Leaps Never Made

Everyone knew everything about everyone else in the neighborhood – this was your typical middle income neighborhood in India, you see. The kids could go into any house they pleased, and get lots of good food and free advice. Every adult (loosely defined as anyone five years older than you) was encouraged (even expected) to discipline you – stop playing, start studying, don’t ride your bike too fast – it was like living in a prep school with a teacher-student ratio that would make the lefties delirious.

The whole colony (for that’s what neighborhoods were called then) laughed when Pushpamma’s son sent a money order back to himself; cried when Kumar Mami’s husband passed away, and clicked tongues in disgust when Jayarani akka “love” married. It sympathized when Karikarar got scammed out of his money, pitied me on the street when I flunked a paper in college, listened as I angrily explained that it was NOT my fault, and demurred when I demanded to know how it knew.

So, yes, we all knew a lot about each other.

And that’s how I knew that people bought a lot of magazines. Every household I went to (eat, play, wander about) bought at least two a week – in addition to the daily newspaper. Kumudam and Vikatan, Kungumam and Idhayam, Saavi and Rani, one or the other. Drawing Master had the Illustrated Weekly delivered weekly (“to improve Babykka’s English”) and only stopped it when they published some pictures of naked women (Later he switched over to The Week, and always had the postman deliver it to his school address).

Strangely though, no one bought books.1

Hours were spent reading serialized fiction from magazines, and hours more were spent discussing what happened and what might happen, but that was it. The occasional maverick would buy a “monthly,” – sensationalized murder mysteries that a clueless moron churned out every month, but that was it.

There was a lot of patience exhibited for serialized fiction – read a few pages, wait for next week’s issue; read, wait; read, wait… but the patience never extended to buying a good book, and reading it a few pages at a time. Dense vernacular fiction was lapped up when presented in magazines, the lightest novel was ignored when published. Poring over The Hindu for a long time was a sign of intellectual accomplishment (or a way to get there), but spending a few minutes reading Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn was wasting time.

No wonder the Tamil publishing industry languishes, with a 5000 copy run considered outstanding. No wonder every writer wants to become the clueless moron churning out sensationalized murder mysteries. No wonder the one guy (with skin thinner than Antara Mali2) that sells a few more books than the others is deified, and (ironically enough) all the magazines want him to write serialized novels for them. No wonder there hasn’t been a book of note for the last twenty years, and no wonder all the good writers out of India want to write in English.

But why?

[1] Rapidex English Course, Guide to Get Government Jobs, Lifco English to Tamil Dictionary etc. don’t count.

[2] Not counting extraneous appendages.

13 thoughts on “Leaps Never Made”

  1. Karthik,

    Nice anecdotes, good point but don’t think I agree completely. I do think that the two regional languages that I can speak for Tamil and Malayalam both have a strong literary scene comparable to Bengali or Marathi. In Malayalam, writers like MT Vasudevan Nair and O. Vijayan are extremely talented and widely successful. In Tamil, Sujatha, Jayakanthan are all quite successful, aren’t they? I am sure if I talk to my Dad, he will give me a long list of modern Tamil writers!

    Also don’t think that we, as a culture don’t buy books. My parents even bought me pulp like Nancy Drew et al! Though come to think of it, most of the books I read, I just got them from the nearby library.


  2. listened as I angrily explained that it was NOT my fault

    I’m sure you also told them who really was at fault. Maybe you should write about that one day. I’m sure people will side with your theory.

    As for the post, I can totally relate to it. My Dad quotes Vallathol(a Mallu poet) every chance he gets. So I asked if he owned any of his works and my Dad looked at me as if I were crazy (the same look I get when I tell him that Ilaiyaraja is God).

  3. Yup _ I don’t know why they don’t like buying books. My neighbor even borrowed the OED from us. we finally convinced him that it would be healthier for him to have his own.

    Plus we had an exchange going for the Sunday magazine 0f Hindu & IE.

    The “code” smuggler-style was ‘Give me the gold and take the diamonds!’

  4. Veena, I am sure there will be exceptions. We (bless my brother) used to buy a lot of books too, but I was talking more about the average person on the street. Sujatha sells well, but you know what, I can’t think of a single novel of his that was conceived as a book – every one of his bestselling books was born from something he wrote for a magazine. Serialized fiction is not bad, but it involves compromises: a hook at the end of each chapter doesn’t let a creator write very freely. Jayakanthan has stopped writing now, he talks more than he writes. And like I said, most books in Tamil do poorly – a few thousand copies is considered very good. Not sure about Kerala.

    TN and Kerala have the highest newspaper and magazine readership in India – my question (concern) is why are book sales not commensurate with this. Not counting the people who have the resources/inclination to go to Landmark and buy Rushdie and Seth, I am surprised that people who enjoy reading (from magazine sales numbers) don’t want to go one step further and read books. Is it the lack of good books?

