India’s Higher Learning Crisis

If you’re going to research how, what, and why people read, there’s no way of getting around investigating higher education.

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Students at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda

In India there is plenty to say about the state of education and plenty that folks in India are willing to say. Education generally is considered an enormous national problem. Indeed, there is serious anxiety about what the Indian education system is doing (or not) for its students, especially for its university students. Some cite the lack of quality institutions or the lack of seats available at the top institutions, others cite the lack of talented faculty, or the brain drain of expertise out of the country, or the rigidly centralized governance structure, or widespread corruption within a highly politicized administrative apparatus. As one (conservative) Member of Parliament I spoke to lamented, India does not have a single institution in the top 100 universities in the world. And therefore, India’s education is felt to be neither competitive nor respected in the global research marketplace. To some extent, each of the criticisms is true. I hope I’ll be able to explain that some are truer than others.

Like so much of India, the education system has undergone massive changes in the last twenty years, and in some ways, the country is still catching up, especially in terms of higher education. In 2000 there were just under 13,000 colleges and universities. By 2013, according to India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development there were over 37,000. India_Highered_Statistics_1That’s an average of five new institutions built per day, including holidays and weekends. The staggering growth is no doubt a response to the demographic shifts that the country is experiencing. Over 50% of the population is under 25 and by 2020 India will have the largest college-aged population in the world. Then add the large numbers of people entering the middle class—from 50 million now to 500 million by 2025—and you have not just a market for expanded higher education, but a desperate social and economic need for it. And most of these students will be the first in their families to attend college or university.

“Thriving and Dying”

But here’s the rub: as the number of institutions of higher learning has increased, the quality of the education, the governance of the curricula, and the training of the faculty and administration have suffered dramatically. Some of this is due to changes in government policies that removed strict oversight of colleges and universities and opened the floodgates for the charter of private institutions.

Predictably, the investments went to the money-making and status-laden professional colleges. It didn’t take long for the number of self-financing colleges of management and engineering to outnumber public institutions. At the same time, such laws like the New Education Policy of 1986 and then again in 1991 declared that existing universities would be required to raise more of their own resources by mobilizing donations from the private sector and raising fees. As a result, government subsidies declined by 25% between 1993 and 2002 (Kochanek and Hardgrave 229-232).

Even further, you have a serious lack of students earning doctorates. In 2015, 40% of all faculty posts remained vacant. The most promising and accomplished researchers are leaving India to acquire posts in Europe and North America, and employment laws prevent universities from attracting and hiring international talent. Then you have the ubiquitous private informal education industry of “Learn English Study/Work Abroad” (English Language Training or ELT) companies promising to make it easier to live somewhere other than India. It’s a textbook case of brain drain.

Yes, a college education in India is more available than ever, but the average value of the degrees and certificates has plummeted precipitously. University of Pennsylvania researcher, Devesh Kumar, puts it this way: “The Indian education system is both thriving and dying.”

The Fate of the Arts

For the humanities, arts, and social sciences these changes have marked an all-out assault on programs, opportunities, and structural support. More and more students are receiving degrees and certificates at professional colleges while a decreasing percentage are receiving education in the arts and humanities. In fact, many of newest private universities fail to even offer degrees in these fields, preferring instead career-oriented courses in business, design, and technology. Or, if they do have an arts program, like the one at the brand new university here Vadodara, it is only arts in a professionalized form: journalism and mass communication. Degrees are sold as a pathway to jobs, not to skills. You study engineering to become an engineer, architecture to become an architect, philosophy to become a philosopher (?), and all those other arts to become a teacher. Of course.

The United States is experiencing this same trend as buckets of money are dumped into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, medicine) while the humanities are left to fend for themselves. Mountains and mountains of research about the superior training of liberal arts students in adapting to the shifting needs of the global economy are conveniently ignored. Given the wild west nature of the higher education landscape here in India, however, and a palpable hunger amongst the youth to find economic stability, the pressures against the arts and social sciences are particularly keen.

The effect has been that traditional universities—large, public, accessible, and inexpensive—are increasingly the only institutions that offer humanities, arts, and social

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Classroom in one of the original 100-year-old buildings. Admittedly one of the roughest, but still very much in use.

science degrees. And these are the institutions that are struggling compared the shiny new private campuses that are built far away from public transport, offer expansive grounds and new buildings, are walled, gated, and guarded, and cost about twice as much.

