A Fish In Alien Streams by Herjinder is an extraordinary book. An account of the introduction of trout by the British. The colonial rulers missed angling as they did “back home”. So they figured out ways in which to transport ova, by sea, in cold conditions to lands as far as Tasmania and India. The Victorian Age was known for some incredible innovations but to discover a viable method of transporting trout ova from Europe to Tasmania and India was astonishing.
I picked up lovely fun facts. One of them being that the original British owners of Kissan jams and sauces were responsible for introducing trout into the sub-continent. Also, how floods have been responsible for dissemination of the fish into the streams of Kashmir, Nilgiris and Sri Lanka. The last interview in the book is with an eighty-three-year-old Jimmy Johnson, an angler. He is a Himachali / Anglo-Indian, whose father, Lt. Col. C. R. Johnson, was one of these British officers who were deeply involved with trout culture farming. But Jimmy learned angling not from his father but by watching the famous angler of the valley, T. Tyson ( the author of “Trout Fishing in Kulu, 1941”). Jimmy’s school was in Mahili, across the river from Katrain where Tyson used to fish virtually every day. And Jimmy would watch the great angler while playing with his friends on the left bank of the river. He started to like Tyson’s ‘game’ more than his own childish ones, seeing it as ‘an interesting game in which delicious lunch and dinner were also guaranteed’.
But in nearly a century since there was abundance of trout in the rivers, the fish is fast disappearing. One of the prime reasons being the rampant construction in the valley and global warming. There are many occasions that Jimmy goes to fish and returns home empty-handed. Yet he renews his angling license annually. In his lifetime, Jimmy has seen trout-abundant rivers to sparsely populated ones now.
It impossible to recapitulate the essence of A Fish in Alien Streams by Herjinder. Suffice to say that this is a wonderful mix of historical narrative and primary source material such as books and interviews. It is very easy to read even if you are not interested in fishing or trouts.
The book cover by Harshad Marathe deserves a special mention. It is unique.
Qabar or grave, is a novella by award-winning writer K. R. Meera ( published by Westland Books). It is a curious story. Is it possible to share the story briefly. No. Suffice to say that the dark parallels drawn between a woman’s existence and that of a Muslim in a very patriarchal and Hindu-dominated society, respectively, are very disconcerting. For the characters, it is akin to being dead while alive, confined to their qabar. Resorting to elements of magic realism or preying upon classic myths of witches and djinns, does not in any way ease the reader while trying to comprehend Qabar. The competent translation by journalist/author, Nisha Susan is very good. She achieves the balancing act by slipping in Malayalam words into the English translation without making the text jarring to read.
This morning I finished recording a panel discussion on “Children’s literature in India” at All India Radio, the national radio channel. After the fabulously animated session was over, the producer informed us about the magnificent history of the table that we were recording at.
This table is where the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, made his “Tryst of Destiny” speech.
This table is where Mahatma Gandhi appealed to the nation to stop rioting. It was the one and only time that he visited the AIR studios — 12 Nov 1947.
This table is where Emergency was declared.
All India Radio has ensured that it is preserved and used. In all these decades they have never changed the bar from which the microphones hang.
Needless to say, all of us had goosebumps, by the time the producer finished his story.
Perhaps the producer was so pleased with the outcome of the recording. He really liked it. Truly, I am glad he did not tell us earlier. The moment he did, all of us jumped out of our seats. It just seemed surreal to be at the same desk where so many defining moments of our country’s history had played out. Apparently, most of the AIR employees are told this when they are training for their posts. But most do not share it with their guests as they are usually in a tearing hurry to leave after the recording.
Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of our conversation where I shared a lot of our publishing history with reference to children’s literature. Made a point to connect it with developments in modern India. Maybe the producer was responding to the histories we were sharing? I do not know. It just happened so spontaneously.
I have no idea why were singled out for this precious piece of news. But this is a privilege indeed to be at the same table that has witnessed so much of modern Indian history.
Below are photographs of display cabinets in the foyer of AIR showcasing sound recording equipment.
Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.
The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.
Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.
Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)
Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.
This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.
In 1993 Taslima Nasreen wrote Lajja ( “Shame”) in Bengali. It was her response to the anti-Hindu riots that had broken out in Bangladesh after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, India on 6 December 1992. The novel was published in Bengali and within six months sold over 50,000 copies. It brought the author “fame” that till then had been unheard of in the subcontinent. Prior to this, the only other author to have had fatwas issued against them was Salman Rushdie, an author of South Asian origin but residing in UK at the time. Lajja became one of the first books in translation to be talked about by many readers internationally and this was at a time even before the Internet. ( Dial-up modems, with limited email access, were introduced in India in 1996!) Lajja became a bestseller rapidly. The English edition for the subcontinent was published by Penguin India. Subsequently a new translation was commissioned by Penguin India in 2014-15. The translator of the later edition was Anchita Ghatak. The book was banned in Bangladesh and fatwas were issued against the author. Taslima Nasreen fled to Europe and later laid roots in India. At first she chose to live in Calcutta/ Kolkatta and is now based in Delhi. Years later, Taslima Nasreen still needs security cover wherever she travels.
