Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published. Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)
When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.
These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.
20 March is recognised as the International Storytelling Day. It is also the day that the grand old man of storytelling, Khushwant Singh passed away four years to this day on 20 March 2014. This year HarperCollins India rejacketed his classic collection of short stories for the Indian market — Vol 1 & Vol 2.
Here are the book covers and pages of contents from both volumes.
My review-article of David Walliams’s The World’s Worst Children 2 was published in The Hindu Literary Review on 3 September 2017 titled “The boy who never did his homework“. I am c&p the text here as well:
David Walliams’s The World’s Worst Children 2is a fabulous collection of short stories about 10 obnoxious little brats. There is Cruel Clarissa, Harry who never ever did his homework, Competitive Colin, Trish the Troll, Spoiled Brad, Gruesome Griselda and others. The scrumptious book has been “illustratred in glorious colour” by Tony Ross. (The very Tony Ross, who, statistics show, is the most borrowed illustrator from U.K. libraries. In 2016, his books were borrowed more than 1 million times.) Walliams and Ross have been collaborating on books for children and young adults for quite a few years now.
Walliams is often considered to be the modern Roald Dahl. Incidentally, Walliams’s first book for children was illustrated by Quentin Blake, who is known for his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s books. Along with Ross, Walliams insists there be a picture on every page. The two books of the TheWorld’s Worst Children is sumptuously produced, with embossed lettering on the cover, gilt foil worked in to the design, and four-colour illustrations with a fascinating play of fonts throughout the text. Every page has the illustration carefully
placed in such a manner that it perfectly complements the text.
Climb a mountain
It works beautifully for young readers as well as for readers who require assisted learning. “It’s about hooking them in and not making reading seem like a chore,” Walliams says. “I think reading is important because not only do you miss out on great literature if you don’t do it, but also you miss out on finding out about new ideas and the opportunity to use your own imagination.”
Walliams is otherwise famous as a stand-up comedian. His comic talent has found its way into writing. His stories are often about children of the kind we encounter everyday — ordinary, privileged, gentle, horrendous. Without being patronising, but with humour, he writes about the world as the child sees it — a stark place, in black and white.
Even his caricatures make one chuckle with delight for they hold up a mirror to the child’s world, serving the dual purpose of telling a story while delivering a message. He compares the process of writing his manuscripts to that of climbing up a mountain. He perseveres despite the effort because, “I really like the simplicity of children’s literature. It’s a challenge because often you’ve got quite complex ideas you’ve got to put into very simple terms.”
This is apparent in his novels. For instance, in Billionaire Boy, a rich spoilt kid is also very lonely for he lacks a friend; Midnight Gang is about patients in a children’s hospital whose parents never visit them and who are left at the mercy of a harsh and unsympathetic matron; Mr Stink narrates the unlikely friendship between a lonely girl Chloe and the local stinky tramp Mr Stink, the only person who’s ever been nice to her. Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great Escape are about grandparents and help create concern among children for the ailments and idiosyncrasies of old age. Controversy tails successful writers: some years ago, Anthony Horowitz had accused Walliams of creating “dumbed down books” for children.
But the criticism does not seem to be fair. Walliams’s stories are empathetic towards children: he has the knack of capturing the authoritarian and at times unreasonable voice of the adult. Hope exists in the form of a good soul lurking nearby, usually an adult who too has been marginalised by society.
To know what happens to the world’s worst children, read the book. A treat awaits!
David Walliams The World’s Worst Children 2 HarperCollins Children’s Books, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 300
2017. A landmark year for HarperCollins worldwide. The publishing firm is celebrating its bicentennary and the Indian office is marking 25 years of its operations locally. Stories from HarperCollins Publishers ( 1817 – 2017) a succintly produced edition chronicling the firm’s history. There are fascinating nuggets in it.
