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In conversation with Tahar Ben Jelloun

On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir. The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Amutharasan Paulraj. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.

This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!

To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!

Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy MarriageThis Blinding Absence of LightThe Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).

Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision? 

When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.

When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!

This was my debut as a writer.

Q2. You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?

Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.

Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter? 

For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.

Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.

Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion.  Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco? 

For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.

In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.

Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working.   Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)

This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.

Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction? 

Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.

Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative? 

An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.

Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?   

When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.

Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?

The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.  

To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.

Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?

France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.

Q11. What next? 

What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.

Here is the video recording of the session:

Digital Launch of Tamil Translation of Le mariage de plaisir by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India present the launch of Tamil Translation of Le mariage de plaisir by Tahar Ben Jelloun, award winning Franco-Moroccan author.The author will be in conversation with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Amutharasan Paulraj, S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and Dr. Christine Cornet.TAHAR Benjelloun-officiel Jaya Bhattacharji Rose @amutharasan.paulraj @christine.cornet.96 #DigitalPremiere #OxfordBookstore

Posted by Oxford Bookstores on Tuesday, 30 June 2020

4 July 2020

‘Kitty’s War’ review: War in the gunj

My review of Daman Singh’s novel Kitty’s War has been published in The Hindu Literary Supplement. It is online on 4 August 2018 and is in print on 5 August 2018. Here is the original link and the review is c&p below. 

Katherine Riddle alias Kitty lives in a sleepy railway junction town in eastern India called Pipli. Her widower father, Terence Riddle, is a British railway man. Kitty, who works as a school teacher, returns home ostensibly for the summer break but more to decide her future as she nurses a broken heart for her high-school sweetheart, Jonathan, an Anglo-Indian.

They were engaged to be married except that as assistant mechanical engineer Jonathan is extremely busy. His billets-doux speak less of his love for Kitty than of the battles taking place abroad. Once home, Kitty either mopes around with her nameless tribal Ayah and the cook Latif or seeks the company of her old friends, Dan, Pat and Jimmy.

Kitty’s War is set in the 1940s against the backdrop of the Civil Disobedience movement in India, the Blitz in London, the Pearl Harbour attack, the siege of Leningrad, and the Japanese invasion of Rangoon and subsequent pouring in of refugees into Calcutta.

The events of the novel are seemingly untouched by World War II except for passing references to bogies being acquired or trenches being dug.

While the war is upturning hierarchies outside Pipli, in this town, the class lines between the British, Anglo-Indian and Indian communities are clearly drawn. Yet these people who have nothing in common with each other socially are united in their anxiety for relatives stuck in conflict zones.

For instance, the father of assistant station master Chuckerbatty, Dan’s uncle, and the Ayah’s son are all working in Rangoon. Kitty is affected by the war because of Jonathan in particular, but also because it metaphorically throws all her future plans into disarray. But Kitty knows her mind and makes her choices.

Kitty’s War is an atmospheric novel — the historical details are seamlessly woven into the plot. There are levels of oppression — of native Indians by the British, of the powerless by the moneyed class, of women by men.

It is where choice becomes paramount — not only for Kitty but also for Indians and the British, who must make vital decisions in these last years of the Empire.

To buy on Amazon India: 

Print

Kindle 

Kitty’s War; Daman Singh, Tranquebar/ Westland Publications, ₹350

Nandita Haksar’s “The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship”

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  by lawyer Nandita Haksar is a unique memoir that intersperses two passions — human rights and food.

She belongs to a community of meat-eating Brahmins — the Kashmiri Pandits. Her ancestors came from Kashmir in the beginning of the twentieth century and settled in the plains of Hindustan. Very soon they forgot the culture, the rites and rituals and even the language of the Valley. The men learnt Urdu and Persian, while the women were taught Hindi and, on occasion, Sanskrit. The men greeted each other with an adaab-urz-hai but women were always greeted with a respectful namaskar. Once the Kashmiri families migrated they integrated many aspects of the cuisines of the plains, such as those of Lucknow, Allahabad and Delhi.

Nandita Haksar employs her sharp skills as a human rights lawyer to dissect cultures and bigotry. She rightly observes that ” In India, upper-caste Hindus do not inter-dine with Dalits, Muslims and tribal people, because of what they eat. Perhaps this is the distinguishing feature of Indian society and culture.” It still happens.

