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Kindle books in Indian languages could be a game changer: What Amazon’s new initiative will mean for publishing in Indian languages

My article on Kindle books being introduced in Indian languages was published in The Mint on 21 Dec 2016. )

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Amazon India has announced that Kindle will launch digital books in five Indian languages—Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. The titles include Ishq Mein Shahar Hona by Ravish Kumar (Hindi), Rajaraja Chozhan by Sa. Na. Kannan (Tamil), Mrutyunjay by Shivaji Sawant (Marathi), Ek Bija Ne Gamta Rahiye by Kaajal Oza Vaidya (Gujarati), Aarachar by K.R. Meera (Malayalam) and Mayapuri by Shivani (Hindi). Kindle devices seventh generation and above will support Indic scripts, enabling readers to access such books.

This is a move that could be a game changer in India. Amazon India has moved methodically to embed itself in Indian publishing. First, it launched Kindle with free lifetime digital access provided by BSNL, but only for English e-books. In November, the acquisition of local publishing firm Westland—known for its commercial fiction best-sellers and translation programme—was completed at reportedly $6.5 million (around Rs44 crore), a small portion of the $5 billion allocated by Jeff Bezos as investment in India. In fact, Seattle-based Amazon Publishing’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, has surpassed all other publishers in the amount of world literature it makes available in the US. This was first highlighted in December 2015 by Chad Post, publisher, Open Letter Books, on his influential website, Three Percent. In October 2015 AmazonCrossing announced it had a $10 million budget to invest in translations worldwide. It is probably no coincidence that Amazon India vice- president and country manager Amit Agarwal has been inducted into the Bezos core team, which is responsible for its global strategy.

In an email, Post responded to the news, saying: “This seems like a great thing for Indian readers and anyone interested in Indian literature. Amazon’s stated goal is to make as many books available in as many formats to as many people as possible, and this program is a strong move in that direction. Increasing digital access to these books will be huge—it greatly expands the potential audience, and could help AmazonCrossing expand into publishing Indian writers in translation. AmazonCrossing published 60 works translated into English in 2016, which is far more than any other publisher. The majority of these titles are translated from German, French and Spanish, but AmazonCrossing has expanded into doing works from Iceland, Turkish, Chinese and Indonesian, so it makes sense that they would be interested in finding books from these five Indian languages.”

In India, this announcement could not have come at a more opportune moment. With demonetization, Indians who prefer dealing in cash are perforce moving to digital payments. Also, by July 2017, it will be mandatory for all handsets manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language, and support reading of text in all these languages, thus making it feasible to read books other than English on the Kindle app too.

Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu, welcomed the decision: “We hope it will increase our revenue from e-books which is pretty low now. Tamilians are spread all over the world. It is near impossible to reach hard copies to them. So this will boost the chances for them to read Tamil books of their choice.” Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.

Well-known Hindi lexicographer Arvind Kumar says it will influence reading patterns by encouraging cross-pollination of literature across cultures by “opening new avenues for translation of two-way Hindi to English and other Indian languages which are being introduced on Kindle, and from many non-English languages like French and German or, say, Latin American into Hindi”. Mini Krishnan, OUP, too endorsed it, saying readership in the Indian languages is healthy, so “a highly portable personal library will surely do well”.

21 December 2016 

Literature and inclusiveness

nari-bhav Nari Bhav, published by Niyogi Books, is a collection of essays exploring androgyny and female impersonation in India. These are fascinating insights by practitioners, interviews with actors and some academic papers discussing the concept of nari bhav is a deeply rooted cultural belief in the fluid interplay of the female and male symbolized for example as Ardhanariswara.  A truly exceptional essay is the one by translator, performer and playwright, Pritham Chakravarthy, on performing the Nirvanam. This is the name of the performance she gave to a bunch of monologues that emerged from her work exploring the myth of Aravan that hijras or eunuchs have adopted in South India, especially Tamil Nadu, to contest the many filthy names used for them by the general public. To this she wove in the stories narrated to her by a transgender, ‘Noorie’. The first performance was staged in 2000 and was only ten minutes long. Years later she continues to perform it and the presentation is now forty minutes long and could probably be expanded to sixty minutes. Pritham Chakravarty makes a very interesting comment in her essay: “I sit among the audience and come to the central performance area to emphasize the ‘everychapal-bhaduri day-ness’ of the narrative that will presently unfold before their eyes.” And yet when Chapal Bhaduri, a Bengali actor famous for female impersonations, performed an autobiographical piece at a seminar organized at a Kolkata university in March 2016 it seems that members of the audience were discomfited by the performance.

