His wife, when she’s with him, will point something out. ‘Doesn’t it make you feel proud?’ she will ask. ‘Not particularly.’ ‘It will hang forever on a wall, your signature beneath it — something you have created that nobody else could have created. And it doesn’t make you –? I mean, how could it not?’ ‘I guess, I don’t see things the way you do.’ ‘You don’t love it? Maybe it’s just as well we didn’t have children. I mean you create something and yet you don’t even love it?’ ‘It? What do you mean by it exactly?’ ‘You know — that barn, this farm, that house–now immortalised.’ ‘Then I guess no, I don’t love it.’ He doesn’t tell her that when he finds it at first, then, yes, all right, he feels it. When he carries it in his head and silently waits for it to take form. When he shyly glances at the sketches he’s made and feels the urge inside him. When it’s there in his head coming out of the dusk. Then it’s love all right. More love than he has ever felt for her, or any other woman.
*** The Narrow Land ( Atlantic Books) by Christine Dwyer Hickey is about ten-year-old Michael, survivor of German concentration camps, and his incredible friendship with the artists Jo and Edward Hopper.
It is an elegant novel that does one of the toughest acts — inserts itself in a marriage, to understand the couple at the heart of this relationship and their creativity. At the same time it creates these unexpected inter-generational alliances, creating spaces for the young and the old to become strong personalities in their own right and not necesarily to be judged from the outside by observers. It is an incredible feeling as a reader to be exposed to the chatter of others, building up the personalities of the protagonists, only to suddenly discover oneself in an intimate space with them, be privy to their thoughts and emotions and the remarkably ordinary universe they inhabit. As if the writer is goading the reader to look beyond the obvious in the story, just as any artist would delve deep within themselves to discover their creativity.
Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Hershort story collection Sleeping with Movie Stars, published by Penguin India, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms.
Girl Made of Gold is Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel, published by Juggernaut Books. It is historical fiction set in Thanjavur in the 1920s. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a young devadasi called Kanaka and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume tht Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. It is a novel that certainly leaves an impact. Even award-winning author Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni was moved to say ‘Girl Made of Gold is an exquisitely written novel, bejewlled with authentic cultural details and characters who take up permanent residence in the reader’s heart. This story of love, loss and discovery will keep you turning the pages until the astonishing end.’
Now the author is completing her second novel, set in Tanjore in the 1930s.
Q1. How long did it take to write Girl Made of Gold? Which was the initial idea in the plot that gripped you and developed into a story?
The initial idea is exactly as I tell in my Afterword: I had a few friends visiting from the UK staying with me in my flat in Madras, so I’d invited VAK Ranga Rao to meet them. He’s a great raconteur, simply full of stories, especially given his multi-faceted life experience, born into a royal family, being a dancer, music critic, film afficionado, well-read, well-travelled. He told us all this story that a devadasi had told him: a girl of her own illustrious family had turned herself into a gold statue in order to escape the attentions of a man. That story raised so many questions – why didn’t she want the man to become her patron? What was so awful about him, or about her situation that she would want to escape from it by means of such a drastic step? And if you don’t believe in girls turning themselves into gold statues, then what really did happen to the young devadasi? That story, from the moment I heard it I knew it was going to occupy my thoughts for a long time. I remember that I actually felt a shiver down my spine.
Then I discovered that such stories of devadasis are in the stalapuranas of many temples – when a man takes a devadasi’s half-chewed paan into his mouth, he becomes a great poet; when a king has a devadasi’s long beautiful hair shaved off, it grows back overnight. Within that world, a devadasi turning into a gold statue is accepted.
Q2. How many drafts did you need to create before completion?
Getting to even one full draft that I could hand to someone else to read was a long laborious process. Clearly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. By the time I actually completed my first draft, I’d been researching and writing bits and pieces of the novel for more than five years. But finally, I had managed to get the characters alive in my mind, and I could then record their actions and sentiments almost effortlessly. Or at least, with real enjoyment rather than struggle. So I didn’t need to completely rewrite many sections. The first draft felt like a huge achievement, to get the words onto the page so you can see what’s wrong, what needs editing, what needs to be filled out. It still took a year from the first draft to the finished version that is in print.
Q3. What is the writing schedule you follow?