Lajja was explosive when it was first published as it was a Muslim author, upset by the communal riots in her land, who was writing sympathetically about a Hindu family. The story details the progressive radicalisaion of Suranjan who firmly believes in a nationalist Hindu outlook. So much so it is a belief he continues to nurture even after he, along with his family, flee Bangladesh to become refugees in India. In India he becomes a member of a Hindu nationalist party. Pirated editions of Lajja were sold in India. It became an international bestseller and was translated into many languages. Taslima Nasreen, a doctor by training, has become an established writer with more forty publications. She defines herself as “a secular humanist, a human rights activist, and a prolific and bestselling author, who has faced multiple fatwas calling for her death”.
More than twenty-five years later, Taslima Nasreen is back with a sequel to Lajja. It is called Shameless. Arunava Sinha, the translator, told me “the original title was Besharam but eventually the Bengali book was published, also in 2020, with a very tame title, e kul o kul. The book was written more than ten years though.” Nevertheless Shameless is a unique experiment in writing a novel. It has shades of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of An Author” with Suranjan as the protagonist but in conversation with Taslima Nasreen. The opening pages of the novel have Suranjan, the character, visit Taslima Nasreen, the author, and bring her up-to-date with the events in his life. It then develops into a fascinating narrative where a novel is obviously being drafted but it has so many overlaps with reality. With the author-turned-character (or is it character-turned-author?) providing pithy comments and at times intervening in the story by persuading the characters to act in one way or the other. It is a work of art. Shameless is a sequel to Lajja but seems more that that — Taslima Nasreen seems to have sort of trickled into the space between reality and fiction to put herself under the lens. But the conversation is more than that. It is a conversation between writer and character, commentary on the turbulent times. Taslima Nasreen’s was an emotional response to the increased communalisation in the subcontinent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. It was not necessarily literary writing. But in the intervening years Taslima Nasreen has evolved as a writer. With Shameless she has given herself space to speak frankly without hopefully attracting any more bounties for her head. Also the writing is very close to her memoir (Dwikhondito, 2003, translated into English as Split: In Two, 2018 — translated by Maharghya Chakraborty). Interestingly in recent years her voice as an author comes through very strongly in the English translations despite her experimentation with a gamut of translators. A testament to her strong writing. There are sufficient examples in the novel that indicate her belief in being a secular humanist stem from having experienced or witnessed firsthand many incidents in the name of religion. Much of this she distills into her writing of Shameless, exemplifying how much of the personal informs the political.
Arunava Sinha’s translation is superb. He is a renowned translator who has made available many Bengali writers in English but with Shameless his professional expertise as a translator par excellence is established. He channels Taslima Nasreen’s authorial voice beautifully. His past experience of working with Bengali authors has helped him tremendously to hone his expertise in being utterly respectful to the desire of the author to be heard in the original language and carry it forth impeccably into the destination language, enabling the readers in English to appreciate the text for what it is. It works brilliantly in a translation like Shameless where the author herself has a lot to say, much of it tricky.
The time lapse between the publication of Lajja (1993) and Shameless (2020) marks a significant period of socio-political history in the subcontinent as well. With Shameless Taslima Nasreen seals her place as a relevant author who creates political art, a need of the times when plainspeak is not necessarily always welcome.
Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi is an account of the left activist Safdar Hashmi who was brutally murdered on 1 Jan 1989 at Jhandapur, Ghaziabad. Safdar Hashmi was 34 years old. Jan Natya Manch was staging a 30-minute play called “Halla Bol” on the road when the actors were interrupted by some politicians who wished to cross. Hashmi requested them to return in a little while. They seemed to listen and turn away except they returned bearing iron rods. They attacked the troupe leaving Safdar Hashmi very badly injured. He had been hit on the head many times. By the time of his death Hashmi had been hugely influential in street theatre with his group called Jan Natya Manch or Janam. He was a member of the CPI ( M).
