There are many books and essays to discuss but today I would like to share two poems from a slim but exquisite and powerful collection of poetry called Serpents Under My Veil. It is by Kashimiri poet Asiya Zahoor. The book was published on 15 August 2019. She has written on Kashmiri and Caribbean Literature, exile and psycholinguistics. Her film ‘The Stitch’ has won the Critics award in the Second South Asian film Film Festival by Federation of Film Society of India and has been screened at various festivals including the 48th Roshd International Festival in Tehran. Her poetry is translated into many languages.
Lightness of Being in a Heavily
before they lay barbed wire across our tongues let’s sing of almond blossoms
before they hammer our heads to harvest thoughts let’s think what we want to think
before they wall our sleep let’s whisper dreams into cold cruel ears
before they blind us with a burst of lead let’s mirror our darkness
let’s engrave this story with fingertips on palms before they erase our words
My Grandmother Spun Soft Revolutions on a Charkha
Turning the fleece of a Kashmir goat into cashmere.
Her lullabies on a rabab put heavy guns to sleep.
Her prayers soared from chimneys, wished for rivers not cursed with myths, breasts not drilled with bullets, streets not hemmed
with barbed wire, history not written with scars. She paused her singing to boil almanacs in a samovar, inhaling embers,
exhaling fire. Her passion faded like posters on municipal walls
we ignore in our daily routine. She offered trays of mustard rice to a shrine on a mountain
where a soothsayer had predicted, embers turn to ashes.
(C) The copyright to the poems rests with Asiya Zahoor. Serpents Under My Veil has been published by Tethys, an imprint of Yatra Books.
On Tuesday, 24 Sept 2019, Neeta Gupta hosted a wonderful evening to welcome the delegation of EU Prize for Literature winners led by Alexandra Buchler, Literature Across Frontiers. The three writers touring India were — Irish writer Jan Carson, Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan and Polish writer and filmmaker Marta Dzido. Neeta Gupta wears many hats as a publishing professional. Three of her responsibilities including managing the Hindi publishing firm, Yatra Books; her newly launched English publishing firm, Tethys and of course as Co-Director, Jaipur Book Mark — a B2B conclave that is held alongside Jaipur Literature Festival.
It was a small but select gathering of publishing professionals and diplomats which included EU Ambassador-designate to India, Ugo Astuto. But the evening highlight was to hear the three writers introduce and read out extracts from their books.
Irish writer, Jan Carson, offered a fascinating perspective of the Troubles as she is a Protestant. As she said, one month short of her eighteenth birthday she grew up surrounded by violence and then the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Her adult life has been spent in peace. But of late she has been questioning her identity a lot as being a Protestant she is considered a Britisher and has a British passport but her ancestors came to Ireland more than 300 years ago. Her accent is Irish. Her sense of belonging is Irish. And now with Brexit on the cards, she has applied for Irish passport. Having said that The Fire Starters offers her perspective, a Protestant’s witnessing if you like, of the troubles. It has led to some fascinating encounters at public readings where unamused members of the audience have walked away realising she would be offering a Protestant perspective as in their minds it is a view of the coloniser and yet a rarity amongst much contemporary Irish literature that tends to focus on the Catholic viewpoint.
Turkish-Dutch writer, Ciler Ilhan read extracts from her novel Exiles that won the EU Prize for Literature 2011. It is a collection of stories based upon newspaper clippings and witnessing some of the stories herself. So it sort of blurs the lines between truth and fiction but lands a mean punch in her sharp and incisive commentary about the shifts in Turkish society. She touches upon topics like gender violence, gender segregation, gender biases, honour killings, growing nationalism and with it the impact it is having on society. Powerful stories. Worth reading.
Here is the link to the TED Talk she gave earlier this year. It is an extract from her book:
Marta Dzido, is a Polish writer and filmmaker, whose works are only now being translated into English by Kate Webster. In fact, on this evening, Marta read out for the first time the English translation of some extracts from her award-winning novel Frajda. It is about two characters, both in their forties, named only as Him and Her. There was something in the manner she read as well as what she read that seemed to explore the intersections of her writerly and filmmaking strengths, by allowing her to write about the particular and yet by not really naming the characters, creating a space for universality. It was quite a remarkable experience.