HarperCollins Publishers began as J. & J. Harper, a small family printing shop run by brothers James and John Harper in New York City in March 1817. In 1825 the company posted an advertisement in the United States Literary Gazette announcing five forthcoming titles. Scotsman Thomas Nelson ( born Neilson) opened a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh in 1798, eventually publishing inexpensive editions of noncopyrighted religious texts and popular fiction. Collins also started out as a small family-run printer and publisher. Chalmers and Collins, established by millworker and seminarian William Collins and Charles Chalmers ( brother of evangelical preacher Thomas), published its first work in 1819. It began by publishing only the writings of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Chalmers, but soon published other authors, eventually forming William Collins and Sons.
In 1962 what was then known as Harper & Brothers merged with textbook publisher Row, Peterson & Company, forming Harper & Row. HarperCollins as a brand came into existence in 1989 after News Corporation purchased Harper & Row ( 1987) and Collins ( 1989). Today HarperCollins global brand publishes approximately 10,000 new titles every year in 17 languages and has a print and digital catalogue of more than 200,000 titles. Along the way it has acquired other well-established businesses with robust identities of their own such as 4th Estate, Angus & Robertson, Amistad Press, Avon Books, Caedmon Audio, Ecco Press, Funk & Wagnalls, Granada, Harlequin, J.B. Lippincott, the John Day Company, Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., Thorson’s, Unwin Hyman, William Morror and Company, Zondervan, HarperCollins Christian Publishing and others. Many of these remain as imprints of HarperCollins.
Over the years it established credibility as being an author’s publisher for it protected rights and fought against piracy. In the 1800s Harper brothers ensured that they were fair in paying royalties to their authors, particularly those who were overseas. Their fiercest competitor was Mathew Carey’s publishing house of Philadelphia. A cease-fire between the rivalry happened in 1830s and “The Harper Rule” agreement was reached. According to Stories from HarperCollins Publishers “in [this] a publisher would cease printing when a competitor purchased advance proofs and announced forthcoming titles, or had previously published a British author.” This enabled the Harper brothers to invest more in finding and developing relationships with authors. They also began to explore other markets in the 1800s such as Canada, Australia and India. Interestingly they broke into new markets with texts such as prayer books, geography, gospels, dictionaries, schoolbooks, readers and primers.
Poet Gulzar and veteran Bollywood actress-turned-politician Hema Malini cutting the HarperCollins 25th anniversary cake, New Delhi, July 2017.
The stable of authors associated with HarperCollins is extraordinary. The firm published the American edition of Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak ( 1823), Edward Lytton Bulwer’s The Coming Race ( 1871), and H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds ( 1898) and The Invisible Man ( 1898). These were deemed as “scientific romance”. Later with the acquisition of Unwin Hyman by Collins the firm discovered the winning formula of fantasy worlds furnished with maps and illustrations as has been proved with the success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit ( 1937) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy ( 1954 – 55). Other writers include ( listed in no specific order) C. S. Lewis, Paulo Coelho, Deepak Chopra, Erle Stanley Gardner, Aldous Huxley, Herman Melville, Harper Lee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, George R. R. Martin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Agatha Christie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sylvia Plath, Pearl Buck, Doris Lessing, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Martin Luther King Jr., Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, E. B. White, Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, Judith Kerr, Armistead Maupin, Alan Cummings, Caitlin Moran and Roxane Gay.
In the 1800s the publisher made exploratory trips to India too and witnessed an explosion in fiction writing in the 1890s due to high population density coupled with growing literacy. In 1992 HarperCollins establish a base in India when it entered into a partnership with the Indian firm, Rupa Publications. After a few years a new collaboration was forged with the India Today group. Finally HarperCollins became an independent entity of its own and its headquartered in Delhi NCR. The CEO is Ananth Padmanabhan.
To celebrate 25 years of its impressive presence in India, HarperCollins India ( HCI) has launched a campaign that consists of special editions of 25 of its iconic books and short films promoting storytelling and books. This list includes writers such as Anuja Chauhan, Anita Nair, Kiran Nagarkar, Rana Dasgupta, Siddharth Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray, Akshaya Mukul, Vivek Shanbhag, B. K. S. Iyengar, Arun Shourie etc. HCI has also launched a scrumptious list consisting of 25 facsimile editions of Agatha Christie novels.