You have to remember that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing. I was a dancer. What does a dancer do? Well, we warm up, do some basic exercises, and that’s what I try to do as part of a daily practice. I write every day for no purpose whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s just for the feel of my pen moving across the page. I have established rituals of practice that work for me, just as I did as a dancer. I write in long hand, the early stages are never on a computer. The pen has to be just right – black ink, fountain pen, cheap, so I don’t cry if I lose it, since I carry it with me everywhere. The paper has to be just right – squared paper in an A5-sized spiral notebook so it can fit in my bag. I can get very attached to a particular notebook and then if the company stops making it, it’s a tragedy – I worry that I’ll never be able to write again. It has happened to me several times over the years, so now when I find a good notebook I buy ten. No Moleskins or anything expensive – I have to feel that I can write pages and pages of the most utter nonsense without fear of wasting money.
Then, when there’s a germ of a story, I have to let myself be consumed by it, I need time with no fixed appointments of any kind. Then I’ll write intensely and with great focus for hours and hours, early in the morning, late at night, until the story is done. At some point I will feel it settle into a still vague but somewhat coherent shape. At that point I go on the computer and start transcribing my notes. After that all the writing is a process of rewriting, editing, word choice, much more analytical and conscious because the unconscious, creative work has already been done. During this second stage I go back to behaving like a human being, bathing, brushing my teeth, doing chores. I can drop into and out of this part of the process and go back to meeting the world’s demands.
Q4. Do you develop backstories for your characters? I ask as at times it seems as if you are very familiar with the characters, almost as if you are clear about their movement, their emotions, their inner thoughts. Much like you would expect a dancer to internalise a story in order to give it a strong expression.
I don’t think of it as ‘back story’, because during the time when I’m writing in long hand, I have no idea whatsoever as to what will be useful and what not. So yes, there is a great deal that turns out to be back story, but it is at a much later stage of the writing process where decisions like that are made and I come to know what goes into the story and what remains in the notebook, what needs to be foregrounded and what is there simply to make the character real for me. It’s very true that it’s like bringing a padam to life in dance, thank you for noting that. I develop a feel for the nayika as young or mature, as quick to anger, or always calm, as the kind of woman who hides her tears, or one who weeps openly, by embodying her again and again in practice. That’s how I come to know her very well, from the inside out, as it were. That’s the only method I know to make the facial expressions cohere into a nayika that has life on stage.
Q5. Devadasis occupy an unusual space in society. Social rules accord them respect and status while giving them social mobility as well. It is a complicated relationship but as you have shown in the novel, it also makes the devadasis very vulnerable. Why did you choose the devadasi storyline as the basis of your novel?
I didn’t choose that storyline so much as it entered and planted itself in me. But I was fertile ground for that kind of seed, because the repertoire of bharata natyam that I’d been immersed in for so long, was the devadasi’s bodily experience. I’d already learned padams like the one which says, ‘Why should I be afraid of anyone’s gossiping/ with a great man like him as my lover?’ or ‘Where is the nose ring you promised me?’ or ‘That cunning woman has trapped him/he won’t come back to me’. The songs suggest a world of jealousy, illicit relationships and intrigue – what could be a better inspiration for a novel?
Q6. In Girl Made of Gold there is a lot of brutality, a murder and the violent patriarchal attitude of the men towards to their women. Was it hard to write these portions of the story?
When I was working on the novel in London, newspaper stories about the rape and murder of the young girl, only eight years old, in Kashmir, were everywhere, and at unexpected moments, a sudden image of her suffering would come out of nowhere to blindside me, and I could do nothing but weep. What are verbal descriptions compared to real life cruelty? So yes, it is difficult to write of pain and violence, but at the same time, once it’s on the page, there is some semblance of relief. Those scenes of brutality in my novel are written from my own experience, or the experiences of women I spoke to. Which woman in India, or in any other country for that matter, has never been molested? I’d really like to meet her. I was molested when I studied dance in Madras, not as violently as in my novel, but it certainly gave me a point of entry into the scene. And when I went to Gokak to talk to the devadasi women there, they described with extreme frankness the horror of being forced as young girls to have sex with much older men. It’s no fun for the girl, I can tell you. And yet she would often fall in love with the man. I was always conscious that emotional truth is often messy and difficult and complicated.
Q7. Was it easy to transit from a being professional Bharatnatyam dancer to a novelist? What were the pros and cons?
