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Sunday, July 11, 1999
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"Authors are an ignored class in India"

KHUSHWANT SINGH calls him the "pushy publisher". Shobha De describes him as "a low key individual whose publishing list is middle brow and sensible... "And to these I can add that he’s probably the most business-like amongst publishers. So much so that about seven years back when he landed up with a heart attack, he didn’t contemplate taking a break, either from the publishing scene, or from the several columns he was writing. "Laying down I took to dictating my commentaries on the book scene from the hospital bed", says this 50 plus publisher Ashok Chopra, more recently in news for opening the country’s first even book club.

Interestingly, though he moved toward the publishing scene after he had to quit under political pressure as the Himachal correspondent of a national daily, he never could give up writing — either writing himself or making others write for him. In fact 80 per cent of the works he has published are books he has himself commissioned — he has restricted himself to column and feature writing. "Why I haven’t written a book is because I’m not meant for a book. For writing a book it isn’t just the command over the language that is required but also discipline and tremendous will power. And then you also must have something to say", said Chopra in an interview with Humra Quraishi. He made others write for the various publishing houses he’d worked for, and now he makes them write for his own publishing house, Picus. A few of such celebrities are Shobha De, Khushwant Singh, TN Seshan, JN Dixit, Nani Palkhiwala, Nimret Handa and now the latest from his publishing house will be a book on defence strategies by the late General K. Sundarji. Excerpts:

What, according to you, is a good book?

A good book is like good sex.

Does that mean that you forget about it the minute you turn the last page and close it shut?

Of course not. One doesn’t forget good sex. It’s like a moment spent in someone’s company that leaves a definite mark, whilst a lifetime spent with somebody else may be worthless and forgotten totally. Similarly, one does’t forget a good book even 10 years after it is read, for it had the capacity to drain you mentally and physically and because it made you think.

Surprisingly, most of the books published by you have very little of the sexual overtones. So much so that Shobha De’s short story collection Small Betrayals, especially written to be published by you, was nil where sprinkling sexual masala was concerned. Also, your own reputation is that of a hardened business man who has probably little time for friends and frills.

So far as Shobha De’s short story collection goes, it was mutually decided to keep it that way for the sake of producing something different from her. Somehow, this could also be because I wanted something totally different from her, for I love taking risks and accepting challenges. On the other hand, whilst I was working for UBS and Vikas, I published and edited both the books by Balwant Gargi, and mind you, they were liberal with his sexual relationships. So that way there are no clear-cut rules. In fact, for me publishing a book is like making a Hindi film. It is like an industry in itself and the bottomline or the litmus test is the market. Coming to my own personal lifestyle, I think it is incorrect say that I have no time for friends. After the heart attack I follow a very disciplined lifestyle, but always appreciate the company of beautiful friends and writers.

Why are Indian publishers, with you included, allergic to publishing poetry and short story collections? Also, you are known to be heartless whilst accepting manuscripts. Comment.

In India poetry and short stories don’t really sell and that’s why publishers don’t really publish them. Yes, I return 95 to 98 per cent of the manuscripts sent to me. This is because the bottom line of publishing a book is to see whether it will sell and do well. In fact, here let me point out that 80 per cent of the total books published by me are commissioned, 10 per cent are from the manuscripts sent to me, and the remaining 10 per cent are reprints.

Why is it that every known Indian is busy writing his/her autobiography? By and large, are they truthful?

Most autobiographies written by Indians do not carry the whole truth, because we practice hypocrisy and a lot of double standards. There are, of course, exceptions Khushwant Singh will, of course, write a lot of truth but tell me, how many are lie him?

Why is it that anything published in the West is accepted by us and not vice-versa?

This is because we suffer from this complex, this hype of the West, and this won’t go easily because it seems entrenched deep in the system.

Do the Indian publishers carry their bias whilst accepting or rejecting manuscripts? Also, how many times have you rejected a manuscript not because of its content, but because of fears about its market acceptability?

Since we are human, so maybe personal bias could come along, but this generally doesn’t happen. As I told you earlier, I go by merit vis-a-vis the market. Yes, at times one is proved wrong but then, publishing books runs the same risks as making Hindi films.

Why do Indians give no priority to book buying?

It’s not only a question of just buying books. It is the question of the very attitude. We wouldn’t mind spending on a pair of Nike shoes worth Rs 4,000, but would hesitate to buy a book of that price range. We don’t know the difference between loneliness and solitude and the great majority of us don’t spend time thinking, talking to oneself or just by themselves. Then, we are not inquisitive enough. Even when we read a book we merely read it without feeling it. That’s probably why we grow up without knowing the difference between flowers or different species of butterflies. And the few who do buy books are very status conscious. I mean they would buy a Vikram Seth, for that would go with their status.

