OTHER PEOPLE has started publishing from Juggernaut Books!


Earlier this year (on 29 February, specifically, because what other more appropriate date for a book about weirdoes?), I signed a contract with Juggernaut Books for my short story collection Other People. Last week, along with the rest of the first list of Juggernaut Books, the first two stories came out in India.

Other People is a collection I’ve been writing for a long time. I started writing “Other People”, the first story, for my creative writing class at Jadavpur University in 2009. It was supposed to be just one story, but it expanded into a whole world and a cast of characters I loved, and I was so lost in exploring them that I never finished writing the story for the deadline that was breathing down my neck. I wrote another story in that world – a simpler but anachronistic story – for a later submission, but then I kept the project aside for a later time when I could develop it more fully.

Life happened. MA happened. Working at Penguin India happened, followed by Scotland, London, many other thoughts, places, people.

In late 2014 I picked up that world again, dusted it off a little, and started writing more stories in it. I loved it still. Older by five years and made a little wiser by life, unleashed into the world from my cloistered existence at home, I felt like I understood this world better, could see the characters clearly, why they were unlike the people who surrounded them, where they were coming from. In 2009 I was only looking at these people from the outside, observing like a visitor; in 2014 I was finally in the midst of them. Inside their heads – where I wanted to be.

I wrote two stories at home in Calcutta – the first two stories that you can read now. I wrote another at Clarion West, Seattle in the summer of 2015, and two more at Rutgers University–Camden, where I enrolled for an MFA now. I am writing another story as I write this post. Other People is a work in progress. The stories will keep appearing from Juggernaut as I write them, and after a while we will have a whole book.

The reason why Juggernaut Books can publish Other People as a serial is that their primary platform is an app. The Android app is out in India already, and the iOS app is soon to follow. (My mother, who has an ancient Windows phone from Nokia, feels a little excluded from the party.) They are new, and they have a fantastic team – probably the best team in India I could publish with right now. Chiki Sarkar, who is the publisher, was my employer back at Penguin India; and R. Sivapriya, who is now my editor, was a senior colleague I was always too much in awe of. (She used to curate the literary classics and translations list back at Penguin India. How many languages does Sivapriya read in? We junior copy editors back at the office could never stop speculating.) They enjoy literary fantasy, which not many publishers in India do yet. The monsters and other outcasts of Other People feel like they’re in safe hands with them.

Publishing Speculative Fiction (in India): Frequently Asked Questions

I compiled a list of FAQs for those who want to publish their works of fiction. This is mostly for the benefit of clueless first-timers. You are welcome to circulate the list as long as you don’t change or modify it.


1. What is publishing?

Legitimately, a piece of writing is considered ‘published’ if it has gone through an editorial process of selection – i.e. if someone other than you has independently decided that the writing is worth publishing. This means even a small magazine with only one editor (i.e. Helter Skelter) is a legitimate publisher, as long as it actually selects its publications (i.e. does not publish everything it receives). If you receive payment for such a publication, it is a professional publication. If you do not receive payment, it is an amateur publication. (Sometimes there is an interim stage called semi-professional publication, depending on how much money is paid.) But all of these are legitimate publications. And, if you want, you can put them in your writing CV.

Publishing houses, big or small, are professional publishing companies. (There are no amateur or semi-professional publishing companies.) This means, if you give a publishing house a manuscript which it decides to publish, it will draw out a contract that pays you an advance and enlists a further payment of royalties for your book. The publishing house will give your book an ISBN number and enlist it as its product. The amount of advance or royalty you get may vary according to the size of the publishing house and the potential of profit it sees in your book, but this pattern will not change.

The publishing house will not take your money. If this does not happen, it is not a legitimate publication.


2. What is vanity publishing?

‘Vanity publishing’ is usually a derogatory term, which falls in the grey area between ‘publishing’ and ‘self-publishing’. It means you publish your book from a publisher that looks like (or masquerades as) a legitimate publisher, but will publish anything you want for your money. A vanity publisher will usually not pay you an advance (rather, you may have to pay it for its services) and may or may not pay you royalties later.

