Nationalism and Indian publishing


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INDIA’S achievements in the world of writing and publishing are by any standards formidable. As a country it is unique for being the only one in the world to publish in as many as 22 languages. It’s widely recognized as a world leader in English publishing – a legacy of its colonial past that India has turned to its advantage – and is believed to be the third largest English language publisher (after the USA and the UK) in the world. Unlike many other post-colonial countries whose literatures and writing cultures were debilitated and virtually destroyed by their colonial pasts, India has gone on to establish a healthy indigenous publishing industry, and to earn a place for itself in the international market, both in terms of writing and publishing.

For more than three decades after independence, India pursued a somewhat protectionist policy in publishing – as it did in other areas – with foreign publishers being allowed to own a maximum of 49 per cent equity. Over time, like everything else, publishing too has opened up, and the 49 per cent cap no longer holds. As a result the publishing scene today looks very different from what it was in the years following independence: virtually every major international actor has a presence in India, either as part of a joint venture company or as a fully owned foreign company.

And yet, this hasn’t sounded the death knell of local publishing; rather in the six decades since independence Indian publishing has grown and developed into a reasonably self-confident industry that is able to hold its own in the face of so much ‘foreign’ competition. Change has also worked in the other direction and a handful of Indian publishers are now making their presence felt on the international stage, and much of the business of providing publishing services is now outsourced to India.

This at least is what the picture looks like on the surface, and indeed much of this is true. But there are other stories that lie beyond this surface picture that are not often talked about. As someone who’s been in publishing in India for over three decades, I find myself increasingly confronted with difficult questions about the activity that people like me are engaged in and the issues that surround it. Let me explain. I began work in the Oxford University Press, what might then (and indeed now) have been called a multinational or an international publisher. Dissatisfied with mainstream publishing’s reluctance to bring out books on and by women, I decided to take the step of leaving and setting up a feminist/women’s publishing house.

While this was the main motivation behind my setting up Kali (along with Ritu Menon, my then business partner), there was also something else that was to me extremely important, and I can only call this a kind of nationalism. I was convinced of the importance of and the need for what I then defined as ‘indigenous publishing’. To me, Kali was an indigenous house, OUP was an international one, and somewhere in that definition, the indigenous allowed me to inhabit the moral high ground in a way that the international did not.


But there were anomalies and contradictions here that, as time went on, began niggling at me. Kali mainly published in English; could an English language publishing house really be called indigenous? Further, the OUP published a large number or excellent Indian authors – under Ravi Dayal’s able editorial guidance, the OUP became a leading publisher of academic books by Indian writers. So who was on the ‘right’ side and who on the ‘wrong’? It was difficult to say.

Then there was another reality that underlay this one: the money that Kali earned – such as it was – stayed in this country; much (but how much I had no idea) of the money OUP earned went to its ‘owners’, the dons of the University of Oxford, people who belonged to the country of our erstwhile colonial masters. How was one to look at this? Could this relationship be called exploitative? Or unfair? I wasn’t sure. I am simplifying the issues here I know, but I hope I am not hiding the dilemmas.


As I began to look around and to understand the world in which I had chosen to make my professional life, I found issues of nationalism and indeed even a sort of jingoism, cropping up everywhere. And in none of those were the lines clearly drawn, so that it became increasingly difficult to know what to believe. I found, for example, that while the Indian state had put a cap on foreign ownership of publishing businesses, it had retained a much more open – some might even say enlightened – policy where book imports were concerned, basing its rules and laws on the assumption that knowledge should be able to circulate freely. Thus, there was no bar on importing books except that they had to have what was called in somewhat general terms ‘educational value’ and in order to help decide what this meant, the government had produced a sort of long illustrative list.

For those that did not have such value – pulp fiction, for example, detective novels and such like – you could import up to a thousand copies in one calendar year. Our business people, being good Punjabis and Marwaris, Bengalis and whatnot, immediately found a way round this restriction by setting up five different companies, importing a thousand copies each of the same title in one calendar year, and the same number again in the next calendar year. Voila, ten thousand copies. Small wonder than that the market was flooded with books from outside even in the years when the indigenous industry should have been growing. As a publisher concerned about developing Indian authorship, I viewed this development with dismay and concern. But virtually all my friends, brought up to read western fiction, loved the fact that books from abroad were available at reasonable prices in India. I often felt that my indigenist, sometimes nationalist, stance was a bit out of place.


Some years into my publishing life I was invited to be on the executive of one of the two main federations of publishers in India (later I was invited onto the other one as well). I was delighted and there were many reasons for this. Here was a body made up of Indian publishers and clearly such a body was important for many reasons – it could for example, battle for lower prices of paper, fight for the interests of the publishing industry and so on. Up until then, it had almost entirely been a male body, with perhaps one or two women on it. I thought – mistakenly I now realize – that here was an opportunity to storm one of the male bastions.

