Devdutt Pattanaik Posts

“Aranyaka: Book of the Forest” by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik

Aranyaka is the first collaboration between mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik and writer-painter Amruta Patil. Amruta is also India’s first female graphic novelist. “Aranyaka” is a modern retelling of the Vedic concepts that are not always easy to communicate. The best medium to do so seemed to be using text and imagery for which the graphic novel is the ideal art form. More importantly it is the creative energy between the authors that has been the prime force in narrating this parable, a love story, a creation myth, yet weaving in the essential elements of learning which the over 3000-year-old Vedas emphasise. The beauty of any scripture is its ability to be retold in any age and in any form without losing its core idea. With “Aranyaka”, the two authors seem to have achieved this magnificently. It is impossible to tell who contributed to which part of the storytelling apart from the obvious ones of Amrut Patil’s artwork and Devdutt Pattanaik’s corporate speak — at times the latter makes its presence felt in the dialogue. Nevertheless there is a seamless unified quality to the story which gets straight to the point — of immersing the reader immediately and effectively into the story about the forest. It is not imperative to have read the original Vedas in order to appreciate this modern version. It reads smoothly. Not once does the collaboration seem clunky! This magical jodi of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amruta Patil is perhaps the ideal desi version of Neil Gaiman and late Terry Pratchett who are equally phenomenal in retelling the scriptures.

Read Aranyaka!

29 October 2019

Book 21: 25 November – 1 December 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 21 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

3 December 2018

Books on religious stories for children and adults

Books on religion will always find readers across a broad spectrum of general readers to believers. It makes good business sense to invest in such books as there will be generations of readers interested in learning these stories while being alive to the times they are written in. So whether it is Yashodhara which is a novel with a strong woman protagonist. Shyam is a beautiful retelling of the Bhagavata Purana or the story of Krishna. Or even a collection of religious stories retold for children.

Yashodhara: A Novel about the Buddha’s Wife by Vanessa Sasson tries to recreate the times Yashodhara lived in. As professor of Religious Studies in the Liberal and Creative Arts and Humanities Department at Marianopolis College, Quebec, Vanessa Sasson is clear that she has written “hagiographical fiction” and not “historical fiction” as “scholars have yet to determine any material certainty when the Buddha lived (if, that is, he lived at all) and how much of his story might be true”. Also whatever the time period may have been 5 BCE is nearly impossible to recreate as few sources exist narrating what life may have been like at the time. She continus:

The earliest Buddhist writings that we do not possess come later, beginning around the first century CE (more or less). The stories I have spent my academic life reading are based on the memories of a world five hundred years younger than the one the Buddha and Yashodhara probably knew. I cannot begin to imagine all the changes that took place during the time period we lost. 

The story I have told here is, therefore, a story inspired by later hagiographies. It is not historical fiction, but perhaps what can be more appropriately labelled ‘hagiographical fiction’ ( if such a label existed). …some of the material in this book is based on early Buddhist literature. Some of it is based on what we know as early Hindu literature. Some of it may be historical, but most of it is not. And some of it has come out of the playfulness of my mind. 

Yashodhara begins smartly. There is a crisp pace to the narrative. Some of the descriptions are lovely such as that of the fabrics, the palace, garden landscapes and even that of the monks gathered. Even the conversations are entertaining. As the story unfurls it is obvious there are 21C elements such as the strong women portrayed and grooming of the young Yashodhara by her mother. Then midway the novel the pace became sluggish probably for no fault of the author entirely except that she seems to be torn into two between being too familiar with Buddhism as an academic and that of wanting to a great storyteller. It does not necessarily make the text clunky but it does make it a trifle dull for the lay reader. For Buddhists this novel would be fascinating in its attempt to tell Yashodhara’s story of whom little is known. Yashodhara definitely has the potential to be adapted for television drama.

Shyama is an illustrated retelling of the Bhagavata Purana or the stories of Krishna as narrated by Devdutt Pattanaik. He has also illustrated the book. The stories are short and neat and told in a manner that only an expert mythographer could convey. For these are stories deeply embedded in an oral tradition of storytelling so over the centuries have morphed and have different versions in existence. But in Devdutt Pattanaik’s deft handling the stories acquire a linear narrative that is easy to comprehend and can be embellished further if required in the telling/a performance. For instance take the story of Shyam and Draupadi which is about the friendship between the two but told ever so beautifully and simply stressing that friendships between opposite sexes were known, acceptable and permissible even in the scriptures.