Vanity publishing is a somewhat shady business. It’s hard to find examples of vanity publishers, because most of them don’t use the term. But if you come across a publishing house that looks like a legitimate publisher but asks for money to publish your book, you have found a vanity publisher. Beware of them, unless you know this is exactly what you want. (You probably don’t.) Rather, choose the self-publishing route.


3. What is self-publishing?

There are no self-publishing houses, only self-publishing platforms and services. Let me explain. Self-publishing is the act of putting up your writing to a wider audience without the intervention of an editor or selector, so the ‘self-publisher’ is the author him/herself. This is not a legitimate form of publishing, but many authors choose this for various reasons – they have not found acceptance at legitimate publishers but nevertheless want to share their works; their writing is groundbreaking or experimental; they’re building an easily accessible and goodlooking resume of work to show to a publisher before getting a contract, and so on.

The most basic kind of self-publishing platform is a blog. You can put up your writing neatly typed in a font you like, against a background you like, and anyone who finds it can access it; but it is not considered a legitimate (either amateur or professional) publication. The same will be true for other, more complex forms of self-publication.

Self-publishing services like Lulu or CinnamonTeal help you do the same in a more organised manner, for which they charge you money. For your money, you can have a goodlooking cover, a copy-edited manuscript, a printed and bound book and even some distribution. If you want, you can put a price on the book and sell it. On Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, you will be able to put your book on the Kindle Store and sell it. For many self-published authors, this is the perfect system.

But remember, through this system your book will still be a self-published book. What are you missing out by this? For example, your book will likely not have an ISBN number and will not be archived in national libraries. (Did you know that national libraries archive every single book published in a country? The national library of India is in Kolkata.) It will not be cited in an academic paper or article as a ‘real’ book. Besides, many newspapers and professional reviewers only review professionally published books, many distribution networks only carry them as well… and they will give your self-published book a miss. But if you are a self-aware self-published author, these may not be factors you care for. Then, self-publishing is ideal for you.


4. What really are the problems with self-publishing?

You have to understand, it is not the printing or even the book cover that delivers your favourite book to you – it is marketing and distribution. Once a book is published by a publishing house, it’s the marketing department that takes over, sending the book to newspapers and magazines to be reviewed, arranging for book launches and literary festival appearances and other ways the book becomes visible. Distribution networks send the books to both online retailers and the bookstores in your city or neighbourhood. Without them, even the best books would be simply non-existent to you.

When you self-publish your book, even if it’s a fantastic book, the whole responsibility of marketing and distribution falls upon you. In my opinion (and I’m a humanities student with no knowledge at all of marketing or distribution), writing or publishing a book is far easier than making it visible to a potential reader or convincing them to actually buy it. In today’s world, we are swamped with too many books and too little time or too few people to read them. Why will someone buy your book instead of the latest Dan Brown bestseller? How will you convince a stranger that your book is actually better? I don’t know the answer, and nor does Charles Stross, and this is why neither of us self-publish.

(But some other people do, and get very rich in the process, and manage to get their books published from legitimate publishers as well. If you think you can become one of them, let the force… etc.)


5. But why won’t a publisher buy the story I put on my blog?

Publishing is a smaller business than you think, and it is very hard to make profit even for large publishing houses. (I worked at one, so I know.) While putting up a story on your blog does not mean a legitimate publication credit, it means a potential loss of profit for any publishing house that prints it in a book that has to be bought for money.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Many self-publishing bestsellers – including The Immortals of Meluha by Amish and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy – were later bought and published as books by professional publishers. How does that work? It does because there is still a large amount of saleablity potential left in the book, despite many people having already read it. If your already available story does not have that much potential, unfortunately a professional publisher will consider it a loss to publish it.


6. But why won’t a publisher publish my very good novel?

The hard truth is – publishing is a business, and often decisions about which book to publish are made on the basis of the potential of profit rather than the quality of the book. It’s especially hard for writers of speculative fiction to get a good deal out of a publisher, because speculative fiction isn’t a popular or profitable genre in India.

What to do in this situation? Of course, the long-term solution is to buy, read and visibly talk about other writers who are publishing in the genre. In that way, not only are you becoming aware of the current scenario, you are also helping to promote the genre, which will reflect back on your book when you publish it.

