historian Posts

Hilary Mantel and Kate Mosse

Historical fiction is always such a joy to read. If deftly created by an author with an informed imagination, then the pleasure of reading big fat tomes increases manifold. Two of the greatly anticipated books of this year arrived together — Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Kate Mosse’s The City of Tears. While Mantel’s book has already been released to great acclaim, Kate Mosse’s novel is due to be released at the end of May 2020. As expected The Mirror and the Light has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. ( The winner will be announced on 9 Sept 2020.)

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light is the last in the trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. It is also the “fattest” volume of the three and was nearly eight years in the making. During the time Mantel was writing this particular novel, Wolf Hall ( the first in the trilogy) had been adapted for television.

The Mirror and The Light focusses on the final years of Thomas Cromwell. It begins with the execution of Anne Boleyn and concludes with Cromwell’s own execution. Many of these incidents are widely known even beyond the British Isles. It is a story that has gripped peoples imagination for centuries. But it is the manner of telling that is always new. Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of the incidents is entertaining as much has has to be imagined especially the conversations in private. It is a well-known fact that much of Thomas Cromwell’s papers were burnt at his request after his arrest. There are only snatches of correspondence and contemporary accounts that survive in different libraries and private collections. These have survived primarily because they belonged to others at the time of Cromwell’s death. To be historically accurate is a difficult proposition and this is where Hilary Mantel is able to exercise the creative freedom that a writer has to imagine scenarios. It is obvious that the author did spend a lot of time trying to be historically accurate as far as possible in terms of incidents, locations and other contemporary details. She makes a reference to it in this fabulous conversation with Pat Barker. Yet there were many moments while reading the novel that it made a lot of sense to dip in Revd. Prof. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s incredible biography called Thomas Cromwell: A Life ( 2019). As an English historian and academic in Oxford University, specialising in ecclesiastical history and the history of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch spent more than six years researching and putting together details to recreate an astounding biography of Cromwell. So much so that even Mantel endorsed it saying “This is the biography we have been awaiting for 400 years”. For Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell’s role as an ally of Henry VIII who facilitated the split in the church to create the sects of Protestants and Catholics is fundamentally a religious action guided by political motivation. The inextricable link between Church and State cannot be ignored in MacCulloch’s account and it seeps through the telling of the history as well. (Here is a fascinating The British Academy 10-minute talk he gave on Thomas Cromwell.) Mantel too cannot ignore this link as it is the premise upon which Cromwell’s reputation as a powerful statesman and a member of the Royal Court resides. But it is her telling of the story that blurs these lines. Increasingly it seems with every page of this story that Mantel is very aware of two facts — 1) that she is writing this story for a modern secular audience for whom faith is only one aspect of a story and 2) her writing style is heavily influenced by different forms of storytelling. There are incidents in the descriptions of the crowds that gather in the streets for parades, to welcome the newest Queen or to watch a hanging, or in the conversations recounted, that always seem to be one step away from a script ready to be converted for a screen adaptation. Clearly Mantel’s loyalties lie more towards her readers than to the historical characters who have inspired her to write this award-winning trilogy. Her description of Cromwell’s execution is superb but the ghosts in the story make absolutely no sense. Diarmaid MacCulloch admits that Hilary Mantel and he may be writing about the same man but the differences are apparent — primarily because he is a historian and Mantel is a novelist. Even so a renowned critic as Daniel Mendelsohn was moved to say in his New Yorker review of the book that he had “started to wonder—a thought unimaginable during my reading of the first two books—whether this particular historical figure really merits nearly two thousand pages of fiction.” Daniel Mendelsohn “Hubris and Delusion at the end of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor Trilogy” ( 20 March 2020, The New Yorker)

