Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Shelf-full of Books

[The following piece appeared, with some edits and a title change, in DNA on the 21st of March]

A few days after my first translation, The 65 Lakh Heist, by Surender Mohan Pathak, was released, I walked into a large chain bookstore to see if it was stocked there. I found it in the “Indian Fiction” bookshelf. Its two closest neighbours were an anthology of Love stories edited by Ruskin Bond, and the newest book by Salman Rushdie.

I’ve been browsing through bookstores all my life, but it wasn’t until then that it struck me just how unfair the categorization was for all of the books displayed in the Indian Fiction category. The Ruskin Bond book should have been under Romance, or maybe under Anthologies. Rushdie’s book should have been Literary Fiction. Many of the other books felt wrong, too – Tagore’s and Premchand’s translations should have been under Classics. There should’ve been some sort of category created for Indian campus-lit and chick-lit by now, but those books sit next to historical thrillers and post-modern fiction in the same Indian Fiction bookshelf.

The reader will, no doubt, point out that the volume of Indian books in all these genres is so low, that the books would be lost if mixed in with the other – non-Indian – books. And starting from that point, the reader – and several writers and reporters – have come to the conclusion that Indian writing is very limited and that readers here read much less than their counterparts in other countries. Although this makes for great copy, it’s far from the truth.

Let’s go back to that book I talked about in the beginning – The 65 Lakh Heist, by Surender Mohan Pathak. Mr. Pathak writes crime thrillers in Hindi, and has so far written 270 of them, selling over 25 million copies of his books. The 65 Lakh Heist alone has sold over 3 lakh copies in Hindi. Hindi Pocket Books, as they are called, are a huge industry – but no less than Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati, or Bengali popular fiction. This is hardly surprising. The number of people speaking these languages in India is more than those for whom English is a first language. And this industry publishes books in all genres – romance, action, thrillers, noir, social dramas, literary and historical fiction. And if you look at Indian publishing as a whole, instead of just the English segment, it’s thriving and can give English-language publishing in, say, the US, a run for its money.

But if this industry is so large, why are the books in the Indian languages not stocked in the “prestigious” chain bookstores in India? In Bangalore, chain stores have an emaciated-looking Kannada shelf which features Kannada translations of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”; in Pune, there’s a Marathi shelf which contains (you guessed it) Marathi translations of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and “The Alchemist”. The Hindi shelf, if present, has the same content. Why do the stores boast variety in the English section but turn the Indian language shelves into pale echoes of the English shelf?

I spoke to Krishnakumar R., of Odyssey, about why there weren't more regional language books in Odyssey stores, and he listed three reasons. "The publication schedules of regional publishers are not well planned and have less volume than the English publishers. Second, the distributors of these books don't do a good job of pushing these books to our stores, so we don't get the books reliably. And thirdly, economics is a factor too - our profit margin on regional language books is definitely less than the English books."

All of which are potential discouraging factors, true. But then these stores already deal with a wide variety of products: music, movies, weekly magazines, stuffed toys, show pieces, and so on. Many of these will have the same problems that Mr. Krishnakumar listed. Most tellingly, though, he states, “And we also need to stock those products that cater to our target class of people.”
Perhaps that’s the crux of the issue – the perception that popular fiction in regional languages is a different class of people from those that read English. The feeling is that there are different stores for those books anyway, and the people who come here prefer only the English books.

The movie shelves of these same stores prove them wrong. In the past few years, the size of the Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, and whatnot shelves has grown dramatically – everything other than Hindi and English used to be on one shelf, and now they occupy a fourth of the movies section. And there’s always a crowd sorting through them. Everything that could be said about regional language books could be said about the movies, too. Yet, the stores cater – profitably – to every type of Indian movie watcher. If they actually stocked a representative collection of popular fiction in Indian languages, the stores would similarly attract the general Indian reader, instead of focusing on the niche.

