Crystal ball gazing

Arunava Sinha | Updated on March 12, 2018

Tell tale: Mahesh Bhupathi has pipped Leander Paes to the autobiography post

Much to look forward to, from Granta on India to a Malayalee writer on Calcutta

What is the real Holy Grail of publishing in India at present? No, it’s not the next Chetan Bhagat, nor someone who can match the literary-commercial success of an Amitav Ghosh or a Jhumpa Lahiri. It is, according to a senior editor at a publishing company, those two or three solid non-fiction books that will be priced at ₹700 or ₹800 and sell about 30,000 copies. Bringing in a net figure of about ₹1 crore each, these are the titles that publishers absolutely love. The next question, of course, is: who are these writers whose books are assured of such sales? Unlike fiction, they cannot be newcomers, for it is seldom that such books sell on the strength of their content — it is the writer’s reputation that sales hinge on. So, publishing these books is more a matter of persuading the big, established names to write than of discovering the next big talent.

The last time that Granta magazine focussed exclusively on India was in 1997, with a 288-page issue to mark the 50th year of India’s independence. Eighteen years later, in early 2015 to be precise, Granta will be back with its eye on India. In the intervening period, writing in the country has, of course, changed dramatically. A new generation of writers is in place — not that the creators of commercially successful campus-lit, MBA-lit and lust-lit are likely to get a look in — and so is a vibrant publishing economy. The one thing that has not changed, though, is the identity of the editor of the new issue: as in 1997, it’s going to be piloted by old India hand Ian Jack. Now, how will writers who have gotten used to channeling themselves through Facebook and Twitter pitch for inclusion?

It’s not easy to predict the publishing sensation of the year when you’re already in March. But some books in the making just provoke such punts anyway. And the buzz is building about Aarachar, an outrageously imaginative novel by KR Meera, originally serialised in Malayalam and being published later this year in J Devika’s English translation by Penguin Random House. Hangwoman, as the book is titled in English, is, incredibly for a Malayali writer, set in Calcutta and runs forwards and backwards through time, telling a story as remarkable for its inventiveness as for its subversions of history. Besides its shining literary merit, it’s bound to make a lot of Bengalis very hot under their collars — not least because no one writing in Bangla thought to write something like this.

Their on-court chemistry ended in bitter acrimony. A pity, for Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi might well have won India, and themselves, many more global laurels in doubles tennis. But have they moved on? We’ll know soon enough, with Mahesh Bhupathi’s autobiography scheduled to be published soon. And then Paes will undoubtedly publish the story of his own life too, so the cross-court returns might get exciting. Let’s hope they do — sanitised autobiographies are so boring.

What do you do after you’ve sold your equity stake in India’s largest English language publishing company for ₹55 crore? Last October, after the merger of Penguin Books and Random House, the new company paid that amount for the 45 per cent stake in the pre-merger Penguin Books India that was owned by Aveek Sarkar’s Ananda Publishers. The Kolkata-based Ananda Bazar group’s Sarkar (whose daughter Chiki Sarkar is Publisher at Penguin Random House India) is known for putting his money where his love for literature is. Will he now look for another English publisher to invest in? Multinationals HarperCollins and Hachette are unlikely to be looking for investors. That leaves... everyone else from Aleph to Tav, right?

(Arunava Sinha translates classic and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English. Follow Arunava on Twitter >@arunava)

Published on March 14, 2014

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