I can’t regret being a bharatanatyam dancer, even though I never had much of a career. Being a dancer requires such discipline – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you sleep, all the care that is required – no high heeled shoes for example, no make-up daily, so that my skin could recover from the stage make-up. And since I wasn’t ever a well-known dancer, my performances were few and far apart, yet I still had to stay in practice, because the deterioration is so quick – miss two or three days and then take twice that long to get back to the same level. I was lucky: my two gurus Nana Kasar and Kalanidhi Narayan made the process of practicing the end in itself; they taught me to give up performance as a goal, and instead make daily practice an end in itself. This is a lesson I took with me into writing.
I felt very lucky to be a dancer when I saw the struggle my friend the painter Vasuddha Thozur had to store her work. A space had to be found to keep her beautiful paintings, while my work left no residue, stopped weighing on me the minute I was finished with it. I loved that feeling of not being tied down by what I’d already done. And the masterpieces weren’t hung on the wall, they were within me – ragamalika varnum, a Jayadeva ashtapadi, a thillana in Mohana raga, they became part of my cellular structure. On the other hand, when I stopped dancing, I had nothing much to show for decades of work. A dance piece that no one was interested in when I first performed it, can’t find a more sympathetic audience in the next generation, as books sometimes do. So that’s the big difference – a book has a life separate from the writer, while the dance and the dancer are indivisible.
Q8. In a Bharatanatyam performance, the onus is upon the dancer to tell a story from multiple perspectives. In a riveting dance performance the multiple characters stand out. In some senses, it holds true for a novelist as well. What was your experience in writing the novel, telling a story using words as opposed to being a dancer telling a story using visual expressions and hands to emote?
The experience of dancing is so immediate and flowing that is it is hard to describe exactly what’s happening in those moments of eyes, fingers, arms, legs, torso, moving in stylized ways. Not only that, an analytical approach to what’s going on can inhibit the process, and for me, the attempt has always been to silence that part of my consciousness that watches and comments, usually critically, on what I’m doing. That movement in and out of characters is an embodied melting of consciousness like a stream around rocks, and no surprise, the word for that state is ‘flow’. It’s very exciting but also risky, and what it means is that sometimes, it’s not going to be a riveting performance at all.
In my writing, I try to do the same thing, get into that state of flow, but with the advantage that once the words are on the page that critical faculty can be exercised to get rid of whatever isn’t working.
Q9. Did you at any time find that the characters were in control of the story rather than you or were you always sure how the plot would develop?
It’s a strange kind of magic the way the characters take on a life of their own – many writers have made the phenomena central to their fiction, as in Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Other’, where there is a confusion between the character and the author, or in Peter Carey’s novel, ‘My Life as a Fake’ where the character tries to kill his creator. Those are doppelganger stories, but the experience is the same even when the character is very different from the author. All of us who love reading know that feeling, otherwise why visit Baker St. to see where Sherlock Holmes lived? And if the characters in other people’s books can be so alive, then it’s no surprise that one’s own characters take on a life of their own and do exactly as they please. The plot develops out of their behaviour, and I have to wait for them to do something, and watch and listen, and write it down, rather than move them around like pawns on a chessboard, or puppets. That’s why it’s so time consuming! Characters are very stubborn and don’t take kindly to hints from the author, at least in my experience.
Q10. What were the challenges in writing historical fiction? What did the research for this novel entail? What are the examples of historical fiction that appeal to you?
The challenge of historical fiction is to be true to as many facts as you can ferret out about the times you’re writing about, and it’s very difficult to figure out very simple things – like when did people in a small village in South India start having clocks on their walls, or watches on their wrists? How would people talk about time if there wasn’t a clock? Or when cars were introduced to India, how did they get gas? There were no petrol stations. I read about a rich man who’d sit in his car and have it pushed along the street by his servants. Try as I might, I couldn’t work that wonderful little detail into Girl Made of Gold. Maybe into the next one. Little things like that make it both treacherous and great fun to write about a time period that is outside one’s own experience.
I tried to read newspapers and magazines written in exactly the times I was writing about, as well as novelists who were contemporary then. I read the District Manuals for Tanjore, Puddukottai and the Madras Presidency for the relevant years, at the British Library, and I actually went to the District Collector’s Office in Tanjore, and they let me sit at a desk, while a clerk brought me boxes of papers which I could read, actual letters about the daily affairs – droughts, harvests, crimes, the weather. I lived in an agraharam near Tanjore, and spoke to old people who remembered the period. I could do research forever if I let myself, because there is endless information that can be unearthed.
