Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

suppressed voices

I keep coming across too many people who think writing, especially fiction, is an easy ticket to moneybags and glossy magazine covers. They know nothing about imagination or craft, and simply lack the attention spans to even write a few coherent paragaphs. Yet everyone and their semi literate cousins want to be writers.

English languge publishers in India do not seem to find enough home-grown talent to nurture and sell, at least so their published titles would have us believe. Walk into any city bookshop, and you'll see the usual bestselling foreign authors proudly on display. The Indian writers? A few sad books languishing in the back shelves, and those are the ones being published and promoted by mulitnational biggies. Where are the writers, and where are their books, even if someone wants to read them?

I also wonder whether its always originality and quality that counts for the big name publishers. Or do they calculatedly choose books poised to 'sell' in the marketplace? I recently read an anthology of childrens stories by Indian writers. The writing was competent and some of the names were familiar. Yet the stories and plots reminded me too closely of a show run some years ago in a popular children's TV channel. The resemblances were too close for my comfort.

Keeping all this in mind, I asked questions and got some very interesting replies. The result was the following article, which appeared in BTW magazine a couple of weeks ago. The full unedited version is given below.

A friend told me he liked the article, but that it read like a journalistic piece. True. I've quoted many opinions instead of giving only my own. But I'm very much there behind the scenes, asking, observing, organising everything into a coherent whole. And yes, the BTW editors are also there, supporting free speech by publishing this. The views of many carry more weight than those of a single individual. Here they are. Let the reader decide.


Indian book lovers can choose from a wealth of fascinating new titles in creative literature from foreign authors. Our regional Bhashas have their venerable home-grown creative traditions and towering literary giants. However, Indian writers of comparable stature writing in English seem relatively fewer and far between. Many acclaimed authors such as Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri or Rohinton Mistry are expatriates writing primarily for a Western audience. A new Indian author of fiction who is published in India, commands a limited readership and is considered successful if the book sells just 1000 copies. “The best of Indian writing is not in English,” avers Sunil Poolani, senior journalist, author, and founder of Frog Books, Mumbai. “A Vaikom Muhammad Basheer or a Sarat Chandra Chatterjee is any day equal to a Marquez or Umberto Eco. They are not as famous because they are not properly translated like their western counterparts.”

India has a huge population of educated people and a fair portion of readers interested in serious writing. Visit India and see. Sadly, many yearn for a wider choice in home-grown popular as well as literary fiction in English. Is there a paucity of desi talent? Are original and interesting new Indian books in English not published and marketed in the right way? Hasmita Chander, a freelance writer and editor who has been published in seven countries, voices a widely-felt need. “I long for more stories in familiar Indian settings about real Indian people. I wish there were more memoirs, creative nonfiction, and essays written about India for Indians. The little that is available is often focused on explaining India to a foreign reader, which is off-putting after a point for an Indian like me. Popular fiction has little on offer with the same old staid themes, predictable stories, pretentious ones, unrealistic ones that are obviously fitted into a contrived plot. It's an insult to the intelligence, and a disappointment to read. So what is left but to turn to western
literature, and keep searching for good quality work?”

If enough citizens of our great country are not interested in buying and reading new books, a shortage of well-crafted and accessible writing is one cause of it. The pretentious ‘literary’ artifices of some Indian writing in English deter potential readers with self-indulgent, glib or superficial works that seem to have little to say. Verbal wizardry can dominate over a strong story, characters and emotions. “My issue is with taught writing, seminar writing, writing by proxy by editors, writing that is too self conscious,” contends Abhigyan Jha, writer of hit screen and TV scripts, three novels, and co-founder of Undercover Utopia Publications. ”Our writers and publishers are too high brow. Without mass market paperback authors - without great storytellers - all literary fiction of the late 20th century is about to be consigned to trash cans of history. Steinbeck and Hemingway were relevant to people and they wrote great language too. We need more writers of well-crafted, imaginative popular fiction like Rowling, Grisham, Asimov and Arthur Clarke. It is they who help the publishing industry survive. It is they who encourage readers in every generation to take up reading.”

Surely Indian writers do not lack talent and imagination. Some original, interesting and well crafted fiction in English is indeed being created by home-grown Indian writers. But why aren’t more of these new books read and talked about everywhere? Is it because Indian reading tastes are too diverse and fragmented into readers of regional languages? “Who says books do not sell well in India?” counters Sunil Poolani, “Trash sells. Books brought out by Shobhaa De, Robin Sharma, Chetan Bhagat sell. Ditto books on cookery, cinema, self-help (due to growing mental insecurity), and travel guides. What does not sell is meaningful and path-breaking literature. So an aam janata do not know who a Kiran Nagarkar or O V Vijayan is.”

