Harper Collins India Posts

Tishani Doshi’s “A God at the Door”

Today, my eleven-year-old daughter woke up much earlier than her usual time. She had had a nightmare. She dreamt that she was in 1939 Nazi Germany. She was in a classroom and then opened a door to go elsewhere. Then, to her horror, she was packing her precious belongings and needed to run. She did not know where she was running but she was and she was terrified. While narrating the incident, she looked alarmed and began wringing her hands in nervous fear. She kept using the collective pronoun “we”, but when asked over and over again, who else was with you, she finally admitted to the singular “I”.

The trigger for this dream in all likelihood have been the books and documentaries about World War Two that she has immersed herself in. She recently read a YA novel, based on a true story, of a Catholic girl who saved a family of thirteen Polish Jews. And much else. Much of it is driven by interest and partially by her school curriculum.

The point of this anecdote is that Art is powerful. It serves multiple purposes. If employed correctly, it operates more than Art for Art’s Sake. Most importantly, it allows the artist to use their creative sensibilities to observe, record, comment and preserve events in collective memory, lest we as a race forget the horrors that have been perpetrated.

Poet Tishani Doshi’s latest collection A God at the Door ( HarperCollins India) serves this purpose admirably. The seething rage and at times, a sense of helplessness, that she feels as an individual witnessing the systematic violence, communalism and the boxing in of women into their homes, are noted in her poems. “The Stormtroopers of My Country” that is an ode to the decimation of a beautiful country is extremely powerful. It is a country that will vanish rapidly if we allow it to happen. The poem ends with a firm belief in our abilities to survive the most violent of assaults.

with the pogrom atrocity death march love
march no such thing as a clean termite to burn
is to purify oh our culture so ancient so good
we’re in the thick of the swastika now no brow
beating will divide us together we must stick

The importance of the artists and writers in turbulent times can never be under estimated. They have the immense ability to imprint searing words upon the reader’s mind that are hard to shirk. Such as:

History too has a hard time remembering
the black waters they crossed, …
…History tries not to be sentimental,
although letters give things away.

( “Many Good and Wonderful Things”)

Or

There comes a point in the battle
when the last international watchdog
is forced to leave the country. Reader,
I know you’re prone to anxiety. This
is when it happens. The lagoon, the ambush,
Bullets raining down in a no-fire zone.
Quick, into my echo chamber.

( “Instructions on Surviving a Genocide”)

Or

… I found a village, a republic,
the size of a small island country with a history

of autogenic massacre. In it were all our missing women.
They’d been sending proof of their existence —

copies of birth and not-quite-dead certificates
to offices of the registrar.

What they received in response was a rake
and a cobweb in a box.

(“I Found a Village and In It Were All Our Missing Women”)

Or

Forget where you came from, forget history.
It never happened, okay? We need soldiers on the front line.
Of course we can coexist. We say potato, they say potato.
We give them their own ghetto.

(“Nation’)

Or

Say the words ‘Bay of Bengal’
and ‘Buchenwald’ one after
the other, and they sound
beautiful, just as ‘landfills
does. And then imagine it:

(“Do Not Go Out in the Storm”)

The poems in this collection are crying to be performed by multitudes of people. There is no other way to describe this but there seems to be a strong force at the core of these poems that is urging the reader to read these out aloud and share them with more and more people. It is as if when read out aloud, the truth these words enshrine will hit home hard and perhaps embolden us to push back. It is an incredible experience to read poetry that much of the time is a wail of pain and anger intermingled and yet gets transferred seamlessly to the reader and co-opt them into this collective grief. The desire to act can only happen if the personal will is strong enough to turn it into a political act. Perhaps by immemorialising contemporary events, the poet urges a mass awakening to fight against the ills.

My head hurts. And yet I find myself going over and over and over these poems. Soon, my daughter will be able to read and understand these poems. I hope she does. I hope she will convey them to her peers and in time, future generations. These poems/stories/ moments-in-history should not be forgotten.

Read A God at the Door.

I urge you.

8 August 2021

“Cloud Cuckoo Land” by Anthony Doerr

She works as much from memory as from the manuscript, and inside the little stone cottage, something happens: the sick child is in her lap, his forehead sheened with sweat, opens his eyes. When Aethon is accidentally transformed into an ass and the other boys burst into laughter, he smiles. When Aethon reaches the frozen edge of the world, he bites his fingernails. And when Aethon finally reaches the gates of the city in the clouds, tears sprint to his eyes.