I read ‘War and Peace’ when I was a student at Kalakshetra in the early 1970s, when there was literally nothing else to do and books from the Russian Cultural Centre were cheap; I skipped over the history at first, but then I’d have to go back and read those parts too, out of boredom with staring at the walls of my room in the hostel.The voice of the geisha Sayuri in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ held me in its thrall, I was completely transported into a different culture, values and time period that became vivid and real. I’m also an avid reader of the Judge Dee murder mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty, by Robert van Gulik. Hillary Mantel has made historical fiction newly popular, but the period, place and people she writes about are simply not of interest to me, so I haven’t read anything by her, though I’ve been very inspired by her fearlessness in going against prevailing versions of history.
Q11. A mesmerising aspect of your storytelling in the novel are the sentences. I had to put the book down many times as I kept getting the sense that you were trying to replicate a dance performance in the manner in which the words were strung. Did you play with the structure of the sentences consciously?
Thank you for saying that. Whenever I get stuck I use structure as a force to make something happen. So if everything on the page is tedious, I use the rhythms of the dance korvais as a constraint: That – dit – tha num – num – num – di. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily keep that pattern in the finished sentence, but at least it gets my pen moving, and maybe some of that rhythm has left a trace in the finished novel.
Also, the most famous analogy about the bharata natyam performance, the margam, is that it’s structured as a temple. Balasaraswathi said that alaripu is like entering the temple; by the time the padams are danced, one has reached the dark interior of the sanctum sanctorum. That mapping of dance onto temple stayed with me, and I brought it to mind while I wrote the novel, it was a potent image, so if some resonance of that has struck you, I’m very gratified.
Q12. Nowadays the trend is to get stories adapted to film but do you think Girl Made of Gold can be adapted into a dance performance?
Can I confess that I would love to see the Netflix series of Girl Made of Gold? I can imagine a girl like the beautiful 14-year-old Aparna Sen in Satyjit Ray’s ‘Teen Kanya’ playing Kanaka. Someone, please, make this happen.
The dance performance would have a very different shape and purpose than the novel. For example, if it was done like a Kalakshetra dance drama l don’t think it would work. But of course there is a way to do it, concentrating on communicating not plot but emotion – so much of the emotion is drawn directly from the padams and javalis of the bharata natyam repertoire anyway. Let those songs tell the story of desire and its power, not in a linear narrative, but in a more impressionistic and multidisciplinary layered story-telling. That’s probably how I would do it.
Lockdown reading is a way of keeping one’s sanity. Long, satisfying reads are definitely a pleasaurable way to while one’s time. Tim Pears’s The West Country Trilogy consisting of The Horseman, The Wanderer and The Redeemed. It is historical fiction at its best. Mesmerising. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, around the time of World War I. It is about Leo, whose father works in the stables of Lord Prideaux and the peer’s daughter, Charlotte or Lottie. Spanning a few years, from when the children were of school going age to when they are adults — Leo, a war veteran and Lottie, a qualified veterinarian with an independent practice on her father’s estates.
The Horseman is about Leo and Lottie as children. It is about their very different lifestyles governed by a strict class structures. The children share a love for horses. A love that transcends anything known to mortal man. It is a kind of love that is compassionate and all-encompassing, an energy that many humans, even those working in the stables, are genuinely unable to comprehend. In today’s age the children may have even been referred to as horse whisperers but the bond that they display with their animals is beautifully drawn out by Tim Parks. At first The Horseman is a little tedious to read for its very “horsey” descriptions and technical details. Soon it becomes second nature and the story becomes much easier to read. The story that emerges is the one of Leo helping to look after the horses, even grooms of other stables recognise his special gift of being with horses, his schoolteachers encouraging him to do what his heart desires and his slow realisation of Lottie’s presence. Their first “encounter” is when he sees her riding a new horse on the grounds. It is a stunning description. Later the very same horse is injured and Lottie refuses to have it shot. Instead she wishes to tend to it. She is quietly and ably assisted by Leo. It is an unusual story that begins to develop as it cuts across the severely demarcated social lines. Within the confines of the stable, perhaps the presence of a stable boy while the daughter of the peer is also present is not questioned, especially when a sick horse needs looking after, but the same kind interaction is more than frowned upon outside. Unfortunately that is exactly what happens and due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, Leo and his family are thrown out of the estate as Leo is seen with Lottie, unchaperoned. There is something quite remarkable about The Horseman as it immediately takes the reader into a pastoral landscape of the rigid society but the chinks in it are becoming apparent. While many in the first part of the trilogy hang on dearly to the old way of life, the two children — Leo and Lottie — begin to show the future way of life. For now it causes a catastrophic disruption in the personal and social lives of the characters but life moves on.
