Friday, January 29, 2010

Angrez chale gaye, par...

The latest issue of Tehelka magazine has a cover story entitled ‘The Phantom Reader’. It’s about how the book reading market is much smaller than publicized, how people read for education and information, how Chetan Bhagat rules over the pantheon, and so on.

What the feature - and the magazine cover, for that matter - glosses over is that this survey is only about the English books market. Now, the English market is a comparatively small and new market in India. Almost every other Indian language has a larger and more established market, with its own history and poplar genres. In my limited exposure, I already know a bit of the Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, and Bengali books market, and whatever conclusions the Tehelka feature comes to definitely do not apply to any of these others. It's a bit surprising to see Tehelka fall into this trap, because they're usually better than that.

But first, a look at their methodology. They interviewed 1,700 people in ‘leading bookstores’. I think it’s safe to say these were Crosswords, Landmarks, Odysseys and other such stores, not railway station bookstalls, street-corner stalls, or even lending libraries, that cater to a different (and much larger) set of readers. And, based on the crowd that comes to the ‘leading bookstores’ to buy English books, they’ve come to the conclusion that the Indian Reader reads mainly ‘for learning and education’, and ‘to improve his English’. Try doing this, Tehelka: stand outside a shop selling college textbooks and ask the crowd there why they read – you’ll get even more of the ‘learning and education’ response and you’ll be even happier. You’re already biasing the survey results by focusing on one type of reader, so why not take it to the logical conclusion? But don’t survey the railway station stall folks, because they’re buying their Ved Prakash Sharma or Rajesh Kumar or SMS Jokebooks or Manohar Kahaniyan for timepass, not learning.

The conclusions of this survey are listed here. Note how sweetly the “English” word disappears as you go down the page, trying to make you think this is about all readers in India. And make it a point to read through the other articles by IWE intelligentsia, and see how many of them even acknowledge the other markets. What's the point of all these articles if they're going to give an incomplete picture?

English media alone seems to have these blinders on. The media in every other Indian language recognizes that it is a part of a larger picture. Books reviews and interviews with intellectuals of other cultures are cheerfully published. Translations from other languages sell well in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, and all literature is understood to be part of a whole. Why can’t the English media do that? By being so self-centred, it’s depriving its readers of a treasure of rich content from all over.

PS: To round out the picture, though, it’s not as if the other-Indian-language market is really booming right now. Publishers who, a few years ago, had annual sales of pulp fiction in lakhs, now find circulation down to tens of thousands (which is still okay, as compared to a couple of thousand for an average English book). My personal feeling is that other entertainment media – cheap pirated DVDs, cable television – are eating into the “read for pleasure” market. Of course, I can’t interview 1,700 people to be sure, so I could be wrong.


Prabhavati said...

"Sample size: 1,152 people. The respondents were interviewed outside leading bookstores. Apart from this, in-depth discussions were conducted with readers, book reviewers and bookstore owners."

Wonder how many people conducted this survey. Wish they had mentioned how many non-english books were sold in these bookstores.

I like the way you keep bringing up literature in languages other than english.

P.S. Thanks for giving me 'Catcher in the Rye'.

Pleiades said...

"Latterature" (From the Tehelka article) - Is that supposed to be a pun on the coffee-like quality of Bhagat's fiction or the opposite-of-former like quality to it. :S

I agree with what you've written. From the 'affluent readers' that the article talks about, I'm fairly certain that they discounted A.H. Wheeler (Which is just plain silly).

This reminded me of the flimsy 'Indian-sexual-revolution-or-not' type of surveys conducted by magazines to boost their sales. Only, Tehelka won't stoop that low so they pick 'reading habits'?

Jay said...

for some reason, I tend to agree with their findings..:(