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Book: the era of new writers and young readers

A decade ago, things happened that cumulatively helped make Indian publishing a multi-headed beast, writes Jai Arjun Singh.

brunch Updated: Feb 22, 2014 21:42 IST
Jai Arjun Singh
Jai Arjun Singh
Hindustan Times
Jai Arjun Singh,10 Years of Brunch,Brunch

The first issue of Brunch in Delhi came out on February 1, 2004. Nine months later, with the launch of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, Brunch was introduced to readers there as well. The Delhi Brunch completes 10 years this month.

And so we bring you a special two-part anniversary issue, on the theme 'Look How We've Changed!' We asked writers and specialists in their field, to do a series of essays for us, chronicling these changes.

In this essay, Delhi-based writer and critic Jai Arjun Singh writes about a decade that saw new writers and genres emerge and mushrooming of literature festivals across the country.

Unhurried times
The author was exiting the hall after his session when I asked if he had some time for an informal interview. "Sure," he said. We strolled across to the solitary seating space on an empty lawn. A few session-attendees stood about, but mostly we were undisturbed and could speak softly - the only other sound was that of the birds chirping.

Such was an encounter with Hari Kunzru at a small literary event held in Jaipur's Diggi Palace in the middle of the last decade. This may be hard to picture for anyone who has only experienced the Jaipur Literature Festival as it has been in recent years: a cavalcade on the scale of a DeMille epic, with every square foot of the grounds packed with famous authors, publishers, agents and thousands of autograph-seekers. But the festival's expansion from that modest, single-hall event to one of Asia's most spectacular cultural must-visits has paralleled the boom in Indian-English publishing.

BOOM IN PUBLISHING: The Jaipur Literature Festival (above, 2013) has become one of Asia’s most spectacular cultural must-visits. (Photo: Himanshu Vyas)

At the start of the millennium, it was easy to make generalisations about Indian writing in English (IWE). A limited number of titles came out each year, the most celebrated were by non-resident authors, well-established in the West. The perception was that this writing was cut off from everyday non-metropolitan life in India, there weren't enough young, homegrown writers around, and IWE was an elitist affair.

But around a decade ago, some things cumulatively helped make Indian publishing the multi-headed beast it now is. International publishers set up India offices and expanded their catalogues. Literary agencies such as Siyahi, Jacaranda and Writer's Side were established. And the Internet provided aspiring writers with new forums, and publishers with new talent pools to dip into.

The tipping point
The success of Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone (2004) was a tipping point. It forced publishers to acknowledge the many reading hierarchies within India, including young readers for whom English was a second (or third) language, who might pick up a low-priced book because they could relate to a breezy tale about growing up in a changing India. Today most publishers have imprints - such as Penguin India's "Metro Reads" - that cater to this market. With the broadening of readership, the definition of "bestseller" has expanded from a decade ago (when 3000-4000 copies sold were enough to give a novel the tag).

The definition of "bestseller" has expanded from a decade ago (when 3000-4000 copies sold gave a novel the tag)

The results have been mixed. On one hand, just about any semi-literate, overconfident 19-year-old who thinks he has a story to tell can get published by low-investment houses such as Srishti: hence a sub-culture of poorly edited (and barely written) "national bestselling" novels with titles made up of long, grammatically irrelevant word arrangements and ellipses. On the other hand, solid, inventive work is happening within fields that barely featured on IWE's radar - science-fiction, fantasy and thrillers. Internationally popular genres have been merged with indigenous stories - whether it be a Mughal era detective story or a fantasy epic that draws on Indian mythology, or visual storytelling that uses local forms such as Gond art or Pata-chitra.

Graphic novels, children's books
Children's writing and young adult fiction have made strides too, thanks to such publishers as Young Zubaan, Duckbill and Tulika, with their willingness to be wacky and to set higher benchmarks for illustrations. The annual festival for children's literature, Bookaroo, draws large enthusiastic crowds, as does Comic Con, which provides representation for visual storytellers of all stripes. The graphic novel drew hesitant glances at first, but struck out in new directions, dealing with dark subjects such as communal violence or big-city alienation. There has also been an increased representation of literature from regions that are cut off from mainstream Indian culture, such as the north-eastern states, and fine work in the field of translation from regional languages into English.

Too much, too soon?
The variety has come at a cost. Publishing houses are driven by quotas, editors usually have too much on their plates, and many books are left to fend for themselves when it comes to publicity, authors are expected to build a presence for themselves through social media. But these are in essence exciting signs, indicative of a burgeoning reading and publishing culture. And yes, there are dozens of literature festivals now, many in small cities and towns. (There were two lit-fests in Chandigarh last November!) At these cosier events, it may still be possible for casual readers to meet a high-profile author for an undisturbed chat after a session. Whether any of these newer fests becomes Jaipur-sized, and how far the publishing boom continues, are questions for the next decade.

Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer and critic.

From HT Brunch, February 23

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First Published: Feb 22, 2014 16:51 IST