On 23 September 2016, I wrote for Bookwitty about the new translation of Krishna Sobti’s Zindaginama and the legal tangle it had been embroiled in for some years with poet Amrita Pritam. Here is the text C&P below.
Krishna Sobti’s award-winning Hindi novel Zindaginama is set in the village of Shahpur in undivided Punjab, British India. It is set in a geographical landscape that no longer exists – part of the Indian state of Gujarat in what is now Pakistan Punjab. In Shahpur, families of different communities co-exist in harmony, participating in each other’s festivals and weddings, and sharing their grief. Zindaginama is an impressive canvas, documented mainly via women gossiping. Men are important too and their characters are never negated in what is a surprisingly woman-oriented novel for its time. Through her stubborn persistence in introducing and sticking with women characters, Sobti broke new ground in modern Hindi literature. News about the freedom movement filters in. Slowly the mood in the village shifts.
When Krishna Sobti wrote the story using the Devnagari script, she brought in the structures of the local dialect, terms and phrases closely identified with each community. This is significant, but also a characteristic writing style of hers. It is also a comment on the rapid evolution of Hindi literary tradition in the twentieth century. For most Indians, even during British Rule, Hindi was the language of the common man, but was not considered to be the language of the educated. It was mostly Urdu and Hindustani (an amalgamation of Urdu and Hindi) which were taught in schools.
Devnagari script was borrowed from Sanskrit by the 19th century group of British-appointed Bhasha Munshis in Agra to give the then common peoples’ spoken language a written form in a script other than Urdu. This was then dubbed Hindi, a language of Hindus, as opposed to Urdu, which was branded as the language of Muslims. With increasing communalisation, both languages cut themselves off from dialects like Braj Awadhi and Bhojpuri that had given them a certain fluidity and musical lilt. Hindi then began moving towards Sanskrit and Urdu towards Persian. Sobti re-establishes lost links of Hindi with dialects from Punjab to Delhi. In Krishna Sobti’s home, her father knew and read Urdu but she and her siblings were taught Hindi.
Other notable Hindi writers of this period were Premchand, Upendra Ashk, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and Mahadevi Verma, who not only switched from writing in Urdu but produced realist humanist literature. They experimented with language and tried to capture it as close to the original as possible – a tough task in a country where the dialects change every 20 kilometres. Krishna Sobti does this too in her magnum opus Zindaginama by creating a socio-historical novel that is also a commentary on the partition of India.
She first wrote the novel in her twenties as a 500-page manuscript called Channa. In 1952 it was to be published by Allahabad’s famous Leader Press, but she stopped publication when she read the proof. To her deep disappointment, the publishers had Sanskritised the language which was wholly unacceptable to her. In the mid-70s, her close friend and highly respected Hindi publisher, Sheila Sandhu of Rajkamal Prakashan, persuaded her to publish the novel. Sobti redid the novel in time for it to be published in 1979 and win the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award in 1980 (making her one of only three women to win the award for Hindi literature).
Four years later, noted Punjabi writer and Jnanpith winner Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) published a biography called Hardatt ka Zindaginama of a minor revolutionary Hardutt, who served a sentence of imprisonment in Siberia. Krishna Sobti was furious. She claimed that Amrita Pritam had plagiarised “Zindaginama” by using it in her title. Amrita Pritam was adamant she had not done so. In 1984 Krishna Sobti filed a case claiming copyright over the word, demanding it be deleted from Amrita Pritam’s book title and Rupees 1.5 lakhs as damages. According to the intellectual property website, SpicyIP, the plaintiff “claimed that the term ‘zindgi’ is feminine and the word ‘nama’ is masculine and bringing together of two words is an ‘odd construction’ in violation of linguistic convention and thus, the term has been coined by the plaintiff. It was also argued that due to the acclaim received by the novel, the term has acquired a secondary meaning to be associated with the plaintiff alone and the plaintiff has got copyright in the same.”
