Noted Tamil writer Perumal Murugan published two books Poonachi ( published by Westland/ Amazon) and The Goat Thief ( Juggernaut Books ) earlier this year both of which have been translated by N. Kalyan Raman. Poonachi is a fable about a goat by the same name. It is the comeback novel of Perumal Murugan who had sworn never to write again once he had been persecuted by right wing forces. On the face of it is a simple tale about an elderly couple who take in a tiny goat kid with bleak chances of survival. Yet, the old woman nurses Poonachi back to health who goes on to prosper and be quite a boon for the couple. The story has its twists and turns but it is the dark and sinister side of the authoritarian society that comes to the fore when the couple take the goat to be tagged. Similarly the collection of short stories written by Perumal Murugan over the years deals with similar themes of social injustice and inequality experienced particularly by the poor but this time it is an exploration through relationships and not necessarily exploring a broader canvas of society/community or a village as many of his novels tend to explore. Even though Perumal Murugan’s novels are far more expansive and exploratory than his short stories ( judging by whatever little is available as translations in English) his explanation for wading into short fiction mentioned in his introduction to The Goat Thief is worth reading:
Writing a new short story within the universe of the Tamil short story, which has thrived and flourished since the 1930s, can be challenging. More than any other form, it’s the short story that modern Tamil literature has brought off its greatest accomplishments. The number of short stories written in Tamil probably runs into hundreds of thousands; of them, at least several thousand pass muster. Among those, several hundred stand the test of time and endure. If a writer wants to write a short story that will take its place among those hundreds, an independent mind, a unique perspective on life and well-honed writing skills are essential.
When I started writing short stories, I didn’t have any such awareness. As I wrote and read more and more over the years, I became conscious of these requirements. Taking them into consideration, I set aside the problem of form and started paying attention to the theme of the story. I realized all stories fall into one of two categories. The first category focuses on the problems of living according to the rules of society, while the second concentrates on exceptions to these rules. Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages.
Perumal Murgan of course has become an international ambassador for Indian Literature with his works being sold in various book markets including translations. He has begun to travel extensively on literary programmes. All of which is extremely happy news given that a few years ago he had vowed never to return to writing or have anything to do with literature. So the recent turnaround of events in his favour is very welcoming. His stories are easily read in English for they are smoothly translated.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published. Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)
When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.
These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.
Last week I announced that I am going to post every Monday a list of all the book parcels I have received in the past few days. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.
In today’s Book Post 2 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
Manoranjan Byapari’s Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit is about the author documenting his life from life in East Pakistan to moving to India. When he arrived in India with his family he lived in Shiromanipur refugee camp. They try and make a life for themselves in Bengal but they lived in abject poverty and unable to feed themselves regularly. They were also at a social disadvantage for being Dalits. To escape these straitened circumstances Manoranjan Byapari ran away from home as a teenager in search of work. He got caught in the 1970s Naxalite movement in Calcutta. He was imprisoned. It was while in prison as a twenty four year old that he learned to how to read and write.
So from 1977 till 1981, my time was spent reading Katha literatures, folk literatures, translated literatures, travelogues, religious books. Some praised my dedication to books, some taunted me. I ‘bypassed’ all. None of their words many impact on me.
Once released he still had to earn his bread and butter, so began pulling a rickshaw. He would inevitably carry a book to read while waiting for passengers. One day he was parked outside the college where Mahashweta Devi taught. She emerged and sought a rickshaw and it happened to be Manoranjan Byapari. He had to quickly put aside the book he was reading — Agnigarba ( The Fire Womb).
A collection of short stories where every character was a known and familiar face to me. Every story had at its centre a protagonist who was a labouring man, who was a representative of the protest of that class, who was unwilling to accept defeat and who fought till death, then rose again to continue the fight. I had a particular affection for this author. Having been once accidentally drawn into the Naxalite movement, I had spent much time with them and heard the story of the martyred Brati, a character in her novel Hajar Chaurasir Ma ( The Mother of 1084). This book had endeared the writer to the Naxalites, who spoke of her as a maternal figure to them. Engrossed in reading, I suddenly awoke to the fact that my turn at the rickshaw line had come. The familiar figure of a teacher whom we all knew by sight stepped out of the college and approached us.