One month before the 10th anniversary of South Asia’s largest and most renowned literary festival, Jaipur Literature Festival founder and co-director Namita Gokhale (with William Dalrymple) sat down with Jaya Bhattarcharji Rose to talk about her latest, and eighth novel Things to Leave Behind. It is a multi-generational story set between 1840-1912 in Nainital and Sat Tal, Kumaon, part of the Himalayas.
How did Things to Leave Behind come about?
A tangle of memories about a time I sensed and knew. I had accessed a rich treasure of information through Mountain Echoes, the book of oral biographies I had compiled and transcribed. Then there was Clever Wives and Happy Idiots, folktales that had been recorded in the memoirs of Russian spy and adventurer, Ivan Minayev, which we at Yatra Books [a Delhi-based publishing house specialising in translations where Gokhale works as director] published and I wrote the introduction to. I wanted to give voice to this, to record and to remember those days, those stories.
In your acknowledgements you mention how this novel was inspired by your grandfather’s text –The History of Kumaon?
I did not have the good fortune to meet Badri Dutt Pande but he was an inspirational figure, who helped rid Kumaon of the infamous British ‘begaari ‘ system of unpaid labour. His book The History of Kumaon, originally written in Hindi with the title Kumaon ka Itihas gave me deep insights into the past.
How much does family and memory, especially of the hills, play a role in your writing? How have those shaped the subjects you write about?
I grew up in a beautiful house called ‘Primrose’, which finds fleeting mention in the novel. Many of the stories and episodes have their source in family history, including the tale of the royal physician Jeevan Chandra Vaidya.
How is writing about the mountains a different experience from writing about anything else —for instance in the context of your other books like the very successful Paro and Priya.
Urban novels have a different edge to them. The city has a very different character and atmospherics from the mountains.
Why adopt the British Raj spelling when the story is told from an Indian perspective?
The story is told from several perspectives. The old ‘Raj’ spellings were in use and authentic to the times, so I used them, especially in the early parts. The language and spellings I employ become slowly ‘modern’ in the course of the narrative.
Your first book was commissioned by the legendary editor, Carmen Calil when she was at Chatto & Windus. This was at a time when it was not so easy to access London-based publishing firms. As a publisher and writer yourself what are the transformations you have seen evolve in publishing?
Publishing has changed in terms of markets. India has its own readers, writers and publishers, and this strong internal market is growing. We are the third largest English publishing market in the world, after the US and UK. My first novel struck a chord and succeeded. I was very young and I learnt a lot, including how to cope with subsequent failures.
Your fascination for literature is evident in the local publishing history of the late 19th century to the early 20th century that you blend into the story. Is this your fascination as an author or a publisher?
I am fascinated by the power of books and ideas, in transforming how every age views itself. I wanted to describe the books people were reading, disputing, talking about. My fascination was as a reader as well as a publisher.
How did the title Things to Leave Behind come about?
I had spent five weeks at the Bellagio Center [residency program] at Lake Como. I was working on In Search of Sita and also this novel. When I was to leave, I struggled with the packing and made out a list of Things to Leave Behind and realized that this was to be the title of my book.
Things to Leave Behind is a novel that is incredibly powerful in its syncretism. Although there is a thriving and lived caste system in the mountainous regions of Almora and Sat Tal a significant portion of your novel dwells upon the arrival of missionaries of different religions such as Swami Vivekananda and the Baptists. Yet you are able to show how people always find the breathing space to live life according to their terms. Were these manoeuvres by the characters an exciting challenge to write?
The story told itself, the characters made their choices and lived out the consequences. That’s all. There was a ferment of ideas; a conflict of identities, then as there is now.
You have painted an unsettling picture of the hierarchies of the caste system operating in the hills. Can you share a little more about this character – Jayesh Jonas – and where he came from? Do you feel things are different in these societies today?
The caste system was rigid and hierarchical in those times. It has changed, but the attitudes and prejudices cast a long shadow. I was a Pant [part of a compound of a North Indian surname of people with a Hindu Brahmin background] before marriage. Jayesh Jonas was based not as a character but in his situation on a branch of my paternal family tree (that had decided, in very different circumstances, to convert to Christianity).
How have these hills affected you as a writer?
