publishing trends

The books that mattered to India’s independent publishers in 2016

Never mind the corporate publishing houses and their profit-and-loss accounts.

For the past two years, both inspired by and perhaps as a counter to The Guardian’s list of literary hits and misses, author Eloise Millar has been publishing for an alternative list – one that invites the “small press” world of independent publishing to share their picks of three books: one that “made their year”, one “that should have done better”, and “the book they wished they had published”.

Here’s an Indian version, all the more important in a business dominated by big-name and big-money publishers:

Urvashi Butalia, co-founder, Zubaan Books

The book that made my year:

For us, it was a book written by five young Kashmiri women, all in their twenties. It’s titled Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? It’s a book that revisits the 1991 Kunan Poshpora rape case where the Army was involved in the mass rape of women in the two villages of Kunan and Poshpora in Kashmir. In 2012, after watching the coverage of the December 16 rape in Delhi, these five girls (some of whom weren’t even born at the time of the first incident) began to ask themselves how it was that a single rape in Delhi could cause a nationwide protest but when rape happened in their backyard, no one bothered.

They then decided to file a petition in the courts for reopening the case, and got in touch with us to say they wanted to write the story of Kunan Poshpora but did not know how to, and they came to Delhi and we did an intensive writing workshop for them, and voila, nine months later, they had written the book. We’re truly proud of this book for all these reasons and also because it opens up a case and asks for accountability and justice for the survivors. In all senses, this is a Zubaan book!

Our book that deserved to do better:
Two books that we feel did not get enough attention despite being absolutely wonderful books. One, the award-winning novel (it won the Hindu Lit for Life award, defeating works by Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri and others), When The River Sleeps by Easterine Kire. Despite being a stunning and moving novel, it hardly got any reviews and even after winning the award, the media did not give it much attention (this is a problem we independents face all the time).

And the second is a book called A Life in Trans Activism by Revathi, a trans woman. Revathy’s book is a serious consideration of what it means to live life as a trans person, and of what it means to be marginalised even within that category, so she looks at the lives of trans men, which is an experience that is so seldom addressed. Neither got any review coverage – Revathy’s book for example did not get one review, it only had a couple of extracts - and this is so strange given how much interest there seems to be in the issue of sexuality and identity.

I wish I’d published:

If you allow us to dream, maybe our answer would be something like Elena Ferrante’s My Beautiful Friend or Mona El Tahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens, both books that deal with marginalisations of different sorts – one, the marginalisation of poverty, and the other, of religion. But this is just a pipe dream. Of Indian books, there are many and it’s difficult to choose, but in general, as independents, we lose a number of authors to the big guns every year. The moment an author becomes known, they’re whisked away, given big advances and that’s that. So perhaps my answer to that question is, we wish we had published all the ones that got away!

Arpita Das, co-founder, Yoda Press

The book that made my year:
First Hand: Graphic Non-fiction from India was a dream project that took three years of hard work to come together and made a real splash, in terms of visibility as well as sales.

Our book that deserved to do better:
A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain is a significant contribution to the rather thin corpus in India of works on writers in Indian languages, and deserves more visibility. It’s the sort of book that will become recommended reading while also being a constant on the bedside of all lovers of Urdu literature.

I wish I’d published:
Rana Ayyub’s The Gujarat Files (self-published) – for the author’s admirable audacity and the book’s brave thumbs down to the powers that be of Gujarat.

S Anand, co-founder, Navayana

The book that made my year:
Riddles in Hinduism: The Annotated Critical Selection is Navayana’s annotated edition of BR Ambedkar’s posthumous work that demolishes all that Hinduism holds dear. “The Vedas are a worthless set of books. There is no reason either to call them sacred or infallible,” writes Ambedkar. Kancha Ilaiah penned a brilliant introduction to it. Published on the occasion of Babasaheb’s 125th anniversary, this book did rather well for us in terms of sales though the reviewers behaved like it did not exist. The Shiv Sena had sought to ban this book in 1987 when it was first published.

Our book that deserved to do better:
To Be Cared For: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum. This work by Nathaniel Roberts has been heralded by reviewers abroad as one of the finest cultural anthropologies from India in the past hundred years. A study of a slum in North Chennai and how conversion works, To Be Cared For goes far beyond what someone like Katherine Boo offers in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. When the RSS and BJP insist on Ghar Wapsi and reconversion, this book is a timely reminder of what really happens on the ground. Yet this work was shockingly ignored by our media.

I wish I’d published:
Malika Amar Shaikh’s I Want to Destroy Myself (Published by Speaking Tiger), a memoir translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto. Having published Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry years ago, I had always been intrigued by how Malika published and soon withdrew this autobiography in the Marathi version. It took to Dhasal’s death for this fine translation to happen. I think it is one of the most important books published in 2016.

