The year 2020, everyone agrees, was a lousy one. Except, global lockdowns served, in very small part, as a reminder that reading is a means of escape, that the combination of a writer and your imagination can transport you to any place in any time and, unlike with film and television, there are no directors to superimpose their interpretations and their images over your own. This is not to say that publishers made out like bandits. One report, for instance, estimates that the global book-publishing industry declined by $7 billion (Rs 51.4
thousand crore) from 2019 and that it will take until 2023 for the market to return to roughly the position it was in four years ago. But book sales were resilient-as digital alternatives multiply-even though Covid has meant droves of independent bookshops are falling by the wayside and newspaper and magazine publishers have been devastated.
While bookshops will long for the vaccine to hasten us back to the old normal, for the publishers it has been business as usual, their extensive line-ups for 2021 dominated by reliable best-selling names and celebrities, while far below these peaks, somewhere in the foothills, lurks that vanishingly rare species-the debut literary novelist. In India, the titles that excite the most conversation, the most controversy, tend to be non-fiction. Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is the bete noire of the Hindutva hordes on social media who took particular exception to her (not entirely successful) attempt in 2017 to reconsider, if not rehabilitate, the reputation of Aurangzeb. Her latest book, The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Muslim Pasts, examines Sanskrit texts that describe and comment on hundreds of years of Muslim rule over parts of India and eventually the growth of a syncretic culture. The book has been publicised as, in part, a contribution to the current charged national conversation in which “nationalist claims are often grounded on fabricated visions of India’s premodernity”.
This year, several books will weigh in on the ideological direction being taken by India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Jana Gana Mana, anticipated in August, the Carnatic singer and writer T.M. Krishna considers what we mean when we use the word ‘patriotism’. George Bernard Shaw famously described patriotism as the “last refuge of scoundrels”, but during the protests over the Citizenship (Amendment Act), Krishna noticed an attempt to reclaim patriotism from the Hindutva right wing, a patriotism that adhered to the ideals represented by India’s Constitution, its flag and its national anthem. Malavika Prasad, a legal scholar, shares Krishna’s publisher, Westland, and her Who Is A Citizen could be read as a companion to Jana Gana Mana. Prasad’s book is a study of India’s citizenship laws, up to the CAA, a look at how we conceive of citizenship and how these notions have evolved.
Also with an eye on India’s ideological direction, Subramanian Swamy’s new book, anticipated later this year, is titled Ayodhya and Beyond, an acknowledgement, perhaps, that the battle to build the Ram temple, the ideological impetus for Hindutva and the rise of the BJP, has already been won and that new fronts will have to be established. His BJP colleague Jay Panda is putting together the prosaically-titled India Today, India Tomorrow which promises to give voice to the “very people holding the reins to the future”. Meanwhile, another Rupa stablemate of Swamy and Panda asks plainly in his title, “Where is my nation headed?”
Some diviners of the future are focused on economics rather than politics and ideology, with Sanjaya Baru-whose Accidental Prime Minister sealed an impression the public had already formed of Manmohan Singh as being ridden over roughshod by his own party-making a case for India’s economic revival after the ravages of Covid. Coming from the opposite spectrum, economist Jayati Ghosh argues that decisions taken by the Modi government in the wake of Covid are The Making of a Catastrophe.
As straitjacketed as Manmohan Singh supposedly was by his party, Modi is portrayed as bigger than his party. Veteran journalist Neerja Chowdhury’s next book, published by Aleph, turns hundreds of hours of interviews with Indian prime ministers into an informed analysis of how decisions are made at the highest level of government. It is unclear whether Chowdhury has spoken to Modi for her book. Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil have titled their book on the Emergency, expected this month, India’s First Dictatorship. Does this imply that there has been a second, or that we are now living through another period of autocracy?
Away from non-fiction though, the pickings in India are slim. Publishers’ lists are teeming over with commercial fiction but little that presents readers with a literary challenge, new fiction that experiments with language, that attempts an artist’s representation of who we are and the times in which we live. Amitava Kumar, an increasingly acclaimed writer and professor at Vassar, is publishing a new novel that deals, in part, with fake news and ideas of truth and fiction. Intriguingly, Tavleen Singh, the well-known journalist, is publishing her first novel later this year, stepping into territory previously occupied by her son, Aatish Taseer. Sonal Kohli too makes her debut with The House Next to the Factory. Kohli studied writing at the University of East Anglia, alma mater to such writers as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Anne Enright and Neel Mukherjee, among many others. Speaking of Nobel laureate Ishiguro, his new novel, Klara and the Sun, is expected in March, while Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, out in April, was written first in Italian and translated by her into English.
Finally, a brief return to non-fiction titles. The Oxford academic Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex takes on rape culture, sex and race and male entitlement, an extension of her brilliant essay in the London Review of Books. Sonora Jha, a professor of journalism in Seattle, also deals extensively with male entitlement in the forthcoming How to Raise a Feminist Son, as does Prachi Gangawanit in Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in 21st Century India. Non-fiction addresses our most urgent, vital cultural, social and political questions; it’s time for fiction, though, to reassert itself in these areas.