Ravinder Singh Posts

“Penguin on Wheels: Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India”

WBF 2( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. ) 

Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”

     -Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)

On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.

This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”

The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.

Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya WBF 6Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.

WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,

“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”

India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.

The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.

Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)

Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”

In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”

The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.

In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).

Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.

“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”

The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.

The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.

Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

28 June 2016

Dharamvir Bharti, ” Chander & Sudha”, translated by Poonam Saxena

Poonam Saxena reading "Chander & Sudha".

Poonam Saxena reading “Chander & Sudha”.

When he could school his mind to stay calm, when he could endure everything with a smile, why couldn’t Sudha? He was the one who, with his every breath, had fashioned Sudha into what she was. He had, bit by bit, constructed her, polished her, embellished her. She was his work, his creation. How, then, could she exhibit his weakness? ( p.143)

The house shone like silk. But within every ball of bright, colourful silk there is always a little silkworm–sad, silent, holding its breath, waiting every second for its imminent death. In the middle of all the hectic activity, the preparations, the excitement, there was one person whose lifebreath seemed to be ebbing away, whose eyes were slowly losing their sheen and mischievous sparkle, whose heart was emptying itself of all joy and happiness — Sudha. ( p.161)

Dharamvir Bharti’s popular novel Gunahon ka Devta or Chander & Sudha has been translated into English by prominent journalist Poonam Saxena. It is a story set in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh in the 1940s.  Sudha is the daughter of Dr Shukla and Chander is his student. Chander spends a lot of time at his teacher’s home, practically lives in it and moves in after Sudha gets married and leaves.  Chander & Sudha is a “love story” more than a romance, told ever so lovingly by the 23-year-old Dharamvir Bharti. The gentleness with which it is recounted is absorbing to read, never dull; all though the storytelling and the ending is reminiscent of Bollywood films of the 1950s. Nor does the language sound stilted even though Chander is prone to intense self-reflection and being privy to a lovestruck Romeo can get quite painful to read if not written about deftly–probably a large part of the credit for a readable story goes to the translator, Poonam Saxena.

Chander & Sudha is a novel which will probably make it to the longlist, even the shortlist, for any award instituted for translated literature in India. It is a book that tends to occupy one’s mind for a long time after it is over. Time well spent.

I am posting excerpts of an email interview conducted with Poonam Saxena earlier this week.

1 What are the sales figures of this novel in Hindi? You say it is still in print and selling well. Who is the publisher?

I don’t have any exact sales figures for the novel but I do know that it was written in 1949 and has never been out of print. I have two copies with me. One is a 20th reprint 1986 hardcover that was first published by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1959. (I don’t know who the earlier publisher was). Then I have a paperback copy also printed by Bharatiya Jnanpith in 2014 which is the 70th reprint. Hardcover + paperback from 1949 to today — I don’t even know how many copies it must have sold, but the numbers must be huge. I do know it is widely considered to be Hindi’s biggest bestseller.

2 Was the author only 23-years-old when he wrote it? Does it not make him similar to the young authors we have today, who commercially success — Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta etc?

In Hindi and Urdu writing, many authors did finish very successful works when they were very young. For example, Rajendra Yadav wrote Sara Akash at 21, Sahir Ludhianvi wrote Talkhiyan at 22.

3 What was the purpose of your translations when you began it — be true to the source text or reader friendly to a modern reader?

My translation is not literal. It is not true to the text in the sense that I haven’t translated every single line as it is written in Hindi. The idea was to be true to the characters, emotions and feelings in the book and to make it work as a novel in English. I didn’t want it to sound stilted. I kept some things in mind — for example, the book is written in 1949, so I tried to avoid casual, modern words and terms like ‘stressed’ or ‘hassled.’ (I also felt that people hardly write great love stories any more — but here was one which still touched your heart even though it was written so many years ago. It needed to be translated.

I didn’t skip over passages, I didn’t omit chunks. I retained what the writer had said – the metaphors he had used (for example, the temple, the oil lamp – these are the images he has used throughout the book when writing about Chander and Sudha’s love). There are long passages of reflection, philosophy, all of which I have retained. I have tried to keep them as true to the book but at the same time I have tried to make them work in English. Also, just to give you another small example, there is a long passage early in the book when Chander is wandering about in Beritie’s rose garden, where there is a detailed description of flowers. I could have cut that passage but I didn’t. I kept it. On the whole I tried to be true to the writer’s voice and way of expression while making it fluid when translated into English.

4 Why did you change the title of the novel from Gunahon Ka Devta to Chander and Sudha? What would you have translated Gunahon ka Devta as? Isn’t the title in Hindi far more apt than the one chosen by you for the English translation?

The Hindi title is absolutely beautiful. Gunahon Ka Devta is an incomparable title. But when you translate it in a literal way, it becomes ‘Lord of Sins’ or ‘God of Sins’, which doesn’t sound right at all. My editor and I went through about 20 titles and somehow none sounded okay. We finally settled on Chander & Sudha because really the book is also a great love story. I guess there was some inspiration from titles like Romeo & Juliet which are based on the two lead characters’ names.

5 How old were you when you first read this novel and fell in love with it?

I first read the novel in my twenties and fell in love with it.

6 The article you wrote in Scroll ( 15 March 2015,  http://scroll.in/article/713676/why-a-66-year-old-hindi-love-story-needed-to-be-translated-into-english ) was adapted from the afterword published in the book, was it not?

Yes it was. They wanted the piece quickly, literally overnight. They were okay with an extract from the Afterword too, but I adapted it and sent it. The Afterword as it is gives out the whole story, so obviously I didn’t want that.

Dharamvir Bharti Chander & Sudha ( Translated by Poonam Saxena) Viking, Penguin Group, Gurgaon, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 330. Rs. 499

21 March 2015

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

“Price Fighters” ( The Hindu, 31 Aug 2014)

( The Hindu asked me to write a short piece about the ongoing price war between Amazon and Hachette. It was published on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/price-fighters/article6365601.ece . I am c&p a longer version of the article published. ) 

Cartoon accompanying the Hindu article On August 10, 2014, Authors United wrote an open letter decrying Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ pressure tactics on Hachette to lower ebook prices. The letter — written by thriller writer, Douglas Preston and placed as a two-page ad, costing $ 104,000, and signed by well-known names such as James Patterson, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Kamila Shamsie, Philip Pullman, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Auster and Barbara Kingsolver —states, “As writers — most of us not published by Hachette — we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want. It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation.” The writers printed Bezos’ e-mail id and asked authors to write to him directly.

This letter came after months of a public spat between publisher Hachette and online retailer Amazon. No one is privy to the details but it is widely speculated that the fight is about the pricing of books, especially e-books. Authors began to feel the effect of these business negotiations once Amazon stopped processing sales of their books or became extremely slow in fulfilling orders. It even removed an option to pre-order  The Silkworm , by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, prompting the author to respond on Twitter where she encouraged her three million followers to order  The Silkworm from high street stores and independent booksellers. Ironical given that Amazon’s motto is customer satisfaction.

 Amazon defended its actions through a letter released on its website, Readers United (http://www.readersunited.com/), and circulated it to self-published authors using their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. In it, the company said that for a “healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.” Amazon is asking for all e-books to be priced at $9.99 or less. Misquoting George Orwell’s ironic comment on the popularity of new format of paperbacks in the 1930s, Amazon wrote that even Orwell had suggested collusion among publishers. It released the e-mail id of Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch, asking readers to write to him directly to make books affordable since it is good for book culture.

 Pietsch replied to all those who wrote to him stating clearly, “Hachette sets prices for our books entirely on our own, not in collusion with anyone… More than 80 per cent of the e-books we publish are priced at $9.99 or lower. Those few priced higher — most at $11.99 and $12.99 — are less than half the price of their print versions. Those higher priced e-books will have lower prices soon, when the paperback version is published. … Unlike retailers, publishers invest heavily in individual books, often for years, before we see any revenue. We invest in advances against royalties, editing, design, production, marketing, warehousing, shipping, piracy protection, and more. We recoup these costs from sales of all the versions of the book that we publish — hardcover, paperback, large print, audio, and e-book. While e-books do not have the $2-$3 costs of manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping that print books have, their selling price carries a share of all our investments in the book.”

Amazon’s shareholders are getting tetchy with the massive losses the company has posted once again. For the current quarter, Amazon forecast that the losses would only grow. It expects a healthy rise in revenue but an operating loss of as much as $810 million, compared with a loss of $25 million in the third quarter of 2013. Losses increased as the firm spent heavily in a bid to expand its business with its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. Bob Kohn has pointed out the monopsony power of Amazon, which has a current market share of 65% of all online book units, digital and print, is not just theoretical; it’s real and formidable. When a company has dominant market power and sells goods for below marginal cost, it is engaging in predatory pricing, a violation of federal antitrust laws.”  There have been articles in USA for the government to enforce the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, the law prohibits a retailer from wielding its mere size to bully suppliers for discounts. But as Colbert’s experiment of promoting debut author Edan Lepucki’s novel California showed that if readers want, they can procure a book from anywhere. His discussion about it, stemming from his anger for Amazon’s monopolistic practices, propelled California to becoming an NYT bestseller.

In India, commercially-successful author Ashwin Sanghi, drawing parallels between the music industry of 2002 and publishing of today, says, “Books are at an inflection point in 2014; a bit like music was in 2002. Music producers were accustomed to selling CDs whereas Apple wanted to sell singles at 99 cents. The face-off between Amazon and publishers/authors is similar. Publishers wish to charge prices that the industry is accustomed to while Amazon wishes to charge prices that customers will like, thus inducing more customers to buy on Amazon. I think the time has come for Jeff Bezos to sit across the table with publishers. There is no alternative.”

Another author, Rahul Saini writes “I have never supported the idea of monopoly and that is what Amazon is clearly trying to do here. Looking at the argument Amazon is making, it does make sense — buyers are always driven by low prices and heavy discounts (the Indian book market is a perfect example) but I firmly believe that the retailer does not own any right to dictate the pricing of a book. It has to be a mutual consent between the author and the publisher.”

 Popular author Ravinder Singh has his own take. “A publisher has the right to decide the cost of its books (in any format).  If the retailer really wants to bring down the price of the book, he can discount on his margins and should be free to do so. To decide the price tag of a book is a publisher’s (and not retailer’s) prerogative. Having said that, knowingly delaying shipment of titles of a particular publisher (and their authors’) just because it is not accepting the demand, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — readers, authors and publishers. Amazon may be right about the price-demand elasticity of the e-book and in saying that it can certainly bring more readership and thereby more money (offsetting the drop in price). But Hachette has all the right to decline it, even if it means letting go off money. As far as authors are concerned, they would not like to see one particular entity in the entire chain (that has accumulated huge powers), be it a publisher or a retailer, to decide their fate. They want to reach out to as many readers as possible, on time and make the royalties that they deserve.”

 Writing in the Guardian, Kamila Shamsie says, “All writers should be deeply concerned by the strong-arm tactics Amazon is using in its contractual dispute with Hachette — similar to tactics used in 2008 with Bloomsbury titles.  Writers want their books to reach readers; and we want to be able to earn a living from our work. It’s a great irony that the world’s largest bookseller is prepared to trample over both those wants in order to gain a business advantage even while claiming to stand up for readers and writers.

Others disagree. Major names in self-publishing including Barry Eisler and Hugh Howey petitioned Hachette asking the publisher to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage”. This has gathered over 7,600 signatures.

 Publishing is not like selling biscuits or furniture. It isn’t a question of taste and preference but an exercise in social philosophy. Amazon is primarily a tech-company whose dominance in the book industry is unprecedented. There may be some similarities with what happened in the music industry 10 years ago but publishing thrives on editorial tastes, which requires human intervention, not a series of algorithms promoting and recommending books. The book industry relies upon editors who know the business of “discovering” authors and converting them into household names. This public outrage against the ongoing battle between Amazon and Hachette proves that books are important to the cultural dimension of society.

1 September 2014 

Metro Reads, Penguin Books India’s commercial fiction list, 2 Sept 2012

Metro Reads, Penguin Books India’s commercial fiction list, 2 Sept 2012

(This article was published in the Hindu Literary Review on 2 Sept 2012. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-literaryreview/article3849375.ece )

Rajni blew her hair away from her face. My heart skipped a beat. ‘I love you!’ I blurted out. Her cheeks turned a deep pink. I could sense that her anger had completely disappeared.

