Thursday, February 03, 2011

Indian Literature 2000-2010: a survey

A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier this week as part of a special edition of Mint surveying the last decade in Indian politics, business, society, literature, and culture. I apologise for some lapses and omissions I'd have liked to say something, for example, about poetry and drama, but I don't think I'm tuned in enough to the scene to have a secure sense of its shape

This is also my final piece as Mint Lounge's book critic, bringing to an end four fulfilling years of waking up every Saturday to find one of my reviews in the paper. An archive of about 180 reviews and essays for Lounge is here. These essays, and my two books Arzee the Dwarf and India: A Traveller's Literary Companion, were my own small contribution to Indian literature this decade. I'll continue to appear occasionally on the paper's books pages, but the space where I'm most reliably to be found is here.

The Decade In Literature
The book business encompasses three universes that overlap substantially but have distinct identities and histories. These are: publishing (the book as a physical object, the mechanics of book-editing, design and printing, the size of the market, the quality and diversity of the writers and publishing houses within it), bookselling (the bookshop as a site for browsing and buying and as a cultural space, the distribution networks of publishers, book launches and other publicity methods), and, less tangible than the other two but the idea grounding it all: the idea of literature, of a reading culture.  

This is the acknowledged power of the written word, deeply considered by an individual writer and then sifted through multiple quality-control filters and put between two covers, for nuanced thinking that calls on all the riches of language, creates unforgettable verbal patterns, beats on the reader's brain with provocative ideas or narrative methods, world-changing argument or a defence of the status quo, offers spiritual elevation or just thrilling timepass, supplies a mirror on the world or a vision of an alternative world. Across all books is a common idea of the book.

This idea, though, is changing. From a global perspective, not since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century has there been a more momentous decade in the history of the book as the one that just went by. Both book-publishing and bookselling have changed shape enormously from the turn of the millennium onwards. In the West, the decline of print culture and the arrival of the e-reader and the e-book have made it possible to imagine a day, due within our own lifetimes, when the printed book, like the printed newspaper, will be no more than a curiosity. Indeed, a hundred years from now the very word “book” may not mean anything, as we move further into a world of integrated multimedia. 

Simultaneously, the spread of the Internet and the growth and burgeoning power of Amazon have precipitated a crisis for bookshops, which all through the twentieth century were the sites where all the elements of literature came together, and mean something vital to you and me that they might not to our children. Meanwhile, globalization has, arguably, made “literature” a bigger and richer space for most serious readers, making more kinds of books more easily available to more readers, permitting old books to be sold alongside new books, and allowing readers, through the Internet, to have a stronger say in book discussion and, thereby, sales.

India’s book economy is, however, on a different arc, from that of the West and, like the Indian newspaper industry, is still on its way up rather than down. For an observer of Indian literature in English (for the purposes of this essay, I include under “Indian literature in English” both work originally written in English and that translated into English), the last decade was full of bright lights on all three counts of publishing, book-selling, and the density and internal diversity of the idea of literature and the spread of a reading culture.

As – whether we like it or not – the hub of the many literary cultures that make Indian literature the most complex and multilingual national literature in the world, Indian literature in English has a huge responsibility, one that it realised better this decade than in any one previously. 

Just as it has taken Indian democracy the best part of 60 years to activate the social and political energies of a majority of its citizens, including many traditionally disenfranchised groups, similarly, it might be said, it has taken Indian literature in English (which is a few decades older than Indian democracy) a very long time to achieve a density and diversity equal to the social and linguistic energies available to it. We might think of this decade as one in which Indian literature both went forward and expanded outward at the same time, bringing into its embrace many of the literary riches of its past and present that were hitherto restricted to speakers of a particular regional language or specialists. (Take an hour, for instance, to survey all the riches of the Clay Sanskrit Library project, which published about 50 titles over the course of this decade).

The birth of many new publishing houses and imprints in the last decade, the explosion in the number of books published,  the increase in the number of bookshops (particularly the big chains like Crossword, Landmark and Odyssey) and the growth of the online book trade all point to one thing. The book business is growing rapidly. In 2010, the estimated value of the trade book market (covering, that is, books published for the general reader, and not textbooks or technical books) was about 1500 crores . This is three times the size of the book market in 2000.

When Penguin, the market leader in the trade segment (with about 15%), started up its operations in India in 1987, it published seven titles that year. In 2000, it was up to 124 titles a year. This year, it was about 240 – a reliable index of how things have come along in two decades. Further, many more players have a slice of that pie than was the case ten years ago. A number of new English trade and academic publishing houses – Random House India, Permanent Black, Westland Books, HachetteBlaft, Navayana, Yoda, Niyogi, Amaryllis, and Srishti – appeared over the last decade to compete with the older guard of Penguin, HarperCollins, Rupa, Orient Blackswan, Oxford University Press, Seagull, Zubaan, Motilal Banarsidass, Picador, Katha, Roli, Mapin, and Stree Samya, claiming a share of the trade even as they helped increase its size with their distinct emphases.

Widening internet penetration has stimulated e-commerce, allowing readers in places without bookshops to buy books, and even those in areas with bookshops to access a much wider range of books, or buy books at substantial discounts. Online bookselling, almost negligible in 2000, now accounts for about Rs.100 crore worth of business annually, divided up between players like Flipkart (where I do most of my shopping), Rediff and Indiaplaza.  