Again, using a local example, the university where I’ve been teaching, the 110-year-old Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, has an outstanding reputation for its programs in arts, as well as in engineering and technology. But its facilities pale in comparison to what one can find in the privates. The faculty are top-notch and the students are very strong, but the classrooms, offices, dorms, buildings, labs, and technological services are well below where they deserve to be. They clearly demonstrate how education policy has shifted its priorities towards privatization and away from supporting access, research, and educational breadth.

Meanwhile private giants like Amity University (and sponsor of the Jaipur Literature Festival) provide in all twelve of its national campuses the most up-to-date facilities and have followed the United States model of selling college life as a kind of third-rate rate resort experience. Run by a conglomerate of industry giants in “plastics, pharmaceuticals, education, technology transfer, turnkey projects, finance, construction, publishing and IT,” Amity aggressively markets itself as the “most hi-tech campus” not only in its access to broadband, networked classrooms, and digital information, but also in its sophisticated camera surveillance system. So much so that it’s kind of creepy.

Shaping Readership

It should come as no surprise, then, that despite the larger and larger number of colleges and universities in India, fewer and fewer of these institutions are invested in anything that might be considered Literature. So while you have a growing population of readers versed in English, a growing population of readers who are educated, and a growing population of readers aspiring to the Indian middle and leisure class, you have that same population not only disinterested in literature, but potentially even hostile to it. Especially if you factor in how popular writers revel in the “unliterary” character of their work and regularly disparage literature.

To take Chetan Bhagat as an example, the subject matter of his novels consciously identifies with the new class of educated India who are not trained at traditional universities, but groomed by the booming management and technical institutes or the hard-knocks of capitalist enterprise. His Five Point Someone follows the struggles of students at the exclusive Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), his 2 States: The Story of My Marriage  initiates its romance at Ahmedabad’s International Institute of Management (IIM), and his One Night at the Call Center predictably chronicles the adventures of employees at what has become a kind of cliché of globalized labor.

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Still from the Bollywood movie version of 2 States on location at the Ahmedabad IIM

It’s no wonder that the popular novel speaks directly to and about this population in ways that “literary” novels by Aarvind Adiga, Arundhati Roy, and others simply cannot. But of course they can, but the reading industry and the educational system have made it that much harder, not only by constructing what reading means, but also who the Indian reader is likely to be, how the Indian reader is likely to be trained, and how the reading tastes of the Indian reader have been profoundly influenced by education policy.

Literature Festivals

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It has been several weeks since I ventured across India to get a glimpse into the world of literary festivals, which are not only an emerging mainstay in this country, but seem to be growing in number across the globe. According to the director of one festival, there are currently 130 in India alone. Ultimately, I only attended two of them after initially planning to see four or five. The reason for the change was that my findings of what they could contribute to my research focus were limited. While I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, the literature festival—as a topic of its own–didn’t give me a whole lot to work with. For researchers, this is the commonly experienced “dead end.”

Nonetheless, the festivals offered useful insights into some individual authors and their publishers. So maybe not a dead end; more like a detour into a topic to consider more thoroughly later. Ultimately, I found out that what I need to learn about the literary festivals is not at the festivals themselves, but with the publishers who collaborate with the festivals and have successfully leveraged sponsorships and author appearances for books sales. For now, I think it’s worth sharing some observations.

The JLF Machine

It would be impossible to say anything about literature festivals in India—or anywhere else in the world for that matter—without going to Jaipur, the mother, the big kahuna, the maharaja of all literary festivals.Anywhere. Hosted annually since 2007 in the “Pink City” capital of the palace-laden state of Rajasthan, the Jaipur LiteraJaipur-Literature-Festival-2017ture Festival is the industry standard globally for its enormous crowds, enormous international presence, and its enormous integration with the regional tourism. An economic impact study done in 2014-15 estimated that the festival brought the equivalent of 5 Million US dollars to the local economy, and that was when the festival boasted about 250,000 attendees. (These and other uncited numbers come from co-director Sanjay Roy)

This year it recorded 500,000 over its five days. Part cultural carnival, part book reading, part arena rock concert, the success of the JLF in terms of its raw numbers and global fame can be attributed to its decidedly international scope and impressive ability to bring the biggest names to the event. Virtually every major international  author in English—including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, J.M.Coetzee, Alice Walker, Mohsin Hamid, Junot Díaz, and Reza Aslan, to name a very few—has made an appearance at some point in its ten year history, and several have made multiple trips. According to co-director Sanjay Roy, the JLF this year brought 60 international speakers out of over 300 while the next largest literary festival in India only brought 14. And of course, every Indian writer of note over the years has found his or her way there as well.

