The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is a nifty introduction to the prominent gods of the Hindu pantheon. It is a peppy reference to the gods and goddesses one encounters often in Hindu mythology. These are the ones such as Vishwakarma, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganeshea, Hanuman, Durga and Kali whom one hears of often. There is a neat catalogue with short descriptions of the prominent gods and their avatars such as Shakti/Sati ( Durga, Kali and Meenakshi); Vishnu ( Matsaya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama, Krishna, Balrama, Kalki, Jagannatha ); Shiva ( Rudra, Bhairava, Nataraja, Lingam) and Ardhanareshwari ( Shiva + Shakti). In the opening pages describing the Vedic gods the authors — Neelima P. Aryan and Ameya Nagarajan — have tried drawing parallels between the gods of Hindu and Greek mythology. For instance, Akash with Zeus — both are considered to be the father of gods. Each description is accompanied by a full-page illustration created in bright colours by Priyankar Gupta that are charming but have done little to break out of the mould created by Anant Pai decades ago.
The Puffin Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses is the kind of book which will forever be in demand. It is a beautifully produced four-colour book printed on good art paper allowing for rich reading experience in print. A good production will also ensure that despite being flipped through often the book will withstand any rough use. Creating a reasonably priced book as an in-house department product by the Puffin team will definitely ensure a steady stream of revenue for the firm — a classic formula used often by other firms as well. It is also a fine example of sharp commissioning that straddles the hyper-local and diaspora markets.
Having said that there are a few more examples of illustrated books on the Hindu gods and goddesses that have proven to be extremely popular — Bhakti Mathur, Pixar’s Sanjay Patel‘s series, a wonderful series of cut out board books for children by Om Books editorial team and splendid books on Hanuman and Krishna by
Mala Dayal and on Shiva by Subhadra Sen Gupta published by Red Turtle.
Now for some enterprising publishing firm to create books on gods and goddesses of other religions as well. Puffin India, Juggernaut and Om Books have opened the innings with collection of stories from the Quran and the Bible with their retellings. Goodword books creates phenomenal Islamic books for children. In the past Penguin India had also published a beautiful anthology of greatest stories ever told from various faiths edited by Sampurna Chattarji ( 2004). Maybe it is time to revive some of the backlist publications once more.
( My review of William Dalrymple’s and Anita Anand’s magnificent book on the Kohinoor diamond was published in Bookwitty. )
Kohinoor, co-authored by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, is about one of the most famous gems in history.Koh-i-noor or “Mountain of Light” is the ninetieth biggest diamond in the world, but its fame far surpasses any other technically superior and bigger diamond. This could be attributed to the rapidly growing price of diamonds worldwide in the early and mid-19th century. Some centuries ago, the Koh-i-noor was mined from the Guntur diamond mines, Andhra Pradesh, India.
According to the writers,
“in the seventeenth century European jewellers had established a slight technological edge over their Mughal rivals. There are frequent references to emperors and other Indian rulers sending gems via the Jesuits to be cut in Goa, or even in the European merchant colony in Aleppo…. [But] there is simply no certain reference to the Koh-i-Noor in any Sultanate or Mughal source, despite a huge number of textual references to outsized and hugely valuable diamonds appearing throughout Indian history, particularly towards the climax of Mughal rule. Some of these may well refer to the Koh-i-Noor, but lacking sufficiently detailed descriptions, it is impossible to be certain.”
As the legend was slowly established, battles were fought and horrendous atrocities were committed in the search for the gem, which was rumoured to be exquisite, but which was in fact was a dull beauty. This became apparent when Prince Albert displayed the jewel at the Great Exhibition (1851) only to discover it lacked lustre. Unfortunately as the Illustrated London News wrote:
A diamond is generally colourless, and the finest are quite free from any speck or flaw of any kind, resembling a drop of the purest water. The Koh-i-Noor is not cut in the best form for exhibiting its purity and lustre, and will therefore disappoint many, if not all, of those who so anxiously press forward to see it.
So Prince Albert tried a few tricks to make this magnificent jewel glitter as a diamond should while representing the exotic British Empire in the East, and as a prime trophy of the British military prowess expanding its territories in India. He enclosed the gem in a wooden cabin, shutting out all natural light that streamed through the glass roof and windows of the Crystal Palace. It enabled the gas lamps and mirrors placed to do their work far more efficiently and with the gem placed on an extraordinary velvet cloth, it glittered and shone. The Koh-i-Noor was given state-of-the-art security for there was quite a crush of people who came to see it on display.
