The Shakespearean Mists that Cloud the Colonised Indian Elite

The Shakespearean Mists that Cloud the Colonised Indian Elite

Apart from being a great leveller, social media like sunlight, is a great disinfectant. In the heydays of blogging, if you bluffed, you would be mercilessly called out but you had a safety valve of sorts: you could run, lick your wounds, hide, and hibernate for a while. Social media has blown out even that safety valve. There’s a reason people like Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sagarika Ghose, Vir Sanghvi, Shekhar Gupta, Tarun Tejpal, and the rest have shrunk to the status of court jesters whose masques no longer have an audience or to that of petty shopkeepers hawking their wares before a palace that now exists only in their imaginations. But that doesn’t deter them from still trying — you can’t teach a new trick to an old pony. More so if it’s a Lutyens pony.

Most of the time, these practiced pony-tricks occur in the realms of narrative and news peddling but these realms are also deeply, firmly interconnected with other realms: more specifically, in English-language publishing.

Think about this from a different perspective: what are the odds that a novel like Aavarana would have even been published had it been written:

(a) originally in English

(b) by a new or relatively-unknown author?

This apart, even a casual glance at the English-language publishing scene in India reveals a pretty morose landscape; it’s almost as if there’s no “India” in “Indian” English language publishing.

Over the last forty-odd years, there are few if any titles that have anything to do with Indian nativity, for want of a better word. On the contrary, the said Indian nativity is almost exclusively used to portray it in a negative light. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger instantly comes to mind. That book is also a splendid example of how all-encompassing ignorance about India is not only published but begets a Booker Prize.

Of course, you can blame Macaulay, Nehru, the English education system that we’re still following and assorted factors for this dismally-persistent state of affairs. But the fact that they have so solidly endured is the real point. In fact, there’s a grain of a nonchalant sense of entitlement in this. And it is most visible in the realm of culture and the arts.

The most recent instance of this phenomenon is a tweet by Chiki Sarkar, the former India head of the global publishing giant, Penguin and the founder and current head of the Juggernaut publishing startup.

First things first. Given the etymology of the word, “juggernaut,” one wonders why Chiki Sarkar didn’t name her publishing startup as “Jagannath Publishing,” “Jagannath Books” etc. Indeed, in many ways, her tweet itself subconsciously reveals the answer: the word “Jagannath” is not posh. Put another way, it is not white enough. More pointedly, it is not British enough.

The historical fact is that the British invented an “Indian caste system,” which is vastly different from the rooted conceptions of varna, kula and jati. But when they left India, they had actually created and left behind a real caste system: the English and the non-English caste system, the prime example of which was our first Prime Minister.

Hartosh Singh Bal has perhaps best explained how this real caste system works in our Lutyenised English-language publishing industry.

Our ability to fawn extends well beyond the foreign correspondent. Our publishers need the stamp of British approval. All you need to do is compare the advances paid out to books submitted locally with books that first got accepted in the UK. Or, for that matter, look what happens to sales of a book after it wins the Booker; somehow, the Pulitzer counts for nothing. 

This constant need for British approval allows writers from the UK to produce and sell books that should be junked in India…[the] director of an Indian literary festival does not consider it important to mention an Indian prize he may have received or an Indian publication he may have written for. His eyes are trained on the recognition that Britain’s literary world offers … and in that recognition lies his strength. [Emphases added]

And so when Chiki Sarkar asks in full public view, with the airy insouciance that typifies your average Lutyens creature, “So, when Shakespeare was writing, who was writing in india,” the thorough range of her unconscious ignorance of and casual contempt for her own country, its cultural and literary heritage is revealed, peeling off the imperial British bandage over the still-festering wound called mental colonialism. Sure, there seems nothing to doubt the fact that her question was honest but the same question germinates more questions:

  • In today’s pervasive Internet regime, how long does it take to find the answer to the question of Shakespeare’s Indian contemporaries?
  • What does this, her very public question, speak about her abilities as a veteran publisher?
  • More fundamentally, exactly what is the nature of the Indian literary history that she has read?

The answers are self-evident and each answer will give birth to further such disturbing questions. This among other reasons is why I said that social media like sunlight, is a great disinfectant. Chiki Sarkar’s innocuous question is simply an inadvertent admission of her ignorance. There’s simply no polite way of saying this.

And no, I won’t dignify her ignorance by supplying her with information that is readily available with a few Google searches. However, in the spirit of public service akin to Sri Sarvesh Tiwari, here’s a link to a wonderful thread that he has posted on Twitter on this topic.