The sheer concentration of celebrity authors has not surprisingly drawn other celebrities from sport, politics, music, and of course, Bollywood and Hollywood. Some are
integrated into the program itself as subjects of biographies or industry tell-alls, and others show up simply to see and be seen. For instance, I happened to catch Dominic West working his way through the crowds on day three. Speaking to a few attendees who Jaipur-Literature-Festival-Postertravelled from Europe, the United States, Australia, and Honk Kong, the JLF has become a kind of “bucket list” affair for those who love to read and have always wanted to travel to India.

Since I was on hot pursuit of “the popular” at a “literary” event I quickly discovered that there is lots to be found. Indeed, the JLF succeeds in part because it balances these two worlds that have often been hostile to one another (see earlier post). On the one hand there is the very top shelf of the world’s literary intelligentsia, and on the other what Roy calls “cricketers and Bollywood stars.” There are historians engaged in the most esoteric (and fascinating) archival work of early Sanskrit and colonial India alongside young adult romance authors. And, perhaps most importantly, you have Western tourists who have spent thousands of dollars to get to India to attend the festival mixing in the audience with busloads and busloads of schoolkids and local travelers who’ve arrived by train. Because, amazingly, the Jaipur Literature Festival is still free for all who attend.

Wide Appeal

Maintaining this balance over the years has not been without its challenges and controversies. Quite famously, Salman Rushdie’s appearance was canceled in 2012 after an outcry from Islamic fundamentalists (remember, The Satanic Verses is still banned in India). Similarly, this year two authors withdrew from the festival when they learned that the radical Hindu Nationalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were granted a session. American novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty hilariously described Donald Trump as “America’s Dick Pick” on the same day as Fortune Magazine writer Hindol Sengupta offered his profoundly anachronistic free-market right-wing fantasy that “India has been an entrepreneurial nation for 5000 years!”

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Crowds in one of the common areas

You might say that the JLF is trying to be all things to all people, and so far it has succeeded because its grand scope and corporate experience have enabled a series of parallel experiences. The festival-goers who flock to see the Bollywood director’s comments on working with film stars are probably not the ones who attend the session on William Butler Yeats’s late poetry. Similarly, the throngs of schoolkids who arrive daily are not paying the 6000 rupees ($100) per day price for “Delegate” status, which grants access to a lounge, to most authors, to exclusive meals, and to just a bit of breathing space from the scrum. It goes without saying how the racial makeup there differs dramatically from that of the general audience.

The JLF directors, Roy, William Darymple, and Namita Gokhale seem abundantly aware of the wide net of interests that they are casting. And, in the end, I think they are really trying to fight the good fight for reading and intellectual endeavors in an age, both in India and elsewhere, that has waged war on such pursuits. Roy claims that festivals are

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Festival Directors William Darymple, Namita Gokhale and Sanjay Roy

“supercharged universities.” I don’t think I’d go that far, unless you believe that universities serve “consumers’ rather than students. In fact, universities are almost completely absent from the event (even with the University of Rajasthan about a mile down the road) save for the India-wide for-profit school sponsor, Amity University. Roy’s other apothegm that festivals “bring the story to the tribe and the storyteller to the townhall” is probably a little closer. The question is whether or not the festival’s focus on literature (however you want to define it) becomes subsumed by the “keep it sexy” approach of celebrities, business moguls, politicians, and pop culture icons.

My sense is that the JLF is losing its hold on that balance. While the event always possessed an ambitious outward and international reach, the unwieldy crowds and emphasis on the spectacle of books and reading rather than the reader’s engagement with authors and other readers, made for an experience that encouraged its audiences to be passive and anonymous. It’s like watching your favorite musician perform at an 80,000 seat arena; it’s more party than music. And, unlike other festivals (see below) that work hard to engage local writers and local culture, one author from oversees told me (informally) that she felt the event gave her little connection to Jaipur and Rajasthan, “I feel like this could be taking place anywhere.”

The pressures to be popular and esoteric, local and international, intimate and well attended, special and public, are ones that are built into the very nature of literary festivals. I had a chance at the JLF to weasel my way into a “sponsor-only” roundtable (with lounge access) of festival directors from around the world, ranging from the celebrated Hay Literary Festival in England, which boasts tens of thousands of attendees, to ones in Malta and Croatia that are lucky to get a few dozen beyond the authors themselves. The main difference between them is not size, or scope, but mission.