The Wanderer is the long journey that Leo makes wandering through through the countryside. It involves meeting gypsies and working as a labourer on a farm among other responsibilites. Leo’s personality comes across as a quiet, reticent but an equally stubborn, free-spirited individual who cannot be tethered for too long against his wishes at a task. He has to be able to exercise his free will. His self-respect is critical to his self-preservation. For Lottie too, her individuality and self-expression is very important and she insists on studying to be a veterinarian. The idea of a lord’s daughter being a professional was an act till then was unheard of and to opt for being a veterinarian would imply that her work would necessitate her being in the presence of many men too. Yet Lottie gets her way.
The Redeemed is the last part of the trilogy. It focuses for a large part on Leo participating in the Battle of Jutland — in it and later as a deep sea diver in the salvage yard that an enterprising businessman had set up to dredge the waters for the sunken German warships and sell the valuable scrap metal. It is a fascinating account particularly the description of bringing a massive ship to surface before breaking it apart. Offering a detailed view of the work involved is beautifully done. For instance, the conversations about trying to straighten the sunken ship and sail it to the dock for dismantling. It is a Thomas Hardy-like landscape and as absorbing to read. The focus on working people and their trade. Even Lottie is a qualified veterinarian who has broken the rules governing her class and sought a career for herself. For women especially of the upper class to actively seek a career was unheard of but to qualify as a veterinarian and choose to practise on her father’s estates is extraordinary. Yet, Lottie does just that and is accepted by everyone as a fine vet. Leo’s relationship with Lottie resumes though it is no longer the central preoccupation of this novel, but when it does make an appearance, it is ever so satisfying. It is no wonder then that The Redeemed is on the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2020.
This is historical fiction at its best. Ideally the trilogy should be read in quick succession. It is the only way to relish this fabulous bildungsroman of Leo and Lottie and the transition of society from a rigid class structure to a modern society. The Biblical underpinnings of the trilogy are unmistakable as is the imagery represented by the short titles selected for each book but these books are fascinating whether one is aware of the allusions or not. Read the trilogy.
Dipankar Mukherjee is the Founder & Director of Readomania, an independent publishing house based in India. Under his stewardship, the house has produced more than 80 books in five years of its existence. Dipankar holds an MBA degree from IIT Madras and has been a management consultant in his professional avatar, working in organisations like IBM and Ernst & Young. Apart from publishing his business interests include a consumer electrical products brand, Aeronova and literary resort, Faraway Renz. He loves traveling and can be found playing with his daughter, if not at work.
did you start Readomania?
An entrepreneur starts with a dream. Mine was, and is, to build a company that is known for creating and curating good content. Readomania was, and is, a manifestation of that dream. There is a lot more content waiting to be discovered. There are a lot of stories that need to be told. We want to be a part of this ecosystem that takes this content, and the stories to a wide audience.
2. What attracted you to publishing?
A publishing house plays a very important role in the society. It can drive narratives, influence points-of-view, and be a catalyst for change. This is what makes publishing a perfect choice for someone who wants to bring out a change for good. I aspire to take Readomania to a position where it can do this effectively, along with being a profitable, sustainable venture.
3. What is the focus of your publishing programme? How many titles have you published so far?
We started in September 2014 and our annual publishing list was streamlined from 2016 onwards. We have published 80 odd titles since 2014. As of now, we publish about 18–24 titles a year. Our list includes literary, midlist, and commercial fiction across multiple genres, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and children’s fiction. The current focus of our publishing programme is diversity in content. We want to bring in as many flavours as possible. We are delving into mythology retelling, historical fiction, period drama, crime, thriller, romance, short stories, poetry, children’s fiction, humour etc.
