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
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.