30 January 2010

Writer Singh, Salesman of the Year

In an Indian publishing market larger and busier than it was a decade ago, writers are harried, superstars rare.

IT MAY have been Mira Nair’s 2001 film Monsoon Wedding that enshrined in popular culture the genial (if tipsy) old uncleji who paraded the wincing aspiring writer of the family as “the next Arundhati Roy”. But that figure had already acquired a real presence in the previously anti-literary north Indian family half a decade earlier — after Roy’s Booker Prize win in 1996. It might have been Arundhati who became the household name — after news broke that The God of Small Things had had publishers in the US and the UK vying for the manuscript— but the era of massive advances in Indian writing in English (IWE) was actually inaugurated by Vikram Seth with £250,000 for A Suitable Boy (1993). He has himself referred to this as “the ludicrous advance for that book”. Roy finally settled for an advance of half a million pounds, unprecedented for an unpublished author, while Seth followed up his initial success with a £500,000 advance for An Equal Music (1999), topping it off with an astounding £1.4 million for Two Lives (2005).

These figures, although they represented the extremely limited interface between a handful of IWE writers and British (and American) publishers, made the Indian writer in English the sudden hot topic of discussion in 1990s drawing rooms. Meanwhile, authors like Kamala Das, who had been writing for decades without being catapulted into the media circus or trailed by the sweet smell of success, wrote sardonic opinion pieces about cooks and dhobis offering up novels to be sent to London publishers.

The 90s are now far away, and although the Indian publishing scene in English is now much larger, very few of the kind of gigantic advances that the air seemed filled with circa 1999 have actually materialised over the last decade. Print runs that are considered to make a book a “bestseller” are what one writer deservedly calls “embarrassing”: 5,000 copies for a “serious” book. Meanwhile, a range of new local publishers and foreign imprints have set up shop in India, shedding the earlier dominance of literary fiction in favour of genre writing of all kinds, from graphic novels and narrative non-fiction to chick lit and children’s books, and aggressively hunting for new writers. And everyone you know is writing a book.

This new literary marketplace, then, is both surprisingly welcoming and surprisingly difficult to survive in. The first-time author who, having spent years plugging away at a book while working a day job, finds that the publisher thinks of any promotional activity as an onerous task and often feels compelled to advertise himself or herself. Some give up swiftly, but even those who succeed are often exhausted by the non-literary demands made on them: financial savviness, public appearances, media-friendliness in an unrelenting culture of celebrity. We spoke to some authors about their experiences. Excerpts:


Author of The Immortals

Photo: Shailendra Pandey
On approaching publishers as a first-time writer
When I started writing, I didn’t really know people in the publishing industry, but it wasn’t quite based on blind submission either. The first thing of mine that came out in the national press in the UK was in 1988. I was in England then, and I knew Carl Miller. He was Editor of the LRB and also Professor of English at University College, London, where I was an undergrad. I never knew him then, but at the end of my degree, after I had taken my exams, he called me and said that my tutor Dan Jacobson, the South African novelist, had been showing him my essays and he liked them a lot. All this was very disarming and humbling, and then I happened to remember to tell him that I wrote poetry. But of course, with the LRB, every decision was a democratic one. Finally they did agree on one poem of mine, Cyril Road, which came out nearly a year after it was first accepted. Much later, when I was writing my novel in Oxford, I sent him a portion of it. He liked it. Although it was published not as an extract from a novel but as a short story in the LRB, it caught the attention of some people, which included publishers and agents.
Then it was a very up and down kind of thing. Then my agent, or the person who became my agent came to me, saying that the publisher who was going to take my novel had decided to drop it, and that she herself was getting married and had decided to stop being an agent. These two pieces of bad news came on the same day, in 1989.
I wrote both my first and second novels while I was still a graduate student at Oxford. Being an academic was my cover – it was my official reason for being in England. But by the time I actually got my D Phil, more and more people knew that I was a writer.

On changes in the publishing and literary world in Britain and India:
Things changed in Britain by the mid-90s. In fact, 1993, the year Afternoon Raag was published was a year of immense change, in terms of first novels becoming a kind of commodity. So all kinds of first novels: Donna Tartt’s first novel, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which was touted a first novel (since The Golden Gate had been in verse) 

There began to be a buzz about first novels purely in booklist terms. And the kind of discourse about literature that existed amongst people even in the early nineties – a lazy but loving discourse about literature – gradually disappeared. From 1993 onwards, things were quite different.

That was one of the reasons why I had to come back to India. What the legacy of Thatcherism was doing to culture in Britain – has done, by now – I didn’t find that amenable. So I came back to India in 1999. Here it was less homogenised, but in other ways it was disappointing. For example, no-one had tried to work towards on a forum for objective debate, which was there in England. When I was there, in the late 80s and early 90s, it was possible to forge friendships gradually based on purely intellectual commonalities. Over here it had to be lineage or old networks or something going back into the past: it was a shared anecdotal language that connected people to one another. In Britain it was possible to have friendships where that language wasn’t available or necessary.

On sustaining oneself as a full-time writer:
Can a writer make do by just writing? It was difficult in the 80s, it’s still difficult, although between then and now, we had a phase when the market was hot and people were getting a lot of money for first novels. There’s still money flying around, but there’s been a market crash and publishers have had to take stock of what’s been happening. Publishers have been worried for a long time, and I think they’re more worried now. I think it’s bad for the publishing industry because it’s becoming more and more driven by commercial forces: in the sense that more and more publishers have to justify in terms of profits or close down. With all that, it would be foolhardy to expect that people start making money just by writing straightaway.

On advances
I received an advance somewhat late, when the same publisher came back to me after I had waited for one and a half years, and offered me a contract with an advance for two books. It was the expected thing in 1991, a small advance – but one didn’t at all care, because the whole age of gigantic advances hadn’t come.

I didn’t have to negotiate. I was lucky in a few ways and unlucky in others. Unlucky in that my agent got married and went away, and I had to wait for one and half years for a second agent. Lucky with regard to the LRB, and also that I entered the scene with my first book before it became commercialized. What was important then was getting a good publisher. Each publisher had a reputation, and you looked at what or who they had published before. It was a matter of prestige.