Chiki Sarkar’s disturbing question also raises a deeper and more fundamental point regarding the aforementioned mental colonisation and cultural ignorance. To be fair, Chiki Sarkar merely forms part of a larger cultural problem as we shall see. Neither is it my intent to single her out.

A few years ago, some random conversation with my friends led us to begin a back-of-the-envelope calculation about the corpus of Sanskrit literature that India has produced till date. We agreed that the final number fell in the general range of about 70 Lakh printed pages. That includes every genre — Vedas, Vedangas, Puranas, Itihasa, Kavya, digests, commentaries, biographies, plays, and so on. There are elaborate manuals on such subjects as, for example, a work titled Tamboola Manjari (a sizeable tome detailing the various methods etc of making Paan and different varieties of Paan). Further, this number is limited to the extant literature available — i.e. not counting the countless volumes destroyed for example, in the sack of the Nalanda, Vikramashila and other centres of higher learning. Still further, add to this the corpus of literature produced in Bharatiya Bhasha (I abhor the term “regional languages”) considering the fact that the earliest non-Sanskrit Indian language is at least two thousand years old.

Think about these numbers. Think “unbroken.”

But there’s yet another way to look at this issue.

I recently finished reading Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Times of India journalist Akshaya Mukul. Perhaps the only saving grace about the book, beginning right with its title, is that it makes no pretence of its Leftism-tainted agenda though it must also be admitted that the research is quite impressive.

But why this publishing entity, Gita Press, ensconced far away in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh and therefore wholly ignored by the “mainstream” Indian English media and publishing landscape should form the subject of an entire book by a journalist hailing from the same media is a question that’s also its own answer.

The answer: despite sustained efforts, Gita Press not only did not go away, but grew from strength to strength over a period of nearly a century. Consider the following statistics during this period:

  • By early 2014, the Gita Press had sold close to 410 million copies of the Bhagavad Gita (in various languages and editions), 70 million copies of Tulasidas’ Ramacharitmanas and nearly 20 million copies of the Puranas and Upanishads.
  • Its flagship Hindi journal, Kalyan has a monthly circulation of 200,000 copies and its English counterpart, Kalyan Kalpataru, 100,000 copies.
  • Its archives comprise over 3,500 manuscripts and hundred-plus interpretations of and commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita.
  • Almost every publication comes at dirt-cheap prices.

These are numbers and assets, indeed a veritable treasure that any publisher would give an arm and a limb to acquire. But perhaps the most unforgivable sin of Gita Press is the fact that it even continues to exist while hundreds of similar journals, magazines and publishing houses had been shuttered decades ago, their publications now reduced to the status of museums of the intellect, wasting away in archives. The only other publishing house, arguably, of a similar stature is the iconic Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, in continuous operation since 1892.

Now compare these numbers to the entire publishing output and sales figures of the English publishing industry. Yet, which industry dominates, indeed, dictates as it were, the entire Indian publishing market? How many Landmark and Crossword and similar urban Indian outlets even stock the Bharatiya Bhasha books published by these iconic publishing houses?

Equally, legendary writers like Narendra Kohli had an entire literary era named after them, and at his peak, his books sold more than the combined sales of all English books published in the same period. And then we have Dr. S L Bhyrappa whose books continue to sell by the lakhs — some of his works were sold out in advance, before the copies even hit the bookstores. These are writers who don’t believe in throwing silken book launches, or in the words of Dr. S L Bhyrappa, “a work should stand on its own merit, and not shine in the borrowed light of reviewers and critics.”

These writers are cult figures among almost all Bharatiya Bhasha speakers. Dr Bhyrappa’s translations have a market and an adulatory fan following almost as equal to that in Kannada. Yet the majority of English-educated readers in Bangalore haven’t even heard his name much less of his books. The less said about the perfumed bottoms that waft around in Khan Market the better.

In this light, are we to seriously believe that the English-language publishing industry in India is unaware of these facts, of this naked imbalance? We can turn to Hartosh Bal again:

When I talked this piece over with a top publisher at one of India’s leading publishing houses, the person, seeking anonymity ‘to protect the interests of the authors at the publishing house’ said: “Indian publishers and writers are peripheral to the enterprise. The list of authors that I send year after year is casually ignored — and that, I believe, is the case with most Indian publishers.” [Emphasis added]

Peripheral because these publishers derive both their power and wealth from fawning over the selfsame Literary Raj. Which is also why they can afford to ignore and be ignorant about truly legendary writers like Dr. Bhyrappa and Narendra Kohli.

Which is also what explains the likes of Chiki Sarkar.

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