On 20 June 2017 Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing was released at Taj Man Singh Hotel, New Delhi. He was in conversation with noted journalist Nalin Mehta. To introduce Ruskin Bond his long time editor and co-founder Speaking Tiger, Ravi Singh, read out a beautiful speech remembering their decades of association. With Ravi Singh permission the speech is published below. I am also including a short clip I made at the launch of Ruskin Bond talking about the noted Hindi writer Rakesh Mohan being his teacher at Bishop Cotton School, Simla and later Bond’s poor attempt at translating Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade” into Hindi.
L-R: Ravi Singh, Ruskin Bond and Nalin Mehta
I remember my first meeting with Mr Bond. It was in 1995, shortly after I’d entered publishing, and I was both excited and nervous. I’d read his stories in school—‘The Kite Maker’, ‘A Face in the Dark’, ‘The Room of Many Colours’, ‘The Tiger in the Tunnel’—and I’d gone back to them many times: there was wonder and magic, of course, but they were also about unusual things—about losing and dying; children finding fellowship with elderly strangers; mutual, unspoken respect between people and animals; and some very subtle and scary ghosts. He was to me the equal of Chekhov, Tagore, Premchand or Dickens—like a benevolent but unreachable legend. By the time I met him, I had read many of his other works, including the intensely moving classic The Room on the Roof—and the memorable long stories A Flight of Pigeons, Time Stops at Shamli and Delhi Is Not Far.
So I wasn’t at all prepared for the understated, warm, witty and utterly approachable person who treated me as an equal and made me a friend. This happened so effortlessly, that it was only much later that I was surprised and grateful. It seemed entirely natural to have such an engaging and generous companion. And that is exactly whatRuskin Bond’s stories have done to millions over 60 years—to readers of all ages, and in big cities, small towns and little hamlets. Only the greatest writers can do that.
Lone Fox Dancing is the story of the making of this extraordinary storyteller and human being, who has never been afraid to be simple and entirely himself. The autobiography begins in Mussoorie in the 1930s, moves to Jamnagar, Dehradun, New Delhi, Jersey, London, and returns to Mussoorie. There’s mischief and adventure in it; there’s also loneliness, resilience, eccentricity, conviction, compassion—and above all, there’s friendship—with people, with birds and animals, with great trees and with little flowers growing out of broken concrete.
Read this book to see what’s been gained and lost in India since the 1930s and 40s—not in the halls of power but in the streets and mohallas, bazaars and cinema halls, jungles and railway stations. Read it to know how writers are made, beyond noise and glamour. Read it for the art of carrying on when you lose a beloved parent, when your work is rejected or under-appreciated, when someone you love doesn’t love you back, when people fail you or you fail them, when your earnings are paltry though your responsibilities are growing, or when winters get cold and miserable.Ruskin Bond has found there’s always reward if you persevere; there’s spring and birdsong after harsh winters, there’s beauty and there are friends in unexpected places, and a sense of humour—a good joke—and plain old optimism will sustain you through hard times and keep you grounded in good times.
Mr Bond’s long-awaited autobiography has everything we’ve cherished in his enduring stories and essays.
I really shouldn’t stand any longer between you and one of our finest, most entertaining and best-loved writers—except to say how delighted and privileged we are to have published his autobiography…
(Ravi Singh, Publishing Director and co-Founder, Speaking Tiger Books, sent this exclusive extract from Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing. It is one of the publishing highlights of 2017 given the tremendous fan following Ruskin Bond commands. This autobiography at 100,000+ words is the longest book ever written by Ruskin Bond.)
And here I must pause to tell you a little more about Ayah, my guardian angel, surrogate mother, friend and beloved all rolled into one and wrapped up in a white sari. My mother, young in years and younger at heart, was often away attending the lunch and tea get-togethers that the ladies of the royal household liked to organize, or she would accompany the younger royals on picnics and excursions. My father spent more time with me, but he would be at work through much of the day. I would be left in the care of the servants—all but the ayah provided by the Jamnagar State. I had no objection to the arrangement, because they indulged me. Most of all, Ayah.