… Shyam and Draupadi shared a special bond. She was not his beloved like Radha. She was not his wife as Rukmini and Satyabhama were. She was not his sister as Subhadra was. She was not the haughty princess of Panchala who had snubbed Karna at the archery contest. She was his friend. 

It is put forth directly and in a straightforward manner with no room for different perspectives. This is the author’s many years of experience in storytelling at public gatherings and in writing. It has undoubtedly help distill the stories making them easily understood to a contemporary audience.

Every story told in the book is followed by related information placed in a box. For this particular story of the points shared one is particularly interesting. Devdutt Pattanaik says:

Draupadi identifies  Krishna as sakha, or friend. Traditionally, men have male friends or sakhas, and women have female friends or sakhis. The relationship between Krishna, a man, and Draupadi, a woman and another man’s wife, is unique. 

With the sumptuous Shyama Devdutt Pattanaik has surpassed himself as a storyteller. The layouts are becoming more intricate with the line drawings remaining seemingly simple yet the details are far more elaborate than in his previously published books.

Arshia Sattar has another magnificent book out for children with Juggernaut Books called Garuda and the Serpents. ( Her previous book was the scrumptious Ramayana for Children. ) The well-known stories are told simply but with all the details in place so that if ever a child wanted to narrate these stories orally, it could easily be done. The sequence of events and the action have sufficient details. For the collection she has selected the most popular stories such as Vishnu’s churning of the ocean, Garuda and the serpents, Kamdhendu the magical cow, Vali and Sugriva etc.

A secular outlook is instilled in adults when exposed too all religions in their childhood. The best way of doing so is by sharing with children some of the best stories ever told that have withstood the test of time and these are mostly to be found in different faiths. Some of the recent titles published for children by Hachette India, Scholastic India and Penguin India are still available. Titles such as Eid Stories by Scholastic India, The Greatest Stories Ever Told by Penguin India, and Celebrate! Your Fun Festival Handbook by Hachette India are absolutely worth getting for a child’s personal collection or a school library. These books though published a long time ago are still available. 

These books are a small step in making those bridges of peace and understanding otherwise willful misinterpretation of religions can lead to the establishment of hostile civil society from which recovery may not be easily done for most people are willing to accept anything as the gospel truth as long as it is in the name of religion. Exposure to other religious beliefs and practices is a way of understanding the “other” rather than perpetuating prejudices and hostile acts of violence. It is the only way forward to have a richly diverse and multi-cultural society co-existing in communal harmony.

Amazon India links to books discussed in the article are embedded in the book cover images and titles given below:

Devdutt Pattnaik Shyam: An illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata  ( Illustrations by the author) Penguin Books, PRH India, 2018. Pb. pp. 280 ( Kindle )

Vanessa R. Sasson Yashodhara: A Novel About Buddha’s Wife Speaking Tiger Publishing, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 399 ( Kindle  )

Arshia Sattar Garuda and the Serpents: Stories of Friends and Foes from Hindu Mythology ( Illustrated by Ishan Trivedi) Juggernaut Books, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 224 Rs 350

Eid Stories (Various authors) Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2010, rpt. 2018. Pb. pp. 114 Rs 195

Celebrate! Your Fun Festival Handbook (HoliEidRakhi, Diwali, and Christmas) Hachette India, Gurgaon, 2012. Pb. Rs 195

Sampurna Chattarji The Greatest Stories Ever Told Penguin India, Gurgaon, India, 2004. Pb. pp 360. 

24 July 2018 

 

Jaya’s newsletter – 2

(Thank you for the response to my inaugural newsletter. Please feel free to write: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com )

westland-332pxThe biggest news in terms of business deals has been the acquisition of TATA-owned publishers Westland by Amazon. (http://bit.ly/2fjVVCP) Earlier this year Amazon had a bought a significant minority stake in Westland but last week they bought the company for a purportedly Rs 39.8 crores or approximately $6.5 million. ( http://bit.ly/2fzdfrJ ) Westland has a history of over 50 years in retail, distribution and publishing. It is an amalgamation of two companies, Westland Books and EastWest Books (Madras). “Amazon’s roots are in books and we are excited to be part of that team in the next phase of our journey,” Westland CEO Gautam Padmanabhan said. The publishing list of Westland, its imprints Tranquebar and EastWest, and imprint extension Mikros, include bestselling authors Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Preeti Shenoy, Devdutt Pattanaik, Anuja Chauhan and Ravi Subramanian, among others. This deal highlights the growing significance of India book markets — the third largest English language and with each regional language being of a substantial size too. It will also have an effect on how publishers realign themselves to create strategically good content which makes for good cultural capital but also astute business sense.

