I read Avni Doshi’s Girl In White Cotton and so should you. Read it for the exquisite craftsmanship of the sentences. The choice of words. The literary creativity. But there are many more conversations to be had on the side of how readers engage with such literary fiction? How does the writer create empathy for the characters or is that not essential? Does the focus on the beauteous sentences accentuate some of the shortcomings in the story itself? Or is literary craftsmanship about expressing oneself so brilliantly that the pain is felt by the reader too but at the cost of a growing indifference towards some of the characters? Many questions swirl in one’s head upon reading this sharp novel. It will linger for a long time too. No wonder it was shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2020. Good choice.
I recently contributed to How to Get Published in Indiaedited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.
Here is the essay I wrote:
AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher. My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi. These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.
In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.
To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!
The Daryaganj Sunday Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.
From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.
In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.
By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.
Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.
As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses.
The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting!
The Times LitFest Delhi ( 1-2 Dec 2018) was organised at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. I moderated two sessions with the both panel discussions focussed on reading. The first panel was on how do cultivate the love of reading amongst children.
TOI, 2 Dec 2018
My co-panelists were Saktibrata Sen, Programme Director, Room to Read India Trust; Manisha Chaudhry, co-founder Manan Books; Sonya Philips, Founder, Learning Matters Foundation and is a reading specialist and Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor (Hon) to the Director Education, Government of NCT Delhi, India. The freewheeling conversation was on ways to promote reading. Every panelist spoke about their strengths and initiatives. From being a part of the government as is Mr Sharma and realising that it is critical to have a reading corner in every class and every section. So much so that the Delhi government has now allocated a handsome budget of Rs 10,000 / section to buy books.
L-R: Manisha Chaudhry, Shailendra Sharma, Sonya Philips, Saktibrata Sen and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
Fact is that even today few families can afford to buy newspapers, magazines, let alone books. So the first time many children particularly in the government primary schools hold a book is their school textbook. Few have any role models in the adults and older children in their immediate environment and as Principal Advisor to the government, Mr Sharma’s job is to introduce the love of reading. Both Mr Sharma and Mr Sen were of the view that reading is a lifeskill that is critical and needs to be learned beyond just being able to identify your name in whatever written script the individual is familiar with. Mr Sen, representing Room to Read, is involved in setting up partnerships with the governments to set up libraries. In India the Room to Read India Trust is working with 11 state governments. Ms Philips stressed on how till Grade 2 a child learns “how to read” but after that the emphasis is on “learning to read”. Ms Chaudhury with her many years of experience in publishing, looking at multilingual publishing and the critical need for children to have books in their own languages rather than only in English is what spurs her on to create new material every single day. She has recently launched two new magazines in Hindi called Mithvan and Chahak, the latter is meant for the early grade reader.
Everyone was of the agreement that it is important to create the joy of reading and align it as closely as possible to the child’s lived experience rather than alienate him/her from using complicated language in the written word. This was illustrated beautifully by an anecdote Mr Sharma shared about the complicated language used in a Hindi textbook to describe food which was a far cry from what is commonly used at home on a daily basis. Manisha Chaudhry spoke of her earlier initiatives to publish in tribal languages.
Alas we ran short of time otherwise it was promising to become a wonderful conversation on how to cultivate the joy of reading in children.
Join Sonya Philip, Manisha Chaudhury, Shailendra Sharma and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose in conversation with Saktibrata Sen – brought to you by Room to Read in the session, 'Cultivating the Habit of Reading in Children' at #TLFDelhi
The second panel discussion was on “What is India reading?”. The panelists consisted of commissioning editors of four prominent publishing houses — Himanjali Sankar, Simon & Schuster India; Ranjana Sengupta, Penguin Random House India; Parth Mehrotra, Juggernaut and Udayan Mitra, HarperCollins India. Once again a freewheeling, adda-like, conversation about trying to figure out what India reads. The role of a commissioning editor has changed quite a lot in recent years. Traditionally commissioning editors were responsible for forming reading tastes but as Udayan Mitra pointed out that at times now the editor has to commission based on events and trends too. It is a kind of commissioning that did not exist earlier.
Today readers are accessing books through multiple platforms and in various formats — ebooks and audio books. It becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain how and what anyone is reading, let along a sub-continent like India where so many languages abound and there is rich regional literature too. Measuring reading tastes as Juggernaut is doing with their app and also because they are able to control their production pipeline while platform is something few are able to do even now. Most editors and publishing houses rely on print products that once released into the market are impossible to track. Some may be sold through brick-and-mortar stores, others through online spaces and yet other copies get sold as remaindered copies and secondhand books.
Listen to the conversation. So much was said. Many important bases within the Indian publishing landscape were touched upon. So much to think about.
What is India Reading? watch the conversation live at #TLFDelhi with Udayan Mitra, Himanjali Sankar, Ranjana Sengupta and Parth Mehrotra talking to Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
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.