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Photo By Chetan Sing Gill 

Some are the projects of publicly funded arts councils, others are authors trying to gain a local network of writers and readers, one is the celebration of local language (the Gujarat Literature Festival), and still others, like the festival in Dongay, Ireland, are economic stimulus measures designed to bring capital to a struggling community. Literature there is a means, rather than an end. How much state money should be used, how much control should be given to corporate sponsors, who the festivals should serve, and what the goal of the festivals ultimately are, not only varied amongst this group, but were contested with some spirited exchanges. Other than the titles of their events, some of these festivals had very little common. Clearly, a literature festival is not always a literature festival.

In the humble opinion of this attendee, the JLF has become the victim of its own success. Or at least its own version of success. Given the precipitous growth in crowd size from year to year, its current model is unsustainable, and it won’t take long for it to be turning authors and visitors away if it doesn’t offer some kind of change. More importantly, it has surrendered too much to the appeal of the “sexy” as a means for supporting the kind of “university” it purports to aspire to. There’s very little space or opportunity for exchange amongst participants and even less between participants and authors. According to my friend from overseas who was an invited guest, the authors don’t see much of each other either.

If the JLF is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster, lost on its own in the world and beyond the control of its creators, the question is what a better version might look like. Fortunately, I was able to see one: the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) just one week before I hopped to Jaipur.

The Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival: A Better Approach

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Outside the AKLF’s Main Stage at the St. Paul’s Cathedral Grounds

Centered at the Oxford Bookstore in downtown Kolkata, what the AKLF lacked in size (I’d guess a couple thousand attendees at most), it shined in its clear purpose, rational scope, and warm execution. It’s free and community-oriented approach explicitly highlighted the proud history of Bengali publishing and writing and actively reached out to young aspiring writers to interact with established international authors. For the relatively small affair, the high-quality talent they brought in, including Shashi Tharoor, Shobha Dhe, and Jerry Pinto (regulars at Jaipur) participated throughout the festival, rather than appearing at a single session. And attendees had relatively easy access to all. Large popular events, like the one that featured Bengali television and film star Parambrata Chatterjee, were balanced by intimate sessions on the second floor of the Oxford

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AKLF Session at Oxford Bookstore

Bookstore and evening poetry readings. And, perhaps above all, the festival itself was politically engaged, not simply a forum for varied viewpoints; the number of sessions specifically addressing important issues of funding for small publishing houses, Dalit writing, supporting feminist authors, publishing in regional (not English) languages, free speech, and literature’s function in being a vehicle for democratic culture, far outweighed those explicitly positioned at Jaipur. At the AKLF, the clear sense was that literature was supposed to do something, not just be a museum piece or a brush with fame. The fact that the closing event included the group signing “We Shall Overcome” by candlelight pretty much captures what the festival was trying to deliver. And for this attendee, it didn’t disappoint. The overseas author I mentioned earlier attended both the Jaipur and the Kolkata festivals and told me, “in Kolkata I felt like I was part of something.”

 

 

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Festival Director and Oxford Bookstore Proprietor, Maina Bhagat with novelist and Bollywood journalist, Shobhaa De at the closing vigil

These, of course, are only two festivals out of many many here in India and elsewhere in the world. I therefore can’t comment with any authority that these two represent the state of festivals today, but the contrast between the two is obviously striking and illustrates the way literature today, as a category, remains a slippery and shifting one. I obviously like the AKLF’s version and think we would all do well in reproducing it where and when we can. I also think it would be an interesting project to set out and study more of these festivals both here in India and in other locales. If anyone out there wants to help fund such a project, give me a holler.

The Chetan Bhagat Effect

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Bhagat at the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival

As I noted in my first blog post, Chetan Bhagat stands as a massive figure in the field of what counts as Indian writing today. Crowned as the most widely read Indian author in history for his 2004 novel Five Point Someone and 2005 One Night @ the Call Center, Bhagat rapidly became a cultural force— Time Magazine listed him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, along with Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Lady Gaga. His novels have had the rare (and immensely profitable) distinction of translating to the Bollywood screen. In fact, the movie based  on his first novel, 3 Idiots, became the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, starring the some of the most sought-after stars, Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. His most recent effort, One Indian Girl shattered the numbers on Amazon for pre-orders and was far and away the bestseller of 2016.