The concept was simple enough. The performance would be a companion piece to the 1999 documentary on him called Performing the Goddess [ made by Naveen Kishore, Seagull]. In the documentary, entirely shot in the modest ground-floor apartment in north Kolkata where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter of his sister Ketaki Dutta, Chapal Bhaduri gradually transforms himself from Chapal Bhaduri to Chapal Rani, from a man to a woman, from a human to a goddess, from the ordinary to the spectacular. At the seminar he would be doing the reverse. Her would appear before the audience as the Goddess Sitala, and then gradually divest himself of the divinity, the feminity, the spectacular, and end the piece by becoming what he is off-stage: human, male, ordinary. 

While discussing the book with a dear friend I discovered some very interesting facts about his family. This friend shikhandihas often told me how there has always been a space in the Indian society for all genders including for the currently fashionable term — “gender fluid” individuals. When I showed him a picture of Chapal Bhaduri, he told me about his grand-uncle whom everyone in the family called “Dada” and had remained a bachelor all his life. He died a few years ago. Interestingly Dada used to be an usher at some “talkies” in CP or Old Delhi but was always fascinated by dancing and dressing up as a woman. Apparently he was the go-to david-walliamsman in the family for advice on shringar, saris, buying gold jewellery etc. Dada was extremely fond of wearing beautiful Benarasi saris and spent a great part of his meagre salary to amass quite a collection.  While still a young man he began dressing up as a woman. It seems he used to give performances at private gathering. Apparently Dada was very informed about mudras and used to be a delight to watch. Also the family was completely at ease with his gender identity.  Apparently he was considered one of the respected elders of the family and his advice was sought on all important matters. He was also the matchmaker of the community. It probably also explains the comfort family members had with the eunuchs who used to wander in the colony.My friend has childhood memories of having the eunuchs over at home for tea and snacks. It was a regular affair and everyone was at ease with this practice. Another anecdote he recounts is of attending a wedding where where three uncles of the bride dressed up as women in saris and danced as part of the festivities.

And he is not alone in his observations. Anita Roy, publisher and author, wrote this wonderful article in 2006 “Dancing with God” to witness the kōla ceremony; a puja that honours the village deity. ( http://bit.ly/2enwIcW)

Each family in the village undertakes to host this ritual every year.  The presiding bhuta of Adve is Jhumadi (or Dhumavati in the local language, Tulu). A protector of the village and its inhabitants, human, animal and plant, Jhumadi is gendered female and believed to be one of the manifestations of the Goddess Shakti. But like Shiva’s incarnation as Ardhanariswara, she mixes both male and female attributes. Unlike the Puranic gods, who are worshipped in temples, officiated by Brahmin priests and receive offerings as silent spectators, bhutas are more localized spirits who directly influence the lives of their devotees with whom they have a much more intimate, almost neighbourly, relationship.

GeorgeAt the Myrin International Children’s Festival, Reykjavík, well-known author and translator, Lawrence Schimel lawrence-schimel-oct-2016-icelandwhose picture book for children, Amigos Y Vecinos, includes a gay family said that it’s extremely important to include LGBT+ characters in children’s books so they reflect the world that children already live in. (LILJA KATRÍN GUNNARSDÓTTIR, 6 Oct 2016 “LGBT lives just as important as heterosexual ones” http://bit.ly/2fgwEJE ) David Walliam’s first book for children The Boy in the Dress, Alex Gino’s incredibly powerful novel for young adults —George and Richa Jha’s picture book The Unboy Boy are examples of contemporary literature being inclusive by accepting and respecting “unconventional” characters for who they are. Vivek Tejuja, book critic, wrote a poignant article last year entitled “Being gay: how books and reading saved richa-jha-the-unboy-boymy life”. ( Scroll, 21 March 2015, http://bit.ly/2e1gb05)

Reading provided the much needed solace. Reading was a balm to all my aches. Books transported me, took me away from reality. I did not know want to face reality. Why should I? I thought to myself, when I could be lost in the lands of Oz and travel with Gulliver and be miserable with Jane Eyre. Nothing was of consequence, but the authors and the books I read. . . . Reading books was sufficient then. They did not discriminate against me. 

