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Interview with journalist Snigdha Poonam on her award-winning book “Dreamers”

Snigdha Poonam is a journalist with The Hindustan Times (HT) in Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Caravan, The Times of India, The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Financial Times.  Her article ‘Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love‘ was runner-up in the Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Prize, 2015. She won the 2017 Journalist of Change award of Bournemouth University for an investigation of student suicides that appeared on Huffington Post ( 1 June 2016). Dreamers is her first book. It won 2018’s Crossword Book Award (Jury) for nonfiction and was listed by various publications, including Financial Times and Hindu, as one of the best books of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2019 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000) announced by PEN America. ( Read an extract published in the literary magazine, Granta: “The Fixer”, 9 Feb 2015).

Dreamers is a collection of essays of reporting from India’s small towns. The people profiled in it are young and ambitious — representative of nearly 50% of India’s 1.3b population born after 1991. They are confident and want to make their dreams happen as soon as possible and not while away their entire lives boxed in by social indicators such as gender, caste, socio-eco class etc. For many of the individuals profiled in Dreamers these are mere notional barriers meant to be broken. They think for themselves rather than be intimidated by traditional rules of social engagement. As Snigdha says the same themes are repeated of “aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world”. The profiles range from that of a young milkman who became a teacher of conversational English and established a coaching centre to that of a young girl who decided to become a feisty student politician, making history with her election to the Allahabad University student council. These extraordinary profiles were written by Snigdha Poonam after shadowing her subjects over some years.

Snigdha Poonam’s trademark is longform reportage which mostly focuses on investigative stories of issues concerning young India. Stories that hurtle you into the heart of the issue, forever creating a sharply etched mental image for the reader of the places and people Snigdha visits and meets, respectively. Stories that she selects would in all likelihood be missed even when they make front page news like that of the little boy murdered in a school. The slightly different peg chosen by her is to follow the story of the bus conductor wrongly accused of the boy’s murder. A story that not only creates empathy for the impoverished family of the bus conductor but also offers an alternative way of looking at the horrific story that many were chattering about. She seeks stories that should be the hallmark of all journalists but only the brave engage in. Some of her astonishing stories that are available online are written hot on the trail of the predominantly young, aggressive, male Hindu pilgrims called Kanwariyas ( HT, 24 July 2017);  on the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, rural India’s first feminist newspaper who speak up for women in a notoriously patriarchal belt  ( The Guardian, 30 March 2015), “How the fake-jobs industry scams Indians” ( co-authored with Samarth Bansal, HT, 21 Aug 2017), or on the horrendous clashes that take place over electricity and water in urban pockets ( HT, 30 May 2018).

Here are excerpts of an interview with Snigdha Poonam:

JBR: What prompted this book? Has it been translated?

SP: Starting in 2009-10, I had been writing a series of stories looking at non-urban young Indians’ efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing world. I wrote, for example, about commercial Hindi and Hinglish fiction (OPEN magazine, “The New Heroes of MBA Lit”, 17 Oct 2014), personality development classes ( New York Times, “Developing India’s Personality”, 5 July 2013), and online dating ( Caravan, “Casting the Net”, 1 March 2012). I found the same themes repeating: aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world. In 2014 this led to the idea for a book that would follow the lives of a set of people in small towns: what they want, how they are trying to get there, and what that means for their future and ours.

Dreamers hasn’t yet been translated. It’s out in the US and UK and awaiting publication in China.

JBR: How do you find your stories/subjects?

SP: Other than reading a range of newspapers — Hindi and English, regional and national– I keep an eye out for unusual things everywhere, from SMS spam to wall posters to advertisements nailed to trees.  I travel widely across the country for work and let people tell me stories outside of the reporting framework. I also spend a lot of time digging into the lives of strangers on the internet: on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok.

JBR: How many stories did you write/ follow in order to publish the few mentioned in Dreamers?

SP: I wrote at least ten profiles. Among those that didn’t make it to the final draft were the stories of an FM star in Ranchi, a crime reporter in Lucknow, and a wedding planner in Ahmedabad. I wanted to prioritise stories that showed the effect of time on the people and their actions, so only those made it into the book.

JBR: Has your writing style evolved after having published this book?

SP: Yes. I am far more receptive to details. I try more consistently to draw out the nuances in people’s characters, politics, and actions. I play much more with the material until I have the right narrative structure for a story.

JBR: What do you think are the qualities of a listener? I find it remarkable how you channel the stories with minimal judgement but then offer an opinion/perspective.

SP: I have no other real interest in life than other people, so I can listen to anyone who is telling me anything, and if you listen to people at such length, you are forced to acknowledge that they are more than just good or bad. People are genuinely complicated, with so many intersecting forces driving their views and actions, and the most interesting stories you can tell about them are in the space between the extremes.

