Politics of Publishing and the quest for the Great (Northeast) Indian Novel  

Author’s note : Please note that this is not a comment on the quality of the books mentioned.

Publishing is business. A publisher would consider a book only when sure that it would sell. This is why Chetan Bhagat is a big deal. He sells. This is why a new publishing venture like Juggernaut signs Sunny Leone to write a book. She would certainly inspire more than a few non-readers to buy her book, on smartphones, no less.

Since books are businesses and we, the readers, are consumers, we have the right to comment on the products. So without much ado, here goes.

Who decides which book to publish? Who vouches for a particular book that it would sell 3,000 copies? Apparently, this is the number that makes a bestseller in India. Who decides the quality?

To the best of my knowledge, it goes like this. Two teams, one from the editorial department and one from the marketing department, sit in an air-conditioned room in Delhi. First, the editorial team fires the proposals. The marketing team, with MBA degrees in the back pocket, is a busy lot. So the proposals have to be brief. You cannot just say this is a great book. You will have to be more direct. You will need to categorise it. Is the book on a current topic? Is the author popular enough to draw a crowd in a lit fest? Are there chances of potential but harmless controversy?

Is the book set in an IIT? Check.
Is the book a pulpy thriller? Check.
Is there a story of a young Indian woman in a big city? Check.
Is the book by a prize-winning author? Check.
Is the book by a former movie star, or a sportsperson? Check.
Is the book based on mythology? Check.
The book is a semi-historical novel set in the East Khasi Hills …
Wait, what was that? What is East Khasi!

Of course, the marketing team would not read the books the company would publish, but they would certainly sell them. So the editorial team would publish only those books that the marketing team approves as commercially viable.

Recently, Shillong-based poet and critic Ananya S Guha wrote a passionate piece on a novel called One Sohra Summer by Iadalang Pyngrope in the website Café Dissensus. It sounded like an exciting book. I was surprised why I had not heard about it before. I googled and found it. Partridge, the self-publishing arm of Penguin, had published the book. Hence, there was scanty promotion. This is what happens with self-publishing. They have already received their money; finding a readership is not their business. In the bargain, lots of books fail to find potential readership.

Coming back to mainstream publishing, there is a hierarchy. Until a few years ago, it was Penguin, Random House, Harper Collins, Westland, Rupa, and Roli Books/IndiaInk, in that order of importance. There are several others too many to name, in fact, who publish trade books, but if Penguin, Random House or Harper Collins haven’t published you, perhaps you are not a bankable writer.

In this context, Zubaan, which published Easterine Kire’s award-winning When the River Sleeps, works in an entirely different space. The company’s strong indie, feminist identity has its own place. What the company has done for writing from Northeast in the last decade or so is truly inspiring. Yet, it has its limitations, when it comes to promotion and finding readership. I wonder whether When the River Sleeps would have sold better if any of the top three presses had published it in a hardcover imprint.

Recently, however, the Indian publishing scene has changed drastically, for the better. There are more new presses now – a more level playing field. Some of these publishers, like Aleph, Speaking Tiger, Bloomsbury, Hachette, Pan McMillan came with build-in respectability. I haven’t seen any author from Northeast in their trade list though (Except Aleph which published Mamang Dai’s The Black Hill).

So beside Zubaan, the major mainstream publisher for novels from Northeast India remains Penguin (now Penguin Random House). The two names that pop out from the list are Anjum Hasan and Janice Pariat. The careers of these two authors fascinate me. There are only a handful of writers writing English fiction from the Northeast. Among them, how did Hasan and Pariat, both from Shillong, transcend into the mainstream? The quality of their work played a part, of course, but this is not the complete answer. There is something else, an x-factor, which I cannot determine. Did they stop being ‘North-eastern’ and become ‘Indian’ at some point?

I don’t have the answer. What I have is a study in contrast. Dhruba Hazarika is another writer who grew up in Shillong, and like Hasan and Pariat’s, his first novel, A Bowstring Winter (2006) was set in Shillong, also published by Penguin. The book received some very good reviews. It was followed by a short story collection Luck (2009). I thought Luck was marvellous book, precise and assured,  the work of a perfectionist storyteller at the height of his creativity. I expected great things from him. I was so excited when Penguin announced his new novel, Sons of Brahma, in 2014. Then, the book just disappeared. Penguin is good at promoting whenever needed. This time, perhaps, it did not want to – the book was about the insurgency in Assam. Whatever the reason may be, I did not see the book in the market at all.