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I’m less interested here in Bhagat the writer than I am what he represents as a kind of figurehead for a wave of popular Indian writers in English who have enjoyed enormous market success. And even further, for how they have been exalted as spokespeople for the “new India.” Despite Bhagat’s popularity and domination of the market, what’s interesting is that it has only been recently that he—and others—have been recognized as deserving critical attention from academics who study Indian literature.My faculty colleagues here in India have been quick to tell me that there’s been a recent flood of PhD dissertations on Bhagat’s work.

Nonetheless, up to this point Bhagat’s work has been recognized as many powerful things, but not quite literature. From the beginning, Bhagat’s writing has been dismissed for its lack of literary qualities. One of the very first reviews from Business Standard Magazine, for instance, tempered its praise of Bhagat’s popularity with this rejoinder: “I think he’s a crappy writer but I also think he’s a less crappy writer than Sidney Sheldon or Jacqueline Suzanne to name a couple of crappy best “sellerites” of previous generations.” Similarly, Bhagat’s appearance at the prestigious Jaipur Literary festival in 2009 and 2010 sparked animated discussions in the press and the blogosphere about whether or not he deserved to be at a “literary festival.” And I should note that in 2009 he garnered the second largest crowd at the festival, only behind the iconic Amitabh Bhacchan, India’s equivalent of Elvis, who made an unannounced appearance.

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Amitabh at the 2009 Jaipur Literature Festival 

Whether or not this writing counts as literature is not a particularly valuable distinction, unless of course you care about the category of “literature” and want to somehow define, preserve, and police it. The English (as in from England) literary critic Terry Eagleton famously explained in answering the question “What is Literature?”: “One can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing… than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing” (Literary Theory 8).

The minute you call a piece of writing literature you are expressing what you and others think is valuable about writing. And, by extension, you are defining what is NOT literature. This becomes important because literature is what is supposed to matter; the rest is just writing. The stakes get raised even higher when talking about popular writing because then the people themselves, the readers, become defined as well. To call something literature is not only to describe a text, but to describe to some extent the readers, or the public, of that text.

On the whole, we tend not to be very honest about this fact. Most of the time the value of any given work is usually seen as residing in the work itself. Shakespeare plays are not taught and honored simply because people like them, but because there’s something that is deemed inherently valuable in the text. We can same the same of any representation we call “art.” Art doesn’t often attempt to define its audience. In many ways it aspires to transcend it, which is the very stuff of alienation. Similarly, the “literary” defines itself against the crassly formulaic, overly provincial, and predictable conventions and tastes of its popular audiences. You might say, then, that the world of literature and art has done a fair bit of damage in alienating a lot of those who don’t speak its language or share its tastes. Think of it as a kind of enforced distance.

The Marketing of the “Unliterary” 

It is precisely this distance that popular Indian writing and the reading industry have exploited and made their moniker. In the widening corpus of critical commentary about not only Bhagat but also other popular Indian novelists in English like Ravi Subramanian, Amish Tripathi, or Ira Trivedi, what appears again and again is how these authors both understand and serve their readers. In what is clearly a marketing ploy Bhagat has embraced the popular character of his novels and aggressively presented them as an unliterary alternative to the usual players in Indian Anglophone literature.

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Published by a Kolkata-based outfit that specializes in mass-market texts—cookbooks, folklore, and management—Bhagat’s novels were priced at an affordable 95 rupees—about a third of the price of most novels—and arranged for them to be displayed at bazaars and train stations, rather than exclusively at bookstores. As Bhagat explained in one interview, “”We don’t have bookshops in every town, we have supermarkets. I want my books next to jeans and bread. I want my country to read me” (Ramesh). In still another he stated, “I always had a problem with how writing that paraded as ‘Indian’ literature was only read by a few thousand people in big cities. The rest of the country never got a chance to flip through it. My biggest achievement is that at Rs 95, I have managed to make India read again.” In this way Bhagat has seized upon the most positive definition of the popular that early Birmingham Cultural Studies practitioners described, as meaning not only “of the people” but also producing a collectivity that is “the people.” Bhagat claims ordinary people as his own, allying himself and his novels with the everyday Indian that just wants to read. Here’s what he said about his writing and “literary culture” to the Wall Street Journal in 2012:

“The core messages are simple. Those looking for a literary challenge feel disappointed. I’m mature enough that I now accept that. But they have different expectations: Some people do art for aesthetics, and maybe I’m lacking in that. Some do art for impact, and I measure success by impact. I wrote a story when I was still a banker at Goldman Sachs that has become the best-selling book in India and has become a big movie in India. It’s not highbrow. Literary culture is very snobbish. I’m happy at being in economy class with a big audience, and not be in first class.”