JBR: How do you record your interviews?

SP: I no longer record interviews unless it’s more than one person talking to me. Taking notes keeps me more grounded in the moment.  I have a decent shorthand, and I flesh out the whole interaction – from what people said to what I observed – before that day is over.

JBR: Do you in any way feel or become responsible for the people you interview or does everyone move on?

SP: I am more attached to the people in Dreamers than those I meet for regular stories. I talk to them about all kinds of things going on in their lives, from wedding plans to job changes. They, too, ask me about what’s going on with me, my work and my family.  

As a journalist, it’s often not people you keep track of but the issue you wrote about. For example, because I wrote an investigative story about job scams, people write to me from across India about having paid someone money for a job they didn’t get. Every once in a while, I have to chase the police in their respective areas to take action.

JBR: Have you ever followed up on these stories?

SP: Not deliberately. I feel exhausted with the issues of young men and want to engage more with women in the upcoming projects.

JBR: Who is your ideal reader? Have any of your subjects in this book read Dreamers?

SP: My ideal reader is curious and patient.

Some of the people featured in Dreamers have read it. One of them presented a copy to a leading politician, another keeps up with its sale at his local bookshop.

24 February 2019

Scott Galloway “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google” and Yanis Varoufakis “Talking to My Daughter About the Economy”

Imagine: a retailer that refuses to pay sales tax, treats its employees poorly, destroys hundred of thousands of jobs, and yet is celebrated as a paragon of business innovation. 

A computer company that withholds information about a domestic act of terrorism from federal investigators, with the support of a fan following that views the firm similar to a religion. 

A social media firm that analyzes thosands of images of your children, activates your phone as a listening device, and sells this information to Fortune 500 companies. 

An ad platform that commands in some markets, a 90 percent share of the most lucrative sector in media, yet avoids anticompetitive regularion through aggressive litigation and lobbyists. 

This narrative is also heard around the world, but in hushed tones. We know these companies aren’t benevolent beings, yet we invite them into the most intimate areas of our living. We willingly divulge personal updates, knowing they’ll be used for profit. 

Scott Galloway’s debut The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is a brisk analysis of these four technology driven companies. This is the man who week before the deal actually happened predicted that Amazon would buy Whole Foods. He argues in his book that these companies will be the first to break ( if they have not already done so) the trillion dollar barrier. The secret of their success is dependant not necessarily on their providing services such as being an effective online search engine (every one in six questions asked of Google has never been posed before), a massive marketplace ( Amazon’s online retail store purports to be the biggest shopping complex making it convenient for shoppers to buy from the comfort of their homes), connecting people across the world by preying on their psychological need to be loved and cared for as exemplified by the “like” button on Facebook or that the of the iconic design of Apple products creating a desire amongst people “permitting” the firm to price its commodities exorbitantly, earning irrational profits and yet, always have ready customers. According to the author, Apple controls 14.5 % of the smartphone market but captures 79% of global smartphone profits. In his TED Talk he says “the combined market capitalization of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is now equivalent to the GDP of India. ”

The Four is narrated at a brisk pace, almost as if Galloway is lecturing to his students in the classroom. It is a sharp understanding of these four modern day business empires which together are worth $2.3 trillion. He focusses on the speed at which technological advancements permit people to buy, mine the Internet for information or even be connected to people across the globe in miliseconds whether using social media platforms or their smartphones.  He recognises how these companies synonymous with the information age are focussed on delivering a product or a service for the prime objective of earning a profit — a fact often concealed niftily from the end consumer, i.e. you and I, but making these four no different to any other manufacturing firm. Oddly enough these companies such as Google “ages in reverse,becoming more valuable with use” which harnesses the power of 2 billion people every 24 hours. Facebook connects 1.2 b of the 7.5 people in the world.  Apple’s cash on hand is nearly the GDP of Denmark. Amazon is growing at the rate of 20% plus each year. He acknowledges in the book that these companies have benefitted in a manner of speaking by governments which grant them special treatment regarding antitrust regulation, taxes, even labour laws.  The financial worth of these companies is heavily dependant upon the sensitive personal and credit information shared willingly by millions and millions of humans around the globe.