We the English readers, though, us fans of Chetan Bhagat and Dan Brown, would find ourselves in trouble if this happens - we wouldn’t know what to buy. Not because we’re ashamed to, but because we simply don’t know which books are good, and which are tripe. We know when the newest John Grisham is coming out, but we don’t even know which writers are good in Hindi. How is it that we, readers of this paper, never hear of the new releases in Hindi/Marathi/Tamil ? Why are there no best seller lists or reviews we can refer to?

Well, yes, the Hindi/Marathi/Tamil newspapers do talk of these books, and they do have a good circulation. So it could be argued that English newspapers don’t “need” to cover them. But the reason to cover regional literature is the same reason that Bollywood and other Indian cinema is covered in the English media – it is interesting to a large part of the population, it is a large industry that involves thousands of people and large amounts of money, and it is as much a part of the popular culture as movies are. It’s strange that cinema is covered and fiction isn’t.

We might be in this situation because we’ve imported the whole business of English books – writing, buying, marketing, even the genre names on the bookshelves, from the Western books ecosystem. This includes the reviewing and the top ten lists and the contacts with the press – everything that constitutes the hype that sells the books. Publishers in other languages are still waking up to the fact that the English publishing industry is dominating the literary supplements with its flashy covers and advertisements. Writers in other languages are much more grounded – they aren’t turned into celebrities the way English writers are, and they have traditionally depended on word of mouth for their publicity.

Some Indian language book publishers are now learning from their multinational counterparts – they have websites, push for reviews, and even make extracts of new releases available for new readers. A couple of English newspapers now carry columns by writers in other languages. The translation market is booming – until now, it was lop sided, with books from all over available in other Indian languages, but next to nothing available from Indian languages in English. This has changed over the past couple of years, with more and more interesting titles coming out, and more publishers jumping into the fray. Almost every genre of books is now getting translated, raising interest in the originals in their respective languages.

Maybe in a few years, we’ll be as informed about the latest releases in Kannada or Hindi or Marathi as the English ones. And we can go to the chain book stores, and buy our own writers from the genre shelf that they belong to – not the ‘Indian Fiction’ bookshelf.


What to start reading
If you’re interested in reading some popular fiction from around India, but aren’t familiar with the languages required, here’s a list of new and interesting translations into English.

1. The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction: This was probably the book that started the current wave of interest in popular fiction. Excellently produced, smoothly translated, this book is a must-have.
2. Chandrakanta, by Devkinandan Khatri: The original isn't contemporary, in fact, it's nearly a century old now. But a recent translation, by Puffin books, was quite well done, and probably is one of the few of Indian fantasy so far.
3. The Adventures of Amir Hamza, and Tilism-e-Hoshruba: These are very interesting popular epics, in Urdu and Persian, which have been embellished through the centuries by storytellers. Excellent translations by Musharraf Ali Farooqui came out last year, which revealed these stories for the first time to English readers.
4. The Feast, and other visions of malevolence: This is an interesting graphic novel adaption of weird tales("goodh katha") by the renowned Marathi writer, Ratnakar Matkari. It is scheduled to be released this year, and it will be the first translation of this genre into English.
5. House of Fear, by Ibn-e-Safi: Random House recently released this translation of the cult Urdu pulp writer Ibn-e-Safi, detective stories. There is another anthology of his work, Doctor Dread, coming out soon from Blaft publications.
6. Faster Fene: B.R. Bhagwat created this young lad who gets embroiled in adventures and mysteries with alarming frequency. He's been a favourite of Marathi readers for decades now. Some of his stories have been translated into English, too, but are available only in stores in Mumbai/Pune.
7. Byomkesh Bakshi: Made famous by the TV serial starring Rajit Kapoor, Bengali readers have long been fans of this detective. Sreejata Guha has recently been translating them into English to bring the stories to a wider audience.
8. The 65 Lakh Heist, and Daylight Robbery, by Surender Mohan Pathak. Blaft published these translations of the bestselling Hindi crime writer. These are books starring his popular anti-hero, Vimal, who is reluctantly conscripted into criminal capers.