India has always been in the back seat when it comes to a literary-magazine culture. In fact, Brooklyn borough of New York boasts of more literary magazines than the whole of India.
But lately a host of new digital ventures are trying to change that.
Much like acclaimed literary magazines such as The Paris Review, The New Yorker and London Review of Books, these new online lit-magazines are named after cities or regions -- The Bombay Review, The Bangalore Review, The Madras Mag, Mithila Review, etc.
Visually appealing, these magazines publish high quality work – art, essays, fiction, non- fiction, poetry – merging genres, forms and realities.
Interestingly, some of them are not published from the cities they are named after. Mithila Review, from example, is published from Delhi. Its founder, Salik Shah, says Delhi is the best place to run an independent literary press because it is the heart of political and intellectual ferment in the country.
Their founders have similar stories to share — starting with little or no money, a bunch of literary-minded friends working for free, and a dream and desire to take serious literature to a wider audience at a time when there seems to be growing enthusiasm for creative writing.
“India lacks literary magazines, it doesn’t have a Tin House or Granta, or even a good Brooklyn Review. The Bombay Review aspires to change that. An India that is increasingly reading online, needs literary magazines ,” says Kaartikeya Bajpai, 21, founder and editor-in-chief of The Bombay Review, a bi-monthly founded in 2014.
The magazine, he says, was started after he realised the poor ratio of Indian literary magazines compared to those in New York or London. While Brooklyn alone has over a dozen independent literary magazines — Breadcrumbs, The Atlas Review, Epiphany, etc, — India does not offer much in the genre with a couple of exceptions such as Muse India, The Little Magazine and Biblio, both published from Delhi.
Suhail Rasheed, who co-founded The Bangalore Review in 2013, says the magazine has its genesis in weekend discussion about art and literature among three friends. “At some point, we realised how little literature and arts our modern lives offer us. These discussions gathered momentum and formed the Bangalore Review,” says Rasheed, managing editor of the magazine.
The magazines, the founders say, give space to new voices that may or may not have found literary validation elsewhere — those often marginalised in literary conversations.
The Bangalore Review receives over 200 submissions every month and The Bombay Review gets about 150 on an average. “Most common submissions are poetry and the least common are non-fiction essays, although we would like to see more of them,” says Rasheed.
The contributors are from diverse backgrounds -- not just full-time writers and artists, they are bankers, lawyers, IT professionals, businessmen, housewives, and so on. “When we receive a work, it is forwarded to one of our editors usually without the bio or any background information. This enables us to stay away from biases,” he says.
Many young writers believe these online literary magazines are levelling the playing field of literature.”I do not think you have to be a journalist or a professor of English or a seasoned writer to produce serious, perceptive work,” says Amal Singh who contributes short fiction for Mithila Review. An IT professional, he works with a company that creates video content. “One has to understand that even an engineer can produce something better than a cheesy love story. These new online magazines have emerged as a good platform to prove that.”
While many believe that print -- and not pixels -- is the right medium to read literature, the founders of these magazines say there is a readership for digital literary magazines-- maybe more than print.
“India has a lot of young and curious minds that know what they are reading and creating. I feel old already even though it’s been just over a decade or so since I was coding a website for my poetry, and reading all sorts of American magazines online,” says Salik Shah, 28, co-founder, Mithila Review.
Bajpai adds, “A lot of people today read more online than they read print books and magazines. Moreover, digital literary magazines ensure readership not only from one but multiple countries, something that a print magazine would require huge funding to achieve.”
Sharing how Mithila Review was founded, Salik says, “Any literary or artistic enterprise is a response to what’s happening around us; the closer you are to the centre of action, the stronger and powerful is the response.” Mithila Review, he says, was specifically a response to the JNU protests.
“Delhi is always a place of action. Delhi is our muse—it’s a city which can be comforting and generous, but also equally heartless and cruel, like a stubborn lover—imperfect but charming, crowded yet soulful, isolating,” says Salik.
It’s no coincidence, Salik says, that some of the most active writers and critics in the international science fiction and fantasy world happen to be from or in Delhi: Vandana Singh, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Gautam Bhatia, Sami Ahmad Khan and others.
Rasheed says aspiring writers constitute a large chunk of the readership of The Bangalore Review. “This is not surprising. Most people who read serious literature have wondered at some point if they could write themselves, or how to write or what to write,” he says.
Bajpai adds, “A lot of our readers are in the 18 -25 age group. However, online statistics and social media analytics show we are gaining a lot of readers between 30 and 55 years now.”
So why does India lack a literary magazine culture? Salik says one of the many reasons is the lack of patrons to support small and independent literary presses. Besides, he says, our writers prize foreign publication credits than our own. “It’s not their fault. They pay well, and quality and readership of these foreign publications are really good. Though we gloat that we have one of the largest English-speaking population in the world, English is the language of our trade and education, not popular art, literature or films,” he says.
Bajpai, whose magazine brings out an annual print anthology and organises literary events, says the trend of literary magazines is picking up but India has a long way to go in terms of quality, content, reach and gaining a larger audience interest in literary journals.
“A lot of people today are not open to the idea of reading a lot of short fiction. Literary magazines in India will succeed when people start reading short fiction
on a regular basis and bookstores shelve literary journals from across the world,” he says.
Aditya Sharma, a novelist, believes the biggest achievement of these magazines is that they have managed to keep the short story and poetry alive. “Publishers these days hardly publish short fiction and poetry,” he says.
Many like Amal believe literary magazines need to break free from their classic little magazine mould and reach out to the wider masses. “Online magazines are best suited to achieve that. There are many serious readers and young writers from different professions,” he says, “People have a myopic view of what good literature is. It is all about telling different stories, differently.”