The Four  is very readable in its arguments except that by focussing primarily on the branding and market identity of these companies. Galloway prefers to focus on the consumerism of these services without ever really discussing the impact it has on humans, particularly in terms of the debt incurred by consuming these services offered. This is where Yanis Varoufakis preferance for calling this consumerism as a “a commodification of everything” and how the rise of profit as a major incentive for people to do things come hand in hand with a new role for debt. According to Varoufakis this commodification is the “unstoppable vicotry of exchange value over experiential value” — a characterstic trait of the market society which most modern economies have transformed into.  Individuals now have to rely upon multinational companies that have technological capability to  fulfil their every need. The companies in order to guarantee their profits, use patents to assert legal onwership of their produce. Usually this shift in produce and consumption patterns is done with the help of the state. “To put it simply, private wealth was built and then maintained on the back of state-sponsored violence.” This lucid historical analysis of  modern economy or global capitalism is available in the former Greek Finance Minister’s brilliant Talking to My Daughter About the Economy. Or watch this fantastic lecture on the concept of money he gave at the Google HQ on 29 April 2016 called “And the Weak Suffer What They Must?

These two illuminating books are significant publications of 2017 and very worth reading!

*****

Scott Galloway is the founder of L2 Inc, teaches brand strategy and digital marketing and the NYU Stern School of Business.  He was named “one of the world’s 50 best business school professors” by Poets & Quants in 2012. He is also the founder of Red Envelope and Prophet Brand Strategy. He was elected to the World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders of Tomorrow and has served on the boards of directors of Urban Outfitters, Eddie Bauer, The New York Times Company and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Yanis Varoufakis is a former finance minister of Greece and a cofounder of an international grassroots movement, DiEM25, that is campaigning for the revival of democracy in Europe. He is the author of the international bestseller Adults in the Room, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, and The Global Minotaur. After teaching for many years in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, he is currently a professor of economics at the University of Athens.

6 December 2017 

An Interview with Publisher Michael Bhaskar on the Power of Curation

My interview with Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo was published in literary website Bookwitty on 24 January 2017. I am c&p the text below. ) 

Michael Bhaskar, co-founder and publishing director at Canelo, is known for being at the cutting edge of digital and traditional forms. Very active on Twitter with his perceptive comments on publishing, Bhaskar’s first book was the prize-winning monograph, The Content Machine. In his second book, Curation, he puts forth forceful arguments about the merits of curating content, especially to add value to businesses. His research focuses on the way digital technology is transforming the business and cultural context for publishing and other industries.

Bhaskar has been a British Council Young Creative Entrepreneur, a Frankfurt Book Fair Fellow and is currently a Visiting Researcher at the Oxford Brookes International Centre for Publishing.

Following are edited excerpts of an interview with Bhaskar:

Is there only one definition of “curation” as borrowed from art circles or after your research would you have a modern definition for the term?

Curation is interesting as the word, in English at least, has evolved. It came from the Latin ‘curare’ which meant to be take care of but eventually morphed into putting on and looking after museum and art gallery exhibitions. Then something interesting happened: about twenty years ago, with the web starting to become mainstream, the word curation suddenly started being applied to all kinds of things. Now we use it all over the place. The definition I use, and the definition I think most people intuitively understand, is that curation means ‘selecting and arranging to add value’. That, for me, is the modern understanding of the term.

How does curation, primarily a social skill, convert into financial capital?

I wouldn’t say curation is a social skill… for me it’s also about expertise, understanding, talent. The reason it’s so valuable today is that we are overloaded in so many contexts. Supply more just doesn’t work as a strategy. For example, just releasing another song or a book won’t work without some curation to make sure it finds its audience. Whenever you have a saturated market then, curation becomes invaluable to making sure it carries on functioning.

It is said content is the oil of the 21st century. How do you monetize curatorial abilities? The evidence in your book shows how companies, particularly Netflix, have benefitted tremendously but how can individuals?

There is no easy answer to this. I like to say that curation itself isn’t a business model but is baked into a business model. So Netflix wouldn’t work without curation, but it doesn’t get paid for it; it gets paid or providing people with the things to watch. The curation is kind of folded into the business model. The same is true if, for example, you run a shop. You get paid when people buy something, but the better curated your shop the more likely that is.

How is curation applicable to publishing? Are curatorial skills and the ability to discover dependent on the medium like digital or print matter?

We have far too many books in the world – one million new English language titles released every year. So publishers should be (and are) defined by what they say no to, by the choices that they make, by the careful, considered and highly curated nature of their lists. To me it’s this curatorial element that is central to publishing of all kinds and is only becoming more important.

With human behavioural patterns on the Internet changing rapidly and in the process transforming various social media platforms, the arguments about big data vs small data are gaining momentum. In this scenario how can the concept of curation be still important?

I actually think curation spans big and small data, human selections and automated systems: curation for me is broad and diffuse rather than narrow. So if you look at any of the systems and arguments you mention, they tend to come down to ways of selecting and arranging information, media and even people in various ways. Curation is at the heart of it! Almost every decision and project in digital media has the concept of curation at the heart of it – just look for example at the discussion of Facebook and the US election.