The lamp spits, the oil drawing low, and all three boys beg her to go on.

“Please,” they say, and their eyes glitter in the light. “tell us what he saw inside the goddess’s magical book.”

“It sat,” she says, “on a golden pedestal so ornate it looked as if it were made by the smith-god himself. When Aethon peered into it, as though into some magical well, he saw the heavens and the earth and all its lands scattered around the ocean, and all the animals and birds upon it. The cities were full of lanterns and gardens, and he could faintly hear music and singing, and he saw a wedding in one city with girls in bright linen robes, and boys with gold swords on silver belts, jumping through rings, doing handsprings and leaping and dancing in time. But on the next page he saw dark, flaming cities in which men were slaughtered in their fields, their wives enslaved in chains, and their children pitched over the walls onto pikes. He saw demons, and hounds eating corpses, and when he bent his ear low to the pages, he could hear the wailing. And as he looked, turning the leaf over and back, Aethon saw that the cities on both sides of the page, the dark ones and the bright ones, were one and the same, and he was afraid.”

The lamp sputters out; the chimney moans; the children draw closer around her. Omeir rewraps the book, and Anna holds their youngest son against her breast, and dreams of bright clean light falling on the pale walls of the city, and when they wake, late into the morning, the boy’s fever is gone.

Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land ( HarperCollins India) is his first novel in seven years. It flits between three periods of history — past is 1450s Constantinople, the clash between Christianity and Islam and is a story of young Anna and Omeir; the present is in the twenty-first century and is primarily about Zeno Ninis, an eighty-six-year-old veteran of the Korean war who has made it his life’s mission to translate Diogenes’s book  on Aethon and later help a bunch of fifth graders stage a dramatised version of it at their local library; and the future is of young Konstance who believes she is many millions of miles away from Earth, on a starship, in a community of modified humans. Time is measured in terms of “Mission Years”. The common thread running through these three stories is Aethon’s story.

Anna first discovers the Greek manuscript in an abandoned monastery in Thessaly and steals it, hoping to sell it to a bunch of men who have come from Urbino. Their lord and Count dreams of “erecting a library to surpass the pope’s, a library to contain every text ever written, a library to last until the end of time, and his books will be free to anyone who can read them.” Anna steals it but then discovers that the men from Urbino have fled upon hearing news of impending war. So, she keeps the book. Over time, she discovers the power of storytelling as she reads out the ancient Greek script to her sons and illiterate husband, Omeir. The family is convinced it has a healing power especially after seeing the positive effect it has on the sick children as their mother reads out aloud from the text. After Anna’s death, Omeir decides to take the book to Urbino as a gift to the Count. He remains clueless to its import but realises that it must be special enough for Anna to have treasured it for so long.

Zeno Ninis, on the other hand, while a prisoner of war befriends a British soldier, Rex, who is a scholar of the Classics. Rex teaches Greek to Zeno by scribbling in the sand or in the frost in their prison camp. Over time, once they have returned to their respective homes, Zeno finds refuge in the library at Lakeport, Idaho. He associates it with comfort and security ever since the two sisters who were the librarians too, welcomed him as a child.  Zeno returns to it as an adult, a veteran, and begins to translate. All the while Rex’s words haunt Zeno: “I know why those librarians read the old stories to you. Because if it’s told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.” While involved in the task of translating Aethon’s story, the current librarian requests Zeno to help manage the kids by narrating the story of his book. The kids are enthralled. So much so that they decide to stage a play based on the script. They are undeterred by the fact that large chunks of the original text are missing or are faded. Zeno has to use his imagination to supply the bridges in the narrative. In this he is ably supported by the kids who happily scribble in the margins, offering Aethon the explorer, new lines such as “The world as it is is enough.” Perceptive comment out of the mouth of babes!

Konstance is a young girl, living on the ship, Argos. She is not permitted to access the library on board unless she reaches a certain age. When she does, she goes through an initiation ceremony witnessed by many aboard the ship. Ultimately, she is given access using VR technology that enables her to browse through shelf after shelf of books, most of which come flying to her. If she wishes to “read” any, the characters pop out like a pop-up book but are holograms that are as wispish and transparent as air. The only book that seems to fascinate Konstance is the Atlas for which she is mocked by her peers. They say it is old fashioned but Konstance is charmed by the fact that by walking into its pages she discovers new parts of the world, cultures, its histories and geographies. Her curiosity is also kindled by the blue and gold hardback on her father’s night table. It is a copy of Zeno Ninis’s transslation. Slowly, she begins reading it and transcribing it for herself. It influences the way she thinks. Unlike her community, Konstance and to some extent, her father, are the only two who query or have independent thoughts. They do not necessarily follow the herd mentality. Even the super computer Sybil dissuades Konstance from spending too much time in the library. But she is curious and wants to investigate the events of February, 20, 2020. “Who were the five children in the Lakeport Public Library saved by Zero Ninis?”

