Meet the Publishers

‘Hindi publishing cannot have one poster-boy or girl. There are 40 areas, each with unique readers’

Vani Prakashan’s Aditi Maheshwari Goyal on the vibrant yet familial world of Hindi publishing, and what English-language publishers can learn from it.

“It is time that English readership peeped out of the window at the vibrant world of letters in Hindi and other Indian languages.” This pertinent suggestion comes from Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Director, Copyrights and Translation Department at the publishing house, Vani Prakashan. The firm is known for publishing some of the biggest names in Hindi writing, challenging the notion of a dormant Hindi publishing market.

Maheshwari Goyal spoke to on the organic vibrancy in Hindi writing, the deeply familial relationship between Hindi publishers and authors, and how Hindi publishing is modernising itself. Excerpts from an interview:

You are a third generation publishing professional. Did you always want to join publishing?
I have quite literally opened my eyes in the world of books. I say this not from any degree of romanticism of a third generational book-maker, but because there was a huge warehouse beneath our home, and I saw books being loaded and unloaded all day and night, right at our doorstep. The local rickshaw puller, trolley puller and warehouse manager were my friends. They gave me a lot of waste paper to make boats and caps. In fact, I thought that loading and unloading books was the only profession everyone’s parents were involved in, including mine.

The idea of becoming a neuro-surgeon struck me in Class 9 and I studied really hard for it. However, I ended up with a seat in a Bachelor of Dental Sciences course. I was so ashamed that I did not even disclose this to my family for many years.

My father always wanted me to study Arts, and I, on the contrary, always found it a useless idea. But when life exhorted me to choose between studying teeth and reading an enormous number of stories without feeling guilty about losing out on academics, I chose the latter.

When I began studying English literature at the University of Delhi, I understood the relevance of arts and literature in society. The arts made the world cognisable, amicable and tolerable (in that order). This was so unlike the sciences and the attitude that the discipline inculcated in me. The discipline of science without arts and philosophy is like a body without soul.

After finishing my Masters at Hansraj College and a diploma in Public Relations and Advertising, I headed to study for an M Phil degree in social sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Then I shifted to Scotland to acquire a degree in Management, and worked there and in London for a while with local newspapers and magazines. Then I made my way back to New Delhi to be at Vani Prakashan.

Do you think Hindi publishing has modernised and kept up with the rapid technological and demographic shifts?
Hindi has always had a very vibrant print and public culture. Right from Udant Martand, the first Hindi newspaper formally published by Pandit Jugal Kishore Shukla in 1826 from Kolkata, to each and every book published today, the Hindi language has witnessed and narrated the grand narrative of India’s socio-economic-political, cultural and psychological dynamics. The language stood witness to the struggle for independence, bound the nation together, and gave shape to the idea of the republic.

Hindi publishing has embraced technological advancements in composing, design and printing modules of book production. Despite facing technological handicaps where computers still behave like nothing more than advanced typewriters, Hindi publishing has kept up with the times.

Be it 3D offset printing in the 1990s, digital printing in the new millennium, print-on-demand in the past ten years, or rethinking the very idea of the book through hybrid technology-enabled constructive disruption, Vani Prakashan for one has moved with the times. I think this innovation has been possible only because of two important factors – our shoestring budgets (because it is not necessity but the lack of surplus funds that is the mother of most inventions) and, subsequently, the very Indian idea of “jugaad”.

Vani has always been mindful of the shift in demographics and social constructs. If a publishing house stops being mindful of its ecosystem of ideas, it will stop being relevant. This tops our priority list in planning and strategising.

Vani has recently published bold new feminist voices like Neelima Chauhan and Pratishtha Singh. How have critics and readers responded? How do you discover such writers?
Taslima Nasreen and Tehmina Durrani in the 1990s. Mahashweta Devi, Maitreyi Pushpa, Anamika, Mamta Kalia, Gagan Gill and Geetashree in the 2000s. Ramanika Gupta, Sushila Takbhore, Rohini Agarwal, Kumkum Sangari, Joyshree Roy, Neelima Chauhan, Pratishtha Singh, Jayanti Ranganathan and more in this decade. Vani has always had a formidable feminist list, which has evolved towards gender democracy with the recent inclusion of Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.

We have always attached feminist voices to social movements. This in turn has helped us curate the social sciences list with sensitivity. I still remember my curious father having detailed conversations with me about the feminist waves and their theorisation in western feminist thought while I was at the university. He just wanted to be sure of the logic behind any curation: temporal continuance.

Our association with the Indian languages programme at the Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies, and now with the Economic and Political Weekly, has produced the most formative list of academic reading in Hindi.

Because Hindi has a vibrant print and public culture, it is natural that literary criticism is an equally vital part of the same system. Our recent offering, Patansheel Patniyon Ke Notes (Notes From Fallen Wives) divided critics into polarised positions – they either supported it or trashed it. This is, in my opinion, a phase of revival in the public culture of books.

You have signed international names like Marjane Satrapai and are bringing Japanese Manga to Hindi readers for the first time. How successful are such foreign writers in Hindi markets?
Publishing an international author and launching a new genre in Hindi is like incorporating a new educational programme into the workflow. I say “educational” because editorial, marketing and sales operations follow much later. We have to start from scratch.

First, get the editorial and sales team in sync with the idea. Then, develop the communication strategy with the marketing team, monitor the translators and vet their work, plan and execute launches, organise university, college and school visits, and an author visit, if possible.

We conduct translation workshops that bring together the translator and the best of the world of letters in Hindi. This has helped improve the translations and make them lucid.

My experience says that if you earn the trust of your readers, you will not find it hard to get an audience. Yes, earning that trust is the difficult bit. The Hindi imprints of English language publishing has not been able to do it so far.