I do think that to think in terms of getting a meagre advance as dispiriting is a sad thing. But I can imagine that that’s the way things are, and that’s the way things have been for a while. But personally, when I began to get bigger advances, I always felt intimidated by them. I had the feeling that I didn’t deserve this – which I probably didn’t.  

On cultures of publishing, past and present
The people who began to get into publishing in the early twentieth century or the late nineteenth century were people who were part of a whole culture: of , they were also people with some degree of idealism about literature, which grew and developed over decades. And so the scene in British publishing today is a development that has only taken place in the last twenty years: in terms of the kind of commercialism that now affects publishing, in terms of marketing, in terms of retail outlets, like bookshop chains.

Bookselling in the past wasn’t a necessarily commercial thing. People weren’t publishing a Thomas Mann or a DH Lawrence, or even someone really out of the way, like Samuel Beckett, because they wanted to make money off them. While we can discount that history now, it’s still a history of which present bookselling in Britain comes. So who are our booksellers here, and who are their forebears?

I’m not saying that we have to develop ourselves what the British were doing then. In fact there is a lot wrong with the British publishing scene today. But when we think about publishing here in India, one begins to think about these things. One ought to be able to compare different sorts of represents of a culture. And beyond saying that “I want to publish this guy, he’s the brightest hope we have today,” or soundbites of that kind, I feel that one doesn’t have a sense of what is going on in the Indian publisher’s head. Those few who are doing something interesting in India, like Ritu Menon, don’t get talked about with any degree of respect or curiosity any more. Simply because they don’t make money any more these days – and the climate is determined entirely by commercial parameters.

We don’t have a literary culture of editing. In our colleges and universities we don’t have a tutorial system, generally speaking. We don’t have a recent tradition of close reading, which is what literary editing is about. When people write for a magazine or a newspaper here, there is almost no feedback from the editor in terms of writing: for example, whether the use of a certain adjective is strengthening your argument or weakening it. While if you write for the best papers outside, you have to admit that you do get that feedback. And early on, you begin to understand that the idea is inextricable from the words in which it is said.

So in my mind, there is a kind of skepticism. While I am quite happy that we do have publishers who are publishing books in India which are not published outside, which are selling also to a certain extent, when we think of what this mean in terms of publishers’ achievements, publishing ethics in terms of the ethics of reading, or of disseminating literature, then we have to draw a blank, .

On public appearances and the pressure to cultivate a persona
On the writer’s part, especially the more independent-minded one (and I’m not discussing just one book now but if you want to pursue your own kind of writing, it’s a question of negotiating in such a way that you remain visible but you do so only to possess that leeway to do what you want. Enough visibility to give you enough independence from visibility, if that makes sense.

It seems to be a condition of – to use a portentous sounding word - of capitalist society, that visibility is all. It’s tyrannical and it’s frightening but that’s what it is. And India is a particularly celebrity-obsessed society, at least more than any other than I know. We seem to wake and breathe on celebrity fodder. 

Author of Above Average

On approaching publishers:
I first approached a publisher when I was about halfway done, later realizing that this was probably not a good idea. I didn't really know anyone in publishing so I tried to get introduced by former teachers and people I knew, with mixed success. I got an advance of Rs 0 for my first novel. I did want to negotiate but I was told, in so many words, to wake up and smell the coffee i.e. be grateful that I was being published at all and not ask for anything more than that.

On agents
I tried to get an agent for my first book, around the time I finished the first draft. As far as publishing in India is concerned, I don't know if agents are a necessity, but overseas it appears impossible to get through to a publisher without going through an agent.  

On attending book events and literature festivals
I did attend book events before and after my book came out. I did feel the pressure to be seen at book events for a while after my book was published because I thought it would help publicize my book. But then a few months into it I realized that this wasn't the case and I more or less stopped going.

I attended the Mussoorie Writer's Festival in 2007 and learned a lot from some of the participants who were interested in sharing their experiences and ideas. But some of the other participants used that stage to posture and that was a total waste of time. That was my experience. I do wish there were platforms where writers and their audience could discuss ideas and writing, but it appears many of these festivals are not necessarily about that.

On whether publishers do enough to promote books:
I do feel more can be done, especially for books by newer and lesser known writers who are not necessarily writing for a mass audience, but are still interested in an audience beyond the festival circuit. As far as promoting my own book in concerned, I did hire a PR agency when my book came about but I had such a small budget that I went through five or six agencies before one took pity on me. My publisher organized my readings and even paid half the cost of my website, but I had to be on their case for it. But that was in 2007. Now, I hear they are much more proactive about it.

On book launches
I did have a book launch for my novel. The primary reason for it was that the newspapers are more willing to cover events than engage with texts. The main purpose was to get the name of the book out there. And so, if there were no coverage, the launch would have been useless. Personally I enjoyed the Delhi launch because a lot of people close to me –friends, colleagues, neighbours – showed up and made it a special occasion for me. In the other five cities it was simply about hoping that apart from entertaining the few people who showed up, I was able to convince the few media people who showed up that they should highlight my book in the next day's city edition.

On whether there is pressure on writers to cultivate a persona or a particular ‘look’
I think there is pressure for those who choose to take it on. My book was a paperback and so there was no jacket, and hence no jacket photo. But I have had photos taken for my book's website and it wasn't that complicated, it was mainly about smiling into the camera. I do think smiling is very important. And I know a lot of other writers who feel looking cool is very important. Again, the pressure is mainly from within, I think.

On making a living as a full-time writer
As of now it is not possible to make a living as a fiction writer. This has not really changed since the '80s. Perhaps there are people making a living freelancing non-fiction.  I have a day job, and always have, so I don't know whether being "full-time" would be better for me or worse. It's not really an option so I tend not to think about it. Besides, I actually love my day job and can't think of not doing it, so the question really doesn't arise.

On a wishlist for the Indian literary/publishing world
I don't have a wishlist for the publishing world: it's not for me to tell people how to do their jobs. I just want the space for serious fiction to expand. I want the writing sphere to be about aesthetics and the excitement of ideas and not about personalities.