She was probably from one of the fishing communities of Kathiawar or from the poorer Muslim families from the north of India who worked in Christian and Anglo-Indian households. She must have been in her thirties and was unusually large and broad-limbed for an Indian woman, and shaped like a papaya, expansive at the hips and thighs. I was told she had a family of her own but I never saw them, and she never spoke of them. She was the one I spent the most time with at home—she stayed all day, washing my clothes, giving me a bath and telling me stories in Hindustani about jinns and fairies and the snake transformed into a handsome prince by the loving touch of a beautiful princess.
Ayah had large, rough hands and I liked being soaped and scrubbed by her, enjoying the sensation of her hands moving over my back and tummy. She could also use those hands very effectively to deliver a few resounding slaps, because I really was a little devil. But her anger vanished as quickly as it came when she saw me break into tears. And then she would break down herself, and cover me with big, wet kisses and gather me into herself, pressing my face to her great warm breasts. To be hugged and kissed, and generally fussed over, is one of the joys of infancy and childhood. My mother was not a physically demonstrative person—the occasional peck on the cheek was enough emotion for her. But Ayah more than made up for it. She would kiss my navel and nuzzle my tummy and tell the other staff, ‘I want to eat him up! I want to eat him up!’
I was in love with Ayah—it was a child’s love for a mother, but it was also a sensual, physical love. I loved the smell of her skin and her paan-scented breath and her dazzling smile. She was in love with my soft white skin and bathed and dressed me with infinite tenderness, and defended me against everyone, including my parents.
If I swallowed an orange seed, Ayah would say an orange tree would grow inside me. Being an imaginative child, this rather worried me because orange trees, I was told, had thorns on them. I did not want to worry my parents unduly, so I took my problem to Mr Jenkins, who looked serious, thought about it for a few moments, then said: ‘Don’t worry, it will only be a small tree.’
Still worried, I consulted Osman, who laughed and said, ‘Your ayah is just a gapori, don’t listen to her.’
‘What’s a gapori?’ I asked.
‘One who makes up stories—and exaggerates. Go and tell her you’ve swallowed a bean.’
I did, and she said, ‘Oh, baba, now you’ll have a bean-stalk growing inside you!’
‘And there will be a giant living in it?’ I asked.
She burst into laughter, seeing I’d caught her out.
‘Osman says you’re a gapori,’ I told her. And she and Osman had a terrible fight. She chased him around the house and forgave him only when he said he meant she was a pari, a fairy, not a gapori.
Still, I think I learnt something about telling stories from Ayah, as I did from Osman, although I had no idea that I would become a gapori of sorts one day.
Ruskin Bond Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography Speaking Tiger Books, New Delhi, India, 2017. Rs 599; hardback; 288 pages + 32-page photo insert
Last year I spotted Ruskin Bond at a literary festival but it was impossible to see him clearly. It was also the first time I saw an author in India encircled by large security men, more like bouncers seen outside clubs. They not only towered over Ruskin Bond but were very well built and were an extraordinary sight to behold. A testimony too the fan following Ruskin Bond has in India. He needed protection from his fans. Children flocked to him in droves. Parents prostrated themselves in front of the literary festival oragnisers to allow their children into the hall even though it was filled to capacity. Astounding indeed when you realise that Ruskin Bond prefers his solitude, tucked away up in his beloved hill town of Mussorie.
On 19 May 2017, Ruskin Bond turns 83. To celebrate it his publishers have scheduled a bunch of publications. Puffin India has released Looking for the Rainbow — a memoir he has written for young readers describing the time he spent with his father in Delhi. It was during the second world war. His father was with the Royal Air Force ( RAF), stationed at Delhi. Ruskin Bond’s parents were divorced and his mother was about to get married for the second time. His father decided Ruskin Bond could stay with him for a year in Delhi where he had some rooms rented — at first off Humayun Road and then later nearer to Connaught Place. Ruskin Bond remembers this time spent in Delhi fondly even later when he was sent off to boarding school in Simla. In fact decades later he recalls with a hint of sadness that Mr Priestly, his teacher, did not approve of young Ruskin poring over his dad’s letters so suggested he keep them away for safekeeping. At end of term when Ruskin Bond went to ask for his letters his teacher was clueless. Now in his eighties forgiving and generous as is his want Ruskin Bond remarks that Mr Priestly probably “meant well” but all that remains of that pile of letters is the one that the young boy spirited away — and still retains all these years later. Looking for Rainbow is a beautiful edition made richer by Mihir Joglekar’s illustrations.
