Mega-selling, lawyer-turned-writer Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds is set at the time of the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl era.It is about Elsa Martinelli née Wolcott. Elsa was poorly as a child and had been kept more or less confined to her room by her parents. Even when at the age of twenty-five, she was way past the acceptable marriageable age and her two younger sisters had tied the knot, Elsa continued to remain indoors, reading books and creating her trousseau. She was a voracious reader who began to see her life through stories. She yearned for her knight in shining armour and discovered eighteen-year-old Rafe Martinelli, an “Ee-talian” immigrant as her father would pronounce. Ultimately, Rafe and Elsa had to have a shotgun wedding. She readily converted to Catholicism and began to learn the ways of living off the land. A woman who till her marriage had been considered sick with a weak heart and who despite having parents who did not particularly love her, Elsa had been well provided for. But her mother-in-law, Rose, soon taught Elsa how to live off the farm. Elsa thrived. She had a couple of children more and buried one too. She learned to adjust to the ways of the marital family. But then the Great Depression occurred and everyone began migrating in search of food and better economic conditions. One day, her husband Rafe also disappeared. Finally, Elsa with her children, decided to follow and seek him out.
Bulk of the 450+ page book is an account of this journey that Elsa makes with her kids. It is a fast-paced, easy narrative that one zips through, but gives the reader sufficient markers regarding historical events. It is certainly not literary fiction where the writer’s talent would be at display at so many levels. Yet, this kind of popular fiction works very well too. In some ways it is very reminiscent of Elizabeth Goudge and Sinclair Lewis. It works for me. Vast expansive canvas to work within, the literary references in the early part of the book are readily forgotten and not pursued, but it does not really matter to the storytelling. Elsa assumes a proportion and strength in the plot that is gripping and it becomes very evident why so many readers worldwide are avid fans of Kristin Hannah’s books — humongous stories that are told in an easy going style about women facing adversity in harsh environments but emerging stronger. The stories are filled with hope not necessarily by the goals the protagonist achieves but in inspiring future generations, as Elsa does for her daughter, Loreda. As Elsa’s gravestone puts it simply “Mother. Daughter. Warrior.” This is what Kristin Hannah achieves for millions of her readers, she speaks calmly, frankly and directly to them, but focuses on ordinary lives that also have magnificently inspiring stories to tell.
When she began writing this historical fiction, Kristin Hannah was focusing on Elsa and the Great Depression but when she finished writing it in May 2020, the unmistakable parallels to the Covid-19 pandemic did not miss her. Hannah remarks on the unsettling coincidence. This is what she says:
Three years ago, I began writing this novel about hard times in America: the worst environmental disaster in our history; the collapse of the economy; the effect of massive unemployment. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the Great Depression would become so relevant in our modern lives, that I would see so many people out or work, in need, frightened for the future.
As we know, there are lessons to be learned from history. Hope to be derived from hardships faced by others.
We’ve gone through bad times before and survived, even thrived. History has shown us the strength and durability of the human spirit. In tbe end, it is our idealism and our courage and our commitment to one another — what we have in common — that will save us now.
Novels like The Four Winds are easily read in a day or two. They are also easily adapted to the TV or movie screen like the current Netflix adaptation of another Kristin Hannah book, The Firefly Lane. These stories perform a useful function of helping readers combat their anxiety due to the pandemic but at the same time are fulfilling stories that are not easily forgotten. Isn’t that what you want from good storytelling?
I lost a great-grandmother to the influenza epidemic of 1917-18. She died in Meerut. My grandfather was three years old at the time. He always told us that his mother died when he was very young in this epidemic. It was swift. He regretted her death since he got the archetypal stepmother who did everything to stop him including trying to smother him with a pillow or was it a pile of clothes (?). I forget now. Dada always maintained that if his mother had lived, she would have supported his dream to become a doctor. His stepmother thwarted his chances. He set up a factory making blankets for soldiers during WW2 but wound it up fast as he was allergic to the wool. Then he set up a workshop to fix agricultural machinery and automobiles in Meerut and its hinterland. He died aged 101, in 2016. Just a little before the Covid19 pandemic alert. If Dada had lived he would have probably had some hazy recollection of 1918 or even how the elders had reacted. Crucial stories to learn from.
Chinmay Tumbe’s The Age of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped India and the World ( HarperCollins India) is an excellent account of the cholera, plague and influenza pandemics. He details the probable cause and effect, the eerie parallels in (mis) management of political powers in the name of governance and wild human behaviour in response to a pandemic alert, especially that of migrants and the inevitable disastrous economic consequences. His reliance on historical records and oral histories makes for fascinating storytelling especially for his insights on how economic recovery strategies may be considered. It is more than just statistical analysis, it is about being prepared and managing human expectations. Even his excessive use of data is not a hindrance. It is useful. His parting words of bearing this present pandemic with humility and patience must be taken to heart.
And yes, Meerut was one of the cities severely affected by the Influenza pandemic.
On 3 January 2021, I wrote about the wonderful books expected to be published in 2021. Here are the original links in the Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle. Given below is the longer version of the article.
