Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Creator of Legends



Around the 1990s, I had the rare privilege to become a close acquaintance of O V Vijayan, a legend in every sense of word, stroke and speech. Those were underprivileged days for me: no money, no steady job, Delhi’s gnawing chill, homesickness, nostalgia… Amidst all these, the doors of Vijayan’s Chanakyapuri residence were one of the few that opened for me, offering me food, not just for the soul. As I used to sip tea, or swallow idlis, Pooh, the Siamese cat, the one and only pet Vijayan ever owned and loved more than anything else in the world, would stare at the intruder who had come to spoil her master’s calm and cool afternoon.
I, like most people who have had the fortune to meet this extraordinary gentleman, was really awed by the aura he held. He was not just a contact for me in Delhi, where I could while away my time, but my mentor in several ways; he even edited my first article in English. Parkinson’s disease had just attacked him then: his spoken words stammered, his fingers shook, his vision blurred, but his mind was as clear as mountain dew. I even had the chance to see his last political cartoon, which is to appear in The Statesman, which I had personally delivered to the news editor of that paper — his fingers had since then disobeyed him. But his wide and varied constituency of Malayalam and English readers were fortunate that he could dictate short stories or social commentaries to his two personal secretaries.
My relationship with him continued even after I left Delhi for Mumbai, in occasional mails we used to exchange. Then suddenly there was no correspondence at all, and I realised that Vijayan has already started sinking. By mind silently wept, but no one could do anything about it.


So, who was Vijayan? For the uninitiated (which is really unlikely if you are a connoisseur of Indian literature, political cartooning or journalism) he is, to put it in one sentence, one of the greatest writers the world has ever produced. And what raised him to that pedestal is his first and best novel, The Legend of Khasak, which was published around the same time that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s path-breaking One Hundred Years of Solitude. Hence one could fairly conclude that two of the greatest of writers of the twentieth century evolved at the same time, changing the course of Malayalam and Spanish literatures respectively, making the two individual works the benchmarks in their own respective languages.
The Legend of Khasak, published in 1969, is often poetic and dark, always complex and rich, an extraordinary, breathtaking achievement which took the Malayali psyche (and, to some extent, physique) by storm. The gist of the book is this: Ravi, the protagonist, thanks to a restlessness born out of guilt and despair, embarks on a journey that ends in the remote village of Khasak in the picturesque Palakkad (in central Kerala) countryside. A land from the past, potent with dreams and legends, enfolds the traveller in a powerful and unsettling embrace. Ravi is bewitched and entranced as everything around him — the villagers, their children whom he teaches in a makeshift school, the elders who see him as a threat, the toddy-tappers, the shamans — takes on the quality of myth. And then reality, painful and threatening, begins to intrude on the sojourner’s resting place and Ravi begins to understand that there is no escape from the relentless dictates of karma…
An amazing treat, I personally believe there was nothing that Vijayan wrote since The Legend of Khasak that matched the range and depth of his maiden work. Sample the imagery here:
“Long before the lizards, before the dinosaurs, two spores set out on an incredible journey. They came to a valley bathed in the placid glow of sunset.
My elder sister, said the little spore to the bigger spore, let us see what lies beyond.
This valley is green, replied the bigger spore, I shall journey no further.
I want to journey, said the little spore, I want to discover. She gazed in wonder at the path below her.
Will you forget your sister, asked the bigger spore.
Never, said the little spore.
You will, little one, for this is the loveless tale of karma; in it there is only parting and sorrow.”
Vijayan’s second novel, The Saga of Dharmapuri, is still considered to be the most disquieting novel ever written in any Indian language, but its genre is totally different from his first novel, and hence there is no comparison. It was panned by critics for its scatological depictions but it was a daring attempt, no doubt.
After The Saga of Dharmapuri there was a lull period of a decade and what followed was The Infinity of Grace. Like all his works this, too, was translated into the English by the author himself. It won several awards including the prestigious Vayalar Award (and it baffles one how the literary mandarins decided not to give the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary honour, to Vijayan). The Infinity of Grace, a marvel of course, marked not just the transformation of his craft, but also the evolvement of Vijayan’s ideology itself. From a staunch Communist supporter, he had by that time embraced spiritualism, thanks to his then new-found association with spiritual leader Karunakara Gurukkal. I, though not a Communist, was really sad to see his transformation, but Vijayan told me then: “My health is deteriorating, and what else can I do but to call out to the Almighty?” There was moisture in his eyes.
Apart from his three important novels (he had written three more novels, but they failed to accomplish the status of the first three, especially the first) he was also renowned for penning some of the most beautiful short stories in Malayalam, especially The Story Told by the Wind, Warts, and After the Hanging. They had an uncanny beauty — again — never ever surpassed by any Malayalam writer after him.
Like many regional language writers, Vijayan too had this misfortune: his works were only truly and fully appreciated by Malayalam readers — the beauty of his prose couldn’t transcend the way it should be to other languages. This, despite the fact that it was Vijayan, who could write in Malayalam and English with equal felicity, translated almost all the works into the English.
“Why,” I had asked Vijayan. He said: “The reason is that translation is an act of shifting eggs from one nest to another. In the process the yolk and white are separated, and what you have left with is broken shells.” How one wishes we had an Edith Grossman, Linda Asher or a Gregory Rabassa who made a Marquez or a Milan Kundera a household name across the globe.