Later she adds ” The recent attempts to impose a ban on eating and trading beef, and the promotion of vegetarianism, have brought into focus the fact that the caste system and the ideology which sustain it is still alive. The question is how do we, who believe in democratic values and espouse liberalism, resist the imposition of this vision in our country?

The liberals, including a section of the media, have opposed the beef ban largely on the ground that it violates the human rights of an individual to choose what he or she wants to eat. However, the ban on beef is not merely a question of the violation of an individual’s right to liberty, dignity  and equality. But when millions of people are collectively denied those human rights, then we need a stronger political discourse to challenge their exclusion. ”

Some years ago in an article on “Dalit Literature in English” I had written “The recent banning of beef in India also deprives Dalits of their primary source of protein. Beef is cheap and easily available. The Dalits belong to a section of society that cuts across religions. What is astounding is that the quantum ( and relentlessness) of violence against this community is impossible for any sane individual to comprehend and yet it is practised daily.” One of the fiercest responses to the article said my assessment was wrong. Banning beef would not deprive Dalits of food.  I stood my ground and said it was an unnecessary hostile act not recognising a critical source of protein was being taken away from a community and probably plunging the already very poor people further into poverty and despair, but I was only scoffed at. The late Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Woman’s Testimonios discusses this at great length in her book. So when Nandita Haksar makes these associations and link human rights with the basic act of accessing food I agree with her 100% and only wish more people saw it in a similar fashion.

While I was writing this article, journalist M K Venu wrote on Twitter in reference to the Alwar lynchings and Muslims being repeatedly attacked by gau rakshaks that:

The successful right to food campaign in India led to establishment of systems to ensure food security. For instance passing of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act ( NREGA) in August 2005, the introduction of cooked mid-day meals in all primary schools following a Supreme Court order in April 2004, and finally the passing of the National Food Security Act, 2013. “But even these achievements have been undermined by the controversies over beef and vegetarianism and have served to divert public attention from the most fundamental issue: food security for the poor who cannot afford even one meal a day and the wretched condition of farmers and their families, so many of whom have been driven to committing suicide.” This crisis is related to the globalization of the food industry and the so-called safety laws that in effect criminalize the small dhabas and the street vendors who provide affordable food to millions of people. This is food fascism.

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship  is absolutely fantastic for food is not only a repository of cultural norms, local wisdom ( in terms of what is the best dish / spice to have that would be most suitable for the person) but of course it is a rights issue too. To deny someone the right to their cuisine is a violently hostile act. At the same time to accept the local cuisine offered while travelling whether you like it or not is the height of graciousness and civil behaviour. This is exactly why  the anecdote Nandita Haksar shares about her friend who is a vegetarian and yet quietly eats the meat so lovingly served to her by the host at the Hashimpura wedding celebrations was an incredibly graceful gesture upon her part.

A few days ago designer Orijit Sen posted on Facebook about eating Kozhukatta on a Kochi street. Steamed rice dumplings with a sweet core of coconut and jaggery. Immediately he had a flood of responses on his timeline talking about variations of exactly same dish. There were folks writing in from Himachal Pradesh, Assam, Bengal, and even Parsis. It was fascinating to observe how food united everyone. Orijit Sen was prompted to respond “Amidst all our diversity and contradictions, I seem to have chanced upon one of those simple beautiful things that connects us all on this subcontinent!” Something that comes across so well in Nandita Haksar’s book too — the animated conversations that involve food whether designing a wedding menu to organising a meal at home or even visiting the local gurdwara for a langar!”

The July 2018 issue of the National Geographic’s cover story is on “Building a Better Athlete“. It is basically about how sports scientists are working closely with the finest sportsmen to help them excel known barriers of performance. In it is quoted Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, who says the key to breaking performance barriers is to “keep athletes healthy. If they stay healthy, everything else falls into place.” This had me wondering why is that we only look at these frames of reference in absolutely exceptional specimens of human race and apply these rules of living for them alone? Why can we not shift these very same frames of reference and apply them to ordinary families? Won’t it be very liberating for many, especially women who are foisted with the responsibility of feeding their families, to feel that investment in their health, with local produce and that which is familiar to their cultures is perfectly acceptable and in fact a great way of living?

If this argument is extended to the micro-level of seeing how a family unit works. Apply it to women and see if they are taught to eat and look after themselves perhaps there won’t be so many instances of illness in many families. Off late it is not unusual to hear of instances where urban poor women are being encouraged to attend nutrition camps where they can learn how to manage household budgets by buying less and less milk as the prices skyrocket. So the women are taught how half a litre of milk can be stretched in providing nourishment value by setting curd, preserving the cream (if any) of the boiled milk etc. Or even using cheaper substitutes like soya milk. [ With today’s inflation rates I do not know if this holds true any longer!] Or adapting their old family recipes so that they do not require milk, dahi or cream as ingredients, instead they could substitute it with cheaper ( not necessarily healthier) ingredients. This is a horrific act of violence being perpetrated under the garb of nutrition camps for in the process of managing household budgets women are being forced to forget skills they have acquired / inherited and instead adapt to the local requirements. This is undoubtedly an inherent act violence as the woman is inadvertently put under familial/ economic pressure to provide regular sumptuous meals despite spiraling costs of ingredients and since she is mostly voiceless these acts go unnoticed. It is a very complicated and insidious act of violence that gets slowly embedded and perpetuated in the long run.

The scrubbing away of collective memories of local cuisines that define a community and are more importantly repositories of information about ideal foods to be consumed in different seasons using local ingredients, ensuring the people remain healthy and it is also cost effective in the long run. This is echoed in film director Jean Renoir sharing in his memoir ( Renoir, My Father ) about his father, the Impressionist painter Renoir, describing the varied smells coming from different houses in their neighbourhood. Every fragrance was that of a distinct region of France and easily identifiable but now both father and son were ruing the fact that dishes and flavours had more or less become homogenised. They were referring to the homogenity of smells but the passage in the book also is a wistful reminiscing of how much has been lost in the name of progress — the standardisation if you will of French cuisine. It is much like the different knowledge systems and the value accorded to them as Nandita Haksar mentions in reference to the two young boys of her acquaintance — Ashwin Mushran and Adani. Her nephew 18-year-old Ashwin is unable to make her a cup of hot coffee but is able to write a remarkable 10,000-word essay on Tolkien! Whereas 10-year-old Adani, her host’s son on a field trip to the north east of India, had not only killed a bird with his sling, but plucked and cooked it as well as made rice to accompany it — all in the short duration she took to get refreshed after a long journey!

The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship is meant for those who love social and family histories; love cooking; love reading recipes and collecting them too. It is also meant for those who cherish an India which celebrates its diversity and the richness of its varied local cultures that are embraced willingly by its citizens, irrespective of which region or community they hail from. This is the idea of India most citizens believe in!

Read this book. It is unforgettable!

Buy the paperback edition and Kindle edition

24 July 2018 

 

“A Crackerjack Life” by Rajiv Tyagi

Ex-fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Rajiv Tyagi has built a formidable reputation on social media for his forthright opinions on contemporary politics. Apart from his posts being very informative, his is an influential and sane voice on social media where fake news goes viral rapidly. It is no wonder then that he has accrued more than 50,000 followers on Facebook alone.

Recently he published a collection of essays/stories that recalled incidents from his experience as an Air Force Officer and more. A Crackerjack Life is a memoir with a difference as it is not a straightforward narrative but a series of short pieces strung together, more or less chronologically, to chart the fascinating life Rajiv Tyagi has led. From being a little child who was travelling alone from Indonesia to his grandparents in Meerut so that he could then be sent on to boarding school in Mussorie, his passion for high altitude trekking, to later his absolutely fascinating accounts of serving in the IAF in various border postings, witnessing some incredible encounters that if he had not seen for himself would be relegated to modern myth making such as the convoys of Red Army and Blue Army suddenly finding themselves in together rather than on opposite sides but no one dared say or do anything but quietly parted ways. There are many more incidents some very personal and heartwarming such as the one about his classmate Virender whose leg had to be amputated after being diagnosed with cancer and how he was received by his classmates at school. Having said that the stories and experiences shared do to a large extent quell the annoying presence of editing mistakes but not necessarily overcome it. Perhaps the next edition of the book will be better edited. For now the brisk sales of this book since its release a few weeks ago are a testimony to Rajiv Tyagi’s passionate storytelling with a great eye for detail.

A Crackerjack Life is a delightful collection of memorably evocative stories. The stories are significant too for highlighting the richly diverse, secular, tolerant and democratic space that was newly independent India and hopefully will forever be.

