Outside, the coronavirus pandemic rages; online, I talk to a student about how to make sense of it all.
He is interested in an incident that took place during the early days of the virus’s alighting in Delhi, when a stack of Rs. 500 notes languished, unclaimed, on a pavement in the city. People were too afraid to pick them up because they thought the notes might be infected. Finally, the police took custody of the notes, until they were claimed by an owner. She had lost them to the wind, she explained, when she had laid them out to dry after a liberal application of disinfectant.
This incident led my student to think about how the pandemic might shift the relationship between trust, money, and value within a society.
Locked within our screens, through our conversation we traverse worlds, time periods,
ways of life. We discuss anthropological concepts of money; systems of value among the Tiv in West Africa; Max Weber’s theory of rationalisation; and what animates the spirit of capitalism today. It is a big question that he has asked, one that cannot be answered with certainty. One that calls for intelligent and creative speculation, which is what he presents in the paper that he writes, after much reading, and much thinking.
Where are the answers?
It seems immaterial that this student, rather than majoring in the humanities, or the social sciences, is a computer science major; for the big questions transcend disciplines. It is also immaterial that he was one of the first persons in his family to finish school, and that he was yet to acquire English-language fluency when he first got to university; for the big questions transcend languages.
It is these big questions that are animating many young people in India today. In the six years that I have spent teaching writing and anthropology in the country, I have discovered just how much young people need to engage with ideas about the largest and most urgent questions that life throws at us. Every day, in every class that I teach, this thirst is palpable. This generation of students is the most questioning and concerned that I have ever encountered.
Well before this pandemic, there was a millenarian sense of anxiety among my students. Climate change, job loss, uncertainty, injustice, gross inequality, violence, the meaning of it all – these were questions that came up again and again. Post-pandemic, you can imagine how much more urgent they will be.
These are the very questions that books are best poised to answer. In order to imagine new possibilities for the future, we have to look to the sum of human knowledge. And for that, no matter how much Netflix one watches or how many Instas one posts, books remain one of the best genres ever created.
Are books essential?
As the Indian publishing industry imagines its post-coronavirus avatars, the question – “are books essential?” – is being asked again, and with new urgency.
Not only are books essential, but there is a deep thirst for them among a very large – and hitherto untapped – group of young people in India. There’s a whole generation of new readers out there waiting to be born. It is up to the Indian publishing industry to figure out how to play the role of midwife.
These new readers are different from existent English-language readers in India today. First, they are young people who are not already expressly “literary”. They may be, in fact, far more interested in the sciences than the arts. Second, many readers will be reading extensively in English for the first time.
So how does one go about this task of creating new readers?
First, allow me to digress a little. Let us think about what we talk about when we talk about readers in India, at least in the English language.
I’m forty now. Way back when I was in school, a ten-minute walk away from Khan Market, one of the things one could be known for being “good at” was English. Being “good at English” – let us call this GAE – was a thing. So was being “artsy.”
Most readers were typically a combination of GAE and artsy. Most other students did not read very much of anything that was “out of syllabus.” And most, but not all, students who tended towards this GAE-artsy combo grew up in houses that were full of books, where reading was encouraged, and with parents who read as well. I doubt that the scenario has changed significantly in the years since. But I would speculate that in most cases, the greatest indicator of how much a student reads “out of syllabus” will be how much the act of reading is supported at home.
The task of creating lifelong readers in much of India is in effect, then, outsourced to the home. Many schools, because of very real syllabus constraints, are unable to achieve this end. The art of creating new readers then becomes an act of kinship rather than a part of active pedagogy. This art is left to a very small group – reading parents – who then pass the baton on to an even smaller group. Given competing claims – math tuitions, Candy Crush Saga, other media – readership shrinks rather than growing.
What if we were to disrupt this cycle by actively working to draw in new readers across disciplinary interests and socio-economic and linguistic backgrounds? In many countries, readers are created in schools through active pedagogical methods. In those countries, children whose parents may not have been literate have become celebrated writers.
