agent in the Indian publishing landscape has three crucial aspects: for an author to reach an Indian publisher; for an author to find a foreign publisher and in qualitative consulting.

In India, the concept of literary agents is relatively new, about seven years. The oldest agency is Jacaranda, run by Jayapriya Vasudevan and Priya Doraswamy. For them, agenting in India “is hard to compare to any other part of the world.” But they do see this sector growing rapidly in India, especially since they feel that overall professionalism is setting in and processes are getting streamlined. They are beginning to discover that writers prefer to deal with agents and it is a “fair deal” since w”writing is a very personal journey and a good agent is asked to manage everything.” They do warn their authors, especially the first time authors that publishing is an extremely slow industry and submission to a publisher is very “angst driven”. So, as agents they are expected to manage the author’s “nervous energy”. They give advice ranging from editing, managing, marketing and sales. Within the Indian context, they are recognized and with the current mantra for foreign publishers being that they want to link with those who are strong in their own countries, Jacaranda’s position is well established. But as Jayapriya points out, “Our geographical locations being widely spread, with Priya being in New York and my being in Singapore, our list is eclectic and interesting. Selling rights also becomes more direct in several countries. For America for instance, we do not use any sub agents.” As they affirm, “It is a word of mouth industry and it is all relationship based. If we think it is a viable sale, To be connected to the world is a must deal.”

The second literary agency recognized in India and abroad is Siyahi, headed by Mita Kapur who is based in Jaipur. According to Mita, “Siyahi started with 2 authors in 2007 and we now have some 82 authors, with a growth rate of 100% every year and this year I am expecting double the growth rate. The turnover for Siyahi is 1.25cr which is inclusive of the funding that comes in for the festivals. I get around 5 submissions every day but we select only 2 or 3 out of our blind submissions received every year. The number of authors growing is because either they are already published authors or have come through some reliable source which we decide to take on only if I am convinced of the merits of the book.” Mita regularly negotiates rights into regional languages as well, although she works with sub-agents for international languages. “We work with Hindi, English, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarat, Marathi, Punjabi, Russian, Portuguese, French, Italian, and German.”

Writer’s Side, based in Delhi was launched by Kanishka Gupta. According to him, “In a short-span of 22 months we have placed over 64 books with major and reputed publishers. Almost 80% of my clients are first-timers I have to be on my toes all the time. Some questions can really put your patience to test but being a published writer myself I know that feeling very well and can easily relate.” Sherna Khambatta, based in Mumbai, established her agency in 2007. But she prefers to represent non-fiction although does not say no to fiction. She represents in English, Marathi and Hindi.

Some of the other prominent players in India are David Godwin, Shruti Debi of Aitken Alexander agency, and as of this year, the Tibor Jones Literary Agency with their South Asia prize for unpublished manuscripts. Shruti Debi, who has immense editorial experience, and is now in charge of the Indian office of Aitken Alexander feels that a book is a hugely durable item. And nor does a writer have any parameters of quality or nature of the deal that they are getting into. So she feels that it is “healthy to have an agent, who becomes a sounding board for the author and publisher.” Having said that she adds, “I don’t feel like that an author can do without me, but I feel that those who have me for an agent do not suffer to have me.” Picking up an author is not a judgment value, but a literary value. Interestingly enough, as of a few months ago, Aitken Alexander has begun to represent Penguin Books India abroad. It helps by having an agent like Shruti on your side as she says, “I am a big fighter for authors.”

Advice from David Godwin for authors is “to find an agent you have to write a terrific book then you will find someone good. It is all in the writing. Agents want great books and are on the lookout for them.” Sophie Lambert, Director, Tibor Jones Agency adds, “Do your research. Always address query letters to specific agents rather than the agency. Approach agencies that represent authors who are similar but not too similar. Personal recommendations count a lot and if someone can introduce you to an agent then even better. You’ve got to make sure to catch their attention.” She continues, “India has always had a rich literary heritage and there have always been Indian authors whose work has been read throughout the world. The thing that’s changed is how widely and how much international as well as Indian authors are being read in India. There’s a real appetite for literature and it’s exciting to see the world’s largest democracy embrace that. It’s no more difficult for an Indian author to get a literary agent than an author from any other country and at a time when the Indian market is growing, in some respects it should be a selling point.”