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted innumerable sectors – publishing is no exception. One of the major fallouts has been the front lists where commissioning editors are circumspect about whom to commission and what subjects to explore; it is not said explicitly but it is apparent while scanning 2021 book catalogues that there has been a shift. Tried and tested subjects such as politics, memoir/biographies and narrative non-fiction exist but there is a definite presence of essayists and nature writing. The top 1% of successful literary and commercial fiction authors — internationally and locally—are back with new books. Interestingly there is a large variety of debut authors, from newcomers to well-known nonfiction writers becoming novelists such as Ira Mukhoty Jayal, Krupa Ge and Tavleen Singh. Historical fiction is a robust category with trilogies and quartets being announced by writers like Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle. Surprisingly celebrity publishing and Mind, Body Spirit (MBS) that are constant sellers are not as prominent as they were in the recent past.
During the pandemic, it is a wise decision by publishers to ensure that successful authors constitute a chunk of their front lists. Hence, in non-fiction, there is Shashi Tharoor’s Pride, Prejudice & Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor consists of essays and fiction; Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth has newly collected, revised and expanded non-fiction from the past two decades, many of which have never been published before; Ruskin Bond’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Roads to Happiness that calls for small joys to be found in everyday living even in times of extreme stress; A Functioning Anarchy (Eds. Srinath Raghavan and Nandini Sundar) a collection of essays by world-renowned historians, lawyers, scientists and journalists sparked by Ramachandra Guha’s work; Nayantara Sahgal’s The Unmaking of India: Articles and Speeches & Encounter with Kiran contains articles, talks, essays that discuss the “unmaking” of India, where freedom, liberty and equality are replaced by religious bigotry, communal politics, a ‘’tame’’ media and all the accompanying dangers of majoritarian rule and Eric Hobsbawm’s On Nationalism that is considered to be an insightful and enlightening collection of the historian’s writing on the subject of nationalism.
Non-fiction sells consistently especially on politics, history, business, self-help, memoirs/biographies etc. Some of the exciting titles scheduled are historian Upinder Singh’s Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions ; Amit Varma’s podcasts converted into four books, collectively known as The Seen and the Unseen; Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: A Parable for a Planet is about conquest and exploitation and geopolitical hierarchy; Manu Pillai’s The World of Raja Ravi Varma: Princes and Patrons describes the portraits of the Maharajahs stood up to the Raj and developed visions of modernity that were deeply Indian in nature, and women who defied norms as well as colonial expectations; City of Gated Walls: The Map of Shahajahanabad by Swapna Liddle is a reproduction of that map created in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time by a mapmaker, working in 1846, who painstakingly depicted important buildings, streets, and landmarks, providing a wealth of information about the city as it had evolved up to that time. In Search of the Divine: Living Practices of Sufism in India by Rana Safvi, is a unique treatise on the core of Sufi beliefs. Some others that are eagerly awaited include 1946: The Indian Naval Uprising that Shook the Empire by Pramod Kapoor; The Gujaratis: A Portrait of a Community by Salil Tripathi; Congress Radio by Usha Thakkar about the establishment of the underground radio by Usha Mehta during the Quit India Movement; Aparna Vaidik’s Revolutionaries on Trial: Sedition, Betrayal, and Martyrdom uses a variety of sources to reconstruct a dramatic period in India’s struggle for Independence; and Angellica Aribam and Akash Satyawali’s The Fifteen: The Women Who Shaped the Constitution of India. Rupa Gupta and Gautam Gupta’s Lifting the Veil from India’s Past is about the Archaeological Survey of India. In Language of Remembering: Generational Memories of the Partition, Aanchal Malhotra shifts attention to the post-memory generation – how the generations that have not witnessed Partition engage with its history. Yashaswini Chandra The Tale of the Horse: A History of India on Horseback is a tale of migration and permanent intermingling whereas Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares: The Horse in Indian Myth and History by Wendy Doniger examines the horse’s significance throughout Indian history and culture even though the animal is not indigenous to India. Voices from the Lost Horizon is a collection of a number of folk tales and songs of the Great Andamanese that represent the first-ever collection rendered to Prof. Anvita Abbi and her team by the Great Andamanese people in local settings. The compilation comes with audio and video recordings of the stories and songs to retain the originality and orality of the narratives. In Fellowship of Rivals by Manjit Kumar that tells the story of the first great Scientific Revolution, and how a small group of individuals – including Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren – produced an explosion of knowledge unrivalled in the history of western civilisation. Pranay Lal’s Virus is a deep dive into its origin and evolution and his The Cretaceous is meant for younger readers. Anjana Chattopadhyay discusses Women Scientists in India: Lives, Struggles and Achievements.
