Arunava Sinha | Updated on August 14, 2014

Doctor Domuch: Physician and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee who has won multiple awards will soon be out with a book on the gene   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

Ready for launch: Meena Kandasamy's Gypsy Goddess, a political novel, is already getting noticed in the UK   -  THULASI KAKKAT

Arunava Sinha

Two Mukherjees, a maverick poet, the return of I Alan Sealy — much to look forward to

Despite the quiet cries of despair over dwindling sales, some of India’s publishers continue to place big ticket bets on potential bestsellers. It’s understandable that Pulitzer-winner Siddhartha Mukherjee’s next book — his first, The Emperor of Maladies, his biography of cancer, swept several awards — would be hot property in India, not least because Mukherjee is a Delhi boy. But even so, the undisclosed but rather large sum that Penguin Random House India paid for the rights to his work on genes clearly shows that money is still chasing potential breakout books. HarperCollins India, which published The Emperor of Maladies here, did not bid beyond a point. Mukherjee’s publishers might be hoping the new book carries some prize-winning heft as well.

With Westland/Tranquebar concentrating on Amish and, when there’s time, on other books, while Hachette continues to be selective with large acquisitions, the big-buy stories all seem to come from either Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. Barring the obviously expensive purchase of Vikram Seth’s forthcoming (when, though?) A Suitable Girl, Aleph has its sights trained on high literary and emerging talent, neither of which is, arguably, very expensive to sign up. One such purchase, made a couple of years ago, is about to fructify.

Before Siddhartha, another big-buy Mukherjee will soon be published by Penguin Random House: Neel Mukherjee, with The Lives of Others, his second novel. His first novel, Past Continuous (published in the UK as A Life Apart, a change of title that might slot him unwillingly as a Life novelist) won the Crossword Award in India earlier. He was signed up for Random House by Chiki Sarkar before she moved over to Penguin. Neel Mukherjee must be bemused about being separated from and then reunited with her, with the book being published soon after the publishing merger.

Summer is normally silly season in Indian publishing. But this year, at least two mainstream publishers are waiting with bated breath for books they’re very excited by. Karthika VK, publisher of HarperCollins India, is thrilled about maverick poet and activist Meena Kandasamy’s Gypsy Goddess, an intensely political novel. Over at Penguin Random House, publisher Chiki Sarkar is looking forward to Akhil Sharma’s A Family Life, which she describes as “both searingly dark and funny and moving”. While Kandasamy’s book is already getting noticed in the UK, Sharma’s work has had rave reviews from Jonathan Franzen, Kiran Desai and Mohsin Hamid.

Two favourites among Indian readers have made quiet comebacks with new books. Aleph has published a book that marks the return of I. Allan Sealy ( The Trotternama, The Everest Hotel) in the form of The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, an almanac about the place that he owns in the Himalayan foothills. And Anurag Mathur, whose The Inscrutable Americans was a runaway bestseller back when English language fiction was nowhere as ubiquitous as it is today, is amongst us again with The Country is Going to the Dogs. Of course, The Inscrutable Americans, now in its fiftieth reprint, is a hard act to follow, though there have been other books in between.

Indians don’t subscribe to love. It seems Mills & Boon/Harlequin, is discovering this as their attempt to bypass the bookshop by selling subscriptions to its books — much like a magazine — hasn’t really taken off. Although the romance imprint has been bought by News Corp and added to HarperCollins globally, there has been no announcement yet of it being merged with HarperCollins India. Still, were that to happen — as seems logical — perhaps it will be a little easier for the world’s best-known romance fiction to find buyers in India. As for HarperCollins India, it might prove a major boost, providing access to a large portfolio of books with huge potential.

Of course, the path to true love is always rocky. Romance seems to be losing its appeal among readers in India, judging from the fading sales of love stories on college and corporate campuses. Quite the flavour of the month a few years ago for a crop of smaller publishers, the genre isn’t seeing much growth now. One problem is that the big names who established this form of fiction — Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta, et al — have moved on to the bigger labels. And there have been no worthy successors to take their place.

The three unanswered questions of English-language Indian publishing today:

1. Why did Penguin Random House really stop contesting the case against Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism and agree to pulp copies? (Were there any copies left to pulp?)

2. Why did Ravi Singh really quit Aleph Publishing company, when he was almost as much an integral part of it as founder David Davidar?

3. How come Gas Wars, the self-published book by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta et al, which examines Reliance Industries’ role in natural gas exploration, is still available in bookshelves despite the legal notice slapped on the author and publishers by India’s largest private sector company?

Arunava Sinha translates classic and contemporary Bengali fictionnonfiction into English

Follow him on Twitter >@arunava

Published on May 09, 2014

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