An incident had occurred at the library when a young man, probably autistic, Seymour, walked into the library with the intention of blowing it up. He had a bag full of crude homemade bombs. He was extremely distressed at the destruction to Nature, especially habitats of owls, whom he felt close to. He understood the intricacies of climate change and was convinced that man and his destructive sensibilities were destroying Earth. By blowing up the library Seymour hoped to make a statement. But he had not reckoned with Zeno being at the library.

In Cloud Cuckoo Land, a story that has survived centuries about Aethon continues to be passed on from generation to generation, even via translations. In fact, the three storylines are interspersed with excerpts of Zeno Nini’s translation of the text. The length varies from a few broken sentences to paragraphs. Doerr makes a sly comment on the art of translation too when Konstance is browsing through the library:

The translations…mostly bewilder: either they’re boring and laborious, spangled with footnotes, or they’re too fragmented to many any sense of.

Even Doerr becomes more and more adept at telling Aethon’s story with every passing page. Almost as if he is practising what he feels, stories have the capacity to live beyond their original tellers.

Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a term borrowed from Aristophanes The Birds written in 414 B.C., almost 2500 years ago. It describes a mythical city based in the clouds. But more than the referencing by a modern storyteller to an ancient storyteller, it is the testimony to the astonishing staying power of storytelling. The ability to stick. The ability to be retold. The ability to be shared and become one with the narrator. The tenacity of stories is evident in how they intermingle with the memories of the person. More importantly, the stories become a repository of hope and goodwill. It reminds the listeners that as time moves on, life goes on too. Destruction of nature, communal wars, and marauding armies happen. But at the same time, stories record moments of joy, happiness, beauty and splendour. Books like men die. They need nurturing. Yet, books have the uncanny ability of outliving their creators if they are left with those who respect the printed books. It is possible. It is this insistence of Doerr upon the tangible object rather than the excitement at having millions of books at our fingertips in a digital library that is so comforting, given that we ourselves live in a time where digital formats are being peddled as superior to print. But it is not always the case, is it? With digital rights management and other requirements of upgrading hardware and software to access a digital format, and the recurring cost involved in keeping the information accessible, it is the print format that reigns supreme — it is a one-time cost, it is inherited, it develops a sentimental value that is precious to the owners as it the physical book offers a connect to their ancestors, and finally, as it is passed on from generation to generation, it influences the hearts and minds of others. Digital formats, in comparison, are sterile. Books transmit ideas. They make us think for ourselves.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a triumph. It is definitely an ode to libraries and books, the printed format vs digital.  But it is also a prayer, a belief in the nourishing power of storytelling. It is Anthony Doerr’s first novel in seven years, his first since winning the Pulitzer Prize (2015) for the exquisite All the Light We Cannot See (published, 2014). His critically-acclaimed 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See sold 1.8 million copies across editions in British Commonwealth and 9.3 million copies worldwide. The publishers will be selling many copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land despite its bulk as the story is so rejuvenating and astonishingly relevant at the same time. Many will buy the book as it is the first novel since Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize but this book will attract many new readers. It is to be released on 28 Sept 2021.

Get it!

“The Biggest Bluff” by Maria Konnikova

MariaKonnikova is a journalist who works for the NewYorker. She studied  military theory and history combined with  psychology in college. Ultimately she did a doctorate in psychology where her focus was on decision making. After a horrifically bad year (2015) when it seems as if her life was plagued by ill luck, she set herself a goal to learn poker. This amazing goal was set by a person who had no clue how many cards were in a deck. And she had a grandmother who was appalled at her granddaughter’s decision to learn a gambler’s game that she called “evil” instead of the more elegant game of chess. This was the same grandmother who had lived through World War II, survived Stalin, Khruschev and Gorbachev too. But Konnikova was determined and chose to seek out as her mentor, the Poker Hall of Fame inductee and winner of millions of dollars in earnings, Eric Seidel.