4. How do you decide what to publish? Do you commission books or select manuscripts from unsolicited submissions? Or do you look at what agents supply?
book is like making a movie, it is not possible to accurately predict how will
the audience—reader in this case—react. Though the uncertainty is less for
based on a potent mix of analysis, instincts, and market trends. Analysis
focuses on the content, market trends on the genre and competition. Instincts
are hard to define but is based on experience, author interaction, and a bit of
We still don’t have fat budgets for commissioning books, so that has still not started. We do, however, discuss projects and potential books with our existing authors and take them forward. Manuscript selections also happen from unsolicited submissions and those that come through agents.
5. Do you think there is an appetite for print books or is the preference for digital books increasing? What are your comments on the digital versus print debate?
Print is winning this debate by a
significant margin. I don’t think this will change much in the near future.
There will definitely be better adoption of digital formats (text and audio)
but that may not dent the market for print books.
Device fatigue is setting in. People want to stop looking at the blue screen. As the awareness for this increases, I feel print books will take up the gap left by some of these devices. However, this may not happen for first time readers. Many of them may directly start reading on a device.
6. Do you look at translations too? If so how does the translations programme operate?
We want to look at translations as well. But we have not started as yet.
7. What is your average day like?
I wake up in a
room full of books and start reading with a cup of coffee next to me. I then go
to a nice bistro, eat some nice food and drink coffee and read more. I then go
to a nice park, sit below a tree, read some more and drink some nice chai from
the local fellow, until it’s time to go back home. Back there, I sit next to my
window and read, until I fall asleep.
Well, I can always dream about this kind of a life. Reality though is a little different. My regular schedule includes sales and collection follow ups, editorial discussions, an hour on social media, an hour on online reading, marketing discussions, and author discussions.
8. How do you distribute books? Via online retail or brick and mortar stores? Why did you start an online store on your website? Isn’t that rather unusual for an indie publisher?
Distribution has been strong for us, at least amongst indie publishers. I think we have done this well. We distribute through all possible modes. For brick and mortar stores, we work with the regular distributors like IBD, Prakash, Variety and Jaico. In addition, we directly sell on Amazon, are represented on Flipkart and as you mentioned sell through our website as well. Our own website is also a very big channel for sales. Since we are very active on social media, it is easy to drive sales through our own website.
9. What is the kind of publicity you invest in? Do book launches help you sell books?
Publicity is a
nemesis for indie publishers. The ROI on publicity is questionable and hence we
are careful treading this path. We use a lot of online resources, bloggers’
community, and outreach for marketing. We do work with the stores and on
Amazon. We still have some work to do in PR and co-branding concepts. However,
we keep trying out different methods of communication and branding for books.
Some work, some don’t.
As for book launches, in my opinion they do not recover the investment made and are a drag on our resources. A book launch, or any event for that matter, works well only when there is a good PR angle.
10. What are your thoughts about the Indian book industry? Is it growing or not? What are the pain points if any? What makes this book market stand apart from the others?
Indian book industry is quite a challenge, especially the trade book segment.
There is growth. However, that growth may not be real. Many systemic issues lead
to this problem. First amongst them is the concept of Sale-Or-Return. How does
one explain growth when returns can potentially come after the financial year
is closed? Does one go back and revise growth figures?
are a lot of positives that do point to the growth-story. Many more titles are
coming up, online sales are strong, and sentiments are good.
As far as pain-points are concerned, there are a select few that I would like to mention, both on cost side and revenue side. On cost side we have GST, payment terms that publishers have with distributors and distribution margins as major issues. The cost pressures have significantly increased. On the revenue side, I think there is over-supply of books. If I may say, India is now a land of more writers than readers. This coupled with shrinking shelf space makes it difficult to reach out to the readers. The power may be shifting away from publishers to distributors or platforms like Amazon, especially since distributors and platforms are now operating as monopolies.
11. What are the changes you have seen in publishing since you began Readomania? What are the genres that sell the most amongst your readers/customers and do you think these align with the more popular buying sentiments amongst Indian readers?
inception, quite a few things have changed. I have seen the self-publishing
industry grow significantly over the years. There has been a good growth in new
genres like true-crime, celebrity-autobiographies, bureaucrat narratives.