The problem of alienation, at least according to Bhagat, is Literature. Bhagat’s publisher, Kapish Mehra, expresses as much in unselfconsciously stating, “He is not a literary writer, But, more importantly, he is a successful and popular writer.” . And apparently not a scary one. In this defiance, we can see that being literary is not only bad business, but to be Literary, reproduces exactly the kind of alienation I mention earlier.

To be fair, there is some merit to the critique here. Literature is not, and I would argue, has never been inclusive, because, literature has been a category used to sustain the exclusive social realm of what post-Frankfurt School theorist Peter Burger once called the “art industry” of galleries, museums, and universities. In so many words, Bhagat is saying that Literature produces elites, as much as elites produce literature. Bhagat therefore, just might be excluded from the club of Literature because he doesn’t want to be a member. And he is not alone in this.

At this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival, best-selling crime novelist Ashwin Sanghi proudly declared, ““I’m a storyteller, not a writer” and that “Crime writing is more of a craft than an art” where writing is a job rather than a romantic calling, a formula rather than creative endeavor. The discourse surrounding this distinction between writer and storyteller, and novels as the result of craft rather than art, is that these texts are not simply read widely, but that they have captured a more authentic national experience than literature does.

Even further, they claim to have democratized reading. They purport to know India’s readers and are giving them what they want. Reading becomes solely defined as consumption, rather than a kind of creative, reflective, intellectual, or even spiritual engagement. Penguin India’s Metro Reads imprint says as much in advertising books that “don’t weigh you down with complicated stories” and “don’t ask for much time.”

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CEO of Penguin India

Of course, there is a limit to Bhagat and others’ critique of literary elitism. The text of Sanghi and the rest may be popular, but as Anglophone authors writing for the people, their writing still only reaches a fraction of the population. Remember, only 5-10% of the Indian population is conversant in English. But like the most literary of his counterparts, Bhagat unapologetically embraces English as the language of authority. The popular writing may be of the people, but this population is clearly middle-class and powerful.

Novelist as National Guru

We see this most clearly in the way that Bhagat has emerged as a kind of cultural sage as a regular columnist for the Times of India, a motivational speaker, and a voice that politicians are listening to because of his apparent hold on popular culture. His garishly titled essay collections What Young India Wants (2012) and Making India Awesome (2015) highlight the unbridled arrogance of Bhagat’s position as a spokesperson for India’s urban, educated, globally connected elite masquerading as a man of the people.

There’s much I could say about the (thin) content of his columns. Suffice it to say that they are mainly vapid ruminations and a garbage salad of vague truisms about success and justice, ahistorical ejaculations about great cultures and education, policy proscriptions pulled straight from the playbook of right-wing free-market ideology, and facile milquetoasty nationalist chest thumping. As an example, one of his most recent pieces chastised Delhi University students for not having enough schoolwork to do and trying to be cool in their protests against violence and intimidation from right-wing nationalists. 

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Bhagat and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a discussion on job creation

Yet Bhagat is not alone is his position as a celebrity novelist-cum-culture-guru. Bollywood actress turned novelist, Twinkle Khanna, holds a similar status as “Mrs. Funnybones” in regularly publishing vignettes for the Times of India about love, parenting, family, shopping, and the wacky antics of well-heeled Indian suburban life. They repeatedly speak of “Indian life” but are clearly only speaking of, about, and for, a fraction of Indians.

We can begin to see then that the “people” being claimed is only popular in terms of market share, not population, making it in the end not popular at all, but rather the realm of a particular social class. But to normalize the everyday reader this way is of course to mystify its ideological import and its own elitist position. Upcoming blog posts will delve a bit further into the fiction itself and how it represents and dramatize this perspective. For now, suffice it to say that the dreams of the new India in these novels are the dreams of those Indians with the class privileges of access and opportunity. It claims the popular as means to critique the cultural elite, but merely reproduces its own exclusive cultural, economic, and ideological world.

Sellers, Stores, and Stalls

I return to this blog after a slight delay, largely caused by the Head of the Department (HoD) of English informing me that I had six days to prepare a research talk to the entire university. Fortunately, that’s all done.