The physical Indian bookshop, though, with some honorable exceptions, continues to be a disappointing place for the serious reader. Stocking an inadequate range of titles and usually manned by staff who have no real interest in or knowledge of books, bookshops in India don’t yet manage to fulfill the publisher Andre Shiffrin’s idea that “The good bookshop doesn’t just have the book you want, it has the book you never knew you wanted.” I find some of the better secondhand bookshops in India, such as Blossom in Bangalore and New & Secondhand Bookshop in Mumbai, far more rewarding than the big chain stores. Recently I spent some very productive hours in Arpita Das's Yodakin in Delhi's Hauz Khas Village, and Sachin Rastogi's Worldview Bookstore at Jadavpur University in Kolkata has an excellent range of academic and university press books at bargain prices.

A great part of the appeal of books, we must remember, is their allure as physical objects: the way they are designed, bound, typeset. This was the decade in which, for the first time in India, books as objects met world standards. When I was a literature student in the year 2000, it was possible to distinguish a book published by an Indian publisher from a foreign one just by taking a look a it. This is no longer the case, and Indian bookshops now take pride in a wealth of books by Indian writers that don’t just read well but look great. If there is something that Indian publishing needs now, it is better editors. To this book-reviewer, too many Indian books are currently let down by their sloppy English: hoary cliches, confusing syntax, superfluities, stilted dialogue, clumsy metaphors, and unselfconsciously purple prose.

Indian literature itself occupies a much larger place in world literary consciousness than it did at the beginning of the decade, with a small raft of big Indian names giving way to a whole schooner of exciting voices. The typical first-time Indian novelist or short-story writer in English today is much less self-conscious in his or her approach to the language than, say, two decades ago, and much more sure of his or her audience. The result is that good new works of fiction appear now not in their ones and twos but at the rate of a couple of dozen a year. In a multicultural and globalizing world, in the age of the Internet and with easy access to a hospitable market, Indian writers are also likely to be from more diverse backgrounds than previously, and to have a far wider range of narrative and aesthetic influences across mediums, from novels to films to music to comic books. 

Unfortunately, writers in English have a much greater chance of being published in markets outside India (something that distorts foreign perceptions of Indian literature). This is slowly changing, but it may take another decade to take full effect. The revolution must begin, however, by more Indian readers consciously seeking out Indian literature in translation (some older essays on what I think are great Indian novels in translation are here: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Indeed, the role and agency of readers, as much as writers, in a literature cannot be overestimated. Any vibrant literature requires a sizeable number of discerning readers who not only follow the work of writers but are in some sense in advance of them, and whose impatience with sterile forms and stories, and skepticism of prevailing power structures, creates an atmosphere of ferment and ambition where distinctive visions and bold new energies can exercise their spirits. Such readers are now everywhere in evidence in India, but their numbers are still too small or them to be gamechangers. Perhaps by the year 2020...

Another pointer to the maturation of Indian literature in English this decade was the emergence of genre fiction of various kinds, from thrillers to chicklit to campus novels to pulp fiction in translation, thereby opening out the market for Indian fiction dramatically and bringing in readers hitherto deterred by or unsympathetic to novels. Most of these books don’t yet meet the standards of the educated reader of literary or genre fiction (and some, as Aadisht Khanna pointed out in a hilarious piece, are so bad they’re good) but they are part of the story of Indian literature this decade as much as an Amitav Ghosh or Aravind Adiga.  

As a sign of India’s growing power within the world of Anglophone fiction, the decade was also marked by the establishment of a number of indigenous prizes for Indian or South Asian works of high literary merit. The Crossword book awards, established in 1998, were joined this decade  by the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction award and the Shakti Bhatt First Book award. While still putting down roots in the Indian book world, these prizes allow us to envisage a day when they, rather than overseas stamps of recognition like the Booker, will be seen as the primary arbiters of Indian literary merit. 

Alongside literary prizes, a thriving literary culture also needs quality literary journals. The two established Indian literary journals in English, The Little Magazine and the Sahitya Akademi-published Indian Literature, were joined this decade by a number of excellent print and online literary journals, including the bilingual Pratilipi (which has recently gone into book-publishing), the eclectic Almost Island, and newer efforts like a webzine dedicated to short fiction, Out of Print. Even a magazine such as Time Out Mumbai, which started out in 2004 and over the course of the decade established itself not just as India's best-written magazine but as a journal integral to the self-conception and historical self-awareness of Mumbai, might be thought of as part of the story of Indian literature this decade, cities and literature always being closely connected. 

Book coverage in mainstream newspapers and magazines, though, is not noticeably better than it was in 2000. For this reason, despite the growth of Indian literature, books do not occupy a noticeably larger space in the minds of educated people than at the turn of the century. This one of the last missing links in the maturation of Indian literature, for without robust literary debate and the reasoned evaluation of books, literature is hamstrung both at the level of its influence in the public sphere and its power to school and widen the tastes of readers.

Currently, Indian literature is more deep and diverse than it has ever been, but no one newspaper or journal – perhaps not even all the periodicals collectively – is able to take full stock of this on its pages, and many outstanding titles (particularly academic publications, books from small presses, and works in translation) come and go without a trace. What Indian literature needs in the next decade is something like a New York Review of Books or a London Review of Books – a New Delhi Review of Books perhaps? – to consolidate the many gains of the decade gone by.


Ravi Iyer said...

Wonderful write up.

Partho P. Chakrabartty said...


I enjoyed reading this article.

I was wondering where you got your figures for the publishing industry. I wanted to find out more, especially wrt the market share.

Thank you!