Author of Goodnight and God Bless, 2008

On first approaching publishers
I approached publishers when I had written nine stories out of twelve. [My first book was a collection of a short fiction] I didn’t know anyone in the publishing industry and it’s so far back that I can’t even remember if any advance was paid at all. As a first time clueless young writer, the money was hardly part of my mindset, I was just happy to be published.

On having a literary agent
I have an agent and have been represented for more than twelve years now. I met my first agent through a friend of mine and it all happened quite randomly. Yes, I do think it is important that writers have agents as they smoothen the whole process of being published especially if one is published in several countries.

On book launches and festivals:
I had book launches for each of my books and they were hosted by the publishing house, as part of their PR activity. It’s not something I look forward to hugely nevertheless I also do enjoy it in many ways. Book launches are celebrations of all the effort one has put in, after all.
I like attending book festivals to a point. Which is why I limit myself to one or two every year and try and not go back as a delegate to the same festival. Literary fests help writers to come face to face with their readers and also make the writer feel less isolated by giving them a sense of community. This is the most important role a literary fest plays according to me.

On whether Indian publishers do enough to promote the books on their lists
Indian publishers do the best given the circumstances. But we are still not into aggressive marketing techniques as in the West perhaps. Which at times is merciful indeed. For at some point, we have to make sure that a book isn’t exactly a commodity. I haven’t ever had to make any conscious effort to promote my books on my own but – because one has been around long enough perhaps – readings, interviews etc happen quite naturally.

On whether there is pressure on writers to cultivate a “look” or persona
I can’t speak for other writers. But I have made no such conscious effort to cultivate a persona or a look. In fact my book jacket photographs are chosen on an arbitrary basis depending on which one works best in terms of resolution. 

On being a full-time writer
It’s not entirely possible for writers in India to sustain themselves as full time writers. There may be a few exceptions but the usual practice is for people to have a day job as well. I am a full time writer. But I also do believe that having your feet in the door of another world brings a greater edge to themes and the writing itself. So I am constantly doing other things as well.

Wishlist for the next decade:
What I would like to see in India is a greater expanse of writing, be it historical fiction, or even pure fun books like the Adrian Mole series. Perhaps it is also time we had journals devoted to literature and writing such as TLS or The New Yorker, where new writing and new writers could be showcased along with the finest published authors.

ANJUM HASAN, 37 Author of Neti Neti
Photo: S Radhakrishna
On approaching publishers
I only approach a publisher when I feel ready to go with a book, never with a draft or a half-finished book. Of course, this ‘ready’ feeling is often premature because after you decide – ok, this is it – a book will probably go through three further rewrites.

I’ve crept into the publishing world slowly. I was writing poetry first and also short fiction. Some of this had come to the attention of publishers and that helped to approach them with a novel. So I did not ‘know’ publishers when I started publishing novels, but some of them appeared to know my earlier work and that helped. I didn’t receive an advance for my first novel but did for my second.

On whether writers need agents
An agent represented my second novel. I think it was a huge help – first with the edits because he’s a very good reader and helped a lot to improve the book. Second, with helping me decide on the best publishing option for my novel in India. And third for cracking the foreign market though he hasn’t cracking it yet! If you want to publish in the international, English-speaking world, an agent is indispensable. But there is a huge world of readers outside England and USA and sometimes your publishers in India might have better access to these readers then an agent sitting in New York or London. So it seems to be a case of some writers requiring some agents some of the time.

On public appearances and marketing one’s own books
I do attend the launches and readings that interest me. Writers are also part of a community, so one goes to readings to connect with other writers, to feel part of this community. Not everything one does in the public sphere as a writer is in aid of marketing one’s books! I think a writer in marketing mode is the least interesting mode to look at actually.

Also, though I am involved in the marketing side to some extent, I don’t think for me there is any entirely natural, pleasant, comfortable way in which it’s possible to do this. It’s either about feeling foolish or feeling let down. But when I look around me, I increasingly see writers who are able to handle the marketing end with high confidence, with wit and flair, writers who have in fact made an art of it. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure.

On whether publishers do enough to promote the books on their lists
I think Indian publishers have woken up to the importance of promotion but it’s never enough. Show me a writer who’s entirely satisfied with what a publisher has done to market her book. I think publishers find it difficult to see a book for what it is – to think of its marketing potential in individual rather than general terms. They have too many books on their minds to be able to think in specific terms. And yet that is the only thing that would satisfy a writer.

On having readings and book launches
I have done a lot of public readings around all my three books - the poetry book Street on the Hill especially, because you have to bring your poems to people. My second novel Neti Neti appeared last October and so far I’ve done readings in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Goa and Mysore, with Jaipur, Pune and Bombay coming up.

Apart from the fact that any day now I will keel over and die from the exhaustion of having a book out, I can enjoy readings – those 15 or 20 minutes when you actually get to read a few pages from your work and feel you’re drawing in your audience. I really don’t know if this influences sales in any direct way, perhaps more in an indirect way. You are written about if you do a reading and more people than those who attended the reading may get to learn about your work. And which writer would complain about that!
But when I look into the future, I see myself being more and more selective about readings for the simple reason that they take time, energy and emotion that I would rather put into writing.

On being a full-time writer
I think it’s hard to just write fiction or poetry all day and do absolutely nothing else and still have food on the table. So many of us would like to, but on the other hand the opportunities for freelance writing or for jobs that are connected in some way with writing have grown tremendously in the last decade, so at least we can take up jobs that are not wildly unsuited to our temperaments.

In my own case, I’ve just ended a 11-year stint with India Foundation for the Arts and it has been hugely enriching to be talking constantly with people doing various things in the arts, even if I’ve longed to have more time for my writing. On the other hand, my idol is the solitary writer at his desk – Orhan Pamuk sitting in a room in his mother’s house for years and doing nothing but write, write, write.
The dilemma is never resolved, perhaps it cannot be, perhaps the dilemma leads to a good creative tension.

On a literary/ publishing wishlist for the next decade in India
Much less talk about writers and much more talk about writing.

MRIDULA KOSHY, 40  Author of If It Is Sweet

Photo: Shailendra Pandey
On approaching publishers and negotiating book contracts:
I think most manuscripts submitted blindly don’t get a real reading. I did however submit my short stories blindly to just about anyone, mostly to literary journals abroad. Many of my stories were eventually accepted. I think submission is a key step, not to be missed in the writing process. Blind submission taught me two paradoxical truths: there is a home for every kind of writing and persistence will get your writing home. But along the way there will be umpteen rejections that lead you to believe the only way in is if you are already established/known.

