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Writers booked by business

The world of writers and publishers has changed beyond recognition. The pioneers of Indians writing in English made some noise in literary circles but not much money, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2008 04:06 IST

The World Trade Fair in Delhi and a session with Kiran Nagarkar, the leading Marathi writer whose novel Cuckold, written in English, I regard as the best by an Indian, gave me much food for thought. I also have in mind Sheela Reddy’s article in Outlook mentioning the huge advance royalties now being paid to new writers by some of India’s leading publishing houses like Penguin, Viking, Harper Collins, Rupa and Roli Books. They run up to Rs 50 lakh before a word of projected novel has been written.

They are higher than advance royalties offered to authors in America or England or in any other European country. And they are offered only for works in English, not for written in our national language Hindi or regional languages. It is clear that English reigns supreme in India. In the Book Fair over two-thirds of the stalls were taken by English; Hindi and Urdu were a poor second and third; other languages were barely noticeable.

The world of writers and publishers has changed beyond recognition. The pioneers of Indians writing in English — Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao either had patrons who helped them find publishers or organisations which sponsored their works. They made some noise in literary circles but not much money. The institution of literary agents was little known. The only one I heard of was Curtis Brown. It was said that if it took up your work, they would find you a good publisher and take their cut on royalties due to you. I for one never went through a literary agent-nor had problems finding a good publisher. I was happy with the 8-10 per cent they gave me on sales of my books. Today a literary agent has become a powerful factor in publishing: the best of writers use them because it is they who get publishing houses to cough up huge sums as advance royalties. The whole business resembles a whore-house. Publishers can be compared to brothel keepers, literary agents to bharooahs (pimps) who find eligible girls and fix rates of payment; writers can be likened to women in the profession. New comers are virgins (naya maal) who draw the biggest fees for being deflowered.

Publishing houses package their goods with saleable titles, beautifully drawn jackets with a line or two by a celebrity author vouching for the excellence of its contents. It has become a racket. You can see the same kind of set up in Kolkata’s Sonagachi, Mumbai’s Kamatipura and Hyderabad’s Mahboob ki Mehendi.

Rusy Karanjia

He died on Friday, the February 1, aged 95. As a matter of fact he had ceased to be the Russy I knew well almost a decade ago.
When I met him last time it was at a large reception in a hotel, his daughter Rita warned me “Uncle, he won’t recognise you.”

There he was as dapperly dressed as ever and shook me by the hand. From the glazed look in his eyes I could tell he did not know who I was. I was used to it as my wife suffered from the same ailment: Alzheimer’s disease which manifests itself by lapse of memory. During my nine years in Bombay I met Russy almost every fortnight. At times we lunched together; a few times he asked me over for drinks at his home. He had made his tabloid Blitz a weekly habit. So had Dosu Karaka and Babu Rao Patel.

Russy and Dosu had an ongoing slanging match: Rusy championing the Left, Dosu the Right; Babu Rao Patel championed Hindutva with weekly jibes at Muslims.

He lived in a suburb with his two wives and Gurkha guards for security. I regarded all three as yellow journals and enjoyed going through them. None of the obituaries I’ve read so far mentions the fact that Russy was once reprimanded in Parliament.

Russy lived in princely style. So did his friends Rajni patel, President of the Pradesh Congress Committee and Ramesh Sanghvi, PRO of the Shahenshah of Iran when he visited Bombay.

Their hearts bled for the poor and the destitute. They made people like me feel like blood-sucking capitalists. Russy had no political scruples nor concern for people he lampooned in his journal.

Having upheld Socialists and Communists most of his years, he had no compunction supporting BJP and Hindutva when it seemed to be the winning side. I was trashed more than once in Blitz (and regularly in Mother India). Russy made up by saying he knew nothing about the piece against me, as he was abroad, and inviting me to lunch.

Russy kept his cool when he was attacked by critics. The only time I saw him rattled was when his long-time friend Olga Tellis, full of oomph in her younger days, became friendly with the dashing George Fernandes, then Minister of the Central Cabinet.

None of the three journals had circulation they claimed to attract advertisers. All the three ceased publication: Blitz died in Russy’s life-time well before he was taken ill. However, whatever their negative aspects, all three left their mark on the history of India journalism, Russy Karanjia more than the other two.

Sarcastic Smiles

I smile when Prakash Karat says “Excuse me I am extremely blunt: My party is neither with Congress nor with BJP. We want to forge a third front:”
I smile when L.K.Advani says, “Being a humble man I don’t boast,
I have an unfulfilled desire
I simply covet PM’s post.”
I smile when Mayawati says
“My birthday bash enacted a wonderful scene. The topmost Babus of Uttar Pradesh
Adored me like a Phantom Queen.
I smile when our maid-servant says, “Sir, the day is not very far.
When to render domestic help
I shall come to your house in a NANO car.

(By GC Bhandari, Meerut)