Saturday, October 28, 2006

India strikes the write note
The Indian presence at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair stirred remarkable interest. Indian authors and publishers drew unprecedented international attention that could translate into more business for them, reports Pratik Kanjilal

Shashi Tharoor at the inauguration
Shashi Tharoor at the inauguration

The Frankfurt Book Fair, which closed recently, is an annual barometer of the world book trade. The proportion of the fair’s 100,000 square metres of carpet area booked by a nation is an index of the energy of its publishing industry. And the deals worth 600 million Euros which are negotiated in the five days when Frankfurt becomes the intellectual and cultural capital of the world set the trends of global publishing.

This year, Frankfurt’s barometer indicated the arrival of India — and also Asia — on the international book scene. "China has doubled its presence this year, while Thailand and Taiwan’s presence rose by 40 per cent and Japan’s by 20 per cent," said Juergen Boos, President of the Frankfurt Book Fair. India, with 175-odd exhibitors, was Guest of Honour, basking in the attention of the 2.5 lakh visitors that the fair attracts.

"The timing was just right," added Boos. "India has been constantly in the news for several months. Its economic progress and diversity of cultures now fascinate the whole world and its political debates are of interest to all nations." Indeed, one major German newspaper, Die Zeit, produced an entire tabloid supplement on India for the fair, while another, Die Tageszeit, actually printed its masthead in Devanagari. And it wasn’t misspelt either, unlike the infamous Hindi tattoo on David Beckham’s forearm.

National Book Trust anchored the Indian presence at the Fair
National Book Trust anchored the Indian presence at the Fair

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, with author Mahasweta Devi, the Cultural Speaker for this year
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, with author Mahasweta Devi, the Cultural Speaker for this year. — Photos by Reuters

Meanwhile, Karan Johar drew bigger crowds than Zadie Smith or G`FCnter Grass, and it wasn’t just his desi fans. Good, solid Rhinemaidens were queuing up for his autograph and preparing to faint away when they didn’t get it.

The India hype had spilled out of the fairgrounds and infected Germany at large. The Incredible India ad ran constantly on news channels. India was in focus in the business news, with stories covering B`F6rsengurus (stockbrokers) on Dalalstrasse (Dalal Street) and alternative energy entrepreneurs, and posing that eternally intriguing question: what is Reliance up to now? Flip the remote and you could find yourself watching Devdas, with Aishwariya Rai speaking echt Deutsch. Flip again and you could catch G`FCnter Grass and Amitav Ghosh discussing the Battle of Kohima and the Indian National Amy.

Indian authors were out in brigade strength, ranging from the predictable Indian writers in English like Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor and Amit Chaudhuri to stars from Indian languages who are unfortunately less widely read in Europe, such as Girish Karnad, Gulzar, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Uday Prakash, Paul Zacharia, Javed Akhtar, Gurdial Singh, Surjit Pattar, Gagan Gill and Namdeo Dhasal. And the highlight of the fair’s cultural calendar, Dhwani, which featured performances by modernists like Chandralekha, Astad Deboo and Navtej Johar, along with numerous troupes and musicians from the classical and folk traditions, sold out the city’s Old Opera House.

India had been Guest of Honour once before, precisely 20 years ago, when we were cold-shouldered by western publishers. "The event in 1986 had no consequence at all," said Peter Ripken of Germany’s Society for the Promotion of African, Asian and Latin American Literature. "English publishers had some success, but the rest remained trapped in their own languages, in the ghetto of incompetence. Ventures to promote regional literatures flopped. That syndrome persisted for a long time, but now India is a giant."

"Your delegates went back disappointed that time," recalled G`FCnter Grass. "They knew all about us. I remember I’d go to a decrepit old house in Calcutta, I’d be ushered into the library by an elderly gentleman and Ifind all the western classics — Rilke, the Russians, English literature. India has been enormously interested in Europe and in 1986, that interest was not reciprocated. It’s different now. Now, the German readership would welcome Saadat Hasan Manto’s modernism, for instance."

"This time, we have a post-Independence delegation," said Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee at the preview of a display of Indian books organised by the National Book Trust. "There are many younger writers who have grown up in postcolonial times and are conscious of their place in the common destiny of world literature." Added Ashok Vajpayee, Hindi poet and literary evangelist: "What we represent is modern India, not the wise, Indological India that Europe has always known. This is about today’s concerns, today’s dreams and nightmares — the very stuff of contemporary literature."

