By Sunil K Poolani
First things first. While contemplating what I would write for the maiden column about books, reading and publishing for this paper, the car in which I was travelling came to a standstill at one of Mumbai’s traffic signals. A street urchin (ahem) knocked at the window, with a tome of pirated books in his furtive hands. I bought one; I never encouraged piracy, though. But the book in question was Polyester Prince, a (so-called) biography of Dhirubhai Ambani. The book was banned, once, in India due to Sr Ambani’s ‘interference’ (so the story goes) when he was alive, and was resurfaced (only on the streets) when the Reliance kingpin’s kids battled it out famously after their papa’s demise.
I always wanted to know why the Ambani patriarch was so infuriated that the Indians should not read this book. I got the answer in few minutes — after I rescued the pirated book from its safe cellulite folder. Except for the initial pages, the whole book was empty. Empty? Yes. Filled with blank paper. (I later learnt that that is the case with almost 50-75 per cent of the books sold on Mumbai’s mean streets.)
By then the car had crossed two more traffic signals, and of course no sign of the kid genius who extracted my 150 rupees. I admire his (or his boss’s) audacity and entrepreneurship.
As an old (by today’s standards) journalist who is in publishing today due to some unforeseen reasons, it has always amused me that almost all the ‘great’ Indian newspapers and magazines published in English have this tendency to equally promote and denigrate authors they think are mediocre. And who are these ‘mediocre’ authors? Shobhaa De, Chetan Bhagat, Robin Sharma… Ok, they are a nuisance to a thinking man’s vocabulary. One might admit.
If that is the case, why are all these prestigious magazines carrying reviews of these best-selling authors’ books (for info: most of the above trio’s works have hit the shelves recently and are still on bestseller lists), and also devote full-page interviews with them? And in the end denigrate them, saying, their works are a tease to intelligence?
The answer is simple. The readers of these books are sizeable and a major chunk of these publications’ readers are also those readers.
So who is complaining? No one, except the ‘intelligent’ books page editors and the failed authors who are commissioned to do the reviews of these mediocre writers’ books.
Publishers gain. Readers are not complaining. And publications gain from pain. But that does not mean I do not rue the brain drain that these authors are causing our newly-started, English-reading generation. Do you?
Blogs and social networking websites like Shelfari are trying to promote book reading habits, I have been told. To an extent it is right. But do you really care who is reading what? I mean someone from Kakinada? No, at least I am not interested. The Internet, of course, has helped promote reading habits, but in an equal measure it has killed them, too. Why? You, if you are a moron, form an opinion based on some jerk sitting at one end of the world who would say Dan Brown is bad. So be it.
Nevertheless, think about those golden times, those pre-Internet days. Those where the days when a Camus or Marquez was refined and whetted down our throats by at least five aficionados who used to discuss their works (say, existentialism or magical realism) for days together. And we never complained. And we were never disappointed. Now, it is a free world, and there is no time for intelligence — passé. Take it or leave it. For good or bad.
One interesting thing I observed as being a publisher is out of the three book proposals I get, two of them are poetry collections. And, needless to say, they are not even worth the A4-size papers they are written upon, forget publishing. Nonetheless, each one of them thinks that s/he is the biggest poet ever to be recognised after Kamala Das or Dom Moraes. That’s not their problem alone. Most mothers think that their children are the greatest ever born.
More interesting stories of my publishing experience in the next columns — that is, if you and the paper’s editor allow.
— Deccan Chronicle / Asian Age