Interestingly the founder of the Women’s Prize, Kate Mosse, has also released a historical fiction novel called The City of Tears. ( It is slated for release on 28 May 2020.) It is the second part of a family saga that is set in France, a little after Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, during the Wars of Religion. Mosse’s historical fiction series is going to be spanning three centuries detailing the lives of the Huguenots (Protestants) and the Royal family (Catholics) in France. According to Mosse it will travel from sixteenth-century France and Amsterdam to the Cape of Good Hope in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The City of Tears is set at the time of the St. Bartholomew Massacre of 23 August 1572. It is an immensely readable account of the conflict between the two factions. The main characters whose story is narrated in this series are purely fictional but are a means to enter the period and recount the horrific events of the time. Many of the details would resonate with the modern reader for the sectarian violence and the refugees created. As Mosse states in her note that the “characters and families are imagined though inspired by the kind of people who might have lived ordinary men and women, struggling to live, love and survive against a backdrop of religious war and displacement. Then, as now.” It is a pleasure to read The City of Tears for it may be classified as commercial fiction and tells a fantastic tale of a family, love and tears with some swashbuckling action thrown in for good measure but through it all Kate Mosse is very clear that the events detailed are because of religious differences. The violence and the misery it brought in its wake was wholly unnecessary then as it is now. The City of Tears is a gripping tale that can easily be adapted to screen but none of it intrudes in the telling of the story as happens in The Mirror and the Light.

Nevertheless it has been a pleasure to read both the novels in quick succession. And I am glad I did!

3 May 2020

Juergen Boos, President/CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair/ Frankfurter Buchmesse, on “Freedom to Publish”, 23 Jan 2019, Jaipur Bookmark

Juergen Boos, President/CEO, Frankfurt Book Fair/ Frankfurter Buchmesse, delivered the inaugural speech at the Jaipur Bookmark. It is the business conclave that is inaugurated the day before Jaipur Literature Festival and then runs parallel with the litfest. It is an exciting B2B space for publishing professionals to network. Juergen Boos’s speech is published here with his kind permission.

******

Juergen Boos, 23 Jan 2019, Diggi Palace, Jaipur

Dear Namita Gokhale,  

Dear William Dalrymple,  

Dear Sanjoy K. Roy,  

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak here today. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a festival of cultures, language, ideas and literature, and I feel very privileged to have the chance over the next few days to listen to so many Indian authors and personalities from around the world and to converse with them.

At this confluence of cultures, I’m pleased to address the friends from the trade at Jaipur Bookmark today. 

After all, that is the fundamental principle of any literature festival: creating an environment for interactions that promote the free exchange of ideas and opinions.

The free exchange of ideas and opinions – never has that been easier than today, in the 21st century.

And never has it been so threatened.

Over the past 20 years, communications technology has taken an evolutionary leap, one that surpasses anything the most far-sighted science-fiction writers of the 19th and 20th centuries could have imagined.

In Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” from the year 1968, Dr Heywood Floyd, an astronaut, has a “videophone call” with his daughter while at the space station.

Fifty years later, in the summer of 2018, the German astronaut Alexander Gerst used his mobile phone to take fascinating photos of his time at the International Space Station, images which were transmitted around the world.

Videophones, computer tablets, artificial intelligence, voice control – many of the things that Kubrick envisaged 50 years ago have become reality.

According to the 2018 Global Digital Report,[1] of the four billion people around the world who have access to the Internet, more than three billion use social media every month.  Nine out of ten users log on to their chosen platforms using mobile devices.

The number of people who use the most popular platforms in their respective country has grown over the last 12 months by almost one million new users each day.

What I find remarkable here is that not only has communications technology made a quantum leap, the devices that allow the world’s population to participate in the global conversation have also become so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one.

That is giving rise to a previously unknown participatory process, one that has the power to change democracy’s traditional ground rules: 

Everyone today is in a position to publish whatever they want – using blogs, podcasts and self-publishing platforms, as well as traditional publishing houses. News is transmitted around the globe in the fraction of a second, and social networks allow us to reach more readers and viewers than ever before.

In just a minute I will talk about the challenges and consequences that are resulting for the publishing industry.

First, however, let’s look at the darker side of these developments:

In the 21st century, a few select businesses have become private superpowers. They can do more than most countries to promote or prevent a free exchange of opinions.