But I discovered otherwise: not only were the male bastions not that easy to storm, but the concerns, inside these bodies that were supposed to represent publishing, were really about who was getting a larger slice of the cake. I found, for example, that my proud indigenist stand was being mirrored or owned by publishers who did not have a political bone in their bodies, who published really second-rate material and whose main agenda was basically to attack those who were importing books or working for foreign houses. They would attack them until such time as they could join up with them, at which point their stance would change.

The publishing world consisted of two key pan-Indian federations, the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Associations in India and the Federation of Indian Publishers, the latter a breakaway group made up of ‘Indian’ or ‘indigenous’ publishers, and the former made up of publishers and, that dreaded word, importers. Many of these colleagues were agents or representatives of foreign presses such as Cambridge University Press, or Blackwell, or Elsevier and suchlike. At a broader political level, and as an Indian publisher who was fiercely passionate about Indian writing, I could understand being on the opposite side of these ‘foreign’ publishers. But I wasn’t sure I liked the company I was clubbed with: motley businessmen who had little or no interest in books other than for the money they brought in, but who were quick to adopt the right sounding political nationalist stance against the others.

What surprised me even more was the speed with which many of them would change. For example, a representative of a foreign company would see nothing wrong in doing what he was doing, and then, if that contract ended, he might switch over to starting his own publishing. Immediately he would become an ‘indigenous’ publisher, and his past as the agent of an ‘imperial power’ would be put behind him. I found this very odd.


Piracy was another such issue. Although piracy affects many Indian publishers – for example cross-border piracy, or piracy of textbooks or of novels and storybooks – few had actually acted against it. I have to say that even in my mind there was a sort of aura of something proletarian that surrounded the act of piracy. In illegally photocopying or pirating a book, you were making a statement against the commercial, money-grabbing attitude of publishers. Except, of course, many publishers are not really money grabbers, while, truth be told, most pirates are.

A recent seizure of a pirate revealed stocks worth Rs 35 or 40 lakh lying in his godown. Many of the books belonged to multinational publishers and in discussions, many of our Indian colleagues, and indeed many of our friends at university and elsewhere, rubbed their hands in glee, voicing a sentiment that went something like this: ‘serves them right’ and ‘who believes in copyright anyway – all knowledge should be free.’ Except that this begged the question of the profits the pirate made, and the revenue the author lost, and raised the question of law and order. Can you just steal something that belongs to someone else, reproduce it cheaply, and retain a sort of morality over the cheap price, while not being penalized for the theft? As Alice said, curiouser and curiouser.

Worse, whenever piracy is discussed in Indian publishing, the battle lines get immediately drawn between foreign publishers on one side and Indian ones on the other. The foreign publishers – whose works have been pirated – are somehow the aggressors, and the Indian ones the victims. It’s not my argument here that foreign publishers are pure as driven snow; nor that copyright does not have its strong political undertones. I believe it does, but a theft is a theft, and cannot be disguised under nationalism, or morality. I wonder how we will react when our books get pirated – with delight or dismay?


Another area where this blend of nationalism and something else spills over is in the world of writing and publishing in the Indian languages. How big is the English publishing industry and how big is the Indian language publishing industry? No one really knows. This is because there’s been little or no attempt to collect any statistical data. Apart from a comprehensive study done in 1972 by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, Indian publishers have not been good at documenting their histories or their numbers. Much of the information is based on guesswork, or some intelligent – but not necessarily foolproof – calculation.

So we’re told by one group of people that English is the largest publishing language in India. But a decade and a half ago the Federation of Indian Publishers produced a book on Indian publishing entitled A Giant in Slumbers (sic) according to which Hindi was the largest publishing language, not English. No source was given for this statement. There were figures of how many books were published in each language, but little information on how these figures had been arrived at. So it was difficult to escape the impression that Hindi was seen as the largest publishing language for no reason other than a sort of nationalism.


Writing and publishing in Indian languages has always been at a disadvantage vis a vis English. There are no two ways about this. Write a book in Malayalam or Hindi, and you can be sure it will not feature in the national media. Translate it into English and it has a fighting chance of getting some attention. I can imagine that if I was a publisher in an Indian language, this would make me very angry indeed. But until recently, many Indian language publishers have not really attempted to develop their markets – with some notable exceptions of course, as in Bengali or Malayalam or Tamil.

Much of the time, publishers in Indian languages have lived off bulk orders for their books, publishing just enough to sell to x or y library or submit for this or that tender, not really attempting to get books out into the market. Of course this is not easy – for many Indian languages the infrastructure to sell to individuals hardly exists and the only option then seems to be to go for bulk sales to government agencies. But until recently very few have even tried to move out of this. Somehow the feeling seems to be that as long as you are publishing in Indian languages you cannot be faulted, no matter what you do.