Ritu Menon, co-founder, Women Unlimited

The book that made my year:
The books that do well for us are the ones that are constants – in fiction, Qurratulain Hyder and Ismat Chughtai, whose new book, The Three Innocents & Ors we have just published, and in non-fiction, Vandana Shiva, whose latest book, Who Really Feeds the World? will probably be our best selling non-fiction title in 2017. We try and publish books that will do well over the years, not just for a year or two.

Our book that deserved to do better:
The book that should have done much better is the Palestinian writer Suad Amiry’s My Damascus, her account of a city and a country that are under siege now, but are so important historically. Amiry combines personal history and political history to create a compelling narrative for our times.

I wish I’d published:
The book I would have liked to publish is A Book of Light (Published by Speaking Tiger). The anthology edited by Jerry Pinto of first person accounts by a diverse group of writers on grappling with mental health situations, either their own or of people close to them. It’s poignant, beautifully written and unusual. Kudos to Jerry for being able to get people to write about this difficult topic.

Sayoni Basu, director, Duckbill

The book that made my year:
The Dhanak novelisation by Anushka Ravishankar based on the screenplay by Nagesh Kukunoor. As far as we know, this is one of the very few movie novelisations of Indian films. The film is very life affirming and the novel is exceedingly fun. It was interesting to work on a collaborative project like this. And a new movie by Nagesh and a new book by Anushka are both cause for celebration.

Our book that deserved to do better:
Invisible People by Harsh Mander, who talks in this book about the people we do not see. In a world where middle-class kids often have little awareness of and empathy for people who are different, this is a book we believe should be widely read.

I wish I’d published:
Dear Mrs Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian (Published by Young Zubaan). It’s extremely well written story of a young girl and her fight to save her school.

Shobit Arya, founder, Wisdom Tree

The book that made my year:
The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy, Edited by Anirban Ganguly, Vijay Chauthaiwale, Uttam Kumar Sinha. There was wonderful synergy with the editors and great respect for what we all brought to the table. The book, with contributions by global experts, was presented to the prime minister, who gave enriching feedback. Needless to add, it has been a success, has seen several international launches, and was reprinted within a month of its release.

Our book that deserved to do better:
What Will Leapfrog India in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Surendra Kumar
The book has contributions by acclaimed individuals like NR Narayana Murthy, Sam Pitroda, MS Swaminathan, Soli Sorabjee and several others, with some extremely valuable ideas. While I do agree that it could have been a better book had the editor in this case managed to, or not stopped us from, extracting more intellectually stimulating content from the contributors, yet, even in its present form, the book deserves to do better.

I wish I’d published:
An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor (Published by Aleph Book Company). It is the proverbial “Why didn’t I think of it” books, especially because we have published Tharoor too, and he is not just an exceptional author but is exceptionally professional as well – in fact, as good as they come.

Gita Wolf, founder, Tara Books

The book that made my year:
Knock! Knock! by Kaori Takahashi –described as book architecture at its best, this is a book for children that follows a little girl searching for her lost toy...and visiting many homes in her apartment block in the process. Translated into eight languages, it was a delight to work on, publish, and now relish, considering how many publishers have sought to co-publish it. You can see how the book works here.

Our book that deserved to do better:
Since many of our books this year have not been out for too long, I don’t want to take a call on how well they’ve done or not done yet. But there are two books that I really wish that had done better, both published a year or so ago: Tree Matters, by Gangubai, which features the world of trees as Bhil people understand them, and The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers, by Mike Masilamani, which is an illustrated book on the Sri Lankan civil war, as seen through the eyes of a differently-abled child.

I wish I’d published:
One of the things I wished we had done or could do are books that feature stunning photos and essays on wildlife – like the ones published by the Tamil publishers, Thadagam. They bring out a Tamil magazine called Kaadu, and I’ve often longed to put some of those pieces, with their photographs, into a book that could go into our Environmentalism list. This year, the Kaadu numbers I saw were particularly stunning...check out this cover.

Radhika Menon, founder, Tulika Books

The book that made my year:
Gone Grandmother by Chatura Rao, illustrated by Krishna Bala Shenoi
Handling the idea of loss is always difficult. Here it’s the child’s way of coming to terms, which is surprisingly practical, sometimes funny, and with little details that tug at the heart. The pictures harmonise beautifully with the story and the mood to create a classic in this genre.

Our book that deserved to do better:
The Trickster Bird by Rinchin, illustrated by Manjari Chakravarti. The work of easily one of the best children’s writers in India today, Rinchin’s stories are absorbing, layered and important. This arrestingly illustrated story within a story juxtaposes the rich flavour of a folk tale with the plight of the Paardhi tribals who have had to leave their forests to become ragpickers in cities.

I wish I’d published:
When She Went Away by Andaleeb Wajid (Published by Duckbill). At one level it’s just a teen romance, but in fact is a brave book that raises interesting questions of gender and choice. A woman ups and leaves her husband and two children for her own good reasons… a challenging situation, the exploration of which is attempted with empathy and freshness.

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