Most of the submitting I did was abroad because there are few places to submit in India, and these are not very good about handing out rejection letters, much less acceptances. Submission isn’t just blind here, but also leaves you in the dark.

All along I nurtured the fantasy every writer, ahem, unknown writer, entertains — of reading at an open mike and some agent or publisher listening and swooning. It mostly didn’t work like this. The expectation that someone will sign you on the strength of one story and pay you a hefty advance to sit and write a book is ludicrous. It happens very rarely and when it does it is probably a disservice to the writer and readers everywhere.
I was offered an advance. It was pitiful. And while I don’t believe an advance is what allows one to declare oneself a writer (a day job is more of a requirement) I do think advances are all about the publisher’s commitment to the work. If they believe they can or will put the work into selling ten thousand as opposed to two thousand copies of your book then they will pony up that kind of advance. The problem with a small advance is the publisher is already writing off the future of your book. Even if your book does well, sells out whatever meagre print-run the publisher has afforded it, the writer is still stuck with a publisher with little at stake and little interest in shifting their view of the book.

I was not very confident of dealing with the financial end of things when I signed that first contract. But I don’t think anyone took advantage of that. It’s just given that the scenario for a first timer entering the world of Indian publishing is one of small numbers – small advances, small print runs and small successes.

On whether writers need agents:
I think writers need agents not only to negotiate a good contract in India but to promote the translation of works from one language within India, ie one publisher to another. Publishers are stretched thin in India and there does not seem to be the connections between publishers that would allow our best works to move from one publishing house to another-ie from one region to another. Additionally agents can sell rights abroad better than publishers can. Of course all this is theoretical as we have few agents in India.

On book launches and literature festivals
There are very few ways for the Indian writer in English and the reader to interact with one another. A handful of literary festivals and events are about it. Book launches which are relatively low key events abroad have quite a bit more hype in India because they stand in for the literary culture we don’t actually have. We need more literary journals, more libraries, more bookstores generating readings and more books shows on radio and television and more book related internet activity before the superficiality of glitzy launches gives way to a lively culture of debate and discernment.

But any forum where writing is discussed for the ideas that grip writers and readers is crucial for the promotion of a literary culture. At their best festivals like Jaipur, Kala Ghoda and Kitab are about more readers and more writers discussing more ideas.

On whether Indian publishers do enough to promote the books on their lists
I think Indian publishers could be more ambitious than they are. From where they are located they have nowhere to go but up. The numbers for what is considered a best seller in India are embarrassing.

I think writers everywhere organize their own reading, not only in India where publishers don’t do a very good job of creating such events. Writers do this not only to sell books but for the love of books. I read to reach out to my audience. If books sell in the process it’s a good thing.

On having a book launch
My publisher arranged for a splashy launch at Park Hotel and a tour of three cities beyond Delhi. I read all this as a sign of their faith in my book. It gave me confidence not that my book was well written, but that it was going to get a good sales pitch. The launch was crucial to my book’s success in the market because prior to the launch I was a complete unknown.

On whether there is pressure on writers to cultivate a particular persona or ‘look’
I don’t think there is necessarily pressure to change ones look or accent. No doubt, as in any other field, media-friendly looks and personas are going to attract soft media coverage for the book.

I did submit some home snaps to my publisher in the event that a jacket picture was a requirement. My publisher got some professional pictures taken to replace the home snaps. But when I argued for no picture on the book jacket, my publisher had no problem with that. On my facebook fan page, which I created with the help of friends in the writing community I was going to have a picture of the book rather than of me. My friends dissuaded me, and they were right to. If I want people to actually read the updates on the book that I post on my fan page it makes sense to have a picture of a friendly human face – mine – rather than that of a book.

On being a full-time writer
My day job (mothering) is also an unpaid one. If I take that job out of the mix then I consider myself a full-time writer with, alas, no earnings. At least not enough to sustain a family on. So my partner and I run our household on a socialised economy. He and I believe writing needs to be a full-time occupation, one to which I bring the best of my intellect. I don’t think the option of a socialised household economy in which the only real income is of the non-writing partner is a viable one for most writers. Many families need two incomes to function. Most writers have a paying day job. In this regard I don’t see things changing, for me or for most writers. Most of us don’t have any delusions about getting wealthy by writing.

On a wishlist for the Indian literary/publishing in the next decade
This is a little crazy sounding, but I’ll say it. We need a literary movement – we need to promote literacy at all levels of society, among the illiterate poor and the non reading middle and upper class. This requires libraries, reading rooms, literature in the newspapers, inexpensive pricing of books, a curriculum overhaul in the schools.  We can’t go on as a society with a paucity of people discussing a paucity of ideas. As it stands, this is a pretty rarefied atmosphere we are all breathing, and any discussion of who sells how many copies of what and how is pretty moot.

Neeraj Chhibba, 38
Author of Zero Percentile, Missed IIT Kissed Russia

On approaching publishers, and whether publishers do enough for the books on their lists:
I started writing almost five years ago, when I first got my laptop. It became a book about three years ago. I finished the complete draft before I started approaching publishers. There were ten odd months between Rupa agreeing to do the book and it coming out. But that was because the market was in a recession at the time. So we decided not to release the book in June/July 2008, as planned, and instead wait until November. Rupa gave me a broad framework of what things it is possible to do to promote my book. But the publisher has 300 titles to take care of, so it has to be the personal effort of the writer to get the book talked about and sold. Anyway, when you are a first-time writer, you think constantly of how you can make your book a success. You have to do research on the internet and find book reviewers and correspondents and give them a reason to review your book. And if you are planning, as I did, to go to different cities and meet the media, you have to do your groundwork before you head off somewhere. In my case, I hired a PR agency, because they know how to break into the right circles.

On making a living by writing:
Because this book is my first, I need to ensure that it reaches the public. But even if you sell 150,000 copies of your book, your royalty will be only 10-15 lakh rupees. That’s not a figure around which you can draw up your retirement plans. I have set my goal not in terms of profits, but how many people can I reach out to. My book has sold 25,000 copies already, but I don’t think I’ll really make money. I have an alternative career as a software engineer, so I am not doing this for the money. I have enough money. 