Militant Piety and Lines of Control: The Lethal Literature of the Lashkar-e-Taiba edited by C. Christine Fair and translated by Safina Ustaad is the first scholarly effort to curate a sample of LeT’s Urdu-language publications and then translate them into English for the scholarly community studying this group and related organizations. The Muslim Problem by Tawseef Khan gets to the heart of Islamophobia and is a compelling mix of journalistic investigation, historical analysis and memoir, full of research and interviews. Tawseef Khan is a solicitor specialising in Immigration and Asylum Law and a human rights activist. In Project 39 are deeply personal stories that emerged from interviews conducted with death-row prisoners and their families. These were collected by Jahnavi Mishra and Project 39A, a research and litigation centre based out of National Law University, Delhi. is awaited as is India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77 by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil that draws upon a trove of new sources. From the bestselling military historian, Shiv Kunal Verma’s 1965: A Western Sunrise is the definitive account of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile Samira Shackle’s debut Karachi Vice is considered to be a fast-paced journey around Karachi in the company of those who know the city inside out. Some others that are expected: When the Mask Came off: A People’s History of Cruelty and Compassion in Times of Covid19 Lockdown, edited by Harsh Mander, Natasha Badhwar and Anirban Bhattacharya; Jana Gana Mana by musician-activist T.M. Krishna who through the idea of ‘national symbols’, examines the idea of citizenship and belonging, while also investigating and problematising the symbol itself. Graphic narratives such as Azaadi: A Biography of Bhagat Singh by Ikroop Sandhu; Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Book by Ita Mehrotra and Incantations over Water by Sharanya Manivannan.
Nature writing is proving to be a well-defined genre as well. The titles to look out for are The Bera Bond which is about Sundeep Bhutoria’s startling discovery of a little-known leopard colony in the forests of Rajasthan where the big cats live harmoniously with humans. The Braided River: A Journey Along the Brahmaputra, journalist Samrat Choudhury sets out to follow the river’s braided course from the edge of Tibet where it enters India down to where it meets the Ganga at a spot marked by the biggest red-light district in Bangladesh. Award-winning wildlife conservationistNeha Sinha’s Wild and Wilful is about fifteen iconic Indian species in need of conservation and heart. Earth’s Incredible Oceans by Dorling Kindersley is a must-have encyclopaedia. Waiting for Turtles by Pankaj Sekhsaria, illustrated by Vipin Sketchplore is a gorgeous picture book sensitising children to the urgency to save turtles. Scientist-cum-author Sukanya Datta’s Animal Architects is about the homes that animals build and are in themselves architectural wonders. The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wollehben (translated by Jane Billinghurst), reveals the profound interactions humans can have with nature, exploring the language of the forest and the consciousness of plants. Worryingly climate change can wreak havoc to these ecosystems. Hence the relevance of environmental activist Vandana Shiva and Shreya Jani Slow Living: What You Can Do About Climate Change. Bill Gates too has a forthcoming book on How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.
Memoirs have always proven to be popular. Some of the prominent ones are MK Gandhi’s Restless as Mercury: My Life as a Young Man; the celebrated Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak I Haven’t Seen Mandu, translated by Jerry Pinto is a most revealing and powerful first-person accounts of mental illness; Feisal Alkazi’s Enter Stage Right: The Alkazi / Padamsee Family Memoir; Gulzar’s Actually… I Met Them: A Memoir, Vir Sanghvi by journalist Vir Sanghvi; Bollywood actors Neena Gupta, Deepti Naval and Priyanka Chopra Jonas have written Sach Kahun Toh, A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir and Unfinished: A Memoir respectively but the big one will be Hollywood actress Sharon Stone’s The Beauty of Living Twice; screenwriter Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby explores themes of racism, feminism, parenting and our shifting ideas of home; publisher Ritu Menon’s ADDRESS BOOK: A Publishing Memoir in the Time of COVID; Kobad Ghandy’s Fractured Freedom: A Prison Memoir gives an insight into his decade-long journey of arrests and time in prisons across India; Dead Men Tell Tales by forensics expert Dr B. Umadathan (translated from Malayalam by Priya K. Nair) is the riveting memoir of Sherlock Holmes of Kerala. Former cricketer and commentator and current head coach of the Indian national cricket team Ravi Shastri’s memoir written with Ayaz Memon.
Biographies whether authoritative or not are hugely popular such as Yasser Usman’s Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story; Kaveree Bamzai’s The Three Khans about Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan; Gautam Chintamani Vinod Khanna: A Biography; Zohra! – A Biography in Four Acts by Ritu Menon about thespian Zohra Sehgal; Francis Wilson’s biography of DH Lawrence called Burning Man; Adi Prakash’s Umar Khalid: Beyond the Anti-national is the story of Umar Khalid is the story of media fairness and it is the story of student politics and of growing up Muslim in India. Also expected are the Hindi writer and the first real standard-bearer of the Nayi Kahani movement Nirmal Verma: A Biography by Vineet Gill and The Master: The Brilliant Career of Roger Federer by Christopher Clarey.
Business books are another category of nonfiction books that sell perennially. Investigative journalist Josy Joseph’s The Business of Terror explores the militancy theatre as a flourishing, multi-faceted business enterprise in India where most of its actors are beneficiaries of it. Technology journalist Jayadevan P.K. writes about Xiaomi: How a Start-up Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following that in less than a decade, has gone from being a Chinese start-up to a global player in the smartphone market. Munaf Kapadia with Zahabia Rajkotwala writes in How I Quit Google to Sell Samosas: Adventures with the Bohri Kitchen how he had grown a weekend pop-up at his Cuffe Parade home—The Bohri Kitchen—into an F&B start-up with a Rs 4 crore turnover, and was catering to Bombay’s biggest celebrities. Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched by Eric Berger is the dramatic inside story of the first four historic flights that launched SpaceX—and Elon Musk—from a shaky startup into the world’s leading edge rocket company. Tata: The Global Corporation That Built Indian Capitalism by Mircea Raianu is a eye-opening portrait of global capitalism spanning 150 years, told through the history of the Tata corporation. Forgotten Brands: Fresh Marketing Lessons by Ramya Ramamurthy is about colonial Indian brands (both home-grown and foreign) were produced, distributed and marketed between 1847 and 1947. Finally, House of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is the story of the Sackler Dynasty, Purdue Pharma, and their involvement in the opiod crisis that has created millions of addicts, even as it generated billions of dollars in profit.