I saw two very contrasting reviews. Pariat praised the book in Hindustan Times, pointing out some flaws in the last paragraph. Writing for the website Northeast Review, on the other hand, Sanjay Barbora ripped the book apart. Barbora pointed out something very disturbing.

Here is the paragraph without comment:

If, in his earlier books, Hazarika was pointedly cavalier about footnoting his characters and their milieu, he has made up for it in this one. Both Luck and A Bowstring Winter were books that could not have cared less about the reader’s ignorance. It was almost as if the reader was being told to stop being lazy and learn about Shillong, Tezpur and other small towns that appeared in these narratives. This gave the books a universality that was refreshing. Instead, Sons of Brahma keeps explaining political and social events to the reader, thereby distracting her/him from the nuances of the story itself. This is precisely the kind of burden that editors and reviewers like to put on writers who tell stories about the Northeast. This makes it difficult to tell stories without forever falling back on bad scholarship in the history, culture and politics of the region.

Nothing is more disturbing than the comment that follows. The review has a single comment, by someone called Dhruba Hazarika, and he writes, “I quite agree with you, Sanjay Borbora. The book doesn’t deserve a review at all.”

What happened there? What went wrong?

Another book set against the fallout of the insurgency in Assam, published by Penguin, is Aruni Kashyap’s A House with a Thousand Stories. The book was promoted well and is still available in the market. Perhaps the book posed less danger. After all, the novel is less political, more emotional.

Hasan published her first novel, Lunatic in my Head in a Penguin-Zubaan venture in 2007, before moving to Roli for Neti, Neti (2009) and then to Penguin for the short story collection Difficult Pleasures (2012). By the time her new novel The Cosmopolitans was out last year, she was already a national sensation, the most accomplished author of her generation.

Despite the Hindu Literary Prize, Kire is yet to receive such mainland recognition. Here is another study in contrast. In 2012, both Hasan and Kire were nominated for the same award, Hasan for Difficult Pleasures and Kire for Bitter Wormwood. I thought Kire’s novel was important. It took a stand on the insurgency issues. Perhaps the mainstream couldn’t handle it. Difficult Pleasures was a Viking hardcover and was reviewed widely and ecstatically. (The award eventually went to Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom)

Meanwhile, Rupa and Westlend have published some authors from Northeast. Again, Rupa’s books fail to rise above the surface. Westland started out with gusto, but now seems to be losing steam.

There are seven states in Northeast, or eight if you want to include Sikkim, which the mainland tends to include these days, for whatever reason – eight happy sisters (!). I have so far touched on only three states, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Assam. Let me try and talk about the others. (So we wouldn’t discuss Ankush Saikia. He is a rising and popular crime writer based in Shillong, whom, I think, the mainstream press is not paying enough attention to. Last year, Penguin published his novel Dead Meat.)

Mamang Dai is the only author from Arunachal Pradesh visible in the mainstream, also published by Zubaan-Penguin in the beginning. I sometimes feel sad for authors like Lummer Dai and Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, who chose to write in Assamese instead of English. They are barely known outside, despite being important voices from the state.

I could not find a novel from a Mizo writer, but I found this, a novel set in Mizoram during the Insurgency, Anand Ranganathan’s For Love and Honour (2015), published by Bloomsbury. I could not find an English novel by an author from Manipur or Tripura either. I am sure there are books, only they haven’t found their readership yet. I resolve to go looking for them.

Meanwhile, Sikkim has seen some very good writings in the recent years. One of the rising stars is Chetan Raj Shrestha, who has been published by Aleph.

Personally, however, I believe, it would be wrong to drag Sikkim into the Northeast umbrella. Let Sikkim at least have an individual identity, something that has been denied to these seven states by mainland India.

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Dibyajyoti Sarma Written by:

Dibyajyoti Sarma is a journalist based in Delhi. His last book, Pages from an Unfinished Autobiography, came out in 2014.

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