For more on the significance of such an acquisition read Bharat Anand’s analysis of AT&T & Time Warner merger incontent-trap HBR. (http://bit.ly/2feLlOP ) It is a marriage between content and distribution, organizations and tech companies. “Content is an increasingly important complement for every one of the tech companies.” Bharat Anand is the Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he’s taught media and corporate strategy for 19 years. He is the author of the recently released The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change.

Publishing business strategies will be bolstered by the GOI announcement as part of the Digital India movement that “Handsets mandated to support Indian language keyboards July 1st 2017”  All handsets being manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India will have to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language (of 22), and support reading of text in all these languages. (http://bit.ly/2fGxrbb ) In Medianama’s analysis this will speed up the switch in India to smartphones (and featurephones), because they have that capability to use Indic languages using the operating system. ( http://bit.ly/2feSTRG ) In the long run, good news for publishers if their content is gold.

14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. Nearly 50% of the 1.3 bn population in India is below the age of 25 years –a sizeable reading market. As the first-ever Kids & Family Reading Report, India edition by Scholastic India notes that 86% children read the books they select but points out that 71 per cent of kids were currently reading a book for fun. This is the way it should be to create a new generation of readers. (http://scholastic.co.in/readingreport )

Jaya Recommends

ann-patchettAnn Patchett’s incredibly stunning novel of families and the writing experience Commonwealth madeleine-thien(Bloomsbury)

Jonathan Eig’s fascinating account of The Birth of the Pill (Pan Books, Pan MacMillan India)the-birth-of-the-pill

Translating Bharat Reading India edited by Neeta Gupta. A collection of essays discussing the art of translating and what constitutes a good translation. (Yatra Books)

translating-bharatMadeleine Thien’s extraordinary novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing  ( My interview with the author: http://bit.ly/2eX5meG  )

On literature and inclusiveness ( http://bit.ly/2fbp9Ym )

Legendary publisher 97-year-old Diana Athill’s latest volume memoir, a delicious diana-athilloffering Alive, Alive Oh!

Book launches:

Amruta Patil  ( HarperCollins India)amruta-patil

Shashi Tharoor ( Aleph)shashi-tharoor

Ritu Menon’s Loitering with Intent: Diary of a Happy Traveller  on 5th November 2016, IHC (Speaking Tiger)ritu-menon-book-launch

Craig Mod’s book launch in Tokyo: http://kck.st/2fk29Tp

Lit fests: ILF Samanvay: The IHC Indian Languages Festival‎ ( 5-7 Nov 2016)ilf

 

Literary Prize:  Haruki Murakami wins this year’s Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award ($74,000).    The Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award is not to be confused with the Hans Christian Andersen Award (or medal)— often regarded as the “Little Nobel Prize”— instituted in 1956 to recognize lasting contributions in the field of children’s literature. (http://bit.ly/2eC70iI ) In his acceptance speech he warned against excluding outsiders (http://wapo.st/2fjZ31u )

World Literature Today, the award-winning magazine of international literature and culture, announced Marilyn Nelson as the winner of the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Awarded in alternating years with the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the biennial NSK Prize ( $25,000) recognizes great achievements in the world of children’s and young-adult storytelling.  ( http://bit.ly/2fdIQhX )

jai-arjun-singhJai Arjun Singh’s The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee has been given the Book Award for Excellence in Writing on Cinema (English) at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Interesting book links:

A Phone Call from Paul , literary podcast for @LitHub done by Paul Holdengraber, NYPL is worth listening to. Here is the latest episode where Paul is in conversation with Junot Diaz. (http://bit.ly/2fxF1p8 )

On the Jaffna library: http://bit.ly/2eC7vtb

Iran and Serbia sign MOU to enhance book publishing: http://bit.ly/2fGykAK

How one Kiwi author is making $200,000 a year publishing romance novels online: http://bit.ly/2fdVQEh

Bengaluru barber popularises Kannada literature: http://bit.ly/2eP8N6X

Literary River, Literature vs Traffic installation: http://bit.ly/2f3dpUD

Six wonderful ways feminist publisher Virago shook up the world of books http://bbc.in/2efJYgs