Via social networks, phenomena like the viral spread of fake news, hate speech and slander now have a global impact. 

Professional trolls strategically destabilise political discourse online, fuelling populist, nationalist and anti-democratic tendencies throughout Europe and around the globe.

One observes that, here in India, free speech is facing a threat sprouting from religious motivations, political biases and social judgments. Attempts in the recent past to silence journalists, writers, film-makers and publishers reflect the rise of identity politics and apathy on the part of the state. Two journalists of international repute – Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari – were shot dead within a span of nine months. Publisher friends like DC Books, Kalachuvadu Publications and their authors have witnessed attacks by fanatics who may have never even read the books in question.

When I look at the hysteria, hatred and hostility that characterise the discussion in social media, the permanent state of turmoil that societies around the world find themselves in, then I begin to doubt whether we are actually capable of using the communications technologies whose development we are so proud of.

To paraphrase Goethe: “The spirits I called / I now cannot rule”.

In social media, language is used as a destructive weapon day in and day out, and it’s become clear how disastrous this can be for those individuals targeted by the bullying. It can even lead to murder.   

In his 2016 book Free Speech, which you undoubtedly know, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash examines the question of how free speech should take place.

He asks which social, journalistic, educational, artistic and other possibilities can be realised to ensure that free speech proves beneficial by facilitating creative provocation without destroying lives and dividing societies.[2]

He comes to the conclusion that the less we want to have laid out by law, the more we have to do ourselves.

After all, Ash explains, there is no law that can draw a line between freedom and anarchy – every individual must look within before expressing himself or herself and must take responsible decisions.

I would like to talk with you about this “how” in the coming days and hear your opinions.

Personally, I feel that the participatory process I mentioned before requires us – our industry, but also each of us as individuals – to take a stance. Expressing an opinion of this type was long reserved for politicians or the media. Today, in the 21st century, we all have the possibility of making our voices heard.

And we should not do that in keeping with the motto “overnewsed but uninformed,” but in a carefully considered manner.

I believe that this permanent state of turmoil is troubling, this hysteria which does not stop at speech, but which now increasingly leads to violence.

Personally, I’m alarmed at how the language we use is becoming increasingly coarse and, following from that, the way we interact with each other.  

The problem about this state of turmoil is that it usually results in the exclusion of others and, consequently, causes even deeper trenches to be dug.   

Yet how can we deal with the challenges of our time – and find solutions to them – if not in dialogue with each other?

That leads to the question: what responsibility do publishers bear, does our industry bear, today, in the post-Gutenberg era?

How can publishing houses and their products remain relevant in an age in which fake news can be disseminated faster than well-researched books?

In which rumours, supposition and conjecture are more quickly viewed, liked and shared than texts capable of explaining complex contexts?

As my friends Kristenn Einarsson and José Borghino have pointed out on many occasions, “If we are to create and maintain free, healthy societies, then publishers must have the will and the ability to challenge established thinking, preserve the history of our cultures, and make room for new knowledge, critical opposition and challenging artistic expression”.[3]

Publishers in the 21st century are in a privileged position: the industry looks back on a long tradition, on the one hand, and has built a reputation. Publishers are gatekeepers – they filter and assess content, they curate before they publish.

They consider it part of their job to publish content that is well-researched, documented, checked and carefully assembled as way of contributing to the range of opinions present in society.

On the other hand, they now have the possibility of reaching their readers through various channels, offering their expertise, their content and their opinion exactly where their target group is found.

Publishers and authors in many parts of the world risk their lives by writing or bringing out books that criticise regimes, uncover injustices and shed light on political failures.

On 15 November 2018, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Arundhati Roy wrote the following in a letter to the Bangladeshi writer, photographer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam: “How your work, your photographs and your words, has, over decades, inscribed a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world – its pain, its joy, its violence, its sorrow and desolation, its stupidity, its cruelty, its sheer, crazy complicatedness – onto our consciousness. Your work is lit up, made luminous, as much by love as it is by a probing, questioning anger born of witnessing at first hand the things that you have witnessed. Those who have imprisoned you have not remotely understood what it is that you do. We can only hope, for their sake, that someday they will.”[4]

As you know, Shahidul Alam was taken into custody in July of last year after he criticised the government of Bangladesh in an interview with Al Jazeera and in various Facebook posts.[5] Fortunately he has since been freed, but the charges against him remain.