On whether there is pressure on authors to cultivate a certain ‘look’ or persona
Certainly there is a need to be photographed and make yourself known as a face. I’m shy, so not the best of people for that purpose. I tried to avoid having a picture of myself in the media for the longest time. I don’t have a picture on the book jacket either. But gradually I realized that I wanted to be a writer professionally, I would have to come around.

One of the journalists while interviewing me asked me what is my favourite brands, in terms of clothes or watches. That I found very odd. Because clothes are something I wear for comfort, not for brand value. But those are the kinds of questions that journalists are used to asking Bollywood stars or other icons [so] they ask a writer the same thing.

On (not) having a book launch
I consciously did not have a book launch because not many people know me and I don’t think I am the type of author whose launch will get covered. I thought that I would not do a high-level press conference or anything with a celebrity presence. Instead I decided that I would approach the press and talk to people one-on-one.

Also, the newer generation is more adept at communicating on the Internet. Shy people in particular cannot think of anything to say in a matter of seconds, so they’re more comfortable putting their thoughts together in an email. 
In any case, a book launch is only one way of reaching out to readers. Even if it happens, it will give you a couple of articles in the newspapers. How long will the memories of those last? I don’t think I suffered because I didn’t have a launch. When I finally close my books – my account books – for this book, I don’t think it’ll be a ghaate ka sauda.

Author of The Storyteller’s Tale

On Publishers:
When I first started to meet publishers, I didn’t know anybody. Only after I finished my second draft did I start approaching anyone. It was a complete pain in the ass at the time. Though I think it was a good experience for me, in retrospect. Though frankly, I think my first book was more relevant – I wrote about Muslims in the US, at a time before 9/11 – but no-one was interested. Possibly I wasn’t getting my message across. I had editors from good publishing houses giving me comments that made absolutely no sense. The same publishers today would be very happy to talk to me. Maybe I was arrogant, thinking that if I’d done a good job writing, I didn’t need to worry about anything else.

Most publishing in the English language in India is based on guesswork. No-one really knows what works, and the publishing world is extremely small and extremely incestuous. You can be lucky. I was lucky with my second book. Renuka Chatterjee had started a literary agency at the time, and one of my friends had worked with Renuka earlier. But when you’re new to the scene and don’t know anyone personally, it can be impossible to reach your editors. People in publishing here are so overworked – like my editor at Penguin, Ravi Singh, is also the editor-in-chief. Earlier I could never reach him. Now I can call him when I want.
Things have certainly changed in India since I finished my first manuscript in 2004. There are many more publishing firms, and some of them like Random House India have been quite aggressive in pushing their books. I think that’s good. What sells the most in the US for example, is historical romance, which isn’t exactly a stellar genre. We need to accept that people will read what they want to read.

 But mostly publishers don’t know whether it’s worth it to try. Should they advertise? Would advertising lead to their money going down the drain, or would it mean that the book might actually make money? No-one knows. I was lucky because my book The Storyteller’s Tale was very short, and a lot of people on the sales and marketing team read it and liked it. They actually called me and asked me to give them a talk! The book jacket, too, was designed by someone who really loved the book.

On book launches and the culture of celebrity:
I had a book launch in Delhi, and then in Mumbai and Bengaluru as well. It was great. But not everyone is lucky like I was. People who get the big blurbs tend to be somebodies. Celebrity sells books. What puts people on the front page of the newspaper, sells books. If they’re dating a starlet, or they’re the child of somebody important, that helps. How we get to hear of a book in India, that’s something we’re still learning about. Penguin India is now 22 years old. Until about 20 years ago, you look at their list, and they’re all big names, people that people want to read about: Shobhaa De, Khushwant Singh.

In the publishing industry today, so much depends on vanity and ego, self-esteem and other people’s estimate of you – and that terrifies me. It’s an insane world where all you’ve got is your ego. As a result most writers are characters. I’m quite sure that Chetan Bhagat is a fairly nice guy in person – but the public persona is a caricature.

On whether one can make a living as a writer in India:
Anywhere in the world, it’s next to impossible to make a living as a writer, unless you’re a star. As for whether being a full-time writer is my ideal, I’m not the type of person who works well if he works on only one thing. I’d love to be able to read all the books I haven’t read, have a fellowship and able to devote myself to writing. On the other hand, anyone with any kind of conscience who walks out into an Indian street realizes that writing is a useless thing. So I’m always confused about it.

But basically I quit my job because of my advance. My advance of Rs. 90,000 was for two books. The first book, The Storyteller’s Tale, has already recovered the advance amount for the publishers. I also got advances on the French and Spanish sales of the book, which Penguin India did for me. But all of this was the publishers’ doing. I wouldn’t be able to sell water in the desert. Very few writers have that ability. People expect writers to be not just good writers, but good salesmen and good in front of the media. That’s three different skill sets!

On a wishlist for the Indian literary/publishing industry in the next decade:
What would change things for the better is greater access to books. By the time I was 20, I’d probably bought 50 books. But I’d read thousands, because my school had a great library. But most schools, colleges, even universities have no libraries of note. And not many people have access to books at home. So of course they don’t grow up reading. Then to look down on people reading Chetan Bhagat, that’s arrogant and fairly indefensible.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 04, Dated January 30, 2010

29 January 2010

Dazed And Confused: Raat Gayi Baat Gayi Review

SOMEWHERE DURING THE interminable party that forms the core of Saurabh Shukla’s new film, a gangly man with wild hair (real-life theatreperson Makarand Deshpande) is chatting up a giggly housewife. He’s just announced his deep interest in palmistry when her uncouth lout of a husband plonks himself between them and demands that his palm be read. “I can tell you three things,” says the faux-palmist. “One, you haven’t got what you deserve.” “True,” says the loutish man. “Two, it’ll stay like this for some time.” “And then?” asks the loutish man. “Then? You’ll get used to it.”

