Mrinal Pande Posts

An extract from “Indian Genre Fiction”

Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Present Futures (eds. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Aakriti Mandhwani and Anwesha Maity) is a fascinating collection of essays. There are articles on popular fiction in late colonial Tamil Nadu, to novels of Urdu, 19th-century Bengali chapbooks, science fantasy of Leela Majumdar and Sukumar Ray, Hindi pulp literature, retelling of the Mahabharata in Krishna Udaysankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles and Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva. But the essay that I read and re-read was Ira Pande’s tremendous “Hearts and homes: A perspective on women writers in Hindi”. Being the daughter of the very popular Hindi writer Shivani and a fluent speaker in English and Hindi, Ira Pande shares her fascinating perspective on inhabiting the Hindi literary world and what it means being bilingual.

With the permission of the publishers, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, here are two extracts from this brilliant essay. (pps. 94-95 and 96-97)

Allahabad in the ’60s was home to some of the greatest writers of those times. Harivansh Rai Bachchan had left Allahabad for Delhi by then, but there were other more famous chhayavad poets still around (Sumitranandan Pant, Mahadevi Verma and Nirala), Firaq Gorakh-puri, Amrit and Sripat Rai (Premchand’s sons, both writers and publishers), Ilachandra Joshi, VDN Sahi and Usha Priyamvada, to name just a few. And of course, there was Shivani. However, along with others of her tribe, such as Salma Siddiqi and Mannu Bhandari, her kind of writing was passed off as romantic fluff or domestic sagas that housewives ordered by mail as part of a gharelu (domestic) library scheme. The very popularity of these women writers became a weapon to use against their literary output. To the supercilious self-styled critics who pronounced judgment on what was to be considered accept-able as literature, this space was only meant for those who wrote for a different audience, one that had a sophisticated palate developed on the ‘modern’ fare of European and contemporary American fiction. Certain subjects were taboo in this high-minded world: romance and bourgeois lives headed this list.

Somewhere by the ’70s, then, the small town became an object of ridicule: it was valourised in romantic literature and cinema but actually hated and mocked at in the real. Small wonder then, that its inhabitants (who suffered from a crippling form of low self-esteem since birth) ran into hiding and tried to ape the big-city culture by writing, speaking and dressing like the metropolitan sophisticates they yearned to become. When this happened, the country lost all those delightful rivulets that fed the creative river of the Grand National Dream. The homogenisation of culture took over: slogans replaced feelings. The joy went out of fun as its definition changed into something wrought by high-minded nationalist agendas. Political correctness has a lot to answer for.

Upon reflection, it appears to me that Shivani’s most prolific literary output and some of her most memorable and popular novels date to the years when Hindi magazines were avidly read across North India. Among these, Dharmyug (edited then by the formidable Dharmvir Bharati, a widely respected novelist and dramatist) occupied pride of place. Published by Bennett and Coleman (referred to henceforth as B&C), its owners (Sahu Jain and Rama Jain) promoted creative writing and later endowed the Gyanpeeth Award, the first privately endowed prestigious literary award for writers in various Indian languages. The Bennett and Coleman Group (later known as the Times of India group) also brought out a clutch of other magazines. Among these were Sarika (contemporary Hindi writing, edited by Kamleshwar) and Dinaman (a political and economic weekly, edited by Agyeya), both respected for their content and editorial gravitas. Filmfare, a film magazine, and the Illustrated Weekly of India were their popular English-language publications. The Hindustan Times group, owned by the Birlas, published Saptahik Hindustan (as a rival to Dharmyug), Kadambari (as an alternative to Sarika) and vied with each otherto publish serials by the most popular Hindi writers of those days. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, there was not a single library or reader in North India that did not subscribe to these magazines.

Almost all of Shivani’s novels – certainly her most popular ones – were first published as serials in one or the other magazines mentioned above. Her most well-known novel, Krishnakali, published as a serial in Dharmyug in the ’60s, was later published as a novel by Gyanpeeth (the publishing house run by the B&C group). In addition to these magazines, two others (Navneet and Gyanoday) I can recall from then were modelled on the popular American publication, Reader’s Digest. Shivani’s travelogues, essays and memorial tributes were regularly published in these Hindi digests.

….

Naturally, the serialised novel had its own effect on the writing it spawned. Fans wrote furious letters to Shivani when she betrayed their hopes (such as by killing off a character) or when she did not spend enough time on a particular strand of the narrative. This close bond between writer and reader was perhaps what contributed to the intimacy that readers developed over the years with their favourite writers. My sister Mrinal Pande (who edited Saptahik Hindustan in the ’90s) recalls how typists vied with each other to type out Shivani’s (always) handwritten manuscript when she sent in a fresh instalment so that he/she would be the first to read it! The circulation of magazines jumped by as much as 55 per cent when her novels were being serialised and siblings fought with each other to grab the magazine to read it first when it was delivered to private homes. Often they tore the pages out so that they could share it among themselves.

