Goodbye Steve!


Just heard that Steve Bucknor is going to retire as umpire next March. Am instantly reminded of a college assignment I wrote at the height of the Sydney Test fiasco last year. Reproducing it here again.

(Warning: For those of you who hate anti-media rants, ignore this post)

The second cricket Test match played between India and Australia at Sydney will be remembered for the controversies it generated rather than the cricket which was played. Umpire Steve Bucknor, member of the International Cricket Council’s Elite Panel, made as many as 11 blunders against India. And to make things worse, the Australian cricket team alleged that Harbhajan Singh made racist remarks against Andrew Symonds.
Given the undue attention that is paid to cricket in our country, it was but natural that the media would devote reams of newsprint to this story. In its article that appeared on Jan 6, 2008 titled “India laid low by Benson-Bucknor duo”, the Indian Express called Bucknor “blind”. The Hindu which is normally measured in its reportage carried a front page story on January 7, 2008 confirming a three Test ban on Harbhajan Singh. News channels went on a “Breaking News” blitzkrieg and certain sections of the electronic media alleged that Steve Bucknor held a grudge against the Indians.
Being an avid cricket fan, I saw most parts of the match and shared similar sentiments on the quality of umpiring. But to say that India lost the Test only because of poor umpiring is hard to digest. On the last day, our team which boasts of such cricketers as Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Yuvraj Singh among others could not bat for 70 overs. It shows that besides poor decisions, it was a batting collapse that contributed to the loss at Sydney. Says Pradeep Magazine of the Hindustan Times “Despite all the wrongs done to them on the field, India could have still salvaged a draw and been in a much stronger position to take a high moral ground and tell the umpires and the Australians of what they thought of them”

Also, I think the media is wrong when it says that Bucknor holds a grudge against India. The argument presented by the press is that the umpire, on numerous occasions, has repeated his mistake. To substantiate this point, it has been repeatedly stated in several debates (such as The Big Fight on NDTV 24X7) that an ICC enquiry found Bucknor guilty of incompetence during the 2007 World Cup final. However, there has been no official enquiry which can prove that Buckor bears a grudge against India or any other team. Hence, to say that an umpire of this stature, who has officiated in over a 100 matches, bears ill will towards a team is false.
In addition, a leading Hindi news channel Aaj Tak, in one of its programmes committed a factual error. The anchor said that Steve Bucknor is a Be-Imaan (cheat). This is a very serious charge as it questions his integrity. And before making such a sweeping statement, one must take into cognisance the age factor: Bucknor is 61 years old. He may be past his prime but there is no evidence to suggest that he is a cheat. This is yet another example of the media getting its facts wrong.
In the aftermath of this controversy, the ICC replaced Bucknor, who was to officiate in the third test at Perth. The Times of India, in its January 9, 2008 edition, carried a front page story titled “India wins Sydney test” with reference to this development. In its editorial the newspaper writes “The ICC has hit the right buttons by initiating action against those who were on duty at Sydney. They bungled and an exciting Test match ended in a mess.” In a country where cricket has achieved cult status, the media ought to have acted in a mature manner. This decision by the ICC was not a victory for India. Instead, it was a sad day for the game of cricket. And inspite of being aware of Bucknor’s sloppy umpiring in the past, why didn’t the Indian cricket board appeal to the ICC to replace him before the start of this series? The board owes an explanation to not only its players, but to millions of cricket lovers in the country.
In conclusion, it was an episode that saw a high quality Test match being reduced to a mere controversy. What was even more appalling was the coverage by the Indian media which was mediocre, to say the least. Instead of being jingoistic about this issue, it could have shown a sense of maturity.

In Conversation with Mukul Deva


It's tough describing Mukul Deva. You could call him a former army officer turned author whose writings span such different genres as short stories, business leadership, women in Indian cinema, corporate warfare and crime fiction. But then, he's also an entrepreneur who runs a security firm in New Delhi. In addition, Deva is also a corporate trainer on disaster management and business continuity. So, who exactly is Mukul Deva? 

"At heart I am a writer. But in India writers starve so I have to run a business to sustain my passion hence I am a businessman. Deep down, I am still an army man because you can take a guy out of the army but not the army out of the guy." Finding time to write amidst managing all the roles is a tough task, but not for Deva. "I have a two-hour window where I only write. I need six hours to run my business and four hours to be with my kids and family. I sleep, watch movies and read during the remaining 12 hours!"

Born in Lucknow in 1961, Deva is an alumnus of the La Martiniere College, Lucknow, the National Defence Academy, Pune and the Indian Military academy in Dehradun. He was an army officer until 1981, after which he took premature retirement and started his security business in New Delhi. 

Although Deva's writings span a various genres, his most widely acclaimed book has been
Lashkar, an action thriller based on the 2005 blasts in Sarojini Nagar in New Delhi. And his latest offering is its sequel Salim Must Die with terrorism as its central theme. 

About his books Deva says "I wrote 
Lashkar because I was angry at the way these terrorists were striking at us. Also, given my army background I had a potent story to tell which gave me another reason to write it. While writing Lashkar, the principal characters — Anbu and Iqbal — were literally crying to be taken forward which is why I am doing a four-book series of which Salim Must Die is the second." 