Looking for Rainbow serves as a wonderful introduction and is probably the slim pickings of the larger project memoir Ruskin Bond will eventually publish with Speaking Tiger Books. It is as his publisher, Ravi Singh, told me the longest book Ruskin Bond has ever written — nearly a 100,000 words. It is “hugely readable. Moving, too, in parts.” Lone Fox Dancing is scheduled for June 2017. Earlier this year Scholastic India released a biography of his written by Shamim Padamsee in their Great Lives series.
His long-standing publisher, Rupa, with whom Ruskin Bond has a special relationship for decades now has also brought out two volumes of his works. The Wise Parrot is a collection of folktales retold by Ruskin Bond. He says in the introduction:
I may be no Scherazade, and that is a relief, for it would be rather difficult for me to think of stories knowing my head may be chopped off the next day, yet I have found some ancient legends that are as enthralling as hers and presented them here. There are creatures who have lived in our collective imaginations for ages. There are stories of wit and stories of immense stupidity. And in all this, what shines forth is the power of human imagination that has thrived for millions of years. From the first cave paintings, to today’s novels, the thrill of telling a story has never died down. And here’s wishing that it may live long, bringing people, animals, fairies and ghosts to life forever.
The Elephant and the Cassowary is an anthology of his favourite stories about wild animals and birds and the jungle. The title story is a perennial favourite and is utterly delightful. A master storyteller and a voracious reader like Ruskin Bond when become a brand name like no other have the luxury of also being tastemakers. As well-known prolific scifi writer and anthologist Isaac Asimov says in his splendid memoir I.Asimov : [An anthology] performs the same function as a collection does, bringing to the reader stories he may be glad to have a chance to read again or stories he may have missed altogether. New readers are able to read the more notable stories of the past.” Another anthology that Ruskin Bond has put together and is being released this week by Viking, an imprint of Penguin, is Confessions of a Book Lover. Both these anthologies between them contain previously published works by writers such as Rudyard Kipling, F.W. Champion, Henry Astebury Leveson, Joseph Conrad, Laurence Sterne, H.G. Wells, William Saroyan, Stacy Aumonier, and J.B. Priestley. Anthologies are a splendid way to discover new material even though some people think otherwise. Ruskin Bond has it right with these two eclectic anthologies. They jump centuries but the underlying principle of a good story is what matters. It is no wonder then to discover the delightful publishing connection between legendary publisher Diana Athill and Ruskin Bond. She gave him his first break as a writer while still at Andre Deutsch. She certainly knew how to spot talent!
( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017. In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.)
Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:
How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?
First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.
Who are the writers who have influenced you?
Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?
I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.
“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?
I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.
I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.
Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…
It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.
There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?
First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.
You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?
It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.
The strong women characters in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?
I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.
Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound) remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?
My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.
Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship.
It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.
Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?
To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…
Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.
In late January the National Book Trust of India, Government of India and the government of Assam decided to jointly organise the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in Guwahati. There were over 60 panel discussions, book launches, cultural events etc organised. More than a 150 writers, artists, thinkers and publishing professionals were invited to participate. The focus was on the “languages, literature, culture, society, politics, performance traditions, music, identity, media of the northeastern region of the country but also national and international elements packages in the three-day event”.
