I’m never happy with the Indian publishing scene, am I?
My latest problem, other than my sluggish bowel movement, is this announcement. (My editor tells me maybe all my problems are because of that one problem.)
“It is with great pleasure that Penguin Random House India announces that the 2017 Penguin Annual Lecture will be delivered in New Delhi on 26 December by one of the most iconic and popular Indians in the world today, global entertainment personality, game changer and UNICEF ambassador Priyanka Chopra.”
And the lovely Ms Chopra will be talking about breaking the glass ceiling.
And she has been chosen by Penguin Random House, says the announcement, because she is one of the leading superstars of the Indian film industry, has had a meteoric rise on the global stage with her hit TV show Quantico, has won the People’s Choice Award for two consecutive years, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, one of Harper Bazaar’s 58 women game changers of the modern era, and, as if that weren’t enough, she is also on LinkedIn’s power profile list for 2017.
What they forget to mention: she also sang a duet with a gent named Pitbull, played a Manipuri boxer in a biopic, had a road in Mumbai named for her plastic surgeon-father, and does more accents on an average day than Meryl Streep has done in her career.
This is all wonderful. Seriously. And I am a fan of Ms Chopra’s. She is a fine, accomplished actor. I am also an admirer of her compatriots, Mses Ranaut, Balan and Padukone, for different reasons. All fine women. Many admirable qualities. Many, many achievements.
My question is: what has any of it got to do with books, literature and the annual talk put out by an iconic publishing house? (Actually, make that two iconic publishing houses rolled into one.)
If breaking the glass ceiling was the theme of their annual lecture, couldn’t Penguin Random House find one woman – among the various hardworking writers, editors, publishers, poets, journalists, booksellers, literary agents, PR personnel – from the publishing and literary field who fit the bill?
Penguin Random House has on its roster writers as varied as Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tahmima Anam, and Shobhaa Dé. There are editors such as VK Karthika, who proved her mettle at Penguin, became publisher, HarperCollins India, for ten years, publishing a Booker winner or two during that time, and is now publishing head of Westland. Weren’t any of these women right in their backyard good enough examples of glass-ceiling breakers?
Has the default option for all fields, including that last bastion of hope – art and literature – become Bollywood?
What this tells me is that basically those custodians of literature, the same ones within whose lockers languish contracts with some of the finest writers in the world, have just said “Listen, we give up. No one gives a rat’s ass about writing, literature or books. We are drowning. The only way we can float about for a bit is by throwing a line at some film star and dragging ourselves through the slush in their wake. We’ll do that for as long as we can. And then we’ll just die. So, deal with it.’”
The same announcement says that one of the annual lecture’s key purposes is “to bring leading writers, artists, thinkers and key personalities from India and across the world in direct contact with audiences and admirers in India”.
In the last ten years, Penguin’s speakers have apparently included the Dalai Lama, A J Abdul Kalam, Amartya Sen, Thomas Friedman, Amitabh Bachchan, Ramachandra Guha, Dan Brown, Jeff Kinney and Ruskin Bond. If you’ve noticed, there isn’t one single woman. (If there was, it isn’t mentioned in their announcement.)
And the first time they bring in a woman, it’s Priyanka Chopa?
The questions that need to be asked are, first: how relevant will Ms Chopra’s talk – on breaking the glass ceiling in her career as an actress both here and the US – be to budding writers and aspiring publishing professionals?
And, conversely, how many people who are genuinely interested in becoming writers or publishing professionals would turn up to listen to what Ms Chopra has to say.
Haven’t publishers stolen enough from the writer, and given away to Bollywood already?
Every time a publisher gives a large advance to, say, a Twinkle Khanna or, sigh, an Aishwarya Rajinikanth Dhanush, in a lazy, and often, erroneously estimated as fail-safe, attempt at making a quick buck, five to ten midlist writers die.
Tell you what. Why this slow death? Why not just hand over the reins of Indian publishing to Karan Johar? And we writers can play the rapid-fire round. With a real gun shoved down our throats.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli is a failed Indian writer who has regularly been kicked off bookshop shelves to accommodate literary giants such as Shakti Kapoor’s driver and Taimur Ali Khan’s babysitter. He is currently working on an unsolicited sequel to Tiger Zinda Hai titled Tiger Behosh Hai.
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