Vivek Tejuja’s forthcoming book meant for young adults will be addressing some of these issues. Siddharth Dube’s precisely told memoir No One Else and A. Revathi’s gripping account of her life as an activist in A Life in Trans Activism are recent contributions to Indian literature discussing sexuality and the grey areas it inhabits —these exist in Nature. revathiThe biggest challenge lies in making this reality visible for now the hypocritic notion that heterosexuality is the norm and everything else is unacceptable on any moral compass reigns supreme. And yet as mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik confirms in Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you which is a collection of stories celebrating life “narrated by our ancestors that are rarely retold publicly as they seem to challenge popular notions of normality”. In Oct 2016, Parmesh Shahani, Head – Godrej India Culture Lab, said at the India Economic Summit, New Delhi that parmesh-shahani“inclusion is for everyone and not just the LGBT community”. He bolstered it with evidence that if businesses & institutions are inclusive then it will have a positive impact on productivity, growth and development. ( “India Economic Summit: Breaking Down Diversity Barriers”, 6 Oct 2016. http://bit.ly/2enrUoa )

( Note: All the images are off the internet. If you own the copyright please let me know and I will acknowledge it. )

2 November 2016 

 

 

 

 

Hannah Kent, “Burial Rites”

Hannah Kent, “Burial Rites”

Burial Rites‘Actions lie,’ Agnes retorted quickly. ‘Sometimes people never stood a chance in the beginning, or they might have made a mistake….’ ( p.107 Burial Rites )

Burial Rites is Australian Hannah Kent’s debut novel. It is historical fiction about Icelander Agnes Magnusdottir who was condemned to death in 1829 for having killed her lover. The novel opens with the announcement of shifting the convict from prison to the farm of district officer Jon Jonsson, his wife, Margret and their two daughters. The story is very clearly divided into two sections — the first half consists of Agnes talking to the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson about her childhood, her life, staying on different farms till she met her master and lover, Natan; the second half is of her long conversation with Margret. The conversation with the priest happens in fits and starts, before they become sufficiently comfortable for the priest to be a patient listener, like a confessional. When he falls sick and is unable to come regularly to meet the prisoner, inadvertently Margaret who absolutely detests the idea of having the murderess under her roof, has a long conversation one night. Woman-to-woman, heart-to-heart talk. One week later Agnes is hanged. The last death sentence in Iceland till date.

In an article published on 4 June 2013 in the Guardian, Hannah Kent writes of the “loneliness of being a long-distance writer”. ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-culture-blog/2013/jun/04/burial-rites-writer-hannah-kent) . She wrote this novel as part of the creative component of her PhD. She had a idea what to write about but not sure how to go about it. She first “first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when I was an exchange student in the north of Iceland. It was 2002, I was 17 years old, and I had left Adelaide for Sauðárkrókur an isolated fishing village, where I would live for 12 months. This small town lies snug in the side of a fjord: a clutch of little buildings facing an iron-grey sea, the mountains looming behind.” ( A longer version of this article is in the literary journal, “Kill your darlings” of which Kent is an editor. http://www.killyourdarlingsjournal.com/?post_type=article&p=9217 )

The story is based on true facts but the manner in which it is told leaves the readers wondering whether the the death sentence carried out was correct or not. Another powerful novel that concluded with the hanging of a woman prisoner is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles ( published in 1891). Burial Rites is written sparingly, without too many details and layers, and if first fiction with a new voice. There is the lightness of touch in the writing, where the research is obviously deep so as to create a landscape that is as authentic as can be to nineteenth century Iceland.

The manuscript was bought in summer 2012. According to Publisher’s Weekly, of 12 July 2012 ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-deals/article/52967-little-brown-pays-seven-figures-for-debut-novel-by-aussie-author.html) Judy Clain, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown, paid seven figures for North American rights to the novel, in a two-book deal. Dan Lazar at Writers House brokered the deal with Clain on behalf of Pippa Mason, the author’s Australian agent at Curtis Brown. Picador bought the book in Australia, and rights have also been sold in France, Italy, Brazil and The Netherlands. By June 2013, translation rights had been sold in 15 countries. Kent’s manuscript won, in 2011, the first Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award. Upon publication the novel has sold tremendously well in Australia and UK. Hopefully its presence on the longlist of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 announced earlier this month. ( http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/2014/baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-announce-their-2014-longlist ) It is a novel that deserves to be recognised, for the style of writing, for the detail and maturity that Hannah Kent shows in her story. She is now working on her second novel, set in Ireland. Her website is: http://hannahkentauthor.com

 

Hannah Kent Burial Rites Picador, Pan Macmillan, Australia, 2013. Hb. pp. 340. £12.99