Growth in the regional language publishing and demand for translations also is
a positive change. For publishers, a big revenue stream has opened up through
rise in book-to-screen deals. However, there has been a fall in per-title print
runs. I also feel there is now an overload of marketing content for readers and
a big boom in book-marketers who promise the moon but not sales.
for us include mythology, historical fiction, non-fiction, and light reads. I
think the market too would have a similar trend.
12. What are your future plans for Readomania?
We are just five years old and we have many miles more to go. Readomania aspires to be one of the top five publishing brands in the country with a strong list, a few international awards in our kitty, and be the publisher of choice for authors and readers.
Book Post 48 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
Book Post 47 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.
There is a sudden deluge of books being released to coincide with the
ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair, the mecca of publishing and of course, as a run-up
to Christmas/ gifts. Some of the big name releases that have happened in recent
weeks have been Ann Patchett’s incredibly stunning The Dutch House and
Jio Talentino’s absorbing collection of essays called Trick Mirror. There have been other books too like Melinda Gates The Moment of Lift, Candace Bushnell’s Is there still sex in the city? Or the
absorbing but light biography of The
Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie.
Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is such
a beautiful book that it is impossible to describe. I read it weeks ago but
could not bring myself to spoil the heartbreakingly fabulous experience of
reading it. It is historical fiction for it is set at the time of the second
world war in Philadelphia. It is about two siblings –Danny and Maeve– whose
father, Cyril Conroy, a landlord, made it supremely rich through sheer hard
work and wise investments. As a result he was able to haul his family out of
impoverished circumstances to buy a magnificent house with its contents built
by Dutch immigrants – the VanHoebeek. It is an unsettling experience for their
mother who soon abandons their family to mysteriously vanish from their lives. It
is said she left for India. Meanwhile Cyril Conroy marries again. This time a
woman with two daughters. The stepmother in true fairy story style banishes the
children from the home once Cyril dies unexpectedly. Maeve and Danny learn to
fend for themselves. Slowly putting their lives back together. Years later they
reflect upon their childhood. As Ann Patchett points out in an interview with The
Guardian that we are embarrassed by grief, and The Dutch House is multi-layered because of the varieties of grief
it addresses. Every time leaving a large gaping hole even in the reader’s heart
but a sense of yearning to read more. It is a stunning novel which will haunt
one for a long time to come. It is bound to find a place on the longlist of
next year’s Women’s Prize.
New Yorker staff writer Jio Talentino’s Trick
Mirror is a collection of her essays published previously. It is a
combination of reportage and memoir. It is not easy to read at one sitting for
its very thought provoking ideas on feminism, sexual assault, universities,
wedding festivities etc. It is such a wide range of subjects that she tackles, always
with an incisive feminist outlook, that it becomes immaterial after a point
that many of her observations are based on very local and personal experiences.
This is the beauty of essay writing that if the ideas discussed in the essay
resonate with readers beyond a specific geographic landscape – beyond Trump,
UVA in Charlottesville etc– and cut through borders of all kinds to have the
desired impact of evaluating and challenging one’s thoughts, then it is
extremely powerful writing. There are two excellent reviews of Talentino’s book
of my Self-Care” by Jacqueline Rose in the New York Review of Books ( 10
October 2019) and “Trick
Mirror by Jia Tolentino review – on self-delusion” by Lidija Haas ( 2
Billionaire Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift is a curious little book. The Gates couple are known for their philanthropy and have been in the public eye for years. They are very guarded about their private life which is fair. For instance, when their children were enrolled in school it was using their mother’s surname rather than their father’s more famous last name. This strong desire to withhold their personal space from the public eye in the memoir is also fair except that it makes the tenor of the book very bland. There are glimpses of the tussle Melinda Gates may have had with herself in making what are seemingly “simple” decisions such as venturing into the promotion of contraceptives for women. Given her very Catholic upbringing where her mother attends mass five times a week, this could not have been an easy focus area for Melinda to pick for her philanthropy. There are many instances in the book that while it is obvious Melinda Gates has the privilege to access information easily, she remains a reserved individual who does not allow any glimpses than are absolutely necessary into her private space. Justifiably a fair choice except that in a memoir that functions more than just an account of her life but is more like a publicity statement for her magnificent work in women’s healthcare. These barriers to her privacy as well as to the information that she is being shown that can cause complications creating a very insipid book for its statistically rich in data but bland in context. Her ambiguity about expressing herself strongly about her Catholic upbringing with the reality she sees in the poverty stricken parts of the world. Or for that matter her problematic narrative of India which seems very focussed on it being a casteist Hindu society with absolutely no mention whatsoever about the syncretic cultural fabric of this democracy. Even the heavy sprinkling of anecdotes cannot relieve the boredom, this despite the celebrity buzz with even President Barack Obama releasing videos supporting the book. Having said that there is one incident that Melinda Gates refers to in her book of a little girl child of a scavenger’s community in Kanpur. The child was bold enough to ask the Gates Foundation delegates for a teacher. This is a perfect match to a beautiful wordless picture book calledPuu published by Scholastic India.