I have grown up hearing reputed English publishers talk about Hindi publishers not knowing how to sell, and that the Hindi market is so chaotic that they find it hard to imagine how it has been in existence for so long. I am amused by ideas born out of marginal experiences.

Has Vani or Hindi publishing in general been able to discover its own Chetan Bhagat or Amish?
Hindi has long had its own mass market heroes and heroines. Shivani, Gulshan Nanda, Gehmari, Surendra Mohan Pathak, Munnawar Rana, Taslima Nasreen, Ravish Kumar, Sharad Pagare, and others have been big sellers for ages. There have also been romantic hits like Uday Prakash’s Peeli Chatri Wali Ladki (The Girl with the Yellow Umbrella) as well as mythology storytellers.

Narendra Kohli is an outstanding example of a person who made a living from writing well before the world knew of Chetan Bhagat. He has a dedicated readership and Vani Prakashan is excited about producing the English translation of his epic, Mahasamar. We have been publishing his books since the 1980s.

So you see, Hindi readers had their own Narendra Kohli and Uday Prakash way before English publishing discovered their Amish Tripathi or Chetan Bhagat. We had our own Shrilal Shukla’s Rag Darbari before Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August was known.

Also, Hindi will always have an edge over English in the commercial market because it has the shayari and the kavita. These genres are embedded in the tehzeeb and nourished by a global community today.

The founder of Vani Prakashan, my grandfather Dr Prem Chand Mahesh, always believed in doing “meaningful” literary books. The late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s saw some of the best modern Hindi writing in India. With the dawn of the 1990s, this was translated to just “serious” literature. In the neo-liberalised India of 1991 onwards, Hindi authors and poets had distanced themselves from the idea and ideology of a “marketplace”.

Their suspicion was rooted in the idea that the global economy defined itself with these characteristics: global over local, scintillating over sober, crushing integration over individualistic differentiation. They were correct in conceiving this attitude, but this distancing dragged on longer – so much so that they lost touch with the rigours of the much needed market in any economy.

The publisher, as an eternal market-facing entity, had no choice but to accept the works arising out of these circumstances. As a result there was a lack of humour in writing and of risks in publishing through 1990s and 2000s. When I came into publishing, I just had one thing clear in my mind – we needed to do things in a more “fun” way, because the rudali andolan of weeping all the time will not get anyone anywhere.

But, even as we are beginning to think out of the box, I do ask myself and my team often: do we really need to emulate the market design of English publishing? The Hindi – or all other Indian languages’ – market cannot grow on the vertical axis alone, by selling more and more copies of fewer books. It has to grow horizontally to make the curve deep and, thus, profitable.

So, the growth of Hindi and Indian languages books is directly proportional to time. It cannot be an overnight success story, for the narratives and ideas have to convince readers in over 40 regions (in the case of Hindi), which differ from each other deeply in terms of socio-economic conditioning. So, having a single poster boy or girl is not possible. There have always been many stars at a particular time and space, because each of them will be communicating with their own readership.

The publisher/editor-author relationship is considered sacrosanct in publishing globally, but in Hindi publishing, it seems even more so. Many stalwarts of Hindi writing stay loyal to one publisher no matter what. What would you attribute this to?
The relationship between an author and a publisher in Hindi publishing is neither defined nor limited to the books alone. I can safely say that it is a “family matter”.

I have received, at home, writers whom my grandfather published. They talked about him as like a brother. They treat me like their own granddaughter. Authors published by my father are like an extended family of grandparents, uncles and aunts – my sister and I address them as dadaji, dadiji, chacha or kaki! In fact, more than 60% of the guest list at my wedding consisted of our authors, journalists, academicians and poets.

The publisher, on the other hand, stands by the authors through thick and thin, in matters personal and public. Be it a wedding in the family, a birth, a death or a dispute – the publisher is more like family to the author and their kin. I understood the depth of this bond when I saw my father sharing his afternoons with the late Dharamveer Bharti at his apartment in Mumbai, and I was told to call Pushpa Bharti jiamma because she thought of my father as her son.

I also saw my father shouldering the aarti for the late Manohar Shyam Joshi, along with the writer’s two sons. It was a completely different relationship. The financial support in times of crisis, which runs beyond royalties, is an unsaid part of the story that is not even worth talking about in the context of the relationships in this world.

You are one of the most visible faces of Hindi publishing and frequently participate in international book fairs and publishing programmes. Publishing industry watchers also say that you’re aggressive, e-savvy and unafraid to speak your mind. Would you agree that such attitudes are a rarity in Hindi language publishing?
I can’t comment on whether the vision with which I function is rare. But whatever I know, I owe to my gurus.

My sister and I were in school when Vani Prakashan published Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja in Hindi. The year was 1994, and our maternal grandmother used to take care of us while both the parents were busy running the publishing house. Just when the media began talking about the book, we received horrible threats on the telephone – one of them told me that he would kill my parents if we do not stop publishing Lajja.

As parents of two little girls, they were worried. My mother broke down one night during dinner. She wanted my father to withdraw the book. But he explained that the book didn’t have anything illegal or blasphemous. If we chickened out now, what message would we be giving to writers and readers? What would the girls learn? And the matter was put to rest with the unanimous decision that unless the court intervened, the book would stay on the shelves.

I have learnt a lot from Namita Gokhale. There are very few people who nurture talent, let it grow, and be the mentor forever. I will always remember her words, like a guru mantra: “I would like you to be the stateswoman of publishing. Be one.” She has created a lineage that will always respect the written word as she does, and will continue to make books and authors interesting for society at large.

Then, Sukrita Paul Kumar is the true conscious keeper for the reader and writer in me. Perhaps she has seen many a talent bend under commercial pressures in the world of publishing, which is why she never allows me to give up on thinking creatively.

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