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Bound for success

Feature Until recently, if a book sold 5,000 copies in India, it was a national bestseller. But as Basharat Peer explains, the rise of an enormous consumer class has helped to create an underserved market in which both publishers and Indian writers have begun to cash in.
India already has three chains: Oxford Bookstores, Landmark and Crossword.
India already has three chains: Oxford Bookstores, Landmark and Crossword.

Until recently, if a book sold 5,000 copies in India, it was a national bestseller. But as Basharat Peer explains, the rise of an enormous consumer class has helped to create an underserved market in which both publishers and Indian writers have begun to cash in. One February evening I joined a small crowd to hear two writers read at a cultural centre in New Delhi. Most readings - a very recent phenomenon in India - are done by Indian writers, but the authors reading that day included the Malaysian-British novelist Tash Aw, reading from his novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, and Lijia Xiang, a Chinese journalist and writer, reading from Socialism Is Great, her memoir about working in a Chinese missile factory in the 1980s. There was much excitement in the audience and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bizarre.

It was one of the first readings by non-Indian writers organised by an Indian publisher: the Indian imprint of HarperCollins, in this case. V Karthika, the chief editor of HarperCollins India, who had earlier beaten other publishers in an auction to buy Arvind Adiga's Booker-winning White Tiger, introduced the two and spoke at length about her strong desire to bring more eastern writers to the country. "We are trying to publish more Asian authors in India. The readership in India is growing, and we are now confident to take the risk."

It was the first time that I had seen a Chinese writer read in India. But my experience of literature from other countries, especially Russia and China, was an older one - tied to a van parked on a street in my college outside Delhi in the mid-Nineties, announcing in bold red letters: People's Publishing House. The Soviet-funded PPH sold well-produced classics of Russian literature, along with a few Chinese writers. Those vans toured the cities, towns and villages of India, introducing hundreds and thousands to the parts of the Russian canon that the cultural commissars deemed right to be distributed to friendly countries like India. The long British rule had ensured that every school, college and university taught the British canon. It was during the Raj that the British publishers Oxford University Press, Longman and Macmillan set up shop in India. America tried to catch up with the British and Russian cultural influence in India and reprinted textbooks at heavily subsidised prices in India.

I recently met a distinguished, 83-year-old bookseller, Ram Advani, in the northern Indian city of Lucknow. Advani, an elegant and articulate man, has been a close witness to the journey of the book trade in India. "There was no proper distribution of books in the Sixties and the Seventies. The numbers were small. At that time, a consortium of 16 British publishers had two men working for them in India. One was a British gentleman who stayed in Mumbai and the other was a South Indian man, Kamath, who toured Indian cities and towns for six months getting books to the booksellers, ensuring that he got payments back," Advani told me. "But the trade has changed completely in the last 20 years."

The big transformation began in the Seventies, when the Indian government established a law, the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, which ensured that any foreign company operating in India had to have an Indian partner with a 60 per cent share. It led to a series of joint partnerships between various Indian, British and American companies, and the most significant of them was the setting up of Penguin India, a venture between Penguin Group and an Indian newspaper owner, in 1987. The book production got slicker, the cover designs got better, but things didn't get much better for writers. There were and are no literary agents in India, and the Indian publisher was a tight-fisted miser when it came to advances.

In 1995, when 25-year-old Pankaj Mishra, who had recently left a university in Delhi after studying English literature and was writing book reviews for various Indian newspapers and journals, proposed a non-fiction study of the impact of the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the rise of a middle class in small town India, Penguin India offered him 6,000 rupees (Dh460) as an advance. Mishra borrowed money from friends and parents, travelled cheaply, and a year later the book was published: Butter Chicken In Ludhiana: Travels In Small Town India. Its refined prose, brilliant sociological insight, stark realism and rib-cracking humour have ensured that the book remains an unparalled classic around a decade and a half after its quiet publication.

Mishra has since produced several much-celebrated books, becoming one of the most important essayists of our time. "It was published in virtual obscurity, simply appearing one day in a few Delhi bookshops. There it languished for a few months until it was rescued by good reviews." Few Indians writing in English - Nirad C Chaudhari, VS Naipaul, RK Narayan, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh - had established themselves as writers when Butter Chicken was published. Mishra's travels through small town India resonated with thousands of young Indians experiencing the world changing around them. A few years later, literary writing in English got a major boost, when Arundhati Roy's novel The God Of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997. The journalist Raj Kamal Jha then followed with his first novel, The Blue Bedspread, and soon after that, Pankaj Mishra published his stark first novel, The Romantics. English-language Indian writing seemed to have arrived.

By the late-Nineties, as the growth of the Indian economy propelled dreams of an Indian century and an enormous consumer class grew, English-language newspapers in India introduced fashion and entertainment supplements, celebrating the lives and follies of India's rich and famous. Pictures of writers, editors and publishers at book parties began to surface in the papers regularly. The readership of English books and the numbers of multinational publishers setting shop in India was growing. HarperCollins joined hands with the India Today Group, which launched one of India's first news magazines, India Today. In the last few years, Random House, Picador, Routledge and Hachette have launched their Indian imprints.

