Twenty years ago. When Penguin started off in India. Can you even imagine those days when writers did not thump their chests and proclaim themselves to be the next happening wonder? Instead, someone would read a story somewhere and send their details to publishers? Phone calls over landlines and mails delivered by postmen. When quality of writing preceded and genres were rather unheard of.
V.K. Karthika, currently of Westland Amazon and formerly of Penguin India and Harper Collins took the audience through how it was to be an editor or a publisher in what seems like pre historic times now. She was my youth icon during college days. Undisputed winner in elocution competitions in the university youth festivals , her nimble wit winning her and her team prizes in JAM and dumb charade sessions, she hasn’t lost an iota of her charm.
Candid with her words, she went on to mention how publishers and editors were a similar lot those days, coming from similar backgrounds, reading the same kind of books, thinking alike more or less and routing for ‘literary’ fiction. She talked about why we seem to read books less often, as we wind up our nights with a social media update rather than closing a book after a few lines that leaves a smile on your face. How an Indian American author of those days wondered whether people in India actually read English books, in a rather nice way. How the industry grew slowly, from round the corner book shops where you were lucky if you could find a single copy of the book you wanted, to swanky retail outlets with coffee shops thrown in where you could chill with an espresso instead of cutting chai. Books and reading had become a lifestyle statement.
And then came an obscure publishing house and a story from the beautiful Aymenem, in Kerala. And a Booker Prize. Indian writing in English and publishing would never be the same again. Yes, there were Indian authors before as well, but most of them belonged to the diaspora. Here was an exotic story, and the author, totally Indian. Her life , experiences , story, everything was India. And Ms. Roy was beautiful as well. There was a frantic interest in Indian writers, deals were struck based on a single chapter, even mere proposals.
The next watershed event was a certain Mr. Chetan. Karthika did call out the ambivalence of supporting his writing. Till he happened, such writing was looked down upon. The elite publishers would never have touched. But facts are facts. He turned mere thousands of English readers in India to lakhs. And he had to be noticed, after all, publishing was business as well. And so the best seller lists came to be dominated by Chetan, Amish, Preeti et al, the new age Indian writers.
Today, there is as much, if not more interest in non fiction than fiction, thanks to erudite writers like Dalrymple, Guha etc. It’s a good time for writers, editors and publishers alike. Some take years , like Raghu Karnad, who then come up with beautiful and relevant writings on India. However, there was a word of caution from her. Whether an element of self censorship is creeping in today, given the wind of uncertainty. Of why we need to raise our voices when needed. We may not be able to change people, but if we can change at least few things, that would well be worth it.
We caught up after the function, she was such a delight to talk to. We chatted about those ancient years, our families, and how we will never grow old as long as people from our elder generation are still with us. And yes, we did talk about her husband as well. The suave Vivek Menon, the executive director and CEO of Wildlife Trust of India, himself an amazing writer. His ‘On the Brink : Travels in the Wildlife Of India’ is a testimony to that. It’s unfortunately out of print.
(p.s. was lucky enough to attend the Annual Lecture Of Anita’s Attic – a creative writing & mentorship program by author Anita Nair)