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 façade 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.

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.

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.

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

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Dreams Die Young, a debut novel by CV Murali, published by Frog Books

Reviews/excerpts of the book have appeared in various newspapers, magazines, websites:

The Hindu, The Tribune, The New Indian Express, The Statesman, The Pioneer, Sahara Time, The Free Press Journal, Navshakti, The Week, Indian Literature(Sahitya Akademi’s journal),The Book Review,,,Brown paper

A few reviews are reproduced below:
Murali has woven a veiled commentary on the present seething turmoil.
The writer carefully maneuvers the readers into thinking that though the dream of Rajat is righteous, the method and mode that legitimised violence to achieve it is wrong and also that it is important for the politicians and other government officials sitting on high chairs to know that the callousness on their part to eliminate the suffering of the poor may have disastrous consequences. Murali’s lucid prose, efficacious trenchant realism, an insightful mode of characterisation, psychological overtones has enabled him to unravel a theme of timeless human significance—relationship of the individual and the society, raising the book to the stature of a sociological document
The Tribune, April 2008

Intense and intricate, it is hard to believe that this is C V Murali's debut novel.
Unlike a few writers who just claim to guide the genre of contemporary English literature to glory, C V Murali effectively does the job. His book is not descriptive but paints a clear picture of the lead character's personality.
By analyzing Rajat's actions and thought process the reader can easily interpret his temperament. He has introduced section-titles in the book which embellish it's beauty all the more and link the mood therein. The very first section-title is 'The End' and the story is narrated in a flashback. 'The Requime' and 'The End' are the only two chapters that narrate what happened to Rajat after he quit the revolt; the only two chapters which talk about his present. Intelligently, the two chapters have been placed at the two extreme pole of the book.
But what does the book do to you? It will very effectively prevent you - the reader - young or old, from going astray.
The Free Press Journal, March 2008

There is a freshness about this slim,nostalgic first novel which should sustain the interest of the reader to the end.The author has a facility for quick sketches.He can bring a character to life in a few sentences.As a first novel,Dreams Die Young shows promise,and this will,no doubt,be realised in futureworks as the author matures in craftmanship
Indian Literature(Sahitya Akademi’s Bi-monthly journal),January-February 2008

C.V. Murali has gone into the subject with a quiverful of questions. What are the causes that transform mildmannered, well-to-do and gifted youth into pitiless gun-toting terrorists?
Dreams Die Young seeks answers. Murali prefers a crisp, matter-of-fact-style…
The twist in the climax is well-produced. As also the last turn of the screw when Rajat learns of Romen’s betrayal of his trust…The Hindu, January 2008
Dreams Die Young delves into the psyche of young people, trying to shed light on what makes an ordinary young student turn into a Naxalite.
The New Indian Express, January 2008

The storyline of the novel is finely detailed, as the author subtly depicts the betrayal and sacrifices made by the cadres of the Naxalite movement. Written in a lucid prose
Sahara Time, October 2007

In Dreams Die Young are seeds of a good novel writer.It is also creditable for the subject he has chosen and to write on such a topic is appreciable/commendable.
Navashakti,September 2007

There are lots of pearls one could gather-the style, gripping narrative and the classy opening. The hallmark of the book is its excellent narrative.
The Week, August 2007

After a long long time one book which I could finish reading at a single stretch. The characters flow smoothly scene after scene and at the end of each chapter you are left with a question mark and an inquisitiveness to know what's going to happen next. All credits to the author for having chosen a sensitive subject for his debut novel and dealt with such aplomb. It’s an apt book for the present day hasty reader and a fabulous read.
Geeta Canpadee,Book critic,Blog on

There’s a certain cinematic quality to this briskly-paced novella that cries for translation to the latter medium. The directness and simplicity of the narrative would make an adaptation a cinch. Won’t someone please buy the film rights to the book and champion this dream.
Niranjana Iyer,Book critic based in Canada,Blog on Brown papers

Need Introspection

By Satya Sista

Your article, Macaulay’s Children, set me on a tour of introspection and deep thinking. It made me wonder, whether the ease with which some of our countrymen are able write in English and receive world wide acclaim is due to their proficiency in English or the lack of it in their mother tongue or the other Indian Languages. Not being a literary man myself, I am unable to go in to the depth of their minds and see whether their thought process is western or Indian, whether their characters depict true Indians or mostly Westerners, with shades of Indians thrown in to them. Not being born in this era of Western influence, I shudder at the thought of the gradual disappearance of the regional languages, when most of our younger generation does not know how to read or write their mother tongue. Let alone writing in their mother tongue or regional languages, they are even deprived of the joy to read great works in their own language, understand each and every word in the same mental frame as the author, visualize each and every situation and feel one with the characters of the book.
Am I wrong in so thinking? I question my inner self. May be, it says. It is often said that when this World is becoming a Global Village, language should not become a barrier for expression and one should do so in which ever language one feels comfortable. Is that so? I question it again. Yes, it says and continues “The present day generation is not to be blamed for their lack of interest in their mother tongue. It is not their fault if they have not learnt how to read and write their mother tongue or if they are unable to understand and appreciate the great Indian folklore or Epics, or if they do not have an ear for the Indian classical music. The fault is more deep routed. It is in their parents, in their grand parents and even in the society itself. How many of us will support a family member, who wants to study Indian languages or Indian culture? Instead of feeling happy that here is a person who is truly interested in his or her roots, we will try our best to discourage that person and try to lure him or her in to more socially acceptable and commercially viable options. This is an era, where everything which is homegrown is despised and western is lapped up and generation after generation is only strengthening the feeling. It is not restricted to literature alone; it has gone to the extent of our very nerve centre. Don’t you know that English is the passport for success in the present era and don’t you want your children in their higher studies or careers abroad? Don’t you want proudly announce to your near and dear the achievements of your children abroad and the way they are contributing to the growth of a foreign land? Don’t you remember the Indian Ethos, where in, we work for universal peace and universal brotherhood? Simply stop being a regionalist and raise to the level of a Global Citizen”
Oh! My God! What a brainwash. I say to myself. It is nothing but self effacing rhetoric, I quip. Why is my inner self not aligned to my way of thinking? Why can’t it strongly support my views?. As if hearing my thoughts, it says again “ Don’t be discouraged. I do not say that your views are wrong. They are only out of time and out of context. To bring back our Indian languages to their erstwhile glory, it may require a zealous crusader, to change the system of our learning, the mindset of our society and the focus of our future generations. Though English as a language can not be dethroned, we can at best bring our regional languages to an equal level”
In so saying my inner self fell silent leaving a herculean task in my hands and my mind full of thoughts.
Satya Sista
Major ( Retd ) SN Sista
H.No 11-13-162, Rd No 3,
Alakapuri, Hyderabad – 500035
Andhra Pradesh
Mobile 9948330066