Despite his anger, Deva prefers to confine to writing and not be in the fore to assist investigations given his army credentials. "You know, the Indian government, over the last 30 years has proven its inability to think strategically," he says. "They think in tactical, short-term methods. They are trying to cure the symptom and not tackle the disease. So, I thought writing a book which would actually tell the public about other alternatives to the government's actions" reasons Deva. 

On his books, Deva says that both his works are completely different from each other. "I found to my horror that, a lot of what I wrote in Salim.. a year-and-a-half back, is coming true already." He sounds like a soothsayer when he says he "wishes he would have also been able to foresee the sensex falling"! On a serious note, Deva attributes his predictions to logic and history. He says "History has a habit of repeating itself and whatever I have written is firmly grounded in reality and in history. And although these are fictional books, even they require bedrock somewhere.

For instance, Deva says he wrote about the newly-formed National Intelligence Agency a year-and-half ago. "So when you read it you will realise how uncannily it's coming together now." Research, he adds, plays a very important role in writing such potboilers. "For the last four years, I spend a few hours reading and understanding the smallest terror incident in the world. Else you cannot write military action thrillers. So, I have been breathing and living terror in all its forms!" 

Salim Must Die
Deva is part of a new breed of Indian writers whose works stem from incidents in everyday life. More often than not, they are criticised for not being too 'literary' (a la Chetan Bhagat and Vikas Swarup). Simple storytelling and interesting plotlines — sans highbrow language — is the key. As a result, these novels are often labelled as 'pop-literature'. 

This Delhi-based author, however, refuses to accept to be classified under these media-induced jargons. "Terms like pop-lit, chick-lit really don't matter," says Deva. "Not every story has to be Shakespearean or an Arundhati Roy," he explains. "People like Chetan Bhagat and Vikas Swarup have great stories to tell. These are stories which happen all around us and people from different backgrounds narrate them." 

And what about the highbrow language? "Dude, when you quit school in class 10, how many big words do you really know?" laughs Deva. The author deliberately chooses the potboiler narrative tool over a scholarly one as it would ensure more readers. "It's like making a movie: do you want to make it for the masses or do you want to make it for the Cannes film festival?"

Deva's reading tastes are as eclectic as his writings and he ranks Chetan Bhagat and Advaita Kala amongst his favourite authors. But his all-time favourite book is J.D. Salinger's 
Raise High The Roof Beam. And Deva's works are not just restricted to literature. 

About his future plans, Deva is writing a crime thriller 
The Shades of Black "which explores the dark side of the human mind. You know who the killer is and you know how he did it but you have to understand why he did it." Despite a prolific 'literary' journey, Deva is still unsure of any other genre he plans to explore. "I am growing as a human being and evolving in my own head. I don't know which way I will go."

This was an assignment for BusinessWorld Online. You can also read it here

Eating out @ The Chinese


Went for dinner to The Chinese in Connaught Place last night. Had been hearing a lot of good stuff about the food there (esp. the Hunan dishes). It's perhaps the only restaurant I've been to which has a separate menu for hunan and szechwan dishes. Usually, most restaurants have just one menu which is an assortment of Cantonese, Hunan and Szechwan food. 

About the food, well, I did think it is overhyped. At least the Szechwan dishes. Don't get me wrong here. The food isn't particularly bad, but, it isn't wow! material either. In fact - and I hate to say this - the vegetarian fare was much better than the non-veg one (barring the prawn dimsums). We ordered a fish in szechwan sauce and some prawns in black bean sauce - both of which were very average dishes. The fish was very dry and not too soft (considering it was a 'fresh' river sole). There was neither black nor any bean in the prawns which clearly showed that the chef mixed two or more sauces to come up with his own version of the black bean one. The prawns 'shao maao' dimsums were very yummy, though. The dough wasn't very thick,  and the meat inside was piping hot. Quite a breather this, since I've been looking out for better alternatives to those sadakchaap momos. The last time I ate an original dimsum was probably at Royal China, Bombay around two years ago, so I had nearly forgotten what it tastes like. Thankfully, The Chinese reminded me in time. However, the stand-out dishes were the chinese greens in garlic which, even though it isn't exotic, was absolutely wonderful. The veggies were juicy, the mix of garlic and butter was just right and it complemented it's spicier cousin very well. Here was another assortment of veggies in a sauce which had a strong vinegar flavour cooked in what seemed to be black pepper sauce. Moreover, it was sans any onion or garlic. I'm pretty apprehensive about a no-onion-and-garlic dish because more often than not, the chef ends up destroying it by overloading it either with spices or just serving something horribly bland. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found that the sauce was not too spicy  - which meant I could actually taste the veggies - and had a nice vinegar flavouring to it. 

I can't say much about the service because the restaurant was nearly empty so waiters were always around to serve us. The decor was pretty run-of-the-mill too: walls covered in blue with chinese alphabets embedded on them. Dragon designs covering the ceiling didn't do much to reduce the garishness as well. Overall, a pretty decent restaurant for a quick business lunch or if you want to taste decent chinese without shelling out too much. Will I go there again? Yes, because I'd like to try out the Hunan menu. The pickled prawns dish sounded a bit interesting. 

Rating 2.3/3/5.

Location: Adjacent to Competent House, F-Block, Middle Circle, Connaught place.

P.S. Still have a few leftover veggies which I am now going to dig into.

Weekend Activities (or the lack of them)


Have registered myself for the WordCamp India conference. It's my very first blogmeet and naturally, I am quite kicked about it. Importantly, it gives me something to do over the weekend which is usually dull and boring since I usually end up sitting at home on my sorry arse and graze like a cow. Also looking forward to Sam Miller's heritage walk at Habitat Centre which is a follow up to his latest book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. After the quirky launch yesterday and the hilarious facebook activities, I am more than looking forward to this event. But, I will have to wait for a good one week for these events to happen. Right now, I just have to be content with doing something totally boring during the V-day weekend: attend the British Council Education Fair.
Yes, I know. It sounds ridiculous and a rather lame thing to do on such an occassion. But, alas, I have no dates lined up and a friend is curious about studying in the UK. Besides, not a single good movie is lined up for release which I can look forward to. Add to that, all the romantic and mushy programming on TV which would make you cringe! I guess the British Council event is a good escape, if not a great one.

Hopefully, you're weekend will be better than mine. Happy Valentine's Day!

P.S. Another reason I'm attending the blogmeet is because the found of is gracing it with his presence.

In Conversation with V K Karthika


Publisher and Chief Editor, HarperCollins India

(The final in the series of interviews I conducted at Jaipur)

Publisher and Chief Editor, HarperCollins Publishers India

What are the changes which you’ve observed in Indian publishing ever since HarperCollins set up shop in India?

I think the change is a reflection of how India has changed. More multinationals have come to India and developed local identities and haven’t restricted themselves to global partnerships. So, the agenda then is to find local identity, to find local writers, to publish in languages of India. And to say that we are multinational – or ‘big’- wouldn’t be apt as we are very small and intimate when it comes to our local identity.

To be more specific, chains have begun to expand in a dramatic fashion. They’ve become much more professional in their purchasing and display of books. Sometime ago – and even now to a large extent – we are talking in the hands of distributors. They take what they want, sell it to the retailer who in turn, returns the unsold stock. So one hopes that as books are becoming commodities of desire, I hope things will change for the better and we can present titles to the reading in a more interesting manner.

With the growing popularity of Indian writing, a lot of young people want to work for publishing houses. While books are popular not much is known about a publishing house. Can you give an insight?

I think it’s like any other job wherein you work the whole day and go home. But it’s not a nine-to-five job – it is a 24 hour job. That’s because the editor is not just dealing with the book but also with a person. So, the book and the writer have their distinct lives and as editor, you are intimately engaged to both. And after the book is ready, the terrain shifts to sales and marketing but the editor-author relationship lasts a lifetime. So that is the challenge and the bonus of the job – that you have long-lasting relationships. So, in that sense, editorial is at the heart of any publishing house.

But, increasingly, sales and marketing are also becoming very important. In the past when you talked about sales and marketing, there was only one division. But now, at HarperCollins for instance, we have separate divisions for both. And we never use the same word for both. Marketing is all about promotions, publicity and how to promote the book. Sales is all about distribution, freight and the chain of getting the book to the end-market. So, people can get into either of these areas.

Another aspect is production which is very challenging because you need to be up-to-date with technology and have an interest in books. However, people skills are most important as everything is based on trust in the publishing world. For instance, if a literary agent sends you a manuscript, he/she assumes you are going to be confidential about it. Bids are under wraps – you don’t talk about it unless the writer gives the go-ahead. So, trust is the bottom line. Hence, the kind of people who should come into publishing should like working with writers because they tremendous will and focus – and you have to be able to match them.

In terms of copy-editing, do you think it’s a thankless job because your editing someone else’s work and you won’t even get credit for it.

Absolutely not. In fact, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world to get a book in your hand and pen it to its full potential. It’s like getting into the mind of the writer and re-write like him/her. So, at the end of the day, it’s not thankless because the author knows what you’ve done and that’s the basis of your relationship with the book. There are, of course, public and private acknowledgments. So increasingly, the value of the editor has gone up.

Compared to your competitors such as Roli Books or Penguin India, HarperCollins has published fairly newer and younger writing. Is this a conscious attempt or did it just happen along the way?

It is a conscious attempt because when I joined HarperCollins two years ago, Penguin was – and still is – clearly the leader. So, that was something that we couldn’t even begin to compete with. And the attempt is never to take on a publishing house. That’s another different aspect of publishing; to meet the internal challenges successfully. So our conscious attempt was to find young writers. There’s no death of good young writers. Sometimes, it means investing heavily in editing, creating, pushing publicity and saying ‘You haven’t ever heard about Anuja Chauhan or Advaita Kala so let’s tell you about them.‘ And I think we’ve had a very successful year because marketing and publicity had lent full support to editorial. Editorial, for its part, has done everything to lift the book to as high a quality of readership as possible. So it’ll be our continued endeavour to devote 50% of our list to first time writers.

In such times of recession, do you a dip in sales and will HarperCollins be less aggressive in terms of marketing books?