Is human touch / intervention important for curation or can it be left to machines and algorithms?

The truth is we need both. There is this tendency in the tech world to think technology will just take over. It won’t. We value that personal, idiosyncratic touch. We want to know about things precisely because they come from an individual. Yet in the age of big data this isn’t enough – to sift through millions of songs or newspaper articles, you need an algorithm. So the future isn’t about one or another but blends of both.

If curation adds value to a business why don’t we see more posts in firms for such a role?

A few reasons: one, because as I mentioned, it’s baked into the business model. So a buyer, or an editor, or a merchandiser, or an information architect, or a holiday planner, or a DJ: all of these roles are curators but we don’t call them that. Secondly I think we are seeing more such roles being created every day – all the big tech companies have been on a hiring binge for people in these roles over the past year.

Isn’t the ability to curate or access curated material exclusively a middle class phenomenon?

Partly. It’s true to say that it impacts on more affluent people more than less. But that doesn’t mean it’s not spreading because it is. Anyone with access to the Internet is experiencing these trends. Yes, there are a lot of people in the world without access – but fewer with every passing year. So while much of this curation is relevant only to the better off, the direct of travel is that is becoming more significant everywhere.

Doesn’t curation of information have inbuilt biases that may in the long term perpetuate prejudices?

It can do, which is why we need a strong distinction between good and bad curation. Good curation is that which breaks us out of prejudices and goes beyond filter bubbles, bad curation just confirms it. We need to become literate about the kinds of curation going on out there and watch for it closely.

You are at the cutting edge of curatorial abilities in publishing. What do you think lies ahead in publishing? Will business models transform?

I’d like to think the work we are doing at Canelo, the digital publisher I co-founded, indicates the direction of travel. We are a digital publisher, but carefully curated; we take the best of the old world of publishing but combine it with an embrace of new technology and methods; we have a completely redrawn contracts for authors, which we think are much fairer. We believe in digital but we also believe in writers and words. It’s this kind of mixing of the old and the new, the tried and tested with the innovative that I think is the future of publishing.

Michael Bhaskar Curation Piatkus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette, 2016. Pb. pp. 354. Rs 499 

24 January 2017 

Chris Riddell on the importance of reading out aloud

These pictures have been downloaded from Chris Riddell’s personal page on Facebook and shared with his permission. 

 

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c031The Scholastic India released the Kids & Family Reading Report on        2 Sept 2016 also stressed the importance of reading out aloud to children. It makes them into frequent readers. It also discovered that children who are given time for reading in school for independent reading at school are more likely to become readers than those who are not given the time. It also has many added advantages as highlighted in the accompanying graph. The report may be downloaded at: http://scholastic.co.in/readingreport .

4 October 2016 

Hanif Kureishi “Love + Hate”

Love + HateThe cultural collisions he [Powell] was afraid of are the affirmative side of globalisation. People do not love one another because they are ‘the same’, and they don’t always kill one another because they are different. Where indeed, does difference begin? Why would it begin with race or colour?

Racism is the lowest form of snobbery. Its language mutates: not long ago the word ‘immigrant’ became an insult, a stand-in for ‘Paki’ or ‘nigger’. We remain an obstruction to ‘unity’, and people like Powell, men of ressentiment, with their omens and desire to humiliate , will return repeatedly to divide and create difference. The neo-liberal experiment that began in the eighties uses racism as a vicious entertainment, as a sideshow, while the wealthy continue to accumulate. But we are all migrants from somewhere, and if we remember that, we could all go somewhere — together. ( p.166-7)

Hanif Kureishi’s latest book Love + Hate is a wonderful blend of essays, commentaries and some fiction. It marks a period of time wafting in and out of his life. The theme of the immigrant that is evident through much of his writing is noticeable here too. The publication of Love + Hate takes significant proportions given the media coverage about refugees fleeing conflict zones, economic crisis globally and the astounding reaction to this humanitarian crisis by some nation states. The concluding essay, “A Theft: My Con Man” is a deeply personal one. It is an account of Hanif Kureishi’s life savings being stolen by a con artist. I still remember the number of Facebook posts he posted the day he discovered the theft. Naturally he was distressed at discovering the loss. But this essay is a little calmer than the facebook posts since it was written a little later, when the author had had time to reflect, but it does not take anything away from the shockingly painful experience.

Read this anthology. It is an excellent commentary and a sobering reminder on what we are witnessing today has happened before. The horror is no less.

Hanif Kureishi Love + Hate: Stories and Essays Faber & Faber, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 220 Rs 799 

8 October 2015 

Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

jon-ronson-publicly-shamed‘I’m writing a book about public shaming,’ I told Clive. ‘With citizen justice we’re bringing public shame back in a big way. …’

If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)

This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )

Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences.  A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?

Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people. 

Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000. 

But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album. 

I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’ 

In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco. 

Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing. 

( p.263-4)

Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.

While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about  his latest Bollywood film, Bombay Velvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.

A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said  people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.

In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.

Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599

17 May 2015

 

 

 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

( I read Veena Venugopal’s fabulous book, The Mother-in-Law, in one sitting. Instead of posting a review online, I immediately wrote her an email.  It was a mad flurry of emails one morning. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. )

The Mother-in-Law8 July 2014

Dear Veena,

I finally finished reading your book. Earlier I had only dipped into it. But last night I sat up till well after 1am reading it through.

Fantastic work! Thank you for making these vices public and not making them only the purview of the Saas-Bahu serials.

What stomach-churning experiences you have recounted. What is horrifying is that these are real. You do not intrude into the narrative too much but without having the personal, how can you possibly write something like this? Everyone has a mother-in-law story. I wonder why you only stuck to the arranged marriage route? Unfortunately the 12 stories you include in book only confirm the MIL image as being a dragon, a nasty one at that too. (Bollywood is going to have a gala time using your stories for their films. Think about it.)

I have always maintained that the worst perpetrators of crimes and violence towards women are other women. Also the most manipulative, shrewd, wily and preservers of patriarchal traditions are women. I am not making excuses for men at all but stating a point of view I have evolved. This is after spending years of working in the development sector, with feminist publishing houses, engaging with women’s NGOs, mapping the women’s movement visually etc.

I am absolutely stunned by the impressive work you have done. It must have drained you to be privy to so many conversations, gently teasing out these narratives is not easy. For the reader they read smoothly but did you actually write these essays in one fell swoop? Surely you went back and forth. I ask since traumatised women tend to gloss over a lot of details or create these fictional bridges at the heart of which lies the truth. So to create a clear story as you have done calls upon some sharp journalistic skills and a sensitivity that is commendable. The women you have profiled too are brave to come forth and share their stories.

Years ago the newspapers used to carry regular news stories about dowry deaths. At least it kept the conversations about domestic violence alive. People may or may not have been sensitised to it. It resulted in the Domestic Violence Act and much more. But now that DV has been “addressed”, it has been wiped off the news pages, thus silencing a crime that continues to exist. I suspect it is getting worse with the greed for material comforts.  I have a theory and I have not tested it as yet. The more our society gains in creature comforts and the middle class is able to show-off its wealth, the women are fast becoming the victims to this new form of imprisonment–birds in a gilded cage. The women are bejewelled, wearing only branded stuff, splurging money on retail therapy, always smiling and available for chit-chat, gossip; ultimately representative in direct proportion to their family’s prosperity. It makes me gasp at times. I flinch internally when women with smiles plastered on their faces tell me “Oh, I am happy all the time”, but scratch the surface and stories come tumbling out. I see how well-educated, professional women have been mocked at by their husbands for pursuing their dreams. …their husbands have thrown money at them and said, stop working for measly amounts. If it is money you want, I will give you more but forget this job. Made the wives quit. Mostly made the women cite the reason of the children and family’s health. It makes me wince since I feel helpless. I do not know what to do about it.

Your book The Mother-in-Law gives a peep into the complicated world these middle class women inhabit. There are constraints that they have to take into account. There is no point in putting the women down for appreciating a bit of material comfort, but at the cost of being shackled to a mind-numbing degrading life baffles me. I am so glad you have written this book. You have made public the daily struggles most women go through to achieve these balances. Thank you for writing this book.

….

What truly saddens me is that these stories never end. It is a vicious cycle.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

 

Dear Veena,

A short postscript to what I wrote earlier.

I like the fact you kept reiterating that a supportive husband is very essential. Also laying down the ground rules early on in the marriage. If this book of yours can become a handy manual for young women on the threshold of marriage, I would be truly happy. More than that, I suspect it is the women/brides who have to be mentally and physically very strong to prepare for an Indian marriage. I liked it when you said aggressive feminism is here to stay. Unfortunately many young women of today seem to take much of the freedom they relish as “for granted”. They are unable to see the struggles many before them went through to achieve this basic freedom and dignity. Also it is like a mirage. It is there and yet not. It is the daily negotiations that are important to keep that flicker of breathing space available. For that to happen women need to be able to see the injustice and most importantly have a language to articulate it, without going off the handle. If only the grooming and etiquette classes held regularly included a component or two of gender studies/workshops on how to recognise and address silences. Not necessarily make these spaces in the activist mode but in a genteel manner, infused with forceful ideas. Otherwise the women who have signed up for the classes will run a mile!