As luck would have it, the passenger was none other than Mahashweta Devi. Manoranjan Byapari still had not a clue but it was during the course of the journey that he asked her the meaning of a word he had read in the book — jijibisha ( the will to live) and struck up a conversation. Mahashweta Devi was impressed at how he had taught himself to read while incarcerated in Presidency Jail under the tutelage of mastermashai. She asked him to contribute to her journal “where working people like you write”. Just as she was leaving she gave him her address, to the shocked amazement of Manoranjan Byapari. He could not believe it that his passenger was the famous writer Mahashweta Devi.
The rest they say is history. Mahashweta Devi gave him his writing break. Since then he has published many novels, short stories, essays, and his autobiography, of two volumes, the first volume which has been translated and published by Sage-Samya. He has won the Anaya Samman given by the television channel 24 Ghanta, 2013, and the Suprabha Majumdar Smarak Puraskar of the Bangla Akademi of West Bengali in 2014.
In January 2018 he was invited to attend the World Book Fair (WBF) held in New Delhi and the Jaipur Literature Festival. At the WBF he was in conversation with Sanjeev Chandan*, journalist, author and social activist, and Anita Bharti**, teacher, writer and Dalit rights activist.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, Manoranjan Byapari was on a panel “Dr. Ambedkar and his Legacy” along with Chintan Chandrachud, Christophe Jaffrelot, and Sukhadeo Thorat. They were in conversation with Pragya Tiwari.
According to the translator, Sipra Mukherjee,
Byapari’s prose is urban and modern. Translating the language used by Byapari, therefore, did nto pose the many problems that are often faced when translating Dalit literature, where the language embodies its marginalization palpably in the earthiness of its dialect which cannot be kept in translation, which tends to be standard English. His prose is often driven more by action than by emotions. . . .
The English translation is shorter than 25,000-30,000 words than the original Bengali version but this has been done with the concurrence of the writer.
Now Manoranjan Byapari is so well-known as a writer that he shares an anecdote that happened in Hyderabad.
Once on an invitation I journeyed to the University of Hyderabad. I boarded an autorickshaw from the station, bound for the University Guest House. The driver of the auto was educated and well-informed. Upon hearing that I was from Calcutta, he wanted to know if I had heard of this writer from my city who drives a rickshaw, has never been to school, but who writes books.
Interrogating my Chandal Life will undoubtedly be a significant book in the landscape of Dalit literature. This despite the storytelling being written with a flourish that can prove to be fairly distracting with its verbosity. It is much like the writer himself who when speaking on a public forum is full of wisdom and fascinating insights but ever the performer— perhaps some of it has seeped into the written word too. Nevertheless read this seminal book for the history of Bengal and the plight of dalits it charts through Manoranjan Byapari’s testimony.
Update ( 3 Sept 2018): Manoranjan Byapari has signed a multi-book deal with Westland, an Amazon company. The figures have not been revealed but one of the translators working on the project is eminent Bengali translator Arunava Sinha. ( “Former rickshaw-puller inks big book deal“, TOI, 2 Sept 2018)
Manoranjan Byapari Interrogating my Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit ( Translated by Sipra Mukherjee) SAGE Samya, New Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. Rs 550
*Sanjeev Chandan is Editor of the leading feminist magazine Streekaal and founder of Marginalised Publications, an independent publisher that publishes Dalit-Bahujan literature and academic works on cultural and political issues. Formerly, Mr. Chandan was Hindi Editor at Forward Press, a bilingual magazine that looks at issues and interests from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective. His collection of stories, 546veen Seat ke Stree, was published recently.
**Anita Bharti is an author, a teacher and a well-known critic of Dalit literature. One of her important contributions is the book Samkaleen Nariwaad aur Dalit Stree ka Pratirodh, which received the ‘Savitribai Phule Vaichariki Samman’ award from Streekaal magazine in 2016. Another important work is the collection of poetry that she has edited – Yathastithi se Takraate Hue Dalit Stree Jeewan se Judi Kavitaayein. Ms. Bharti has been honoured with several awards, which include the Indira Gandhi Shikshak Samman and Delhi Rajya Shikshak Samman.