On the contrary, I think marketing needs to be more aggressive to counter the lack of footfalls in bookstores. For instance, we’ve just launched a campaign called ‘Chills and Thrills’ which is to drive our crime list which comprises of Agatha Christie, Alastair Mclean and Indian writers such as Mukul Deva (Lashkar) and Rajorshi Chakraborti (Derangements). And it’s worked as people who aren’t going to stores are being directed to this particular section. Consequently, we’ve had an increase in orders. So, I think the answer to the recession is: more marketing spends, and by saying that books are cheap you won’t achieve anything by not buying the book.

2008 was a very good year for Indian and Pakistani writing. What do you foresee for 2009? Which authors will create a buzz? Also, what are the titles we can look forward to from HarperCollins India?
This year, we have three books from Pakistan. One is a political biography of Pervez Musharraf written by Murtaza Razvi, a journalist. We are also publishing Murtaza’s collection of short stories set in Pakistan. Then there’s a wonderful young writer called Hussain Naqvi whose book, Homeboy, we are publishing in July. Hussain is one person who I can say will definitely make waves. Also, we are coming out with a book on the Commonwealth Games which will be political in nature. The focus is on the politics of conducting sports events

Your non-fiction list is very underplayed as compared to your fiction list.

I think the focus was more on fiction to start with. In non-fiction, we had Pallavi Aiyar’s Smoke And Mirrors - a book about China from an Indian perspective which did very well last year. We’ve launched Collins Business and we will have a full fledged business management list. S P Hinduja will also be writing a book on business management. R C Bhargava’s The Maruti Story will also be out in 2009. Amitabh Kant will be writing a book on building India as a tourist destination. Lijia Zhang’s book Socialism is Great is a wonderful memoir of growing up in China. Also, we have decided that to focus on a few Asia-centric titles every year. So we have Tash Aw coming out with his new novel. Cinema is another genre we are taking seriously and it’ll be a series of books on various classics.
We are also launching Collins’ Illustrated Expensive Lifestyle list. The first book in that is coming out early next year which is on art and erotica. And there is of course cooking, self-help and other DIY books on etiquette and how to keep your online skills updated.

In Conversation with Jai Arjun Singh


Freelance Journalist popularly known as blogger Jabberwock, on freelance journalism, books and, of course, the blog.

In a country like India – where freelancing isn’t exactly well-paying – you’re one of the few successful freelance journalists around. What exactly are the perks and perils of being a freelancers?

Well for starters – and this has become a cliché – enormous amounts of self-discipline are required. Initially, the prospects of working out of home are very good because one is not bound by office hours. If you’re not feeling particularly productive during the day, you can work late into the night. All that is true to an extent. But, in practice, it can get a little difficult, because – all said and done – it gets a little difficult to adjust to freelancing especially if you have family obligations. So, managing time is an issue – it’s something you have to constantly juggle around with.

Another peril is that when you’re a freelancer, you’re accountable to a lot of different masters. Whereas, when I was working with Business Standard full time, senior editors wouldn’t ever overload with me work. If I was doing something for one editor, then the other would back-off and understand that I was busy for the next few days. However, in freelancing, if you’re working on an assignment for two publications simultaneously, that level of understanding doesn’t exist.  There other factors to be kept in mind: lucrative offers, maintaining contacts and not wanting to say ‘no’ to too many people. So, you find yourself juggling with many stories with absolutely no reprieve.

The reason why I took up freelancing is that I didn’t want to be bound by any one particular organisation. I wanted the freedom to be able to write for different people and to be able to do it on my own time. So that benefit, on balance, overrides whatever pitfalls that have been.

But was it easy taking this decision considering the fact that you have a family and that freelancing doesn’t pay too well as opposed to a full-time job?

The financial part was not a consideration for me at all. Just to give you a background – and I don’t want to sound immodest when I say this – I developed a certain reputation while reviewing books and that happened when my blog became popular a few months after I started it in 2004. That time was a tipping point for many Indian blogs and readership was on the rise. As it happens, a lot of people in Indian media circles read blogs quite extensively; with the result that I was getting a lot of job offers from senior editors of various publications.  And these offers were courtesy the blog writing and not Business Standard. In fact, I had all but said yes to one of the offers. That’s when Business Standard – which has a creditable history of flexibility for employees it holds in high esteem – and asked me about my long term plans. I told them that I don’t see myself attached to the whole office routine system. So, the editor made me an offer wherein I did a certain amount of work for them and would pay me pretty much the same amount which I was earning as a full time employee. And I would be allowed to work out of home – maybe come in once a week for production work – and write for others. So this instantly clicked for me.  So now I was getting paid by Business Standard and was free to earn from others as well. And since independent freelance assignments do not pay well, I had ensured monetary security for myself.

Did you start Jabberwock, as a means to promote your journalistic work or did you have an opinion on other things as well which you wanted to write about?

No, I didn’t start the blog to promote anything. In fact, when I started blogging, I was woefully naïve. I didn’t have the slightest sense that the blog could lead me to a situation where a lot of people in high places are reading it and I would get job offers. When I started the blog in September 2004, I sent the link to exactly six people. And these are people who I knew liked my writing.  I started it thinking that a) it would be a storehouse for some of my journalistic writings, b) it would serve as an online notepad where I could make notes about films I had seen or books I read; notes that weren’t formal structured reviews – just ideas that came to my mind. I never imagined that the blog would develop the readership it has. In fact, till date, I am embarrassed at some level when someone comes up to me and says  ‘I read your blog.’ It makes me cringe at a level. Even though, on a detached level, I know that the blog is fairly popular. But, somewhere, it still hasn’t quite sunk in that a blog – where I put up scattered notes – has developed a readership. So, no, no intent at all.