Imagine if we were able to do something similar here? – create passionate readers in the hallways of educational institutions – public and private – and not just within the closed confines of the reading family. How exactly the numbers would work out remains to be seen, but I posit that they will tilt greatly in favour of a growing readership.
How can we do this? Here are a few suggestions:
Aim For an “out-of-syllabus” model, rather than curricular change
Changing how the formal education system in India approaches books and reading will take decades (here’s an example from a recent Class X Board Exam: “Answer any of the following questions in 30-40 words each: …(iv) why did the sailor hail the albatross in ‘God’s name’?”). Thus, most changes to student reading and writing practices will need to take place “out-of-syllabus” in flexible, creative, and informal ways.
Move from a large litfest model to a small workshop model
The dominant litfest model in India involves a writer on a stage, talking to an interviewer; or a group of writers, talking to a group of interlocutors. The audience just stares at them, and, if lucky, gets to ask some questions at the end. Sometimes they are subtly mocked for these questions, especially that one audience member who inevitably surfaces at every talk and asks that super-long-and-drawn-out question. But perhaps the reason for that super-long question is that audiences are looking for spaces to talk about books themselves, not just to be talked at.
Creating small-scale, accessible fora for young readers to talk about, and write about books is what will create that spark, that love for reading. Publishing houses should thus sponsor workshops where students read, write, and think together in a structured and imaginative manner.
It is in such interactive spaces that books move from being perceived as something intimidating and burdensome to something alive and vital. Far cheaper than litfests, these small workshops can be virtual or face-to-face, but they should be characterised by close and welcoming interactions with a workshop-mentor.
The mentor could be the author of the book being discussed, or a graduate student in a relevant discipline, depending on the disposition of the author. If the author is someone who likes the idea of listening to students, and of reading their writing, they might love the experience of such a workshop. If what they want is a stage, they might well hate it.
Collaborate with colleges and universities in India to create new mentors
Over the past six years I have worked with many students who hold Masters’ and MPhil degrees in the humanities and social science disciplines from many universities across India. After a bit of pedagogical training, they are now remarkably gifted teachers of reading, writing, and critical thinking.
Publishing houses could easily create internship programmes where Masters-level students in allied disciplines lead reading and writing workshops that focus on several books from their catalogue at a time. Relatively inexpensive, and rewarding for teachers and students both, these workshops could be located in schools and colleges across India – not just in major metros – because there are talented Masters-level students in colleges across the country. Both training and workshops can be conducted online.
Collaborate with celebrities and influencers who read
Imagine if Twinkle Khanna led a one-week-long online writing workshop for students who are first-generation college-goers, focusing on a few of her favourite books, once a year? A workshop where she actually read their writing and gave them some feedback? And then wrote about it in her uber-popular column? Enough said.
If you are a reader yourself, to inculcate a passion for books and ideas among young people is one of the most meaningful and joyful things you can do. I am sure that there are many celebrities who read – across schools of fame – and might want to be involved in something like this.
Create new genres for new readers
Many young people have a thirst for new ideas. The bestselling-college-romance-genre in India can no longer quench this thirst – even students at Ashoka University don’t think that they are going to get the great job at the MNC, get the girl or the boy or the lover with fluid gender identity, win the quiz show, and then live happily ever after in a house with a balcony next to the mall. That dream is dying, and new writers must emerge to mark its passing.
Drawing on my teaching experience, I propose a few genres that might particularly engage new readers:
- Graphic Novels: I teach many students who are not fluent in English. For them, the genre of the Graphic Novel has been manna. There isn’t a student I’ve assigned Persepolis to who hasn’t found it to be an exquisite, moving book, one that helps them think about all the big questions, in as complex a way as any other great coming-of-age novel. Something beautiful and accessible is created in the interplay between text and image. Books by Sarnath Banerjee and Art Spiegelman have been hits as well. They should be priced more effectively. To my mind as a teacher, coming-of-age graphic novels set in truly diverse Indian contexts would be gold. Creating a series of graphic novels for first-generation speakers of English that are works of art rather than of didactic grammar should be an area of focus. Because of the companionship provided by the images, the language in these books can be lyrical and complex. I dream of teaching in my classrooms graphic novels that address examination stress and suicide; inequality, caste, and elitism in India; sex, love, and dating; ambition, depression, and mental health – all artfully, beautifully.