Without wanting to turn these very personal remarks by Arundhati Roy into a generalisation, I would just like to say that she has put it in a nutshell when she writes that, through their work, writers, authors, journalists and artists draw a vivid map of humankind in our part of the world.

Journalists and other authors write despite intimidation and threats. Like Shahidul Alam, they are driven by a mixture of love and anger. For that, they deserve our highest esteem and respect.

Writers and journalists are being intimidated and forced into silence all around the world because of their political and social engagement, something we condemn in the strongest possible terms.  

As discoverers and disseminators of ideas and free thought, we, as a community, have a greater responsibility to uphold freedom of expression. At the same time, we cannot withhold our criticism of its misuse.

I hope to have the chance to speak with many of you about these issues in the coming days.

Thank you.


[1] https://wearesocial.com/de/blog/2018/01/global-digital-report-2018

[2] (Kapitel Ideale, Seite 123)

[3] Zitiert in Nitasha Devasar: Publishers on Publishing – Inside India’s Book Business

[4] https://pen-international.org/news/arundhati-roy-writes-to-shahidul-alam-day-of-the-imprisoned-writer-2018

[5] https://pen-international.org/news/shahidul-alam-writes-to-arundhati-roy

13 February 2019

HarperCollins India to publish William Dalrymple’s The Writer’s Eye”

william-dalyrmple-lead-image003I am truly excited about this forthcoming book – The Writer’s Eye. True, the photographs taken by William Dalrymple are exquisite. Even more astounding when you realise these were mostly taken with his Samsung phone. But what I like the most about this publishing arrangement is the coming together of three very talented photographers — William Dalrymple, Ananth Padmanabhan and Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. The historical sense that informs the superb compositions of William Dalrymple, combined with the sharp publishing potential and commissioning sensibility of veteran publisher Ananth Padmanabhan and the fine aesthetic and curation abilities of Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi can only make a stupendous book. I wait eagerly to see what is published in March 2016. 

HarperCollins India to publish William Dalrymple

HarperCollins India are delighted to announce the publication of renowned writer, traveller and historian William Dalrymple’s first book of photographs, The Writer’s Eye, this March.

In a suite of black and white photographs, shot over two years, William Dalrymple brings elegance, inquiry and grace to the photographic form. Powerful and precise, the pictures in The Writer’s Eye are documents of landscape, conveying potent solitude and brooding strokes. The beloved author of acclaimed books returns to a visual medium he first worked with in collegiate days, armed now with over two decades of writerly composure and brilliance.

William Dalrymple said, “I am completely thrilled that HarperCollins India are publishing my photographs – the realisation of a long held dream.”

Ananth, CEO, HarperCollins India said, ‘We are incredibly excited – it’s a rare moment when a celebrated writer chooses another medium of art. William’s first book of photographs and we are delighted he chose to publish with us’