A lot of people comment on your scattered notes and your journalistic writing as well. Do you ever change your thoughts/writings as per their comments or do you just write what you feel like?

I suppose, at a sub-conscious level, they do. I have had a lot of very nasty and flattering comments and how can you not be influenced by them? I am quite intense about my writing. For instance, if I do a really lengthy review of a book or a film that I feel very strongly about, it becomes very personal.  In fact – going off-tangent slightly – I laugh a little when someone says that I’m not a personal blogger. Because a book or a film I feel passionately about is more personal than anything else.  So, comments in either extreme, good or bad, will influence you at some level.  But, overall, I have tried to stay true to what’s going in my head. If I have something going on in my mind which I need to get out onto this online forum, I try and do it the way that I would best be able to do it. I don’t think there’s ever been a conscious process that ‘Oh, comment said this, so my next post about a subject has to be written in a certain way.’  That hasn’t happened consciously. Subconsciously- well, that’s a terrain for the philosophers!

On a different note, 2008 was a great year for Indian publishing and a lot of new writing came to the fore.  As a literary critic, what do you foresee for publishing in 2009? Which are the authors you think will create a buzz?

Well, there’s this new wave of Pakistani writing which is coming up, spearheaded these days by this very high quality and much hyped short story collection by Daniyal Mueenuddin called In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. It’s interesting for various reasons because it’s going to show us new sides of Pakistan which most insulated people don’t get to see. We tend to have very tunnel-vision perceptions about that country. Other books I am looking forward to are by bloggers Amit Varma, (My Friend Sancho) and Chandrahas Choudhary ( Arzee The Dwarf). Another personal favourite is Kazuo Ishiguro – a Japanese origin writer based in England – whose collection of short stories, Nocturne, is also coming out this year.

In Pictures: The Jaipur litfest


Since I've already written a short summary about the literature festival, I thought it wise to do a photo-feature of the event. And as it is, the blog is very...umm...texty so I think a photo-feature will provide the much needed balance. Enjoy!

Sonia Falerio in conversation with Vikram Seth.

An amusing and lively start to the proceedings. Seth joked about how unfair mum Leila was when she threw him off the bestseller list with her debut novel. As he sipped red wine, Seth also recounted how neighbours were perplexed when told that Seth would spend most of his time just writing! His friends called him a "gregarious hermit" and, as he sipped his red wine, Seth recounted how his parents were a bit worried when he wanted to quit studying at Stanford and become a full-time writer ("Son, why don't you first finish studying and then think about writing?"). However, next day, the local press wasn't amused about his wine-drinking traits!

William Dalrymple, Siddharth Varadarajan, Malise Ruthven and Basharat Peer discuss the fundamentals of fundamentalism.

A profound and engaging session which opened with Dalrymple introducing the panelists and Ruthven making the opening remarks. Peer talked about how women in the Kashmir valley live under the fear of the Dukhtaran-E-Millat - a radical Islamic organisation - known to deface women who are clad in western clothes. During the post session Q&A, Varadarajan said that the phrase "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" holds no meaning.

Chetan Bhagat in conversation with Jai Arjun Singh and Namita Gokhale

Sometimes, an author's popularity can be judged just by the number of people who are in attendance to hear him/her speak. I reached the venue half-an-hour before Chetan's session was scheduled to start and was surprised to find half the seats filled up. Within the next 15 minutes, I saw people jostling for space and squatting on the floor. No doubt, Chetan got a rousing reception as he arrived, and went on to speak on a range of issues - being panned by critics, how 'literary' he actually is, the audience he caters to, the 'real' India which is often neglected by the media and his growth as. But the real fun started during the Q&A session, when school kids - clearly in awe of Chetan - stuttered while asking him questions. Even better were his replies. The lady sitting next to me exclaimed  "Touche!" or "Soooo Cute!" after his smart one-liners. The session was anything but literary and proved to be a great hit. In the end, it took us 15 minutes to get out of the hall as crowds gheraoed Chetan for autographs and photographs. His reaction? "Well, if such huge crowds have turned up to see me, you can very well imagine what'll happen when Mr. Bachchan arrives!"

William Dalrymple in conversation with Vikas Swarup

Firstly, whoever called this a 'session' had got it completely wrong. For, it seemed as if two long lost buddies were bantering around before an enthusiastic audience. Sample this: Willy to Vikas "If you, Navtej Sarna and a few others have started writing books, who's running India's External Affairs Ministry?". And this: (Vikas Swarup) "After the film was made, I never saw it for a long time. Suddenly, the media is scrambling for interviews and I don't have a clue. So I decided to see what the hell this movie is about!" Peppered with a generous dose of bollywood, Slumdog Millionaire and hilarious one-liners ("A diplomat will tell you to go to hell in such a manner that you actually look forward to the trip!" Vikas Swarup) the last session was a perfect way to wind up the first day. And lit up the evening which was filled with music, food and booze.