Another popular nonfiction category are cookery books. So, it is no surprise then that practically every publisher has at least one book in the pipeline. Beginning with Sunita Kohli who has collected recipes from celebrities in From the Tables of My Friends; Winner of Nobel Prize in Economics (2019) Abhijit Banerjee’s cookbook; History Dishtory: Adventures and Recipes from the Past by Ranjini Rao and Ruchira Ramanujam and Indian Street food by Rocky Singh and Mayur Sharma. Chitrita Banerji’s A Taste of My Life is both the story of life as an immigrant food writer as well as a story of immigration, belonging, nostalgia, and history, through the lens of food. Rasa: The Story of India in 100 dishes by Shubhra Chatterji is a culinary history of India and the intersection of culture and cuisine told in the most enthralling stories behind a hundred dishes.
Across the board, literary fiction stalwarts return in 2021 with promising new stories. Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s novel The Last Queen is an exquisite love story about Maharaja Ranjit’s Singh’s last queen, a commoner, Jindan Kaur; Amitav Ghosh’s Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban, a verse adaptation of the timeless legend of Bon Bibi and Dokkhin Rai that also evokes the wonder of the Sundarban through its poetry, accompanied by stunning artwork by the renowned artist Salman Toor. Asoca by I. Allan Sealy is an imagined memoir of Ashoka The Great; Hussain S. Zaidi’s The Black Orphan centres on Asiya, Osama Bin Laden’s protégé and foster daughter; Anuja Chauhan returns with a grisly titled Club You to Death as does Padma Shri Temsula Ao with six short stories in The Tombstone in My Garden; writers of young adult fiction like Deepa Agarwal’s Kashmir! Kashmir! and Paro Anand’s short stories Unmasked based on the challenges faced by migrants during the lockdown. Annie Zaidi’s novel, One of Them is about people who live on the margins of a big city, and Amitava Kumar A Time Outside This Time is about fake news, memory, and how truth gives way to fiction. The Loves of Yuri by Jerry Pinto is a funny, heart breaking, unforgettable novel about friendship and first loves and the great city of Bombay. Set in the 1980s, this is the first in a trilogy of novels that trace the emotional and intellectual journey of the protagonist, Yuri, from early adolescence to late youth. Nobel Prize winnersKazuo Ishiguro and Orhan Pamuk’s novels Klara And The Sun and Nights of Plague, respectively are hugely anticipated as is the mind bending new collection of short stories First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami. Pulitzer Prize-winners Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Colson Whitehead’s novels are called Whereabouts, The Committed and Harlem Shuffle. This is the first novel Lahiri has written in Italian and translated into English. Tahmima Anam’s, already much-talked-about, The Start-Up Wife is considered gripping, witty and razor-sharp, a blistering novel about dreaming big, speaking up and fighting to be where you belong. Second-time novelists who had glittering starts to their literary careers like Anuk Arudpragasam, Sunjeev Sahota and Elizabeth Macneal return with In Search of the Distance, China Room, and Carnival of Wonder respectively.
The debut writers making their mark are Maithreyi Kapoor Sylvia’s Distant Avuncular Ends by experimenting with the form of a novel. Poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s novel Funeral Nights, where the absurd and the sublime all freely mix,is a history of the Khasis. Krupa Ge’s One Hundred Autumns is set in an era of strict Brahmanical orthodoxy and social mores that sought to bind all women into submission and against the backdrop of the Dravidian movement. Ira Mukhoty Jayal’s Song of Draupadi is a vivid and imaginative novel revolving around the epic figure of Draupadi. Raza Mir’s Murder at the Mushaira: A Novel is a cracking murder mystery & literary novel. Filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s Oonga, a powerful novel that transitions from a film and sits deep in the clash between adivasis, naxalites, the CRPF and a rapacious mining company; Simran Dhir’s Best Intentions, centred on two families in Delhi; Fahad Shah’s The Unnamed, a searing novel set in Kashmir; and Bollywood insider Mushtaq Sheikh’s sizzling Bollywood Biwis. Some of the others to watch out for are Rucha Chitrodia It’s also about Mynah, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl, Rijula Das’s A Death in Shonagachhi,journalists Anindita Ghose’s The Illuminated: A Novel and Tavleen Singh’s Everything Breaks.