The Biggest Bluff ( HarperCollins India) is an enriching story about how Konnikova sets her goals, works hard, and along the way discovers a lot about herself as she masters poker. One of the facts that stands out about the game is that no player can afford to be delusional and have airs. You are what you are and this is how you will play the game. It is true to the personality of the player. As a result, Konnikova gets brilliant insights into human behaviour. She learns many invaluable lessons about negotiations, decision making, what it takes to be a woman and play as an equal while silencing out the #sexist remarks of the other players at the table, being attentive to the extent of blocking out all other distractions and focusing upon the players hands. This is a game dominated by male players. She learns the value of being confident about the skills one possesses rather than looking to others for assurances or even assuming others are better skilled than her. A crucial piece of information about herself that helps build her self-worth. It is also about developing patience and becoming a better strategist. It is not necessary that the best equipped or skilled or even the most aggressive player will win the jackpot, it boils down to strategy. It is preferable to be the dragonfly whose success rate at achieving a kill is 95% as compared to a cheetah ( 58%), lion (25%) and wolf (14%). So it is also about marshaling your facts together and reviewing the probability, being a critical thinker and constantly living in a state of inquiry. It is also about learning from failures and evaluating what comes next objectively. Never let emotions get in the way. She also learned to question the classic model for analysing behaviour: CAPS, or the cognitive-affective personality system. For decades it had been argued that the Big Five version of personality— openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness was fundamentally flawed. Konnikova discovers that people aren’t a combination of traits but a mosaic of reactions to and interactions with situations. She realises that poker is more about psychological and emotional dynamics than physical patterns. And the beauty of this understanding is that it is a dynamic situation that constantly changes depending upon the players involved and from moment to moment. The massive takeaway from this book is that Konnikova realises how many of the learnings she gleaned while preparing for various online and offline games/championships, have lifelong applications. It transformed her in many ways.

And yes, she did win a neat pile of US$300,000.

This book is begging to be made into a web series like the very popular Queens Gambit. It also deserves to be translated into many more languages. Some have referred to it as a feminist telling and others have called it a phenomenal story. It is an astonishing story that confirms that you are never too old to acquire a new skill and get the brain charged up.

There is no denying this is an interesting book but those who know the game will probably benefit more since at times, Konnikova takes deep dives into explaining a table setting and how hands are played. Nevertheless, read it. The strongest point she makes is that the players participate and win purely on the basis of merit and nothing else. She gives the example of talented people being interviewed or losing out on opportunities simply because their attitude/ inquisitive nature etc did not align with the feelings of the powers that be. In that sense, playing poker is a far freer activity as you are judged on the basis of merit. Sobering thought. Much to gain by reading this gem of a book.

7 February 2021

On fan fiction

Here is a short clip on fanfiction. It was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend upon reading Keshav Guha’s debut novel Accidental Magic ( Harper Collins India ) and Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams ( Aleph Publications). This is a new space for modern literature especially as access to the Internet and new forms of edevices proliferate. As I say in the video, The Wired noted in 2015 that more than 1 billion minutes per month were being spent either creating or reading material on fanfiction websites such as Wattpad. Of these 90% of the users accessed the websites using their mobiles.
Fanfiction is a modern literary phenomenon whose popularity is astonishing and understandable. It permits people who are infatuated with the books that they have read, characters, plots and/or literary landscapes to explore the oft asked question, “What If?”. It is also permitted to flourish by the original creators as long it sticks within the purview of the fair use clause of copyright laws and is not commercially exploited. It is a win-win situation as it allows the readers to exercise their writing skills, get feedback in real time from other users and it allows the writers to see their stories/characters remain in focus. In fact in a Bookseller article discussing Rainbow Rowell writing Harry Potter fan fiction, quoted a spokesman for Rowling’s literary agency, The Neil Blair Partnership, to say: “Our view on Harry Potter fan fiction is broadly that it should be non-commercial and should also not be distributed through commercial websites. Writers should write under their own name and not as J K Rowling. Content should not be inappropriate – also any content not suitable for young readers should be marked as age restricted.”

Fanfiction writing has spawned some bestselling authors in the West such as E L James of Fifty Shades of Grey and Cassandra Clare who wrote the Shadowhunter series. In India, it is still restricted to online spaces but in print there are a few examples. Not exactly in the definition of what constitutes fan fiction, a tribute, an imitative act, an exploration but Keshav Guha writes a form of fiction that is pays obeisance to Pottermania but also investigates what it means to be in this mostly online world. Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams extends the story beyond the original and makes it his own but in his case the original work is out of the copyright domain, so these literary creations using the original characters are absolutely acceptable.