The other big ticket release recently has been the unauthorised biography of
the Mountbattens – Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India who
oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan—one of the many prestigious positions
of authority he held. He was also Prince Philip’s cousin and instrumental in
insisting that the British Royal family taken on the name “House of Windsor”. The Mountbattens is written by Andrew
Lownie and based on extensive research, interviews with family members as well
as those who knew the Mountbattens well. Lownie even acknowledges Queen
Elizabeth II for granting access to her archives as part of his research. So
for the first time there are accounts of Lord Mountbatten’s career, his
mistakes and successes as well as of bisexuality (denied by the family). The “detailed”
account of Lady Mountbatten as the poor little rich girl, who was the richest
heiress of her generation when she married Lord Mountbatten is equally focused
on her promiscuity as it is with all other details of her life. There are
photographs, an extensive bibliography, footnotes and a detailed index. The
book has plenty of anecdotes that make for a rollicking good read except that
it all falls apart towards the end when Lownie acknowledges that the
Mountbatten’s myth is managed by exercising control at the archives in
Broadlands or closed under Ministerial Directive at the Hartley Library. All
said and done it is a book that makes for an interesting read and will probably
be optioned for a film or a TV miniseries very soon for its got all the razzmatazz
that will go down well with a global audience of a period drama.
In a similar vein is the memoir that Candace Bushnell has written after
crossing sixty — Is there still sex in
the city? It is a light and superficial read about a woman worrying about
money and life even though she and her girlfriends can afford to own homes at the
Hamptons, New York. Privileged women can offer quite a bit through their
memoirs as they are privileged not just in financial security but have easy
access to information, data, statistics — which increasingly have a price
barrier to them. Thus offering a broader perspective on issues that preoccupy women
as they become older. Issues like marital relationships, separations, losing
dear friends, how to come to terms with old age, healthcare, having the energy
to be with family and friends, increasing loneliness, managing busyness of life
etc. Of course there will be vast degrees of differences between those in
different points of the socio-economic scale but certain learnings are the
same. Oh well! It is an opportunity lost with Candace Bushnell’s memoir.
Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.
Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?
A.: When I was seven, my school
was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was
told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an
approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They
printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what
I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my
name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing
it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it
out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on
his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a
typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a
computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no
greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or
discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might
find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.
I began my career in journalism as a
reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter
never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story
ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have
this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective
about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a
journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be
objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily
or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of
the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to
write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know
I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or
The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.
2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?
A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.
3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?
A.: Researching for a book is among the
most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have
become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the
research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I
would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to
base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India
theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some
1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift
through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46
medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin
because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material
is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is
knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or
marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.
I begin with a basic idea about the
plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I
take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or
argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the
highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material
which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of
the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room
floor) also gets priority.
I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.
4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?
A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.
5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?
A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very
appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a
lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very
encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable
advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.
There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.
6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?
of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by
it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’
movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what
I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and
Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even
though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was
conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also
tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering
different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live,
how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what
the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it
remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that
of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these
insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.
Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.
7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?
A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my
thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find
the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and
European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a
wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and
the Age of Exploration.
There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.
8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?
A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.
9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?
A.: It is possible that some researchers
might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are
planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a
subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select
those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift
through the material I obtain.
There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.
10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?
A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?
A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.
12. What next?
A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.
At Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, I was in conversation with author Daman Singh about her novel Kitty’s War at Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. It is historical fiction set within a railway colony at the time of World War II. It is about the Anglo-Indian community told through the eyes and experiences of Katherine Riddle or Kitty, as she is more popularly referred to.