    And it seems to be getting worse. There is a lot of noise being made about TV killing movies, but it is killing books even more. Every publishing house in T.Nagar is struggling – Manimegalai, which used to publish the (enjoyable, if a bit cliched) Tamilvanan books is now reduced to recyling their old books or publishing self-help books. Most publishers run after Sujatha and a few other writers as soon as they start writing something for a magazine. Plus, Sujatha and Jayakanthan (I hate to group these guys together) aren’t exactly young: where are the new guys? Walk into Landmark’s regional books section, or Higginbothams and you’ll see what I mean – it is the same Ponniyin Selvan and Kadal Pura, a few books from Balakumaran, Sujatha, Lakshmi and Vaasanthi. Year after year after year, these shelves never seem to change.

    I don’t know if it is cultural, but it is something that baffles me.

    Manoj: You can laugh all you want, but make sure you stay away from people when they go to check results. Unless you don’t like them.

    Tilo: Let me guess, Hindu was diamonds? Yeah, we tried a magazine exchange thing for a few weeks, but it was too hard to sustain.

  5. Most educated Tamil guys prefer reading English books. As long as we have the complex against Tamil and a bias towards English it would be hard to expect any good stuff further from Tamil writers. Throw in satv TV channels, Internet etc. I am partly speaking from personal experience here. Sometimes I find the mere thought of reading a 500-page book mind-boggling amidst my daily work schedule and additional stress from day-to-day things. Like me, I know many who had dropped book reading since college days when we never used to do much other than hang around in hostels with books in ourt hands. I guess watching a good movie or reading good articles (or doing hundreds of other things) on the net has substituted for reading books.People are seeking instant gratification these days.

    Also there is the other issue. I know many friends(Chennai-tes especially) who are Tamilians but are Tamil illiterates – they are fluent in English but would need a couple of minutes to figure out the destination written on a Pallavan bus.(Of course in college crowds its also not uncommon to see a few “mara thamizhans”)
    With the IT/call center culture well prevalent, just no incentives to reading Tamil books anymore I guess. Some of them figure that reading English novels would atleast aid them in their GRE or TOEFL tests.How many Tamnilians from IITs or other reputed Engineering colleges have you seen who claim to have a serious interest in Tamil literature? I have seen about 2 or 3 out of several hundred

    If the elite educated audience prefer reading English stuff the novel writers would only want bored housewives of working class people to be their target audience and that in turn reflects in the quality of their novels.

  6. It is a vicious cycle – people dont read, writers don’t write. You make good points, I am not if things’ll change ever.

    We need an Illayaraja who’ll write so well, that he’ll make reading Tamil cool again!

  7. I guess looking for the Tamil section in Landmark and Higginbothams may not be a clear indicator of the current state of Tamil literature. These bookshops feel that vernacular is not popular and hence don’t allocate enough shelf space. most of such space is given to yesteryear best-sellers as they are assured there will be some sales generated out of this.

    I have come across a few publishers and authors who were reasonably happy with the turnout and sales at the recent fairs. but lot of the sales might be coming from technology related books and self-help books. even manimekalai prasuram (which u mentioned earlier) has shifted to cookery, self-help…maybe reflecting the current trend in publishing.

    The future holds some hope for us.

  8. Kaps – self-help books are good, but they can’t sustain the literary value of a language. Not just Tamil – I am willing to bet the publishing scene throughout India is like this, most (not all) people seem to believe that you only read books that provide you some tangible benefit. Whatever happened to reading for reading’s sake?

  9. Kartik, things are changing and looking up. See my post titled A People Hungry for Knowledge which describes our experience in Tamil publishing which has been very positive.

    From when we got started in February 2004, we’ve published over 70 titles so far under our ??????? ????????? imprint, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find about 10 of them turning into best selling titles (over 2000 copies sold and counting) and many of the others selling well.

  10. A while ago I blogged about a visit to that old bookseller – alwarkadai. About the fact that he had mostly programming & exam guides and did not seem to care to know about what I wanted etc. I wondered if he is the same guy they write about… you know knowledgable – though illiterate etc. He seemed pretty disinterested in the whole process.

    Maybe I was just looking at a man who knows that people really don’t read anymore – except what they need to read – to ‘get ahead’ in life!

  11. Satya, Thanks for stopping by & glad to know that you guys are doing well.

    Your list of bestsellers just reinforces my point…

    * ??????? – ??? ???????? ??? – a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani
    * ???? ?????? ???? – a simple introduction to the how the stock market works
    * ????? ????? – a political history of America
    * 9/11 ???????? – ???????? – ?????? – a book on the 9/11 attack, who was behind it and how it was planned and executed
    * ????. – ??? ???????? ?????? – a political history of Pakistan
    * ??????? – ??? ???? ???????? – a simple introduction to Islam in an FAQ format
    * ??? ?????? – a biography of Ramana Maharishi

    Like Tilo says, “reading to get ahead in life” books.

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