Shatrugan Sinha, Bollywood actor, speaking about his memoir published by Om Books
Given how hectic the litfest season can become in India this particular edition of the festival was a refreshing change. It was not the predictable handful of authors doing a Bharat darshan and along the way halting to make appearances at literary festivals. This festival was different. It had a crackling good mix of regional writers from all over India along with a few international delegates. It was heartening to note how all the guests were treated at par. The hospitality arrangements made by the organising committee were impeccable. Although this festival had been put together in less than a month it was commendable how well it had been curated. Irrespective of ideological positions a range of people had been invited highlighting the flourishing Indian literary scene as well encouragement of literature instead of extending invitation to drawing room coteries. The sessions were engaging with intense conversations. The strength of the audience varied but irrespective of the numbers they were focused, courteous and listening attentively. There was pin drop silence. The Kalakshetra venue was well suited for being centrally located and vast. The venues were far apart making it trifle inconvenient for having to walk large distances but a big plus point was it was possible to hear panelists without being disturbed by other parallel sessions.
Panel discussion on “Demystifying publishing”. The panelists were ( L-R) Ravi Singh, Co-founder and publisher, Speaking Tiger Books, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, Publisher, and Preeti Gill, Literary Agent.
Sanjoy Hazarika’s panel discussion which included Francois Gautier.
Though the focus was on showcasing Assam and other north eastern states of India the programming was impressive. There were poets, writers, dramatists, activists, cinematographers, essayists, translators, performance poets, singers, actors, publishers from across India giving a rich insight into the vibrant diversity of Indian literature. From the hyper-local to the broader literary landscapes were represented. For instance ranging from a session on the local poets whose ancestors migrated from Bengal so now speak a mix of Assamese and particular kind of Bengali which makes them a distinct community to sessions on conflict and literature showcasing incidents such as the incarceration of the Indian-Chinese community by the Indian government in the 1960s to more recent instances have been preserved in contemporary literature. There were panel discussions on publishing such as children’s literature and understanding the publishing process. A testament to the crackling literary milieu was the heated discussions that took place between Sanjoy Hazarika and Francois Gautier during their panel discussion “The word in public space”. Sanjoy Hazarika posted a note about it on Facebook.
Lit Mart introduced by Dr Rita Chowdhury, Director, National Book Trust. Panelists included Preeti Gill, Nabin Baruah, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Bhaskar Dutta-Baruah, Ravi Singh and Srutimala Duara.
A fascinating experiment called Lit Mart was also inaugurated and conceived by the director of NBT, Dr Rita Chowdhury. It consisted of a panel of Assamese and English publishers, literary agents and publishing professionals who listened to manuscript ideas and synopsis. The authors ranged from school children to experienced writers, translators, professionals who were also engaged in writing and even ex-insurgents. And yes, some contracts — mostly Assamese but one English too– were offered by the time the session was over.
There was a festive air and the locals had come dressed as if it were a special occasion especially on Sunday. Even when the school expeditions were organised the students were well behaved and trooping into listen to the panelists. There was little fidgeting and definitely no mobile phones ringing or flashing.
NBT book mobile
Sure there were teething problems — co-ordination glitches, lack of golf carts/ vans to fetch and carry people as is done at the world book fair held annually at pragati maidan, the food court was at the far end instead of being midst of hustle-bustle and since the dinners held for delegates were not well lubricated the participation was thin as people made their own arrangements. Having said that this litfest was organised by NBT within two weeks of the conclusion of the world book fair. Hence the effort put in to put together this show by the team was impressive. In fact the undercurrents were positive and indicate potential in subsequent editions if the literary festival is managed well. Already there were understanding touches to the organising such as parking an NBT bookmobile at the venue where an entire row was dedicated to literature translated in to Assamese, having an independent bookshop that sold titles of participating authors and publishers, and author signing sessions. There is a strong local reading culture with a thriving literary tradition in the north east. There is no reason why this festival cannot succeed.
Since the last newsletter it has been a whirlwind of book releases, literature festivals and fabulous conversations. For instance a lovely evening spent at the Canadian High Commissioner, H. E. Nadir Patel’s residence for the launch of Indo-Canadian writer, Shauna Singh Baldwin’s essays — Reluctant Rebellions. Shauna read out an extract comparing the freedom women had in different geographies. She added that writing non-fiction was akin to being naked. There is no literary device as there is in fiction to hide the author’s true sentiments. Dr Shashi Tharoor spoke at the event too.
