Scroll@10: For books and publishing in India, it was the best of times, it was the hardest of times

In the last decade, both reading and writing have gone through significant shifts. New and young writers have made their presence felt across genres, translated fiction has created a unique space for itself, and there has been widespread recognition of Indian-language fiction culminating in the 2022 International Booker Prize for Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.

For publishing companies, the shift in reading tastes away from fiction and towards history, politics, self-help, and spirituality meant an increased number of books being published in these categories. Scroll published excerpts and reviews of many of these books – alongside fiction and poetry – to give readers an overview of the nature of books being published.

While there is much to be celebrated, one cannot forget the Covid-19 pandemic years, when bookshops were forced to shut down, the publishing industry took a hit, many lost their jobs. The pandemic made us re-evaluate the relationship we share with books – which Scroll covered extensively in its Publishing and the Pandemic series.

From the most exciting moments for Indian (and South Asian) literature on the local and world stage, to a quiet reflection on the tragedies of the last few years, Books and Ideas looks back at the decade that was. (To see how the decade began, read, for instance, Sumana Roy’s review of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel Fairy Tales at Fifty.)

Author Geetanjali Shree (left) and translator Daisy Rockwell.| Image courtesy Daisy Rockwell.

The biggest stars of the decade were indisputably Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree and American translator Daisy Rockwell, whose book Tomb of Sand won the 2022 International Booker Prize award, for which they were given 25,000 pounds each. It was the first time a book from India won the award.

A review published on Scroll called it “the most original and undefinable work of our times”. It is also a “feminist novel”, in the sense that it is centred around Ma and Beti and how they “forged a path towards the forbidden” behind the scenes of family. It is also about how the mother gave the daughter at least some privacy by opening “the window wide for her to leap out” towards freedom. And how she found the privacy of her own stirrings – amidst family duties, “breathing for them, feeling for their feelings, bearing their desires, carrying their animosities” – in the lullabies and goodnight-stories with which she rocked Beti to sleep, continuing to sing them even after, as though they were more for herself than her daughter – or for the child to sleep, and the mother to dream. It is the eruption and fulfilment of these hidden and buried dreams that is Tomb of Sand. Read the full review here.

In an essay written exclusively for Scroll, the winning duo reflected on how an “untranslatable” book was translated into English and what was going on in their minds after the shortlist was announced. Shree was all praises for her translator Rockwell, “...Her enjoyment of idiosyncrasies in language, her parallel play and inventiveness with English versus my Hindi, (look at the crow sequences where we both go crowing happily and independently!), her confidence sometimes in ‘ticking me off’ and quoting no less than AK Ramanujan, once her teacher, about the inventive independence of translation, all carried forward our dialogue and the translation.”

Meanwhile, Rockwell described the win as a “Bookershock”. She writes, “...I realise that we – Geetanjali Shree and I – in our state of Bookershock, are hurtling together through the air, clutching our copies of Ret Samadhi and Tomb of Sand like they’re parachutes or maybe protective talismans, ready or not ready, about to make our own landing...” Read the piece here.

2022 Booker Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka. | The Booker Prizes on Twitter

The past decade has been great for South Asian fiction, especially when it comes to being nominated for major literary awards such as the Booker Prizes. In 2022, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka won the prize for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. In an interview with Scroll, Karunatilaka talked about how he had inadvertently commented on the current political crisis in Sri Lanka even though the idea was to write historical fiction.

“I wrote about 1989 and people can still find parallels in 2022 and that is not on me, that is on the country. I thought I was writing history – when I was writing it was a period of hope and right after the war there was a lot of hope,” he said. “We thought we’d ended the war and how we can go forward. For a brief moment, there were highways and public parks, the country had opened for tourism and so I thought, people may not believe that these terrible things happened but then it happened again in 2022 following the Easter attacks, the pandemic, and the economic crisis. Suddenly I realised I am commenting on current affairs which was not the intention.” Read more of what he said here.

Besides Karunatilaka’s win in 2022, Sri Lankan writer Anuk Arudpragsam (A Passage North) was shortlisted for the prize in 2021. Indian-origin writer Avni Doshi’s novel Burnt Sugar was shortlisted in 2020, Salman Rushdie for Quichotte in 2019, Pakistani-origin writer Mohsin Hamid for Exit West in 2017, Indian-origin writer Sunjeev Sahota for The Year of the Runaways in 2015, and Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others in 2014.

