India has many writers, but no place to buy books

Last Updated: Tue, Feb 19, 2013 05:36 hrs

On the wishing tree outside the Hindu Lit for Life festival, blue and pink cards flutter on long strings, carrying hopes ranging from the pious  world peace, harmony and brotherhood  to the particular  More money, says one succinctly. At the bottom of the row, one card twirls in the breeze: Many more writers to read, it says, many more bookshops for buying books.

More money might be easier than more bookshops. In the last few years, India's decided that it would develop its own literary circuit, from Jaipur in January through Shillong, Kolkata, Kovalam, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai back to Delhi in December. There's a fledgling subcontinental circuit: the Hay festival in Dhaka, the Karachi Lit Fest, and despite the question mark over the Galle festival in Sri Lanka, there is the Bhutan festival and perhaps Myanmar, too, might become a regular stop on the already crowded schedules of literary travellers.

But if you have readers, and a genial travelling circus of writers, where are the bookshops? In the decade since the Jaipur Literature Festival first pitched its tent in the Pink City, hotels have made a killing; quilted jacket suppliers do brisk business every year. But in telling contrast to other cities of the book festival, such as Edinburgh or Hay-on-Wye, Jaipur's finest haven't built more bookshops, or libraries.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is a festival regular his gentle scholarly presence, poetry and his sharp mind always in demand. What he says is not seen as controversial in our present culture, where not reading is taken for granted, and reading itself is seen as the preserve of intellectuals, scholars, eccentrics and wastrels. (Some of these categories overlap.) Because he is not controversial, his thoughts are not reported. The price we pay, he says, for not having a proper culture of libraries, with everything that implies, is much too high.

Without vast and well-stocked bookshops, where the shelves give as much weight to the past as to the present moments ephemeral bestsellers, you cannot expect people to have vast and well-stocked minds. TV debates are born of the moment, and even the best media and TV discussions will remain firmly rooted in the present; you must go to the book if you want to preserve both a sense of history and a sense of perspective. And in Mr Mehrotra's view, a culture without libraries is a culture without memory, without access to its own vast history of ideas.

At Lit for Life, a man asks Jeet Thayil why poems cannot be fully explained before they are read, with the poet offering reasons for why he wrote the poem and explaining what the poem is about. The question feels familiar, and then I remember: at the Kolkata book fair, a reader asked as he left a session, but why would anyone want to write difficult books? Why not use just the simplest words? And at the Kovalam festival, I remember another reader arguing that writers should not use allegory. He is baffled by the Malayalam writer Benyamin's Goat Days: is it an animal story? If the goat is a metaphor for migrants, why not just say what he means? Everybody has their own, long list of Reader Questions That Should Never Be Asked, but versions of these ones come up often in India these days: the demand for everything to be neatly docketed and explained, mirrored in the demand for undemanding, made-easy literature.

At breakfast one morning, the bestselling author Ravinder Singh sketches his history as a reader, before he found his way into writing with the phenomenally successful I Too Had a Love Story, a pioneer of the new wave of simply, sparsely, colloquially told bestsellers. That history, he says, is blank. He grew up in houses where there were no books, in a part of Orissa where there were few libraries, and no bookstores, and his schoolteachers were uninterested in getting their students to read. The book that changed his life was Eric Segal's Love Story; and reading that one book was enough to make him want to be a writer himself.

Even our largest cities have no more than a handful of bookstores and circulating libraries to their credit. Most Indians who read order from Flipkart or similar online bookstores, and if there is one glaring drawback to ordering books online, its that you're trapped within the circle of your own tastes, rarely introduced to something new. I wonder about Ravinder Singh, who so clearly loves writing, loves being an author. How many more books would he have written if he had grown up with festivals of the word around him, in a city with a massive, well-loved public library, with good bookstores around him? What kind of writer would he have been? And how many other Ravinder Singhs are there, growing up bookless in a country that celebrates the book but has little space for it outside the bright lights of the festival circuit?

More from Sify: