Sunday, May 31, 2009

The New Big Thing

In an exclusive interview, Paul Vinay Kumar, Executive Editor of Westland Limited and Tranquebar Press shows the way to make it big in the publishing world

Tell our readers a little about Westland Books/Tranquebar Press.

Westland Limited is a growing Indian trade publishing and distribution house, which includes EastWest Books and the new Tranquebar Press. Westland publishes general trade books: our list of titles includes books on food and cooking, spirituality and self-help, health and wellness, popular fiction, history and architecture, general reference, travel and a host of other subjects.

The group has several decades of experience in book retail and distribution, and to move into publishing was a natural transition. With a young, energetic team of editors and designers based in Chennai and Delhi, Westland Limited is one of the few publishing houses in India to bring both the North and the South together. Westland is the publishing and distribution arm of Landmark Ltd, the company that runs the Landmark chain of bookstores in the major metros across India.

Tranquebar Press gets its name from the tiny, beautiful coastal town in Tamil Nadu (now called Tharangambadi) where Indian publishing and printing really began. Our emphasis is on new writing and experimental work of high literary standards in any genre. Our list of authors includes Jeet Thayil, Saeed Mirza, Ruchir Joshi, Daljit Nagra, Susan Mridula Koshy, Arun Krishnan and many more.

Generally speaking, when Tranquebar Press goes through a certain manuscript what does it look for before it hands down the verdict?

Like every other publishing house, the focus is on interesting subjects and fabulous writing. The genre of the book determines the relative importance given to these two criterions. Tranquebar's emphasis is on unusual literary fiction. Unlike many other publishing houses, we publish a reasonable amount of poetry.

Also, we believe very strongly in the importance of translations, especially in the context of a country like India where there are so many people divided and united by language. Our fundamental belief is that we want to publish books which, in a world filled with some may say too many books, make a difference and bring readers something new, meaningful and memorable.

As one of the leading English language publishers in India, do you think the era of printed words is coming to an end?

Emphatically no! While we're planning to do audio books and are actively starting to look at e-books, we view these as supplements to draw in new readers and not as a replacement to books. No technology--however exciting--can ever match up to the experience of curling up with a book under a blanket, the smell of paper, the tactile experience of turning the pages, the satisfaction of going back to an old book where the dog-eared pages mark old memories, and the sheer joy of organising books on one's bookshelf.

Having said that, I think the e-book market is yet to come of age in India. We're still trying to work out the four factors that will ensure the growth of the e-book market: an affordable reading device; content (at the right price); a great selection of content and e-books that are easy to use

As an ardent e-book fan I don't expect paper books to become obsolete--they'll co-exist and publishers such as Westland will offer combined packages, so that our readers get the best of both worlds.

In the South-Asian sub-continent, where people speak so many languages, what role do you think translated works can play in bridging the gaps between cultures?

It is absolutely essential to have translations in our part of the world. There is so much richness and diversity of literature just waiting to be read. In India, we have this completely appalling situation where we know the names of the great contemporary writers, but we are unable to read them except some short story published in some anthology! One of the great things that this virtual explosion of publishing in English over the last ten years has achieved is that a lot more translations are now available, though in my view this is still not enough. I would love to be able to publish more translations between say Bengali and Tamil, Gujurati and Telegu so that readers who do not read in English and Hindi (the two most popular languages for translation) can read more of what is being written in other parts of the country. Having said which, I also believe that the present generation of people whose work and social life is mainly in urban English speaking worlds are losing the ability to read in their mother tongues, which is tragic.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

His Master's Voice

Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend

In the general elections that took place last December, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, on numerous occasions promised to create what she called a 'Digital Bangladesh'. In a country infested with unabated corruption and silent famine, the call earned her a huge fan following among the new young voters who saw Hasina as a cheerleader of change. Four months after her electoral landslide, that much-touted change has still not arrived at the Bangladesh Television headquarters in Rampura. Faces of old sycophants have been replaced with new ones. 'Aat-tar Shongbad' (ATS; News at Eight), the channel's flagship news programme, stills broadcasts reports of no news value as headlines, news so insignificant that it would not have otherwise deserved a third-page single column treatment in the following day's paper. If one watches the ATS everyday (which many viewers will find rather torturous) one will see a trend, however disturbing, repeated every night: "I think the BTV news crew live with the ministers 24 hours a day," says Nurunnahar, who watches the BTV every night out of compulsion as her meagre income as a maid does not allow her to subscribe to satellite channels.