One can only wonder what happened back in 1986, a year in which it must have been particularly difficult to ignore Indian writing. Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason was just out and the Rushdiemania that had started with Midnight’s Children in 1981 was yet to die down. What went wrong is not obvious, and one can only hope that we got it right in 2006.

This time round, we had so many writers and artistes in Frankfurt that if someone had bombed the inaugural function held on German Reunification Day at the packed book fair cinema hall, most of contemporary Indian literature would have been blown away. As it happened, two of the speakers did try to blow the audience away, each in their own inimitable way. Writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, the special ‘cultural speaker’ this year, came up with a highly personal, poetically charged and scarcely comprehensible manifesto on the right to dream, which she considers to be the first fundamental right. And Arjun Singh, a "modest book-lover with an abiding faith in pluralism," with his incessant, atonal droning sent people rushing out of the hall as if they had been hit by a sonic weapon. A pity he droned, because he had meaningful things to say on the role of literature in reducing misunderstandings in a world that is increasingly founded on mistrust.

"Books are the foreign ministers of the arts," agreed Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, who had just finished reading Kiran Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier, which is now out in German. Part of the current interest in Indian literature overseas owes to the realisation that India has faced and weathered with considerable success many of the problems which now bedevil western society. As Rajmohan Gandhi said at a discussion with Amitav Ghosh and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, "In its attempts to solve the Hindu-Muslim problem, India offers a microcosm of the world."

Equally, India is a model for the multicultural society that western democracies are now coming to terms with. "It will be well worth Germany’s while to take a closer look at India," said Steinmeier. "Next year, Germany takes over the Presidency of the European Union, a project to unite 450 million people in 27 countries with 20 languages and diverse religious communities. India unites over a billion people in 35 states and union territories in which over 400 languages and dialects are spoken, where the Prime Minister is a Sikh, the President is a Muslim and the political party in office is led by a woman with a Christian background."

So the stage is set. In the last two decades, India has transformed itself in the international imagination from the land of instant nirvana and kundalini jagran to a country which has credible solutions for social and political problems which the whole world now faces. But did we get it right this time? Not entirely, it seems, despite a budget in the region of Rs 20 crore and a delegation that would stretch a jetliner’s capacity.

"The National Book Trust, which anchored the Indian presence, leaves a lot to be desired," said an independent publisher. "They were running around with their star writers, while the Frankfurt Book Fair is about publishers." Added Ripken, who had brought several Indian publishers to the show: "I think NBT is doing a lousy job. The way translations are organised is a disaster. If an author comes to a promotional reading in Europe with a bad translation, he’s dead on arrival. I had hoped for a breakthrough in the translation problem this year. They were going to produce an anthology of writers who had never been translated into German — a literary atlas cum business card that would have helped us to generate interest. But the material did not come in on time."

The predictable shortcomings of our government, however, cannot detract from the effect of the media blitz that surrounded the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. "Our publishers have been drawing unprecedented attention this year; I’m sure this will rub off on rights sales," said Urvashi Butalia, founder of the feminist publishing house Zubaan. Added Boos: "Unlike earlier, European publishers are very eager to outsource to India. It’s a lot of business and we’re likely to see a lot of deals go through." There is yet no news of a significant deal on an Indian title at Frankfurt, but typically, negotiations begun at the book fair are concluded later, elsewhere. It will be some time before we know of the outcome of the 2006 book fair, and perhaps it will not be inconsiderable.

FAQs about Frankfurt

With 7,272 exhibitors from 113 countries, this is the biggest book fair in the world. At the ripe age of 58, it is also the oldest.

Business deals negotiated at Frankfurt are estimated to be in the region of 600 million Euros. Physical books aren’t bought and sold at Frankfurt, publication rights and licences are.

The fair has one lakh square metres of carpet area, about the size of 14 football fields. In a brilliant display of German efficiency, the carpeting is all laid down in one night on the eve of the fair.

Visitors travel through the book fair exactly like they would in an international airport, using shuttle buses, escalators, lifts and miles of conveyor belts.

Only 43 per cent of the titles on display are traditional books. The rest is made up of magazines, journals, newspapers, CD-ROMs (8.5 per cent), audiobooks and podcasts (5.2 per cent) and calendars, postcards, etc.

Women rule the book fair. Last year, 64.6 per cent of the private visitors and 52.1 per cent of the trade visitors were women.

Germany’s interest in global publishing may have been sparked off by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the national poet who grew up in Frankfurt and coined the term ‘world literature’.

A small alternative book fair does a roaring trade outside the venue, selling second-hand books and dated titles. The discounts on offer would put a dollar store to shame.