Historical fiction is a well-defined niche with The Grand Anicut by Veena Muthuraman, set in Southern India, first century, with the Pandyas conquered, the Cheras all but vanquished, and the attention of the king of the north fixed on other lands, Tamilakam flourishes under Chola rule. The first book of Madhulika Liddle’s Delhi quartet — The Garden of Heaven is planned. It is a story playing out against a backdrop of Delhi, stretching from the end of the twelfth century (when Delhi first came under the rule of Sultans) till 1947. Shubendra’s Sultan: The Legend of Hyder Ali, set in the eighteenth century, is the astonishing tale of an ordinary boy from Mysore who became one of the greatest rulers of India. Tarana Khan’s The Begum and the Dastan although set in the late nineteenth century, in the fictional town of Sherpur, is a work based on real events. A despotic Nawab abducts a married woman, Feroza, and marries her against her wishes. Feroza must now negotiate her new life in the zenana with the other wives and concubines of the Nawab. Digonta Bordoloi’s Second World War Sandwich is a thrilling action-packed novel set in Nagaland during the Second World War, when the Nagas resisted the incursion of the Japanese troops into Northeast India. The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles is inspired by the true story of the librarians who risked their lives during the Nazis’ war on words. Melody Razak’s Moth is a heart-rending story of a Brahmin family living in 1940s Delhi during India’s Independence and subsequent Partition. A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago, explores the twisting corridors of power and with the friendship of two women at its heart, it is an exhilarating dive into the pitch-dark waters of the Jacobean court.
Some of the noteworthy translations expected are Ambai’s short stories A Red-Necked Green Bird, translated from Tamil by GJV Prasad; the Bengali classic, Manada Devi’s An Educated Woman in Prostitution: A Memoir of Lust, Exploitation, Deceit (Calcutta,1929), translated by Arunava Sinha; Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar or The Cage, translated from Punjabi by Rita Banerji, was written in 1950, and was the very first to approach Partition and its aftermath through the eyes of a woman; Kaajal Oza Vaidya’s Krishnayan, gives glimpses into Krishna’s last moments on earth, translated from Gujarati by Subha Pande and The Last Gathering: A vivid portrait of life in the Red Fort by Munshi Faizuddin, translated by Ather Farooqui. It was first published in 1885, Bazm-i Aakhir, or The Last Assembly and is a rich and lively account of life in the royal court of the last Mughal emperor in Red Fort, Bahadur Shah Zafar.
So many frills, thrills and spills! Reading good literature will help survive this pandemic.
On 20 Dec 2020, I wrote an article for the Asian Age on how various governments are supporting their cultural sectors. The article was published in the Deccan Herald on 21 Dec 2020 as well. Here is the original url: https://www.asianage.com/life/art/201220/is-govt-listening-culture-fillip-can-fast-forward-post-pandemic-recovery.html . The longer version of the article is reproduced below.
Creative economy refers to a range of economic activities where value is derived from the generation or exploitation of knowledge and is copyright relevant— music, writing, art, fashion, design, and media. Also, a wider range of production activities including goods and services that rely on innovation, research and development such as film, museums, galleries and photography. UNESCO’s Cultural Times (2015), the first global map of the cultural and creative industries, acknowledges the societal value of arts and culture. It assesses the contribution of cultural and creative industries to economic growth. It estimates that they generate US$250 billion in revenue a year, creating 29.5 million jobs worldwide.
On 11 March 2020, the WHO declared a Covid19 pandemic; drastically impacting national economies. Essential industries were permitted to function but other sectors suffered terribly. Many governments did not offer any support and certainly not for the creative industries. But there were some exceptions to the rule like Germany. In June 2020, under a programme called New Start for Culture, it earmarked €1bn for arts. In Nov 2020, under Germany’s infection protection law, culture has a new legal status and is no longer classified as entertainment. Hence, cancelling arts events in the pandemic might become difficult. On 19 March 2020, France did something similar by modifying the rules of the country’s specific unemployment scheme for artists and technicians. It announced that artist-authors could benefit with a lump sum from a solidarity fund. Italy set aside €130 million for authors and audio-visual sectors etc. On 11 December 2020, the UK’s Arts Council announced that the Culture Recovery Fund marked its £1 billion milestone, with £654 million being invested in arts and cultural organisations, part of its £1.57 billion support package. On 30 Nov 2020, Germany approved a culture budget of €2.1 billion ($2.5 billion), nearly at par with the European Union’s budget for culture of €2.8 billion to be distributed over the next seven years.
In the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill announced in the USA, approximately $75 million was for the National Endowment for the Arts. In South Africa, where 7% of the workforce are in this sector, 45% are informal, and contribute 1.6% to their GDP. The National Arts Council committed its support to the artists by continuing to pay them during the pandemic.
In May 2020, Jacinda Ardern, the PM of New Zealand, announced a $175 million package for ‘decimated’ arts – a resilience grant. The creative sector contributes nearly $11 billion a year to NZ’s GDP and employs 90,000 people. So, the New Zealand Libraries Partnership Programme (NZLPP) with a funding package of $58.8 million will support librarians and library services and assist them to support community recovery. Ardern said “A healthy cultural sector has many positive flow-on effects for other important parts of our economy, such as technical production, hospitality, venues and domestic tourism.”