Vijayan was born in 1930 and has published six novels, seven collections of stories, six collections of political essays, a book of selected cartoons and one volume of satire. Vijayan took a Masters degree in English Literature from Madras University in 1954. After a short stint of teaching at the University, he began his career as a political cartoonist with the Shankar’s Weekly in 1958. He left the Weekly and joined the Patriot in 1963. After four years, having resigned from the Patriot, he began freelancing for various publications including The Hindu, Mathrubhumi (Malayalam) and Far Eastern Economic Review. In 1979 he joined The Statesman.
Vijayan lived a double life, in the right sense. If Vijayan the story-teller was world-class, so was his role as a political cartoonist who took Indian journalism by storm by his deft caricatures of the people in power. Indira Gandhi feared his strokes, so did her son Rajiv. In the foreword of Vijayan’s book, A Cartoonist Remembers, a collection of his best cartoons and writings about cartooning, Ashish Nandy wrote: “I belong to Vijayan’s tribe, comprising those who have betrayed their class, and I have watched in rapt admiration the demolition job he has done for our generation. It covers not merely targets that are easy and fashionable to attack, but also the ones that are politically incorrect to touch. The latter include the slogans which have helped our class to establish its stranglehold over the culture of Indian politics and the media…. Vijayan [was] one of the foremost social critics and chroniclers of our times.”
Vijayan was a true political cartoonist, a rare breed, unlike an unnecessarily eulogised R K Laxman, who doles out syrupy caricatures on a daily basis. Vijayan’s lines never gave anyone a hearty laugh; it always left a sour taste — a taste of reality. A worst critic of Emergency, Vijayan’s wings too were clipped. What was his reaction? “When on June 26, 1975, I told my editor in Madras that I was quitting, he was concerned and asked me to stay on and comment on innocuous subjects; I did not leave in a spirit of bravado but in humility, at my sheer inability to locate the innocuous subject. Brothers in the profession did apparently manage to locate some: in the first weeks of censorship, in its abjectness and debasement, I found our newspapers carrying cartoons on the Lebanese crisis. One might as well have drawn cartoons on the Wars of the Roses.”


Ottupulakkal Velukkutty Vijayan died on March 29, 2005, aged 75. And it is sad that his wife (Theresa) and son (Madhu) had to slug it out with Vijayan’s nephew (Ravi Shankar) over performing the last rites — Vijayan wouldn’t have approved this mudslinging match.
Let his soul lie in peace.
— Sunil K Poolani

Monday, October 17, 2005

Hopping into the limelight

Frog Books is slowly making its presence felt
B Krishnakumar / The Week
One man, an idea and a measly Rs 3,000 as starting capital— that was the beginning of Frog Books India. Launched in January 2003 as a part-time venture, Sunil Poolani’s publishing house took its first tentative hops with Jasmeet Chhabra’s debut novel, CrossRoad. Four other books followed: The Urban Voice: Essays from the Indian Subcontinent, a collection of essays by various Indian writers, Rape of News, a compilation of comments against The Times of India’s move to market editorial space, Under a Quicksilver Moon, a book of poems by Abhilash Warrier, and A New Friend, a novella by a Spanish writer Nacho Blanco.
Then in early 2004, Poolani had to do a rethink on the part-time aspect of his publishing house. Zzebra Communication and PR Co.—launched by former Economic Times financial journalist C.P. Thomas, along with PR professional Pooja Chowdhary and reputed columnist Dilip Raote (all friends of Poolani)—were interested in having Frog Books join it. As the advantages were many, Poolani agreed.
Today, Frog Books is a happening venture. "Being part of a media company, we are more networked," says Poolani, who has been a journalist for the last 14 years. "We have more contacts and do strategic thinking." Zzebra does the initial investment on a book, and the team uses its office for networking and Internet sales. Manuscripts are whetted by a panel of eight consulting editors after being vetted by the team.
The works by the two foreign writers that it has published have elicited a good response abroad. While Blanco’s novella garnered orders from more than 100 libraries in Spain, Australian Will Marks’s book The Highway, which details his experience during a two-year motorbike trip on the roads of India, has sold well on the Internet.
The company’s Web site is getting plenty of attention. Many aspiring writers from as far away as Guatemala and Papua New Guinea have spotted the Web site and sent across their manuscripts.
Frog Books has also moved into self-help and children’s books. Its recent publications include The Green Dragon, a book on environment for children by US-based Anuradha Gupta, How To Be Exclusive And Maximise Your Returns, a self-help book by Pune-based management consultant Dr Vasant Khisty, and Winter Whispers, a book of poems by Arun Sharma, a prolific writer in Hindi, Bengali and English. Frog Books plans to publish comics and cookery books as well.
However, the book that Poolani and gang are waiting for is the soon to be printed Bollywood Unplugged by Derek Bose. "It’s a coffee-table book," says Poolani, and the stuff that rakes in the money.