Popular Hindi pulp fiction writer Surendra Mohan Pathak has written his 298th book. It is the first volume of his autobiography called Na Bairi Na Koi Begana: Volume 1 . It documents his childhood and early beginnings as a writer. It has a generous amount of black and white photographs as well as images of the covers of his first books. Undoubtedly his fans will be mighty pleased to read this book and how he as a young telecom inspector ventured into pulp writing. The hub of this form of fiction was Meerut which coincidentally was his hometown too.
Na Bairi Na Koi Begana: Volume 1 is certainly readable but can get a little tedious too given that far too much minor information about his personal life is shared. It is also incredible to read all the conversations for how well does memory serve him we the readers would never know, unless of course the writer maintained a diary. If it had been an autobiograhy contextualising and analysing his writing within the tradition of Hindi literature and the place pulp fiction held with a sprinkling of his personal life, then it would be fascinating. Perhaps the next volume in this planned series will devote more time to the literary context. For now recording minute details of his personal life rather than that of the writer will work for some but not all.
Be that as it may this autobiography will be seminal.
Surendra Mohan Pathak Na Bairi Na Koi Begana: Volume 1 Westland, Chennai, 2018. Pb. pp 390 Rs299
In the past few months new imprints have been announced by publishing houses in India.
The first was Niyogi Books launching their three imprints — Thornbird for translation ( H S Shivprakash), Olive Turtle for Original Fiction ( Keki Daruwalla) and Paper Missile for Non fiction ( Udaya Narayan Singh).
The second was the translation programme announced by Ratna Sagar led by Dinesh Sinha. They have launched with three titles and have a few more planned in 2018.
The third is the children’s imprint launched by Readomania.
This afternoon Westland ( an Amazon company) announced the launch of a new literary imprint called “Context”. It will include serious, thoughtful, politically engaged fiction and non-fiction, mostly in hardback, by writers from the Indian subcontinent.
And if the rumours are true then there are some more to be announced later this year.
( My article on Kindle books being introduced in Indian languages was published in The Mint on 21 Dec 2016. )
Amazon India has announced that Kindle will launch digital books in five Indian languages—Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. The titles include Ishq Mein Shahar Hona by Ravish Kumar (Hindi), Rajaraja Chozhan by Sa. Na. Kannan (Tamil), Mrutyunjay by Shivaji Sawant (Marathi), Ek Bija Ne Gamta Rahiye by Kaajal Oza Vaidya (Gujarati), Aarachar by K.R. Meera (Malayalam) and Mayapuri by Shivani (Hindi). Kindle devices seventh generation and above will support Indic scripts, enabling readers to access such books.
This is a move that could be a game changer in India. Amazon India has moved methodically to embed itself in Indian publishing. First, it launched Kindle with free lifetime digital access provided by BSNL, but only for English e-books. In November, the acquisition of local publishing firm Westland—known for its commercial fiction best-sellers and translation programme—was completed at reportedly $6.5 million (around Rs44 crore), a small portion of the $5 billion allocated by Jeff Bezos as investment in India. In fact, Seattle-based Amazon Publishing’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, has surpassed all other publishers in the amount of world literature it makes available in the US. This was first highlighted in December 2015 by Chad Post, publisher, Open Letter Books, on his influential website, Three Percent. In October 2015 AmazonCrossing announced it had a $10 million budget to invest in translations worldwide. It is probably no coincidence that Amazon India vice- president and country manager Amit Agarwal has been inducted into the Bezos core team, which is responsible for its global strategy.
In an email, Post responded to the news, saying: “This seems like a great thing for Indian readers and anyone interested in Indian literature. Amazon’s stated goal is to make as many books available in as many formats to as many people as possible, and this program is a strong move in that direction. Increasing digital access to these books will be huge—it greatly expands the potential audience, and could help AmazonCrossing expand into publishing Indian writers in translation. AmazonCrossing published 60 works translated into English in 2016, which is far more than any other publisher. The majority of these titles are translated from German, French and Spanish, but AmazonCrossing has expanded into doing works from Iceland, Turkish, Chinese and Indonesian, so it makes sense that they would be interested in finding books from these five Indian languages.”