To attend the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai was award winning Australian author, Geoffrey Moorhouse. He is known for his historical fiction such as on the League of Nations. During a quiet lunch at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, it was incredible to hear Moorhouse describe the research involved for the books. He had thought it would take a few weeks but he spent nearly four years in the Geneva archives. Mostly he was the only person reading the documents.
On 17 September 2016, H.E. Syed Muazzem Ali, High Commissioner, Bangladesh released the gently told but vivid memoir of haemotologist-oncologist Dr Fazlur Rahman. It charts mostly the journey of the doctor from a village to Texas in 1969 with some insights into his experience as an oncologist, caregiver and in setting up hospices. But as the high commissioner pointed out it is in exactly such literature that the history of the subcontinent will be mapped and preserved. During the panel discussion Dr Rahman stressed the importance of empathy for the patient and caregiver and the significance of medical, physical and spiritual sustenance.
The Times Lit Fest (26-27 Nov 2016) was a tremendous success. It was a crackling good mix of speakers and the panel discussions were well curated. Everything ran with clockwork precision even though there were tremendous crowds to be seen everywhere. To discuss her elegant new novel, Things to leave Behind, I was in conversation with Namita Gokhale, writer and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival. This multi-generations novel is set in the Himalayas, in the Nainital and Sat Tal region, putting the spotlight on socio-economic relationships, independence of women, spread of religious philosophies and the rigid caste system.
As the year draws to a close some significant literary prizes / longlists have been announced.
Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize was won by Akshaya Mukul for Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
Tata Literature Live! Awards were presented with Amitav Ghosh getting the Lifetime Achievement Award and Kanishk Tharoor winning for his stupendous debut collection of stories.
Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari Conversations ( 1 & 2) , Seagull Books
Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz ( Simon and Schuster)
Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak ( Speaking Tiger Books)
Uttara: The Book of Answers translated by Arshia Sattar ( Penguin Random House)
Bestselling author Stephanie Meyer’s new book is a thriller called The Chemist ( Hachette India)
White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas by Robert Twigger ( Hachette India)
Publishing News and links
Nineteen years after working at PRH India, Udayan Mitra, Publisher, has quit.
The two week long Dum Pukht residential workshop with facilitators Anil Menon, Pervin Saket, Akshat Nigam and special guest Amit Chaudhuri premieres at Adishakti, Pondicherry this Monday, 5 Dec 2016. The workshop also features one-day talks / sessions by poet Arundhati Subramaniam and historian Senthil Babu.
Utterly fabulous BBC Documentary on UK-based feminist publishing house, Virago Press
Two centuries of Indian print. A British Library project that will digitise 1,000 unique Bengali printed books and 3,000 early printed books and enhance the catalogue records to automate searching and aid discovery by researchers.
( 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 Rautaray 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.”
I reviewed for The Wire, Fiston Mwanza Majila’s wonderful debut Tram 83, translated by Roland Glasser from French into English and originally published by Deep Vellum ( USA). It has been published in the Indian subcontinent by Speaking Tiger Books on their exciting new list for International Literature. Here is the original url: http://thewire.in/2016/06/02/review-waiting-for-godot-in-the-congo-39893/ . This was published online on 2 June 2016. I am c&p the text below.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 is a bold experiment in form, set in an anonymous ‘City-State,’ which unnervingly parallels the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Credit: Speaking Tiger Books.