Why do Indians buy fewer books than readers in countries like the US, where new writers can aspire to sell 10,000 copies? “You cannot compare US with India,” says Sakuntala Narasimhan, author of 11 books, consumer rights activist and classical musician
“They have a homogenous English reading market. We are a cultural motley, with high illiteracy, regional languages etc. Also, there is more money in the hands of Americans.”
Zafar Anjum, Singapore-based journalist, film maker, author of two books and founder-editor of, a website dedicated to Asian writing in English, has this to say;. “Indians don’t have the same kind of reading habits that we see in the developed world. In overcrowded cities like Delhi and Mumbai, it would be difficult to imagine commuters reading books in jam-packed buses and trains like their foreign counterparts. In the US and the UK, the market is uniform in terms of the language. In India, the English speaking yuppies, who are equipped with the language skills to make book stats look sexier, are simply not interested in books. And if they are, they would buy books like One Night@ Call Centre. But I hope things will change.”

Does inadequate support from Indian publishers translate into less visibility and sales of quality new books written by Indians for an Indian audience? If potential readers do not see or hear about a book, they won’t know of its existence, let alone seek it out to buy and read. Publishing is a profit-making business like any other. According to their press release dated 5.3.2008, “The tremendous performances of Pearson’s India units was led by Penguin, which last year …achieved sales just short of Rs.1 billion.” Yet new Indian talents struggle to reach an audience. Publishers in India are sometimes accused of short-changing authors by way of royalties. If the rewards are niggardly in this highly competitive business, emerging literary talents may be compelled to give up half way. “Most Indian publishers cheat. I should know, as author of 11 books. Except for 3 publishers, all others cheated me on royalty payments, including some big name publishing houses,” says Sakuntala Narasimhan. Sunil Poolani blames “poor payments, the lalas of the trade, and lack of funds for research. Look at the kind of money British or other writers are given to research their works. So, save our Ramachandra Guha, the best history books on India are written by British writers. Gregory Rabassa is paid as much as Marquez for translating the latter's work.”

Abhigyan Jha says, “The publisher will expend almost nothing on marketing new books. Underwear is promoted aggressively in this country but we are still shy of promoting books. The writer has to pay for his own marketing (always a higher cost than printing) but it is not called self publishing. Why? Because supposedly the publisher (who in India is merely the printer and the distributor) by its editorial expertise chooses only the good books to publish…In 60 years these publishers couldn't find a single book which would sell a million copies in its first year.”

Money and hype can sometimes push books of inferior quality to the top of the bestseller lists, while better writing languishes for lack of publicity. “That's the tragedy one has to suffer, no matter how talented you are,” says Sunil Poolani.” Like their western counterparts, not a single big publishing house entertains new talent unless it has sex appeal and/or probability of selling. ‘The best magical realist after Marquez,’ that's what a 'great' books page editor of a national weekly called a 20-something Bombay guy who wrote a trashy book. He paid the publisher nearly 10 lakh for launch, pitching stories, interviews and reviews. The publisher got a good deal, the scribes were paid, and the author, belonging to a rich business family, got instant stardom. What if the book sank without a trace. The scene is the same in the US too, where thousands of books come out every year. If a work of fiction has to sell, in India or in the US, hype and hoopla are important; get a Booker, get dragged into controversy, voila, then your book is in the best-selling list.”

Are Indian readers to blame for preferring foreign writers and East-West stories by expatriate authors over home-grown writing? We are impressed by even the most obscure and dubious foreign achievements and tend to rush to buy the book. Sunil Poolani and Sakuntala Narasimhan attribute the current situation to our colonial mentality. “If we were slaves of the British, now the neo-colonialists are the US,” says Poolani. “You will find a pirated Kavya Viswanathan 'magnum opus' on Bombay's mean streets. Also to be blamed are the Indian media who is perpetually licking up western 'success' stories.” “This is true of other fields like science and the arts,” adds Sakuntala Narasimhan. “The market is dominated by East meets West because the overseas buyer is not interested (or does not understand) indigenous settings. Indian writers turn out masala with an eye to the west because they think it is the shortest route to sales and fame.”

True, a “flabby’, pretentious literary style is the flavour of the season the world over. Indian writers are merely conforming to current trends, and things will change. Insightful, imaginative new fiction is also being crafted by Indian writers. Zafar Anjum ends the debate with a ray of hope. “Best seller lists are no indicator of quality. What’s wrong with a book lying in one of the back shelves of the bookstore? Discerning readers will find a good book if that’s what they want. Publishers, and not writers, need worry on that score.”


Pradeep said...