I may be speaking in a garbled fashion for now but I simply had to send these emails off to you asap.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

PS A supportive and understanding husband is a rarity!

 

Thank you so much Jaya, it is heartening and encouraging to receive a mail like this from you.

The book was hard to write and I must confess I struggled with the voice right through it. I started my research for the book with Rachna’s story, when she had met Gaurav for the first time. I thought it hilarious, this very Rajinder Nagar mother-in-law taking her under her wing, going on shopping sprees and movie dates. And I assumed all the stories would be like that– a caricature of all the stereotypes of mothers-in-law that one hears about. It shocked me how quickly the stories turned dark. And as the year progressed, I began to worry about Rachna. I remember Copote was annoyed waiting for a verdict on the murderers so he could finish his book. I truly hoped Rachna would dump Gaurav and get out from Auntyjis iron fist even though it would mean that i wouldn’t be able to use her story.

And then I met Deepa and Nikita and Keisha and the stories kept getting worse and worse. Some of them are active on Facebook. Keisha for example is one. And if you saw her profile or read her posts you wouldn’t believe that she lived that life. I was very, very disturbed after meeting Keisha. And eventually came Arti and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Her story is the worst. And the strangest thing was how easy it was to find these stories.

The interviews themselves were spread over a period of time. I would ask them the same question in various different ways. I would point out inconsistencies in their telling of an incident. It was hard to ascertain the authenticity of their stories. I am sure if I spoke to their mothers-in-law I would have got their side of the story, but no one would have been honest knowing fully well that I had a channel of communication to their MIL. (Most of the stories were love marriages in fact. Only Lalitha, Arti and Rachna’s were arranged.)

I agree with you about violence in families. It is during the research for the book that I began to start railing against the term “fabric of Indian society”. Arun Jaitley used it a lot in keeping marital rape outside of the new rape law. The fabric of Indian society is a soiled rag, sadly, and I see no reason why it should be preserved. It is appalling the kind of abuse people take. With Keisha especially I kept wondering why. It is, I suppose, easy to be an uninvested third party and see clearly that she should have got out long ago. But she felt a certain urge to not worry her aunt, her grandmother. And I suppose because of the fact that her aunt didn’t marry in order to look after Keisha, she feels that love is necessarily an unconditional sacrifice. I see her now, she is the first to “Like” any post about the book. She was desperate to get copies of it. I think for her participating in the book was her final retribution. She gets a great degree of joy from the fact that her story is out there.

… I think I should use the book to build a community of daughters-in-law – give them a place to vent. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want – a forum where they don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory in their family. I just worry that i don’t have the bandwidth to run that along with my job. Like you said, these stories never end, and if just talking about it makes people temper their future behaviour, then it should be worth squeezing some time out for…Let’s see.

The ideal husband is a rarity, I know, but I’m hoping there are more mothers out there raising some than there were in the past.

Warmly

Veena

 

Dear Veena,

Do you realise that your interest in putting together a forum for women is to step into a vacuum left by many women organisations drifting away from this focus? It has been now over a decade but fewer and fewer women NGOs maintain helplines. The time required to listen and counsel victims/women and their community is a mind-numbing and thankless task. Also it is not recognised as a crucial need. I guess more of a social service. So there is no funding available for these activities. Your idea is a good one …Just remember to think this through. Helping women or any individual should not be a lifetime crutch, but a brief sounding board to help them address their challenges and to face the world. Otherwise you will be an emotional wreck.

I am not surprised at Keisha “liking” Facebook posts abt the book. There are many women who are in a much messed-up space. Sometimes, and I do not know if this makes me a coward, I simply do not want to know. The horrifying stories one sees more than hears is very depressing. I used the word “sees” advisedly. Many times you see these women trotting about all dolled up, but observe carefully and you will see the chinks. Try telling me that a slim gym-going figure, well-groomed, well-dressed young mother, carrying a new born infant in her arms and doing the school run with the older kid has not been put through pressure to look respectable to the outside world. It worries me about the women and for their children. And these are the middle class and nouveau riche I am talking about. It is equally worse for women of other socio-economic strata. I am not generalising.

Women’s movements have really painted women into a corner. It is only a clutch of women who can speak with confidence about injustices they experience or perceive. Others now have this dual burden of being a professional and efficient at home. This is where I feel your book is showing the chinks. Look at the amount of stress these women are subjected to?

…..

With warm wishes,

Jaya

 

Veena Venugopal The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. Pp. 264 Rs. 299.

