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