The big brown hopeless


Is the woman reader a myth? Is the indian reader in search of some fun? Should one worry about the choices he is making? Three publishers read the writing on the wall


Urvashi Butalia – Zubaan

The Tehelka readership survey says that the majority of book buyers are male. There are no surprises there – such a finding says less about whether more women or men buy books, and more about the social and economic context of Indian middle and upper class society. What it really says is that men in this class are the ones who have the money to spend, they’re the ones who make the decisions, and they’re the ones who have access to the public world and hence make it to bookshops.


Illustrations: Samia Singh

If you don’t care to look behind the obvious findings of a survey, it’s easy to take such findings at face value. As a publisher of women’s books, I’ve been hearing this kind of thing – that more men buy books than do women – for over three decades. It was the received wisdom roughly a quarter century ago when we started Kali, India’s first feminist publishing house. The question that we were asked then: but are women book buyers, was inevitably followed by its more relevant counterpart: but do women read. I used to find this astonishing: despite finding upon finding from different parts of the world that women form the majority of book readers, people in India saw fit to pose this question. And because we had no statistical, disaggregated data to respond with, any other response was considered somehow lacking in weight.

But there’s plenty of other evidence that tells us that the opposite can also be true. Everywhere in India where there has been a push for literacy, the people who’ve responded most enthusiastically are women. This simple fact tells us that women have a huge hunger for information, that they want to learn to read. Given the right opportunity and the money, they would probably run out and buy books, and then try to make the time to read them.

Making time to read – that’s another important factor in the equation. Women have much less of this than do men, no one needs reminding that they carry the burden of housework, as well as of professional life for those who have one.  So time is in short supply, which inevitably means that ‘leisure’ activities like browsing in bookstores and reading take a bit of a backseat. But if ever the long-term demand of women’s groups that women’s housework be paid for comes through, I have no doubt that women would use some of that income to purchase books.

Why do I say this? Do I have hard evidence? Yes and no. There are no surveys that give me the ballast to support these claims, but here’s what I do have. Twenty five years ago when we started Kali, there was widespread skepticism about whether we’d be able to make a go of it or not, because, as most people said, ‘women don’t read’. My response to that was: readers aren’t born, they have to be created. Over the years we worked hard to create a readership for women’s books and lo and behold, today no publisher will deny that the woman reader does not exist, even if a survey may obfuscate her existence.

Similarly, when Kali transformed into Zubaan, we started to look for a motif to use as our logo, and came across a lovely story that gave us what we needed. This is a story from Bastar, and later Orissa where, when the push for literacy began in the nineties, the majority of people who came out to learn to read were women. So amazing was this phenomenon that the village metal sculptors began to replace their animal sculptures with those of women reading – lying on their backs or sides and reading, breastfeeding and reading, dancing and reading… today these little statuettes are a common sight.

Today, we’re not the only ones publishing books for which the readers are mostly women – virtually all publishers will tell you that books by women work well and sell well – and women form a significant part of their readership. And here’s another fact. Look around you at all the reading groups, or innovative book purchase or loan schemes, look at book discussions and other book related events – chances are that ninety per cent of the time these will be owned or organized by women.  So the woman reader is alive and well in India – though she could do with some more time, and a lot more money.

What are women reading? Is there such a thing that can be defined as women’s taste in reading? That’s a question that is more difficult to answer. For the early group of feminist readers – small in number but not insignificant – any book to do with the history of women’s involvement in social movements, was lapped up. Today, women read fiction, they read memoirs, some read ‘chick lit’, many read Chetan Bhagat  – they have eclectic tastes. One of our most successful books was the life story of a domestic worker – Baby Halder’s A Life Less Ordinary. I am certain that most of its readers were women – this is an impression, not a fact, but it’s an impression based on feedback from stores. Women like the little stories, men often can’t be bothered about them. Perhaps this is what we should be grateful for – that there is a group of readers, and they’re female, who keep alive the tradition of reading the smaller stories and who make the business of publishing meaningful, rather than just commercial.


Rakesh Khanna – Blaft :

So I tried to make a list of what I think are the main things people are looking for when they read. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Tragedy & Perseverance: When a whole lot of crap has happened to you, it feels good to just sit around moping about it and think about what a shithole the world is. It also helps sometimes to read stories about people who have been through even worse horribleness and come out okay, or at least alive. Examples: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Alex Haley’s Roots, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.

2. Revenge: When you’re really cheesed off with someone, it’s remarkably satisfying to spend a few hours plotting gruesome ways of getting back at them. And that’s why everybody loves a good revenge story. They are all sorts: from classics likeWuthering Heights by Emily Brönte or The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, to kid’s books like Matilda by Roald Dahl, to horror novels like Carrie by Stephen King, to wacky comedies like The Princess Bride by William Goldman.  You could maybe even count Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ the Call Centre.