Meena Kandaswamy

Meena Kandaswamy

Meena Kandaswamy, Trivandrum Press Club, July 2013Meena Kandasamy is a poet with two collections to her discredit: Touch and Ms Militancy. Her first novel The Gypsy Goddess releases next month.  Reproduced below with permission is a poem she published on Facebook on 17 February 2014, soon after the Wendy Doniger and Penguin India controversy broke on 11 February 2014. At the time of posting it on the blog, it had been shared 219 times, 452 ‘likes’ and 85 comments.

This poem is not a Hindu.
This poem is eager to offend.
This poem is shallow and distorted.
This poem is a non-serious representation of Hinduism.
This poem is a haphazard presentation.
This poem is riddled.
This poem is a heresy.
This poem is a factual inaccuracy.
This poem has missionary zeal.
This poem has a hidden agenda.
This poem denigrates Hindus.
This poem shows them in poor light.
This poem concentrates on the negative aspects of Hinduism.
This poem concentrates on the evil practices of Hinduism.
This poem asserts its moral right to use objectionable words for Gods.
This poem celebrates Krishna’s freedom to perch on a naked woman.
This poem flames with the fires of a woman hungry of sex.
This poem supplies sexual connotations.
This poem puts the phallus back into the picture.
This poem makes the shiva lingam the male sexual organ.
This poem does not make the above-mentioned organ erect.
This poem prides itself in its perverse mindset.
This poem shows malice to Hinduism for Untouchability and misogyny.
This poem declares the absence of a Hindu canon.
This poem declares itself the Hindu canon.
This poem follows the monkey.
This poem worships the horse.
This poem supersedes the Vedas and the supreme scriptures.
This poem does not culture the jungle.
This poem jungles the culture.
This poem storms into temples with tanks.
This poem stands corrected: the RSS is BJP’s mother.
This poem is not vulnerable.
This poem is Section 153-A proof.
This poem is also idiot-proof.
This poem quotes Dr.Ambedkar.
This poem considers Ramayana a hetero-normative novel.
This poem breaches Section 295A of the Indian Penile Code.
This poem is pure and total blasphemy.
This poem is a voyeur.
This poem gossips about the sex between Sita and Laxman.
This poem is a witness to the rape of Shurpanaka.
This poem smears Rama for his suspicious mind.
This poem was once forced into suttee.
This poem is now taking her revenge.
This poem is addicted to eating beef.
This poem knows the castes of all the thirty-three million Hindu Gods.
This poem got court summons for switching the castes of Gods.
This poem once dated Karna who was sure he was no test-tube baby.
This poem is not curious about who-was-the-father.
This poem is horizontally flipped.
This poem is a plagiarised version.
This poem is selectively chosen.
This poem is running paternity tests on Hindutva.
This poem saw Godse (of the RSS) kill Gandhi.
This poem is not afraid of being imprisoned.
This poem does not comply to client demands.
This poem is pornographic.
This poem will not tender an unconditional apology.
This poem will not be Penguined.
This poem will not be pulped.

(C) Meena Kandaswamy, February 2014 

 

“Keeping The Word”, PubSpeak, Dec 2013

“Keeping The Word”, PubSpeak, Dec 2013

( PubSpeak in December 2013 is about trust deficit. It has been published originally in BusinessWorld online. Here is the url: http://www.businessworld.in/news/books/columns/keeping-the-word/1175440/page-1.html I am also c&p the text below. 4 Dec 2013
PubSpeak, Jaya

Publishing industry too has its share of tales where people have not honoured their word or fulfilled contracts. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose writes of ways to prevent these

Some time ago, I received a message on Facebook from a distraught illustrator. The illustrator had been commissioned by a prominent publishing house to create paintings for a book cover design of a forthcoming young adult novel. The cover had been through three draft designs and had been approved by everyone including the author. At the final stage, some design changes were asked for. The illustrator was not happy. Nevertheless, in complete faith, the illustrator decided to submit high resolution files of the altered paintings since the project was nearing completion. But the relationship came apart (and legal recourse had to be taken to) because the art director of the publishing house refused to honour the contract, withholding part of the payment due on the grounds that the design had been created inhouse. But there is barely any difference other than the shade of colour and the size of the images if you compare the designs submitted by the illustrator with those that were done inhouse. Since then, the first illustrator has refused to work with the publisher.

Twenty years after the publication of ‘A Suitable Boy’, fans of Vikram Seth were waiting in anticipation for the sequel – A Suitable Girl. Unfortunately Seth did not deliver the manuscript in time to Hamish Hamilton. Soon after the merger of Penguin Books and Random House was official in July 2013, this book was one of the earliest casualties. The author was asked by the publishers to return the $1.7 million advance for a two-book deal, including the paperback rights of ‘A Suitable Boy’, bought off Orion publishing. According to media reports the new group — Penguin Random House — is expected to cut costs as it tries to compete better with new forms of publishing and competition from online rivals such as Amazon. Fortunately for the author, his original publisher Orion, stepped in and is committed to publishing A Suitable Girl in Autumn 2016.