According to the World Bank (Aug 2020), in 2013, creative industries around the world generated revenues of over $2 billion and employed 29 million people. The market for creative goods is estimated to be $508 billion as of 2015. In 2015, developing economies exported more than 250 billion creative products including design goods, fashion, and films. Top exporters included China, Turkey, India, Mexico, El Salvador, and Pakistan. In the United States, the non-profit arts and culture industry generated $166.3 billion of economic activity in 2015, supporting 4.6 million jobs, while receiving only $5 billion in arts allocations by the public sector. A phenomenal ROI at 3326%!
According to Megha Patnaik’s Measuring India’s Creative Economy report (May 2020), it is estimated that approximately 1.1 million workers are employed in this sector, contributing 0.58% of the GDP (2016-17). This is less than the international average as measured by WIPO where the mean contribution is 5.48%. But in India this can be partially attributed to the lack of comprehensive data outside the formal manufacturing sector. Patnaik states that with the right growth impetus through policy and markets, the creative economy can create a large share of jobs in the future. Sanjoy Roy, co-founder Jaipur Literature Festival, confirms this by estimating that during the six days there are more than 500,000 footfalls (approx.) and 110,000 unique visitors, and the local economy benefits manifold. Apart from the immediate impact on the hospitality industry, craftspeople, jewellers etc, the long-term benefits have been the revival of the restoration of heritage buildings, reopening of museums, promoting Rajasthan as a tourist/wedding destination.
In fact, culture can accelerate socio-economic recovery from the pandemic as stated by the World Bank and UNESCO in “Culture in City Reconstruction and Recovery” (2018). The framework, entitled CURE, offers principles and strategies to apply in city reconstruction and rehabilitation in post-crisis situations. There are four prominent ways in which culture positively impacts community resilience – by building social cohesion; there is a direct relationship between the arts and culture and social and psychological well-being; fostering diverse cultural expressions offers effective ways of dealing with post-crisis trauma and reconciling affected communities; and finally, the arts and culture offer critical tools for narrative expression, community engagement, and creating experiences of collaboration. These are critical insights that policymakers need to recognise in promoting sustainable and inclusive recovery with full ownership from communities particularly after the devastating effect of the pandemic. Investing in creative industries and developing cultural capital may be worth exploring.
In June 2020, I came across on social media a series of black and white photographs that were extremely shattering. They were images from the Nigambodh crematorium in Delhi showing the cremation of Covid19 patients. These images were terrifying as the images put the spotlight on the extreme loneliness of the dead. Usually funerals in India are an excuse for a massive gathering of mourners. These black and white photographs were in stark contrast to what we normally experience, across faiths, during funerals. The photographer was Parul Sharma who it turned out was working on a book of photographs called Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown ( Roli Books).
The book is a haunting documentation of what Delhi looked like when the lockdown began in March 2020. Understandably few were out on the streets. Only essential services were permitted. News would filter through the media or there were social media posts that would give some sense of what was happening in the world. But to see a series of images in quick succession, full-page or double-page spreads, is a disturbing experience. When I posted the Open Magazine link on Facebook, many folks asked me why did I think it was necessary to post links to such distressing images. I did not have a satisfactory reply but I knew I needed to speak to Parul urgently and soon. So I did. Here is a lightly edited version of the intervew we conducted via email.
In a span of three years of her photography, Delhi based, Parul Sharma has won critical acclaim for producing a large and diverse body of work. Her metier blends architectural design, and human form in urban landscapes. Her works first debuted in July 2017 in a solo exhibition “Parulscape” at Delhi’s iconic Bikaner House. Forbes magazine marked its 10th anniversary in India by inviting her to shoot ten photographs that captured change and freedom in a decade. In December 2019, Florence’s public art centre, the Museo Marino Marini, exhibited her images of Naga Sadhus and Transgenders at Kumbh Mela. Titled “Mistico India” the two-week exhibition exposed Italian art lovers, to the fierce vibrancy and colours of devout Hindus.
Dialects of Silence, Delhi under lockdown was published and released by Roli Books on September 1 2020 and has received acclaim in India Today, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Open, and BBC among others. Her next book due for release in 2021, commissioned by Roli books is an essay on Mumbai’s historic Art Deco Colaba district.
What sparked the idea to photo-document Delhi NCR during the lockdown? NCR during the lockdown? What did you intend on documenting when you began this project? Did you achieve it or did the goalpost shift during the project?
It began as a visual archive of a city and ended up as epidemic photography. It was an attempt to seize, to put a context of this extraordinary situation that was unravelling before us against the tragic backdrop of the pandemic. Some stories just get told regardless of travesty, sacrilege or homage. The images remain as bearing witnesses.
How did you get the permission to take the pictures that you have taken?
After obtaining necessary approvals from the authorities.
It is interesting that you quote the great war photographer Robert Capa in the introduction to a book on Covid19. Did you feel that while documenting the effect of the pandemic it was like being in a war zone[i]?
Absolutely! A pandemic is a war of invasion, a tragedy, a horror. War evacuates, shatters, and breaks apart the notion of a built world. The virus did the same. Photography during such times is like being in a line of fire, you could get infected anytime.
Being a photographer is an interesting experience. It is an immersion in the space, recording moments, while the camera lens permits a distancing from the immediate events. Yet, your images are extremely respectful of the subjects in your compositions. Your photographs never come across as a violation of the individual’s privacy. How do you achieve this?
