the-south-asian.com January 2003
JANUARY 2003 Contents
Page 1 of 2
2002 was not a happy year for Indians writing in English. There were very few books of note and even fewer bestsellers. Despite the negative sentiment, the year saw a spate of Indian-authored, India-centric titles on bookshelves. Family Matters, The Impressionist, The House of Blue Mangoes, Romance of the Mango, White Mughals ,.. and , of course Truth, Love & A Little Malice from the irrepressible Khushwant Singh. Indeed, if a book did well in the year it was Khushwant's, candid, racy and utterly engaging Truth, Love & A Little Malice : An Autobiography!
It was a year of heavyweight authors but not of heavyweight writing. There were no pleasant surprises. No Bookers, no Pulitzers and no Nobel prizes---that is, if one counts V.S. Naipaul only as India-born and William Dalrymple just an Indophile.
There were few hits and many misses. Though Indian writing in English flourished there were murmurs of discontent from regional authors. In fact, over the past few years there has been a growing schism between vernacular writers and contemporary Indian authors who write in English.
The differences came to a head at a literary festival hosted by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) where Naipaul derided bhasha writers by telling them that if they could not get readers in their local language, then no amount of state support could help them. He squarely placed the blame for the inadequate market for vernacular books on the writers themselves, absolving English writers of all blame.
However, even for English writing it wasn't a happy year. There were very few big book launches and no bestsellers. Worse, piracy was eating into the profits of publishers and authors. Such was the menace that in 2002 the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Association of India (FPBAI) established an Anti Piracy and Copyright Committee.
The chairman of the committee, Dr. N. Subrahmanyam, also the managing director of Tata McGraw Hill, estimated the magnitude to be in the region of Rs.400-500 crores annually. The reason was simple---earlier the pirates went for fiction but now they were duplicating whatever was selling---autobiographies, books on education and spirituality.
Despite the negative sentiment, the year saw a spate of Indian-authored, India-centric titles adorning bookshelves. Family Matters by twice Booker shortlisted Rohinton Mistry was a tale of an aging Parsi widower living with his stepson and stepdaughter in Mumbai terrorised by Shiv Sena. It received mixed reviews but was lapped up by author's fiercely loyal league of fans.
If Canada-based Mistry's book was one of the more important releases of the year, debutant author Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist earned him the sobriquet of a blend of Salman Rushdie and Henry Fielding. The story set on a wide canvas moves from the British Raj to England and on to the Middle East. It is about the travels and travails of Pran Nath, a child born out of wedlock to a Kashmiri girl and an Englishman Roland Forrester.
The 32-year-old Kunzru, a journalist in England, created a sensation when he received an amazing one million pounds advance from publishers Hamish Hamilton for his literary effort.
Another first-time author who made waves in 2002 is no stranger to books. In fact he is one of the country's best known names in publishing. David Davidhar, the chief of Penguin Books India, became a first time author with The House of Blue Mangoes. The absorbing book revolved around the Dorai family of Chevathar, a small village in Tamil Nadu. The hamlet owed its importance to the Dorais who were famous for growing Neelam mangoes.
Rave reviews across the board took Davidhar and the publishing world completely by surprise. Here was a publisher and a first-time writer being compared to the big and established names in writing. ' There is elegance in the plots and clarity in his prose,' gushed a reviewer.
Mangoes featured in another one of the year's important book releases. Kusum Budhwar wrote passionately about the Indian love for the king of fruit in Romance of the Mango. The 290 page book published by Penguin touched on all aspects of the mango --- its origin, history, species and its widespread usage apart from just its consumption.
" Mango is believed to be indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and is nearly as old as civilization itself. It has been under cultivation for more than 4000 years and a deep and conspicuous bond has been sealed between the fruit and the cultural history of the region," says Budhwar who is the wife of an Indian Foreign Service officer and has done research in various countries.
Romance of the Mango traces the origins of the fruit and explains how it travelled from India to diverse countries like Brazil, Jamaica, America, Australia, , Malaysia and Thailand.
India was the flavour of the year as William Dalrymple once again wowed the capital's glitterati and champaigne-swigging crowd with the launch of the White Mughals a chronicle of an Englishman's love for a Muslim woman.
The book narrated the true life saga of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the East India Company's Resident in the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Englishman fell in love with a woman of Indo-Persian lineage, Khair un-Nissa said to be the descendent of Prophet Mohammad. Kirkpatrick was the Resident at a time when the East India Company was handing over the control of India to the British Empire. He gets so involved in court politics that ends up being a double agent.
Though the book hogged reams of print and TV sound bytes, it fell far short of expectations. In no way did it measure upto Dalrymple's City of Djinns and even as the year rolled out it wasn't disappearing from the bookstores as is usually the case with most other books by Dalrymple. Perhaps it was written for the English readers in mind as the Indians did not relate much to the subject.
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