Hindi novels turn a page after Booker fillip
Amod Maheshwari, the CEO of the family owned Rajkamal Prakashan, a well-known Hindi publishing house, which had published Ret Samadhi in Hindi, in 2018, sent out a message to his printers to print 15,000 copies of the book by the next day.
It was 2 am on May 27 and Amod Maheshwari’s family was glued to YouTube watching the live telecast of the International Booker Prize award ceremony in London. The family erupted in celebration as Tomb of Sand, an English translation by Daisy Rockwell of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret Samadhi, was announced the winner of the coveted prize.
Maheshwari, the CEO of the family owned Rajkamal Prakashan, a well-known Hindi publishing house, which had published Ret Samadhi in Hindi, in 2018, sent out a message to his printers to print 15,000 copies of the book by the next day.
“We had about 2,000 copies in stock that were all sold online before dawn. We anticipated that if the book won the Booker, there would a huge demand for it and we wanted to be ready, but as we realised the next day even 15,000 copies were not enough,” says Maheshwari.
Within five days of getting the award, Ret Samadhi, which had sold only 1,800 copies in over four years since its publication in 2018, sold over 35,000 copies—a record for a Hindi novel. It occupied the top position in the books category on Amazon India for several days, also a record.
“Never before has a Hindi book sold so many copies in such a short time. By now the book has sold over 47,000 copies. We hope to cross 100,000 over the next couple of months,” adds Maheshwari.
That target may not be unattainable, given the title has stayed on the list of the five bestselling books on Amazon India and continues to be a bestseller in most of Delhi’s top bookstores.
“For the past three weeks, the Hindi edition of the book has been the best-selling book in our shop, and interestingly many buyers are those who have never read a Hindi novel,” says Abhinav Bahmi of Faquir Chand Bookstore in Khan Market. “We believe that the success of Ret Samadhi will spur the demand for other Hindi novels. So, we are going to expand our Hindustani literature section where we mostly kept poetry books so far,” he adds.
Making Hindi ‘cool’
Many believe that the book’s unprecedented success marks a new exciting chapter for the Hindi publishing industry and will provide further impetus to the sales and readership of the Hindi novels, which have seen a steady rise in the past few years, thanks to a combination of factors – new publishers, new young writers, high production quality and slick marketing and packaging -- that were earlier considered the hallmark of English publishers.
While Ret Samadhi is shattering sales records, in the past few years several other Hindi novels, though not all so literary, brought out by well-known Hindi publishers such as Vani, Rajkamal, and Hind Yugm have been continuously crossing 10, 000 sales mark within a year of their publication—quite a leap from a decade ago when a Hindi novel was considered a bestseller if it sold a thousand copies.
“Over the past few years, many of our novels have sold over 20,000 copies within months of publication. When we started our publishing firm in 2010, I struggled to sell 500 copies of any book,” says Shailesh Bharatwasi, who founded Hind Yugm, a publishing company credited with discovering many new writers in Hindi.
“What made the turnaround possible was that unlike the established publishers, who were risk-averse and were mostly reprinting classics at that time, we singularly focused on finding new young writers in Hindi who wished to experiment with themes, plots, and language. Many of these writers are IIM and IIT alumni who could have written in English if they wanted to, but chose to write in Hindi,” adds Bharatwasi.
One such writer is Nikhil Sachan, who has written several Hindi bestselling novels such as Namak Swadanusar, UP 65, and Papaman. “I could have easily written all these books in English but given their sensibility and context, I thought my stories will be better told in Hindi,” says Sachan, an IIT-IIM alumnus, who last year quit his job as vice-president of a bank to take up writing full time. Apart from books, he has several popular web series to his credit. “I feel that the International Booker Prize for Tomb of Sand will go a long way in making Hindi cool and help develop a whole new readership for the language,” says Sachan.
The image makeover
Aditi Maheshwari, executive director of Vani Prakashan, one of the country’s oldest and biggest Hindi publishers, agrees. She is one of the new generation of publishers who are redefining their family’s publishing business. In the past few years, she has launched several new imprints, including Yuva Vani, for young writers.
“My biggest priority was to change the prevailing narrative around Hindi literature and publishing. So, among the other things I focused on were production quality and cover design so that our books looked as good as those by English publishers or even better...The sales of books were constantly growing by 12% a year until the pandemic, which came as a bit of a setback,” says Aditi Maheshwari.
Like their English counterparts, many top Hindi publishers such as Vani constantly now give decent advances to many of their writers. “We recently gave ₹16 lakh advance to an author for writing an authorised biography of an Oscar-winning celebrity. We try to ensure that we sign every writer with a decent advance,” says Aditi.
Talking of the growing desire of people to write in Hindi she says, “Before the pandemic we received about 10 manuscripts a day, now we receive about 20 a day. And the number of manuscripts from tier-1 cities has doubled in the past few years,” she Aditi, who believes that the International Booker Prize will change the way how Hindi literature is viewed both in India and abroad. “In fact, this was a moment all Hindi publishers were waiting for, for a very long time; it will give a boost to Hindi novels and their translations into English and other languages.”
Gained in translation?
Naveen Choudhary, the best-selling author of books such as Janta Store and Dhai Chal, says that the Booker for Tomb of Sand has busted several myths about Hindi books. “One of them was that Hindi books have a regional appeal only. I believe that this prize will create a huge demand for quality translations of Hindi books,” he adds.
Writer and journalist Poonam Saxena, who has translated Gunahon Ka Devta, Dharamvir Bharati’s iconic 1949 Hindi novel, into English, says that while publishers are more interested in translations than they’ve ever been before, they need to do more to promote translated books.
“They should not just publish a translation and then leave the book to its own fate. They have to actively promote the book, make it visible, have interesting marketing strategies around it, make sure potential readers get to know about it, create a buzz -- only then will translations sell better (since most publishers complain translations don’t sell), ” she says.
She added, “Otherwise, things will continue as they are, regardless of the prize. Also, oddly enough, translations of Hindi books somehow lag behind other languages such as Bengali or Malayalam. I hope the Booker for Tomb of Sand at least helps get more Hindi-to-English translations to readers.”
In the meanwhile, Amod Maheshwari’s phone just cannot stop ringing three weeks after the Booker win. “The callers include bookshop owners wanting more copies of the book, publishers from countries such as Spain and China exploring the possibility of the book’s translation into their languages, many institutions wanting to invite and felicitate Geetanjali Shree, the media wanting to interview her. I have never answered so many calls about any of our books or writers in the history of our publishing house. We will always cherish this moment of glory.”