Is Hindi literature back in fashion?

Kalyani Prasher | Updated on January 24, 2018
New leaf: A reader browses through an exclusive Hindi bookstore in Hyderabad. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

New leaf: A reader browses through an exclusive Hindi bookstore in Hyderabad. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy   -  The Hindu

A renaissance Anu Singh Choudhary says, “There are several people like me, of my age, who want to bring back Hindi literature”

A renaissance: Anu Singh Choudhary says, “There are several people like me, of my age, who want to bring back Hindi literature”

Different markets Pamela Manasi believes Hindi and English books can’t be priced the same, as Hindi books have smaller marketing budgets

Different markets Pamela Manasi believes Hindi and English books can’t be priced the same, as Hindi books have smaller marketing budgets

The rise of online publishing and social media may inadvertently be beneficial for Hindi authors and its readers

In 1987, the year after she turned 40, Pamela Manasi got her big break when Dharamyug published her story ‘Jagtu’. Dharmyug was perhaps the most respected Hindi weekly of the time, published by The Times of India Group, and a major platform for Hindi short fiction writers. This was where you noticed and got noticed. Once this happened, the world of Hindi literature opened up for Manasi, who then wrote a string of critically acclaimed stories, published in all the big Hindi magazines of the ’80s and ’90s, such as Saptahik Hindustan, Sarika, India Today Hindi, Kahaniyan and, of course, Dharmyug. But this journey had not been easy.

“For a number of years, I wrote short stories and just kept them with me, until a friend convinced me to send them to papers and magazines for publication.” This, Manasi found out, was far more difficult than she’d imagined. With the great success of Hindi writing and magazines, something else was brewing in the world of Hindi literature in the ’70s and ’80s. Successful writers, some of the biggest names in the industry, were divided into cliques, and if you were not part of any of these groups, it was difficult to break in and get published. Matters became more difficult when some of these writers went on to become editors of the best literary magazines of the time, thereby controlling whose writing would find a voice. Several writers who did not belong to any group, like Manasi, lost out in the bargain. “There were several rejections in the beginning,” she says, with a smile, adding, “and sometimes I would not understand why. I remember this one time, a very famous editor sent my story back, saying he liked it and that I was a ‘born storyteller’ but he needed to see more of my work. I did not understand why — he had space for one story per issue and it’s not like he would have published several of my stories in successive issues. Then why, if he liked my story, did he not publish it?”

No one really talked about it openly but new writers got no validation from the industry if they did not join one or the other group. If you didn’t push yourself, you lost out. In that sense, things haven’t changed much in 30 years but in the ’70s and ’80s, pushing your own work was still considered improper. It was only in 1985 that Manasi finally got her first story, Rishton ki Karvat, published with a small local publishing house, Sarvapriya.

In 2014, though, Pamela Manasi is known as a translator, not so much as a writer. Somewhere along the line, the magazines that were the vehicle and home for new Hindi writing started shutting down and the opportunities to publish became fewer. Even Penguin-Yatra books, the imprint that began in 2005, did not do well. A loss of readership to television soaps was a big reason, but one important factor was the changing reader herself: people from small towns across north India came to bigger cities to study or work and met people who were reading in English. These people wanted to know what their friends were reading and discussing — this English-speaking semi-urban population of north-Indian towns, who grew up reading in Hindi, whose parents still read in Hindi, was more comfortable reading in Hindi and wanted more translations. When I suggested this to Naved Akbar, who was Penguin’s Indian Language Publications editor from 2006 till 2009, he agreed, but not entirely. “More and more Hindi readers want to read what the English readers are reading, but part of the blame lies in the fact that people don’t know how to market books in Hindi.” The same people who sell English dailies and books were being asked to sell to the Hindi readership. “This could never work — the Hindi readership is totally different, you have to have an understanding of the market, you need a different team.” Akbar’s sentiments are familiar to many of us who have seen favourite magazines and departments shut down due to miscued marketing and company policies. But it’s not easy to market Hindi books. “The Hindi reader is used to paying little,” says Manasi, “you can’t price a book at par with an English book so you don’t have the same marketing budgets.” The Hindi reader who pays ₹50 or less for pulp fiction — bought, read and recycled in a day — can perhaps pay double for a ‘literary’ book but you can’t ask him for ₹350, the average price of an English book today.

