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.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What the cyclist did

[This is the unedited version of my review of The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, by Manohar Shyam Joshi , published a few days back in Deccan Herald. They changed the title to "A man's gradual descent into insanity". I think I like my title better :) ]

What the cyclist did

It takes a while for you to realize that there’s no one narrator in The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. The narrator of the story is the collective we, the entire clan that Hariya belongs to, the family who talks about him and the events surrounding him. There is no truth, no untruth, nothing marked believable or incredible – all you hear is what the family talks about and how it interprets what it knows. The whole cacophony of the family is captured here – the superstitious uncle, the greedy, alcoholic nephew, the doctor in the family, the press reporter cousin, the know-it-all teenager.

The plot is simple on the surface, but difficult to categorize. Harihar Dutt Tiwari, better known as Hariya Hercules, lives with and cares for his paralyzed, blind father, “Rai Saip” Girvan Dutt Tiwari. It’s a miserable life – Rai Saip is temperamental and difficult to care for, and Hariya has a low-paying job. Their social life consists of Hariya cycling over to relatives’ homes on weekends on his Hercules bicycle (hence the nickname), reporting about his father’s health to them in excruciating detail (“Today I couldn’t get all [his shit] out even with my hand.”), and getting updates from them to report back. When his father dies suddenly, Hariya looks through his belongings and finds evidence of his father getting “cursed” by a priest. He decides to set off to find this priest and temple, and never returns. An aunt who accompanied him reports a strange sequence of events that transpired, which don’t exactly match other witnesses’ versions.
But this is only the basic plot. Hariya’s story can be looked at as a man’s gradual descent into insanity. Or it’s a spiritual tale revolving around a curse. Or it could be about a simpleton bilked by greedy relatives. It all depends on who in the family is telling the story. And the family itself recognizes the multitude of meanings, and is conscious that it should select the version that makes it feel good about itself. In the broader sense, the story is about how a family creates and assimilates its own folklore.

Joshi has given us a family that talks sort of like ours, but still has that little strangeness to it. The modes of address are different – “Ija”, “Kainja”, “Bhinju”. It is some time before we figure out that this is a Kumaoni family, with their own dialect. One feels sort of like a non-Hindi speaker reading a book with the normal Hindi addresses – “Chacha”, “Bapu”, etc. – we have the same experience when we read it as Indians of a different community.

It’s also nice to see that there’s no glossary or other attempt to translate the unfamiliar words into English – whatever you understand, you understand through context. There’s also no attempt to use exotic or unfamiliar words in the translation just because it’s an Indian book. The language comes across as very earthy and day-to-day, the rhythms of Hindi are captured and made to feel a part of the English text.

Manohar Shyam Joshi is probably best known as the writer of the TV serial Hum Log. I was too young to appreciate the serial when it first aired, but this book demonstrates anew that Joshi knew how Indian families behave, and I felt an urge to go back and watch the serial. The brief introduction to Joshi’s other books on the flap reveals a very interesting repertoire. This, perhaps, is the biggest success of this book – introducing the English reader to a multi-faceted literary personality and making him want to read more.