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Macaulay’s Children

Sunil K Poolani

When the commissioning editor of this magazine called me at 11am asking me to write this piece, after reading a news report mentioning two Indians have been included in this year’s Man Booker shortlist, I was fast asleep: after a night-long, neck-wracking work. I said, Yes, slit-eyed. When I woke up, I cursed myself, Oh! Why did I ever commit to do that? But promise is a promise, and here I go.... And, readers, you asked for it.
Convent-educated I am, as my parents were somewhat affluent; and I learnt a language that is now spoken and written in most of the civilised world (whatever it means). The Brits conquered most of the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thrust this language, for their own benefit, down the throats of the gullible, especially those people, dumb in most cases they are, who did not have the luxury of weapons or any other means. So we learnt this great language, with great pomposity and glamour and people like the bhadralok Bengalis and Madrasi Brahmins took it as a status symbol, a feather in their cap, to escape from their the then-existent despondent lives.
Then the worst happened. We (now, I only include Indians in this category) started writing in this foreign tongue. And, the ever-grinning firangis wanted this: someone to lap up what they had shat behind. Thus manufacturing Macaulay’s Children. Nirad C Chaudhuri was one of the firsts to believe that the English way is the best in the world to live by. Not all were, to be frank, subscribed to that theory. R K Narayan, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and Kamala Markandaya did break the barriers to write in and write to the western audiences in their own language, without breaking away from the very Indian psyche and spirit.
So far, so fine. Then? Then came Salman Rushdie. He wrote — with tremendous success — Midnight’s Children. A path-breaking work, no doubt. Destroying the till-then norms of how not to write the Victorian, stiff-upper-lip, politically-correct English, and, to the Brits’ bafflement, chutnifying the English. The book did wonders and spawned hopes among thousands of aspirants in the Indian subcontinent. Till today there are few successful writers from this part of the world who could match Rushdie’s oeuvre. What did he achieve? Fame. Money. Fatwa.
No one could emulate Rushdie’s success story. Then descended a dame called Arundhati Roy, writing a mediocre novel called The God of Small Things. Hello, by then the global geopolitics had changed, for good or bad. India was no longer held a pariah. In India existed a great market; one of the biggest English-reading markets where the West can peddle their wares. (Why do you think India got so many Miss Worlds and Miss Universes? Is it because all of our damsels suddenly started looking sexy? No, dummy, just because here was a market for multinational fairness creams.)
Same thing happened in Indian writing in English. So, how do you get attention and reap in profits when the massive book publishing from the US and the UK has to be unleashed in this country? By awarding Indian writers, of course. Suddenly this over-inflated Man Booker Prize started short-listing or/and occasionally awarding their ‘great’ award to some of our mediocre writers. Kiran Desai, one to get celebrated recently, is an example. And mediocrity cannot stop there: a Pulitzer award to Jhumpa Lahiri, too.
It is all about market, honey. So when Rushdie, though he won the Booker of Booker for the second time this year for Midnight’s Children, has been dumped now, Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga have been included among themselves in the final six novelists this year.
To give their respective honours, both Ghosh and Adiga write well and their works are good by any international standard. Should we complain, then? Shouldn’t we rejoice? Pick your choice. Some questions crop up, nevertheless. Why should we be overjoyed by some western award that is thrust upon us? A Ghosh or Adiga would not have been in our vocabulary if they were not promoted (for all the materialistic reasons) by the firangi critics. When will we improve? We will not.
Why? Giving Rushdie and Ghosh their due credit for the way they effervescently write in whatever language they might have imbibed, one thing is straight: we, Indians, have a rich literature which is still unsurpassed by any new-fangled European language. We should be, and have to be, proud of the great literary traits some of our stalwarts in Indian languages have left behind: be it in Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam, Hindi or even Konkani.
We do not need any recommendations from and by any ex-colonialists and neo-imperialists. They, today, depend on us. But, we still think ‘good’ is better only if it comes from the west. What a pity.

Sunil K Poolani is Executive Director and Publisher, Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Write to him at:
-- Sahara Time

Blurbs and Burps

Sunil K Poolani

Sometime ago I requested an established writer to pen a Foreword for a book we were publishing. Without mincing many words he said he will charge at least Rs 10,000 for his 1,000-word ‘magnum opus’. My firm had agreed to pay that amount; his blurb on the cover would boost sales of a first-time author, you know. It is another matter the book did not take off and the Foreword was never written.
Move over quality literature’s patronising saints, who benevolently considered up-and-coming authors are their literary progeny, once; big money is here, now. After fat advances and multi-city tours, it is the turn of these time-honoured writers to demand greenbacks to make them richer by resorting to a less-effortful game of writing forewords or blurbs for gullible publishers and wannabe writers.
Evidently, there are ‘friendly’ stalwarts who write blurbs, in favour of a certain publisher, or for a friend, or his or her offspring... Salman Rushdie wrote one for Kiran Desai’s debut work, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard. And see what she has achieved for her second novel: a Booker.
Look at the advantages. This tribe might have published one or two best-selling books, and today they might be scrounging for fodder for their forthcoming success stories. That may or may not happen. So what do you do to remain in picture — and, yes, make money, too? Forewords? Well, they do take time to write. Blurb? It is easy, silly; you don’t even have to read the book in question.
These writers can deliver carefully-worded, adjective-laden blurbs at the drop of a hat. Taste one: “A valiant saga of loss and longing, rare bravery and resilience; narrated with remarkable kind-heartedness and forthrightness… An outstanding debut!” The novel could be hardly that. But who is complaining?

Dissimilar Voice
Yours truly and my partner in life and crime, Lajwanti S Khemlani, just finished, and enjoyed, reading Richard Crasta’s The Killing of an Author (Invisible Man Books). This is what we have to say:
The book tells us about the harrowing hardships Crasta had to face in the process of getting his novel The Revised Kama Sutra published. Eventually, his story was published worldwide. But not before Crasta lost all he had — wife, children, money and, most importantly, his health. In the process of writing, rewriting, and trying to get his novel published, Crasta became a prescription drug addict.
Whatever Crasta does, he does passionately. He dares to be different in his writing and behaviour. And this seeps through in his work as clearly as sparkling water. In spite of the book theme being intense, Crasta has a sense of humour which he maintains from the start to the end. In a sense, the book is a lesson to new writers of what could happen to them even in developed nations like the US and the UK.
The Killing of an Author is funny, sad, and eye-opening. Like others who are dependent on psychiatric drugs, Crasta has to have them for his depression and anxiety. He knows he needs them to function, but does not know the side-effects. The book presents how most innocent civilians like him get caught up in drug enslavement without the slightest inkling of what could happen if you take this, that and the other. It is also a warning to those who are plagued with mental problems to learn more about what they ingest, even if it is prescribed by their loved ones.
We need more writers like him. But are Indian publishers ready to take him seriously?