With the author’s permission the following extract from the book is being published here.

****

PERSUASION

Thanks to an egalitarian, agnostic father and the Armed Forces, I did not know what a gotra was, till I reached my late twenties. Hindus assert that every single one of them, Chitra, Pappu and Manoj, are descended from an ascetic saint. My paternal line is said to descend from a Rishi Gautam. My gotra therefore is Gautam.

My father did his schooling in the Gurukul Kangri school and then college, in Hardwar in the 1940s. They wore dhotis and langot, spoke Sanskrit fluently, and wore wooden khadaaon (wooden slippers) on their feet. The day began at 4 AM, with a swim in the Ganga canal outside the college, followed with a bath, change and havan (Hindu congregational prayer), before breakfast and classes. Except for the discipline, which he maintained for himself all his life, despite failing miserably to instil any of it in his children, he found little to commend for his life in the Gurukul. For when he reached Germany to study Medicine at Munich University in 1950, he found his knowledge of Science and the world around him severely lacking in comparison to other students who had studied in Germany or in Anglo Indian schools in India. His edge over others, in conversational Sanskrit and his facility at reciting Vedic shlokas from memory, he found useful only as curiosities. He had to work extra hours to catch up on what he had missed of human knowledge, while he was learning what turned out to be mere trivia, useful only to regale the Sanskrit and Vedic illiterate.

A strapping, tall, athletic and handsome man, he exuded, on his occasional outings in churidaar-achkan and turban, the aura of an Oriental prince. He and his friends cultivated the image to the hilt, telling their German friends how shocked they were to see a poor nation like theirs, where everyone re-used crockery instead of throwing it away after use. The suggestion from a fellow Indian student, that they might be exaggerating just a wee bit, was met with the query how he would describe a ‘mitti ka shakora’! And if that would not constitute Indian crockery? And did he in his home, wash a shakora to re-use it?

He lived as a paying guest, in a room rented from a widow he called Mutter (Mother), dining with the family at their table; the family comprising his land lady and a pretty daughter, who Mutter was eager to marry off to this young man who would soon be Herr Doktor.

After graduating, on Mutter’s suggestion that he convert to Christianity, Herr Doktor escaped from pretty daughter and Germany, learned Italian while interning in a hospital in Italy, befriended some Catholic priests, who taught him enough Latin to show off to other Europeans and made his way back by ship to India, taking up his first job as a resident, at the Bhowali Sanatorium, in what is now Uttarakhand.

My Mother, Sharmaji ki chhoti beti (the younger daughter of Mr. Sharma), then an 18 year old beauty with impossibly thick tresses woven into two plaits, lived a few lanes away from my grand parents’ home in Meerut. It was a match made in heaven, said the astrologers from both families. Whereupon my father was summoned by means of telegram, to hurry home forthwith, as he was to be married to a girl they had chosen for him.

In my grand parents’ home, food was dropped from a height into the outstretched palms of the woman who came to clean the toilets and who they called the bhangan. In my parents’ home, infused with the liberal egalitarianism of a Western culture, the driver and maids used the same crockery and cutlery as we did. This dichotomy did not escape me, though I did not question it. My mother would tell us stories in Hindi, from the Ramayan and my father from the Mahabharat, interspersed now and then with long passages in Sanskrit, from some obscure version of the grand epic. But at no time do I remember being taught to pray, even though my Mother was a practising Hindu and a temple goer. She did tell us which god was which and how to recognize them.

My connect with prayer came only after I was admitted to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns in Mussoorie, in Class 2. Visits to the chapel and the whole atmosphere of religiosity were annoying to me. This improved when I moved to St. George’s College, inasmuch as there was never an air of religiosity within its environment. By Class 4, I had found a treasure trove of Greek mythology in the school library, along with some fascinating books for children, on magnetism and electricity. I consumed them voraciously, some even during Miss Dhillon’s classes! Sometime towards the end of Class 5, after a heavy diet of Greek mythology, magnetism and electricity, I experienced an epiphany – that religions are a collective and organized scam, propagated through stories that were pure fairy tales and fantasy. That was the beginning of my life as a rationalist, a humanist and an atheist.

To buy the book: Paperback and Kindle

13 July 2018

Amazon KDP event in New Delhi, 30 Nov 2017

I moderated a panel discussion on self-publishing for Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing  Author Academy. The panelists included  Sanjeev Jha, Director,  Kindle Content, India, successful fiction writer Vineet Bajpai, and romance novelist Sundari Venkataraman on Thursday, 30 November 2017, Le Meredien,  Delhi.