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Bookstalls in the Kolkata university district

Returning to the subject of popular Indian writing in English and the book industry that’s fundamental to its composition, I’ve been thinking a lot about the part that bookstores play.  Let me be more precise. When it comes to India and book sales, the better term might be booksellers. The difference is significant in India. A bookseller is not necessarily bookstore. A bookstore looks more or less what most of you readers here might recognize. A spacious, well-lit, neatly organized space that approximates a library with more color colorful signage, clearly demarcated interest sections, and probably less comfortable seating. In my city of Vadodara, population 1.3 million people, there is one single bookstore. In the large city of over 7 million about 60 miles away, there are three or four bookstores. As I noted in my previous post, more books are being sold than ever before in this country, but it’s pretty clear that most of them are not sold at bookstores. 

Bookshops and Bookstalls

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Remember that almost 90% of the industry is targeted for education (see previous post.) The local bookseller here in India is thus very likely not a bookstore at all, but a bookshop (or modest stall) that almost exclusively sells schoolbooks. These spaces tend to appear improvisational. The books are highly organized according to the logic of the vendor and stacked to maximize space, often from floor to ceiling. Used books abound. Newer books are packaged to look new. New books are prominently displayed and sealed in plastic. Browsing is limited to what you can see from where you stand, which is sometimes on the street itself. And the vendors are modestly dressed working-class fellows making their living off their one-man operations. Put simply, the focus of the bookshop is the transaction. You need that Intro Psychology textbook your professor assigned? The bookshop is where you go, and they likely know exactly what you need. Preparing for the accountancy certification exam? I can show to you at least four places within two miles of my flat that have what you need and at a good (and sometimes negotiable) price.

Bookstores

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Landmark Bookstore, Chennai

In contrast, the bookstore is where you’ll find what we usually think about when we think of a book (see previous entry). Novels, memoirs, histories, biographies, current event analyses, self-help selections, biographies, and so forth. The space encourages aimless browsing. All the inventory is new. The building is air conditioned. The decoration is lively, music is playing, the books are arranged in attractive eye-catching patterns, and so on. Whereas the bookshop focuses on you getting work done, the bookstore is about enabling your leisure time, or what you do when you’re not working.

It’s pretty clear that bookstores in India serve the elite class. Most of the titles they sell are well above the daily wage of the average worker,  272 INR  or a little over $5. My copy of The Catcher in the Rye was 299 INR, which is about where the popular texts I’m studying are priced. And, of course, in addition to having the money to be a browser at these establishments, one needs the education and leisure time to shop for books. Oh yeah, and LARGE majority of the books are in English. Titles in Hindi, Marathi, or Bengali—depending where you are—are found on a few shelves in the back.

We might say that bookstores create a class experience. Or put another way, they produce a reader, and one who is marked by his or her class position and education. To enter into one of these establishments is to be showered with the possibilities of elite living. Just like in the United States, the bookstore in India sells fewer and fewer books and more and more lifestyle merchandising. Here, it’s boutique stationary, designer pens, and digital readers (which are only now catching on). According to one study the share of books in the past few years sold at one of the largest chains, Crossword Books, has shrunk from 65% to 55%. But more, it’s the uniformed security guard who opens the door and ensures that I’m the kind of customer worthy of entry. And, like in the States, it’s the coffee bar with overpriced whipped cream-topped corn-syrup concoctions (roughly 80-300 INR.) Bookstores are not public spaces for readers, but private enclaves for bourgeois consumers. In many ways bookstores parallel the malling of India (and the rest of the globe), where enormous full-service and heavily fortified cathedrals of capitalist consumption have become the playground of middle-class leisure.

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Oxford Bookstore, Kolkata

Bookstores are where the popular Indian writing in English is primarily sold. Of course, if the title is popular enough, used copies will find their ways into the bookstalls. My point, however, is that the elite space of bookstores parallels the elite space of the popular texts themselves. In other words, if popular Indian writing is largely found in bookstores, which are not “popular” spaces at all, then its readers are already determined by the select group of folks the bookstore serves. And the details of how it serves them says a lot about who they think readers are. What counts as popular must be more about market share than population. In fact, Indian authors at Crossword Books account for 45% of all book sales, a figure that has grown by 25% per cent since 2008.

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Latest romance novel by former Bollywood actress, Twinkle Khanna. Oxford Bookstore, Kolkata

This really matters when this writing is not just “popular,” but is frequently touted as the voice of “contemporary India.” And even more important when Crossword Books has now launched its own publishing venture and plans to print 300 titles in the next three years. Bookstores have become big players in determining which Indians count when we’re talking about the “new” India. And, of course, which ones don’t.

And we haven’t even gotten to what’s in the books yet!