(L to R) Mohammed Hanif in conversation with Basharat Peer

Wit. That's the only word which comes to my mind when I think about this session because it was so full of it. It was also one of the few sessions where the author (in this case, Hanif) read out lengthy paragraphs from his book. That could be because Basharat's public speaking skills were pretty disappointing. But, Hanif more than made up for them as he read out passages from A Case of Exploding Mangoes (The "There is no god but Allah" one is a favourite) with the most deadpan of looks on his face. And it didn't stop here. In fact, his most quotable quote was reserved for the Q&A session. "You know, you guys should have invited Pervez Musharraf here. His autobiography is a good work of fiction!"

(L to R) Pico Iyer in conversation with Patrick French

I was very very apprehensive about attending this session. In fact, I had all but skipped it. I remember that, when I told my ex-boss about the subject of discussion, she exclaimed "Oh God!!". Clearly, not a very encouraging reaction. But, I am glad I did attend it for it was a riveting and engaging discussion about V.S. Naipaul - a man who's known for his literature yet, remains so reclusive. French read out passages from his book The World Is What It Is, Naipaul's authorised biography, leaving people bemused and curious about the Nobel laureate. Another reason why I attended the session was because I really enjoyed French's piece in Tehelka as he accompanied Nawaz Sharif on his return journey to Pakistan. 

(Lto R) Hari Kunzru in conversation with Jai Arjun Singh

By far, the most profound session of the festival.  Apparently, Hari is one of the most underrated writers of Indian origin (since I haven't read his books, I can't say for sure) and, as Jai informed us at the start of this session, My Revolutions is of very high quality but, surprisingly, didn't get due attention in India. Anyway, I started losing track of the rather 'heavy-duty' discussion soon after Hari mentioned that he was in the process of writing something which is set in the 16th century. And I'm pretty sure the audience was bored as this was perhaps the only session where the compere was looking for eager questioners!

(L to R) Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Shoma Chaudhary

A casual mention of Shashi Tharoor's session elicited an amusing response from somebody at the festival. "You know, words drip out of his mouth like oil off a baby's bottom!". And that's exactly what happened. Lucid, articulate and profound, Tharoor not only spoke about his latest book, but also about his vision for India. Be it relations with Pakistan and China or India's domestic concerns such as Naxal violence, education and poverty, Tharoor's eloquent argument held his audience in a trance. Quotable quotes? Yes, many, but his speech was so profound that I can only recall one about Pakistan. "In India, the State has the army whereas in Pakistan, the army has the State." However, the flip side of such a profound session was that the audience didn't get enough time to ask him questions. During the one hour session, Tharoor dominated proceedings for 45 minutes after which Shoma used her prerogative as moderator to ask a question. Hence, only 3 members of the audience could ask questions. 

With that, the photo feature comes to a close. Sadly, I couldn't attend the clash of civilizations debate the next day as I left for Delhi; exhausted - yet thrilled - from the experience.

P.S. A small anecdote. When the Kashmir session was about to begin, Patrick French realised that the hall was full and couldn't find a seat. I sacrificed my front row seat for his comfort in exchange for an interview ("It's a deal!" were his words). So if anyone out there has Mr French's email address/other contact details, please do let me know. :-) 

Interview: Ravi Singh


Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, Penguin Books India

The impression in the minds of most young people is that a publishing house just has two departments: copy edit and public relations. Is that the case or is there more to publishing than copy editing and PR?

No, there’s a lot more to it. Let’s start with the editorial side. You have commissioning; where commissioning editors go out and find the books. They may also copy edit, but not always. So, they are the ones who come up with the idea, get in touch with authors and do a primary edit. After that, the copy editors take over and they will do the edit and line edit etc. And then there is the design department which is very important; because increasingly the look of the book is becoming very important.  And then there’s the production department where you have people to see the book through at the printers – they choose the paper, the binding and ensure that you hold a well produced book. And then you have, as you said, a marketing and promotions department which is crucial because you publish books but you also want them to be marketed well and people should know about them.  So that’s a very crucial aspect of publishing. And of course, there’s the sales department. You have to have a good sales team who take the book through retailers and distributors to get it sold. The general public knows them as customer relations people because they are the people who get process and collect orders. And because we are a large publishing house, we also need a warehouse and people to manage the inventory there. You also have a finance department as author royalties need to be paid and expenses need to be managed. There’s also a rights departments because, for some books, you can sell the rights for them to be translated in other languages or in other territories.  So yes, it is a big operation and organisation.

Can you retrace for the readers the journey of Penguin Books India? What it was when it started and its growth over the years?

The Penguin India office was set up in 1985, although publishing had not started back then. The office was set up by David Davidar and Zamir Ansari was head of the sales division. Then, they worked together to get the books in because the idea was not to get Penguin UK or US titles as that was being done before. So, after the office was setup Penguin formally launched its publishing house with six titles in 1987. Interestingly, the range back then was non-fiction; we had a biography of P T Usha, Nude Before God, a novel by Shiv K Kumar, a translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Arjun, Anees Jung’s Unveiling India. So, even at that time the range was varied with travel, translation and fiction. And today, we publish 200 titles a year across genres.  Our aim was to publish the best book in every genre. But now, we publish in other areas where we didn’t earlier. For instance, business books have become a big area for us. We do genre fiction as well – not necessarily literary fiction, though we are seen as big literary fiction publishers even though literary fiction forms only 30 percent of our list. The remaining is non-fiction.  And then of course Penguin has – which no other publisher does – is the classics list. And not just international classics but also Indian classics. So, it’s been a great journey. The size of the market has grown and so have we.  