That tripartite proclamation sums up the experience of watching Raat Gayi Baat Gayi. Unlike recent Hindi films that have tried to unravel the mating game in contemporary India (Rajat Kapoor’s own Mixed Doubles, a tautly-scripted, charming riff on wife-swapping, or Anil Senior’s over-the-top but endearingly frank Dil Kabaddi, which had the unfair advantage of a Woody Allen script, being a scene-by-scene adaptation of Husbands and Wives), Raat Gayi never quite loosens up.

Despite the abundant acting talent from the Rajat Kapoor - Saurabh Shukla stable, the characters are stiff, never seeming comfortable enough in their skins to come close to the required unbuttoning. Kapoor is competent as the middle-aged ad filmmaker who fancies himself a bit of a charmer and isn’t above drunken flirtation, but is petrified when he realises he may have endangered his 14-year-old marriage. Vinay Pathak as the doofus whose cheesy pick-up lines get him nowhere wears a ridiculous peaked cap and is super-annoying. Anuradha Menon and Navneet Nishan aren’t allowed to extend themselves beyond weepy and deliberately obtuse wifeliness, while Neha Dhupia comes across more as petulant than as mysterious femme fatale.

This film can’t decide if it wants to be a thoughtful take on marriage or play the extramarital dalliance for laughs: so a scene where Dhupia’s full-time and part-time lovers are stuck in a cupboard is interrupted by one’s wife calling to ask him to buy olive oil on the way home, which he tenderly does. From Shukla, who’s scripted gems like Satya (1998) and Mithya (2008), this is a disappointment.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 02, Dated January 16, 2010

27 January 2010

New Delhi: Making of a Capital - Book Review

A thoughtful visual history of the people who dreamt up New Delhi

Malavika Singh & Rudrangshu Mukherjee
240 pp; Rs 1,975

The seeds of this lovingly-produced book were sown one day in 2001 when Pramod Kapoor, publisher of Roli Books and self-confessed “sepia junkie”, stumbled upon a box of glass negatives containing “some of the most amazing aerial images… of the partially-built Parliament House, North and South Block, and Rashtrapati Bhavan” in the archives of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). After more research, Kapoor enlisted the services of two writers with impeccable credentials. Historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee described the transfer of capital from Calcutta to Delhi, while Seminar publisher Malvika Singh provided an eminently readable account of the building of the new city, not just summarising architectural debates but describing the colourful, often squabbling personalities who were part of them. The well-known tale of the original friendship and later quarrel between Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, for example, is retold with rare empathy and brought to a fitting conclusion by Baker’s moving obituary for his estranged friend when he died in England many years later.

We also meet lesser-known figures like Henry Vaughan Lanchester, an architect who failed to get the contract for New Delhi. Lanchester’s plans reveal the Delhi that was not to be: an architectural link between the new city and the old, to lessen the “alienation of the people from the… colonial power”; the incorporation of the Yamuna into the plan; an embrace of Delhi’s older historic structures. Ironically, Lanchester later became Hardinge’s sounding board for Lutyens’ ideas. But his radical ideas, like having curving streets rather than Lutyens’ right-angled avenues (which, he pointed out, would simply act as tunnels for the hot, dry summer winds) lost out.

What makes the book unique are the historical documents it reproduces. Competing architectural plans and articles from British newspapers produce a narrative that runs parallel to the new text. One is amazed at the detail in which The Times engaged with the building of New Delhi – listing the tehsils that made up the enclave and which quarries the stone would come from.

The photographic narrative, too, is often at a counterpoint to the text. Despite Lutyens coming off in the text as brash and white-supremacist (“even my ultra-wide sympathy with them [Indians] cannot admit them on the same plane as myself), his idiosyncratic chandeliers for the children’s nursery cannot but charm. And while the text doesn’t overtly take on the project’s imperial nature, an unsaid critique is embedded in the photographs: men mowing a bungalow lawn with bullocks, a chandelier bigger than its cleaner. Most telling of all are the book’s last images, from a film shot on August 15, 1947: people thronging Rashtrapati Bhavan – a democratic vision of New Delhi that has never been seen before or since.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 40, Dated October 10, 2009

Sujit Saraf: "Indians are cutthroat. [But] people in India are merely reacting to their environment, just as people abroad are."

Sujit Saraf
Penguin India
296 pp; Rs 399

Sujit Saraf, 39, is a space scientist who has worked at NASA. He is also the author of The Peacock Throne (2007). Saraf was schooled in Darjeeling and Delhi and studied engineering at IIT Delhi and the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Palo Alto with his American wife and their two children. He spoke to Trisha Gupta about Indians, politics and his new novel, The Confession of Sultana Daku.

You once said in an interview that people in Delhi may not be conscious of it, but just being a Dilliwala gives you a sense of relevance, even if you’re just a speck in the larger scheme of things.

I’ve lived in Delhi for seven years – school, IIT and later when I was teaching. But I am not a Dilliwala. I grew up in a small town, and Delhi was the first big city that I ever saw. And like every other country bumpkin, when I first arrived in Delhi, I was certainly very conscious of the fact that this was the capital of India – and the Prime Minister, the Parliament – these are within a mile of you. There is this certain air of power that non-Dilliwallas associate with Dilliwalas. And Dilliwalas don’t care. They take it for granted. And a certain arrogance creeps into their attitude or their speech, which they may not know the reason for – but I think it has something to do with being in the capital.

Would you say both your books are about people trying to acquire power?

Since I have spent a lot of time in India and a lot of time abroad, I am very conscious of how aggressive and cutthroat Indians are. How in any line for a bus, say, they will cut across and find a seat. I, of course, grew up in that environment, so I myself would do that. Then, after I had lived abroad for a few years, I became soft. (laughs) I’d come back to India and I’d be shocked. I’d be horrified, and I’d be contemptuous – ki kaise log hain. Then over the years, it hit me that people in India are merely reacting to their environment, just as people abroad are. Because there are ten people and five seats, they behave in this manner. The moment you double the number of seats or halve the number of people, this behaviour will change. Because I have seen similar behaviour in the most rarefied Western environments, when faced with a temporary shortage. That’s what The Peacock Throne was about – people in a society where the pie is very small, and people are doing what they can to get by, and to get a bigger piece of the pie. It was about the exercise of power in India where everyone is trying to exercise power over everyone else – to the extent possible. Of course, birth, wealth, luck and looks aid some people. But my villains are not people I dislike, and I have no heroes. My villains are victims too, and my victims are villains, when they get an opportunity. In The Peacock Throne, my people were small-time power-brokers, councillors in Chandni Chowk, MLAs, perhaps MPs: people who are concerned with the pursuit of petty power. That was the life they knew how to lead. Even the Bangladeshi boy abandoned by his parents – someone whom you would certainly consider a victim – does what he can to oppress, given the opportunity. He is a victim only because he hasn’t yet found a victim of his own. And the same goes for oppressors – they become vistims when someone more powerful comes along. It was, in my opinion, an amoral novel, not an immoral one. Of course, my characters do what would be considered immoral things. But when I first show a prostitute, she is beating the hell out of a customer. While the madam of the brothel isn’t exactly powerful – she is a victim too… so I was neither sympathizing with my victims not condemning my villains.