Curated by bestselling writer and Sensorium Festival co-founder, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi The Writer’s Eye opens at Sunaparanta : Goa Centre for the Arts, 18th of March, in Goa; Vadehra Art Gallery, 29th of March, in Delhi; and the Grosvenor Gallery, June 2016, London. This show is proudly supported by arts patrons Dattaraj, Dipti Salgaocar and Isheta Salgaocar, gallerists Roshini Vadehra, and Conor Macklin, The Writer’s Eye marks the public debut of a gifted visual artist.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi had this to say on his Facebook wall ( 1 March 2016). (I am posting it with his permission. )
One winter evening at the Goa home of Dattaraj Salgaocar, the writer and historian William Dalrymple showed me photographs he’d made on his phone. I was struck by their jazz quality, nocturnal and solitary. I asked if I might show them. He agreed. Two years later, we have a handsome body of work, The Writer’s Eye, which debuts this spring March 18th at Sunaparanta Art Centre. My friend, the wonderful Roshini Vadehra Kapoor and I teamed to show it in Delhi, at Vadhera Art Gallery, which opens March 29th. And in partnership with family friends Dattaraj and Dipti Salgaocar’s Sunaparanta and Vadehra, the show moves to London, opening at the Grosvenor Gallery on June 23rd.
I was equally keen to take the gallery catalog, a somewhat of a vanity document seen by an elite few, and grow it into something that might be enjoyed by many. I turned to my friend Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins, himself a writer and photographer, and he gamely came on to support the show by bringing out a splendid book of the photographs (with essays by William and myself). The Writer’s Eye is launched in Delhi, on the day the show opens.
As Sensorium draws to a close this month, we are already preparing walls for the next show. Please come if in Goa, Delhi or London to celebrate William, his work, and his 50th birthday this March, for which this is a small celebration.
With gracious support from Arianna Huffington, Anindita Ghose and all at VOGUE, Shruti Kapur at Platform, and David Godwin.

I am posting some of the photographs that William Dalrymple has clicked with his Samsung. These are a personal selection I made from the press release, newspaper reports and from William Dalrymple’s Facebook page. These are being posted on my blog with his permission.

12508942_10153216298116965_3960126525681238359_n 12573805_10153246775086965_6777041961801984083_n 12662040_10153265318131965_918576921416682771_n 12670246_10153265315356965_867005688923962319_n 12800278_10153302971666965_3192225591154056451_n 12806063_10153302971896965_1342061096235934881_n 12806126_10154505463556686_487272715904165648_n

william-dalyrmple-embed-image005The Diwan-e-Aam, Fatehpur Sikri


The Fatehpur Sikri Jama Masjid



william-dalyrmple-embed1-image005

All photos: William Dalrymple (c) 2016

William Dalrymple is a writer, traveller and historian and one of the co-directors and founders of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Return of a King, White Mughals and Nine Lives.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi‘s debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk, won the Betty Trask Award in the UK, the Premio Grinzane Cavour in Italy, and was nominated for the IMPAC Prize. The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, his subsequent bestselling novel, was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008.

3 March 2016

PubSpeak: Total Recall

PubSpeak: Total Recall

My column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online focuses on the Wendy Doniger book controversy. Here is the url to it:   http://businessworld.in/news/economy/total-recall/1266222/page-1.html   . ) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose On 11 February, Penguin Books India reached a compromise drawn up in a Delhi Court that insisted it cease the publication and sale of American Indologist, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in India within six months. Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samitri had filed a civil suit against the publishers to withdraw from circulation all copies. Given that Batra had filed the case four years ago and it was still subjudice, the news of this compromise spread like wildfire. Later that day, Doniger issued a press statement “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”Wendy Doniger

PBI logoPenguin Books India released a statement on 14 February stating “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can…. The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.”

What followed the announcement perhaps was only a natural outcome given the speed at which social media helps communicate information. There was public outrage at this development— newspapers, print, digital, and, of course, social media forums. A number of commentators, journalists, and even Penguin authors wrote passionately against Penguin Book India’s decision to destroy the book. Arundhati Roy in an open letter spoke of her distress and said “You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least”. Nilanjana Roy, author and member of PEN Delhi wrote on censorship and how to remain free; Jakob de Roover in an outstanding essay “Untangling the Knot” discussed the complexities of governance, judiciary and free speech; journalist Salil Tripathi commented perceptively on the issue on many platforms ; Stephen Alter wrote, “Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write”; Penguin author and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri reiterated that “It’s important that the law protect all texts”; and Antara Dev Sen, Editor, The Little Magazine, wrote that the Indian Penal Code “Section 295A targets ‘deliberate and malicious acts (which include speech, writings or signs) intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. In an age of identity politics and hurt sentiments, this has been used frequently by politically motivated people to stifle free speech. But back in 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that only when there is a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings’ is it an offence under this law. Higher courts in India have consistently ruled in favour of freedom of speech and have protected books and people hauled to court under this law.”