Sunil K Poolani is Executive Director and Publisher, Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Write to him at:
-- The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Soft-Porn Blues

By Sunil K Poolani

I am aware that this is a family newspaper and what I am going to write below is neither a blatant promotion or celebration of pornography nor an effort to titillate buried libidos. But, as any growing-up guy or gal in the pre-cable and -internet days, cheap pornographic books and magazines were the stuff that quenched our curiosities of that ‘nether’ world.
Pornographic literature has existed since people started writing — and reading — and it is still, even in this age, one of the biggest industries in the world. It is a matter of prerogative, though, how cheap your tastes can plummet. ‘Straight’ sex stories are considered fine and those ones written classically have stood the test of time. Okay, call it erotica. And it’s just not Lolita or Sons and Lovers, but there has been a wide array of erotica that has the same depth and range of any world classic you can imagine.
But the debauchery in tastes only becomes worrisome if those pornographic or erotic writing deals with and depicts worrisome sex: incest, paedophilia, bestiality, scatology, rape, stomach-churning fetishes, necrophilia…
When I was living in Hyderabad in the late eighties, I picked up a fat book from a pavement stall: Pearl. It has travelled with me to whichever city or house I have since then moved into. Pearl has had an interesting history. It was an underground pornographic magazine that had as mysteriously disappeared as it had appeared in the Victorian England, shaking the so-called moral standards set by the stiff upper-lip British society.
Why so? It started using the f-word without any inhibition, but was an impressive collection that comprised serialised pornographic stories, poetry, ribaldry, anecdotes, short essays, spoofs… all written, though in a salacious manner, in great classicist language.
By today’s standards Pearl appears as sanitised as any genre of feel-good literature, but one could imagine the upheaval Pearl might have caused in the then society: a reason why it is still a bestseller in all English-reading markets. What if you can only lay your hands on a pirated copy.

Magnificent History
Mike Dash’s Thug is the most amazing work of history that I have read in so many years. Some thoughts. While anyone who is interested in the past (aren’t we all?) will be enthralled to read this movie-like narration with rapt attention, one has to rue the fact that we have been discussing for ages: why is that you always need a firang to retell the story of the Raj with clarity, detail and near-perfection? Why is it that, save for a Ramachandra Guha, we do not have, at present, any historian worth his salt to invest more time, hard work, dedication and scholarship (the money part will follow if you have the rest) and create something like Thug?
Apart from the beauty and eloquence of the prose, the book is painstakingly researched and grippingly written. Dash tells a story that we, Indians, have only heard from our grandmothers’ scary bedside recitals (I doubt if they still do that). The inside blurb says that Dash has [had] devoted years to combing archives in both Britain and India to discover how the thugs lived and worked. And he does succeed in revealing all these murderous clan’s methods, secret and skills — a blow-by-blow account, this.

Jargon Unlimited
Recently I read a great line: “We really want to ‘leverage’ and ‘monetise’ our ‘synergy’ with this new ‘initiative’, but there’s a ‘disconnect’ in terms of our ‘reorg’.” Before you chuckle, do realise that this is the kind of verbosity that reverberates in corporate conference rooms, and seldom do we confront the speakers to cut out the jargon and talk vividly. And this jargon has already started seeping into our literature, too.

Sunil K Poolani is Executive Director and Publisher, Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Write to him at:
-- The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Do Not Imitate, Thank You

Many readers have been writing to me, asking certain things they have been curious to know about the publishing business in India, and also about books in general — and where we are headed towards. As I had said earlier, readers’ mails are what I really look forward to and cherish every time my column appears in this paper.

I try to answer some of their questions and, ah yes, I really like the effort they take to write to me. So here they go:

1) The number of books especially novels that are published in India is skyrocketing, and how. The rub is that most of them aren’t quite good and would never have passed through editors a decade ago. So what has changed in the publishing industry?

A: ‘Aren’t very good’ is an understatement; most of the books published here are not even worth the stationary they are written upon.

2) Have the criteria for getting books published changed over the last one decade?

A: Without doubt. These days every scum you can imagine sells; mediocrity is the catchword. Also, thanks to lack of serious reading, the mindset of the urban youth is not programmed to read anything heavy; a reason why Paulo Coelho or Arindam Chaudhary sells well. Since there is a clientele, mediocre writers churn out stuff to cater to that segment. And publishers are not complaining as at the end of the day they do not want empty coffers.

3) But is it not a passing phase?

A: For bad of course, the change is happening. In the last one decade numerous national and international publishing houses have set up shop here and since there is an acute lack of good writing, and since these publishers want to tap the local market, they have to publish and promote run-of-the mill-work, which is in abundance, thank you.

4) Is the profile of the author and the target audience more important than the story?

A: Yes. Sometime back, I read about an invitation by a publishing house which said, only men and women who are good-looking need to submit their manuscripts. Also, if you are a celebrity or someone who walks the ramp or is a starlet or is the daughter of son of a celebrity chances are that not only do you get published but you are on Page 3; and, yes, sell voluminously, too. And quality? What is that?

5) Has language taken a backseat, by becoming more simple and easy to understand? Are we catering to the SMS and email-addicted public?

A: Language has not become simple and easy, but it has deteriorated to the nadir that it is a tease to whatever intelligence we are left with. You can blame so many things: fast life, gadgets, television, nuclear families, lack of enthusiasm to appreciate quality literature…

6) What are the main criteria these days that publishing houses apply when choosing manuscripts?

A: Saleability. Cookery, self-help, children’s colouring books, beauty and fitness guides… these are money-spinners. And the no-nos are quality books penned by I Allan Sealy or Mukul Kesavan.

7) Any new writer who has shown promise of becoming India’s next Salman Rushdie?

A: Rushdie? Why should anyone try to imitate him? Leave him alone. Develop your own style. To answer this query, there are many who are promising, but, then, who is interested? Sad it may sound, but that is, guys, the truth.


Talking about Salman Rushdie, here is what one of my friends had to say: “This ‘genius’ has not published anything readable since Moor’s Last Sigh. What he has been painstakingly churning ever since is either verbal vomit or constipated prose. The way things are going he may not need fatwas from the Iranians, but some good lover of literature might do the honours.” Well, I hope this would not happen, but what Rushdie can do is to take a break and write something other than his nubile wives, divorces and libel issues.