How did you get involved in publishing? Was it something you were always interested in or did it just come along the way?

I joined Penguin India in 1994 and at that time not many people were interested in publishing. But since then, things have changed so dramatically that, back then, I wouldn’t imagine young people asking questions about publishing. We just thought that books happened. We had heard of Oxford University Press and academic books were published but, apart from that, books came from abroad. Or books just mysteriously appeared! So, publishing was not a career you seriously thought of.

To me, it happened by accident because Penguin India had advertised in the newspapers looking for editorial assistants and I applied for the job. At that time, salaries were really very bad.  You had to be seriously interested in publishing or in holding onto your job (which is what many of us did) to stay in. Things back then were tough but also very exciting because you interacted with a different breed of authors. You got immersed into your job.

There’s a myth amongst people that a publishing house doesn’t pay as well as say, a media house would. Is that correct?

Not any longer.  You’re comparing an industry like journalism with publishing which is much much smaller.  Entry level and middle level people get paid pretty much the same as their counterparts in media organisations.  But what happens is that – in journalism – you have a greater number of people who work at the middle level. Also, the other thing is that in journalism, it allows for many levels of employment.  You can keep moving up at different levels. That doesn’t happen in publishing.  In fact, the CEO of a publishing house wouldn’t get paid the same amount of money as the head of a TV news channel. But those are realities which people will have to accept because publishing doesn’t earn its money through advertising. It’s just book sales.

How important is research and fact checking on part of the publishing house? Especially since the bulk of your titles is non-fiction. Of course, the author does his research but how do you as a publishing house corroborate and cross-check the author’s work?

See when you approach an author who, you think, is going to do a good book, you trust them to come with interesting and accurate information.  But yes, it is very important to edit it with the knowledge of the subject. So, if it is a very specialised book, then you would go to people who are referees – specialists in that particular subject. And they would look at it for an honorarium. But mostly what happens in trade publishing – by that I mean general books publishing – we look for editors who have a wide range of interests, are eclectic and have a really good sense of what’s going on in the world. And are pay attention to detail.

The criteria which you’ve laid out suggest that aspiring or have-been journalists make for good editors.

Not always. And why I say that is because a good journalist would be somebody who knows his/her facts gets the information and goes out there to find a story. But, in publishing, books are about telling a story. And not just in fiction but in good non-fiction books as well. And that may not be the skill that a journalist might possess. Even the best journalists, who write very well, write a 1000-word article. You must also remember that at there is a very essential difference i.e. a journalist wants a byline – there is a sense of possession. Editors cannot afford to do that because their job really is to be invisible.  If the author wants to acknowledge you, he/she will write your name in the acknowledgments section. But that’s about it.  Editors need to be able to judge a book, make it look better, help the writer and do so in an unobtrusive manner.

Another thing I have observed over the past few years is that a lot of small publishing houses have mushroomed all of a sudden. Do you think it will dilute the quality books in any manner?

No definitely not. I think anything that adds variety and diversity in a list, can’t harm quality. In fact, it’s good because if you have the same kind of books – and what people call ‘literary books’ – then it defeats the purpose because you’re limiting or shrinking the market. One has to be democratic and practical about this. You need good books in every genre. And people talk of mass market or best selling commercial books as if they happened in 2008. Remember, Shobhaa De’s first novel came out in 1990. So I don’t think it weakens anybody’s list to have different kinds of books. The only thing is not to have shoddily done books in any genre. A bad literary novel is something I wouldn’t spend my money on but I would definitely do the same for a potboiler.

2008 was a great year for Indian publishing. We also saw the emergence of Pakistani writers in the past year. What do you foresee for the year 2009?

I think 2009 is only going to get better and stronger.  The meltdown has affected the sales of books in India so, to some extent, it’ll be slightly tough.  But it will last only a few months and it won’t affect the growth that we’re seeing in publishing – different publishers coming in and more writers getting published. Last year, I did say that we need to exercise caution and triumphalism is not good. Yes, things are improving but there’s no explosion in terms of growth happening. This year, I would say growth is happening but let’s not overstate the case. Let’s watch how things are going and be careful about how we help this industry grow.

Looking at the Penguin list, one gets the impression that you publish very thoughtful and literary books. One finds books by Amitava Ghosh and William Dalrymple on your list but not something like a Zoya Factor. Is this a conscious attempt? Also, what books can we look forward to from Penguin India in 2009?