Anup, a happy-go-lucky boy next door, finds himself a misfit in an IT company. On the bright side, he has great friends in office—Chetan, Subbu and Parag—to help him out of sticky situations. Also, in the same office is the love of his life, Rajni. But Rajni’s strict family and her paranoia of tongue-wagging colleagues play villain in their love story forcing him to be satisfied with clandestine meetings, secret phone conversations and emails. Just as Anup decides to turn over a new leaf, sinister happenings at work force him to take some life-changing decisions—to quit his job and pursue his long-cherished dream of becoming a writer; and also, to marry Rajni.
Love Over Coffee by Amrit N. Shetty

‘All these bangers have gone and simply put us in trouble.’
I blinked. ‘Bangers?’
‘All those foreign bangers, you know,’ he said. ‘Recession, sub-prime, liquidity crunch. All bloody bakwaas. Making a fool of us.’
I remained silent. I hoped he wouldn’t ask me about my work!
Jack Patel’s Dubai Dreams by P.G. Bhaskar

Metro Reads. A list of commercial fiction established by Penguin Books India that has gained sufficient significance in less than two years to be granted its own space as an imprint. (It now boasts of its own logo!) It was established in January 2010 with Love Over Coffee by Amrit N. Shetty; Where Girls Dare by Bhavna Chauhan and Dreams in Prussian Blue by Paritosh Uttam. According to its website, these books “do not weigh you down with complicated stories, don’t ask for much time or do not required to be lugged about”, they are “fun, feisty and easy-to-read” books. This is a list that encompasses all genres – chik lit, murder mysteries, “romance-thriller” etc. According to Vaishali Mathur, Commissioning Editor, Metro Reads, “We felt that there was a great need in the market to have books for the youth. The college students and the working population which finds difficult to read heavy literature and prefers to read books that they enjoy, storylines that they can relate to and characters whom they can identify with. Penguin Metro Reads basically publishes what the reader would enjoy rather than what we as publishers would like them to read.” Earlier about 8-10 books a year were being published, but due to the great response from the readers, in 2012 the number has grown over a hundred per cent to about 20 titles. To put this in perspective, it is one-third more than the average output of a successful independent publisher.

Vaishali adds that most of “these authors are new as this imprint encourages them. In the past two years we’ve published more than thirteen new authors, but we are publishing Ravinder Singh’s Can Love Happen Twice? in December and this is his second book. With a target audience of 18-35 year olds, it does tend to blur the lines between young adult and trade fiction, and yet, it has created a neat little identity of its own. The tag line for these books is that it is meant “For the Reader on the Go”. The average sales of this list are doing well and if stories doing the rounds of publishing are to be believed, then even the pre-order sales of some titles are phenomenally robust. More often than not, these books work on volume sales. Some of the biggest bestsellers of this list have been Madhuri Bannerjee’s Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas, Love Over Coffee, and P.G. Bhasker’s Jack Patel’s Dubai Dreams. Last December, Ravinder Singh’s Can Love Happen Twice? has sold over two lakh copies. It has also been translated into Hindi. Considering the range of genres it tackles it has the potential of doing well overseas as well, especially amongst the Indian diaspora. Having said that, the rights of some of these books have only been sold into Malayalam, otherwise customers have been buying their copies directly from India.

Metro Reads has a distinctive identity with its snazzy book covers in pure colours and the edge of the pages painted red (very reminiscent of the Georgette Heyer books published in the 1950s). With Metro Reads, Penguin Books India is tapping a niche market that is growing rapidly. It consists of more than thirty per cent of the population that is literate, and eager to read in English and improve their language skills. Plus they have the disposable income (and plastic money) to buy what appeals to them at an impulse. These books are largely conversation-driven plots, with barely any use of nuanced language, but edited well, so easy to read. Reading light fiction also helps to kill time while commuting daily to work or stuck for long hours in a long distance journey. In a sense, after eighty years, Sir Allen Lane’s vision of high quality paperback fiction being made available to the mass market, at an affordable price and edited well is finally coming true. Yet, it does take away from the personalized attention of an editor once the list begins to grow at this rapid pace.

Vaishali is extremely upbeat about this imprint and the future plans for it are plenty. “We already have readers who identify with this imprint and want to read books published under it. We also have writers who send their manuscripts for this imprint. We are already working with the vision of building a stronger author list, introducing more and more variety by publishing in different genres of commercial writing, making the brand stronger.”