Sunil K Poolani

-- The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Posthumously Personal

By Lajwanti S Khemlani & Sunil K Poolani

Bombay Tiger

Kamala Markandaya


Price: 495; Pages: 327

Bombay Tiger, published posthumously, is the effervescent and mysterious Kamala Markandaya’s eleventh and last novel. Markandaya’s life was something that you would come across in fable books. An unassuming Brahmin lady from a small town like Mysore, venturing into a new-fangled wide western world at around the time of India’s Independence is something dazzling.

To put it briefly, after her small stints in India, she moved on to London in 1948 to be in journalism at a time when, save a Mulk Raj Anand or two, nobody made a mark in that arena. She might have been failure in whatever she did. Life. Marriage. Journalism. Literary pursuits. But her outstanding novels like Nectar in the Sieve and A Handful of Rice, though inconsequential by today’s standards, are still path-breaking literature. And that these two books are still taught in universities in India and abroad still amuses one.

Now, coming to the present volume, had Bombay Tiger been published during the author’s lifetime, it might have read differently, and been considerably shorter. Set in the l980s, the novel is about the rise, fall and the ultimate redemption of Ganguli, the protagonist.

Having lost his inheritance at an earlier age, Ganguli leaves his village for Bombay save but a recommendation letter and ruthless ambition. In the city of ‘dreams’, he eventually turns out to be a big-time industrialist. Ganguli always knew what he wanted and how to get it. But being a mere mortal, even he could not control his love — and losses.

In certain ways, he is no different than his classmate Rao, who too migrated to Bombay but became a financier. Rao is jealous of Ganguli’s astounding success. And this has always been a sore point with Rao, no different to others who are competitive and hate one’s guts. Rao’s aspirations and his family are also more ordinary. The two have always disliked each other, but have maintained a relationship of sorts; both are busy-bees, but it is Ganguli who is sentimental and a larger-than-life figure. It is he who loves anything and anyone passionately, suffers losses more tragically and is bullish in appearance akin to his personality.

Rao is leaner, softer in several ways; he spends lots of time and effort plotting ruin of the business magnet, rather than making even a miniscule attempt to understanding his only offspring.

As life may have, when the business giant falls, others follow suit. Storm-ripples are felt by Rao and his family. They, too, cannot escape their harsh destiny. It is the dramatic loss of their children that shakes them to the core of their beings. This abruptly pulls the rug from under Ganguli’s feet and brings him, bang, crashing down. Rao does mourn his son’s death, though he was never emotionally nearer to him. Yet, the tragic event alters his veritable existence. He can now let go of his all-consuming hatred for Ganguli.

Some characters, important nevertheless, show up towards the end, which is a back draw. Markandaya should have introduced more of Ganguli’s private love life earlier in the story, to give the readers more of a picture of his sexual sexapades — Ganguli, the man, rather than a mere businessman.

This literary pursuit portrays Indian life quite accurately, especially where issues like abortion are concerned, though the author migrated to England before Nehruvian socialism started. It is vivid that Markandaya wrote for a foreign audience in mind.

Bombay Tiger would have grabbed my attention had it been tighter and shorter; it tends to wander off the main character in many places. The pace of the novel slows down towards the middle, and, ahem, suddenly picks up in the last 20-to-30 pages. So, folks, Bombay Tiger does not have anything novel to offer. Buy it if you can afford it. Amen.

-- Deccan Herald / 31 August 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Middle Sex Mannerisms

Sunil K Poolani

Can’t help it; howsoever one tries to do otherwise. Sorry. It might sound anti-feministic (whatever that means), but the truth is women are on the rise in publishing, writing and, what else, wearing the pant not just in the house but in the office, too.

Hate me (I can hear that ever-flaming protests). But, then, I am not against the ones who put their souls where their soles are in. I mean, who have done their respective and painstaking legwork and have done remarkable work; they are, nevertheless, dismissed for not being, ahem, chick.

Chick, one said? Understatement. Well, then comes, chick-lit. And there is no dearth of that nefarious clan; even this ever-cribbing publisher has published one or two of that ilk. But, one gets penitent, like a puppy that has swallowed her master’s socks.

Last things first. There has been this hype about a book called You Are There, by a twenty-something called Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, for almost a year, on several offline and online avenues. Then, hype sells. More, when there is PR. And this hype got delivered last week, in print. I held the book in my hands, saw the content and tried to read the style of writing and, what to say, I had to sympathise: for her naivety, for her lack of maturity. She has guts, nonetheless: she was quoted in an interview that she thinks she is a great writer.

She should be. Write well she does, in bits and pieces, but her debut book, which has no direction to claim one, reeks of self-confidence sans depth. It lacks of a trajectory her peers had left behind for her, including her supposed-heroine, Jane Austen. Austen took time to write; she is today dubbed a chick-lit litterateur by cultural tsarinas is another story. Austen had substance, and what Ms Madhavan lacks is class; but our chicks find publishers who are convinced there are suckers who would lap all these scoop up without even raising an eyebrow. Ahem.

Do not blame these young aspirants. A publisher puts his money where his, well, whatever is. What if it is bad sex writing (“flutter in panties”)? What amuses me is why do these same publishers give a step-motherly (see, I am not anti-feminist) treatment to their own authors who not just write well but do path-breaking literature, fiction or non-fiction. (I am talking as an ordinary reader; I too do the same mistake; kill me.)

Two recent books come to my mind. A Journey Interrupted by the spirited but unassuming Farzana Versey is the first. Versey struggles to keep her sanity in a land (Pakistan) that could have been hers, if her peers might have decided to settle when the subcontinent was divided by the Brits after they used and abused all what was worth of us. Her writing is dense at times, but the fluidity and versatility are amazing at times when she is at her compassionate best when Pakistanis tease of her ‘dual’ identity — I could have killed them if I were Versey.

The crime of Versey is that she lives a ‘double’ life. She is a pariah in Pakistan; “what are you doing in India?” She is a pariah in India, too; “what are you doing in India?” Needs guts — to have sanity. And to write good English. To explore the travesties of a manmade tamasha. And, in the end, bringing out an outstanding travelogue that just does not explore barren lands, but bruised minds.

The second is 3, Zakia Mansion by the talented Gouri Dange. Hers is a story about one Shaheen, who has to go through tumultuous tribulations. The style of the narrative is marvellous, the prose poignant, vivifying vividly the protagonist’s trials, oscillating between the past and the present. It is about desires and disappointments, the vicariousness and vicissitudes. Moving. Read it.