Turkish Government closes 29 publishers http://bit.ly/2f35AhE

3 November 2016 

Literature and inclusiveness

nari-bhav Nari Bhav, published by Niyogi Books, is a collection of essays exploring androgyny and female impersonation in India. These are fascinating insights by practitioners, interviews with actors and some academic papers discussing the concept of nari bhav is a deeply rooted cultural belief in the fluid interplay of the female and male symbolized for example as Ardhanariswara.  A truly exceptional essay is the one by translator, performer and playwright, Pritham Chakravarthy, on performing the Nirvanam. This is the name of the performance she gave to a bunch of monologues that emerged from her work exploring the myth of Aravan that hijras or eunuchs have adopted in South India, especially Tamil Nadu, to contest the many filthy names used for them by the general public. To this she wove in the stories narrated to her by a transgender, ‘Noorie’. The first performance was staged in 2000 and was only ten minutes long. Years later she continues to perform it and the presentation is now forty minutes long and could probably be expanded to sixty minutes. Pritham Chakravarty makes a very interesting comment in her essay: “I sit among the audience and come to the central performance area to emphasize the ‘everychapal-bhaduri day-ness’ of the narrative that will presently unfold before their eyes.” And yet when Chapal Bhaduri, a Bengali actor famous for female impersonations, performed an autobiographical piece at a seminar organized at a Kolkata university in March 2016 it seems that members of the audience were discomfited by the performance.

The concept was simple enough. The performance would be a companion piece to the 1999 documentary on him called Performing the Goddess [ made by Naveen Kishore, Seagull]. In the documentary, entirely shot in the modest ground-floor apartment in north Kolkata where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter of his sister Ketaki Dutta, Chapal Bhaduri gradually transforms himself from Chapal Bhaduri to Chapal Rani, from a man to a woman, from a human to a goddess, from the ordinary to the spectacular. At the seminar he would be doing the reverse. Her would appear before the audience as the Goddess Sitala, and then gradually divest himself of the divinity, the feminity, the spectacular, and end the piece by becoming what he is off-stage: human, male, ordinary. 

While discussing the book with a dear friend I discovered some very interesting facts about his family. This friend shikhandihas often told me how there has always been a space in the Indian society for all genders including for the currently fashionable term — “gender fluid” individuals. When I showed him a picture of Chapal Bhaduri, he told me about his grand-uncle whom everyone in the family called “Dada” and had remained a bachelor all his life. He died a few years ago. Interestingly Dada used to be an usher at some “talkies” in CP or Old Delhi but was always fascinated by dancing and dressing up as a woman. Apparently he was the go-to david-walliamsman in the family for advice on shringar, saris, buying gold jewellery etc. Dada was extremely fond of wearing beautiful Benarasi saris and spent a great part of his meagre salary to amass quite a collection.  While still a young man he began dressing up as a woman. It seems he used to give performances at private gathering. Apparently Dada was very informed about mudras and used to be a delight to watch. Also the family was completely at ease with his gender identity.  Apparently he was considered one of the respected elders of the family and his advice was sought on all important matters. He was also the matchmaker of the community. It probably also explains the comfort family members had with the eunuchs who used to wander in the colony.My friend has childhood memories of having the eunuchs over at home for tea and snacks. It was a regular affair and everyone was at ease with this practice. Another anecdote he recounts is of attending a wedding where where three uncles of the bride dressed up as women in saris and danced as part of the festivities.

And he is not alone in his observations. Anita Roy, publisher and author, wrote this wonderful article in 2006 “Dancing with God” to witness the kōla ceremony; a puja that honours the village deity. ( http://bit.ly/2enwIcW)

Each family in the village undertakes to host this ritual every year.  The presiding bhuta of Adve is Jhumadi (or Dhumavati in the local language, Tulu). A protector of the village and its inhabitants, human, animal and plant, Jhumadi is gendered female and believed to be one of the manifestations of the Goddess Shakti. But like Shiva’s incarnation as Ardhanariswara, she mixes both male and female attributes. Unlike the Puranic gods, who are worshipped in temples, officiated by Brahmin priests and receive offerings as silent spectators, bhutas are more localized spirits who directly influence the lives of their devotees with whom they have a much more intimate, almost neighbourly, relationship.