Then there is, of course, self-publishing, with all its rewards and its pitfalls.

But if you want to make your book a more attractive proposition for professional publishers, here’s what you can do – make yourself visible and relevant, especially on the Internet. Write short stories and sent them to magazines, both online and print. Write reviews, even on your blog. Write opinion pieces. Write a column. And more than anything, talk to potential readers and fellow fans. Speculative fiction is a wonderfully open community, and you’ll find a lot of people willing to talk if you are. Seek them out. Build a name and an identity. The book doesn’t come first. More often than not, the book is only a culmination of all these things.

Besides, try and get an agent.


7. What is an agent and how can it help my book?

An agent or an agency is one of the aspects it is worth spending money on. Usually, an agent is a person (and an agency the office this person works at) who evaluates your manuscript and helps you find the appropriate publisher and contract for it. Since most writers don’t know the inner workings of the publishing industry, or the name of every publisher out there, or the standards of advance or royalty, it happens often that you end up with a contract not right for you. Or no contract at all. An agent will help you avoid these things.

Agents were not a part of the Indian publishing industry even a few years ago, but they are becoming increasingly common. You can even have a foreign agent who works with rights in India. Give this aspect a look.


8. Where can I publish my short stories?

I halted at this question the last time. There are many literary magazines in India, but few of them are amenable to speculative fiction. I will make a list of those I know:

Hindustan Times Mint has published Kuzhali Manickavel in the past and is probably open to publishing more speculative fiction.

Helter Skelter magazine publishes an annual anthology of new writing, which often includes speculative fiction. Keep an eye on the magazine for the call for submissions.

– Kindle magazine (not related to Amazon) has published my own speculative fiction and is probably willing to publish others’.

– Jaggery, which is run by Sri Lankan American author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who is also one of the founder-editors of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons. 

Muse India is currently looking for science fiction and related articles, under the editorial of Sami Ahmad Khan, with a deadline of 1 April 2015.

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, edited by Vandana Singh and Anil Menon, was published in 2012 by Zubaan, a publishing house that often publishes speculative fiction. Keep an eye out for such occasional calls for submissions.

– On the other hand, there are many international magazines which publish speculative fiction, and it’s a good idea to publish in the online magazines, so that you can also share your stories with friends and readers in India. A useful and free guide to the multitudes of such magazines can be found at The (Submission) Grinder.

On the Jaipur Literature Festival and other festivals of ideas

I returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival on Monday after midnight. This year’s festival was intense – the weather had suddenly turned gloomy and rainy halfway through the week, but still there was an unprecedented footfall of people, and everything was just overwhelming, chaotic but also beautiful in a certain way. It was just what the JLF loves people to remind about itself – it’s the largest free literary festival in the world. Just the week before, Kindle finally published the article on the JLF and other literary festivals, for which I had interviewed the fantastically talented and generous William Dalrymple, in Edinburgh, way back in summer. And then I had gone to attend the mini-edition of the JLF in London. Here’s the unedited version of the article:

William Dalrymple tells a tale about Bahadur Shah Jafar from The Last Mughal at the JLF in London, summer 2014

I caught up with William Dalrymple the week before the first edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre in London. …

In May, when the weather in London is as balmy and pleasant as that of winter in Jaipur, the new JLF was a one-day celebration of Indian literature and culture that was strongly reminiscent of home. In September, there will be the first American JLF in Boulder and Denver, Colorado, and there may be another version at a third location in the upcoming years.

But a Jaipur Literature Festival so far away from Jaipur? Isn’t the idea incongruous? Not so much when we observe that the Hay Festival, named after the remote, bookish town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales where the original festival is held, now takes place in several locations of the world, including but not limited to Beirut, Belfast, Dhaka, Nairobi and Thiruvananthapuram. It is not the location but the specific ambience and aesthetic of the literature festival that makes it transferable from its primary location to elsewhere in the world.