You have to put yourself in the other persons situation and share their pain. You cannot be a self-serving voyeur. You have to be very much a part of their story and their grief and their survival and their triumph. Your picture is merely a text of their context.
It is easy to pity the people in images if the viewer has never experienced or come close to experiencing the situation that is being shown. Yet, this emotional response is still valuable because it draws attention to the situation in which people can further investigate their curiosity about the image. Such images are an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations of suffering. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible?” Epidemic photography can serve as memento mori, important tokens of a nation’s collective memory.
The angles of your shots are fascinating. Sometimes you crouch, sometimes you use a telephoto lens, sometimes you are pretty close up. Do you script your stories before stepping out for the day with your cameras or do you take them spontaneously?
Mostly it jumps out of you. Photography is to seize that particular shot which if lost will never reappear. You are a surfer who can ride that visual wave or go under. I have never so far planned a shot. It’s there. You see it. You shoot it.
The portraits of the doctors scarred by the masks is alarming. The exhaustion in their eyes at the start of the lockdown is haunting. Once the book was published, did you return to photograph your subjects once more?
I started documenting in April and the book came out in September. I haven’t paused yet as I’m still documenting. I definitely plan to revisit most places and people.
The images at the crematorium are unforgettable. The loneliness and horror of the bodies trussed up and being managed by individuals well-protected in their PPE gear is devastating. Will you ever do a travelling exhibition of these images?
Why is religion a fundamental focus of your images? Was it a conscious decision to document the various kinds of rituals embedded in our culture that help us to come to terms with death and grief?
Just as religion and faith is fundamental to our being, photography is also fundamental to either the beauty or ugliness of truth.
The surreal interchangeability of workers at the crematorium or the Muslim burial ground or the cemetery were a stark testimony that in COVID deaths of any religion the bodies, were wrapped in the same grim ducted plastic to the point of indistinguishability.
How did you disinfect your cameras?
Disinfecting wipes / Soap and Water /70% Isopropyl Alcohol. After disinfecting I would leave the equipment and set it aside for 48 hours.
What would you call this collection of images — art or a witnessing in the form of photo-documentation?
To quote Sontag, “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” You may call it art or documentation; the lines are interjecting.
Where and when did you learn photography?
I have had no formal training in photography and not did I ever think I will become one. I shoot instinctively. Though someday I do want to do a formal course.
12. Who are the photographers who have influenced you?
I have deep admiration for photographers who photograph in conflict zones. Richard Drew, Hector Retamal, Nick Ut, and from the past Robert Capa, to name a few.
[i] The poet Michael Rosen who is recovering from a severe bout of Covid19 likens it to being in a war. (“Michael Rosen on his Covid-19 coma: ‘It felt like a pre-death, a nothingness’ The Guardian, 30 Sept 2020)
On 24 March 2020 invoking the Disaster Management Act (2005) the first phase of the lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. “Disaster Management” is considered to be a part of the Concurrent List under “social security and social insurance”. With the announcement all but the most essential economic activity halted nationwide. Only 4 hours’ notice was provided, insufficient time to plan operations.
Demand and supply existed but all cash cycles dried up — because bookstores were not operating. Brick-and-mortar stores had to close while online platforms focused on delivering only essential goods and books were not on the list. Priyanka Malhotra says “When Full Circle reopened in mid-May, there was a great demand for books. Mid-June, supply lines are still fragile, so getting more books regularly is uncertain. Well-stocked warehouses are outside city limits and are finding it difficult to service book orders to bookstores. We are mostly relying on existing stocks.”
In future, the #WFH culture will remain particularly for editors, curation of lists, smaller print runs, the significance of newsletters will increase, exploring subscription models for funding publishers in the absence of government subsidies and establishment of an exclusive online book retailing platform such as bookshop.org. Introducing paywalls for book events as the lockdown has proven customers are willing to pay for good content. Distributors and retailers will take less stock on consignment. Cost cutting measures will include slashing travel as a phone call is equally productive, advances to authors will fall, streamlining of operations with leaner teams especially sales teams as focused digital marketing is effective, With the redefining of schools and universities due to strict codes of physical distancing and cancellation of book fairs, publishers will have to explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content.
In such a scenario the importance of libraries will grow urgently. Libraries benefit local communities at an affordable price point. They are accessed by readers of all ages, abilities and socio-economic classes for independent scholarship, research and intellectual stimulation. The nation too benefits with a literate population ensuring skilled labour and a valuable contribution to the economy. By focusing upon libraries as the nodal centre of development in rehabilitation and reconstruction of a nation especially in the wake of a disaster, the government helps provide “social security and social insurance”. Libraries can be equipped without straining the limited resources available for reconstruction of a fragile society by all stakeholders collaborating. As a disaster management expert said to me, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
After a disaster, the society is fragile. It has limited resources available for rehabilitation and reconstruction. To emerge from this pandemic in working condition, it would advisable for publishers to use resources prudently. It is a brave new world. It calls for new ways of thinking.
Given this context, the Economic Times, Sunday Edition published the business feature I wrote on the effect of the pandemic on the publishing sector in India. Here is the original link on the Economic Times website.
