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The DSC Prize shortlist points to an impending crisis of literary fiction

Publishers are not putting out enough ‘good’ books to ensure variety on literary award shortlists.

With a prize money of Rs 25 lakh and a thoughtfully picked jury every year, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is, arguably, the pre-eminent literary prize for this part of the world. The shortlist for the 2016 prize reveals an astonishingly familiar line-up of books: Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, KR Meera’s Hangwoman, Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves, Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, and Raj Kamal Jha’s She Will Build Him A City. With the exception of Meera’s extraordinary novel, the others are all low-hanging fruits when it comes to identifying the most interesting literary fiction about people from south Asia.

Several of the novels on the shortlist have also been shortlisted – and at least one has won – prestigious literary prizes in India already. There’s no doubt about it: these are definitely among the best novels written in the period under question. But, and it’s a huge but, why are there so few of such novels that the same ones keep cropping up over and over on longlists and shortlists?

Frankly, it’s come to a point in Indian publishing where an informed reader can predict a literary award shortlist with a high degree of accuracy, simply because there are so few to choose from. Are our publishers running away from literary publishing in response to what they perceive as shrinking markets for “good” fiction and playing it safe with more obviously commercially oriented lists instead?

What are they publishing then?

At least two major multinational publishers in India – Penguin Random House and HarperCollins – publish dozens of original novels from India every year. Three other international publishers who also publish in India – Hachette, Bloomsbury, and Pan/Picador – have a shorter list of such titles, as do homegrown publishers like Rupa and Aleph, among others. And yet, it’s the same few books that seem to make it to the fiction prize shortlists.

After all, most, if not all, of these publishers are putting out fewer works of literary fiction than before. With the exception of established literary names – an Amitav Ghosh, a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Kiran Nagarkar, a Manu Joseph, or an I Allan Sealy, for instance – publishers are increasingly wary of experimenting with new writers in this form of fiction.

Indeed, print runs for literary writers yet to create a canon for themselves have been squeezed down to 3,000. Even the well-known names are selling fewer copies than before. It isn’t difficult to see why publishing firms are shifting their attention to commercial fiction titles with the potential of selling upwards of 20,000 copies and to popular non-fiction focussing on politics and current affairs.

Giving up the space

The trouble is, by responding to the market instead of trying to restructure it, publishers are further reducing the space for anything other than commercial or genre fiction in India. The former is drearily mired in a swamp of campus romances, fumbling sex, unimaginative corporate ambitions, and unchanging male egos. And the latter is yet to take off in a meaningful way – India has produced neither a Stephen King nor a John Grisham yet, leave alone a Stieg Larsson.

The parallels with the Hindi film business are too obvious to ignore. Intelligent cinema is increasingly being pushed out of theatrical releases and living its life out on the festival circuit and, eventually, on YouTube. Like the big producers and distributors, English language book publishers are also withdrawing their support to books that might last, as opposed to books that will be forgotten as soon as the next one by the same author comes along.

Sure, not every publisher is at the same spot on the road leading away from literary fiction. Some have made palpable progress, while others have barely started. But everyone is headed in the same direction.

But if publishers are going to yield most of the space for “good” fiction to the needs of the marketplace – where a taste for the commercial has always been stronger than that for the literary – they will also give up their right to complain about readers’ preferences. For if they do not publish enough of those books that they want readers to buy, how will tastes change?

Note to editors: Publish more of literary fiction, not less of it. Take more chances, don’t play safe. Shape demand, don’t follow trends.

And a question to CEOs of publishing companies: is your mission to publish good books and make money from them, or merely books that make money?

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.