In India, this announcement could not have come at a more opportune moment. With demonetization, Indians who prefer dealing in cash are perforce moving to digital payments. Also, by July 2017, it will be mandatory for all handsets manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language, and support reading of text in all these languages, thus making it feasible to read books other than English on the Kindle app too.
Kannan Sundaram, publisher, Kalachuvadu, welcomed the decision: “We hope it will increase our revenue from e-books which is pretty low now. Tamilians are spread all over the world. It is near impossible to reach hard copies to them. So this will boost the chances for them to read Tamil books of their choice.” Best-selling author Ashwin Sanghi called it an “outstanding initiative by Amazon India. It’s about time that vernacular writing moved out from the confines of paperback. It will also enable out-of-print books to be made available now.” Another best-selling author, Amish Tripathi, said this will address the inadequate distribution and marketing of Indian language books, for the much larger market is the one in Indian languages. “I am personally committed to this and am very happy that of the 3.5 million copies that have been sold of my books, a good 500,000 of them are in Indian languages.” Others remarked upon the best global practices it would bring to local publishing.
Well-known Hindi lexicographer Arvind Kumar says it will influence reading patterns by encouraging cross-pollination of literature across cultures by “opening new avenues for translation of two-way Hindi to English and other Indian languages which are being introduced on Kindle, and from many non-English languages like French and German or, say, Latin American into Hindi”. Mini Krishnan, OUP, too endorsed it, saying readership in the Indian languages is healthy, so “a highly portable personal library will surely do well”.
(Thank you for the response to my inaugural newsletter. Please feel free to write: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com )
The biggest news in terms of business deals has been the acquisition of TATA-owned publishers Westland by Amazon. (http://bit.ly/2fjVVCP) Earlier this year Amazon had a bought a significant minority stake in Westland but last week they bought the company for a purportedly Rs 39.8 crores or approximately $6.5 million. ( http://bit.ly/2fzdfrJ ) Westland has a history of over 50 years in retail, distribution and publishing. It is an amalgamation of two companies, Westland Books and EastWest Books (Madras). “Amazon’s roots are in books and we are excited to be part of that team in the next phase of our journey,” Westland CEO Gautam Padmanabhan said. The publishing list of Westland, its imprints Tranquebar and EastWest, and imprint extension Mikros, include bestselling authors Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Preeti Shenoy, Devdutt Pattanaik, Anuja Chauhan and Ravi Subramanian, among others. This deal highlights the growing significance of India book markets — the third largest English language and with each regional language being of a substantial size too. It will also have an effect on how publishers realign themselves to create strategically good content which makes for good cultural capital but also astute business sense.
For more on the significance of such an acquisition read Bharat Anand’s analysis of AT&T & Time Warner merger in HBR. (http://bit.ly/2feLlOP ) It is a marriage between content and distribution, organizations and tech companies. “Content is an increasingly important complement for every one of the tech companies.” Bharat Anand is the Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he’s taught media and corporate strategy for 19 years. He is the author of the recently released The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change.
Publishing business strategies will be bolstered by the GOI announcement as part of the Digital India movement that “Handsets mandated to support Indian language keyboards July 1st 2017” All handsets being manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India will have to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language (of 22), and support reading of text in all these languages. (http://bit.ly/2fGxrbb ) In Medianama’s analysis this will speed up the switch in India to smartphones (and featurephones), because they have that capability to use Indic languages using the operating system. ( http://bit.ly/2feSTRG ) In the long run, good news for publishers if their content is gold.