Given how robust the growth is for agenting in India, especially with the deluge of writers/manuscripts being written, it is no surprise that some publishers are venturing into this area as well. Of course, they are quick to add that their publishing programmes are independent of the literary agencies. But there is a conflict of interest between these two and it is not clear how efficiently can these verticals be operated. Today, with the tremendous churning in publishing it is not enough to say that no precedence exists for such a business model, but one can safely add that this is an arrangement peculiar to India alone.

Publishers like Karthika V.K., Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, HarperCollins, says that “the agents make it a level playing ground. Publishers, see the book as a product, and can engage for the duration of the production of the manuscript into a book, but not more, whereas an agent will always be there for the author, before and after publication.” Kapish, Managing Director, Rupa Publications, says of literary agents that it of a “participatory nature, they can help you find writing. Fresh writing creates longevity in the industry.” Milee Aishwarya, Random House India, says that it does help to have agents who help to expand the list and get a sense of the market.

Renuka Chatterjee, Chief Editor, Westland does have the following word of caution about agenting in India: “The advantage of agencies is that they act as the filtering process and sift the wheat from the chaff – at least that is what they are supposed to do. The ground reality is that, with the possible exception of one or two, very few of them do. I have seen this happen time and again — they start off small, and really make an effort to find original, good new voices. But then the greed to just keep on adding numbers and boast of the number of authors you have and the titles you’ve sold, takes over, and they start taking on anyone and everyone. The result is that I cannot think of any agency in India today who doesn’t have a really mixed bag. You can never be sure of the quality — you can’t say that, well, this has come from ‘X so it has to be good, and give it priority on your reading list – unless of course, it is an already published author whose quality you know. So, very often, submissions from agents just become an adjunct to the slush pile, and you read them as and when you get the time. I really wish agents in India would be more discerning. It’s the reason why we still take submissions from any foreign agent more seriously. It’s not a question of a colonial hangover — but you know that if a manuscript has come from a David Godwin or Andrew Wylie or Blake Friedman, it will have a certain basic level of quality which should make it worth looking at. You may not ultimately take it on, if the stakes are too high, or if your individual response to it is not strong enough, but you would certainly take the time to read it. That’s not always the case with local submissions. May be the rush to sign up authors amongst agents here, is a certain insecurity — because the whole agency scene here is still nascent, may be they think that if they don’t sign up this author, another one may not come their way soon enough — or be snapped up by a foreign agent — which is another fear, as most authors, given the choice, would prefer to have an agent in London or New York than in New Delhi!

I know many agents feel they are successful because by and large, they are able to sell whatever they represent. But selling in India is easy, especially now with the multiplicity of publishing houses — from
Penguin and Harper to Srishti and others. So what gets rejected by some, will find a place somewhere else, especially if you are willing to settle for a less than six-figure advance. I’m told that’s a good thing in the long run — everything has its place. Perhaps that’s so — but I feel angry that so much rubbish ends up getting published. All those trees cut down for nothing!”

The future of publishing and literary agents is positive. Shruti Debi says that the era of literary adventures is over, where the publishing industry is partial to debut, but literary agents are quality filters. “2012 will be an interesting year, when we are expecting Indian kindle, some sort of self-publishing to happen; the technology will be important; shadow involvement – you become an ally in the same process and play to the author’s strength.” For Saugata Mukherjee, Publisher, Pan Macmillan, “I firmly believe literary agents in India are here to stay. It’s an expanding market and naturally there will be space for genuine professionals with a nose for the right kinds of books. Hopefully more and more writers from the Indian subcontinent will find a publishing window through these agents and not get lost in the deluge of slush piles in publishing offices. While some of the international agents already do a lot of business with Indian publishers it’s time some of the Indian agents too make their mark. I’d say most literary agencies are still in their infancy in India and we’ll only know where they are headed in a few years as the profession matures.” For Jacaranda, it is an interesting time, but the business will change dramatically and processes will be streamlined, “once publishers stop looking at direct submission.”

While researching for this article, word had begun to trickle in of new literary agencies being established in India, whether by editors setting themselves up as independent agents; individuals passionate about reading, who are branching out into agenting or even agencies abroad, testing the waters in India, but it is early days as yet. They are as yet to prove their mettle in this landscape or even by establishing Indian authors abroad.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @JBhattacharji

Advaita Kala
I didn’t have an agent when I submitted in India, honestly, I didn’t even think of it. Indian publishers have pretty straight forward submission guidelines and I made an online submission. It was only when Almost Single was solicited by Random House in the US that I realised I would need representation and it worked out very well as the book went into auction, something I would not have managed on my own. Publishers abroad prefer to work with agents, there are a couple of reasons, my American editor tells me that especially since the big publishing downturn in 2009 (in the US) and publishing job cuts, publishers are more dependent on agents for editorial support and sifting through manuscripts. So in a lot of ways representation abroad has become even more important. I continue to handle my own affairs in India and had an agent for foreign rights. Presently I am in between publishers and in between agents so I can’t really be more specific about what swings the decision one way or the other but I am sure I will figure it out soon enough!