It was a fabulous event consisting of an informative presentation by Sanjeev Jha after which a lively discussion ensued. The presentation was an excellent walk through about the various features KDP offers. For instance, KDP Select, the helpline support, digital tools to help upload illustrated books particularly children’s books etc. Apparently since the KDP was launched in September 2015 there are now more than 3.2 million books available on the platform. He reisterated that many readers like to browse through books digitally and if the author is readable or establishes their reputation there is the likelihood of the book translating into actual sales of print editions. Some of the most popular genres remain romance and self-help. A categorisation which is also noted in the traditional forms of publishing too. KDP was launched with the view to allow authors to access their readers with only the digital platform in between. Over time it has proven to be quite a popular way of publishing. In Dec 2016, ebooks in five Indian regional languages were launched on the Kindle. As of now it is possible to publish books on the KDP in Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam but it still in the Beta version so is not being publicised too much for now. Interesting facts emerged for instance that Amazon pays royalties to its authors depending upon how many pages have been read and not necessarily by the book. For instance, Sundari Venkataraman ( who has been a regular user of KDP since Feb 2014 and now has 20+ books on the platform) mentioned that there are months when she measures her books by the number of pages read and has notched up numbers such as 15-18,000 pages. It is not very clear how many books were opened and read or whether there was a “read through” in the process or not. Vineet Bajpai made it amply clear with his lucid interventions that publishing on KDP is a convenient process for it gives access to ready data immediately yet it also requires immense discipline and dedication to ensure that the book is discovered and read. In the short span of five months since his book was launched in August 2017, he has sold more than 25,000 print copies. Both the authors agreed that they dedicate time to marketing and promotion, otherwise as another author from the audience mentioned her ten books languish on the platform.

The audience consisted of a diverse cross-section of people. There were seasoned, award-winning authors to debut authors who had unpublished manuscripts but were not sure which method to adopt — traditional or digital. There were quite a few teenagers interested in writing who were being represented by their parents. There were storytellers in various languages keen to understand how KDP will be beneficial ? Would they be able to publish stories  + audio clips of their performances? There were authors who were puzzled by the distinction between KDP and KDP Select and what it meant in terms of exclusivity and support they could expect from Amazon. There were KDP authors who had had a good experience of the platform and wished to understand how to exploit it further for everyone in the hall was in agreement that Amazon, unlike other publishing firms, is responding in real time to its users ( authors/readers) and constantly improving its bouquet of offerings. There were book bloggers, journalists ( all media), ex/servicemen, doctors, strategic study analysts, translators, poets, print publishers wishing to understand the mechanisms of digital publishing etc.  Some of the pertinent questions asked by the audience present were about editing a manuscripts, ROI on publishing a book using  KDP, how are  books discovered from the 3.2m Kindle titles available, how do authors earn royalties especially if their books are offered in the  Kindle Unlimited bundle, how is  plagiarism detected, what is the ideal length of a book?  The conversations went on for much longer than expected and were continued over lunch.

2017 marks ten years of Kindle. When it was first launched traditional publishers were not sure how it would affect publishing. For some years thereafter a “disruption” was noticed when ebooks became exceedingly popular and many publishers made modifications to their business models. For instance by doing away with renting spaces in warehouses for stocking printed copies of their backlists and moving to the print-on-demand ( POD) model where it is possible to order one copy at a time. Another way was to penetrate newer markets using digital devices by launching apps on smartphones and not necessarily restricting themselves to specific hardware such as the Kindle. Now notably there has been a plateauing of ebook sales and print books are becoming more and more scrumptious in production. Having said that there is no doubt that Amazon with the launch of Kindle and its KDP programme with its mechanised process has democratised the publishing of a book in a manner seen first with Gutenberg. The Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century scaled up the productivity of printing presses by improving their construction and using steam power to operate them. Now with the digital process it has made it easy for every person to publish, circumventing publishing gatekeepers and tastemakers, accessing readers worldwide, in a very short span of time — a few hours. It is this seeming collapse of time which has sped up the process of production and expectations. Of course there is the flip side of this that despite Amazon offering its KDP authors the tools create book covers, many individuals need to invest in having their manuscripts edited as that is not a service option. Also to have the book discovered the onus of promoting the book lies with the author and not with Amazon.