Sherlock Holmes is another literary character who has given rise to many, many fan fiction stories — offline and online. People have explored this for years and publishers regularly commission stories for young and older readers.

Fanfiction is here to stay.

6 Jan 2021

Book Post 48: 22-28 Oct 2019

Book Post 48 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

29 Oct 2019

Women in Translation, Aug 2019

The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.

There is a thriving literary culture that has existed in the subcontinent for an exceptionally long time in all the regional languages. Of late many of these texts are being made available in English so as to be accessed by a larger readership. Sometimes new translations are commissioned such as Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard although a translation by Neelam Hussain of Simorgh Collective exists too.

Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.

Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.

The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.

Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.

The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.

Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.

While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.

Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:

…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.

There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.

The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!

18 September 2019

Book Post 29: 3-9 March 2019

At the beginning of the week I post some of the books I have received recently. In today’s Book Post 29 included are some of the titles I have received in the past few weeks.

11 March 2019

Book Post 2: 15-21 July 2018

Last week I announced that I am going to post every Monday a list of all the book parcels I have received in the past few days. 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 2 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

23 July 2018

Poetry in India

For some peculiar reason poetry is quoted and used extensively everywhere but rarely does it get a regular space in a publishing house. It is often said poetry is too complicated to publish and to sell. It is subjective. Also many customers prefer to read poetry at the store and put the book back on the shelf. For many poets in India, self-publishing their poems has been popular. For generations of poets the go-to place was Writers Workshop begun by the late P. Lal. Some of the poets published by Writers Workshop included Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Kamala Das, Meena Alexander, Nissim Ezekiel, and Ruskin Bond. Some of the other publishing houses published occasional volumes of poetry too.

Of late the practice has continued. Only the rare volume or two is published. Aleph Book Company has published some fine volumes of poetry which has included translations ( Mirabai and Tirukkal) and contemporary poets such as Jeet Thayil, Sridala Swami and Vikram Seth. Some years ago Harper Collins India published The HarperCollins Book Of English Poetry (ed. Sudeep Sen) and recently the excellent collection of poems by Tishani Doshi Girls are Coming Out of the Woods. Also that of  Sharanya Manivannan ‘s The Altar of the Only World which is considered as well to be a very good volume. Penguin Random House India has a reputation for publishing good volumes of poetry particularly of established poets such as 60 Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. A volume to look forward to in 2018 will be Ranjit Hoskote’s Jonahwhale . The feminist publishing house Zubaan books published a fascinating experimental volume Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess edited and translated by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra and Ravi Shankar.

Speaking Tiger Books has begun to actively publish poetry — at least far more frequently than the other firms. In the past few months alone some of their titles include Rohinton Daruwala’s The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu: Poems  ; Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017) ;  C.P. Surendran’s Available Light: New and Collected Poems ; Guru T. Ladakhi’s Monk on a Hill: Poems ; Ralph Russell’s translations and edited by Marion Molteno A Thousand Yearnings: A Book of Urdu Poetry & Prose  ; Ruskin Bond’s I Was the Wind Last Night: New and Collected Poems ; Michael Creighton’s New Delhi Love Songs: PoemsLater this year the Sahitya Akademi is publishing what looks to be a promising collection of poetry by “younger Indians”, edited and selected by noted poet Sudeep Sen.

Having said that the self-publishing initiatives still continue. For instance a young poet and writer ( and journalist) Debyajyoti Sarma launched the i, write, imprint, press to publish poetry. Some of the poets published ( apart from him) include noted playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Uttaran Das Gupta, Sananta Tanty  and Paresh Tiwari. 

Now there are more opportunities for poets to publish in literary magazines as well. For instance well-known poet Sampurna Chattarji has been appointed the poetry editor of IQ magazine and is looking for submissions and hoping to be read as well! She writes about it on her blog. Another active space for poets is Poetry at Sangam which is edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabra. It showcases poetry in English and translations as well as essays on poetics and news of new releases. Another vibrant space for poetry especially Urdu is the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival. 

There are plenty more initiatives in other local languages, meet ups, open mike sessions etc where poets can recite/perform their work. In the past decade there has been a noticeable increase in these events whether informal groups that meet at local parks or coffee shops to more formal settings as a curated evening.

Undoubtedly poets and their poetry is thriving, just more publishers are needed to publish the poets.

6 January 2018 

 

 

 

 

There’s no GST on books. And yet books will become more expensive: Suppliers will have to pay GST, and that will raise the cost of producing books

On 1 July 2017  the Government of India replaced the existing tax system with Goods and Services Tax or GST. I wrote in Scroll the impact this new tax will have on the publishing industry. My article was published on 8 July 2017. The text is c&p below. 