I keep going back to that landscape because somewhere in my imagination it provides immense solace. But that’s not all I write or want to write. Let’s see where my muse guides me next.
What do you feel is the one myth about the hills that people have that you’d like to demystify through your work and writing?
I try always to demythify the false romanticism of the simple hill life. People are complex, complicated and cunning everywhere.
(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 )
With an estimated market segment of INR 10,000 crores, India ranks seventh in overall publishing and third after the US and UK in English language publishing. According to a recent FICCI Publishing Sector Report, book publishing in India is growing at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 30 per cent. With an estimated 600 million adult readers in the country and a growing young reader base (15-25 yrs) of 350 million, the readership in India is expected to continue growing.
This is a significant development in the Indian publishing industry.
Westland Books has a tremendous stable of commercially successful authors, a strategy they have been in investing in steadily in recent years. Some of these are: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Ravi Subramanian, Preeti Shenoy, Anuja Chauhan, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Devdutt Pattanaik, Dheeraj Sinha, Kiran Doshi, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Ashok Banker and Satyajit Das. Their books sell lakhs of units. ( 1 lakh = 100,000) Their pre-order sales are phenomenal too. These writers have a star power and a fan following that has been unprecedented in the publishing history of India but they are also expensive to retain. (See: 4 March 2013. http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/writer-amish-tripathi-wins-record-1-million-advance-for-south-asia-rights-515121 and 19 March 2015, http://scroll.in/article/714606/why-anuja-chauhan-moved-from-harpercollins-after-eight-years-and-three-bestsellers ) The immediate impact on the publishing firm has been to streamline operations, not just in terms of structural readjustments but also exploring alternative channels of revenue, while growing too. Westland is primarily an English-language publishing firm but has an Indian translations programme with its strategic partnership with Yatra Books. In fact in early February, the Oriya translation of Amish Tripathi’s book had been announced.
Amazon too has been in India for a while. It is better known for its online retail store and self-publishing programme, Kindle Direct Programme or KDP. (It has organised very popular KDP roadshows in India too, proving the Amazon brand is well-known locally.) By investing in an Indian publishing firm, Amazon firmly establishes itself into the literary landscape. Plus, evolving in this manner seems to be in keeping with Amazon’s highly successful Seattle-based publishing programme especially translations. In fact it is significant that press release quoted Sarah Jane Gunter, Director, Amazon Publishing and not Jeff Bezos or an Amazon India representative.
Westland stands to gain twofold – a significant minority provides good financial investment and they will be able to leverage the international area strategically particularly Indian diaspora book market. As an author said to me upon hearing of this announcement, “Now it may be possible for Indian authors to organise book tours abroad.” Whereas Amazon is able to leverage a significant portion of the 600m readership in India with plans to expand in the future. The Indian book market is showing a healthy growth rate across genres. The estimated valuation of Westland with this deal is Rs 38/40 crores – a substantial sum for an Indian publishing firm when its most valuable assets are its authors and backlist. Sarah Gunter too with her experience in children’s literacy programmes will provide expertise into a book market where the estimated readership between ages 15-25 is 350 million. Also, Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle recently, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA, it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?” Another good reason to invest in a local book publishing programme?
“We are very excited about this investment from Amazon and what it means for Westland, our customers and authors,” said Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland. “Amazon’s roots are in books and they remain a major part of their business – this investment from a company with such deep experience in books, global reach and exciting digital platforms will help us take our Indian authors and their works globally.”
“We are delighted that our investment in Westland will help their authors reach a broader audience worldwide,” said Sarah Jane Gunter, Director of Amazon Publishing. “Our investment in Westland continues Amazon’s commitment to innovating and investing heavily on behalf of customers in India – it’s still very much Day One.”
Amazon too, like others in the publishing industry, are exploring omni-channel retailing. Having opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, followed by San Diego and it is speculated that they have another 400 planned in USA. Hence it comes as no surprise when Satabdi Mishra of Walking BookFairs posted on her Facebook wall on 2 February 2016, “Why are Amazon and Snapdeal calling a small independent ‘real’ bookshop for possible collaborations?”
So far it is a win-win scenario for Westland and Amazon.
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below.
I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.
Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:
Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories)translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.
Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.
There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.
Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.
Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.
Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.