The response to it has been enthusiastic with many participants writing in with appreciative notes of thanks, particularly how informative the session was!

1 Dec 2017 

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 

A way ahead for words: Juggernaut

 

Chiki

(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 )Durga

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? 

SivapriyaDR: 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.

3 October 2015

Literati – “The library as social experience” ( 16 August 2015)

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 15 August 2015) and will be in print ( 16 August 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-the-relevance-of-libraries-today/article7539673.ece#. I am also c&p the text below. 

Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer.

My five-year-old daughter asked me, “Why can’t libraries be like bookshops? If we like a book, why must we return it to the library? Why can we not buy and keep it?” I was stumped. It was a perceptive observation.

***

“You either see it or you don’t” was an eccentric American Dennis Severs’ mantra,who converted his Georgian home in London into a time capsule with pieces collected from the 17th century till Edwardian times. Brian Selznick’s absolutely ‘scrumdiddlyumptious’ forthcoming book, The Marvels, is heavily inspired by Dennis Severs’ imaginative lifestyle. To my mind, this mantra aptly marks the rapid disappearance of brick-and-mortar bookstores and at the same time provides a possible solution for their survival.

In Delhi, two iconic bookshops — Fact & Fiction and Galgotia — are closing. There are many factors responsible globally for closure of bookstores, such as rising rents, fewer customers and an increasing use of e-readers like Kindle, iPads and smartphones. Buying books the traditional way is a cherished subjective experience, heavily dependent on the curating abilities of the book buyer. Obviously, a regular customer is wistful at the announcement of their favourite bookstore closing. On the other hand, online retailers have to innovate, evolve and work constantly at providing customer satisfaction without ever knowing who is buying from their portal.

For most readers, it is like being in a dream spell. Having read about a book, many readers want instant gratification and engage in impulsive buying, usually possible only with online retail. It is a human behaviour that has evolved with access to the Internet 24×7 for more than a generation.

Recently, I read a bunch of absolutely delightful titles from the TED Books that take off from where TED talks leave off, such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness, Chip Kidd’s Judge This and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should all be Feminists. I also read a devastatingly moving novel, The Blue between Sky and Water, by Palestinian writer Susan Abulhawa; a delightful anthology, The Pleasure of Reading,edited by Antonia Fraser; and an excellent collection of commentaries, Nehru’s India, edited by Nayantara Sahgal. War novel Escape from Baghdad! by Bangladeshi Saad Hossain and The Word at War made it to the list. When I discuss these books animatedly with friends, many automatically order these online. This change in human behaviour has affected the lifeline of bookstores.

In a possible model for a bookstore of the future, non-profit Pioneer Works in Red Hook, U.S., opened a ‘remarkably small’ bookstore. It stocks new and used books, local zines, lit mags, children’s books conveniently located at their height and a modest wall spotlighting a rotating small press. Also, the shop clerk assures customers that if they do not find the book title they are looking for, he will order it for them.

Then there is Trilogy in Mumbai, founded by Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu in December 2014. It houses a library and a bookstore; though they are under the same roof they do not share shelf space. Titles are available in Hindi, English and Marathi. The library functions like any old-school library and the bookstore works like (almost) any other bookstore in the world. The very idea of having a bookstore and a library together in the same place without a wall dividing the two was to allow members the freedom to read books without owning them (library) and when they love a book they would like to own, they always have the option of buying it (bookstore). There is a symbiotic relationship between the two spaces. Borrowers very often want to buy the book they have either issued or find in the library. If it is available in the bookstore they can buy it immediately.

There is also the model that legislator Dr. T.M. Thomas Isaac has suggested in Kerala wherein libraries turn into centres for students to gather and study together in the evenings.

These examples illustrate a recommendation made at the Indian Public Libraries Conference 2015 held on March 17-19, 2015 in New Delhi. Recommendation on refurbishment of public libraries, point 8f, states, “Facilities in public libraries should include, ‘multi-purpose social space’ for use by the community extending services beyond the provision of reading facilities.”