Tabish Khair
Having grown up in Gaya until I turned 24, and having gone to school and university in Gaya too, the path to becoming a writer was a dark and confusing one for me. There were no guides, no patrons, no contacts, no peers who were heading into media or publishing. There was a lot of well-meaning discouragement. So the very notion of having a literary agent did not cross my mind even after I had become fairly established as an author, and had moved to Delhi and then to Denmark. But living in a small town in Denmark, I realised that I needed agents who were based in the centres of literary publicity — Delhi or London or New York. And that is when I decided to get an agent. But I wanted my main agent to be based in India, as I see myself as an Indian writer, with the co-agents based in London and New York. I realised that this was not what was commonly done, but I went ahead with it anyway. And I am happy I did.

Paro Anand

So, why, at this late, late stage of my pretty successful career as a writer for adults, young adults and children do I suddenly feel the need for a literary agent to represent me? I have no problems finding a publisher, in fact, I have several asking me to do books for them and some getting upset that I’ve gone elsewhere. So why now? I just think that the time for lit agents in India is finally here, at least for me. I feel the need to have someone who is professionally committed to looking after my best interests. I want someone who I know will have my back and watch out for me. I want someone who is able to look outside my own small world of contacts and connections. And I don’t want to be having to sell myself anymore. I find it embarrassing to have to push myself. I know that my work itself is good and worthy of pushing, but now I need a team to look after my baby after I’ve given birth to it. I need someone who I can trust and someone who will allow me to do what I do best – write and interact with my audience, without getting into nitty gritty, which I find myself doing a lot of the time. I’m not good at it so it takes a lot out of me to do it. Something like contacting sales people to ensure that my books will be there when I’m doing an appearance. As an author, my contact person is the editor, so it becomes a very four cornered affair if I’m contacted by the venue or organizer of the event, then i contact my editor, who contacts the sales team and then it’s a lot of back and forth. And very often, it ends up with the books not even being there. And this is certainly not with one publisher, but each and every one. It’s no one’s fault, really, it’s just that I’m the wrong person to be getting into it. it needs a system and i think my agent could be involved in this – at least i hope so.

For the longest time, i thought that my job was to write the book and the rest was not up to me. But now i see, that after having given birth to the baby, it’s still your job to make sure that she reaches her full potential, and sometimes there’s a lot of hand-holding involved. I’m more than willing to grow my babies up, and i love the hand holding. But i need my team to sort out the details. I want to feel like a bit of star!!! Is that so wrong? Will my agent do that for me?

Amandeep

As such our English publishing industry is not very organised and I feel even the volumes and hence payments are not very large, so agents who normally have a much fuller function in publishing, are reduced to being only book placers and not much more. It is a fact that it is hard for an unknown writer, without lineage or connections, to be easily published. The cycles of acceptance and rejections are long and many reputed firms have a caveat during submission: there is no guarantee of response. Hence, I feel some writers take help of agents to place their books with publishing houses, often on the basis of some commission. These kinds of agents do not do much more than give a quick glance to the manuscripts and sometimes some minimal editing and then work their wire to get the book placed.

The wholesome function of an agent as a quasi or even full editor, guardian of the writer account with publisher(s), seeking and placing book with foreign agents/publishing houses, support system for the writer, is very rare in India. Some extremely lucky and talented writers have such agents but most of them are abroad (both writers and agents).

So, in a topsy turvy world of publishing, local agents for local books (won’t even call them agents for they are mostly ‘book placers’ and buzz creators akin to PR) do thrive for a brief while and then fade off. For the size of the industry, in terms of titles and not volumes or sales figures, we would do well even if we even had decent scouts, but even they are missing. These book placers often do harm, for instance with my second book, because they are limited to just their own individual wires and contacts and vibes with people in the industry. All this is dismal and the only hope, for me, is to do my job and wait it out until someone discovers the work and wants to take it ahead. Very modestly, like it happened with Coetzee or Marquez.