By the way, I read in a magazine the other day that women head most of the big publishing houses in India today. So, hello, women should not complain that they are under-represented. But which women are represented? The ones that have a life of a melting ice-cream, mind you. And not the ones who leave a sour taste in the mouth. But the latter make you realise what reality is, and they will stand the test of time.

I should not have brought this up, but, again, I could not resist this; pardon me. Just realised that Ms Madhavan is the daughter of N S Madhavan, one of the most phenomenal fiction writers who changed the course of Malayalam literature, and someone I admire till today.

Grow up, chicks, mature up, before mamas have to hatch their eggs again. Life is not short.


My experiments with distributors’ truth continue. The other day, one mercifully told me: “Instead of publishing all these books, why can’t you supply us with notebooks?” Notebooks? “Yes, with an attractive cover; and, yes, you can add one quotable quote in every page, since you wanted to be literary…”

I salute that soul.

-- The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Of raw life, math and show-off


Sunil K Poolani

Raw writing

Rereading Charles Bukowski’s Post Office after several years, one was remorseful to see the effort and pain our celebrity authors take to safeguard their feel-good reputation, to conveniently bury a ‘dubious’ past, if any.

If Bukowski, that ever-so-iconoclastic writer, chose to meticulously demolish his own reputation in almost all his autobiographical books and fiction, our own trapeze artists hog the Page 3 circuit, putting on their best-ever smiles to conceal their bad divorces or past plagiarisms.

Born in Germany in 1920 to an American father and German mother, Bukowski grew up in Los Angeles, enduring a childhood and youth marked by bullying from other boys and regular beatings from his abusive father. If Bukowski smelled of cheap liquor, our ilk reeked of expensive French perfumes; if Bukowski chose to wear his jeans and T-shirt for more than a week, our tribe entered into designer suits five times a day; if…

But Bukowski wrote much better than all our con artists put together. He won millions of admirers for his supremely visceral style; a style that is meant to be experienced more than read. Good writing is not about champagne and caviar, but local brew and boiled potatoes.

Math and fiction

I have just finished an interesting book. A Certain Ambiguity (Penguin Viking), by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal. Mathematics is like any other stream of arts, be it literature, performing arts or plastic arts. There is an infinity that is mind-boggling and there lies the beauty; a realisation that more you analyse and solve the mysteries of the game, the more the awareness that it is vastly and hugely endless. Galileo, Plato and our own Ramanujam realised it, so do most of the contemporary mathematical brains.

One reflective conclusion that can be drawn out of mathematics is how much ever ambiguous it might seem, the more you delve deep into it, with a pinch of modesty and decorum, and more are the chances of solving them and, in the process, enjoying them. It is true that mathematics, like any other art form, is losing its relevance; precisely for that reason this attempt to revive and regenerate interest in this stream of science should be welcomed.

Question of existence

There are people who publish books. There are people who sell books. And there are people who really read books. Finally, there are people who pretend to read books. You can see the last ilk all over around you: in malls, in snazzy coffee shops, in airports… Nothing worrisome, as long as the books are sold (see, I am a publisher).

What amuses me is the kind of books they carry with them these days. No, not Archer, Huntington, Sachs or even our desi Chetan Bhagat or Robin Sharma, but great classicists. I read a report sometime back which said George W Bush has been advised by his spin doctors to carry Albert Camus’ The Outsider while on vacation so that he will look an intellectual.

A White House spokesman said Bush “found it an interesting book and a quick read,” and talked about it with aides. “I don’t want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism.”

I haven’t started laughing since then. The French existentialist should be turning in his grave, crying why he wasted his life writing all those classics.


An editor in a publishing house was fed up of a mercurial assistant editor. He summoned her into his cabin and told her, “Hello, the way things are going I don’t think you we will be working together from now on.” The assistant’s response: “Congratulations, Sir, so where are you joining?”

Sunil K Poolani is Executive Director and Publisher, Leadstart Publishing Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Write to him at

-- Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Write Stuff. Right Stuff

Sunil K Poolani

Though I have written — and continue to write — for several national and international print and electronic journals, I have never received the kind of responses I get from the readers of the paper you are now holding in your hands.

The responses have been a torrent, if not mind-blowing, and they are of all kinds: prospective authors trying to send their manuscripts, criticisms (reiterating that my writing is pretentious), overwhelmingly patronising…

But I was touched when, last week, a Chakravarti from a small Andhra Pradesh town, wrote to me, requesting, I should bestow on him tips to improve his writing skills, and tell him which all books would eventually ensure that. He wanted to write a ‘good manuscript’.

I, a college dropout, am hardly a person to help him, I told him as much, but promised I would share some thoughts that had cropped up while delighting in some good writings that I have come across in my short life.

For me, George Orwell is god; he will always be. Apart from his 1984 and Animal Farm, those great political expositions in literature vivifying the traps of both capitalist and communist hegemonies, I was really fascinated with his non-fiction, which talked about the English language and its use.

For any writer worth her or his salt, Politics and the English Language, Why I Write and Writer and the Leviathan are must-reads that should be imbibed into the system. When I compiled the above three essays for a volume one year ago, Ramachandra Guha wrote in the Foreword: “[Orwell’s] clarity of language, his moral courage, and his principled independence from party politics set him apart from the other writers of his generation, and from those who have followed since.”

Orwell was always consistent with his claim that prose degenerated into purple passages whenever it lacked political purpose. And as Orwell once said: “[English] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He died an untimely death, and that is a pity.

Now, many readers may think this is a devious digression — from someone as meticulous and marvellous as Orwell to, well, a carefree and iconoclastic Hunter S Thompson. But Thompson, mainly due to his irreverence to everything around him, shaped the way I thought and wrote. And I was particularly in awe of the company (of the New Journalism ‘movement’) he kept.

A great collection that I still admire is The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson. This comprised the best ‘literary’ journalistic pieces I have ever read, written by — apart from Thompson and Wolfe — Rex Reed, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. Fully doped, Thompson wrote The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, a seminal sports article; it still remains a marvel in both journalism and literature — a rare achievement.

Thompson’s much-publicised work is the Fear and Loathing series. Nevertheless, his short works, published mostly posthumously, really stand out. In The Mailbox he talks about his confrontation with the FBI and he sums the article thus: “Never believe the first thing an FBI agent tells you about anything — especially not if he seems to believe you are guilty of a crime.”

If you are in the august company of Orwell and/or Thompson, who needs to dope? Or a stiff drink?