Unfortunately most reviewers seem to think that there are no good people in this novel, there is no place for romance, for tender relationships. They seemed to think, here’s this guy who lives in sunny California and this is his way of saying, ‘Look at this screwed up place. But in reality I thought what I was saying was, ‘Look at these people behaving how all human beings would, in similar circumstances’.

And with The Confession of Sultana Daku, did you set out to write a political book?

Now, anything written about three people is political. To that extent I suppose this is political, too. But one comment I do make in this novel – simply by not making it – is about nationalism. Sultana lived through the period from 1919 to 1924. Those are periods of political ferment: particularly the period of non-cooperation. So you would imagine that there would be a lot of talk of India versus the British. But there isn’t. There is a lot of talk of bhantu versus bania versus thakur, with the white man fully accepted as the natural master. Which in my opinion was the attitude of the vast majority of Indians. Sure, there were politically conscious Indians, and Gandhi had his educated followers, but the vast majority of people who followed him did so for the wrong reasons: they felt he could cure them by touching them, and so on.

Sultana’s enemies are not white people, they are banias and thakurs. Freddy is not, for Sultana, not a white colonial oppressor, he is simply a policeman trying to capture a daku – whose victims are thakurs and banias – other Indians. Also, he may have been sustaining an empire which is colonial, but this is not about a white man oppressing black or brown people. Of course towards the end of the novel, Sultana gives a speech to Freddy Young saying, ‘I am doing Gandhi’s work’. You are not meant to believe him entirely, of course.

But we have with the advantage of hindsight, projected nationalism onto that age. Inspite of the mass mobilization that Gandhi carried out, only a few million Indians truly understood the idea of an “India” in the 1920s. There is, in Sultana’s world, no such thing as India, there is no United Provinces – his country is Rohilkhand, which as far as he is concerned, should be ruled by bhantus – not banias and not thakurs and not even Gandhi. In the end, Sultana says to Freddy, after Gandhiji has kicked you out, we, bhantus, will kick Gandhiji out – because he is a bania. While white people are rulers, they are fully acceptable. Towards the end of the novel, Sultana even tells him, ‘I can talk to you like this, I cannot talk to a bania or thakur – they are enemies’.

How did you zero in on Sultana as a character?

While researching another novel, I came across two stray references to a daku named Sultana, who terrorised banias and thakurs, and was hanged. And when he was captured, Freddy Young was jeered by shopkeepers and by people, ki Sultana ko pakad liya. Within some ten years of his death, some three nautankis about him came into being. And in those he became a patriotic Robin Hood figure, while Freddy Young – who was an extremely competent police officer – became a colonialist oppressor. He appears as a fat white fool constantly saying, “Aur whiskey lao”. He was responsible for some 100 murders and rapes, and they recovered some 1.5 lakhs of property from his camp in 1924. So he was a ferocious daku. But in the nautankis, he is transformed into a golden-hearted guy who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. This fascinated me.

Why did you choose to write this novel as a first person narrative?

I didn’t want to have him be this fictitious Robin Hood, but nor did I want to paint an entirely unsympathetic character. So I had him tell his own story in the hope that he would come across as a sympathetic character.

Every human being, if you look deeply enough at his life, has extenuating circumstances. Or at least something that’ll soften the ferocity of his crime. In Sultana’s case, the extenuating circumstance is that he is a poor bhantu. Sultana was born in a jail and taught by everything in his background that he is a thief. Since 1871, the government passed a Criminal Tribes Act, who now number 25 million (2.5 crore) and designated them criminals. There is a passage in the novel where his grandfather tells him that all these gora sahibs come all the way from vilayat just to put you in jail? It was a cultural thing, but the British government institutionalised it.

Of course he is a chor – he may say he is a patriot – but I don’t want you to think too badly of him. And when I tell you a full story, you are more likely to sympathise with me. But his story is full of lies, exaggerations, and contradictions. He is full of the idea of bhantu blood, for example – but in the end he says, ‘Perhaps I am not so different from a bania’.

Although I am very conscious that my readers are much more likely to believe Samuel Pearce than Sultana: because you [the reader] are much more like Samuel Pearce culturally, than Sultana. You speak English, for one thing. But I didn’t want to make Pearce into a modern liberal. So of course, you don’t share Pearce’s prejudices, the prejudices of his age: like when he says there is no way a bhantu can be reformed, because there is crime in his blood. But when Sultana talks of how bullets went through him, miracles like that, you will dismiss him. The emotion that you are meant to sympathise with is Sultana’s – but the facts, mostly, are Pearce’s.

A biographical question: how do you reconcile your two careers? When did you start writing fiction?

Well, I have been thinking of myself as a novelist for many years. The world didn’t agree. I wrote a novel called Limbo in 1990, when I was still a student at IIT. I graduated in 1991. The novel was eventually published in 1994. It was your standard autobiographical book – it has a little boy growing up, that’s me. I wrote a very large number of books, some complete, some not. My computer is full of manuscripts in various stages of progress!

Basically, my official life pays the bills. If they paid me to be a novelist, I would be a novelist full-time…

You write novels in English, but plays in Hindi. Why?