Amrita Pritam had literary stalwarts like late Khushwant Singh bear witness on her behalf. He proved that the term existed and had been used in literature years before Krishna Sobti did. He referred to Bhai Nand Lal Goya, a Persian and Arabic scholar, who used the word ‘Zindaginama’ in his works published in 1932. Oddly enough, the case files, the original manuscripts of the two novels, and the books submitted as proof went missing during the transfer of the case from the Delhi High Court to the Tiz Hazari Courts and were never recovered.
In 2011, the court dismissed the plea on the basis of Khushwant Singh’s testimony alone. The court held that that title “Zindaginama” was not the original literary work of the plaintiff and the trial concluded in favour of Amrita Pritam nearly six years after her demise. Spicy IP adds “the Delhi High Court in 1984 did not clarify the issue of copyrightability of titles in its interim order. Even though the High Court noted that the title of the book ‘may’ be considered to be trademark, it assumed that copyright lies in the title as part of the novel for the purposes of determining infringement and instead focused on whether there was infringement of the plaintiff’s copyright.”
“It lasted so long that it became a joke. This was a freak case that was moved from the high court to the district court. I learned a lot about judiciary and its functioning. It took away a lot of my energy but the process also gave me a novel like Dil-O-Danish which has justice at the heart of the plot. I had always liked Amrita and looked up to her as a poet. But this was a fight on principles as Zindaginama was my extensive intellectual property.”
Forty years after the novel was published in Hindi, it has been translated into English by HarperCollins Publishers India. It is a passable translation done by Neer Kanwal Mani and Moyna Mazumdar, but a crucial contribution to contemporary Indian literature.
Krishna Sobti Zinadaginama HarperCollins India, 2016. Pb.
HarperCollins India celebrates 25 years of publishing with special editions of 25 of its most iconic books
HarperCollins Publishers India, which began its journey in 1992 with twenty books that year and a team consisting of just a handful of people, has come a long way. Twenty-five years later, HarperCollins India boasts a list of over 180 new books a year in every genre possible, be it literary and commercial fiction, general and commercial non-fiction, translations, poetry, children’s books or Hindi.
2017 marks the silver jubilee year of HarperCollins India. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, HarperCollins India is bringing out special editions of 25 of its most iconic books, calling it the Harper 25 Series, which will be available for a limited time.
HarperCollins India’s Publisher – Literary, Udayan Mitra, says, ‘Publishing is all about the love for reading, and in the 25 years that we have been in India, we have published books that have been read with joy, talked about, debated over, and then read once again; between them, they have also won virtually every literary award there is to win. The Harper 25 series gives us the chance to revisit some of these wonderful books.’
HarperCollins India’s art director, Bonita Vaz-Shimray, who conceptualized the design for the Harper 25 series, says, ‘The series is a celebration of the HarperCollins brand – its identity and colours – the iconic Harper red and blue have been interpreted in water colour media by Berlin-based Indian artist Allen Shaw. Each cover illustration is a story in itself – a story that’s open-ended, a story that sets the mood for what’s going to come, a story that starts taking definite shape only after the reader has finished reading the book.’
The entire Harper 25 series is now available at a bookstore near you. The books in the series include:
Akshaya Mukul Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
Amitav Ghosh The Hungry Tide Anita Nair Lessons in Forgetting Anuja Chauhan Those Pricey Thakur Girls
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Turning Points Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Arun Shourie Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?
