The written word is history, it is also the present and the future, as also a record of a nation's culture and civilization
When I was about 10 years old, my elder brother, two years older, handed me a well-thumbed hard-bound book with the title "The Famous Five" by Enid Blyton. I was the sporty type. Books did not interest me. I was reluctant to accept the offer. Then he made an offer I could not refuse.
He promised me a sum of two annas (this in 1955 was a fortune) if I read the book and correctly answered his queries to ascertain that I had not only read the book but could also recollect some of the more engaging chapters and events that were mentioned therein. Needless to state, I not only read the book, pocketed the two annas but I was totally hooked.
I had been transferred to a world of fun and frolic, adventure and nervous excitement. From then on I became an avid reader and a book lover.
Imports from Britain
When one was growing up in the early years of Independent India, the written word had much more resonance and acceptance than the audio and visual eyeballs of today's social media, podcasts and YouTube panel discussions. But there was a major flaw. I, like many school-going children of middle-class India, who were products of Anglo Indian/Missionary Schools, as are many children today, products of English Medium Public Schools, which are modelled on the Anglican Schools.
The books that we read, other than the prescribed ones, that we accessed from the school libraries and hired or purchased from the local bookshops, were mostly imports from Britain and to some extent the United States.
Even those popular authors widely read by book lovers of the English-speaking populace were published within the country by obtaining publishing rights from foreign publishers. We were reading comics imported from the US and flooding the book shops here in our country - Superman, Batman, Roy Rogers and Lone Ranger. The girls read Archie and Veronica comics.
Lure of English literature
Also on our reading list were classics by Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle reproduced as comics. We then went on to read Enid Blyton, Billy Bunter and Teddy Lester Series which allowed us to place ourselves into an imagined make-believe and magical world of school as we would imagine it to be. We hoped that our school life would imitate the magical characters we were reading about.
In our teens we consumed crime fiction, detective novels and adventure epics. Earl Stanley Gardner and Edgar Wallace were favourites. Some amongst us who had more literary inclinations also read P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle. Girls started reading Mills and Boons romantic novels.
However, as soon as we matured as young men and women and landed a job or pursued a professional career and thereafter evolved as a family unit, one suddenly realized that one's minds and ideological beliefs and perceptions of the world around us have been hijacked and to a large extent shaped by the thoughts and images that one had imbibed while one was growing up.
Your mindset had a Western orientation. You felt you knew more about the Western world’s lifestyle and beliefs and were more comfortable imitating the West’s social order. One seemed to know more about Hollywood and less about Bollywood. Suddenly, and at times sadly, one realized that we lost out on imbibing the rich and varied culture and the literary treasure of your native land. You had no clue of the rich folklore and the mythological epics of your own country.
During my 35 years in the Indian Army, Kolkata was a stopover destination for small periods of a week to two weeks where I spent time with my parents. During those short visits, I soaked in the sights and sounds of Kolkata and was eager to live the life of a Bengali in his own environment. Bengali spoken on the streets was a novel experience for a 'probashi' (expatriate) Bengali like me.
I noticed during my interactions with newfound friends and acquaintances that they would often quote Rabindranath Tagore to clinch an argument or reinforce a thought or give a newer interpretation to the debate or discussion that we were having. Everybody seemed to have not only read his works but seem to remember the line and verse of his literary masterpieces.
Now here is the twist. Having grown up in a family where both parents were not only highly literate and were avid book lovers, we also had a substantial library with 24 volumes of Rabindra Rachanabali (the entire literary works of Tagore) sitting on the bookshelf.
Need for introspection
Now here is the need for introspection. How was it that I, a Bengali, although a 'probashi' for most of my life, had not read a single poem or story of Tagore till late in life till wisdom dawned to make amends and educate myself beyond the pulp English fiction and English authors that I had been consuming?
I ask myself. "Why did I not read books in my mother tongue and in the rich languages of our country? Was it the fault of my parents, who may have been more concerned about providing English education to their children so that they get ahead in life in post-independent India, or that the literature in native languages, especially in the Bengali language were stories of a certain profile and canvas -- rural background, utter poverty, the protagonist of the story facing unbearable misery and more often than not the story ending in a philosophical no man’s imagery?
Most stories were heavy reading with political and social messaging which steered your thoughts towards dark and grey social milieu. The literary publications were depressing and suffocating. Literature that appealed to the younger youth which was largely centred on adventure, super heroes and heroines, rags to riches stories, buccaneers and robber barons, epic romances and war stories, detective and crime stories and space adventure was largely not being written and published in native languages.
The literature published in the United Kingdom and the US and imported into the country or published under agreement rights filled the vacuum and met the demand.
So, in all this, where does the Indian publisher of books and novels figure? Does an institution or organization or forum of publishers have a role in contributing to making our country a vibrant, liberal, modern nation, seeped in scientific temperament, yet proud of its civilizational history?
The publisher is the talent scout, ever roving and searching for literary talent, and having found such talent, welcomes them into their stable, help and encourages them in publishing their work; and helps them to reach a wide audience of readers. How does the publisher expose and inform the larger populace about great literary works? Apart from tried and tested marketing strategies, periodic declaration of awards by various organizations and institutions as also nominations for national awards go a long way in bringing recognition to authors and their works.
Do we as a society and as a nation have a strategy to make our citizens become book lovers and bookworms? Do we need to carry out a scientific survey to find out what kind of books and stories are really the choice and demand of the children of various age groups so that school libraries are stocked with books of their choice? Is there also a need to write new stories to supplement Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with stories that resonates with Indian folklore and the Indian milieu?
Books are not OTT scripts
Authors writing for today's generation need to master their craft in a manner that they don't have to take recourse to using expletives, cuss words and foul dialogue to succeed in attracting a loyal following of readers. Books are not OTT scripts. Great literary work will always find readers,
The written word is history, it is also the present and the future as also a nation's record of culture and civilization. And yet sometimes the written word is also banned!
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)