In fact, two Penguin authors, Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, asked for their contracts to be terminated. Another Penguin author, Arshia Sattar (who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara from Sanskrit to English) expressed her dismay at the “complete capitulation” of the firm and how her “pride and that faith has been shaken…of being with a publishing house that protected its people and the books they wrote”.

A counter legal initiative perhaps was expected. According to the website, Legally India, advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a 30-paragraph legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. The notice sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is no longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public. Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published Doniger’s book, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabharata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”

At the recent Globalocal event (German Book Office, New Delhi’s annual B2B conference on publishing), a regional language publisher wondered if it was possible for any other publisher to option this book and publish it, after all it has not been legally banned in this territory. Echoing this sentiment, Shamnad Basheer, IPR lawyer, writing in Spicy IP, reflected upon the pros and cons of compulsory licensing, and whether it was possible if a publisher decides to stop publication, one could apply for a compulsory license.

Globally Penguin has been in the news related to their peripheral businesses and their merger with Random House. In 2012, Pearson PLC (of which Penguin Books India is a part of) acquired the self-publishing firm, Author Solutions, for $116 million. But in 2013, this deal soured as a number of disgruntled authors filed lawsuits against Author Solutions for its poor service. In the landmark case pertaining to ebooks and agency pricing, in April 2012, the US Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers, including Penguin, for conspiring to raise prices and restrain competition. This was done after Amazon filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, Penguin was obliged to pay $75 million. George Packer observes in the New Yorker, “an enormous sum in a business that has always struggled to maintain respectable profit margins”. On 1 July 2013, the global merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced. It was a strategic alliance, forged as a response to the growing presence of Amazon in the publishing industry. The formation of Penguin Random House (PRH) has created a group that has 25 per cent of the market share. A merger comes at a cost of resources that have to be taken into account for the new firm to begin work on a strong footing.

In Oct 2013, Penguin Random House announced the completion of its purchase of Ananda Publishers Private Limited’s minority stake in Penguin Books India. It plans to invest Rs 55 crore or $8.6 million for this stake buy. As banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian, with whom in June 2013 Penguin Books India signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) wrote on his blog with respect to Doniger’s case, “publishing is a business”. For any firm, particularly in publishing, this is a lot of money being moved around its balance sheets.  Naturally the ripple effect of these financial adjustments will be felt even in the local markets—it is like conducting business in a global village where in the context of a globally contacted world, the minimum consumption that people desire is also influenced by what is going on elsewhere.

Similarly, with the Doniger case, Penguin Books India has probably taken an informed business decision, based upon a global strategy when it signed this deal on 11 February, in order to preserve a healthy English-language publishing market in India.

Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Books India, in a guest blog post in 2012 during the Banned Books week, had this to say: “Injunctions make things costly, time consuming, and take our energies away from the work we are really meant to do. And so we try and avoid them as much as possible. Apart from the fact that we don’t fight hard enough for them, I wonder whether it means we impose a kind of self-censorship on ourselves.”

Ironically this latest controversy broke exactly twenty-five years after the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’ published by Penguin. At the time, his publishers stood by him and did not pulp the book. The fact is publishing is a business that is built upon the creative energies and emotions of people. India is also a functioning democracy. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen. With the General Elections less than a hundred days away, the need for openness, frank conversations without any inhibitions, and certainly not a capitulation to any ideological position is imperative.

Scholar-journalist and historian Mukul Kesavan points out that that selling books is not like selling any other commodity. Publishers have moral responsibility and a publisher voluntarily agreeing to withdraw a book has previously been challenged with the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji in 2007. Oxford University Press voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. An FIR was issued against the publisher and printer of the book in Pune (one charge, under Section 153 A, was ‘inciting class hatred’) and the printer was actually arrested. When the case (‘Manzar Sayeed Khan vs State Of Maharashtra, 2007’) came up before the Supreme Court, however, the government of Maharashtra’s case against the author and the publisher of the book was found to be wanting. So, there is a precedent by the Supreme Court to rule in favour of free speech.