There are hundreds and thousands of viewers like Nurunnahar who are forced to watch ministers speaking as chief guests at the annual cultural programme of schools. "Four months ago, it was the Advisers I watched every night at eight on television, two years ago it was Khaleda Zia and her ministers," Nurunnahar says. None of the 14 television channels that fight for the attention of the country's millions of viewers has the license for territorial broadcast. A new law titled 'Terrestrial Telecast Facilities Preservation for Bangladesh Television Act 2009' (TTFP), to which the Prime Minister has given her nod last month gives the BTV the sole owner of the rights to terrestrial facility. It means that no other television channel will be able to broadcast programmes using their own terrestrial equipments; to watch every channel but the BTV the viewers have to pay the cable operators.

Muhammad Jahangir, an eminent media analyst, thinks the very idea is anti-democratic. "The government believes in Free Market Economy; and in a free market everyone has the right to compete with each other. Terrestrial equipments are costly, not all channels would have been able to own them, but enacting a blanket law to prohibit anyone from using the facility is ludicrous," he says.

What makes it even more complicated is that whenever a political government comes to power the BTV is virtually run by the party that holds power. "It comes at a heavy price; the television authority tends to satisfy the cultural activists of the party in power, and at times it airs substandard programmes only because they are made by a BNP or AL activist," Jahangir says. He also says that the 'Package Programme' of the BTV is plagued with corruption as in many a time the BTV buys below standard programmes, shows that no channel in the country would run.

In fact, members of the civil society has criticised the TTFP. Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of non-governmental organisation Shujan, thinks the government should open the sky for any channel that wants to broadcast terrestrially. "The very idea that only one channel, and that too run by the government, can hold such a right runs counter to the tenets of democracy," he says.

The excuse that the government has come up with for taking such a draconian measure is that giving everyone terrestrial license will put the country's national security at risk. But Jahangir finds the idea difficult to buy; he says, "It is not the same as buying a MIG-29; instead, an open terrestrial license policy will free our airwaves. The government, after all, does not tell the newspapers that only the government-run newspaper will be run in four colours, all others have to limit themselves to only black and white." He also thinks that if an open terrestrial policy is not pursued it will make a mockery of Sheikh Hasina's promise of Digital Bangladesh. "You can never get a scientifically advanced country if you have policies like the ones that we have," he says.

Without freeing the BTV from the clutches of nepotism and sycophancy, the establishment of Digital Bangladesh is impossible. In the manifesto of the Three Alliances that led the country towards the great Democratic Revolution of 1990, all the major parties promised to give autonomy to the BTV, which during the deposed military dictator Gen HM Ershad's rule was known as "the Sahib and his servants' idiot box". In the general elections that were followed by Ershad's ouster from power, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia was voted to power, and in her five-year term she never did anything to free the BTV. The Awami League government, which followed Khaleda's rule, formed a committee to give autonomy to the BTV, which was gradually losing audience to the satellite channels. In the elections of 2001, the BNP came back to power, riding a massive electoral landfall, and Khaleda did everything at her disposal to tighten her grip on the lone provider of terrestrial broadcasting.

In the three consecutive elections since the restoration of democracy the AL, in its manifesto, promised to set the BTV free. The party had made last year's polls an exception; its Charter for Change did not include the BTV issue. Because of this, Jahangir thinks, the AL cannot be blamed for not making the BTV an autonomous body, as during the electioneering the party has never made any such promise. "We cannot blame them," he says, "but I find their actions deplorable. The state-run television must be immediately freed."

Majumdar says that the sycophants have always been the cause of the last governments' downfall. "As the BTV has the sole terrestrial rights, every owner of a television set has access to the BTV and for some, the BTV is the only source of entertainment," he says. In the last 37 years, the channel's talk shows and news have tittered on the verge of cheap canvassing for the parties in power and their policies. In an entertainment-starved country the voters will not like it if Sisimpur is switched off the air to show the government's latest effort to make the campus free of thuggery and gangsterism.

It is understandable that the government will find it difficult to part with the BTV. But it must also understand that in an era where the citizens of the country are exposed to the Internet and love to have options in choosing what to watch and what not to, the BTV, in the hands of government, is more a liability than an asset. The government needs to give autonomy to the BTV as soon as it can; it must be freed from every kind of nepotism and the channel should purge all the inept producers and crew.

It is good that the government wants to establish another new channel; but there will be further trouble if it is run like the BTV. The government should also seriously think of starting a sport channel. A national broadcasting policy must also be formed. The government should pave the way for new private television channels, especially the ones that will cater to the younger generation. The BTV has always been known as its master's voice, now is the time to let the channel run on its own. The only way forward to establishing a vibrant democracy is to allow free, unhindered flow of information. The AL-led government will create a milestone in our short history of democracy if it gives full autonomy to the BTV, allowing it to run as an independent entity. Only time can tell if the government, which has the support of the whole nation behind it, will be able to rise up to the occasion or not.