reading Posts

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 1 November 2014 and in print on 2 November 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-happy-readers/article6555142.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

A recent article, “The Percy Jackson problem”, argued that Rick Riordan’s rewriting of Greek myths for a contemporary audience is unacceptable since it lures young readers away from the “classics”. The journalist also did not subscribe to the view that kids should be allowed to read whatever they are reading as long as they are reading! Apparently the huge crowds of youngsters (outnumbering the adults) filling synagogues, theatres, and basketball stadiums to attend the interactions with Riordan, a former middle-school English and history teacher — who is currently on a tour to promote the last book in the Olympians series, The Blood of Olympus — was insufficient evidence that children were happy reading. A publishing colleague sent me a furious response to the article saying that it was mean spirited and unfair given that Riordan has touched thousands of kids’ lives in a positive way and reached many reluctant readers.

New generations of readers are crucial for the survival of publishing. While delivering his acceptance speech at the PEN/Pinter Prize 2014, Salman Rushdie said, “I always believed that the book is completed by the reader that out of the intimacy of strangers created by the act of reading emerges the book as it exists for that reader; and that out of that private act of union comes love, the love of literature, of reading, of that particular book …”

The powerful impact an author can have on a reader, even in a large group, was demonstrated at a literary evening that I curated at the Embassy of Ireland. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, three Indian authors were invited to a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by the ambassador H.E. Feilim McLaughlin. The authors spoke powerfully of their engagement with conflict and how it has influenced their writing. The audience sat in pin-drop silence. Some wept. Most had lumps in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences touched a raw nerve in many, especially those with direct links with Partition, the 1984 riots and communal conflicts.

Of late there has been a growing debate on how the Internet is cutting into the time of readers. It is estimated that, by 2018, 3.9 billion people will be online; many on smartphones. It is not surprising to discover that Adobe has been collecting data about its customers’ reading pattern. Last week, Nielsen announced that it was expanding its ratings to include all kinds of digital content. The writer-reader relationship is evolving rapidly with the growth of technology. People are operating these devices not just to communicate with each other but also to read articles and books online. Consequently word-of-mouth recommendations will only grow. The relatively new ReadMyStori.com “is a platform that helps authors get readers to read, appreciate and popularise their work”. Authors say that at least 40 per cent of downloads are converted into book sales.

As Tim Parks points out in an NYRB article (June 10, 2014), “The conditions in which we read today are not those of 50 or even 30 years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”

An excellent example of such a response to the changing reading environment is Samanvay: IHC Indian Languages’ Festival (November 6-11, 2014), comprising 90 speakers and performers in 20 languages and dialects. The theme is “Translations Transnations” with focus on Indian languages that have a transnational presence like Bangla, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, English, Hindi, Konkani, Malayalam, Punjabi and Sanskrit.

The effect of storytelling sessions and stress on reading books other than textbooks is also evident in the crowds of happy children that attend Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature (IGNCA, New Delhi, November 29-30, 2014). The youngsters can be seen mobbing authors and illustrators, seeking autographs, asking a zillion questions, offering authors manuscripts to read, listening in rapt attention to the writers, participating in workshops and buying piles of book at the temporary bookstore.

This year, 83 speakers such as Jamila Gavin, Natasha Sharma, The Storywallahs, Vivek Menon, Rui Sousa and Prayag Shukla will participate.

These children are accessing e-books and books in print, but it does not matter as long as they are reading!

2 November 2014

 

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Akhil Sharma, “Family Life”

Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. (p.30)

I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed. ( p.153)

Akhil Sharma, Family Lif eFamily Life is Akhil Sharma’s second novel. It took nearly a decade to write, but the wait has been well worth it. Family Life is about his family moving to America in mid-1970s. Unfortunately his brother with a promising future, hit his head n a swimming pool, and slipped in to a coma. This incident changed the life of the family.

It is a stunning novel. Not a spare word is used. The flashbacks  to their time spent in India are recorded faithfully, yet referred to in such a manner that an international reader would not get lost. For instance a description from his early days in America recounts how they received ads on coloured paper in their mailbox regularly. But “in India coloured paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint.” It is rare to find a writer of Indian origin who writes painfully accurately on what it means to be an Indian living in America. He captures the bewilderment and confusion marvellously and it is not necessarily having the god men visit them at home, in the hope of looking for a cure for his sick brother. It is in everyday life.

It is a pleasure to read Family Life since it tells a story, also observes and analyses in a matter-of-fact tone. Yet the clarity of writing, the manner in which it resonates with the reader, does not always mask the anguish and torment Akhil Sharma must have put himself through, to write this brilliant book. And then I read  this article he wrote in The New York Times, “The Trick of Life” where talks about the agonizing experience of writing this novel:     http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/the-trick-of-life.html .  Well it was worth it.

It is a novel worth reading.

Here are a few more related links:

9ihttp://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jan/9701fict/sharma.htm ( “Cosmopolitan”, short story, The Atlantic, 1997)

http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/akhil-sharma-when-despair-and-tenderness-collide/

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/04/book-review-podcast-akhil-sharmas-family-life/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/akhil-sharma-on-writing-family-life.html&mbid=social_twitter

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/01/this-week-in-fiction-akhil-sharma.html

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/tag/akhil-sharma/

http://www.londonreviewbookshop.co.uk/blog/2014/4/tender-and-funny-em-family-life-em-by-akhil-sharma

On 20 June 2014, it was included in a list of the 54 best novels from India published by Brunch, Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/brunch-stories/greatest-indian-novels-ever-part-i/article1-1231662.aspx The jury members were Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.

Akhil Sharma Family Life Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 240. Rs. 499 

“Mirrored Mind” Vikram Chandra

“Mirrored Mind” Vikram Chandra

Vikram Chandra, Mirrored Minds

Sometimes the sheer vastness of what I want to put into fiction terrifies me. I survive by not thinking about the whole. I write my 400 words this day, and then another 400 words the next. I find my way by feeling, by intuition, by the sounds of the words, by the characters’ passions, by trekking on to the next day, the next horizon, and then the next. I pay attention to the track of narratives I leave behind, and I look for openings ahead. I make shapes and I find shapes. I retrace my steps, go over draft after draft, trying to find something, I am not sure what until I begin to see it. I am trying to make an object, a model, a receptacle. What I am making will not be complete until I let go of it.  (p.197)

It must be lonely being a writer,’ people have said to me. But I like being alone, at least for a goodly sized portion of every day. And working by myself on other things — programming for instance — is never painful. There is something else altogether that is peculiar to the process of fiction writing, a grinding discomfort that emerges from the act itself: it feels, to me, like a split in the self, a fracture that leaves raw edges exposed.  ( p. 213)

It is always a pleasure to read/hear writers talk about their craft. Programmer and successful author like Vikram Chandra spends a couple of chapters — “Learning to Write” and ” The Language of Literature” — in his latest book, Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code. dwelling upon he found his way into writing fiction. He mulls over the similarities and complexities of language, a skill that is inherent to both professions and how one informs the other, while being so different as well. Two essays worth reading especially by new authors curious about the craft of writing.

Vikram Chandra Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 260 Rs. 499

 

“Permit To Read” Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news, PubSpeak, Sept 2013

“Permit To Read” Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news, PubSpeak, Sept 2013

( My monthly column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online has been published. Here is the original http://www.businessworld.in/news/economy/permit-to-read/1072156/page-1.html. This time it is on permission to read.)

PubSpeak, Jaya

I heard a lovely story (and true) from Aditi Maheshwari, publisher, Vani Prakashan. (Vani Prakashan have been publishing in Hindi for 55 years.) They participate in book fairs around the country. One of the biggest events for Vani Prakashan is to set up a large stall at the Patna book fair, with a long walk between the entry and exit points. At one of these events, Aditi noticed a married couple browse through their stalls. The wife paused when she spotted the Hindi translation of Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja. She nudged her husband and said, “I have heard about this book. I read a review in a women’s magazine. Could you please buy it for me?” The husband looked appalled and said, “No. I will not. This is a book I will not allow in the house. If you buy it and read it, I will throw you out of the house.” And then he pulled his wife away.

She followed him as she was used to. Aditi saw this exchange. She quickly picked up a copy of the book, slipped it into a paper envelope, rolled it up in a catalogue and asked a colleague to slip it into the wife’s hand as they were exiting out of the stall. A few weeks later Aditi received a few lines scribbled on a postcard from the woman. She said, “Thank you for the book. My life has changed after reading it. I did not realise that if anyone touches my body without my consent can be construed as rape, even if it is my husband demanding his ‘right’ at night. Could you please send me the author’s address? I would like to write to her as well.”

Aditi did. A couple of months later the publisher received an ecstatic phone call from Taslima Nasreen telling her about the beautiful note of 20-25 lines that had been sent to her by the wife in Bihar. The book had stuck a chord. (And it must have with many more. Since the Hindi translation was published in 1996, Vani Prakashan has sold over 5,00,000 copies of Lajja reasonably priced at Rs 150. The other Taslima Nasreen titles that they have published have also had equally extraordinary print runs.)

In order to access women readers women’s presses were established. Some of the better known names worldwide are Virago, Kali for Women, Zubaan, Women Unlimited, Persephone Books, Spinifex Press, Modjaji Books, and The Feminist Press. When these publishing houses first began — inevitably all of them were established after 1970 — they were not considered too seriously by their peers in publishing. The notion of creating a distinct list for women was unheard of, but a publishing house dedicated to creating books for women, by women and with women readers in mind was inconceivable.