GeorgeAt the Myrin International Children’s Festival, Reykjavík, well-known author and translator, Lawrence Schimel lawrence-schimel-oct-2016-icelandwhose picture book for children, Amigos Y Vecinos, includes a gay family said that it’s extremely important to include LGBT+ characters in children’s books so they reflect the world that children already live in. (LILJA KATRÍN GUNNARSDÓTTIR, 6 Oct 2016 “LGBT lives just as important as heterosexual ones” http://bit.ly/2fgwEJE ) David Walliam’s first book for children The Boy in the Dress, Alex Gino’s incredibly powerful novel for young adults —George and Richa Jha’s picture book The Unboy Boy are examples of contemporary literature being inclusive by accepting and respecting “unconventional” characters for who they are. Vivek Tejuja, book critic, wrote a poignant article last year entitled “Being gay: how books and reading saved richa-jha-the-unboy-boymy life”. ( Scroll, 21 March 2015, http://bit.ly/2e1gb05)

Reading provided the much needed solace. Reading was a balm to all my aches. Books transported me, took me away from reality. I did not know want to face reality. Why should I? I thought to myself, when I could be lost in the lands of Oz and travel with Gulliver and be miserable with Jane Eyre. Nothing was of consequence, but the authors and the books I read. . . . Reading books was sufficient then. They did not discriminate against me. 

Vivek Tejuja’s forthcoming book meant for young adults will be addressing some of these issues. Siddharth Dube’s precisely told memoir No One Else and A. Revathi’s gripping account of her life as an activist in A Life in Trans Activism are recent contributions to Indian literature discussing sexuality and the grey areas it inhabits —these exist in Nature. revathiThe biggest challenge lies in making this reality visible for now the hypocritic notion that heterosexuality is the norm and everything else is unacceptable on any moral compass reigns supreme. And yet as mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik confirms in Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you which is a collection of stories celebrating life “narrated by our ancestors that are rarely retold publicly as they seem to challenge popular notions of normality”. In Oct 2016, Parmesh Shahani, Head – Godrej India Culture Lab, said at the India Economic Summit, New Delhi that parmesh-shahani“inclusion is for everyone and not just the LGBT community”. He bolstered it with evidence that if businesses & institutions are inclusive then it will have a positive impact on productivity, growth and development. ( “India Economic Summit: Breaking Down Diversity Barriers”, 6 Oct 2016. http://bit.ly/2enrUoa )

( Note: All the images are off the internet. If you own the copyright please let me know and I will acknowledge it. )

2 November 2016 

 

 

 

 

Devdutt Pattanaik’s “The Girl Who Chose”

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Incredible dedication in the book

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Popular mythologist and storyteller Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Girl Who Chose is about the five choices Sita makes in the Ramayana. These choices have consequences. The beauty of Devdutt Pattanaik being so familiar with the Hindu img_20161007_223036epics is that he is able to play with the material which exists making apparent that has always been in the stories but largely ignored. This book is about one such aspect — the choices a woman can make and has the right to do so. In this case it is Sita no less who is otherwise in an overtly patriarchal interpretation of the epic is made out to be demure and obedient wife. Whereas Devdutt Pattanaik with his vast knowledge of the various versions of the Ramayana and the local interpretations is able to create an image of a strong and independent woman who knows how to negotiate and exist. In fact she is considered to have taught her twin sons — Luv and Kush — the art of warfare.

This slim text has been illustrated in the characteristic style by Devdutt Pattanaik. This is a must have text and should be circulated widely to counter many of the wrong and inevitably patriarchal interpretations of the epic. It would be interesting to see if even a small fraction of the strong Sita that comes through the evidence collated by the mythologist will ever makes its presence felt in the interpretation of Sita enacted in the Ramlila during navratri.

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Devdutt Pattanaik The Girl Who Chose:  A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana Puffin Books, Delhi, India. Pb.pp. 112 Rs 199 

 

7 Oct 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

Musings: On the Westland and Amazon partnership in India ( 25 Feb 2016)

westland-332pxOn 11 February 2016 it was announced that Amazon had bought a 26% stake in Westland Publishers for $1.9 m or Rs9.5 crores. ( http://rtn.asia/t-t/17345/amazon-acquires-stake-in-tatas-publishing-unit-westland and Hindu Businessline http://m.thehindubusinessline.com/companies/amazon-picks-up-26-stake-in-tata-publishing-arm-westland-for-rs-95-cr/article8224355.ece ). Under the definitive agreements signed by Trent, Amazon.com NV Investment Holding LLC and Westland, Amazon will have a right to appoint a director on the Board of Westland and also have the option to acquire the remaining 74 per cent of shares at a later date. In a statement, Westland said the investment by Amazon will enable it to expand its international reach and scale their physical and digital book businesses.