In the fascinatingly detailed history recounted in Kohinoor, the exquisite diamond had been embedded in Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s legendary Peacock Throne, a war trophy collected by Nadir Shah during his sack of Delhi. It was later worn as an amulet by Maharajah Ranjit Singh, until it was finally handed over by his ten-year-old son, Maharajah Duleep Singh, to Queen Victoria under the Treaty of Lahore.
It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in a special space created by Prince Albert, influencing Victorian writers to include Indian diamonds in their plots (as in Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s Lothair). Queen Victoria wore it as a brooch. It was cut further from 190.3 metric carats to 93 metric carats for it to be installed in the British Crown. It was worn by Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, at her coronation in 1902. Since then, it has acquired the myth that it is cursed and can never be worn by a reigning monarch or a man. The last time the gem was seen in public was in 2002 at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when her crown, with the Koh-i-Noor as its centrepiece, was placed on her coffin.
Kohinoor has been structured with the first half recounting centuries of the gem’s turbulent history written by William Dalrymple. It is packed with the historical details, facts and figures, and magnificent descriptions that are to be expected in Dalrymple’s storytelling, including an account of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s funeral, where his wives committed sati.
Afterward, the narrative is picked up by journalist Anita Anand (who also wrote the magnificent biography of Duleep Singh’s daughter, Sophia). In the second half of Kohinoor, Anita Anand maintains the brisk pace of narration set by Dalrymple, but adds a sensitive, gendered dimension, best shown in the nuanced portrait of the 26 year-old widow of Ranjit Singh, Rani Jindan, mother and regent of Duleep Singh. Both writers are clear they want to be as factually accurate as possible and demystify some of the myth surrounding the Koh-i-Noor, especially the fabulous story Tom Metcalfe created for the diamond in the mid-19th century.
In fact, the Koh-i-Noor’s foggy history reared its head again recently,
“on 16 April 2016, the Indian Solicitor General, Ranjit Kumar, told the Indian Supreme Court that the Koh-i-Noor was given freely to the British in the mid 19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and had been ‘neither stolen nor forcibly taken by British rulers.’ This was by any standards a strikingly unhistorical statement, all the odder given that the facts of its surrender to Lord Dalhousie in 1849 are about the one aspect of the diamond’s history not in dispute. In the recent past, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and even the Taliban have also laid claim to the gem, and asked for its return.”
Kohinoor is an immensely readable account of a famous gem.
Arshia Sattar’s Ramayana for Children is based on the original Sanskrit text of Valmiki. As she writes in a recently published article “…although there are ‘three hundred Ramayanas’, I work only with Valmiki’s text. His is the first version of Rama’s story that we have but it’s also the version that people know the least, perhaps because it’s in Sanskrit. My thirty-year obsession with the Ramayana is thus even stranger − not unlike a scholar spending all their working life reading only the first folio edition of The Tempest.” ( Hindustan Times, 30 Sept 2016 http://bit.ly/2cTU5fl ) The text reads smoothly. One of the toughest challenges in translating a well-known text is how well will it sit with the readers who are more than familiar with its stories. Somehow in this modern English translation of Valmiki’s text the story reads beautifully without any glitches, without any of those annoyingly forced attempts at putting down a living text in words. Instead what comes through is the incredible manner in which Arshia Sattar to retell these age-old stories but in the true spirit of a storyteller who is herself in sync with the stories. She has made it her own and made it available to a new generation of readers. It is a crucial contribution since more families are becoming nuclear and unable to rely on older generations to share these stories.
Ramayana for Children has been beautifully illustrated with double-page spreads by Sonali Zohra. There is something grungy-funky with the almost wood-cut like impressions that are very appealing. The illustrations complement the text well too.
This is a reasonably priced hardback book for children. A maginificent gift for children — to read, to treasure and well timed too given that it has been launched during the navratas when they can watch Ramlila too — making the text come alive!
Arshia Sattar Ramayana for Children ( Based on the original Sanskrit text of Valmiki), Illustrations by Sonali Zohra. Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, India, 2016. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499
Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”
It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.
The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.
When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.
Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”
In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.
But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.
The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.
In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”
The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.
After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.
Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”
Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”
Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.
Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.
Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”
Lawrence Liang adds:
So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
(I interviewed Chiki Sarkar and Durga Raghunath, co-founders of Juggernaut. As Chiki put it across so well, “Durga is part of the change and I am part of the continuity. The combo of us would be magic. She is the creative mind of business and I am the business side of creativity.” This interview was conducted with a face-to-face meeting with Chiki Sarkar at her office and with Durga, over the phone. It was published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine digitally on 3 Oct 2015 and in print on 4 Oct 2015. Here is the url to the link: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/chiki-sarkar-and-durga-raghunath-talk-about-juggernaut-with-jaya-bhattacharji-rose/article7720019.ece?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication )
The recently launched publishing firm, Juggernaut, hopes to take on the big players in the field. Its co-founders Chiki Sarkar and Durga Raghunath talk about what’s in store.
The key investors in Juggernaut are Nandan Nilekani, William Bissell and Neeraj Aggarwal. Chiki Sarkar, previously publisher of Penguin India and founder-publisher of Random House India, has worked with every major writer in the country. Durga Raghunath, previously CEO, Network 18 Digital, led three news websites, a fin-tech site and mobile. She is also the founder of India’s first exclusively digital newsroom, Firstpost. Excerpts from an interview.
What is the focus of Juggernaut? What are the genres it will be publishing?
Chiki Sarkar: Our behaviour is the same as that of any great publisher but asking bold questions on the digital side.
Durga Raghunath: The good thing about mobile content is you cannot ignore your consumer. It has to be both short story and all genres that keep people coming back for, such as crime fiction and romance. These have to be very compelling reads. A beginner list will have a variety and also new authors to attract the committed book lover and the new reader — a young mobile user.
Who are the authors you will be publishing?
CS&DR: We cannot say. It will be announced early next year.
What kind of manuscripts are you seeking?
CS: The ebooks we publish will be between 20,000 and 40,000 words.
DR: The length is overrated in book publishing. In non-fiction there are enough opportunities for things to be much shorter, so you will see different lengths — 5,000 to 15,000 words.
According to media reports, Juggernaut will explore phone book publishing. For what generation of phones will these be created?
DR: We will be catering to the Android and iOS platforms and targeting the top 10-12 devices. The smartphone devices market in India is approximately 159 million; we will target 10-12 million users in India. It will initially be in English moving to the vernacular in a few months. About 25 million people read news in India. Apparently 120 million have 3G on their phones. It implies you have to own a decent smartphone to be able to access it.
The user experience will be very unique. We will retain the consumer delight, but offer a lot more aided by technology. There are a lot of ways in which the internet can considerably reduce the gap between author and reader. It will be a confluence of various things. About 100 million people who transact on their mobile phones have given their credit and debit card details. People will not pay for news but will pay for books — a combination of information and knowledge. Also, Indian behaviour for digital consumption shows they are ready to pay and buy online as long as the price point is correct.
Who is Juggernaut’s customer?
DR: In India we have an overwritten book market. The big thrill is to change the market. Big publishers are not to be feared. We will publish in the vernacular too. Some of the rich textured literature exists in the local languages. Hence, Sivapriya is a critical part of the team. We have three to four editors taking vernacular publishing. It will be big play for us. It will be about democratisation of publishing. It cannot be the privy of five big houses anymore, and to enable that we must have vernacular publishing. The idea is to launch a new language list every year.
How many books do you hope to publish in one year? Will all the paper books have a digital life? If so, will this also be true of all the ebooks published?
CS: Every book will have a digital life.
DR: The super set will be mobile and phone book publishing. The subset will be physical with an initial list of 50 titles per year. A lot of surprises will be in the app, available also on the web.
What is the technology and product strategy at Juggernaut?
DR: The central mantra at Juggernaut is to give an author the best digital and physical platform, while inspiring the consumer to read and write. Given this is India, we will be extremely price sensitive. How can I get new users? How can I make it worth their while? The retention plan will always make the customer feel that Juggernaut has given them five times more than what they had expected. The relationship between the publisher and the author will be clearly redefined.
What is the publishing expertise and services that authors and readers can expect from Juggernaut which make it stand apart from traditional publishers?
DR: We will create custom formats similar to what Amazon did with Kindle. We will create .jug files. You cannot do these things cheaply, hence the focused funding exercise. There will be absolutely no shortcuts to anything.
CS&DR: The information will be super secure. We are investing in a secure DRM.
Book start-up markets are brutal. Many appear to fulfil an immediate need, usually work as a catalyst and then disappear. Even well-funded business have folded up as markets are saturated, margins wafer thin and consumption intense. What are the challenges that Juggernaut sees in the Indian market?
DR: The Internet has created a certain behaviour. We are at that point, at the cusp, when people will give Juggernaut a shot by saying, “I will sample it.”
There will be many challenges in the future but we have been unable to focus on any since we have more solutions than problems right now.