My Rite to Read

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Publishing, Pundits, and the India of all things

This was my first time at Delhi’s World Book Fair, until I was quickly bombarded with memories in hall number 12, from when I was six or seven years old, of being pushed into the Scholastic book stall, coaxed into sampling the many educational toys and multimedia that would test my applied mental maths, science and grammar skills, complementing my good Indian education, preparing my kid-brain for standardised (and computerised) test-taking in the (far) future.

Today, a different excitement preceded me. When I heard about colleges giving free iPads to Indian students, my heart skipped ten beats – was this my India? People throbbed between stalls and aisles where screen space and page space became interchangeable; BPOs had also become book happy. Good commerce was the high point for many Indian publishers today, the unicorn of world publishing, having forever thrived on their volume and velocity of books in numerous languages from over 5000 years of documented and undocumented wealth from skinny pamphlets to doorstopper tomes. Books as cheap as Rs. 15 were displayed on exhibitor shelves and promoted alongside live authors holding out glass ashtrays (and fishbowls) for donations. Self-publishing brokers enticed you to ‘become a (published) poet in 25 days,’ and booklove was competing for shelf space with bookbiz. With a sizeable cross-section of people of different ages and sections of society, the footfalls were the roughest survey of what indicated a clearly buoyant industry. Local language publishers (and we have about 22 formal and over 400 spoken languages in India) were all obtaining niche markets in retailers and libraries abroad, setting up new imprints, breaking new inroads. Digital was just another dimension of Indian publishing and beckoned no print apocalypse, even as publishers the world over racked all their brains, whipped up new technologies to struggle to co-exist in a tablet eat tabloid world. 

The running theme ‘Indigenous voices’ offered a sound platform for the showcase of local and legacy  art including Bihar’s historic Madhubani paintings depicting gods and goddesses sketched by artists who mixed their colours from plants, bark, and cow dung. The artists said their art could not be muted by a stink, even if “sab devi-devta gobar hain” (all the gods are dung). Our economic choices are our social choices too.

But the special debut this year was the ‘author’s corner’: cool hotspots in every hall were dedicated to author interviews and interaction. The organizer proudly told me it came from NBT’s generosity and commitment to authors so that they do not have to be crammed in publishers’ quarters, stalling instead of aiding commerce. The idea was great, equally inspired by other world book fairs and intended to accommodate healthy, telegenic audiences.

My first event at the author’s corner would be for the critically acclaimed book Our Moon Has Blood Clots and its author Rahul Pandita. No sooner had I arrived at the venue than I was greeted with the sight of a gentleman in white robes and flowy hair, bloodshot vermilion with rice grains shooting out of his forehead, as he reclined into the studio sofa. “Ladies and gentleman forks” he began, “I am Hindu Pandit, you can ask me anything you want to know about Hinduism, Hindu ethics and Hindu morality.” A trickle of followers wormed their way into his audience hold, and began asking him questions about how to be a good Hindu. 

His advice went on unabated for ten minutes until I caught the attention of an NBT guest in-charge who hurried over when I signalled to her that this was not the author! Her jaw dropped; she had asked the wrong man if he was Rahul Pandita and he had replied, yes, seizing the stage too promptly. For proof, when I reproduced the author’s photo from the insides of his first book, the girl paled, but shot quick orders for cameras to stop rolling. The speaking man onstage caught wind, and with the force of an ablution dropped the curtain, “Thank you forks.” A trickle of audience members almost as easily dispersed with him, leaving one with doubts about their ‘genuineness’ too… were they his followers pretending to be an ‘audience’!

In between speedy intercoms the boss organiser who had visited the publisher stalls meanwhile, returned to us with no news, declaring the event cancelled. “Bah! These English language authors are all like that…”, he cackled. “Big foreign publishers are also like that…” he continued, “Gulzar ji, Akhtar sahib, and even I would never do such a thing!”

On that fated Saturday, when other anticipated authors made their absence felt too, Mr. Akash Bannerjee, author of India Shining and Sinking and former TV TODAY broadcast journalist took on the vacant slots, capturing the minds of an army of media students and budding journalists as he waxed on about the day’s news from Afzal Guru’s hanging that morning, to the highs and lows of Indian journalism today, provoking intense debate about idealism and commercial sense in newsmaking. Book? Author? Who?

Even the absence of few heavyweight authors on a Saturday did not quite dent the spirits of the masses who had come to this Kumbh mela in books with hopes in hell to sever from their loved ones and siblings, even as a handful of men roamed the grounds claiming to be speakers, jockeying for minutes of fame on the NBT film archives. The National Book Trust staff utilized twenty minutes of cancelled event time that day, capturing my own video bytes for their film documentary, sending me home in a woolly sheep's clothing.