These recorded sounds are historical monuments, works of literature, poems, tragedies. Through the rust and other elements, you can feel history, the history of peoples, the memory of migration.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila burst upon the international literary landscape with his debut novel Tram 83. It was originally published in French in 2014 by Éditions Métailié and translated into English by Roland Glasser in 2015. Tram 83 is inspired by the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the local economy is driven by diamond mining. The story is about ‘City-State,’ which could be anywhere, yet is distinctly a mining town. In City-State, one of the most popular restaurants and hooker bars is ‘Tram 83,’ and it is frequented by:
Inadvertent musicians and elderly prostitutes and prestidigitators and Pentecostal preachers and students resembling mechanics and doctors conducting diagnoses in nightclubs and young journalists already retired and transvestites and second-foot shoe peddlers and porn film fans and highwaymen and pimps and disbarred lawyers and casual labourers and former transsexuals and polka dancers and pirates of the high seas and seekers of political asylum and organised fraudsters and archeologists and would-be bounty hunters and modern day adventurers and explorers searching for a lost civilisation and human organ dealers and farmyard philosophers and hawkers of fresh water and hairdressers and shoeshine boys and repairers of spare parts and soldiers’ widows and sex maniacs and lovers of romance novels and dissident rebels and brothers in Christ and druids and shamans and aphrodisiac vendors and scriveners and purveyors of real fake passports and gun-runners and porters and bric-a-brac traders and mining prospectors short on liquid assets and Siamese twins and Mamelukes and carjackers and colonial infantrymen and haruspices and counterfeiters and rape-starved soldiers and drinkers of adulterated milk and self-taught bakers and marabouts and mercenaries claiming to be one of Bob Denard’s crew and inveterate alcoholics and diggers and militiamen proclaiming themselves “masters of the world” and poseur politicians and child soldiers and Peace Corps activists gamely tackling a thousand nightmarish railroad construction projects or small-scale copper or manganese mining operations and baby-chicks and drug dealers and busgirls and pizza delivery guys and growth hormone merchants, all sorts of tribes overran Tram 83, in search of good times on the cheap.
This long passage is best read aloud and that is the distinctive breakthrough in the novel. It is less a novel than an oral performance. There is absolutely no point in trying to read it as a classically structured novel. The writing has a structural rhythm defined by the punctuation. In an interview, Glasser said that while working on the translation he would spend some time walking around in the garden reading the text out aloud to himself.
Mwanza Mujila is a performance poet, something that gives him a natural feeling for the song in the words. The fabulous performance that he and Glasser gave at Malvern Books, accompanied on the saxophone by Chris Hall, shows how in tune he and his translator are. Ever since he was a child, Mwanza Mujila wanted to learn how to play the saxophone, but was unable to get one so instead he taught himself to use his voice as the instrument. He demonstrated it at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Woven along with these musical influences is the very strong impact of evangelical Christianity. The way that the words and lists build up to crescendos in the book are very similar to a tub-thumping pastor’s sermons.
It is fascinating to discover that Mwanza Mujila is pursuing a PhD in Romance languages & literatures. Romance literature emerged out of the textual recording of oral forms of storytelling like the Arthurian cycle. It is also phonetically written, lending itself to varying rhythms when read aloud. These stories also served a definite purpose of recording contemporary socio-political-economic events like the tin trade between France and Glastonbury but were also thoroughly entertaining. Obviously a form of storytelling that many centuries later continues to be popular.
A Beckettian relationship
This is not to say that the plot is unimportant. Tram 83 is primarily about two characters – Lucien, a writer, and Requiem, a hustler, who were close friends but drifted apart. Lucien is upright and ethical, while Requiem is wonderfully amoral, minting money however he can, from illegal sales to blackmail. Lucien returns from the “Back-Country,” having completed half of a “stage-tale” entitled “The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years…Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceauşescu, not forgetting the dissident General”. He moves in with Requiem, who continues to flourish with his disreputable activities, but their relationship is now imbued with a deep-seated love/hate resentment towards each other. It is a particularly Beckettian relationship reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot especially with the refrain peppered throughout the text – “Do you have the time”. Many times the conversations do not make any sense unless read aloud. Out of nonsense emerges a narrative.
Around Lucien and Requiem swirl people and conversations, with a plethora of walk on parts. A few characters remain throughout the story, such as the publisher Ferdinand Malingeau. It is like a well-constructed theatrical performance, an opera, but it is surreal given the unnerving parallels with the DRC. In an interview with Asymptote the author said, “…the “City-State” could be anywhere; a non-place, in the same way that, in his view, DRC is a non-country — no stable government, borders constantly breached by armies from neighbouring states”.
Women are marginal to the story. Mwanza Mujila defended this decision in an online interview, saying, “Anyone who has spent at least one day in a quarry or mine knows that masculinity is a necessity (for the diggers) in this environment, and that this particular masculinity is constructed differently to that found in cities or out in the countryside, often to the detriment of women”.
Tram 83 has already garnered significant literary prizes, such as Grand Prix SGDL, the Literary Prize of Graz, Austria, 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature and had been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2015. It is a bold experiment in form and an absolutely marvellous debut – tough to read but intelligently crafted.
Buy it. Read it. Become a fan.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila Tram 83 Translated by Roland Glasser, Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2016, 210 pages, Rs. 350.
(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 17 October 2015) and will be in print ( 18 October 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-india-coping-with-book-bans/article7770216.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )
It remains to be seen how India, despite its business potential, copes with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, and book bans
According to Nielsen’s The India Book Market Report 2015, released at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 14, the print book market in India is worth Rs. 261bn (£2.5bn), making it the sixth largest in the world, and the second largest of the English language markets. U.K. publishers’ revenues, including e-books, home and exports, are worth £3.3bn. India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.28 billion people. The literacy rate is rising rapidly, from 65 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011; it is predicted to reach 90 per cent in 2020. One quarter of young people define themselves as book readers, comprising by themselves a larger group than the population of the U.K. which is 65 million.
It explains why, for some time now, publishers worldwide are keen to explore strategic partnerships with their Indian counterparts in English and regional languages. According to a 2010-12 report Rebalancing the Economy from the House of Commons, Parliament of Great Britain, “40 per cent of U.K. publishing revenues are derived from exports”. Though the statistic is three years old, it will hold validity in 2015 since the links between British publishers and India are amongst the oldest given the colonial past.
But what happens when a market like India with huge business potential mutates into a territory synonymous with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, book bans and intolerance of ideas? Does it still remain an attractive market to invest in? Increasing number of writers from various Indian languages are returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri in protest against the assassination of rationalist scholars like Kalburgi. For some writers, this form of intellectual censorship is linked to the horrific lynching incident in Dadri. Noted Hindi writer, 90-year-old Krishna Sobti, said while returning her award that India did not need any more “Dadri or Babri”.
I have contributed an article on the theme of Independence in Indian Children’s Literature for the inaugural issue of The Read Quarterly. It is a journal on children’s literature, founded by Sarah Odedina and Kate Manning; the Kickstarter campaign has been endorsed by Neil Gaiman. Some of the other contributors include Nury Vittachi, Eoin Colfer, Gita Wolf (Tara Books) and Daniel Hahn. My article maps the literary inheritance of independence/partition of subcontinent. Much of it is inadvertently focused on hagiographies written to suit a specific ideological position, reinforcing communal points of view that took root in British India. Fortunately, there are noticeable positive shifts in contemporary fiction, but as Romila Thapar, the eminent historian, wrote to me, “The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times.”
Cultural pluralism, democracy and secularism, the defining traits of India, are now under severe threat. Two collections of short stories published this past month address the complexities of Indian culture and ethos being intimidated by communal forces. Deeply disturbing but essential reading is the Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (Niyogi Books). It was put together with the sole intention of “tracing the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, a thread that goes back many centuries.” It consists of stories by Gulzar, Ajeet Caur, Asghar Wajahat, Deepak Budki and Keki Daruwalla.
‘They Eat Meat!’ is the opening story in Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015 winner, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. In ‘They Eat Meat!’ Panmuni and Biram Soren go to live in Gujarat, and are surprised to learn that they would have to stop eating non-vegetarian food to be accepted as citizens. According to the author, “The impetus behind the short story was the experience a Santhal family had in Vadodara during 2000-02. …the things I have mentioned are all as they were told to me by this family. I just changed the names. I wasn’t there in Gujarat in 2002 when the riots happened, but I was curious to know what happened, the insider-outsider equation, the pure-impure thing, the veg-non-veg thing, and so I wanted to write this story….This story first appeared in the literary magazine from Kathmandu, La.Lit. Prawin Adhkari and Rabi Thapa, the editors, published it in August 2014 with the title, ‘DON’T MIX WITH THEM, THEY EAT MEAT!’…It read more like an eyewitness report (in the third person) than a fiction based on facts. For the Speaking Tiger version, my editors and I took the report-like feel out and turned it into more story-like. … In the La.Lit version, imagination was minimum; in the Speaking Tiger version, there is more imagination.”
