Chitra Bannerji Divakurni Posts

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni “Before We Visit the Goddess”

ChitraOne day, in the kitchen at the back of the store, I held in my  hand a new recipe I had perfected, the sweet I would go on to name after my dead mother. I took a bite of the conch-shaped dessert, the palest, most elegant mango color. The smooth, creamy flavor of fruit and milk, sugar and saffron mingled and melted on my tongue. Satisfaction overwhelmed me. This was something I had achieved myself, without having to depend on anyone. No one could take it away. … That’s what it really means to be a fortunate lamp. 

Before We Visit the Goddess is Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s latest novel and sixteenth publication. Simply put it is in the fashionable mould of contemporary fiction to have a five-generation saga. It predominantly details the lives of the second, third and fourth generation of women — Bela, Sabitri and Tara. But there is always much much more tucked into the stories about the grandmother, mother and daughter. A strong characteristic of Divakurni’s novels are the exploration of relationships between women, the inter-generational gap, the challenges and victories every woman experiences and the cultural differences of living in India and USA.

To her credit Divakurni creates charmingly and deceptively “simple” women-centric novels. A utopian scenario is never presented which focuses only upon women at the exclusion of any engagement with men and society. Instead she details the daily negotiations and choices women face that slowly develop their strong personalities. For instance, it could be timid homemaker Bela’s insistence of taking her late husband’s firm to court to seek compensation for his death in a factory fire and to everyone’s surprise winning. With the earnings she established a sweet shop in her mother’s name — Durga Sweets. Or Sabitri’s warm friendship with her gay neighbour, Kevin, who by just being a good person helps her to establish herself as a food blogger successfully. Even bright Tara who disappears from her family’s life after her parents divorce except for a stray phone call or two has quite an adventurous decade. It includes working at a secondhand store called Nearly New Necessities, becoming a drug addict, being sacked from jobs for being a kleptomaniac, babysitting an Indian grandmother transplanted to America who feels as if she is “being buried alive” or driving an Indian academic to a temple in Pearland to equally catastrophic and cathartic consequences. Yet what is admirable about these women is despite the humiliations and hardships they have borne, they strive on.

In Before We Visit the Goddess the author takes the different phases of life in her stride without blunting or sentimentalising any of the experiences. For instance the hurt and pain of the young Bela is searing. So is the loneliness, whimsical and wretched behaviour of Leelamoyi, her wealthy benefactress. As with many successful writers they evolve with each book written. In Divakurni’s case her trademark fiction of the world of Bengali women remains steadfast but in this sixteenth book the inter-generational differences are created magnificently. Her book is also timely for it being published when a debate rages in USA whether to replace the word “India” with “South Asia” in school history textbooks. According to New York Times, “The dispute centers on whether the region that includes modern-day India, Pakistan and Nepal should be referred to as India or as South Asia, to represent the plurality of cultures there — particularly because India was not a nation-state until 1947. It also touches on how the culture of the region is portrayed, including women’s role in society and the vestiges of the caste system. It might seem somewhat arcane. But it has prompted petition drives, as well as a #DontEraseIndia social media campaign and a battle of opinion pieces.” ( 4 May 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/us/debate-erupts-over-californias-india-history-curriculum.html?_r=0 ) Whereas Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s books elegantly examine identity — what it means to be an Indian, an American or a desi. In Before We Visit the Goddess young Tara epitomizes the new generation of American-Indians– not ABCD any more but with a distinct identity of their own. As a diplomat told me recently she may be of Indian origin but has no roots or family in the country and has not had for generations. So a posting in this country is as much of an exciting new adventure as it is for anyone else visiting India for the first time.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s stories are ageing gracefully with her. Read Before We Visit the Goddess. 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni Before We Visit the Goddess Simon & Schuster, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 210. Rs 499 / £ 16.99

8 May 2016

 

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.