Update ( 8 July 2017): At the time of writing the GST for author’s royalties was 18% and that of printing was 5%. Subsequently after the article was published reliable sources said these figures had been revised. The GST on author’s royalties had been reduced to 12% and that of printing increased to 12%. This is a situation which is in flux and the numbers have to be constantly monitored on Government of India notifications before the new taxation system stabilizes. 

On the face of it, the fact that no Goods and Services Tax has been imposed on books – there was no excise either earlier – should have been good news for publishers and readers alike. The new tax system, which replaces the older, multi-layered version, envisages zero GST on books of all kinds. However, there’s a catch.

While books attract no GST, many of the components of a book do. All along the value chain, from paper to printing to author royalties, GST payments have kicked in from July 1 onwards, which means that the cost of putting together a book will now be higher. Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins India said, “GST does have an impact on input costs.”

And, to maintain their margins – which have already been under pressure – publishers may have no choice but to increase prices. With most individual titles – barring textbooks and mass market bestsellers – already seeing dwindling sales, higher prices are not welcome right now.

Why prices will rise
What goes into a book? The intellectual property comes from the writer, in the form of the manuscript. The physical components include paper, ink, glue, etc., required for printing and binding a book. And the services are in the form of printing and delivery to the publisher’s warehouse. Now, with GST slapped on each of these components, the paper-supplies and the printer, for instance, will add this tax to their cost. In other words, it will be the publisher, who buys the products or the service from them, who will have to foot this additional expense.

The publishing industry uses the services of freelance experts for many aspects of editing and production – copy-editing, proofreading, type-setting, cover design, illustrations, and so on – all of whom will now have to pay 18% GST instead of 15% service tax. Since they will pass this cost on to the publisher, the expenses will rise further.

Explained Manas Saikia, co-founder, Speaking Tiger Books, “There is an 18% GST on all service providers. If they are registered under GST then they will charge it with their bills. If they are not registered, then there will be a reverse tax charge so the publisher will pay. The exact cost increase will vary and I would say production, pre-press, and royalty costs will go up by 5% to 6% in total.”

But why will publishers not get the same benefit that other industries will get? As with the older Value Added Tax, the GST also includes the concept of Input Tax Credits (ITC). Put simply, this means that the seller of the final product has to pay GST at the prevailing rate, but can claim credits on all the GST already paid by his suppliers. In this scenario, the publisher would have been able to claim ITC on the GST paid its suppliers – had there been a GST on the books it’s selling.

However, since there is no GST on books, the question of claiming such credits does not arise. So, the publisher will find their costs increasing because of the GST paid by its suppliers, which range from 12% on paper to 18% on printing. Said Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India: “Printers have told us that there is a 5% plus increase in material cost due to GST.”

The impact on royalties
Royalties are the payment that a publisher makes to the writer of a book. It is usually calculated as a percentage of the cover price of the book – usually between 7.5% and 15%, depending on the stature of the writer, the format of the book, and the number of copies sold. This form of payment means that the author’s earnings are proportionate to the number of copies sold. However, some royalties are usually paid as an advance, to be adjusted against actual earnings later. But since publishers do no ask writers to return their advance even if they have not sold enough copies to justify that advance in the first place, this first tranche is thus a sunken cost.

Now, for the first, royalties have come under the indirect tax ambit, attracting a GST of 18%, versus zero earlier. So, an advance royalty to an author of, say, Rs 1 lakh, will now mean a tax payment of Rs 18,000. Who will pay this? As things stand, publishers are preparing to foot this cost as well, using a mechanism called reverse tax, paying the tax on the writer’s behalf as the writer may not have registered for GST.

Another option for publishers as they struggle to contain costs might be to reduce royalty payments to offset the 18% additional tax. That would be bad news for writers – but it may not be a strategy that any publisher will adopt willingly.

Summed up Abraham, “As it appears now, books are poised to become more expensive. Ironic for a category that has been kept ‘GST exempt’, but all the raw materials that make up books have gone up. So publishers may be left with no choice, but to pass on the inflationary increase from GST. Something the government may need to look into, if it kept books exempted so that prices could be held.” Added Neeraj Jain, Managing Director, Scholastic India, echoing a more optimistic view, “It’s difficult to measure the impact of GST on the publishing industry immediately. It is best to wait and watch.”

7 July 2017

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