- Future books that aren’t fiction, for the Indian context: Students here are deeply concerned about the future. They don’t know what it will look like for them. We don’t know what it will look like for us, for that matter. We need books that include credible, grounded speculations, as well as reasonable hopes, that aren’t all fiction.
- Great books, re-mixed: Once, in class, students from disciplines ranging from engineering to English, inspired by another class they had taken called The Makers of Modern India, wrote Hamilton-esque hip-hop verse about India’s independence movement and the Indian Constitution. These short verses were a smash. I see no reason why a deft, tense, clever, and moving verse-retelling of the creation of the Indian constitution doesn’t exist in the market. The greatest human dramas are played out in classic texts. They just need to be reworked to reach new generations who have never read the classic versions, and are unlikely to do so unless someone paves the way for them.
- Books about meaning, happiness, and the good life for India: The spiritually-inflected version of this genre already exists. I believe that there is also a readership for more philosophical, historical, sociological, and humorous explorations of these questions.
Contextualise and market existing texts for new audiences
At the university where I teach, a popular fellowship programme provides students who have a Bachelor’s degree in a staggering range of disciplines with a “crash course” in the liberal arts. Computer engineers read Shakespeare. Literature majors come to understand basic economic principles. Both engage with the fundamentals of law in India. Everyone read and thinks about feminism and patriarchy in the country.
These classes are not taught through textbooks. Students read original sources, or excerpts, and engage critically with the material presented – asking questions, writing responses, thinking together. The key to the programme, I think, is that professors continually relate texts to the existent knowledge and context of their students. This simple, but mostly overlooked, act of context-setting allows books, however esoteric, to become meaningful to readers, rather than just another albatross around their neck.
Making books accessible does not mean publishing more elementary books. Rather, it means starting with the premise that everyone can and should engage with ideas, and introducing those ideas in contextualised ways to new audiences. It means trying to understanding where new readers are coming from, and doing all one can to reach them. Aim for everyone, and not for the minuscule “good at English” set.
I have often thought that a book series in line with this fellowship programme would be a good series to create. A modern-day Tell Me Why, but while those best-selling knowledge books were about “knowing” facts, this series would be about critically engaging with ideas. I imagine a series – comprising original texts, with introductory essays to place them in context – titled What We Weren’t Taught in School.
Welcome new readers
We want to welcome new members into the house of reading. How welcoming is that house?
Is it open, encouraging, warm; or closed, snobbish, alienating? The surest way to push a student away from a field of study is to mock them for all that they don’t know. For there will be a great deal that any new reader – as any neophyte in any field – will not know. This is occasion neither for laughter, nor derision. We should try to recognise, as readers ourselves, that being a reader makes one no better, and no worse than anyone else; and that most readers, at least in English in India, are created in part because of the cultural capital and educational backgrounds of their parents.
To set this ground, which insists both upon the importance of reading and also demonstrates how reading can and must be open to all, I have encountered no more powerful piece of writing than Frederick Douglass’s description of how he learnt to read and write, part of his bestselling autobiography. I think any writing workshop that is geared towards encouraging new readers would benefit from including this transcendent narrative.
These are just some ideas. But if the publishing industry begins to seriously work with the goal of fostering readership, a thousand other new ideas and collaborations will be born.
There remains the problem of pirated books, and illegal downloads, but my sense is that passionate readers steal when they are down and out, but when their ship comes in, they buy. And they never stop buying.
Has any book lover ever felt they have enough books?
Durba Chattaraj teachers writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. She regrets the exclusive focus on English-language reading in this piece, and is aware of rich and long-standing reading traditions in many Indian languages. That she could not write about them is due to the author’s own limitations.
Labonie Roy is a mixed media illustrator, nature educator and content designer.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.