Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | January 15, 2015
A founder member of Penguin India, David Davidar spent 25 years with the publishing giant in various capacities before moving back to India to start his own publishing venture Aleph Book Company in partnership with Rupa Publications. He is also an acclaimed author of three novels. He spoke to Shreerupa Mitra-Jha about the new anthology of Indian short stories he has edited, and about the challenges and rewards of publishing in English in India. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you choose the stories in ‘A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present’?
As I have said in my introduction to the book, one basic criterion governed the selection—if I liked the story it went into the book and if I didn’t like the story it was left out. The pool from which I made my selection was vast—there were the stories that I had read over nearly four decades of my life, starting when I first began to be interested in Indian fiction as a teenager; the stories suggested by friends who were steeped in many aspects of Indian literature; stories recommended by colleagues, friends and family, all of whom are good readers; and finally stories that I chose after sifting through over 50 anthologies of Indian fiction. Conservatively speaking my colleagues and I must have read and re-read over 1,500 stories by Indian writers from the 19th century to the present day to arrive at this selection. I would like to think of the book as my tribute to the greatness of Indian literature. I have spent most of my working life immersed in the world of Indian writing so putting some of the greatest modern Indian stories ever written into a book seemed a logical thing to do.
Despite continuing boom in Indian writing in English, there is still a dearth of good short story writers in English in India. Why is this so?
I am not sure that I agree with your supposition. It may be true that there aren’t as many short story collections as there should be because publishers prefer to publish novels over short story anthologies, as the latter do not sell as well. However, we must bear in mind that writing novels and short stories require different skill sets and it is a rare writer of fiction who can do both well. I think we have pretty good short story writers not just in English but in other Indian languages as well.
Regional Indian literature has not acquired international acclaim. This is something which Rushdie indicated while bringing out Mirrorwork, an anthology of Indian writing. He pointed out it is primarily due to shortage of good translators from Indian languages to English. Why do we not have our own Gregory Rabassas and Maureen Freelys?
I think calling Indian writing in languages other than English ‘regional Indian literature’ is the first step in the whole process of relegating this branch of our literature to a ghetto. I prefer to call Indian literature, no matter what language it is written in (including English) just that—Indian literature. Having got that out of the way, I would agree with you that we don’t yet have the translators we deserve. This is partly due to publishers being unable to provide the sort of money that would enable more first-rate translators to enter the field, and also partly due to the fact that readers in English don’t seem to go for works translated into English as much as they buy works originally written in English. This may have something to do with the quality of translations and it most certainly has to do with the fact that very few stories are truly universal. If a story is strongly rooted in a local idiom and milieu it is quite likely that it may not travel very well. I’m not too worried about international audiences. We have to first get our own audiences interested in our multiple literatures. It is time we stopped worrying about what readers in London or New York think about our fiction. I can guarantee that a novelist or short story writer in Wisconsin or Surrey does not spend too much time worrying about whether his or her work is going to be appreciated in Gorakhpur or Mumbai so why should we worry ourselves sick over how our work is regarded elsewhere. We should also remember that less than one percent of the world’s novelists are read widely (if they are read at all!) outside their own countries. All that said, we are finally beginning to see some world class translations emerge out of India. Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh, Arunava Sinha, Arshia Sattar, Rakhshanda Jalil, Lakshmi Holmström, Gita Krishankutty, OV Usha and others have all produced first-rate translations of great fiction.
Do you think the book industry panders to widely accepted (though misplaced) gender stereotyping? Amazon, for instance, has women’s fiction writing as a sub-category and within that women’s literary fiction and women’s popular fiction.
Yes, it does pander to gender stereotyping but it is mainly a sales and marketing device to try and attract readers to a particular genre.
As a publisher you need to cater simultaneously to the twin aspects of art and commerce. Do they often come into conflict? Which is the “riskiest” book you published and what made you choose it?
Yes, of course. And, yes, absolutely, the two areas come into conflict often. The ideal situation is of course where a book that is great art also goes on to sell in vast numbers. In my years in publishing I would say that the book that surprised me the most was an exceptional piece of rural reportage called Everybody Loves a Good Drought by P Sainath. It was a brilliant book but I didn’t expect it to sell more than a 1,000 or so copies. It was first published in 1996, has never been out of print, and has been reprinted 33 times. Tens of thousands of copies have been sold.
In the wake of the Wendy Doniger controversy, Balbir Punj of BJP defended Dinanath Batra and said “...the publishers had the option of contesting the claim or appealing to a higher court”. Why hasn’t the publishing industry stood up against the likes of Batra who stifle intellectual debate
There are many threats to freedom of expression that publishers face, especially in a country like India, and it would be fair to say that there is more than one way to defend this right. Over the past decades publishers have stood up time and again for the rights of their authors, readers and all those who value freedom of expression in the most difficult of circumstances. If they have faltered now and again that is no reason to stop supporting them. No publisher I know has willingly capitulated before those who would muzzle free speech, and no country is exempt from the threat of this happening.
What are the challenges in the digital era of publishing? How significant is online selling component of total book trade in India? And related to that, do you think that the bookshop, as we have known and loved it, will survive?
E-books have eaten into sales of printed books with a consequent loss of revenue to both publishers and writers. Equally, online retail sites have become the dominant force in book selling. I don’t think book shops will disappear. When they do their job well, and I am thinking here not only of the independents but also of chain stores like Daunt Books in the UK (whose founder has just managed to begin turning around at Waterstones, one of the biggest chains in the UK), they are able to do things that the online stores can’t—they become valuable cultural hubs in the community, they offer an unparalleled browsing experience and most of all they offer readers the services of knowledgeable booksellers who can suggest what they should be reading. This is more than anything the most brilliantly designed algorithm can do.
You brought long years of publishing experience when you started Aleph which has, in a short time, become a serious and successful publishing house. What did you do here which you did or could not do at Penguin?
At both Aleph and Penguin I was committed to publishing good books. The significant difference at Aleph is this: as we do not publish hundreds of books, as the big publishing companies do, we bring enormous focus to our attempt to make every book on our small and exclusive list world-class in its own way. In order to make this happen we select our books very carefully (we turn down way more than we take on), we pay an inordinate amount of attention to cover design, text design, even proofing, to cut down on mistakes, to make our books look and feel beautiful. We also work really hard with our authors to make the text as good as it can possibly be. Unfortunately, everywhere in the world, editing is not given as much importance as it was once given. That is most definitely not the case at Aleph.
You are a novelist of considerable talent. Does Aleph leave you with any time for your own pursuits? What are you working on these days?
As I’m completely hands-on at Aleph that doesn’t give me any time to work at my own fiction. However, there is a novel I have been thinking about for many years now. It is based on a forgotten incident in south Indian history and I am hoping I can begin work on it sometime in the new year.