3. Sex: We live in a really crowded country with too little privacy and too much moral conservatism. Literature offers one of the very few outlets available where there’s no active censor board. In almost any bookstore in India, in any language, you can find a book with some seriously racy bits in it, and you can usually complete the purchase without anybody giving you a funny look. Sometimes it’s even considered high literature.

4. Fantasy, adventure, and high weirdness: Human beings get bored easily. But voyages to Antarctica are really expensive, trying to become the biggest don in your city’s underworld is a dangerous prospect, and psychedelic drugs are both illegal and bad for your health. Reading fiction is a good, safe, inexpensive way to escape the drudgery of the here & now and travel to magical fairylands like Oz or Hogwarts or Zamonia, or through chrono-synclastic infundibula to Saturn’s moons a la Kurt Vonnegut, or back in time to the magical Tilisms of Devaki Nandan Khatri and Muhammad Husain Jah, or even to scary places you would neverever want to visit in real life, like H.P. Lovecraft’s R’yleh or Innsmouth. I think more experimental, abstract writing often appeals in a similar way, letting you open up bizarre dreamscapes in your head.

5: Humour. Obviously. Everybody likes a laugh, and even the most serious books have to be funny once in a while to keep people reading.

6. Learning stuff: Formal education has gotten so nasty and competitive that we forget sometimes, but it’s actually really fun to learn new things. The best non-fiction writers—like Simon Winchester, Amitav Ghosh, E.O. Wilson, Sue Hubbell—spin their lessons on history and science into beautiful, poetic, time-traveling adventures that shake you up and change your whole way of thinking. And of course, there are plenty of fiction books where the story is more fun because of all the stuff you’re learning on the way.

It seems like recent Indian writing, especially in English, has tended to focus disproportionately on Tragedy and Perseverance. There have been lots of great books. But our publishing house, Blaft, was sort of founded on the idea that there are readers out there who have kind of had it with tragedy and are craving a little funny fantastical educational revenge sex, or some combination like that. And based on the positive response so far, I think we were right.


VK Karthika, Harper Collins:

I’ve been in publishing for close to fifteen years now and while I’d like to say that in these fifteen years the graph has spiraled upward dramatically (like all those growth and development charts being flashed at us with significant evidence of India shining), the truth is that the figures are nearly static. In fiction, on an average, 1000 copy print runs have risen to 2000 and 3000 copy print runs and we are happy if we sell those out and get to reprint a thousand more. The only segment where this doesn’t apply is the mass market novel, whose sales have skyrocketed into tens of thousands of copies. The other real growth is in the non-fiction area where business books and celebrity takes on the state of the world indicate clearly that the aspirational readership is alive and thriving. Sadly, that’s where it stops. Harry Potter showed us that children do read but post Harry Potter we also know that children in India read little besides Harry Potter and mythology—the fantastic increase in school textbook numbers tells you what consumes their reading time.

Recently, one of the writers I work with in Mumbai told me how house-hunting saddened him for many reasons—one, he is a Muslim, so there are residential areas he is not welcome in, and two, almost every single apartment he ’saw’ had loads of furniture, more than one television set but not a single book shelf. This is the middle India that is notionally the expanding readership for books in English. Another writer said, and I quote, ‘This country missed a step somewhere in its evolution. The lack of interest in, and respect for, the word, ideas, language, this is what characterizes us as a nation.’ You might think that with huge retail chains transforming the physical landscape of bookselling, there is a concerted effort to market books and make them more attractive to the reader. Unfortunately, all that seems to have happened is that some books—usually those that have established themselves as bestsellers—occupy pride of place for weeks and months while any new experimental work is rushed into the back shelves in ones and twos, invisible even before they’ve had a chance to be seen. Most readers browse among the ‘new arrivals’ and ‘bestsellers’, hardly anyone ventures further to discover for themselves what they might wish to read. A big international award—the Nobel, the Booker—is probably the only way for a book with literary merit to end up on the popular shelves. And this too applies only to Indian writers for the most part: you won’t find people queueing up for award-winning writers of other nationalities, or those writing in languages other than English. 

Writers and publishers in Indian languages worry that their readership is rapidly shrinking because younger people have moved on to English as their preferred language. But those numbers are yet up to show up on our plotters—so does that mean the Malayali or Marathi or Gujarati, having given up her own language, has simply moved on to being a non-reader?

Elsewhere in the world, they’re looking to India as the big brown hope—the Western markets show minimal growth, surveys show that ten-year-olds are not interested in books, which could indicate that adult readership is destined to be stagnant fifty years from now, and e-books and print on demand are what the future portends. Inside India, we know that a lot of basic ground work will have to be done to realize that potential. For without a reading culture, without the centering of the written word, without well-stocked public libraries, the only ideas we wrestle with will be those beamed at us from reality television. The horror, the horror, the horror!


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