Media’s new mission?

FREDERICK NORONHA talks to the author of a booklet that has come out against the commercialisation of news

IT'S a slim book that covers 60 pages, and is boldly trying to make a point against the way in which rain-forests of newsprint are now being utilised. Or, misutilised.
Called 'The Rape of News? The Ethics (Or the Lack of It) of Selling Editorial Space', a just-published book makes a strong point of why the media must have a mission, and why newspapers should avoid the "crass commercialisation of news".
Sunil K Poolani, editor of this new title brought out by his his fledging Frog Books imprint, on the issues involved. Excerpts:
How would you describe your latest book?
The booklet was first brought out in 2003. It was the outcome of The Times of India's decision to market editorial space in its newspapers. As a result, corporates and individuals could pay money and feature in news columns or other editorial space. Editors, journalists, writers and PR professionals commented on whether this trend was ethical, will (or should) other newspapers follow suit and whether this was the end of the 'news is sacred' concept.This booklet sold 850 copies in just two months. Twenty months later, we thought we should check what is happening with this trend, whether it is alive or not. What we have discovered is that not only is the trend alive, but it is thriving. The trend has been followed by other papers, too - though not as blatantly as the 'leader who guards the reader.'Instead of having one-two-paragraph comments (as we did in the first booklet) we thought we should bring out a book with substantial contributions from senior media critics and journalists. So, here we are.
What is its importance /relevance to the media fraternity and average reader?
The relevance is that what is written in the newspapers that you read in the morning is not news. They may be true, but they are either irrelevant and/or shouldn't be appearing on these pages. In short, you have no business to read that and get influenced about the people or products which got into that slot by paying money. Isn't this a serious and grave issue? The reading public and journalists should sit up and take notice and, of course, react.
Why have you got so concerned over this particular issue?
I got into journalism when I was 15, when I was part of a revolutionary group. I was part of an underground newspaper and I got into this because I really believed journalism is the mirror of society and what appears in a newspaper should be truth and nothing but the truth. Over the years I have had to make many a compromise, but nothing of this sort. Of course, I am concerned, as any journalist should be.
Could you list arguments from contributors of this book, which you found interesting or unusual?
Most contributors are, of course, against this trend. A couple of contributors also think that, well, what's wrong with this, as the market is changing shouldn't the papers too change in the direction where pelf and power lie. When I asked several journalists and media critics to contribute to this volume, many men didn't want to or were shy/afraid to write about it. But not women. So you will find seven women among the total ten contributions in the volume. A couple of contributors feel that the best way to tackle this issue is to boycott the paper in question, instead of going on murmuring.
Do you think this problem is spreading across Indian journalism?
Yes, slowly, but steadily, in different garbs and volumes.
What influence do you see this book having?
You have to influence the common man and of course the journalists.
— Deccan Herald

The serial reader

There seems to be new energy in children’s book publishing in India, writes Manjira Majumdar who has a few suggestions for creating a dedicated readership