Author and illustrator Orijit Sen.

In 2022, Orijit Sen’s iconic graphic novel, and India’s first work of its kind in English, River of Stories, completed 25 years. The artist-writer spoke to Scroll about introducing Indian readers to a new form of storytelling. He also spoke about how ecological conflicts have given rise to poverty and oppression of certain people, and the book’s way of paying homage to India’s long history of resistance and protesting, especially by those who have been disenfranchised due to their socio-economic standing. Read the full interview here.

Muhammad Latif Oata in his library.

The world, including that inhabited by readers and writers, faced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic years. If libraries were hard to come by earlier, the lockdowns, lack of funds, and general chaos caused by the pandemic put serious questions on their survival. And yet, with serious determination and a genuine love for books, some libraries became the glue that held a community together.

For instance, The Next Page library in the Mumbai slum Shivaji Nagar got 1,200 people to sign up when it was established during the first wave of Covid-19. Since then, the library has offered an impressive collection of reference books, picture books about animals, space, science, art, and an encyclopaedia set to its young readers. Similarly, Ashina Gramin Library and Patuli Street Library (among others) in West Bengal have seen a tremendous number of sign-ups and generous donations during the pandemic years.

Unfortunately, not every such story saw a happy ending. School dropout Muhammad Latif Oata’s library in Sri Nagar’s Dal Lake was forced to shut down his library after the brutal Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. However, he assured Scroll, “I will maintain this library and keep all these books as long as I am alive.”

The pandemic also reformed Indian-language publishing, especially those that operate at state-level markets. An article published on Scroll took a look into why Gujarati publishing became a story of tragic realism in the time of the pandemic and the refusal of publishers to produce e-books, even when circumstances demanded it.

And what of the world after the pandemic? A Scroll roundtable asked industry experts how they see the future. Read their views here.

Although 2014 seemed like the beginning of a new political and cultural era in India, the road to Narendra Modi’s ascent as an undisputed Hindutva leader was in fact paved a long time ago with – among other things – extremist religious views disseminated by literary material published by the likes of Geeta Press. Jawari Mal Parakh, a critic of Hindi literature and culture, wrote in an essay, “For the past hundred years, the Gita Press has been advocating the varna (caste) system in the name of Sanatana Dharma. They believe in untouchability, oppose the entry of Dalits into temples, oppose women’s freedom, and are against sending girls to schools and colleges. They are against widow remarriage and take pride in the practice of sati. These ideologies have been propagated through small books in various languages for the past hundred years. These books have been published in the millions.” Read the entire piece here.

Ahmer Javed.

The past decade belonged to Indian languages and the new ways in which younger generations discovered them. Koshur, a fading local language of Kashmir, is witnessing a renewed interest in the state’s emerging hip-hop scene. For young rappers like Ahmer Javed, this is a way to reclaim their language through lyrics and poetry and enable those like him to build their identity. Read more about Koshur and its revival here.

A monumental cultural moment of the past decade was the 2017 #MeToo movement which created ripple effects across the globe as more and more victims (mostly women) opened up about sexual harassment and abuse in public, personal, and workspaces. It was a moment of reckoning for the Indian publishing industry, which until then had avoided addressing the issues of gender and power imbalances in its day-to-day functioning. Writer and translator Jenny Bhatt took a closer look at some recently published books to illustrate the problem and the intersectional approaches the publishing stakeholders must take to kickstart a more equal literary ecosphere.

Author Jeyamohan. | Balurbala / CC BY-SA 4.0

Acclaimed Tamil writer B Jeyamohan – who is best known for his incisive stories about class, caste, and gender – explained why he considers himself an “apolitical” writer and why this is how he wants to retain himself. He added, “I believe a writer should never take a single political or ideological stand. If a writer takes a political stand for any reason, it will corrupt his ethics.” The interview can be read here.

Popular Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag spoke to Scroll about why the relationship between urban work and the self features so often in his writings. He said, “...This agitates people and so they put on a different self to project to the outside world. In this struggle, the gaps do show up. The loss that you’re talking about could be in a particular way of living, certain values, some memories or even language.” He also talked about the perennial relevance of stories and the endless possibilities of writing. Read the full conversation here.

Post-script: How is the writer find the novel that they will write? Read Vikram Chandra’s account of the author’s journey. And this 80th-birthday interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

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