What gave this genre its enormous reach and popularity was that these stories were significant documentaries. I would say that that it was reality fiction based on real-life characters and episodes and invisible to the writers based in our up-and-coming metros who consciously distanced themselves from these provincial lives to become more acceptable to a wider, international literary world. This is a fact often overlooked when tracing the evolution of Hindi writing. As Vasudha Dalmia’s book on fiction and history reveals, novels located in Allahabad, Agra, Aligarh, Banaras or Lucknow give us an insight into the social landscapes that were shaping middle-class lives in the ’50s and ’60s.2 Beneath the romantic tales of young women and men were rich subplots that reveal the gradual breakup of orthodox joint families, the effect of education on the emancipation of women in provincial India and the effect of migration from small towns to industrial cities. The language of everyday conversation in middle-class homes and amongst families, the social terms of exchange between men and women, workers and employers are important markers of a world we seek today and cannot find because it no longer exists. What are often dismissed as kitchen tales and romantic fiction stood firm on a foundation because it was supported by religion and ritual, food and taboos, folk remedies and aphorisms that nourished clans and villages. In the tightly packed houses of our old shahars that were separated by narrow lanes, the smells and sounds that travelled across neighbours became rich lodes of narratives that had the authenticity of real lives. The bonds between Hindu and Muslim homes, or between upper- and lower-caste settlements were strong threads that wove the fabric of our social communities. A deep suspicion of the other community was balanced by an equally strong love for individual men and women. Look for these common narrative strains and you will find them in all writers who lived and thrived in little India.

3 Feb 2019

Publishing newsletter, 27 Feb 2017

Recently Amazon India has been adding an “Import Deposit Fee” on to the imported books bought off its website.

When AmazonGlobal products are shipped to eligible countries, an estimate of the Import Fees will be levied on the items in your order for shipment to countries outside of the U.S. … The Import Fees Deposit is an estimation of the taxes and duties that may apply and isn’t an actual calculation. Customs regulations and tax rates applicable to certain goods may change between the date the taxes and duties were estimated and the applicable taxes and duties on the date of import into the destination country. The duty or tax rate is often determined by the classification of a good, which varies by country and region.

But books in India are not taxed nor does anyone have pay an import duty for bringing books into the country. So I am baffled by Amazon India levying this charge on to its customers who buy books? It will increase the final bill considerably. Increasingly regular Amazon clients, including Amazon Prime, are shifting to buying second-hand books on the premise that new books too are becoming more expensive to afford and these extra duties to be paid by customers will only further hamper online sales of books.  Shouldn’t all stakeholders who are a crucial part of the publishing ecosystem strive for best practices or is that too idealistic a notion to hope for?

India is a price sensitive market for all goods and commodities but when it comes to books Indians think twice before spending. This is apparent by the flourishing trade in second-hand, pirated books and buying books by the kilo as is visible in local markets, pavements, railway stations and at crossroads. Some writers even consider it a backhanded compliment if they spot pirated versions of their books at any of these vendors. These books are sold at very low (read affordable) prices where the paper, binding and at times even printing is of poor quality but at least the text is easily available. These are exactly the characteristics which determine the pulp fiction market too – facts pointed about academic Awanish Kumar while discussing the Hindi writer late Ved Prakash Sharma and pulp fiction. Another socio-economic indicator which distinguishes between pulp-fiction and mainstream publishing is the very real social differences of class, as Mrinal Pande, noted journalist and daughter of renowned Hindi novelist Shivani, pointed out some years ago.

The two distinct strata of publishing co-existing within the local ecosystem is bound to have interesting consequences. It is already discernable with English publishing firms rapidly making provision for popular Hindi pulp fiction on their translation lists – good editorial move but underpinning it is sound economic sense to give readers what they are already familiar with.  So instead of cogitating about piracy being 25% of the total Indian publishing industry probably the publishing professionals need to focus on getting great books to readers at the right price points. (And piracy or giving books away for free does not damage the sales of a book instead it boosts them as pointed out by Joanna Penn.)

Oh well! It is a conundrum not easily resolved to all stake holders’ satisfaction.

Having said that the engagement between writers and readers is thriving as evident by the huge success of the Urdu Literature Festival, Jashn-e-Rekhta, organised in Delhi. For more read the links on publishing gupshup and literary prizes.