When asked why he organised the JLF back in 2008, Dalrymple says that it was as much to bring the biggest international authors to India as to bring India to the world. I take this idea of “bringing” as the central point of my discussion. When your favourite international author travels to New York or London for a book tour, the question of “bringing” does not arise. But for the same author to come to India – even to Delhi, the capital of the country and the location of the only growing English-language publishing industry in the world – evokes the idea of a specially arranged additional tour, far away from the traditional centres of the literary world.

The reasons why this is such is better understood when we take a look at The World Republic of Letters (2007) by Pascale Casanova. In this book named after a theory originally proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, Casanova identifies a “universal aesthetic quality” that may attributed to literary works from anywhere in the world, by the means of which they transcend their local themes and become representative of the human condition. For many of us in India, the Booker and the Nobel prizes are our introduction to foreign writers we have never read, belonging to countries and literary cultures from which we have not read anything before. (For instance, Orhan Pamuk was the first contemporary Turkish writer for many of us, or Patrick Modiano the first contemporary French writer.) Clearly, there are certain agents upon which we depend to prescribe the highest – global, transcendental – standard of literary value for us. And even though the writers and their publishers may be located anywhere in the world, the agents are almost always located in the Anglocentric West.

This global, mostly Anglocentric system that negotiate literary value and reach to works of literature is often independent of actual book sales. For instance, Chetan Bhagat may be a massive bestselling phenomenon in India, but few people outside India have even heard his name. In the same way, India may be the largest English-language book-buying nation in the world for the sheer size of its population (by percentage of literacy or reading habit it is still quite low), but in the role of an agent that confers universality to a work of literature it is still quite insignificant. Casanova’s book, written in French, is largely Eurocentric, in which she identifies Paris, New York, London, Berlin and so on as the dominant centres of the international literary space, which makes it possible to connect “James Joyce, an Irishman, with Arno Schmidt, a German, or with the Serb Danilo Kis and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges; or Umberto Eco, an Italian, with the Spaniard Arturo Perez-Reverte and the Serbian Milarad Pavic”. On the other hand, in the essay “The Rise and Rise of Writers’ Festivals” (from A Companion to Creative Writing, ed. Graeme Harper, 2013), Cori Stewart observes that none of the major literature festivals of the world take place precisely at these dominant centres, with the exceptions of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and the International Literature Festival in Berlin.

The Hay Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival, two of the world’s most celebrated literature festivals which also worked as Dalrymple’s model for the JLF, both take place in what Stewart calls “peripheral locations”. Unlike the international festivals at Toronto and Berlin which concentrate almost exclusively on literary discourse and try to transcend their locations, the peripheral festivals are defined by their locations, ambience, engagement with local writing, culture and other forms of art – more than strictly literature festivals, they are, as Dalrymple calls the JLF, “festivals of ideas”. Both the writers and the readers who change two trains from London, followed by an hour-long drive through forests and hilly farmlands to quirky Hay-on-Wye and spend two weeks in Victorian houses turned into bed-and-breakfasts or camping tents pitched under the sky – in this place which has hardly any international literary power or presence through the rest of the year – do not merely go there for the sake of literary discourse. They go for the entire experience, which is meant to be both intellectually stimulating and fun, a break from their day-to-day routines. The same can be said of hordes of students and publishing professionals who take a night bus, train or a quicker flight to Jaipur for the festival that usually takes place around the Republic-Day weekend.

The entire experience is the reason why more and more literature festivals in India are springing up at exotic locations, rather than at major urban centres. The Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival, the Kochi International Book Festival and the Goa Arts and Literature Festival are held in the mild winter months of November and December. The CALM Festival in Shillong takes place in May, when the hot summer in the major cities makes a literary retreat to the north-eastern hills seem highly desirable. What these locations lack in international literary power, they make up for with the peripheral attraction of travelling to iconic tourist destinations in India. With this they attract both local and international writers, as well as a great number of audiences looking for a entertaining vacation tinged with a literary flavour.Of course, there are also book launches, readings, discussions, exchanges of ideas, media and publishing-community socialisation in situations that are not accessible to everyone, but the peripheral attractions are equally important for the larger public culture of the festivals. The festivities, so as to say, serve the other important function of bringing writers and their works to the readers.