With an estimated market segment of INR 10,000 crores, India ranks seventh in overall publishing and third after Amazonthe US and UK in English language publishing. According to a recent FICCI Publishing Sector Report, book publishing in India is growing at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 30 per cent.  With an estimated 600 million adult readers in the country and a growing young reader base (15-25 yrs) of 350 million, the readership in India is expected to continue growing.

This is a significant development in the Indian publishing industry.

Westland Books has a tremendous stable of commercially successful authors, a strategy they have been in investing in steadily in recent years. Some of these are: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, Preeti Shenoy, Anuja Chauhan, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Devdutt Pattanaik, Dheeraj Sinha, Kiran Doshi, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Ashok Banker and Satyajit Das. Their books sell lakhs of units. ( 1 lakh = 100,000) Their pre-order sales are phenomenal too. These writers have a star power and a fan following that has been unprecedented in the publishing history of India but they are also expensive to retain. (See: 4 March 2013. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/writer-amish-tripathi-wins-record-1-million-advance-for-south-asia-rights-515121  and 19 March 2015, http://scroll.in/article/714606/why-anuja-chauhan-moved-from-harpercollins-after-eight-years-and-three-bestsellers ) The immediate impact on the publishing firm has been to streamline operations, not just in terms of structural readjustments but also exploring alternative channels of revenue, while growing too. Westland is primarily an English-language publishing firm but has an Indian translations programme with its strategic partnership with Yatra Books. In fact in early February, the Oriya translation of Amish Tripathi’s book had been announced.

Amazon too has been in India for a while. It is better known for its online retail store and self-publishing programme, Kindle Direct Programme or KDP. (It has organised very popular KDP roadshows in India too, proving the Amazon brand is well-known locally.) By investing in an Indian publishing firm, Amazon firmly establishes itself into the literary landscape. Plus, evolving in this manner seems to be in keeping with Amazon’s highly successful Seattle-based publishing programme especially translations. In fact it is significant that press release quoted Sarah Jane Gunter, Director, Amazon Publishing and not Jeff Bezos or an Amazon India representative.

The rising significance of translations in publishing worldwide can no longer be ignored. In April 2015, the New York Times published an article Amazon’s translation programme AmazonCrossing as the most successful publishing programme, leaving even the biggest MNCs and specialist independent presses far, far behind. ( 29 April 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/30/arts/international/who-is-the-biggest-publisher-of-foreign-literature-in-the-us.html?_r=0  and Alex Shephard in the New Republic on 19 Oct 2015,” How Amazon quietly became the largest publisher of translated literature” https://newrepublic.com/article/123150/americas-biggest-publisher-literature-translation-amazon  ) . According to Chad Post while doing the calculations for his annual translation database report in December 2015, he realised that AmazonCrossing had the maximum number of titles in the year. It was 75 titles which was three times more than the next publisher. He maintains the wonderful Three Percent blog on the University of Rochester website. ( 6 December 2015, “Translation Database Updates: AmazonCrossing is the Story”  http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=16182#fn14513631225664e866d0983 ) In fact, in Oct 2015, Amazon invested USD $10 m into AmazonCrossing as a commitment over the next five years to increase the number and diversity of its books in translation.

Westland stands to gain twofold – a significant minority provides good financial investment and they will be able to leverage the international area strategically particularly Indian diaspora book market. As an author said to me upon hearing of this announcement, “Now it may be possible for Indian authors to organise book tours abroad.” Whereas Amazon is able to leverage a significant portion of the 600m readership in India with plans to expand in the future. The Indian book market is showing a healthy growth rate across genres. The estimated valuation of Westland with this deal is Rs 38/40 crores – a substantial sum for an Indian publishing firm when its most valuable assets are its authors and backlist. Sarah Gunter too with her experience in children’s literacy programmes will provide expertise into a book market where the estimated readership between ages 15-25 is 350 million. Also, Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle recently, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA, it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?” Another good reason to invest in a local book publishing programme?