Paul X. McCarthy, in Online Gravity: The Unseen Force Driving the Way You Live, Earn, and Learn, illustrates how a new set of economic rules, very different from those in the physical world, are governing businesses. According to him, one of the fundamental consequences of gravity-giant formation is the way in which it is influencing the shape of products, companies and ultimately the whole economy online. But I wonder if the cross-filtering and influencing of experiences across mediums has not already begun? What is the future of libraries and bookstores if they don’t evolve by catering to community demands and expectations? Libraries and bookstores die because they fail to fulfil this. Reading may be a personal experience, but libraries and bookstores are social experiences. Somewhere the customised experiences of individuals increasingly created by blending digital and real services have begun to spill over into the physical world.

15 August 2015

Literati – “Serial publishing” ( 2 May 2015)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 2 May 2015) and will be in print ( 3 May 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article7164472.ece. I am also c&p the text below.

Published over 20 years ago, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a single-volume hardback at over 1100 pages, was bulky to hold though printed on Bible paper (a thin grade of paper used for printing books with a large number of pages). It was not unheard of to rip the novel into two or three volumes to read it easily. It inevitably triggered conversations about Victorian England when serial publishing was fashionable and lending libraries in Victorian England preferred to lend three-decker novels to members.

This practice was instituted by Mudie’s Lending Library and Mudie’s Subscription Library. Charles Mudie, known for his sharp business acumen, introduced the guinea yearly subscription allowing a customer to borrow an unlimited number of volumes at any time. He also profited from simultaneously lending different parts of a novel to different customers. Of course publishers and authors benefited immensely from Mudie’s select list of books since an order from the library/retail usually meant buying up print runs, certainly a substantial number of units that helped boost sales.

With the Industrial Revolution, rapid technological advances had a tremendous impact on book publishing. With mechanisation it was easier to produce cheap books for a mass audience. Printers too had acquired new technologies, notably the practice of stereotyping — casting a metal plate based on an impression from hand-set type — which permitted both quick reuse of the type for other pages and multiple copies of the metal plates for even faster printing of multiple copies. Writers like Charles Dickens managed to be financially secure by catering to working class audience sensibilities, weaving in characters in his serial and monthly stories that endeared themselves to readers up and down the social ladder. For instance, with Pickwick Papers, the monthly print run rose from 400 (March 1836) to 40,000 (November 1837). As Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer (2011) points out “the sales of each of the last three numbers of Dombey, in January, February and March 1948, were around 34,000, and people continued to buy back numbers for months afterwards. In 1847 he earned £3,800, and for the first time ever he had enough money in the bank to be able to invest.” (p.200)

Suddenly there were a flood of books available, a first since moveable type had been invented some centuries earlier. In the 20th century, it was Allen Lane’s introduction of the paperback edition that made a significant difference to book publishing.

***

Self-publishing

Fast forward to 21st century. Technological advancements, especially with the introduction of smartphones and e-readers meant that in less than a decade, e-books were easily available to access and download — most cheaply priced or for free! This fuelled the exponential growth of self-publishing as people discovered how “easily” books could be produced and sold at a reasonable price directly to customers. Like in Victorian England, new reading communities were discovered/created. At the same time, digital long reads came into vogue, usually standalone commissioned articles. Slowly the impact of this form is becoming discernible in the crafting a novel.

Instead of the long story being “complete” and polished equally from beginning to end, it is obvious to a trained eye that portions of the story are given more care, probably to be offered as extracts to digital and print media or to be read out at author interactions. This is affecting the form of a novel with experiments in interconnected stories being considered as a novel. Serial publishing too is making a comeback with authors offering their e-books as serials or intentionally writing serials, testing it on readers and later converting it into a book — mostly seen in self-publishing programmes. A deluge of books has resulted in the creation of monthly subscription models such as Oyster and Kindle Unlimited offering readers an unlimited number of e-books. Given the paucity of time but increase in commuting time and variety of handheld e-devices the rise of short fiction (flash fiction and short story) as a popular form of writing is inevitable. Yet I wonder if it is not time for serial publishing to make a comeback. It will engage a reader; the author can gauge the reader’s reaction to the story and tweak it accordingly, so the book’s sale is assured, ensuring writers and publishers benefit.

2 May 2015

An update ( 8 May 2015) 

Coincidentally, two days after my column was published I read a fascinating post on Melville House blog on serial publishing. “Two For Tuesday: Should Books Be Snackable, Serialized, and Delicious?” ( 5 May 2015,  http://www.mhpbooks.com/two-for-tuesday-should-books-be-snackable-serialized-and-delicious/)

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