The Game Changers
Slowly over a period of time it became obvious that this was a strong and healthy market segment. After about two to three decades mainstream publishing houses recognising the potential announced their own imprints dedicated to women or began collaborations. In India, Zubaan entered into a co-publishing agreement with Penguin Books. But as Urvashi Butalia, publisher, Zubaan (and co-founder, Kali for Women), said in an interview in April 2013: “Around the time Kali for Women came to be, there were very many feminist presses globally, with Virago being the most prominent. There are now only a handful; most of them have either scaled back or shut shop, and part of the reason has to do with feminism going ‘mainstream’.

There is a moment in Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s Oleander Girl when Korobi advises her hostess in America, Seema Mitra, how to flee New York and return to India, in time to have her baby in Calcutta. “Flee” because her husband consumed completely by his addiction to gambling is being unreasonable and unable to look after her. Korobi assists the young, heavily-pregnant Seema to hatch a plan to leave New York City for India without the husband even getting a whiff of it. The plan is ridiculously simple and Seema escapes easily.  Oleander Girl has been published in India by Penguin Books India, but Divakaruni has been writing for many years, with many “mainstream” publishing houses, around the world, some of her books have been adapted into films — notably, the Mistress of Spices had Aishwarya Rai acting in it. The strength of Divakaruni’s writing lies in the finely etched women characters that populate her stories. Her retelling of the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi in The Palace of Illusions continues to sell extraordinarily well. In India alone the sales in hardback and paperback have crossed 25,000 copies (probably is higher). It is said that the commercial success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey can be attributed predominantly to the word-of-mouth recommendation by women readers who initially read the book on their electronic devices, reading in “secret” albeit in public spaces say, while commuting since the book cover was not visible. So, they were able to read, share and discuss erotic fiction without being condemned for the act of reading, let alone the genre. This anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a growing market amongst women readers.

The format in which it is delivered is immaterial, but it is the accessibility of it that is crucial when connecting with women readers. It could be in printed volumes, easy to handle slim volumes of large texts, creating audio books that are delivered via electronic mediums including fixed landlines and mobile phones, getting books to many book clubs that exist and meet regularly, selling books via newspaper vendors (as Harlequin is exploring in Kerala), and definitely marking the books at price points that are affordable for women, even if it means exploring a membership with the publisher or paying in installments for the books.

Many women now have expendable income especially those who are entering the workforce, young and single whereas the priority for many married women continues to be the family. But the fact is many do read and want to read. A significant fact since it affects the bottomline of publishing too. News about publishing is generally dominated by articles on digital and print conversations, self-publishing, emerging markets, language publishing, children’s and YA literature, new forms of electronic readers, the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores – all very relevant aspects of publishing but slowly the conversations about women readers as a distinct market is no longer centre stage.

Society Versus The Individual
Unfortunately (or fortunately) the act of women reading still makes news. It still upsets people. Akshay Pathak, writer, wrote in an article last month, “My mother was the only person in the family who had read some books. But she was married into a family where reading books was forcefully discouraged. And so gradually she stopped. Had to.” It is still not uncommon for women who are reading at home to hear, “Why are you lolling? Isn’t there any work to be done?”

Muneeza Shamsie, literary journalist, in her contribution to Fifty Shades of Feminism writes “… the last word belongs to my mother. [Jahanara Habibullah] In her last years, to try and cope with my father’s terminal illness, she began her very first book, a memoir. She was 84 when it was published as an English translation and later in the original Urdu. In 2003, after she died, I found stacks of Urdu classics – often written by her kinsmen – tucked away in the lower bookshelves. To me, my mother’s tenacity, her love for a literature and language that neither her husband nor her children could read, embody the suppressed voices of women. But my mother’s tale is one of triumph. On the last night of her life, she rang my paternal aunt Tazeen and said “All these years I was turned into a housewife and made useless! I should have been a writer!” Such a self-revelation, at 86, a few hours before dying! By her bedside table sat Kamila’s novels and my anthologies – a far cry from secretarial college where success depended on reproducing accurately someone else’s words.” Pink Poster, Asmita

There is a fabulous poster created during the women’s movement in India by an NGO, Asmita. It shows a woman dressed in a sari sitting in a chair, with her feet up and reading a book. The television is on and she has a couple of books open and scattered on the floor besides her. Basically she is looking very relaxed and is obviously in her own private space — a dream for many. But as William St. Clair says in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “Women’s reading, at any rate women’s reading of the upper-income groups, the commonplace books suggest, was by no means limited to writings regarded as suitable for women.” A fact that holds true two centuries later.

11 Sept 2013
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

@JBhattacharji