A.S. Dulat with Aditya Sinha Kashmir the Vajpayee Years
B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Yoga
H.M. Naqvi Home Boy
Jhumpa Lahiri Interpreter of Maladies Karthika Nair Until the Lions
Kiran Nagarkar Cuckold
Krishna Sobti Zindaginama Manu Joseph Serious Men
M.J. Akbar Tinderbox
Tarun J. Tejpal The Story of My Assassins
Raghuram G. Rajan Fault Lines Rana Dasgupta Tokyo Cancelled
Satyajit Ray Deep Focus
Siddhartha Mukherjee The Emperor of All Maladies
Surender Mohan Pathak Paisath Lakh ki Dacaiti
S. Hussain Zaidi Byculla to Bangkok
T.M. Krishna A Southern Music Vivek Shanbhag Ghachar Ghochar
For more information, please write to Aman Arora, (Senior Brand and Marketing Manager) at aman.araora@HarperCollins-india.com
The Deepalaya Community Library Project which is managed by Mridula Koshy and Michael Creighton has been doing some phenomenally good work at promoting reading in Delhi. They have collected books in their library by buying, crowdsourcing, donations etc. Last night on Facebook they posted the fantastic news that 17,508 books had been issued in the last one year! Of these the most popular books and titles were according to Mridula Koshy, “Pratham Books, Tulika Publishers, Katha India, CBT, NBT, Eklavya, Amar Chitra katha, Campfire Graphic Novels, A and A books, Tintin in Hindi from Om Books, Usborne Reading series from HarperCollins India, tons of non fiction titles from Doring Kindersley, and because we have adult members as well, we stock just about everything from Rupa’s new Chetan Bhagat title to Itihaas se Ajnabee by Aaatish Taseer. Our most popular type of book is the picture book. About 650 to 800 (depending on how you count it) active members use the library from the 1400 we have signed up over 2 years. Somewhere between 900 and 1000 books leave the library each weeks these days. Most are picture books.” Michael Creighton adds “”It took 14 months from Nov 2014 to Jan 2015 to reach our first 10k. Counting from Jan 2016 to Jan 2017 we issued 17, 508 books. And more than half of this year’s 17K have come in the last 4 months only!””
Another such community library for children has been set up recently in Delhi by Sudhanva Deshpande et al at Studio Safdar, May Day Cafe & Bookstore.
This awful book, and it is awful, especially the spelling, will have a very bad influence on young minds. It will give children lots and lots of ideas about how to be even naughtier than they already are, and some of them are already EXTREMELY naughty. It is an outrage and I for one will be calling this book to be banned. Mr Wallybottom ( or whatever his stupid made-up name is) should be ashamed of himself.
( Introduction by Raj, a newsagent)
David Walliam’s The World’s Worst Children is hilarious! It is a collection of ten short stories about ten ghastly children. Brats who pick their noses like Peter Picker, Gruby Gertrude who has a gruby room, Miss Petula Perpetual-Motion who cannot sit still, Dribbling Drew who drools far too much or like Brian Wong, who was never ever wrong. But let me allow my six-year-old daughter comment upon it. She was ecstatic upon seeing the book and after reading a bit shot of a tiny ( and her first book review) to her grandmother via WhatsApp. Here it is:
Do you have the book called the world’s worst children? It’s very funny. If you have it read it. Nani. You will see a girl she fart’s a lot! She carries a trumpet with her but she doesn’t blow it with her mouth. Instead she does it with her bums because she doesn’t like to use her mouth. It’s easy to use her bum. And smell like potty comes out from her bums.
Sarah is thrilled this book has wacky illustrations such as of kids licking bowls of ice cream. “Just like me!” she squeals in excitement. Here is a snippet of a conversation I had with her:
“This book is for six”
“I am six!” I can read it!
Then suddenly sad.
“But when I grow up I want to read it again. Can I?”
And here is an audio clip of Sarah reading the book and cracking up with laughter.
The World’s Worst Children is a truly special book. A fantastic cross born of the literary lineage of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. The layouts are superb. The zany play of fonts and colour with each page designed meticulously. The full-of-light watercolour illustrations by Tony Ross support the text marvellously. It looks like a mad riot of colours and words but is very technically sophisticated. For the pure joy it creates in a young reader is unimaginable. David Walliams is a stand-up comedian but to get the tenor right for children by using words such as “stupid” easily in the text is marvellously liberating! Sarah gurgling with laughter said, “Mummy, ‘stupid’ is a bad word is it not?” and then lapsed into a fit of giggles. I watched my daughter read the lines slowly and blend the words hesitantly to graduate rapidly to reading at a comfortable pace.
The World’s Worst Children I would recommend heartily for everyone. It can easily work for leisure reading to being adopted by schools as supplementary readers.
David Walliams The World’s Worst Children ( Illustrated by Tony Ross) HarperCollins Children’s Books , London, 2016. Pb. pp.270 Rs 599
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”