Nevertheless, the Wendy Doniger book controversy raises a bunch of issues pertaining to the publishing industry. Questions about legislation and the freedom of speech, what are the ethics involved in publishing, do readers and authors have a right that they can exercise, what does it mean for licensing, do possibilities exist in a mixed environment of digital and print publishing such as do readers have a choice?

Finally does this self-censorship by a publishing firm mean an inadvertent promotion for self-publishing, encouraging authors to be responsible for their books completely? Interestingly in a space of less than six weeks I have heard John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Random House and Jon Fine, Director, Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon talk about their publishing businesses and both have stressed upon the importance of discoverability of an author. This controversy could not have come at a better time for Doniger and even Penguin. They have achieved the Streisand effect whereby in an attempt to censor a piece of information, it has had the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely. It has achieved what no PR could have—a boost in sales.

21 Feb 2014 

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Mukul Kesavan, “Homeless on Google Earth”

Homeless on Google Earth

( My review of Mukul Kesavan’s book Homeless on Google Earth was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement today, 5 Jan 2014. The online version is available at:  http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/lucid-yet-forceful/article5538031.eceThe review is c&p below as well.) 

Mukul Kesavan Homeless on Google Earth Permanent Black, Ranikhet Cantt., India, 2013. Hb. Pp. 315. Rs. 595

 In India we bank on time and forgetfulness to paper over the great rents in our history. They help but can’t do the job by themselves.  (p.252)

As a consumer of news, you could be forgiven for thinking the Indian elections are ideology-free. Pundits in the press and on the television news channels are always saying that votes are bought, coalitions are constructed out of caste fractions, politicians defect, political parties swtich sides with frictionless ease, and the policies contained in party manifestos are irrelevant to the democractic process because they are never seriously discussed. Add up these defects and what India seems to have by way of elections is the mechanism of representative government without the large ideological contestation that is, or ought to be, a democracy’s reason for being. (p. 237)

“The electoral impact of the controversy over the reinstatement of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code might be small, but the political significance of the positions that parties have taken on the decriminalization of homosexuality is considerable.” The opening lines of Mukul Kesavan’s latest column—“A political prism – What the different parties’ positions on 377 reveal”. In one sentence, clearly and sharply, scholar-journalist and historian, Mukul Kesavan, has encapsulated the furore that has dominated recent news but also pithily analysed it, forecasting the impact it will have politically; powerful words, especially on the eve of General Elections in India and after the four state election results were announced. Hence it is not surprising to discover that the web link to this article has been shared, reposted and discussed furiously in social media platforms. In fact, during the last elections, he was often spotted on television channels as a panellist, offering his independent, strong, thought-provoking and well-articulated opinion.

Homeless on Google Earth is a collection of 58 essays, most of which seem to have been written recently, judging by their subject. Mukul Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Milia Islamia, a university in New Delhi. In these opinion pieces, he covers a range of topics—his identity in “No place like home”, book launches, literary festivals, travelling to Kruger National Park with Amitav Ghosh, Bollywood, technology, gender issues, travelogues, education and political commentaries that cover topics like Israel, Gaza, Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Tibet, Kashmir, naxalism, the pogroms in India of 1984, 1992 and 2002, communal violence, elections and terrorism. The essays in the book are well arranged. They start from the easy-to-read, light and sometimes hilarious essays like “Consuming wildness in Kruger”, to the grim, sober and chilling commentaries on police encounters at Jamia Milia Islamia (“Presumed Innocent”); on naxalites (“Operation Green Hunt”); and communal hatred (“Vox Pop and Varun Gandhi” and “Accounting for the Dead”). He is a genuine historian who marshals his evidence to bolster his arguments in tautly structured essays manifesting his splendid  command of English. Without undermining the intelligence of his readers, his arguments are is lucidly and simply expressed.