 It’s great to see that our books are considered literary, thoughtful and enduring. That said, we would’ve loved to publish Zoya Factor. As I said, we have to publish the best book in each genre. For instance, last year we published this book called A Girl Like Me by Swati Kaushal who’s first was Piece of Cake.  Somebody called these books ‘chick-lit’; a term which I don’t understand.  A well written book is a good read. And we’ve constantly been experimenting with books. We published Samit Basu’s Fantasy and Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series re-tells the Ramayana in a fantasy mould. Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s book You Are Here is another example where we experimented with genres. So, yes, we are doing different sort of books.  In 2009, we are continuing Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series. Two books in this series will be produced as graphic novels.  His Mahabharata series is also coming up.  Then we are publishing a graphic novel called Hotel at the end of the world by Parismita Singh.  And we definitely will concentrate on finance market books.  These are not typically business books but they are general non-fction, insipirational and, at the same time, deal with business. For instance, Subroto Bagchi’s The Ethical Worker is in the context of the Satyam scam.

In our non-fiction section you’ll see an anthology on confronting terrorism put together by Maroof Raza.  There’s also a book on the Mumbai attacks. Then we have N R Narayana Murthy’s new book Better India, Better World which is a cross between A P J Abdul Kalam’s book and Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India. We are also publishing Gurcharan Das and Rajmohan Gandhi’s new books. Pavan K Varma’s Becoming Indians: The Unfinished Evolution – it’s about countries where cultural growth has been interrupted or skewed due to colonialism – will be out soon.  We will also be publishing Shekhar Gupta’s National Interest – a collection of his columns which appear in the Indian Express. So 60-70% of our books are non-fiction and that will remain the case. And I see this happening with other publishers too because, in the Indian books market, non-fiction outsells fiction.

Rukavat ke liye khed hai!


Sorry for the interruption in the interview series, but there's something that's been bothering me over the past few days: the Prime Minister's ill health. Well, not his ill health per se, but the consequences of it. As you all know, the Prime Minister underwent a 12 hour redo-bypass surgery earlier this month. In his absence, his duties were divided between Vice-President Hamid Ansari and external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee. And this was because there is neither a provision in the Constitution nor any agreed convention as to who should officiate in the Prime Minister's position should he become incapcitated. Mind you, I do not use the word death because once the Prime Minister dies, the cabinet ceases to exist. In this particular case, the Prime Minister has been deemed unfit to perform his official duties for a few days. Now, the question arises as to who should officiate on behalf of the Prime Minister if such a situation takes place in future.

I was watching an interesting debate on CNBC-TV18 on Sunday night anchored by Karan Thapar where analyst K Subhramanyam, Business Standard editor-in-chief T N Ninan and former deputy national security advisor Satish Chandra analysed the issue in detail. They also discussed a few plausible solutions to this problem such as having a Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) or nominating the seniormost cabinet minister to officiate in the Prime Minister's absence. I beg to differ with both issues on a few counts. Let's take the first one. The post of Deputy Prime Minister is not a constitutional post and whether or not to have a DPM is the Prime Minister's prerogative. If we look at past DPM's, barring L K Advani, most of them were given the position due to compulsions of coalition politics (or other political compulsions). Also, a DPM, in certain cases, may not be competent enough or may not have the requisite political experience to officiate as Prime Minister. He/she may have been given the post to satisy the demand of an ally or to balance other political equations. Lastly, in an era of coalition politics, there may be some political allies of the government who may not be comfortable with the DPM taking over as PM even if it is temporary arrangement. Sample this; if the NDA were in power with Advani as DPM and Mr Vajpayee were to undergo a similar surgery, I doubt that many NDA allies would favour Mr Advani to take over. Hence, this doesn't prove to be a feasible solution.
Now, the second solution offered is that the seniormost cabinet minister officiates in the PM's abesence. Till date, all the seniormost cabinet ministers of governments which have lasted their full term - Jagjivan Ram, Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee, L K Advani - have belonged to the same political party which the Prime Minister also belongs to. However, what if, in future, the seniormost cabinet member belongs to party which the Prime Minister doesn't belong to? And, in an era of coalition politics. such a possiblity cannot be ruled out. Also, in such a scenario, the seniormost cabinet member's party may not have the appropriate representation in Parliament. Moreover, the office he/she holds - Home, Defence, External Affairs, Finance - may be due to the compulsions of coalition politics. Most importantly, the allies may start squabbling amongst themselves, thereby making it difficult for this person to function. Hence, would it be fair to have the seniormost cabinet minister in the Prime Minister's seat? I guess not.

So what, then, are the solutions to such a peculiar problem? One of them could be that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) officiates in the Prime Minister's absence. And I say this after giving the solution a lot of thought. Firstly, nobody can dispute the importance of the post he/she holds. Secondly, the CJI fulfills the requisite criteria of being knowledgable about the law of the land and, most importantly, he would be the appropriate neutral authority who would command the respect of all allies of the government. Moreover, the Prime Minister is also the chairperson of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) which means he/she can give the go-ahead in the event of a nuclear war. In this context, the NCA would require a person who has the requisite knowledge and authority to head such a body, should a nuclear war break out. Therefore, it is on these counts that the Chief Justice of India should officiate in the Prime Minister's absence, should he be incapacitated.

Again, the above solution is not the only solution. There maybe legal hurdles in the CJI taking over and other better solutions which will benefit the country. The idea behind this post is to suggest a person of considerable stature and authority who can officiate in the absence of the PM. Readers are most welcome to post alternative suggestions as well.

For now, it's back to the interview series.