It is said that more than the Indian reader it is the Indian publishers who cheat the writers/authors. Is it true?

Authors are the most ignored class in the country. They have sweated it out, yet have rarely got a good deal. However, here I must say that my rapport with the authors is such that when last year I opened my own publishing company, several of my authors — which include Khushwant Singh, Shobha De, JN Dixit — offered to write for me, telling me that they would write for me irrespective of the royalty. I am known to take pains over manuscripts and go over these at least four times. Then I strongly feel that the promotion of the writer is very important. When I was working for UBSPD, around each book release I arranged for a debate or a panel discussion, whether it was Uma Vasudev’s novel or Mani Shankar Aiyar’s book on Pakistan.

As a publisher, are you biased in respect of authors? I ask this because as Shobha De writes in her autobiography Selective Memories: Stories From My Life’, you arranged a band of special dancers to receive her at the Calcutta airport and also had a red carpet rolled out for her at another book fair. Have you bestowed the same sort of treatment to your other writers/authors?

Every writer is different with a different personality. The glamorous reception one held out for her wouldn’t necessarily click with another author.

Have any of the manuscripts rejected by you found acceptance by another publishing house? And what are your reactions for having miscalculated or having lost a good deal?

I can’t think of any.

Any of the hyped books which you didn’t really find particularly great?

May be Upamanyu Chatterji’s English August and Rohinton Mistry’s Fine Balance.

What is your opinion of the book critics?

Difficult to comment on them. Actually literary critics as such are rare today. Sham Lal is one of the few literary critics.

You have set up your publishing company and now recently set up the country’s first book club. How have the rest of the publishers reacted to this?

I have the full cooperation of the publishers and stockists. It is just the retailers who are creating a noise.

There seems to be apparent disunity amongst publishers.

I should put it this way that there is a spirit of competitiveness amongst them.

The concept of the book club is totally new here. Has the book club launched by you been well received?

So well received that already we have about 14,000 members and out of these about 70 per cent are from small towns. Actually for sometime I had been toying with the idea but the problem was finances. But when I told Aroon Purie about this concept, he immediately took to it.

How would you describe the state of the Indo-Anglican writing, especially during the later half of the century?

Writing about Indian literature in English, VS Naipual had pointed out in 1964 that it had ceased to exist "The only writer who, while writing from within society, is able to impose on it a vision which is an acceptable type of comment is Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. And she is European." Yet, in 1997 Salman Rushdie in an introduction to Indian writing in English had gone on to say that "prose writing — both fiction and non fiction — created in this period of Indian writers" writing in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 official languages during the same time, and, indeed, this new, still burgeoning, Indo-Anglican literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made in the world of books". Both these statements received a fair amount of flak — Naipaul’s from the emerging group of Indian writers in English, and Rushdie’s from Indian regional language writers, who protested against his charges of "parochialism instead of holding a conversation with the world".

I feel that most fertile period of Indian writing in English began in 1981 and since then has shown no signs of coming to an end. It was Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that broke the ground ‘Who am I?’ was the seminal question that Rushdie asked, which many midnight’s children, who had been coming of age, had been asking themselves. This was the motorforce of Rushdie’s novel, and so much of Indian and commonwealth writing. The question of identity became the theme song of a great number of subsequent Indian writing — Allan Sealy’s Troller Nama, Boman Desai’s The Memory of Elephants, Upamanyu Chatterji’s English August, Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, Amit Chaudhri’s A strange and Sublime Address, Rohington Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, Bharati Mukerjee’s Wife, and so on.

Critics point out that during the last 50 years, in terms of style and use of language, our writers have Indianised the novel.

I, for one, don’t understand what is meant by being Indianised. Do using some Indian words or Indianising some English words make the language Indianised? What is important is that English should be English in the first instance and anything else afterwards.

Has the Indo-Anglican writing made an impact globally?

It has made some kind of an impact on the global market. After all, some authors have received enormous advances (Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh and so on), which is an indication that they are being accepted in the West. But it is not as much as it is made out to be. It is important to bear in mind that the novel as a whole (especially the Anglo Saxon novel) is in a state of decline and, therefore, there is a greater readiness to consider writers from elsewhere.

What does the future hold for Indian writing?

It has taken off and there are more and more Indians writing in English now, rather then, say 20 years ago. Much of it is bound to stick, especially if India could continue to be imagined and described in all its different colours.Back

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