Out of Print is an online literary journal devoted to short fiction focusing on the issues of the subcontinent. When the journal turned ten, Out of Print: Ten Years, an anthology of 30 selected stories was published with Context, an imprint of Westland Books, and has recently been reissued.
Its founder and principal editor Indira Chandrasekhar spoke to Scroll about the founding of the journal, its principles, the evolution of the publishing landscape, and more. Excerpts from the conversation.
Why the focus on the subcontinent rather than India alone?
When I started the journal in 2010, I was asking myself many questions. Primary among these was, is there something that unites voices from the subcontinent (and the diaspora)? How does a geographical, historical, political, societal, cultural commonality express itself in art? A precise definition remains elusive to me, yet the question finds a response in the stories we feature on the platform. Our shared histories and social structures, however uneasy, manifest in the works. As also our shared contemporary realities, which, at the same time that they offer new liberations and hard-won freedoms, submerge us in corrosive, divisive toxicities that carry forward deep-set injustices and long-held prejudices fuelled by insidious political forces.
I draw attention to Krishna Sobti’s story, “The Currency Has Changed”, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, that highlights the savage betrayals of Partition. One might ask, is this history, or is the underlying violence that forms the setting of the story a description of the present-day?
The story highlights how personal cruelties are emboldened by the cruelties of socio-political landscapes. When an elderly figure, central to the haveli, is sent away from her home, supposedly for her own safety by neighbours waiting to loot her property, “Everyone wept. Daud Khan watched old Shahni, motionless. Now where will she go? He wondered.” And then mendaciously, “Don’t feel bitter Shahni. We wouldn’t send you off if we could avoid it; it’s just the times, that’s all. The government has switched, the currency has changed…”
The protagonist in another story, “Home”, by Dalpat Chauhan, translated from Gujarati by Hemang Desai, that also centres around a place of residence, is Kalu, a Dalit man. He has succeeded, against all odds, in building his own house in the village after managing to obtain permissions from those who do not wish to change the power balance in the community. That night, Kalu’s happy slumber is interrupted by the appearance of Kamsa in a dream who “laughs, a roaring, demonic laugh and holds a sharpened, poisoned sword to his [Kalu’s] neck. A cry goes out in all directions, rending the air. He begins to spew out hot, leaping flames from his mouth. His mouth enlarges and turns into a bottomless pit. Gigantic jets of scalding lava erupt from his volcanic mouth. People cry out in the streets, ‘Wake up, Kalu, wake up. Fire, fire. Your house went up in flames, Kalu.’”
Can you tell us briefly about the evolution of the publishing landscape and the place of Out of Print in the world of traditional publishing? And in what ways the editors have worked on each issue?
Putting the stories together for the anthology gave me perspective on the platform, and on the value of literary platforms in general – writers need places to publish, places that care about their work and the things they are thinking and writing about. As a writer myself, I certainly do. I think that Out of Print’s singularity, its distinction from other magazines, lies in its focus on short fiction.
The anthology is divided into five sections, each with a one-page contextualising treatise. We rarely run themed issues of the quarterly, but I recognised that structuring the print publication would help in emphasising both the diversity and the resonance of the works. Recalling the trajectory of each of the stories from submission to publication, as also our interaction with each author and translator, reminded me of what I see as our strength – namely, our commitment to engaging with a work, suggesting edits, working with the author or translator to reach the core of the story.
I have been fortunate in being able to work with fine editors from the first: Samhita Arni and Mira Brunner helped set our tone. Their commentaries are part of the anthology. Samhita wrote about the stories that draw on and reinterpret mythology. She opens with, “The stories in this section are exciting and subversive, a testament to the enduring nature of myth to continue to shape our narratives. They demonstrate the power of myth to hold many meanings, voices and perspectives, and in so doing, leave space for future generations to inscribe their experiences and voices onto these age-old tales.” The section includes stories by Shashi Deshpande, Kuzhali Manickavel, Mridula Garg translated from Hindi by Garg herself, and Shaheen Akhtar translated from Bangla by Kabita Chakma.