As the first phase of the sudden lockdown to manage the Covid-19 pandemic was declared on March 24, the timing was particularly unfortunate for the books publishing industry. End-March is a critical time in the book publishing industry.
End-March is a critical time in the book year cycle. It is when accounts are settled between distributors, retailers and publishers, enabling businesses to commence the new financial year with requisite cash equity. Institutional and library sales are fulfilled. The demand for school textbooks is at its peak. But with the lockdown, there was a severe disruption in the production cycle — printing presses, paper mills, warehouses and bookshops stopped functioning. Nor were there online sales as books are not defined as essential commodities.
“Publishing in India is estimated to be worth $8 billion in annual revenues,” says Vikrant Mathur, director, Nielsen India. “Trade publishing has seen four months of near-zero sales which straightaway knocks one’s revenues off by at least 25-30%,” says Thomas Abraham, MD, Hachette India.
Profit protection became key. Firms either reduced salaries or laid off employees, and unaffordable rentals forced closures of offices and bookshops. Arpita Das, founder of Yoda Press, says, “After three months of almost zero print sales, and low ebook sales, we decided to move out of our office space.”
In mid-May, bookshops and online portals resumed selling books. Bookstores delivered parcels using India Post, Zomato, and Swiggy. Sales of children’s books exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging 30% more than pre-Covid sales. Shantanu Duttagupta, publisher, Scholastic India, says, “The ecosystem of children’s books and content comprises mainly of parents, educators and children. While print is traditionally preferred, it has to be recognised that content of any sort has to be format-agnostic. Whether it’s digital solutions for parents and children, helping educators through professional development or providing curated, age-appropriate books for children, being agile and nimble is key.”
Publishers announced curated digital content for schools engaged in remote learning. Scholastic Learn at Home, Collins Digital Home Learning, DK’s Stay Home Hub and StoryWeaver’s Readalong** were among such initiatives. Paywalls were introduced for creative writing workshops and were fully subscribed. Academic publishers noted an increase in inquiries from universities regarding bundle subscriptions.
To remain relevant with readers, there was an explosion of hashtags and promotions on the internet: #ReadInstead, #BraveNewWorld, #Reset, #MacmillanReadingSpace, #PenguinPicks, #KaroNaCharcha and #MissedCallDoKahaaniSuno. Book launches and lit fests went digital, with viewers across time zones. Brands like JLF ( Jaipur Literature Festival) got a viewership of over 700,000 worldwide*, while Rajpal & Sons got a viewership of over 300,000 — both hosted an equal number of events (50+) in the same time frame.
According to Meru Gokhale, publisher, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House India, “India’s reading consumption patterns during the lockdown consisted of ‘bucket list reads’ of classics, voluminous works and series fiction; self-help and mind-body-spirit lists.” Publishers launched frontlists (new and current titles) as ebooks , deeming that preferable to tying up cash in inventory. Interesting experiments by editors have involved crowd-sourcing new ebooks, usually kickstarted with an opening by a literary star. Vikas Rakheja, MD, Manjul Publishing, says, “We have seen a 300-400% growth in sales of our ebooks in April-June, over the same period last year, in both English and Indian regional languages, on Amazon Kindle and other online sales portals.”
Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Juggernaut Books, says their titles saw greater time spent on ebooks during the lockdown. Audiobooks also sold. Yogesh Dashrath, country manager, Storytel India, says, “Globally there was doubling of intake. In India, it accelerated exposure to audiobooks.”
But India is firmly a print book market. So it will take some time for patterns to change. Kapil Kapoor, MD of Roli Books and owner of CMYK bookstore in Delhi, says, “In Unlock 1, we have not yet seen a significant spike in the demand for books. For now, sales figures hover around 40–50% of pre-Covid-19 days, largely driven by online sales — an accurate reflection of consumer preference of wanting home delivery and not venturing out to markets due to a fear factor, which is understandable.” A concern is book piracy will increase in direct proportion to economic stress in households.
As for lasting trends, work from home culture will continue, particularly for editors. Experimentation with curated lists, smaller print runs and subscription models will be seen. Some publishing firms, imprints, bookstores, retailers and distributors may go out of business. Increasingly, finance and legal will join sales departments to ensure “correct” decisions are made. Cost-cutting measures may include slashing travel, relying more on digital tools for efficiency, such as negotiating book rights online, employing leaner sales teams and expanding business horizons beyond the Anglo-American book market, without travelling. New platforms capitalising on professional expertise and fostering creative synergies have emerged on social media, like Publishers’ Exchange, an initiative by language publishers across India, Mother Tongue Twisters, Roli Pulse, Independent Bookshops Association of India and Publishers Without Borders. With the redefining of schools and universities, publishers will explore new ways of customising, delivering and monetising content. Could book events go behind a paywall? Perhaps libraries will regain significance?
As the industry negotiates this disruption, it’s clear that it will take a lot of ingenuity to emerge largely unscathed on the other side. Everyone is hoping for a happy ending to this particular saga.
* At the time of writing the article, this figure of 700,000+ held true for JLF. But on the day of publication of the article, the number has far exceeded one million.
** Storyweaver’s Readalong are multilingual audio-visual storybooks.