Sunday, October 19, 2008

Booked for Good

Sunil K Poolani

When my wayward friend who was good for nothing took a lottery ticket, a disparager said, “Sucker, you lost Rs 10.” And when he won Rs 10 lakh and a Maruti car the misanthropist changed opinion, “See, I predicted… he would win the lottery.”
I predicted Aravind Adiga would win a Booker this year. And all my friends pooh-poohed me. And now I stand vindicated. And Adiga won. And how. I write how.
Adiga, through his reportage and columns in the venerated Time magazine, always amused me. He packed much punch in simple words and sentences and it did wonders. He still does that; he is quite young, too. And when I opened his debut novel to savour, I knew what I was expecting.
The novel in question, by now discussed to death, is treatise to the condition the Indian nation is in. Adiga searches for the impossible. He takes the last mile, where none of today’s journalist (if you can call anyone by that moniker) would tread: in a hard way; the weather-beaten way. And, thus, exploring a story he wanted to narrate — in an inimitable style not many a scribe-fictionist in India could easily achieve to do.
Like the writing, the story of White Tiger, too, is reasonably effortless. Born in abject poverty (a pig’s life is much better than him), Balram Halwai (whose age is unknown) is the son of a rickshaw puller. He was taken out of the school to work in a teashop and through various meanderings he somehow gets a break when a rich village landlord hires him as a driver for his son, his daughter-in-law and their two Pomeranian dogs.
From behind the wheel of a Honda he explores the metropolis of Delhi with a gleeful eye. And since then his life is on a rollercoaster ride. He learns English. He sees the dark fa├žade behind the life of many rich people in Delhi and their moral debauchery. Balram’s language and his scorn for the rich only increases as time passes — so does his ambition to become a rich man at a time when the country is going through a new-fangled economic boom, primarily BPO operation.
To cut the story short, Balram eventually murders the landlord’s son (by then the daughter-in-law has left the son) and steals the son’s money to start life anew in another booming, glitzy city: Bangalore.
Balram kicks off an entrepreneurial venture, of hiring vehicles to ply BPO employees, and he has to grease several palms to achieve a dream of a big man in these times.
The novel is a telling tale of two Indias: Balram’s journey to achieve his goals is totally amoral and at times very nasty; it shows both the good and bad sides of today’s make-belief world. Nevertheless, most of the times the novel is uproariously funny, too, and Balram keeps a bold face even when he learns his entire family has been massacred by the landlord’s goons.
White Tiger is written in a novel way: in the form of letters to the Chinese Premier from ‘The White Tiger’, which is Balram. This debut work explores and defies all conventional norms of feel-good writing and comes as a cruel testimony of today’s murky world where only money counts. Adiga’s is a voice to be watched (Booker or not, more photo ops or not, more sales and revenue or not) and White Tiger is a worthy addition to your bookshelf. I am deeply impressed.

Tailpiece
Chetan Bhagat’s “magnum opus”, One Night At The Call Center, was made into a movie (portrayed by some stupid actors making some equally stupid gestures) and was released some days ago. The catch, at least in Mumbai corridors was, that if you buy a ticket for the move you will get to “win” a copy of the book with the ‘acclaimed’ author’s autograph. Ahem. And the movie bombed, thank you. And the books are still piled up in Mumbai multiplexes — untouched, the ink on the signed books still to be absorbed into the newsprint. Who said Mumbai audiences are idiots? Not me.
— Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

Ghost Stories and Second-Hand Books

Sunil K Poolani

Fame comes in multifarious ways: business, showbiz, philanthropy, politics, activism, crime, notoriety… you name it. With most ways, money eventually follows and you buy space to remain in the limelight. But is that enough? Not so, if some current trends are anything to go by.
An interesting and rewarding avenue has now been thrown open to failed authors and hacks in the till-now serpentine and serendipitous corridors of chaos and confusion — over how to make big bucks speedily. Many nouveau riche heroes of recent success stories want to immortalise their lives, good or bad, in book format. But there is a snag. How do you do it if you can’t write a line in English to save your life? Get a ghost writer.
There have been ghost writers in the last decades (mainly assigned by corporate houses; sorry, no names), but it was only in the last five-to-ten years that the aspirant ‘writers’ wanted to pen ‘their’ works using outside help. There are three types of ‘writers’ here, though.
One, biographies, written by somebody who possesses some kind of knowledge about the subject’s life and the work s/he is related to. Two, as-told-to pieces, where the real writer only has to have a perfunctory understanding of what s/he is writing about (so the credit goes something like this: ‘George W Bush with Jack the Ripper’). And three, where the writer is the ghost writer of the purest form (no one would ever come to know that who really wrote the book as there is an agreement signed between the subject and the real author).
Last heard in Mumbai: a failed actor and a realty tycoon have planned to write “their own” autobiographies. And, voila, a bahu of a big business empire, too, is writing a novel, and has paid a ghost writer a great deal of money to do the honours.
So, cheer up. The grass is greener here, you failed writers.