Mira’s piece is on the cover art: “… in a field of bright internet white, below the logo and navigation bar, is the cover. Like the rest of the website – and the internet environment in general – it is a rectangle or is made to fit into one. And there, at the centre of the screen, is the picture that sets the stage for the content of the issue.”
From that early period, through all the subsequent brilliant and committed individuals who contributed to making the journal, to the current editors, Zui Kumar-Reddy and Rahael Mathews, our editorial voice has developed and strengthened. We also realise that writers would value opportunities to develop their writing in greater depth. Zui Kumar-Reddy has taken the initiative to revive the Out of Print writing workshops that we hope will serve the community once more.
Our pace of work at the magazine is modulated, we rarely rush into accepting a story however much potential it reveals, but allow the collection for the quarter to gestate. The final selection takes place almost after beginning the editing process, when our relationship with a story moves from being one of a reader to one of someone engaged more profoundly with the text. With the many new zines that have blossomed in the region, we often lose a good story as a consequence of this time we take. While this can, of course, be upsetting, the vibrancy in the landscape of literary magazine publishing is something to celebrate. There are many fine writers working in different forms and genres, and it is only fitting that there should be many journals.
Short stories in translation have also a found a home in Out of Print...
In fact, 12 of the 15 stories in the anthology are translations and include work from different regions of the subcontinent. A powerful testament to the form, and to the growing number of translators transcribing fiction from different languages of the region. Many of the translated works are in the last section of the anthology that is titled “Reality Imagine”.
In her commentary on the stories in this section, Rakhshanda Jalil says, “Most writers of seemingly ‘realistic’ fiction may reflect awareness about a given social reality but they might not have a ‘critical’ attitude towards it. The writers in this section, however, show an acutely critical awareness of their world. They see the world around them with an unblinking unsparing gaze, record the minutest detail in the most forthright and unflinching manner.”
Shabnam Nadiya’s “Do It by the Numbers” plunges us into an experience of domestic violence: “… you see the fresh scar on your left cheek, the one that digs much deeper than the surface-mud of your skin…the one that will always remain, even when your skin finally seams shut and you let life back into your life. But now you listen to your friend explain how hitting is different than beating and you realise how easy it is for the spun-sugar wonder of trust to dissolve.”
A Scroll article “Why Does Indian Law Protect Men Who Rape Their Wives?” quotes a UN Women report on the status of women worldwide: “statistically, the home is one of the most dangerous places for women” – and those statistics, in this country, as documented in CNN: “According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against women rose 87% over 10 years between 2011 and 2021 – with most cases in the latter year relating to alleged ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’”, point to how the story, fictionalised, nuanced, yet direct, is critically relevant.
Equally brutal, Ajay Navarias’s “Honour” translated from the Hindi by Sudarshan Purohit, is set in rural India and is a layered story that revolves around caste, gender and power. At the most violent moment in the story, when the main character, Usha, is raped, she enters a great blackness and imagines that “Savitri was taking her hand and leading her to the temple. One blow of hers smashed the idol. Usha was walking around. The idol of Radha was already there. Savitri cut off Jaidev, Sukhvir and Badan’s heads and offered them to the idol. Radha, laughing maniacally, ran out of the temple. The villagers, terrified of Usha’s fiery form, scattered. She stepped out of the temple, and crushed the sarpanch, Hira Singh and the five panches underfoot all together. In the panchayat, the women standing to the side began taking off their clothes and throwing them at the men sitting in the panchayat.”
The intensity of these stories makes for a powerful closing section. Indeed, the entire collection makes a powerful socio-political commentary as seen through the literary and artistic lens. With such a high level of craft evident in all the works, the subtlety of fiction, indeed, of the short story form, in commenting, documenting, and excavating our times is emphatically evident. We honour a high-level of craft – this extreme and somewhat undisciplined diversity in the manner of telling a story is something we celebrate and explore in Out of Print.