Much of this has changed in recent years, with the entry of a number of younger, more professional, but also more committed and knowledgeable publishers in Indian languages. As a result, the wealth of literature that we have in India and in Indian languages is being published and disseminated well, with books looking good, competing in terms of production and design with international books and, importantly, being translated into other Indian languages, so crossing those borders too.


Nationalism also enters the very real issue of the internationalisation of Indian literature. Indian books in English are able to travel out into the world much more easily than books in the Indian languages. In the international marketplace there is an unfair prejudice against Indian languages, and an assumption that books coming from here are not up to the mark. This is, of course, a difficult battle to win, but for many authors who understandably want international recognition and acclaim, this is a battle they would like publishers to win. But it can only be won if we turn our attention to the business of translations in a much more serious way than we have done in the past.

Unlike in many other countries, there is no government or private agency that funds good, professional (or indeed even bad ones!) translations of Indian books into other languages. If you are a publisher who wants to translate a French, or German, or Japanese, or Korean – to name only a few – book into an Indian language, there are a number of agencies you can go to who will subsidize such translations as a way of getting their literature known. This, to them, is good nationalism. Not so for Indians – apart from the time that the National Book Trust offered subsidies only once for such translations (this was at the time of the focus on India at the Frankfurt Book Fair), such initiatives have been sadly lacking. Our nationalism goes only so far.


Good translations are also important because as publishers we are often faced, as I’ve said before, with prejudice about the quality of work that comes out of our Indian languages. Of course, this prejudice does not only have to do with language, it also has to do with cultural differences which make it difficult for certain books to travel. But this is something that has also always made me wonder: what is it, for example, that creates in readers and editors in the international world, a sense of the familiar about the work of, say, Latin American writers in the USA and Europe, or even about Japanese writers or Philipino writers, and what is it that makes them approach Indian literature in the Indian languages with concern about whether it will travel. There’s no easy answer, but certainly when a UK or US based publisher says to me that one of the books that I have published is ‘too specific’ or not ‘culturally accessible’, it makes my nationalist hackles rise.

Recently, for example, while engaged in selling foreign rights for a book we had published, A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder, a domestic worker’s life story of struggle and survival, I was told by a British publisher that while the British market loved this kind of ‘misery memoir’, this particular one would not work because it was not ‘miserable enough’. By this, I think he meant that the violence was not described graphically, and melodramatically, nor did the protagonist represent herself as a victim. So she did not fit the cultural stereotypes and, therefore, her book would not work in that market.

Somewhere in these relationships lies a long history of exploitation and material and cultural imperialism, which we would do well not to forget, but there are also times when publishers are able to transcend these histories. So while not denying that like many other Indian publishers, I too have nationalist hackles, I have learnt, over time, that the issues are more complex because of course you can’t run a business only on nationalism. That the enterprise of reading, writing, publishing, spreading knowledge, while mired in the economics and politics of the here and now, also, at some level, manages to go beyond them. It’s as well to be aware of the power equations that underlie what we do, but perhaps as well also to not allow oneself to be defeated by them.


And finally, I am continually perplexed by the way nationalism continues to play out in Indian publishing today in the changed, globalized, inter-nationalized atmosphere. So instead of finding answers to my questions, I am today even more confused. Let me explain. As a small publisher, working with very limited resources, we find it very difficult to reach our books out to the readership that we know exists in all parts of India.

Some years ago, in an attempt to overcome this, we entered into a co-publishing agreement with Penguin India. Together we do four books a year that are originated by Zubaan, edited by us, jointly produced, and then marketed and sold by Penguin and we have found a way of sharing the costs and the profits. For us, this arrangement represented an unusual step: it enables us to see whether our books could sell more or not; it enabled us to interact as equals with a much bigger, much richer, much more powerful partner because the arrangement had something in it for both of us; and it enabled us to get our authors known in a wider circle. But in the market and among our publishing colleagues, there was both surprise and criticism (and I think occasionally some envy).

The criticism basically held that we, Zubaan, had sold out to a multinational, and in doing so we had somehow betrayed the cause of Indian writing and publishing, and become less nationalist. I’m not sure. I’ve never been chauvinistically nationalist, but I am, from time to time, proud to be an Indian (and at other times ashamed to be one!), and as I see it, many of the so-called multinational publishers are actually publishing Indian writers. So if we did join up with them, were we strengthening our publishing and working for the benefit of our writers, or were we selling out?

I’m not even going to try to answer this question. I believe that as publishing grows and as we, as Indian publishers, become more confident, our work will speak for itself, and in the new globalized world – whatever its contradictions and failings, of which there are many – we may be able to work with like-minded people without adopting nationalist postures and taking untenable positions. Nothing is simple any more, all sorts of lines are getting blurred, and that is the reality that we as publishers have to deal with. The best way to do it is to do our own jobs well, and with integrity.