THIS article seeks to focus on an aspect of publishing, a part of an ongoing process, that is contributing towards a certain new vibrancy in Indian book publishing to-day. We are talking of children’s books in English and illustrations, which are symbiotic of each other. If textbooks are becoming more literature-based, to encourage the child to read more, children’s fiction publishing is inching towards hitherto unmapped territories in terms of ideas and themes. Many seminars, workshops and discussions are being held to deliberate on this, but walking the talk are a handful of publishers and some hawk-eyed editors, scouting around for good work. No one is talking big bucks here and the kind of hype unleashed by a JK Rowling, rather trying to make a case for creating a dedicated readership for children’s books published in India. We ought to remember that for every Rowling there are at least 10 children’s authors in the UK, or the USA, enjoying a steady readership and quite a fan following. In India too, it is not that children’s publishing is an overnight phenomenon, as publishers, both big and small, seem to think. It has always been there, and the market is not growing or shrinking because of other distractions. The time has perhaps come, to assess certain drawbacks and potential growth areas. Sunil K Poolani, publisher and managing editor, Frog Books, Mumbai, a small and independent publishing ho-use, says, “There has always been an interest in and demand for children’s books of all kinds, catering to different age-groups. The market for children’s books, unlike self-help books, has always been the same, and never grew or shrunk.” Corroborates Sayoni Basu, editor, Puffin Books India, “As a publisher, one is never satisfied with the demand, but yes it is good.” A casual trip to the bookshop would introduce one to new books by old and new authors; a closer look reveal quality content and smart packaging. What is lacking, perhaps, is a series of titles by a single author, which invariably encourages great-er author recognition. That’s how readers get hooked on to a brand, and young readers are no different from elders getting hooked on to serials, or even a John Grisham. It’s evident in the way generations of readers are still reading the endless series by Enid Blyton, Billy and Bessie Bunter, the Goosebump series and more recently, Jacqueline Wilson’s teenage fiction. The series concept has always been a high point in Bengali publishing. The ex-amples being sleuth stories by Saradindu Bandopadhyay and Satyajit Ray. The exploits of Byomkesh Bakshi, Tenida, Feluda and Professor Shon-ku have always had readers asking for more. These stories were initially serialised in magazines. An English language magazine like Children’s World does this to an extent but has not been able to create a series that can sustain reader interest. Translated books are doing pretty well according to Sayoni Basu. “One huge recent success story is APJ Abdul Kalam’s Mission India, which sold 10,000 copies in less than a month. Other non-fiction, such as quizbooks and biographies, or a book like Sudha Mur-thy’s How I Taught My Grandmother to Read also do well. Translations of Abol Tabol and Goopy Gyne have sold exceedingly well while Ruskin Bond and RK Nara-yan generally sell well,” she says. The last two authors mentioned come closest to having loyal readers. “The Rusty series by Ruskin Bond does quite well,” informs Surabhi Pansari of Crossword Book-store in Kolkata. And who has not heard of Malgudi Days? “Another children’s author who is doing well is Rohini Choudhury,” she adds. Bond’s latest book, Roads to Mussourie, published by Rupa, is also notching up good sales in the city bookstores. “When we talk of children’s books moving well,” explains M Motwani of Oxford Bookstore, ”we have to look at the total picture. Children’s books include the Tintin and Asterix comic books, the Amar Chitra Katha series and, of course, the Enid Blytons and the Harry Potter series.”Potter, in a way, redefined children’s publishing. In India, we are yet to see a single hit book the stature of Daddy Long Legs or even Little Women. All the same, certain English titles have given us reasons to get excited about. One such is Young Uncle Comes to Town, a funny book written by US-based writer Vandana Singh, whose story, strangely, is rooted in a small town in north India. Published by Young Zubaan, it is well-illustrated and nicely-mounted — something Indian publishers are not always very particular about.Greater attention is being paid to the total look of a children’s book, be it folk stories retold or original stories. The traditionally evocative ones are giving way to interesting original stories, set in the urban milieu. Pustak Mahal has spinned off a new section — Unicorn Books, to exclusively focus on children’s writing. Two of its books, Witches of Waitiki and The Lady in White, authored by Jehangir Kerawalla who was educated in Kolkata, read rather well. Ashok Gupta, director, Pustak Mahal, says, “Uni-corn Books is committed to bringing out a series of genres in children’s writing — ghost stories, sci-fi, adventure, thriller, etc. We cannot predict what will click more. Some books tend to do well years after their publication.” There are more publishers like him who are viewing the children’s market, tapping authors, while sources at Rupa say it is flooded with manuscripts. But how would people know about the children’s books being published in India, unless there are more write-ups in the media (as is being done in the case of adult’s fiction published in English), says Sayoni. Sunil feels that well-produced books, both in terms of design and illustration, could help children choose their own favourites. “India has a huge and varied repertoire of fabulous myths and legends, they have to be promoted. Alongside, it is necessary to give a world view of contemporary life,” he sums up. To this one may add, rather than offering a one-time high advance for a single book to an author, commissioning a series, despite the risks involved, may help sustain writing for children.Perhaps, we are getting there. Slow and steady.
Manjira Majumdar is an author and works in publishing / The Statesman