The JLF has been at the forefront of this diverse offering right from its inception. Originally conceived in 2004 as a part of the Jaipur Virasat Festival – an event that displays the works of the traditional performers, craftsmen and artisans of Rajasthan – the JLF has always included ticketed evening performances by acclaimed Indian and international music artists. The time at its signature series of debates is always kept by a nagara drummer onstage, who starts performing each time a speaker crosses their allotted time limit. The festival takes place at the Diggi Palace, an opulent eighteenth-century Rajasthani haveli-turned-hotel, its grounds and trees teeming with flocks of parrots and the occasional peacock, where the guests are lodged and so can members of the audience. Dalrymple said he particularly enjoys the non-ticketed nature of the festival, which encourages schoolchildren to come and interact with well-known writers.

Yet another point of significance emerged from my conversation with Dalrymple in May. “There’s been throughout history a tradition of the public performance of literature,” he reminded me. “Shakespeare’s plays are not written to be read in a schoolbook, they are designed for the bawdy London playhouse of the sixteenth century. Homer didn’t write to be read. And, in India, this tradition of performance has been particularly rich. You read Mirza Ghalib’s poetry in a book today, but it is written to show off and beat Zauq in a poetry competition in the Lal Quila. I think the fact that India has a performance tradition gives it a different dynamic. There is a particular cachet in being a good performer.”

Literature and storytelling as they exist beyond the page are a tradition closer to the surface in India and many other non-Anglophone communities, which probably makes them a fertile ground for literature festivals like the JLF. Gathering in a public place to watch and listen to stories or conversations resonates with more people than merely reading, the reason why cinema and television have penetrated more easily to remote parts of India where books are still unpopular. The act of imparting and receiving literature live is also a step against the seclusion of the written word, and feels like a more intimate, irreplaceable act. The way Dalrymple sees it, while books may continue to be the basic unit of conversation between the writer and the reader, events like literature festivals are here to spread that act of conversation further and among diverse ranges of people, and can only do good to the entire process.


This is the link to the article as it was published in Kindle.

A story, a poem

A poem I wrote in 2011 was recently published, in an online magazine called The Missing Slate. Here is a link. And here‘s a link to the original, which is one (punch)line longer than the version that was published. It is ever interesting to discover how people read your writing. I’d have thought that last line essential, but the editors of the magazine found it redundant to the poem.

Sometimes, these are lessons.

Of course, I no longer feel the bruise under which that poem was written. (Other scars have covered it.) Distancing is so often a blessing.


The other, the story, is one I originally called ‘Interview with a Bollywood Screen Goddess’, which was published in the November 2014 issue of eFiction India. I have not seen this one yet, since the magazine can be purchased either as a digital or a print edition, and I am waiting for my print copy to arrive.

‘Interview’ (which the magazine no longer calls ‘Interview’) was a great story to write; it cheered me up during a period of otherwise intense depression. The story starts out as a magazine interview with a famous Bollywood actress, which is something I always find fun to fictionalize. I think anyone who’s ever been an entertainment journalist has had that thought running through their head – what if you could make up all of this, rather than, let’s say, about 60% of it? What if the person you’re interviewing literally represented those adjectives like enchanting, mesmerising, unearthly… and then, in ‘Interview’, it turns out that they do! A very generic, easygoing fantasy story, set in Delhi (the Other City of this blog, whose habits and memories are still fresh in my mind) that made me very happy.

There is something to be said for this sudden surge of publications. It is that I have finally (I think) overcome my reluctance to publish. Of course, the transformation is less sudden than it seems. I had started writing ‘Death of a Widower’ in 2011, abandoned it, picked it up again in the summer of 2013, finished and send it in to Rupa, and An Atlas of Love was published in early 2014. That’s not quite sudden. I write maybe a poem or two a year. It’s hardly enough for a sustained publishing record, and as for fiction, for most of my life I have not been able to think in short stories. Any idea I had was always the length of a novel, and I’d start writing it, and of course, I am yet to complete a novel. I wish I was prolific, but I’m not. And while I never retouch my poems after I’ve written them, I find myself rewriting my stories most of the time, hopefully making them stronger and better with each version. It is a craft I am still learning. I hope one day I will be good.