Until recently, a bestseller in India was 5,000 copies, but the sales have been growing in the past few years. Chiki Sarkar, chief editor of Random House India, is upbeat about the growing market and expects the sales to expand. "Our retail is still unsophisticated. Publishers don't sell direct to retail because of payment problems, and most shops don't arrange books and display them well. The average bookseller is not a great reader, so you don't see a situation as in the West where book chains pick books, put them on special promotions and help foster sales. Once the bookshop chains become stronger, we will see greater book sales."

India already has three chains: Oxford Bookstores, Landmark and Crossword. Ajit Vikram Singh has been running an independent bookstore, Fact & Fiction, in south Delhi for the last 25 years. Singh is one of Delhi's few booksellers who reads and knows his books. In his small shop hemmed in between a gigantic Benetton showroom and a discotheque, the customers are loyal regulars. The neat shelves are filled by an eclectic range of high literature. Robert Musil, Kapucinski and Nabokov rub shoulders with Steve Coll, Joe Sacco and Edward Said. "We don't sell big numbers, but the range of books that people read is very wide. I don't think the chains will work in India. They need much bigger numbers and 10,000 copies still make a bestseller in India."

Singh, who has judged literary prizes in India and also worked as a consultant to many publishers, is happy with the rise of houses such as Penguin India and Random House India. "It has allowed a lot of stories to be told. Before the launch of Penguin India in 1987, there were very few people writing in English in India and writers had to either publish shabby editions with small presses which offered almost no money or try the western route. Very few made it that way. Now a writer can afford to worry a little less about publishing in the West."

Indeed, some very brilliant books with a strong local flavour have struggled hard to find an American or a British publisher. One of the best novels to have come out of India, Upamanyu Chatterjee's satirical English, August, which has been a cult classic for around two decades in India and provides the best description of Indian civil service and life in the provinces, couldn't find an American publisher for 16 years until the New York Review Of Books included it in its Classics Series a few years earlier.

One of the most important changes in the last few years has been a move towards realistic advances from Indian publishers to more authors. A few months earlier, Random House, Penguin and Harper Collins fought a bidding war over the entire list of the eminent Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha, whose 2007 book, India After Gandhi, a history of post-independence India, has sold more than 40,000 copies, an enormous number by Indian standards. Guha is now writing a biography of the biggest name in the country: Mahatma Gandhi. Penguin India beat the competitors by offering to publish Guha's backlist and the Gandhi biography for 10 million rupees, the biggest amount an Indian publisher had ever offered.

Along with that, the range and kind of books that are being published are growing. Even a decade back, it would have been rather difficult to see a novel about the theory of ambiguity displayed in every major bookshop in Indian cities. But a few years back, it did happen. A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel, by Hartosh Singh Bal and Gaurav Suri, which had received glowing reviews in Nature and New Scientist magazines, was being talked about in leading Indian publications and displayed prominently in bookstores.

Bal, a Delhi-based journalist who studied mathematics at New York University, and Suri, his childhood friend and an engineer-turned-banker, hadn't been sure an Indian publisher would be interested or even ideal for their novel when they had finished writing it, so they approached Princeton University Press. "We needed an editor who knew maths and we were worried that people in India wouldn't touch it without the approval of a place like Princeton," says Bal, who is now working on a non-fiction book about the Narmada River in central India. His instinct was right. After Princeton had edited the book, Penguin India made an offer.

Hidden from the view by the glare of the multinational publishing houses are thousands of small imprints which publish very complex works of hundreds of Indian writers writing in regional languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam and Tamil. And small presses, such as Delhi-based Katha, have been translating those writers into English regularly for years. India has had heated debates about extolling the English-language writers at the cost of the vernacular writing. "We have neglected our treasures," Namita Gokhale, a respected Delhi-based novelist and publisher told me as we talked at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January, as she prodded me to be at a reading by the great Urdu writer Shams-ur-Rahman Farooqui. Farooqui had recently published a very ambitious and fascinating novel about 19th-century Delhi, Kayee Chaand Thaiy Sare Aaasman (The Sky Of Many Moons).

Writers such as Farooqui, or the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, who translated Kundera into Hindi along with writing a series of modernist novels and collections of essays, remain largely unknown to the English-speaking world. "We need more translations and we need to distribute their books well," says Gokhale, who is running a Hindi-language press, Yatra, in partnership with Penguin India. There is some hope: Penguin India published and distributed Farooqui's novel in Urdu. Random House India bought a great South Asian fantasy, Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza, in a brilliant English translation by the Pakistani-Canadian novelist and translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqui. This autumn, its publisher, Chiki Sarkar, is excited about launching the translation of another great Urdu epic, Tilism-e-Hoshruba, that Farooqui has translated. I grew up reading that book in Urdu and recently when I was asked about it, my answer was: "Twenty times Lord Of The Rings."

Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night was published by Random House in South Asia recently and will be published by Scribner later this year.

Updated: June 6, 2009 04:00 AM