Hi Moni,

Since I am a journalist myself, I found this article quite well-structured and well-rounded. If I may disagree with your friend, I don't find anything wrong in incorporating others' views. I think that's the way it should be. Not many freelance writers know about this. Many think only their views are important. And, as you very rightly say, many voices are more effective than one.

Actually, even a personal article should ideally have "what others' say" part in it. Then only it becomes complete.

Coming to the subject -- I think it has many dimensions. One point is that now there are many Indian author's books adorning the shelves, may be fewer compared to western. But definitely the scene is better than what it used to be before.

Indian English writing suffers from late start. We are more used to the Western English writing more than the Indian English writing. We definitely lack quality. Our style of rendering has to improve.

The lack of craft or skill is a very common problem. In my field of journalism, there's an acute shortage of talent. I find very few people who are dedicted to understanding the play of words. A lot of them of them actually learn on the job.

Also, Moni, I think part of reason is also the way English is taught in schools here. Rather than teaching English as a tool for communication, schoolchildren are burdened with the dynamics of literature and worse. The result is they lose interest, and they never pick up the communicative part of the language.

Good to see that you are contributing to journals and newspapers.

monideepa sahu said...

Thanks for the long and insightful comment, Pradeep. About journalists actually learning on the job, I don't think that's an entirely ad thing. You may learn all the theories in the universe, but until you acttually put those principle into practice, you can't master the best way to use them.

Teaching literature to students may be heavy, but the educational system, the approach to teachign the subject, that is primarily to blame. Literature is a living, dynamic entity, and its a load of fun. why ruin the enjoyment by forcing young students to mug notes and write sterotyped answers?

Rajiv Mudgal said...

Hi Moni, What a lovely post.
I agree with almost everything you have said, and even Pradeep. Infact, I am still trying to gauge the full breath of the problem you two have raised(though I don't consider myself as a writer, although I have written several articles and reviews for technical mag: for example:
(as you will see that I was never a creative writer or a journalist) still...
I feel that the problem is much deeper, and also strange, as English never ever did take hold of our eyes and ears. (I mean television and radio)
Now I am saying this not because this happens to be my line; but generally, come to think about it (not using the very eyes and ears)hints at something unnatural.

I read a lot of Marathi and Hindi Literature and the topics that interests them are the topics no Indian English author could come around to frame. What we have are the Rushdie's and Shoba-de's. Their concerns are totally divorced from the grassroot concerns, and this is another of those strange phenomena about English in India and the strange expectations voiced by the vilayti publishers.

To sum up, I Include myself within those who lack the necessary craft or skill...But I see the problem much deeper and knoted.
English I can today safely declare has remained by and large the news {paper wala bhasha, as the English left it, and this includes typical English journalism being rapidly displaced by aaj tak)This displacement leaves English only as a technical bhasha required to be learned only so far as one can satisfy the odd demands of technoeconomy.

On even deeper level, I sometime wonder as to, can I speak and communicate the Marathi idiom as spoken by a newly arrived Marathi couple in the foggy suburbs of mumbai, or will my idiom remain locked to the American and Uk[ian] folds.

This is roughly what I feel is wrong with Indian English.


monideepa sahu said...

I am glad that this article has set you thinking, Rajiv. I think you have a very strong point here. There are a huge number of educated Indians who know English, but English is not their preferred language for thinking, feeling, and exchanging ideas. It's probably for many of us a link language, a language we use to facilitate things at work, get things moving. Practical, useful, but not something we can call our own and love.

Naren said...

I know a couple of friends who like Indian author books written in English. They probably downloaded a pdf version of the books and read them, like they used to do for other western author books. So, can we assume that there is a small portion of internet savvy people coming across Indian-English books in ebook format?

rajiv said...

Hi Moni
I have taken the liberty of posting an extract with a direct link to this article/post on my site which expands on my comments here.
I hope its Ok with you.

"Wats rong with angrezi?"

monideepa sahu said...

Hi Naren, Thanks for dropping by. Yes, there are many Indian readers who enjoy English books by Indian auuthors. I am wondering about the avriety and quaility of titles available.

Rajiv, feel free to link to my blog post. But please do add that the article (written by me of course) was originally published in By The Way (BTW) Mumbai on May 11th.

Laju K. said...

Hi Moni, thanks for posting your article. Enjoyed reading it. Good to read a collection of thoughts in such a piece. I believe publishers might be stuck on the ability to sell a book, because it might be different or not different enough, or too this or the other.

To an extent every story under the sun and moon has certain similar elements. The skill lies in telling it differently.

I guess no one wants to take a risk. Why loose money? when millions can be made? About time people think differently otherwise no one will be interested in reading Indian authors--the NRIs or the RIs.

I agree with Zafar, in time good authors/books languishing away will be discovered. Best, Laju K.