Food for thought: what's young India reading, and why?
Millions are crossing the literacy line in India each year, with no subsequent guidance on what to read. So they turn to their peers, and to bestseller lists, for help. A look at how this moulds their reading habits, and why that matters. Indrajit Hazra reports.books Updated: Aug 04, 2013 02:43 IST
"They were both pleasure-lovers, but they were not cowards. Political feelings had decayed inside them. Why should they die for the badshah? But there was no shortage of personal courage. Both assumed their positions, the swords gleamed and clashed. Both fell wounded, and both writhed to their death. From whose eyes not one tear was shed for their king, the same two gave up their lives protecting their chess queens. Darkness had come. The chess board was spread. Both kings, seated on their thrones, seemed to be mourning for the death of the two heroes."
A new 'historical' novel on the lines of Amish Tripathi's mythological-fantasy 'Shiva' trilogy? Not quite. The passage above is from 'Satranj ke Khiladi' (The Chess Players), a short story written in 1924 by Munshi Premchand. It is a story of 19th-century imperial Lucknow, captured by the British but with the city's upper classes totally unperturbed by the tragedy. They continue to be engrossed in their pleasures, whether these be music, opium, fine clothes or love. The two noblemen heroes of the story are constantly playing chess. Premchand writes in a simple style, punctuated by dialogue.
'Satranj…' isn't quite the stuff readers would consider rushing to bookstores to pick up. Even this brief extract from the end of the story, for all its 'action', bears clues to how it requires its reader to think.
Chetan Bhagat's Revolution 2020, on the other hand, asks very little from the reader except that it be read. It is a story of a love triangle set in contemporary Varanasi. It has social issues such as corruption, rising aspirations of the middle-class and the rich-poor divide as its backdrop. And yet it skims the world that it describes, providing a simple chain of incidents that many readers enjoy for its lack of emotional depth. Here's a passage from near the end of the novel:
"'Apologise to her on my behalf,' I said.
Raghav let out a sigh. 'Okay, I will. But our wedding is in two months. On the first month of March. Please be in town then.'
"Of course, I will,' I said and circled the date on the calendar.
"I'll let you attend to your staff. Take care, buddy,' Raghav said.
Instinctively, I composed a 'congrats!' message to Aarti and sent it. She did not reply. I looked around my big house as empty as my soul."
Feasting on books
As with writers, there isn't one kind of reader. It isn't about reading tastes, which is another matter, but rather about how one reads. Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, writes: 'Just as writers speak of cooking up a story, rehashing a text, having half-baked ideas for a plot, spicing up a scene or garnishing the bare bones of an argument, turning the ingredients of a potboiler into soggy prose, a slice of life peppered with allusions into which readers can sink their teeth, we, the readers, speak of savouring a book, of finding nourishment in it, of devouring a book at one sitting, of regurgitating or spewing up a text, of ruminating on a passage, of rolling a poet's words on the tongue, of feasting on poetry, of living on a diet of detective stories.'
The gastronomical metaphor is apt. For, to remain just a reader of lines in a book (or a magazine or a website) is like restricting oneself to a diet of enjoyable street food while being unwilling to savour the richness of full-blown meals. The fact that you can enjoy both kinds of 'food' is also something that's forgotten in the standard 'high brow-middle brow-low brow' debate.
Readers of English in India are now passing through what older book-reading markets such as Britain's went through earlier. As Abhijit Gupta, associate professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, points out in his essay 'Popular Writing in India' in the Cambridge History of Postcolonial Studies: "['Non-literary' fiction arose in Britain] in the latter half of the 19th century, primarily in response to the unprecedented boom in the periodicals market and a sharp rise in literacy following legislation which made primary education compulsory... The expanded market also meant that the reading public would become less and less homogeneous, with writers and critics periodically invoking an entity called the 'unknown public' living in urban working-class areas and comprising a vast new army of readers, hungry for reading matter which was cheap and easily accessible."
Replace the 'urban working-class' with 'a new aspirational middle-class' and 'periodicals market' with 'primetime TV, mobile phones and the internet' and you're in 2013 India.
Gone are the days when only a tight circle of Anglophones read RK Narayan, Agatha Christie and Mills & Boon (the last of which, incidentally, will be available in regional languages soon, with Hindi editions already available). Now we have all kinds of readers reading all kinds of books. And in India, while English-language publishing may be a small slice of the Rs 10,000-crore-and-growing publishing industry pie, it is a lucrative one and, most importantly, a far less scattered one than regional languages publishing.
But in a country where most school and college syllabi offer little guidance, and many readers are the first generation in their families reading in English, what are these readers reading? And how do they decide what books to pick?
The answer is simple: Many read what is most accessible.
Bhagat, one of India's best-selling writers, himself brags that he is not interested in writing 'prize-winning literature' but in writing books that young aspiring Indians can 'identify with', in a 'language' that 'they speak in'.
"This is very much a chicken-and-egg kind of thing," say Gupta of Jadavpur University. "Media and advertising houses like to pretend there is a public out there with a well-defined taste that they merely cater to. This is fiction. These media or ad houses create a style and then manufacture a <notion> of public taste. It is the same with publishers."
Mass-market 'populist' books will always be the mainstay for most readers. In non-fiction, as the HT-C fore survey shows, the category that most readers choose to read is of the 'self-help / health / spiritual books' variety. As Swapan Chakravorty, former director general of the National Library of India, says: "Write textbooks! That's where the real money is. There are people making crores just in royalties."
Well-lit after all
So why publish 'quality' fiction and non-fiction at all? It turns out, for hard-nosed monetary reasons. Ravi Singh, co-publisher, Aleph, explains (disclosure: Aleph is publishing my book later this year), "'High end' books have a market in India. It may be small compared to that of 'mass-market' books, but it's there. These books are priced much higher so even though the numbers of books sold are comparatively small, there are enough readers to make publishers make a decent profit."
Singh also mentions that 'mass-market' publishing is very much dependant on trends, making it like stock market speculation. "Literary books and quality non-fiction have a longer shelf-life. So even when a series stops being trendy, people continue to buy older books by authors like Ramachandra Guha or Arundhati Roy," he says. In any case, most publishers mix 'high end' and 'mass market' books to feed the demand of 'both' kinds of readers.
But while there is a lot of noise around 'mass-market' books, you can usually hear the crickets chirping when it comes to a new 'literary' book in India. Unlike in more mature (but declining) publishing markets in the West, reviews and author profiles in the media and literary journalism here are not great nudgers of public taste. Instead, they mostly preach to the converted.
Jayant Kripalani, whose charming book of vignettes, New Market Tales, was published a few months ago and can be hardly found on bookstore shelves or review pages outside Kolkata (the city where the book is set in), is blunt. "Publishers promise to do bugger everything to promote a book. And they do. They do bugger all," says the man who has worked both in the advertising industry as well as in television and cinema and who knows a non-push from a shove for a Big Author's or a mass-market writer's book.
The truth is that we are what we read. And we read according to what we are at various stages of our lives. By developing a reading habit, by hook or by peer pressure, we discover the world in a way not possible without it. 'Good books' is a notoriously subjective term that means different things to different readers. But it nonetheless means something to those who know when they read one, unlike to those making a virtue out of reading 'non-high funda stuff'. In the end, it all boils down to one thing. As Manguel says, "All writing depends on the generosity of the reader." The question is: How generous a reader are you?