Some people REALLY don’t like Wendy Doniger, right?

The first was the book called The Hindus: An Alternative History from Penguin Books India, published nearly four years ago. I hear that the organization called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti has been campaigning to pull it down ever since then, and in February 2014 they succeeded. SBAS (and its representative Dina Nath Batra) has promptly gone and petitioned against On Hinduism, another book by Doniger, this time published in India by Aleph Book Company. Not being in India, not even being at any particular city centre where conversation about Indian writing goes on (say London), not having any particular resource into the Indian publishing scene any more, besides having been physically ill for a long time, I have not participated actively in the discussion. More knowledgable, more experienced people were speaking, so I kept quiet and read. I also read a lot of comments by the public on the Internet – in the comment section of the Change.org petition, on Reddit and other places. Someone also put up The Hindus for download on a blog, making it accessible for everyone who wanted to read the book before they talked about it.

I downloaded the book from the blog but haven’t managed to read it. Hinduism is not my area of scholarship. I was born into a Hindu family and haven’t changed my religion, but most of my knowledge about Hinduism come from mother and grandmother, the occasional temple visit, a Sunday column on the Mahabharata written by Nrisinghoprosad Bhaduri in Bartaman in the late 1990s… all in all, nothing that makes it an expert opinion. Reading one book out of the blue wouldn’t have made my opinion relevant in any larger scheme of things. I may be Hindu, but I’m not an expert on Hinduism. Notice the difference.

Who is an expert on Hinduism that you should listen to? Unlike people under different sects of Christianity or Islam, most Hindus I know seem to be brought up under very different traditions. Wedding rituals vary in detail from family to family, besides varying widely from community to community, usually to gentle confusion and overall amusement. In Calcutta, where I grew up, no one was vegetarian, not even the Brahmins. (Pledging to sacrifice a goat at Kalighat if a wish was fulfilled was quite a common practice among the faithful.) We all gave aaroti at Durga pujo – the biggest religious event on the calendar – and we all did Lakshmi pujo and Saraswati pujo at home. Some of my friends’ parents also did Biswakarma Pujo at home, and Ganesh pujo during Haalkhata in April, but my mother had explained to me that you only did those if you were into business, for Biswakarma was the god of craft and Ganesh presided over industry. (Both of my parents were into professions.) That was Hinduism enough for them, and for most people around whom I grew up. They never thought of themselves as anything but faithful Hindus. Growing up, I never felt encouraged to defy Hinduism, proclaim atheism or any other kind of thing that the conservatives decry. We were conservative, even though that was not the primary agenda of our lives.

This is the reason why I have always felt profoundly alienated by the uniform model of Hinduism that has steadily grown in strength over the last couple of decades. These radical, adrenaline-dripping, violence-threatening men in saffron. (In my childhood, the only men in saffron around were the monks of the Ramkrishna Mission, who ran schools and charities. The only ‘role model’ in saffron was Swami Vivekananda, who seemed to have written more or less reasonable things.) This whole controversy about the Ram Mandir, these demands for an apparently idealistic Ram Rajatya. (Ram was not even a deity we actively worshipped in Bengal. I’ve never stepped into a Ram Mandir.) These TV shows that build such huge deals out of Karva Chauth or Shiva Ratri, neither of which I have seen any of the women in my family celebrate, even though they were sufficiently religious and devoted to their husbands, probably to extents that a feminist wouldn’t approve. The condescending vegetarianism, the refusal to even touch a utensil that a non-vegetarian has eaten in. The caste distinction. This Hinduism has very little to do with my Hinduism. How much does it have to do with yours?