In Halla Bol Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the earth-shattering events of the day. He was one of those who took the injured Safdar Hashmi to hospital. Working “backwards” from the opening scene of the murder of Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande recalls the main highlights of Safdar Hashmi’s life. Both men share similar qualities of being street theatre practitioners and a political activists. So while this book is promoted as a biography, it falls more into the category of a memoir and an unusual one at that — a collective memoir. Through much of the book Deshpande is able to rely upon memory as in many instances he bears witness to the events that occured but for many others he interviewed many people who knew Safdar Hashmi and/or had worked with him. There is a veritable army of people mentioned in the text and acknowledged at the end of the book too. It is a democratic inclusiveness of all those who knew Safdar Hashmi — as a man, a colleague, a relative, a theatreperson, a political activist etc. Deshpande’s account while highlighting that Hashmi used the arts for communicating his politics. As cultural critic Kunal Ray mentioned in his review of the book, “Street theatre is political. It began as a workers’ movement against capitalism. As a medium of performance, it facilitates direct conversation or confrontation with the audience or onlookers defying the restrictions and gentility of a proscenium space. It also undermines the hierarchy of the performer and the audience. Street theatre is democratic and Safdar Hashmi believed in a vision of the arts that is secular and people-oriented. He also believed in an art advocating social justice. It is therefore impossible or perhaps unpardonable to think of Safdar without his politics.” ( Kunal Ray, “Review: Halla Bol – The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande”, Hindustan Times, 24 April 2020) . Interestingly enough National Street Theatre is 12 April which is also Safdar Hashmi’s birthday.
Halla Bol is an interesting testimony of a life well lived and rudely cut short by hooligans. It may be considered a biography but is more of a primer on theatre in India with a fascinating account of the evolution of street. More importantly an amalgamation of traditional forms of artistic expression that was combined with drama for a public performance. Today we take this for granted, whether watching a play, reading a book or even watching a film. In the 1980s it was still a brand new concept and had the desired impact upon the audience, mostly workers for Jan Natya Manch performances, and who suddenly did not feel alienated any more from cultural performances as plays like “Halla Bol” used vocabulary, situations, dialogue etc that was familiar — “Just like us”. Safdar Hashmi was undeniably sharp, intelligent, a hugely gifted artist, a visionary and knew how to combine smartly political acts with creative expression. Yet there are moments in the book which make it seem like a hagiography since all those interviewed or reminiscing about Safdar Hashmi continue to miss the man fiercely. In a biography one expects there to be a distancing between the author and his subject offering a perspective to the reader but this does not always happen in Halla Bol. Nevertheless this book is a treasure trove of memories, a people’s history of theatre movement in India, evolution of street theatre, documentation of various attitudes towards performing theatre, empowering future generations of theatrepersons by enabling them to be confident in borrowing elements from traditional forms of theatre/ folk art and making it their own. Within months of its publication the book has been translated into quite a few Indian languages. It is a seminal book on Indian theatre.
On the morning of 11 November 2019, Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Institut français India/Embassy of France, invited a few of us Indian publishing professionals to address the visiting delegation. The aim was to give the French visitors a bird’s eye-view of the Indian book market with specific aspects highlighted such as regional language publishing, literary prizes, and literature festivals.
I had been invited to address the gathering on the publishing market of India. I chose to dwell on the characteristics of the publishing market in India along with some important points to consider from the point of view of the French publishers.
In March 2020, India will be the “Guest of Honour” at the Paris Book Fair and in January 2022 France will be the “Guest of Honour” at the New Delhi World Book Fair. This reciprocal invitation for this collaboration was announced during the official visit of President E. Macron in India in March 2018 when he met Prime Minister N. Modi. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. The delegation consisted of journalists and cultural experts: Eve Charrin (Marianne and Books), Gladys Marivat (LiRE magazine), Lorraine Rossignol (Télérama), Sophie Landrin (Le Monde correspondent for India and South Asia — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives), Catherine Fruchon (Radio France Internationale and editor-in-chief/ host of the show Littérature Sans Frontières ), Christian Longchamp ( Artistic advisor and playwright, and co-programmer of the annual multidisciplinary festival ARSMONDO, Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg), Sébastien Fresneau ( VP Book and Entertainment Events at Reed Exhibitions France and General Manager of Livre Paris, the Paris Book Fair) and Néguine Mohsseni ( Press Attachée, Institut Français, Paris).
Here are some of the salient points of the roundtable.
Indian Book Market
India is geographically deemed as a sub-continent. It is
large. Politically it is a federal structure with a centre and state
governments. The population is over 1.3 billion people. 22 languages are
recognised officially by the Constitution of India and English is not one of
them; instead it is the lingua franca. Interestingly language spoken changes
ever so slightly every 20 kms, making it impossible to consider India as a
homogenous book market as there are so many languages and scripts to consider.
The Indian publishing industry consists of multiple players.
There are publishing agencies like the National Book Trust and the Sahitya
Akademi (the organisation for literature) that were established by the
government, soon after Independence in 1947. Apart from these the well-known
multi-national players exists and a number of independent publishers. Of late
the self-publishing market is a growing segment that has resulted in a lot of
people getting their works published and new vendors are being established.
