Between 2009 and 2014, four postgraduate students of literature at Bombay University launched and ran the literary journal nether, which went on to publish many exciting new as well as major literary voices. Last month, the two remaining founding editors, Divya Nadkarni and Avinab Datta-Areng, announced the digital-only relaunch of the journal – bang in the middle of the pandemic. They spoke to, tracing the journey of nether from its founding principles, the many uncertainties and challenges involved in running a largely self-funded literary venture, to the reasons for announcing the relaunch during the Covid-19 outbreak, and more. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us a little about Nether. How did it come to be? Who were the founding editors? How did you decide upon the name?
Nether was founded by four post-graduate students studying literature at Bombay University in 2009: Divya Nadkarni, Ishita Bal, Rohan Chettri, and Avinab Datta-Areng. All of us wrote, but we didn’t know what to do once we got over the initial anxiety of sharing our work with each other. The university library had copies of The Bombay Literary Review, Poetry magazine, and The Paris Review. This spurred us to think of homegrown literary journals; there were literally none.
Initially, we thought of printing innocuous chapbooks for ourselves and for the students at the university. Gradually, it dawned on us that there must be others interested in the kind of writing we enjoyed ourselves and that’s when the idea of a journal occurred to us. Then we deliberated on names, most of which we can’t seem to remember.

We knew we wanted the name to represent a vast, unreachable space. It was both a naming of that place and the speaking from that place. We eventually narrowed down our options to two: it was either nether or neither. We chose nether.

Then came the actual work. Whom do we speak to, what do we do? The poet Ranjit Hoskote was kind enough to walk us through the various stages of the process, and we’ll always be indebted to him for that. He even helped us secure a donation of Rs 20,000 which allowed us to print our first issue. Thinking of starting a lit journal is one thing, publishing it is quite another, but we went all in and printed 1000 copies.

When we look back now, we don’t know what the hell we were thinking! But the hunger for a literary journal among readers ran so deep that we managed to sell most of our copies. The money from the sales helped us fund our second issue. It’s one of those things, you know, everyone’s thinking of it, but somehow the thought stays suspended. Then some fools enter the picture and recklessly walk past the barriers without much thought. We were those fools.

Could you tell us about the initial struggles, editing and design processes, and the creative differences between the founders?
Ranjit Hoskote was our first supporter; he was also our first interviewee. I suppose he understood how badly our country needed literary culture, and the presence of literary journals is crucial to developing and sustaining that.

When we think of the struggles we really can’t think of many, it was all so new and exciting. We didn’t have to be better than the journal next door, or the journal being published out of another city. We just had to be what literary journals are supposed to be, and because there were none on the horizon, we had nothing to compare ourselves with, except maybe the past issues of Bombay Literary Review.

Clearing House had been a major influence on us, and The Little Magazine – which wasn’t little by any means. In a sense, the entire field was open to us; we couldn’t think of a worst-case scenario. We had nothing to lose.

One thing we were very clear about was that we wanted to publish the work that we really believed in. Of course, there were differences, but we spoke about them exhaustively until we managed to reach a consensus. Part of it also had to do with the fact that our literary sensibilities were very much aligned.

The writers came through; they never disappointed. We had always suspected there were many writers doing good work but just didn’t know what to do with it. We also wanted the journal to have a strong visual aesthetic, but initially most of our resources were in-house. In fact, our first three covers were designed by us.

We used a photograph taken by Jenifer, Avinab’s sister, for the cover of our first issue. We sat with the printer for days, going back and forth. We wanted to interview Arvind Krishna Mehrotra for the second issue, but it just wasn’t working out via emails and we couldn’t travel to where he was at the time, which was something we really wanted to do.

Why did nether stop publishing?
We were slowly caving in. Rohan and Ishita left after the third issue. The initial opportunities dried up. It’s hard to stay on in people’s imagination without money. Everything started becoming stressful and exhausting. We had managed to sell a lot of copies of our first two issues because we were given a stall at the LitLive festival by Anil Dharker, and also at Kala Ghoda.

But the Landmark bookstore, a sponsor of both festivals, came in and pushed us out, and the organisations couldn’t do anything about it. We were just a small literary journal and they didn’t want anything other than Landmark stalls selling books there. We did manage to get copies onto online e-commerce platforms like Flipkart and Amazon, but soon we were only left with a ferocious bunch of people who really believed in us and kept us going until we couldn’t.

We didn’t plan on folding, but we disappeared like we had appeared. Barring a few people, no one really noticed or cared. Around the same time, many online journals started mushrooming.

There was something terminal about our last issue; Nether VI, which we published in 2014. We managed to sit and speak with the late poet and professor Eunice de Souza in what was the last time we witnessed her fierce spirit in person; she hadn’t been keeping well and was generally tired and out of it. This was very clear, especially from her words. Here was one of our finest poets – we had the feeling that something was finally giving in. Would it be a stretch to suggest that some of that rubbed onto us subconsciously?

There was also the matter of our regular careers, to hopefully go somewhere with them. When Divya left India for higher studies, that was that. We printed the sixth issue two days before she left. We had the seventh planned but we had no idea how to continue.