“We are very excited about this investment from Amazon and what it means for Westland, our customers and authors,” said Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland. “Amazon’s roots are in books and they remain a major part of their business – this investment from a company with such deep experience in books, global reach and exciting digital platforms will help us take our Indian authors and their works globally.”

“We are delighted that our investment in Westland will help their authors reach a broader audience worldwide,” said Sarah Jane Gunter, Director of Amazon Publishing. “Our investment in Westland continues Amazon’s commitment to innovating and investing heavily on behalf of customers in India – it’s still very much Day One.”

Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA. Hence it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?”

So far it is a win-win scenario for Westland and Amazon.

25 February 2016

Literati – Kids and reading ( 1 February 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 January 2015) and will be in print ( 1 February 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6842119.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

One day a mother asked me how she could get her sons to read. I wondered if the children were off picture and pop-up books too. The mother said, “They are too old for pop-up books! They are in kindergarten.”

In January, Scholastic Inc. published Kids & Family Reading Report (Fifth edition) based on a survey conducted in the US.., but some of the results are valid worldwide. Reading out aloud to children regularly kindles an interest in books, unleashes their imagination, makes them curious and introduces them to a variety of cultural indicators. Children aged six and above began to show signs of easing away from reading for pleasure. A possible reason is that adults want the children to be “independent readers” and so stop reading out aloud. Eighty-three per cent of children across age groups say they love(d) or like(d) being read to a lot — the main reason being it was a special time with parents. With an older age group of children (ages 12-17) who are frequent readers, it was noticed that they read a book of choice independently in school, relied upon e-reading experiences, had access to a large home library, were aware of their reading level and had parents involved in their reading habits.

Ninety-one percent of children aged 6-17 say, “my favourite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.” The majority of kids aged 6-17 (70 per cent) say they want books that “make me laugh.” Kids also want books that “let me use my imagination” (54 per cent), “tell a made-up story” (48 per cent), “have characters I wish I could be like because they’re smart, strong or brave” (43 per cent), “teach me something new” (43 per cent) and “have a mystery or a problem to solve” (41 per cent). While the percentage of children who have read an e-book has increased across all age groups since 2010 (25 vs. 61 per cent), the majority of children who have read an e-book say most of the books they read are in print (77 per cent). Nearly two-thirds of children (65 per cent) — up from 2012 (60 per cent) — agree that they’ll always want to read books in print even though there are e-books available. Heartening news for publishers!

At Digital Book World Conference 2015 (January 13-15, 2015), New York, Linda Zecher, CEO, Houghton Mifflin, said, “You can’t serve content to children, you have to curate.” Mixing a variety of books for younger readers is important — picture books, pop-up books or even explosive pop-up books and poetry. Sudeshna Shome Ghosh, Editorial Director, Red Turtle, says, “With simple words that may have repetitions or rhymes and pictures, these books are easy to reread and even remember by heart. Even as a child grows older, trickier concepts are easier introduced through picture books (where do babies come from, how people/things are same and different, concepts of diversity, human emotions etc.)”. Imprints that specialise in graded reading are Puffin India, Hole Books/Duckbill Books, Read it yourself with Ladybird, Banana Storybooks/Egmont Publishing, Usborne Young reading, Let’s read!/Macmillan, I Can Read!/Harper, Step into Reading/Random House, and Scholastic Reader.

In India, children are fortunate to be exposed to a multi-lingual environment. It is not always easy to locate a single publishing list that will whet all appetites. Instead it has to be “curated” from the moment infants are given cloth and board books and flash cards. Some books for all ages that “work” splendidly are the late Bindia Thapar’s Ka Se Kapade Kaise (Tulika Books); Anushka Ravishankar, Sirish Rao and Durga Bai’s One, Two, Three! (Tara Books), Devdutt Pattanaik’s Pashu: Animal Tales from the Hindu Mythology, Puffin Books; H.S. Raza’s Bindu with Ritu Khoda and Vanita Pai (Scholastic India); What a song! A Bundelkhandi Folk Tale (Eklavya Publication); Rabindranath Tagore’s Clouds and Waves (Katha); Ruskin Bond’s Tigers for Dinner: Tall Tales (Red Turtle) and Nury Vittachi’s The Day it Rained Letters (Hachette India).

As adults we like books that have “pictures”. Few like to admit to the truth. So we disguise it with our preference for heavily illustrated books, photo books, coffee table books and to some extent graphic novels. So why is it with our children we are in a hurry for them to read books that border on the “educational”?

31 January 2015