I can’t say I like The Hindus or any of Doniger’s work, not even read her ever. There is very little definitive that I know about Hinduism. I’m not sure if there is much definitive to know. If I judged solely by what my family has taught me, hey, even not giving aaroti at Durga pujo is offensive. (That’s the first step towards atheism, don’t you know?) But we don’t get offended if our friends from other communities don’t follow rituals that are absolutely essential in ours. We didn’t get offended by The Immortals of Meluha, filled with so much inaccuracy about history and religion, and read by such a large number of people who were gullible enough to take its narrative for truth. (This might not have been the author’s plan or intention, I agree.) Surprisingly, nor did these purveyors of eduction and religious correctness. On the other hand, how many of us had read The Hindus before this controversy broke out, even though it’s been around for nearly four years? How many of our religious feelings have been outraged? How much enmity promoted between different groups on the grounds of religion, etc?

You see, it’s really not a concern with the quality of a book, or the amount of misinformation in it, or the extent of its possible impact. That’s not the concern of the bringer of the petition, and that shouldn’t be yours when you choose to respond to it. It’s not about whether you like or dislike a certain book. It’s about resisting people who call it their right to dictate other people’s actions. If you’re not absolutely similar to those people (as most people in India, even Hindus, are probably not), one day they may object to one of your beliefs, and then you will be required to get rid of it. How would you like to stop eating your meat? What if one day Durga pujo or Pongal is declared to be incongruous with ‘mainstream’ Hinduism? (Kali pujo has already fallen out of favour. Everyone celebrates a sanitized, vegetarian, laddu-eating kind of Diwali now; there isn’t much craze for that dark, bloody, rapidly exoticizing form of goddess worship.)  Section 377 has been reinstated. Raped woman are being officially accused of ‘having asked for it’. Is it so difficult to see the country fast being driven into a kind of militant, hardlined ‘Hindu’ dark age? Is it so far-fetched to be afraid of it?


The other conversation about Wendy Doniger’s books has been how easily the publishers have yielded to the threats. Both Penguin Books India and Aleph Book Company have withdrawn the books, without going to court or standing up to the threats in any other way. Criticism has been levelled especially against Penguin, which has a glorious history of supporting its controversial books, whether it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Satanic Verses. A couple of years ago (and obviously on a different context), Chiki Sarkar, the publisher of Penguin Books India, had issued a statement about banned books. According to her, in India it’s possible for anyone to bring an injunction against a book, and from any part of the country, which would be effective nationwide; and which makes it that much harder to fight them.

I somewhat understand where Chiki is coming from. Book-publishing over the last decade or so has become a far more difficult business than it used to be. The cultural authority of publishers has diminished a great deal. This whole matter is another can of worms, but suffice it to say that increasing literacy, Internet and social media access mean that a lot more people today find it possible to call themselves authors, experts, critics, publishers etc without having arrived through the conventional channels. This makes the mix much more democratic, which means it also adds a lot of factors – both positive and negative – which makes it several times more complicated. Penguin Books India publishes more than 200 books a year. Aleph publishes fewer, but its parent company Rupa publishes nearly as many. As physical commodities, books are fragile, inflammable, easily destructible in several ways. Both companies have to depend on mass-market sales to survive, and the mass market is easily influenced by populist Hindu nationalism. The profit margin of books is low. Publishing houses, even the large ones, are nearly always short on manpower. Where are the time, money, people to fight these difficult legal battles?

It’s not as if legal battles were easier in an earlier generation. But they were somewhat more tenable because they still added to the image of the publishing house, and image was the cultural capital that converted to profit. These days, when the biggest profits of Rupa possibly come from the sales of Chetan Bhagat and the biggest profits of Penguin Books India possibly from Ravinder Singh, that old theory of cultural capital does not strictly hold true. (In simpler terms, the people who spend the most money on these publishers’ books are probably not the same people who would like to see/support the publishers in fighting for Doniger’s books. What’s worse, they may even lose some of these buyers if they choose to stand by her.)

On the other hand, I wonder if this wide reach of the social media can’t be used to the greater good in more innovative ways. We have already seen how more people downloaded and read The Hindus last month than they did in the last four years of its existence, even as Penguin Books India was recalling stocks from the bookstores. As of today, the Change.org petition has over 4,000 signatures. If each of these signatories could be persuaded to contribute a small amount of money – if we crowdsourced the funds, if one or more people with the legal expertise volunteered their time and skills – would Penguin or Aleph agree to contest these injunctions? Could that be done?