I used to work with a national weekly some years ago. We were bringing out a special on Orwell on his 50th death anniversary. A trainee sub-editor was asked to make the page in which we were reproducing Politics and the English Language. When I was checking the page before sending it to the press I realised there was something amiss in the Orwell classic. What happened, I asked the scribe. His reply: “Well, the whole article did not fit in the page, so I had to edit it.” Now, that is what I call guts.

-- The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

End of Imagination?

Sunil K Poolani

While growing up reading good literature, it was not books that really fascinated us, but literary journals in which not just stories, poems and essays by the crème-de-la-crème of the writing world appeared, but those publications also carried analyses of and interviews with great writers, and reviews of their books. Armed with those journals, we debated and literally fought for hours, days, weeks and months together about the contents.

In those pre-liberalisation days, we could not afford the price of those journals (between Rs 2 and Rs 15), and at least ten poor souls use to savour one single copy; by the time that copy did that tortuous round, it resembled an opponent in a Schwarzenegger movie: pulp.

Then, unlike today, many large-selling publications from the stable of big media organisations devoted a fair amount of space for good writing. In English, there were the venerated Illustrated Weekly and the Bombay magazine; both closed shop long time back, thank you. But it is heartening to know that some regional languages still follow that tradition — like Mathrubhumi in Malayalam and Desh in Bengali.

Also, there were these brilliant ‘little’ magazines that originated, since centuries, in far-flung areas like Shantiniketan and Karimnagar, espousing issues as diverse as Robindra Sangeet and Naxalism. They had the lives of fireflies but they burnt bright when they were alive, and every death encouraged another firefly to take shape and shine.

In English, apart from the government-sponsored daft efforts, there were, in the last two decades, some great journals that made a deep dent in literary minds. Civil Lines was one. Founded by the indomitable Ravi Dayal, Civil Lines swiftly became the abode of quintessential new Indian writing. Later, it was edited by the talented duo, Mukul Kesavan and Kai Friese. Nonetheless, like its brethren across the spectrum, it too died an immature death, but not before leaving an indelible mark — challenging the till-then norms by refusing to publish to a set schedule.

There were also similar literary endeavours (some still do exist, just in case) like Chandrabhaga, Biblio, Kavya Bharati, International Gallerie and Yatra. All these followed the model of their international ‘Bible’: the esteemed Granta, the UK-based journal which continues to whet many a connoisseur’s taste for new and good writing across the globe.

Today, literary magazine is a diminishing trade and a difficult passion to indulge in; no serious publisher in the world would risk burning her/his fingers in it today. In the last four years, the third issue of my ambitious ‘quarterly’ journal, Urban Voice, just came out. I, nevertheless, would like to bring it out periodically.

So that is why I watch with rapt admiration when I come across two amazing ventures, Atlas and Little Magazine. The former is brought out by the talented poet and prose writer Sudeep Sen and the latter by a dynamic duo, Antara Dev Sen and Pratik Kanjilal.

Little Magazine has, so far, stood the test of time, and has carved a niche of its own — offering, issue after issue, some of the best original writings in English and translations from even remote Indian tongues. Atlas is just two issues old, and Sen was explaining to me the vicissitudes of all kinds while producing a volume of this oeuvre. “It’s a tough game, unless you have loads of money.”

Hope these last vestiges of intellectual sanity live on in an arid land of crass commercialisation.


C P Scott, the founder editor of The Manchester Guardian, once said: “News is sacred, opinion is free.” If our newspapers hardly believe in reporting news and resort to concocted opinions, a new breed of Indian novels is today banking on contemporary issues and polity for cheap, titillating fictionalisation. What next? I will leave it to you.

-- The Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Publish your dream book yourself

Brian de Souza
Sunday, DNA, Mumbai, July 13, 2008 03:46 IST

Or you can contact some of the city’s small publishing houses who could make your novel a bestseller

He wanted to become a filmmaker but instead landed up being a homeopathic doctor. And several years into his practice, a story that a patient told him inspired him to put pen to paper and a manuscript Saturn and I, written over many weekends and sometimes well into the night, became a reality. But when Shailendra Vaishampayan, 31, sent his manuscript to the big publishing houses, he got either reject slips or no response at all. “One publishing house even asked me for a large sum of money,” he recalls. But Vaishampayan wasn’t going to give up. “It isn’t easy to get published if you don’t have the contacts, money and the PR machinery to get catch the media’s attention,” he said

Even in this age of the Internet and six-figure advances, a slew of small publishers are attempt ing at carving their own niche. Frog Books in Mumbai has been able to successfully harness the Internet to sell a range of non-fiction books. When he started out five year ago, Sunil K Poolani, Frog Books’ publisher, says the big names look only for marketable names when there is “actually quite a lot of talent that could be harnessed”.

And though he admits that he had done vanity publishing in the past, Poolani says he has been able to tap talent that may have never made it. A case in point is a book by John Mowat, a foreigner staying in India who wrote Strangers Ourselves-Paul Theroux’s Adventures.
“Today, I sell most of my non-fiction via the net through Amazon where I have my own account,” he says. There are also publishers like Zubaan who focus on niche novels written by women. By keeping overheads down and and cutting corners wherever possible, these small outfits are able to offset their expenses and sometimes earn a small profit. Preeti Gill, senior editor, Zubaan, says that for small publishers, it can help if a book they publish is a hit. In Zubaan’s case, the book written two years ago by Baby Halder and published by Zubaan, gave them a lot of mileage. According to Gill, having a niche can help because some publicity comes through word of mouth.

A Google search for Indian literary agents throws up names of publishing outfits, some of whom offer self-publishing services, editing resources, ghost-writing etc, for anything ranging from memoirs, small stories, hobby books to even poems, a category that is difficult to sell. Frog Books has a separate imprint just for poetry: Pe

Some small outfits are known to take money from a new writer who then earns a small royalty on the basis of the sale. Print runs are small -typically not more than a few thousand — and a reprint may be unlikely. In Vaishampayan’s case, an idea struck him when he dropped by a road-side seller near his clinic. “If I can get this book printed on my own, I will need a channel to distribute it. So why not use these guys who sell books on the pavement?”

Having decided to publish the book himself. Vaishampayam located a printing press and commissioned 1,050 copies of his own book. He got in touch with Jamalbhai, who heads the Newspaper Agents Welfare Association and runs a few bookshops himself. “I was eager to help him and so have stocked 20 copies of his book,” he said. To help coordinate with book sellers, Vaishampayan roped in Sushant, a long time patient who read Saturn and I and liked the plot. This informal network called Pavement Publishers, the name that one of his patients suggested, is beginning to go beyond Mumbai. “When you sell on the pavement, you may not always get the printed price of the book,” says Vaishampayan. Vaishampayan has now been contacted by two women writers keen to write books. It seems as if his dream will be fulfilled very soon.

