The year we reclaimed our English

The year we reclaimed our English
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First Published: Fri, Jan 02 2009. 05 30 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Jan 05 2009. 03 58 PM IST
There are two books selling on the streets of Mumbai now. Hamish McDonald’s The Polyester Prince, and a cheap paperback of this year’s Booker winner, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The former, a sensationalized tell-all of the rise of Dhirubhai Ambani, is officially banned in India. You could call it a street classic—since 1999 when Australian publisher Allen & Unwin published the book, most copies have been sold at traffic signals. But The Polyester Prince doesn’t seem to excite the street sellers anymore.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
About the second, the boys are aggressive. “Booker, Adiga”, they say, pressing its cover against car windows. They know that like Shobhaa De’s books, “Booker” is big, “Booker” will sell.
If you were to judge the success of The White Tiger and its author by this prize, it’s the biggest thing to have happened in the Indian publishing world this year. But the importance of this book lies elsewhere.
It’s the story of Balram, a voluble, murderous man from the dark hinterlands who makes it in the big, sinister city. His story is told through letters to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.
Adiga’s narrative is shocking—partly in a good way. It is symptomatic of a final breaking-away from a long tradition of Indian English fiction. Finally, we are no longer unapologetic about the way we visualize, think and therefore write about ourselves. Unlike the big names in the 1990s and even 2000s, we have stopped negotiating a language that has to be true to colonial traditions of syntax and imagery and yet capable of faithfully reproducing Indian realities. It is finally about our English and our metaphors. The White Tiger exploded these clichés and stunned many people, certainly the judges of the Booker Prize: “With their tinted windows up, the cars of the rich go like dark eggs down the roads of Delhi. Every now and then, an egg will crack open—a woman’s hand, dazzling with gold bangles, stretches out of an open window, flings an empty mineral water bottle onto the road—and then the window goes up, and the egg is released.”
The merit of Adiga’s book can’t be stretched much beyond this shock value. So The White Tiger is certainly not the biggest or best thing to have happened to Indian publishing this year. In fact, the new beginning that Adiga seemed to represent has been in the making for a few years now, with many young writers holding up new voices and making works of literary value, more sophisticated and universal than Adiga’s. Altaf Tyrewala’s No God in Sight and Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head immediately come to mind. It’s unfair that he emerged as the torch-bearer. But let’s leave the quibbling aside for now.
A better picture of the year that was in Indian publishing emerges when we ask: What really made Adiga stand out? The unequivocal answer is: HarperCollins’ aggressive marketing. For the first time in India, a television commercial promoted a book. Life-size cut-outs of the author stood at the entrance of bookstores.
It has been a global trend this year—publishers pushing the boundaries of promotional strategy. YouTube, Twitter and nightclubs were venues where books were launched. Fuelled by and piggybacking on the burgeoning Indian economy in the early part of 2008, publishers thought big—more print runs, bigger promotional budgets and wider distribution. You’re sure to remember Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan? Penguin India was bullish about promoting our first major book, You are Here, long before it actually released in August 2008. We got postcards of its cover with one-liners such as these: “The trouble with my life is that it’s like a bra strap when you put your bra on wrong...” A couple of months before that, Penguin India CEO Mike Bryan told Lounge in an interview that it was one of the books he was most looking forward to in 2008.
Global publishers such as Hachette entered the Indian market. Said Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette Livre, “With more players and competition, there will be improvements in quality, wider targeting of readership which will thus expand the market, and a better end customer experience.” Popular genres—chick lit, literary fiction, non-fiction, campus flick, the India book—were well-defined. Perhaps for the first time, the publisher considered reading to be akin to watching TV—would you rather watch Indian Idol or read about the drugs-and-masti story of a management student? The author who made the maximum number of appearances on TV and in tabloids was the father of the Indian campus caper himself, Chetan Bhagat. His third book sold over 25,000 copies in a month, his publisher proclaimed.
Such democratization has always existed in the US—the market for a Don DeLillo is as sacrosanct as that for Stephen Covey or Bill Bryson. But can we consider a similar approach to be of great consequence in India? Do many book launches and many new genres mean we are evolved readers and publishers?
We are a country of 22 regional languages, each with its own literary traditions and popular fiction. Most big publishers are yet to tap the riches of regional language writing. Thanks to Blaft, an independent publisher, we got the eye-opening The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction.
The English language publishing industry—Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House and others—reaches out to about 35% of readers in India. According to a study conducted by research consultancy firm Technopak Advisors in October (there is no systematic study on the Indian publishing market), this industry is estimated at Rs13,000 crore. India Perspectives, a monthly produced by the ministry of external affairs, focused an entire issue on the publishing industry in September. Its editor concluded: “Today, over 90,000 books in English and in Indian languages are published annually in India of which only around twenty per cent represent English language book publishing.”
One of the most encouraging trends of 2008 has been a boost in serious and engaging non-fiction. The book of the “new India” made way for the India versus China narrative (Bill Emmott’s Rivals, Parag Khanna’s Second World, Arvind Panagriya’s India: The Emerging Giant). Random House India’s AIDS Sutra, an anthology of writings on people living with the disease, is comparable to some of the best works of literary non-fiction in the world.
Thanks to a vibrant industry, we were happy bookworms.
What do we get next? We’ll find out soon enough whether books are recession-free. Most likely they are. But more importantly, nursing the wounds of a brutal attack from an unknown enemy, struggling through our loss, fears and questions, we’ll turn to books that have survived wars, disasters and recessions—books that always speak to us with urgency, and engages with the beauty and pain of the human condition.
Write to sanjukta.s@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 02 2009. 05 30 AM IST