14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. Nearly 50% of the 1.3 bn population in India is below the age of 25 years –a sizeable reading market. As the first-ever Kids & Family Reading Report, India edition by Scholastic India notes that 86% children read the books they select but points out that 71 per cent of kids were currently reading a book for fun. This is the way it should be to create a new generation of readers. (http://scholastic.co.in/readingreport )
Ann Patchett’s incredibly stunning novel of families and the writing experience Commonwealth(Bloomsbury)
Jonathan Eig’s fascinating account of The Birth of the Pill (Pan Books, Pan MacMillan India)
Translating Bharat Reading India edited by Neeta Gupta. A collection of essays discussing the art of translating and what constitutes a good translation. (Yatra Books)
Madeleine Thien’s extraordinary novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing ( My interview with the author: http://bit.ly/2eX5meG )
Lit fests: ILF Samanvay: The IHC Indian Languages Festival ( 5-7 Nov 2016)
Literary Prize: Haruki Murakami wins this year’s Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award ($74,000). The Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award is not to be confused with the Hans Christian Andersen Award (or medal)— often regarded as the “Little Nobel Prize”— instituted in 1956 to recognize lasting contributions in the field of children’s literature. (http://bit.ly/2eC70iI ) In his acceptance speech he warned against excluding outsiders (http://wapo.st/2fjZ31u )
World Literature Today, the award-winning magazine of international literature and culture, announced Marilyn Nelson as the winner of the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Awarded in alternating years with the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the biennial NSK Prize ( $25,000) recognizes great achievements in the world of children’s and young-adult storytelling. ( http://bit.ly/2fdIQhX )
Jai Arjun Singh’s The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee has been given the Book Award for Excellence in Writing on Cinema (English) at the Mumbai Film Festival.
Interesting book links:
A Phone Call from Paul , literary podcast for @LitHub done by Paul Holdengraber, NYPL is worth listening to. Here is the latest episode where Paul is in conversation with Junot Diaz. (http://bit.ly/2fxF1p8 )
Earlier in 2016, Amazon bought a significant minority stake in Westland. ( Ashwin Sanghi and I were discussing publishing, his pseudonymn “Shawn Higins” and his own amazing success story. His first novel The Rozabal Line was published by Lulu.com. Later an Indian publishing house based in Chennai, Westland, offered to publish his book. His latest novel Sialkot Saga has recently been released. http://bit.ly/1UEe1lq
Read on about Ashwin’s incredible story. This extract is from the first draft of 13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck and has been reproduced with permission. )
Extract from original manuscript of “13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck”
After being rejected by most publishers, I had self-published my first novel The Rozabal Line via a US-based self-publishing platform called Lulu.com which had just set up shop. The year was 2007. There was no Kindle and self-publishing meant POD (Print on Demand) in which the book is listed on websites and a customer order triggers a printing and delivery of the book. I designed my own book cover and hired a freelance editor to work on the manuscript before I uploaded the PDF to Lulu’s server.
The average self-published book sells 57 copies during its lifetime (the long tail is very long indeed). I started blogging and became active on social media. I created a YouTube trailer for the book and managed to sell 900 copies in the first year. I was one of Lulu’s best selling authors even with those meagre numbers!
I soon realized that the platform was selling my books only via American online retail channels such as Amazon.com (the India channel did not exist) and BN.com. My titles remained unavailable in India. My attempts to get published the traditional way in India had come to nought and I was at a dead end.
I started visiting bookstores to find out if they would be willing to stock my books but they refused. They said that they would only deal with distributors. Unfortunately I knew none of the distributors. My mother knew someone at a publishing company and was happy to introduce us. Unfortunately that person’s company had already decided to decline my work (like many others), but she introduced me to Vivek Ahuja, who had worked for eighteen years with a large book distribution entity in India, UBSPD.
The incredibly helpful Vivek advised that I would have to import my books from the US and supply them on consignment basis to a few Indian distributors. Giving me a list of some 75 Indian distributors, he advised me to write to each of them individually, enclosing a copy of my book. One of the distributors on that list was East West Books. No one called or replied to my letters and books.
Months later, I received a call from a lady who introduced herself as Hemu Ramaiah. I did not know it at that time, but she was the founder of Landmark Book Stores and her company had just created a joint venture called Westland with East West Books. Hemu said that she had loved The Rozabal Line that I had sent to East West, but it would be impossible to import the book from America and then expect to sell it in the Indian market at a reasonable price. Would I be willing to republish it in India? I jumped with joy at her question. I had been turned down by almost every publisher on the planet by then.
Hemu then introduced me to Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland (my current publisher). Gautam liked the book but was not sure about its commercial viability. He created a target group of ten readers (including his own father) to read the book and give feedback. Luckily for me, the majority opinion was favourable.
We signed a contract two weeks later. There were two conditions attached. One: that we do a fresh edit of the book. Two: that I drop my pseudonym.
The first print run was 2000 copies and we sold that lot in four weeks. We went into a second print run and have not stopped ordering reprints since then.