In search of the new Rushdie

Joanna Lobo
Tuesday, DNA, Mumbai, July 29, 2008 03:52 IST

There's no dearth of new fiction writers, but what's missing is quality

There's a new breed of young, though relatively unknown writers, who are aiming to dislodge the Salman Rushdies and Jhumpa Lahiris from their pedestal. “The time is ripe to make our mark,” says Anjum Hasan, author of Lunatic In My Head. Her book was one of the finalists at the recent Crossword Book Awards. Though she did not win, the feedback she received was unexpected.

The past few months have seen an unprecedented number of books being launched by Indian writers in English. And while all may not achieve the same fame as Arundhati Roy did with her God Of Small Things, the trend is a positive one.

Today, publishing houses are churning out books by the dozen. But there is a catch: Some of these books would not have passed through editors a decade ago. So, have the basic rules of publishers changed?

"Of course it has. Over the last 10 years, publishing houses have opened shop here. An acute lack of good or even imaginative writing has not dampened their spirits in an attempt to tap the local market. They have to publish and promote run-of-the-mill work, which is in abundance" fumes Sunil Poolani, publisher at Frog Books.

So have publishing houses turned a blind eye to style and prose? Namita Devidyal (The Music Room) does not think so. "A well-written good story will always find acceptance," she says.

The majority of readers are no longer that judgmental. For instance, while critics trashed Chetan Bhagat's The Three Mistakes Of My Life, the masses loved it.

VK Karthika, publisher at Harper Collins, credits Chetan with the birth of a new of generation writers. "...People who speak and write English as their first language. They are reckless, brave and willing to experiment." Ultimately, it’s the reader who decides the 'saleability' of a book. Karthika says, "Readers are willing to try out new styles, and are not limited to literary pieces." With more competition, publishers believe that things can only better.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The name is Faulks, Sebastian Faulks

By Sunil K Poolani

Devil May Care: A James Bond Novel

Sebastian Faulks (Writing as Ian Fleming)


Price: 395; Pages: 295

When I was in the boarding school, James Bond novels were banned. The nuns thought Bond was full of whisky and women and, in all their Biblical simplicity, did not want us to get influenced by Agent 007. Needless to say, we read the Ian Fleming classics in the sly — this was much before our mofussil city talkies started showing the legendary Bond movies.

So it thrilled me when I read Sebastian Faulks short biography: “…the books were banned at his school, but he read them by torchlight under the sheets.” Faulks is no rookie. He is the author of the much-acclaimed novels like Human Times and Birdsong, first an epic and the second sold more than three million copies.

After Fleming’s death, and when Hollywood is still regurgitating the Bond movies to charm the secret agent’s aficionados, Faulks comes as a saviour to millions of Bond admirers across the world. Faulks, you will realise, is the best person, as you savour the book, to recreate the magic created by Fleming.

One may argue why Faulks set the story of the present-day Bond (in this post 9/11 terror attack days) in the former USSR days. In Devil May Care’s case the plot unfolds in the Cold War days. But, as you would know most of the old Bond stories were set in the fifties, sixties and seventies — and Faulks, too, follows suit. Hello, there is nothing wrong in it, as one should realise Bond is not an evergreen hero, let alone immortal.

To be frank, after a long time Devil May Care is one book that hooked me from page one. Seriously. The thriller starts on a very promising note: a murder, that of drugs dealer Hashim. He was killed in a peculiar manner: his tongue was pierced. That lead leads to an intriguing and devastating ploy that a psychopathic schemer is planning. His name is Gorner with a monkey-like left paw, which he is ashamed of, nevertheless.

Gorner is one of the best brains the world could boast of, but only for devastating consequences. Naturally, Bond has been deputed to hunt him down and also to scuttle a sinister plan that would wreck the western world, especially Britain. If Gorner can’t stand anything British, Bond is a proud Briton, all set to save his homeland from the scum of the world.

In between, as it should be (like any Bond book or movie) comes in a lady in armour: Scarlett. She, nonetheless, comes under several aliases (including posing as her ‘twin sister’ who never exists) at different points of time as the book progresses.

But naturally, after a rollercoaster ride-type narrative till the end, Bond survives, and discovers, at the fag end of the book, that Scarlett is Bond’s colleague. But, alas, Garner, escapes. Obviously, Faulks plans a sequel to this book, and it is not anyone’s guess that Gorner will reappear; maybe in several books to come.

Devil May Care has been apparently written to celebrate the centenary of Fleming’s birth on 28 May 2008 and is, sans doubt, a deft furtherance of Bond’s charming legacy. And Faulks is a true inheritor of Fleming’s Midas touch.

Final things finally: do not expect a path-breaking literature here; it is at the best a great thriller; a great bedtime read when you get fed up of pelvic gyrations of Bipasha Basu.

And, yes, I get a feeling that Faulks, if he hones his skills further, which I am sure he will, can be a better writer than Fleming. Blasphemous it may sound, but it is the truth.

-- Sahara Time

Off the Shelf

With the Tiger

Inez Baranay

Harper Collins

Price: 295

Pages: 305

One who grew up with classics storytellers like Somerset Maugham, this impressive volume leads you on a trip down nostalgia lanes. For, With the Tiger is a graceful retelling of Maugham’s classic The Razor’s Edge. Where Baranay succeeds is the way she intersperses Maugham’s characters in Indian context with such brave and unwavering way, without losing the girth and grip of the narrative, cogitative most of the times. Baranay, as she admits, has followed Maugham’s structure exactly and named her characters for his. Brief: The charming young Larry (along with a host of other characters) returns as Australians; his life-altering occurrence is not as an underage enlistee in WWI, but during a teenage backpacking trip to India, where he converts himself into a mysterious hermit. A racy read, this is a worthy addition to your literary vocabulary.

— Sunil K Poolani

Guardian of the Dawn

Richard Zimler

Penguin Books

Price: 350

Pages: 358

Unlike any other year, the last two years have seen a gamut of historical novels set in India. After Rimi B Chatterjee’s The City of Love, here comes Zimler’s Guardian of the Dawn, equally rich in talking about the atrocities and vengeance of colonial India. Zimler, nevertheless, takes a daring turn: he vivifies the Catholic Inquisition in Goa (we Indians, fearfully, never discussed this before, to remain politically correct), and how Hindus or immigrant Jews were strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public. Zimler presents a wide canvass of devotion and discrimination, peppered with lots of historical research and passion. A veritable treat (the beginning may put many readers off, but as the novel progresses it becomes unputdownable), this novel is an enchanting and authoritative retelling of Othello. Zimler, an internationally-acclaimed author, has absolute command over the language which drags the readers into the realms of a barbaric system that we conveniently try to forget. Impressive.