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Book launch: Mrinal Pande’s “Dhvaniyon ke aalok mein stree” ( 4 January 2016, IHC)

On Monday, 4 January 2016, I attended Hindi publisher Rajkamal Prakashan’s book launch  for noted journalist and writer, Mrinal Pande’s Dhvaniyon ke aalok mein stree . Mrinal Pande has written a nonfiction book about the vast contribution of professional women musicians (largely tawaifs or courtesans till the mid 20thC) to Hindustani classical and semi-classical music in post-1857 India. Most of whom went unmentioned even by famous musicians and Ustads, whom they had lovingly and selflessly tutored and mentored through their early days of penury. The panel includes  journalist Yatendra Mishra, singer Shubha 20160104_190652Mudgal, poet Ashok Vajpeyi, Mrinal Pande and publisher Ashok Maheshwari. The event was introduced by editor Satyanand Nirupam.

I enjoyed the event immensely. Two hours went by so swiftly. I could have heard the conversations some more.

I liked the narrative which emerged from the evening’s chat. Women musicians were a phenomenal influence and in many cases taught men who were to later earn quite a name for themselves. But the focus was not necessarily on the women musicians who have been profiled in the book but many like Shubha Mudgal’s Nani ( maternal grandmother) who yearned to learn music but was not allowed by her father. Instead he insisted she learn the piano. To fulfil her desire of learning Hindustani music Nani had herself photographed holding various Indian musical instruments in the garden. (I am curious though how did the Nani get access to those musical instruments with which she was photographed in the garden?) Or the many rich wives of Bombay boxwallahs or the corporates who were taught music to while their time. It served another purpose too – the male musicians social ambitions of being seeing in the right circles. But the true preservers, inheritors and practitioners of music, were the Hindu and Muslim tawaifs, who kept Hindustani musical traditions alive by performing every night gave music a lease of life. Equally significantly they kept local languages and dialects or “bolis” alive in the Hindi that was commonly known and spoken. They were not averse to borrowing, blending, improvising and creating fresh interpretations as long as music was heard. This for Mrinal Pande is a crucial aspect of the womens musicians contribution to language and musical traditions. Her analysis of Hindi being kept alive since it had not as yet been politicised and hijacked depriving it of its backbone, ie the various bolis some of which were integral to the gharanas. So these remained in the social consciousness. I found this gem fascinating.

Another one was that of women singers graduating from anonymity to establishing their name to a recording. The idea that after the 3.5 minutes of 78 rpm had been cut by the German engineers the women to ensure the correct singer was given due credit said her name at the tail end of the song. It is incredible what technology and different kinds of publishing can do for the identity and self-worth of an individual.

The Union Home Ministry note issued in 1946 when Govind Vallabh Pant who was a minister in the provisional government debarring women singers who had a pesha or were tawaifs from singing. Later Mr Keskar, Minister for Information and Broadcasting, post independence, nullified the government note banning,”women whose personal lives are a public scandal”, in 1952. Suddenly it all made sense to my mind…once again the notion of identity of the women along with the patriarchal tyranny which was implicit in the 1946 order. But when Mr Keskar overturned the order he insisted the religion of singer be evident. All muslim singers were to add the prefix “Begum” and hindu singers had to add the suffix, “Devi”. Now that too is a curious move…identification along religious lines. Not unheard of. It could be considered at par with the star all Jews had to stitch on their coats in Nazi Germany.

I liked the story about Mrinal Pande’s mother, the popular Hindi novelist, “Shivani”, taking her husband’s permission to write and then adopting a pen name. Ironically it is Shivani who now remains alive in people’s minds. I enjoyed Shubha Mudgal’s response about her son being cared for by the extended clan while she was on tour and the astonishment expressed by the Indian diaspora who could not fathom how this was possible — “Had she taken permission from her husband to do so?” Having said that I know these women continue to be rare examples and not necessarily the norm.

Even Yatindra Mishra’s tale about his Dadi (paternal grandmother) not being permitted to sing since it would be frowned upon by society especially now that the family had lost their princely status. Given the context that women musicians were mostly tawaifs this would have really complicated matters for the family. So her father did not allow her to sing saying, “What will people say? They will think we have fallen on such hard times that now the daughter of the house is singing to earn!” Funny how far Indian society has now come with children being encouraged to sing and perform publicly in the hope they can become professional singers, preferably in Bollywood.

I liked how gracefully and tactfully Shubha Mudgal and Mrinal Pande dealt with the comment about “deterioration” of Indian classical musicians performing mobile ring tones and snatches of popular Hollywood musicals. It was fascinating to observe the arguments playing out between the purists and those who were arguing for the evolution of musical traditions such as the examples noted by Ashok Vajpayee. He said sometimes he can identify bits of Gwalior or Bhopal gharanas in modern renditions. Interesting.

Dhvaniyon ke aalok mein stree has been published by Rajkamal Prakashan. It is available in hardback and paperback.

6 January 2016