So why relaunch now, in the middle of arguably the worst crisis humankind has faced in recent times?
Why not? Is this the worst crisis humankind has ever faced? We think it’s an accumulation of crises that have been wilfully ignored for a long time; the virus is just the bridge for all of that to come rushing in at once. If it’s the worst crisis humankind has ever faced, it’s also, probably, the best opportunity humankind has ever faced.

We really weren’t thinking of launching because of this crisis. It’s something we had been discussing, on and off, for a long time. We just couldn’t ignore the same desperation we felt when we were starting out, coming to us through emails and messages. It felt like the right thing to do. Somehow, we felt ready to resume the conversation.

So it wasn’t a timed decision?
Not really. But the lockdown freed up our time and allowed us to make room for each other, throw ideas around, and take the first steps and plan. There have been many who came before us, did excellent work, then disappeared. We’re following in that little tradition of ours. If we have to keep starting afresh, we will; we’ll do whatever in our means, hoping it gets better, hoping something gives in the future, hoping people like us so that we can continue the work.

What’s your view of Covid fiction/poetry?
It’s a human tendency to respond to something of this nature. However, it should be held to the same standards that we hold literature to; ie, it should be critiqued as literature. It’s poor literature, mostly. But does that mean there’s been enough of Covid-related literature? The question platforms and publishers encouraging literature of this kind should be asking themselves is: what are they in this for?

We’re afraid it’s mostly the same old predictable sound of money. Why not use this time to pause, reflect, and make the virus a trigger for structural changes in Indian book business that would allow better literary works to be published, Covid-related or not?

You started out as a print journal. Why go digital now? Is it because production and distribution costs may rise once the presses resume operations after the pandemic?
It’s not such a simple binary. We were always going to launch as an online quarterly. The problems we faced earlier would have remained if we had decided to relaunch as a print journal. We’re still thinking about bringing out a bi-annual or annual print edition. We’re an independent, wholly self-funded literary journal, so the production and distribution costs would always have been too high for us.

Covid-19 made this decision easier because we’re no longer left with a choice. Also, Divya lives overseas now. This was already a major deterrent, perhaps one of the reasons for the original “print” project folding. If we have to keep going now, it has to be in a way that’s not geographically bound.

What is your aim? What’s in it for writers and readers? How will they benefit from publishing in Nether, as opposed to established magazines that offer great exposure which can result in book deals?
Our aim has always been to champion every voice we publish, which is why we remember pretty much every contributor. Being an independent literary journal, we can only be grateful that writers who send us their work consider us a platform worthy of being published in; that they see us as a small stepping stone and, if they published with us, they can carry on, write more, and find the confidence they need to publish their own books in the future.

Our resources and our past only allow us that much. We wish we could’ve done more. We wish we could’ve paid the writers we publish. But there’s something else at play here; the transaction is trust. Writers trust us with their work and trust our judgment when we decide to publish them. Our readers trust us to publish great work.

We don’t have the visibility of many reputed magazines, and we might not have the clout to get a writer published by us get noticed by a big publisher. There is a massive lacuna between independent presses and big publishers. Still, we’ve had plenty of writers published by us who’ve gone on to become successful authors.

What’s your view of the literary journal space in India and how it compares to the West?
Depends on which West you’re talking about. We’d rather not start comparing the lit magazine scene in India to the MFA-driven scene in the US. The US has an excess of literary journals; each university with a writing programme has its own literary journal, and then there are literary journals run by writers and poets, and so on. The US has the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.

So we don’t think comparisons with international literary journals would be fair. Again, we’re speaking of English literary journals only. Elsewhere, in parts of Europe for instance, we guess the situation is similar and the literary journal market is a niche one, reliant almost wholly on small groups of deeply invested individuals. If a journal manages to sustain itself over a long period of time it’s only because of their passion, effort, and some amount of luck; but it often doesn’t succeed.

The literary magazine ecosystem in India seems to have a rhizomatic character: journals come up as easily as they go under. But there are exceptions, for example, Almost Island has consistently been doing great work, publishing original and translated works by poets and writers. They don’t accept unsolicited submissions.

Otherwise, not much has changed. Perhaps there’s a good reason why we’re wary of something becoming so sustained that it becomes somewhat of an “institution”? Of course, we’re only speaking of the English scene. We do wish there were more university presses, but for that we need universities with both financial support and autonomy; some kind of systematic funding system for independent projects in literature and the arts.

What are your plans now?
We’re slowly going to make our archives available online over the coming weeks. Rohini Kejriwal, who runs Alipore Post, has been doing great work single-handedly. So we’re thinking of an archive release project with Alipore Post, wherein we will release the archives gradually, from the first edition to the sixth, and have past contributors come in and read from their works, maybe even have a podcast to go along with the issue being made available online for readers.

How do you plan to sustain the project?
For the time being, like we always did, with our own money. An online reboot at this point helps keep our costs minimal. However, we’re also in the process of thinking of ways to raise money and donations. Our ultimate aim is to be able to pay our contributors.

What’s in store for the revival issue?
When we started out we wanted to be a journal for experimental writing, but along the way we realised that running a literary journal was in itself an experimental act. Our first few issues were markedly different from the later ones, which were more formalised and more professionally structured and designed. We’d like to revisit the raw, frantic energy of our first few issues.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.