Yes, that is true. So here’s the deal. I have always had deep misgivings about Indian writing in English, especially with the idea of an Indian novel with characters who would in real life be speaking in some other language having to speak in English (though I grew up reading the Rushdies and Amitav Ghoshes and so on, and admired them) So in Sultana’s case, for example, I devised this character, Pearce, who is transcribing Sultana’s words. It was a contrivance to avoid having Sultana speaking directly to us in English. At other times, one just writes dialogue in English and asks the reader to assume that this is spoken in Hindi. Hopefully if I use simple enough language and throw in a few Indian idioms, then you can convince yourself that actually, he is speaking in Hindi and the conversation is being reported to you in English. But in a play, when you have the characters actually having to mouth dialogues in English – the suspension of disbelief required is too much. Though my last two plays have been set where I live, so they have been in English.

So it’s not about your different relationships with these two languages?

I am reasonably fluent in Hindi, though perhaps a little more fluent in English. But it is not a matter of not knowing the Hindi word for something. The question is, does such a word even exist? A word that may be in common use in English may have a Hindi equivalent so arcane that even Hindi speakers don’t really use it. A dictionary word, if you know what I mean. So then I end up using a phrase, rather than the word – even if I know it.

I have actually written more in Hindi than in English. I’ve written novels in Hindi, too. I am not primarily an English writer or anything. It’s just that there is no Hindi literary market that I know of. There is a market for Manoj Pocket Books, cheesy romances, soft porn kind of stuff – an extension of Grihashobha, recipes for tarah tarah ke pakvaan, Bunai Visheshank and so on… But I can’t imagine a market for serious literature – like Sultana Daku, it’s a book I intend seriously. It’s not a frivolous thing.

Have you ever actually approached a Hindi publisher?

I have contacted Rajkamal once, about publishing a collection of my Hindi plays. They showed some mild interest, and then they didn’t. The conversation petered out.

Does your theatre company (in California) perform your plays?
Well, yes. Mostly we perform plays written by me. Though I once commissioned someone to stage one of the Sultana nautankis for my group: an expert on nautanki.

It is not a sophisticated genre. The presentation is atrocious. And it’s not theatrical, even. They just stand and sing. But the music is beautiful. When a nautanki person reads the script, he or she can tell how – in what meter (and associated tune) – certain sections need to be sung. It has non-musical portions, too: vahan likha hoga 'vartalap'.

And I believe in the 1920s and 1930s, the nautanki was extremely popular in the region where Sultana lived – though it was called saangeet, or swaang. And the most popular saangeet was called Nautanki Shehzadi, which I have Sultana watch in my novel. That particular saangeet became so popular that the entire genre became called Nautanki. But it is a genre full of comic relief. It is not meant to be taken seriously in terms of plot. It is innocent of nuance. (laughs)

But there must have been something that appealed to you about the nautankis, enough to make you want to stage one?

Well, like Sultana says at one point in the book, ‘What I have told you about my life that is what people will remember’. And whatever people remember becomes the truth. What is history? There may be police records that show otherwise, but if those who remembered Sultana saw him as a sweet Robin Hood, then that’s it. So I liked those nautankis because they represent that kind of truth about Sultana.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 48 Dated December 05, 2009

The Word Caravan

No longer a footnote, the Jaipur literary festival grows, tries different voices and spawns others, says TRISHA GUPTA

THE JAIPUR Literature Festival, whose fifth instalment runs from January 21 to 25, started as a three-day literary appendage to the Virasat Foundation’s Jaipur Heritage Festival in 2006. “There were just 16 authors reading then,” laughs Namita Gokhale, one of the Festival Directors. “We invited 18, but two didn’t show up.” By 2009, there were over 140 writers participating, and 12,000 in the audience, spread over five days and 50-odd parallel sessions. This year, there will be more than 150 writers, including such literary stars as Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Hanif Kureishi, Geoff Dyer and Vikram Chandra.

Gokhale admits that some of those who’ve seen the festival grow are nostalgic for the initial phase when there was only one session at a time, held in the Durbar Hall of the charming Diggi Palace, with pigeons flying in and out. But that feeling of intimacy, of having stumbled upon a secret, came at the cost of being relatively unknown, and having very limited contact with the immediate surroundings. By its fourth year, 2009, the festival felt much less like a visiting satellite from some alien planet that had landed in Jaipur for a few days. According to the organisers, 30 percent of 2009 festival visitors were from abroad and 30 percent from Indian metropolises, but local attendees from Jaipur – from journalists and housewives to the poetry-reading government servant and surprisingly attentive hordes of school and college students – made up a whopping 40 percent.

While the festival is largely Anglophone, there is some attempt to represent India’s vibrant regional literary cultures, not just catering to Jaipur audiences with sessions in Hindi and Rajasthani but also bringing on, say, a Nalini Jamila, her fluid Malayalam sentences instantaneously rendered into English by K Satchidanandan and Paul Zacharia. “I think there was some suspicion in the beginning because bhasha writers are quick to feel slighted. And the playing field is not even, let us admit,” said Gokhale. “But I think now bhasha writers are enthusiastic about it. And international writers who come also feel that it’s the festival’s multivocal, multiphonic nature that gives it a unique flavour.”

But if someone like Tash Aw, Taiwan-born and London- based author of the acclaimed The Harmony Silk Factory, loves Jaipur, “because the majority of the public is Indian [unlike] other literary festivals in Asia, which seem tailored to expats”, the festival has its critics. While for Gokhale the fact that that “you can see these people offstage, so to speak – Vikram Seth looking for a chair, or Nandita Das queueing up for dinner”– underlines the festival’s “democratic surroundings”, there are those who think of Jaipur as another link in the cocktail circuit, “full of high-fliers”, tainted by the culture of celebrity that surrounds us.

ONE SUCH group of people has, in fact, initiated an alternative literary festival in Kerala this year which hopes to become “the obverse” of Jaipur. Being held for the first time on January 8 and 9, the Kochi Letters International Festival 2010 (LIFE) seeks to “raise book lovers from the level of consumers to that of participants in thinking”. Featuring talks by thinkers like Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik, cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek and a host of Kerala-based intellectuals, the non-fiction centred Kochi LIFE sees itself as a reaction to the “compulsory, compulsive media of today”, says organiser Sashi Kumar. With two such different festivals in the space of a month, the literary scene in India seems spoilt for choice.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 02, Dated January 16, 2010