Disturbing Trend
The world of publishing is full of such stories — some tamer than others. People yearning to be published, some having been published, some selling better than others, some getting noticed critically more than the others, many satisfied with what they have achieved, yet there is a constant subterranean rumble of unpleasant anecdotes. Many of the stories, often open knowledge to ‘those in the know’, deal with plagiarism, contracts not being honoured, copyright violations, disappointment about advances, dissatisfaction about contracts drawn or negotiations about rights hitting nasty patches, sales and marketing executives not fulfilling orders, bookstores not adequately stocked, at times even missing titles that have been shortlisted for literary prizes.A popular topic of conversation is the efficiency of vendor management systems and authors stealing ideas from each other. The stories are about professional relationships being affected, relationships that are forged, nurtured and sustained by humans. These, in turn, affect the commissioning potential of editors and the formation and evolution of lists and imprints, the emergence of new ideas and creative collaborations and more importantly the growth of the business of publishing.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “publish” is defined as “prepare and issue (a book, journal or piece of music) for public sale. Print in a book or journal so as to make generally known.” A “publisher” is a company or person that prepares and issues books, journals, or music for sale. In traditional forms of publishing, that is, the printed form, specialist knowledge of the processes involved including sales, marketing and distribution was essential. Many of the books published were and are inevitably born out of a conversation (or a “gentleman’s agreement”) that a commissioning editor has with the author (or the content creator, as the ‘author’ could even be another publisher or an organisation, and not necessarily an individual). It is after a series of negotiations based on trust that the business details of the arrangement are thrashed out and subsequently enshrined in a written and signed contract. These are then preserved and referred to for the time that the firm has the license to publish the book(s).

For many authors/illustrators this is a smooth process and continues to be so. From the moment authors are signed on, they begin to be a little more aware of their rights, wanting clarity on the royalty statements, visibility and easy availability of the book in all formats and kinds of stores. Publishers too want professionalism from the content creator and other collaborators on the project. Similarly bookstore owners/online retailers/customers want quick fulfillment of their orders. Readers want satisfaction from the books that they read.

So, What Next?
Every October, publishers from around the world flock to the publishers’ mecca, the Frankfurt Book Fair, for a week of intense conversations and meetings. This time the news emerging from the Frankfurt was about the most innovative and viable method of connecting books with readers, these were mostly reserved for the digital domain. Some examples of digital-only imprints are HarperCollins India’sHarper21; Italy’s RCS Libri’s Rizzoli Lab, dedicated to experiments in digital; Indireads presenting modern South Asian literature in digital friendly formats.; HarperCollins established HarperTeen Impulse; Random House launched Loveswept, Hydra, Alibi, and Flirt; Harlequin has Carina Press and Bloomsbury has Bloomsbury Spark.

Another tactic is to create blogs on publishers’ websites where most host curators prefer to focus only on their books and authors. The Melville House publishing house’s blog has to be one of the richest in its generosity of sharing accounts, stories and opinions related to books and not necessarily confined to its own lists.

Today, with social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, content creators (authors, illustrators) can have conversations directly with other publishing professionals. A democratisation of the system that is challenging established business models of publishing. A notable result has been the rapidity with which self-publishing has become an attractive proposition — primarily because the author is in control of producing his book in all formats, can track the distribution and sales and is responsible for the promotion of the book. With the number of authors opting for this form of publishing it is no surprise that even traditional publishers are offering self-publishing services as an option.

Through this wonderful burst of creative energy and proliferation of platforms for publishing, two facts stand out. First, these innovations are obvious responses to the changing environment of publishing. Second, given how complex the book market is becoming, with new channels of news dissemination and distribution, publishers are being innovative in accessing readers and customers. But these new business models of outreach will only be successful if publishing professionals do not keep their word and the growing “trust deficit” in the publishing eco-system is not addressed immediately.

Stuart Diamond writing in his bestseller ‘Getting More’ says “Trust is a feeling of security that the other person will protect you. …The major component of trust is honesty—being straight with people. Trust does not mean that both sides agree with each other, or are always pleasant to each other. …Trust is something that develops slowly, over time. It is an emotional commitment to one another based on mutual respect, ethics, and good feeling. …lack of trust has a cost.”

These challenges exist in all industries but it is slightly different for publishing which relies upon human relationships and creativity for growing the business organically. For it to be a sustainable business model, there has to be bedrock of trust among all stakeholders, irrespective of the format they choose to publish in.

The writer is an international publishing consultant and columnist

@JBhattacharji