Second-Best
They may be second-hand, but definitely not second-best. We’re talking books here. Mumbai’s obsession with old and rare books is now at its peak. I have come across the most amazing collection of books on Mumbai’s pavements, and the prices are unbelievably reasonable. For instance, I’ve managed to lay my hands on the first prints of H G Wells’ works, which I don’t think I could find anywhere else in the world. Here I found not only reprints, but also first editions, for just Rs 125 each. It’s amazing.
The demand for second-hand and rare books went up by around 50 per cent in the last one decade. Sample some of the gems that have changed hands, courtesy the intelligent raddiwalas: 1) Complete bound issues of National Geographic and Playboy magazines from the date of their inception — Rs 50 for a 12-volume set; 2) the first prints of James Joyce’s unabridged and uncensored Ulysses — Rs 50 each; 3) an early 19th century biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji by an unknown Marathi author — Rs 200; 4) an original copy of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — a mere Rs 5.
Incredibly cheap, one would say, but these books find their way into the international markets, including major auction houses in London, the city of book-lovers, where sometimes a single title could fetch the occasional buyer-seller a fortune. And the books that find their way outside are not just rare books published in India (in languages as varied as Pali, Sanskrit, Mythili and Chentamil), but books published from practically every nook and cranny of the world.
The roads in and around Flora Fountain are the biggest delight of second-hand book buffs — though the sellers were banned from hawking a couple of years ago, they have just come back, mercy. In a stretch of about two kilometres — on which educated, Shakespeare-quoting street vendors have hawked books for the past 20-30 years — around 200,000 books are up for grabs. Every day. About 80 per cent of them are used books. All types are available here: fiction, non-fiction, technical, non-technical, you name it, you grab it.
Now, it is not just individual collectors who are throwing their hat into the ring. Big corporate houses and hotels are also stacking up old and rare books — of course, in good condition, and preferably gold-rimmed — in their showcases. The money at stake here is definitely higher.
Predictably, several of these collectors’ items are found in bad condition — due, in the main, to poor handling (even in bookstores) and weather conditions — so, they require professional retouching, which itself is a business on the rise, but that is another story, and will save for another day.
— Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

Vanity (Un)fair

By Sunil K Poolani

Vanity publishing is today an inevitable and dominating phenomenon worldwide — and a multibillion dollar industry, to boot. It has had existed from ad memoriam. Take the Vedas or the Ramayana to the Holy Bible and the Koran… they were all sponsored trips; by word of mouth or by somebody patronising them to get to the masses.
It is another matter they were done for spiritual (then) or materialistic (mostly now) reasons. Almost all the texts of writing (well, novel-writing was a very eighteenth century occurrence) were all funded by patronising kings or dukes.
Now, a nostalgic trip. I was a kid once and I, even today, lucidly recall how a failed poet tried to get his work published by local magazines; he was a bit successful in that effort. Then he dreamt of compiling his collection of verse in a book. For which, there were no takers in the fledgling publishing arena in the then Kerala.
His cousin, who had made his fortune from the oilfields of Persia, helped fulfil the poet’s dream. The poet used to pedal his bicycle, peddling his ware, from house to house, village to village, and finally from town to town; and in just three years’ time he had almost sold more than ten thousand copies — a quite surprising incident even by today’s standards as even our Shobhaa De does not sell that much. I still preserve the poet’s book; then priced a mere Re 1.
From the backwaters of Kerala to Andhra Pradesh and then in Delhi and Maharashtra I have witnessed, and sold too, copies of several amateur writers’ ambitious works. Some of them, I can proudly claim now, are today household names. And, I have to cheekily admit that my first two books, a collection of poems in Malayalam (when I was sixteen) and a jointly-written booklet on the Narmada movement (in the early nineties), were funded by either my dad or from my meagre salary as a hack.
Personal vignettes apart, in the present days vanity publishing is not an unashamed for business to indulge in, as it used to be, say, a decade ago. With an increasing number of publishers only catering to a clientele who are mostly cretins, a good literary work would not have seen the day of light if not for vanity / subsidised / sharing-costs publishers.
By hook, line, and sinker many aspirant writers want to get their works published — and around half of them feel deceived after self-styled publishers lure the poor hopefuls by offering them instant stardom and high royalties in return, but, alas they eventually get fleeced. Should the writers bite the bait sans thinking aloud? Never.
Writers should be careful about what they are getting into before shelling out hefty amounts to the tricksters in the game. And it is also advisable to think twice before paying money to unknown ‘publishers’ in the US or the UK who just send you ten copies of ‘print-on-demand’ books, and you can kiss goodbye to the ‘rest’ of the copies.
As a publisher I had, and continue to, publish certain books through the subsidised route (mainly poetry and fiction) as these titles, in all probability, would not assure much returns, forget making profits. I had always made it a point to clear whatever royalties the writers are entitled, too. But the problem with subsidised or vanity publishing is the writers sit in the driver’s seat as they think the publisher is at their mercy. And they do not realise that no publisher — and that includes the best in the profession (Penguin, Rupa) — cannot assure which book would sell and which one would bomb.
Discretion is the name of the game, here.

Tailpiece
A couple of years ago, a big Indian publisher brought out a book which they termed the biggest thing that has had happened in the Indian literary history. Printing of a book is pittance, but not the PR costs. Since this young and handsome guy from Mumbai had enough khandani money to indulge in this tamasha, his PR firm, in tandem with the publisher, roped in several ‘intellectual’ books page editors of reputed magazines and newspapers to write favourable reviews.
One of them flew down from Delhi, was accommodated in a five-star hotel in Mumbai, interviewed the author, and devoted three pages for the book (interview; excerpts) in his magazine and called the twenty-something as the next inheritor of Marquez. The book bombed, thank you. But not after he becoming a household name in Malabar Hill families and in Page 3 circuits.
— Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age