— Sunil K Poolani

-- Sahara Time

Monday, July 14, 2008

Scratch thy back, get noticed

By Sunil K Poolani

A disconcerting although dominant lobby is functioning overtime in the (figuratively speaking) surreptitious and serpentine corridors of publishing in India. Disquieting, yes, but it seems this trend — the dividing line between publishing and journalism getting almost imperceptible — is here to stay.

There is hardly anything erroneous when these two streams of creativity (ahem) getting together to enrich each other’s causes, but that is not the case, if some recent incidents or trends are anything to go by.

In the last few years, publishing has grown magnanimously, and there was, and is, a crying need to find good people to run the show. Journalists, disgruntled or not by seeing the apathetic profession they are in, filled that need, to some extent. And this ilk now dictates what should get published and what should not; akin to choosing your favourite columnists or contributors for newspapers.

That is still understandable. What becomes an eyesore is that these writers, who do moonlight for newspapers as reviewers or consultant editors, dictate which book should be promoted and which authors should get interviewed. It’s a clique, nebulous at that. They, today, make or unmake new authors; they decide, whatever the quality of the book in question may be, whether to denigrate or promote it. And their brethren in other publications too follow suit, lest they will fall off the radars.

To quote one, there is this one group in Mumbai (like in Delhi and Kolkata) comprising mostly journalists, who churn out books like they write 600-word pieces for newspapers. The team endorses each other’s work, provided you scratch their back and, in turn, you can be happy to see your name and picture in print.

What happens when one ‘reneges’? Oh, hell, you would be branded a misfit, untouchable… and this ilk will ensure your book and the ones published by the authors friendly to you get denounced or, worse, ignored.

This, if you are a writer. Well, if one is a publisher, who is an ex-journalist, writer of sorts and a reviewer of books, then you had it. Ask me. Some time back I reviewed a book of a journalist-writer’s novel. I did a judicious job, but the writer was quite upset that I did not praise him to the skies, so he shot off letters to the editors in the paper, shouting, I should be, from then on, debarred from writing for the paper in question. The novel sank without a trace, but the simmering feeling, inside the ambitious novelist, still exists.

Now, this would seem to be a complete debacle of the cultural zeitgeist. Since I had a journalist background every friend of mine in that profession has, I have just realised, a book in her or him. So, can I ever say no to them when they suggest that I should read their magnum opus and publish it? No. But what if the work is bad and it will burn my pocket deficiently? (Of course, they will never part-compensate if the book would bomb.)

Then you go on and say no. Then you had it. The coterie will ensure that there wouldn’t be any interviews with the authors of the books that you would eventually publish and they will, in their wisest capacity, try to stop any reviews of the probable books of others.

Now I know what an incestuous world means and journalism is literature in hurry.


A friend of mine in publishing told me this story. His company has been publishing an astrologer’s book for something like twenty years. A new editor took charge and she wanted to scrap the soothsayer’s books everlastingly as his popularity was on the decline. So she shot off a letter to the astrologer: “Dear Sir, as you would have, of course, anticipated, hereafter we would not require any new books from you. Have a nice day!”

-- Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Launch Pad

By Sunil K Poolani

Book launches are important as book publishing. Old hat. But what is new is that launches have today become venues where everything else is discussed except books; not even about the book in question which is supposed to be getting ‘launched’.

Predictably, these books launches are now occasions where people, who might have not read anything other than Mills and Boon or Bible, gather — people who do not understand the difference between a bar of soap and a book. Book launches have also become places where the who’s who of the glitterati and chatterati of the city assemble, flaunting their Armani suits or Ritu Beri salwar-kameezs.

These pretentious people only get attracted or want to be seen there for just one reason: if the author is a celebrity or at least s/he is the offspring of one, and/or if the person who launches the book is a great figure. Like? The recent launches of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter’s book or Jeffrey Archer’s multi-city book promotion tour.

I normally do not attend book launches precisely for the above reasons. And I do not even recommend that to the authors of my own books as launches hardly contribute to the sales of the books. They are at best a vanity in exercise that costs money for no rhyme of reason.

Last week, nevertheless, I attended two book launches at Oxford Bookstore in Mumbai, a great bookstall to have such events as the people who run it cherish and cultivate the value of books, good and great books. Not trash.

The first one was Farzana Versey’s tremendous and gutsy effort. The book, titled A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, was launched by the indomitable Mahesh Bhatt and Indo-Pak expert Ritu Dewan. Versey’s book is a daring attempt: single lady, Muslim and Indian travelling to the heartlands of Pakistan to explore why India is still obsessed with a nation formed by Jinnah. But why did she choose Pakistan as her subject? For that reason, why are all so-called secular Muslims in India still obsessed with our cousins across the border? I asked her. Her answer was quite simple: “Only because Pakistan is our neighbour and Pakistanis are our brothers and sisters.”

Versey’s book is not a conformist travelogue; it delves into the Pakistani mind rather than the land. It explores that complex society, and Versey also finds herself struggling with her own identity.

When Bhatt is invited for an event, there is no dearth of controversy, no scarcity of sound-bites. But at this launch he was quite serene, was direct to the point, and yes, without making any provoking statements, he was making good sense. And that’s how a book launch should be.

The next one was Prasad Ramasubramanian’s novella, Raising the Bat. Inevitably, the book is about cricket and the 27-year-old writer lived and breathed cricket since the time he touched a bat as a kid. He is quite well versed in all cricket statistics and has never missed a match in action, either on the ground or on the telly.

Acclaimed actor Tom Alter was supposed to be the chief guest, but the previous day his house in Mussourie was burgled and he had to rush there. So the book was launched by the legendary cricketer Nari Contractor, who captained India in the sixties.

Contractor confessed that he has never read a book and has made it a point to not read one ever. Fair enough. But there could not have been a better choice for the book launch as he travelled down memory lanes, peppering with one anecdote after another. The launch was moderated by the best-selling author Murzban F Shroff of the Breathless in Bombay fame.

Good evenings before you hit a bottle of chilled beer.

A confession. I was getting tired and bored of the column I am presenting to you, readers, every week. But, then, I am getting damn good mails and responses from discerning readers. And, yes, I am getting more brickbats than bouquets. Due to which I shall continue.

— Asian Age / Deccan Chronicle