A combination of factors led several people like Manasi, who were writing original Hindi fiction, to turn to translations. She has recently translated The Monogram Murders, the most recent Agatha Christie mystery, apart from The ABC Murders and Sparkling Cyanide for HarperCollins’s Hindi division — surprisingly, this is the first time Christie has been translated into Hindi.

Enter Social Media

Anu Singh Choudhary is not yet 40 and she has created a mini sensation by selling over 1,500 copies of her book Neela Scarf even before the launch. No editors nor their cliques can keep writers down in the digital era. Choudhary used online media to publicise her work, leading to hundreds of copies of her short story collection, which came out in August 2014, being pre-booked on Flipkart. Strikingly, Choudhary and Manasi’s career graphs are almost inversed. Seven years ago, having twins meant Choudhary had to cut back on work and could only do occasional translations from home. “When I started translating, a friend told me that I was training myself to write,” she says, “I didn’t understand it at first but a few translations down the line, the language came back to me. I used to read in Hindi at my home in Ranchi but I had forgotten it. Working with the language again was a tipping point for my writing.” Encouraged by the friend, she began to think that if she could translate so many words, surely she could write a few original. Translation is a double-edged sword — in catering to the semi-urban reader’s need for reading English fiction translated into a language she is comfortable in, it can remove her need to read original fiction in that language. This way, you lose more and more readers of original writing in Hindi. Choudhary wants to fight against that. “There is almost a new movement,” she says, “there are several people like me, of my age, who want to bring back Hindi literature.” She talks about ‘Facebook writers’ but not in a derogatory way — for Hindi literature, social media has worked wonders. For a language for which people find few publishers, platforms such as Facebook and blogs have become the way to reach a new readership. “Some of the writers who share original fiction in a post or a blog have a huge following,” Choudhary explains, “I thought if I sell 200 books, I’d be happy that I made 200 people read original Hindi fiction, but I was shocked to see the response — it’s all word of mouth.” At ₹100 a book, Neela Scarf would not have a marketing budget in the world Pamela Manasi was writing, but social media has changed the cost and dynamics of marketing forever.

And it has changed the reader. The new Hindi reader is someone who reads in both English and Hindi, because she cares (or thinks it’s cool to care) about the language, and her roots. “I want my children to read in Hindi,” says Choudhary, “I want to keep the language alive. I think there is a new breed of writers whose mission is to not let Hindi die out.” The new writing in Hindi is set in our world, so the English reader can identify with it more and the Hindi reader finds something current, something more cosmopolitan to engage with. “New Hindi and English writing in India can be clubbed together as new young Indian writing — I’m not saying it is great writing, yet, but I’m saying it’s a wave and hopefully it won’t die out”.

Akbar, a translator from English to Hindi, is less hopeful of a revival anytime soon. “This new trend to read in Hindi is not deeper than a kind of reverse snobbery,” he says, “but it’s good if it works”.

With the vow to write more and more original Hindi fiction, however, Choudhary is convinced otherwise and, to my apparent shock, says, “All we need is a Chetan Bhagat.”

Another one? I ask with apparent horror. “No, I am serious; we need a sensation who can make reading in Hindi popular again.” One might even imagine the same Chetan Bhagat writing in Hindi. I am about to suggest this to her, but don’t, because I shudder at the thought. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between Akbar’s pragmatic views and Choudhary’s extreme optimism — perhaps the ‘wave’ is more like a ripple created by writers like her, which might cause a lasting impact.

Just before I finished writing this piece, a 20-something lit-loving friend, who reviews (English) books for a daily, updated her Facebook status asking people to recommend something to read. The first comment, I kid you not, was “Do you read in Hindi?” When I jumped in to enquire which book this person had in mind, he replied: “ Raag Darbari, but it needs a good grasp on Hindi. I’m struggling with it myself, but what a book!” My Bengali friend who had asked for the recommendation may not benefit from this but several others on the thread were intrigued enough to look it up. Maybe there’s something in what Choudhary says after all. Maybe reading in Hindi is becoming cool again. Who knows, maybe we’ll even get away without a Chetan Bhagat.

Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on February 20, 2015

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