This fine line between fact and fiction is well summed up in the astounding debut novel, Tram 83 by performance artist and poet, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, published by Deep Vellum Publishing. Lucien, the protagonist, while reflecting upon his work, asks: “Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist?” It is not surprising that Indian writers are protesting intellectual censorship by returning state awards.
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 June 2015) and will be in print ( 7 June 2015). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article7286177.ece. I am also c&p the text below.
Reading two travelogues about Afghanistan in the 1920s — when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls — is an enriching experience. Both Desh Bideshe by Syed Mujtaba Ali (translated from Bengali as In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Nazes Afroz, Speaking Tiger Books) and All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey by Annermarie Schwarzenbach (translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books) offer an absorbing account of Afghan society. The writers had access across various strata of society; a privilege they did not abuse but handled with dignity.
Texts translated competently into the destination language give the reader an intimate
access to a new culture. Many of the new translations are usually in English — a language of socio-political, economic and legal importance. Even literary prizes recognise the significance. For instance, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded once in two years. Lauding his translators — George Szirtes and Ottilie Mulzet — Krasznahorkai said, “In each language, the relationship is different.” He uses unusually long sentences and admits, “The task was to somehow find a new Krasznahorkai English”. He continues, “In China once, I was speaking at a university about my books and said that, unfortunately, you couldn’t read them there, and someone in the audience put their hand up and said that there was a translation of Satantango on the net that had been done chapter by chapter by people who loved it. Of course, I was delighted.” (http://bit.ly/1Kx4R1g )
At BookExpo America 2015, New York, Michael Bhasker, Publishing Director, Canelo Digital Publishing said, “Readers are the power brokers who matter most. Readers are the primary filters.” This is immediately discernible on social media platforms — extraordinarily powerful in disseminating information, raising profiles of authors, creating individual brands rapidly circumventing geo-political boundaries, transcending linguistic hurdles and straddling diverse cultures. According to Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, “Indian language writers are as good as or often better than their contemporaries writing in English. Often they are not proficient in English and savvy in handling social media, limiting their exposure on the national and international stage and media. I represent many such writers in Tamil like Salma and Perumal Murugan and have managed to get many of their works published in English, Indian and world languages.”
‘India@Digital.Bharat’, a report by BCG and IAMAI, forecasts India becoming a $200 billion Internet economy by 2018. The use of vernacular content online is estimated to increase from 45 per cent in 2013 to more than 60 per cent in 2018. (http://bit.ly/1Kx9ZCv). Osama Manzar, Founder, Digital Empowerment Foundation says, “The Internet is English centric by its invention, character and culture. It has been growing virally and openly because it is brutally democratic and open. Yet, it is highly driven through the medium of writing as means of participation, a challenge for Indians who are more at ease with oral communication than written. Plus, they are fascinated by English as a language. More so, responsiveness and real-time dynamism of various applications is making people join the Internet even if they don’t know the language of prevailing practices. And because of multi-diversity oriented people joining the Internet, application providers are turning their apps and web multilingual to grab the eyeballs of people and their active participation.”
Writer and technologist Anshumani Ruddra asks pointedly, “If India is to hit 550 Million Internet users by 2018, where are the vernacular apps for more than 350 million (non-English speaking) users?” (http://bit.ly/1Kxa4Gx ) Venkatesh Hariharan, Director, Alchemy Business Solutions LLP, adds “the time is right for Indian language computing using Unicode, especially since the government of India is actively promoting e-governance”.
A constructive engagement across linguistic and cultural boundaries is essential. An international funder once told me supporting writers is a cost-effective way of fostering international bilateral relations. It is easier, in the long run, to negotiate business partnerships as the two nations would already be familiar with each other culturally via literary cross-pollination programmes.
EXCLUSIVE: OxyGene Films (U.K.) has announced a film project based on Tabish Khair’s recent novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. Details of the Danish-British collaboration, with possible Bollywood connections, are to be announced later.