Homeless on Google Earth is about important events in contemporary political, social events in  India and aspects of society that usually go unnoticed, like the women taxi drivers or the peculiar social space of society that in which MSM exists in. But read at a sitting, the essays can become very tedious. They are a collection of writings published at various times, originally meant to be read one at a time. When collected as a book, their rhythm and organization can seem to have a dull sameness. But unless one has followed Mukul Kesavan’s columns and other writings, one will not know that the essays were written at different times as there are no dates for them in this book, an unexpected oversight from a historian.

At a time when mainstream papers are slowly going out of business or moving actively and aggressively to online spaces, the vaccuum steadily being replaced by citizen journalists, online and at times armchair activism,  voices of opinion makers like Mukul Kesavan are valuable.  He is rational and sound. He does not seem to be swayed by majority sentiments, and is acutely aware of his academic discipline which he brings to bear on the issues dealt with here. One may not agree with his point of view but it is presented forcefully yet courteously and without shrillness.  It is important for such voices to be heard more often. They reach out to a range of people and ideological groups. The historian E.J.Hobsbawm said in his public lecture in Delhi 2004, that earlier society used to change at a pace that allowed people at least a generation to respond and adapt to it. But recently change has been so rapid that we are having to do this adjusting and adapting in the space of a decade or less. At this speed it becomes imperative to have rational thinkers to actively participate in civil society, as Mukul Kesavan has done in these essays.

“Girls of India” series

“Girls of India” series

A Mauryan Adventure, Subhadra Sen GuptaPuffin, an imprint of Penguin Books India, launched the  “Girls of India” series. The idea is to introduce young readers to history, make it come alive and accessible, without confining it to history textbooks where history is dry, dull and boring. Far from it! The first three titles in A Chola Adventure ( Anu Kumar), A Harappan Adventure (Sunile Gupte) and A Mauryan Adventure ( Subhadra Sen Gupta) are the adventures of twelve-year-olds, Raji, Avani and Madhura in 990 CE, Tanjore; 2570 BCE, Bagasara village, Harappa and 3rd Century BCE, Pataliputra, India respectively. Well-told tales that immerse you immediately into the stories, the period and the antics of the girls. Of the three, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s A Mauryan Adventure is the finest, evident in the ease with which the story is told, details of the story come together and so do the facts from history– but then she has years of experience in making history accessible for children through tales.

I am delighted to see historical fiction being made available for younger readers. It definitely has its uses for the sheer pleasure of reading or being introduced as supplementary readers in schools, thereby giving trade publishers access to an age group of readers who usually fall of their radar, since exams and textbooks hog all their attention, only to re-emerge as readers in their early twenties. In fact Prof Narayani Gupta wrote “It is very important to have teachers use this as well as referring to dauntingly clever theses. My husband [ well-known historian Prof. Partha Sarthi Gupta] used to recommend specific Sherlock Holmes stories for European diplomatic history!” ( A comment she sent via email upon reading my article on Historical Fiction — http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/03/26/on-historical-fiction-my-article-published-in-hts-brunch-9-march-2013/  )

While I am all for encouraging young girls to be readers too, I do have reservations about restricting the series to “Girls of India” or having girls on the book covers. These are books that will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. Given that they are targeting the 12+ age-group, this is a very sensitive lot of youngsters. Details like making the book covers more amenable to girls for reading can quite easily deter the boys from picking up these titles. It is a fine balance to be achieved.  In March 2013, Dame  Jacqueline Wilson had commented upon publishers stopping the pink tide, of creating books dressed up in pink to lure young girls as readers. Her argument was based on the premise that “a boy is going to have to feel really quite confident if he is going to be seen in front of his mates with a book that is bright pink because it is immediately code for this being ‘girlie’.” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10039848/Dame-Jacqueline-Wilson-challenges-publishers-to-halt-the-pink-tide.html ) A valid argument for accessing boys as readers, I think, holds true here as well.

Bottomline. My verdict for the series. A thumbs up. Read. Recommend.

Girls of India Series, published by Puffin, Penguin Books India. June 2013.

17 Sept 2013

Web Analytics Made Easy -
StatCounter