Bookselling happens through brick-and-mortar stores as well
as online such as Amazon and Flipkart. Online retail allows many
customers/readers to access books from Tier 2 and 3 towns which was not
possible earlier. According to Nielsen BookScan, the estimated value of the
Indian book industry is approximately US$6.3 billion. It has been more or less
at this position since the last Nielsen report of 2015. This is for various
factors, most immediate being – GST
(July 2016) and demonetisation (Nov 2017). Despite this the book market in
India is undoubtedly growing and there is a book hunger. Again this is for
multiple reasons, some of them being that more than 60% of the Indian
population is under 35 years age, making it young, mostly literate
or still studying, so in need of text/books. The K-12 segment constitutes the
largest segment of the Indian book market as 50% of the population is below the
age of 25 years old. The next segment of interest would be the trade list that
consists of MBS (Mind, Body, Spirit) children’s literature, women writing, literary
fiction, general fiction (mythology, historical fiction, fantasy, romance,
commercial fiction etc.) narrative nonfiction (history, biographies,
commentaries, memoirs etc.), cookery books etc. The children’s literature
market cannot be ignored for in the past decade it has grown phenomenally. This
is not just for the school textbook market but for leisure reading. Some of the
factors contributing to its growth have been the presence of school book fairs,
literary weeks in schools and writing retreats for budding authors, initiatives
started by Scholastic India and now adopted by many other players. Also the
insistence of many schools to include supplementary readers and/or books for
leisure reading alongside the prescribed curriculum. Also, ten years ago, one
of the most popular book festivals for children called Bookaroo was
established. Since then it has spread not only to other parts of the country
but overseas too. The reading public in this country is growing and this is
obvious by the rapid rise of piracy with many of the print editions available
at vendors holding large piles of poorly published editions to sell at
crossroads and temporary stalls seen on pavements.
Book fairs are very popular too. Unlike some of the
international book fairs where the focus is also selling of rights, most fairs
in India function as retail outlets. A book fair becomes an occasion for
customers to throng the stalls buying their supply of books. The customer
profile could vary from individuals, families to institutions browsing looking
for titles amongst the front and backlists and often scrummaging through at the
remaindered/second-hand bookstalls too. The biggest of these is the New Delhi
World Book Fair but then there are many regional book fairs organised too.
A major contributing factor to the book hunger in this
country has been the extraordinary growth in popularity of literature festivals
beginning with the mother of them all – “Jaipur Literature Festival”. It is
organised over a period of five days in January and has many parallel sessions
with domestic and international speakers. This model has been emulated across
the country with versions of it springing up. Apparently more than 80% of the
half million visitors that visit JLF are below the age of 29 years old. This
demographic seems to be more or less consistent for other litfests in the
country with more and more of the young visible in the audience.
Advancements in digital technology have enabled
readers/writers to access books from overseas, participate in online discussion
groups, access literature on their phones/pen drives/ebook readers etc. And
those that like reading the ebook, then purchase the print copy too. Increasingly
it is happening in many scripts.
An indication of the robustness of the publishing are also
the increasing number of business conclaves. Four of the prominent ones are the
CEOSpeak Over Chairman’s Breakfast organised jointly by the National Book Trust
and FICCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce), PubliCon organised by
Book Mark organised by Jaipur Literature Festival and Jumpstart organised
by the German Book Office.
Apart from this there are many literary prizes, including
specific ones focused on children’s writing, women’s writing, fiction, debut
authors, translations etc that have been launched. Some are very lucrative,
even awarding the translator, handsomely.
All said and done, the Indian book market is really many
markets within a market!
French Book Market
The French book market is smaller but equally robust. Some of the key characteristics are its Fixed Book Pricing, its protection of the brick-and-mortar stores from online players like Amazon and the prominent book fairs like Paris Book Fair. Also publishing translations of World Literature into French.
The French Book Office’s presence in India has helped foster Indo-French collaborations in the book industry. From sponsoring visits of Indian publishing professionals to France for specific book-related events and vice versa to actively promotes translations and publications of French authors into Indian regional languages under the aegis of the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore). French books translated in 2018: 75 titles including 1/3 supported by the Embassy of France. In addition to this the French Institute recently established the Romain Rolland Prize that translates French literature into a regional language. Apart from this consistent soft diplomatic initiative with the active cross-pollination of literature and cultures, the Institut Francais in New Delhi, now facilitated the crossed invitation from the governments of France and India regarding the book fairs. India is the guest of honour at Paris Book Fair 2020 and France will be at the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2022.
A great literary feast awaits the literary communities in
 According to the Census of India, the definition of “literate” in India is that person who can sign their name.