The Publishing Industry in India

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Some of you might know that I’ve been traveling around India to visit a few of the country’s well-known literary festivals. Stay tuned for my extended thoughts on those. For now, I want to spend some time thinking about what books and reading mean in India.

Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of conversation at these festivals about the publishing industry in India. As I mentioned in my last post, there is something big happening in Indian publishing these days. In short, it is exploding. In my pursuit of what the “popular” means in Indian literature in English, I have to take a step back and take a wider view: what does that thing being published–the book–look like in India? Indeed, it has a cover and pages (although e-reading is a reality here in India too). It is placed neatly on shelves in homes and libraries and is sold in bookshops. My question is more about the relationship of the book to its Indian readers, to Indian culture, and to the economic realities that shape its presence in the everyday lives of Indians today. In effect, I’m treating the book as a cultural artefact.

Let me take a slight theoretical detour to explain why I think this approach is important to understanding what and how we read. The book, after all, is a product. It is the result of a whole set of forces and conditions that make it possible. For instance, we have the writers who require the time, training, and resources to assemble their creative energies into a book form. Then we have the publishers who select what texts get to be put into print, how many are printed, what their covers look like, how they are distributed, and how they should be priced. We could include the booksellers themselves who display the books and further shape the cost of certain editions. And then of course, we have to include the readers who also require the time, literacy, and resources to buy or borrow the book and then actually read the ideas in within them. There are still many more factors we could consider like the paper the books are printed on, the fossil fuels that are necessary to distribute the books themselves, even the very notion of a book (it’s still a relatively new one in human history) versus clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, or the Roman codex.

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No, I’m not going to pursue these here. The point is to take seriously the idea that how a book (or any product) is made within its historical and social context gives us insights into what the people in that context think is important. This approach is called cultural materialism, which aims to show how our values are not just the result of “ideas” (they are), but also the result of the concrete, material, and economic realities of our everyday lives that make those ideas possible. Similarly, we can’t talk about books or literature by focusing solely on what authors think. Cultural materialism is an English major’s methodological version of “How It’s Made.” The fun part is that we get to describe the machine we see through our observations and research. And how the book is made in India is what I’m after.

The Nielsen Report

For the first time since 1976 a comprehensive study on the book industry in India was unknownreleased in October 2015. Entitled The India Book Market Report, the findings describe a vibrant and growing publishing industry that has been garnering a lot of attention from global publishers interested in capitalizing on the upswing. Notably, India’s book market at the time of the report was valued at $3.9 billion, making it the sixth largest in the world and second amongst the English-language countries. The industry of buying and selling books grew at a rate of 20.4% each year between 2012 and 2015, and according to demographic trends the numbers will continue to rise. The literacy level for adults at the time of report was 74%, projected to reach 90% by 2020. Let’s remember, we’re talking about a nation whose population is estimated to reach 1.4 billion by then, surpassing China as the most populous nation in 2022.

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The report also cited a “Youth Readership Survey 2009” claiming that a full one-third of the country’s inhabitants are between the ages of 13 and 35, with 25% of them, or 83 million, being “book readers.” For publishers wanting a piece of the action, this is very very good news. And they are certainly poised to pounce. Two of the larger recent mergers in the publishing world, Penguin and Random House and HarperCollins’ and Harlequin, have a substantial presence in India.

Mr. Nielsen, What’s a Book?

According to the same report an overwhelming majority, or 70% of this book market is attributed to “educational books”—textbooks, exam preparation books, workbooks, technical guidebooks—not the novels and non-fiction books, what are called trade books, that people like me grew up loving.

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So I have to ask: what if the phrase “reading a book” in this study does not describe the private experience of choosing, starting, and finishing a complete work? Or the experience of imaginative transcendence that are the stuff of inspirational posters on your high school teacher’s classroom wall? What if “reading a book” in the context of this study means the literal act of reading words found in a book. Any book. Flipped through a travel guidebook? You read a book. Completed some math problems? You read a book. Consulted a technical manual? You read a book. To back this, Nielson further found that of 9,037 publishers in India (some have claimed this is low), 8,107 publish books for schools and universities. One might wonder too if being a “book reader” includes those who read only books in schools.  Put another way: book readers don’t necessarily mean book buyers. Still, the numbers don’t lie. Books are being sold.

And your point is….?

Often those in the world of publishing talk about “books” as if they are the same as “literature” and talk about reading recreationally as if it’s the same as reading for work. (And yes, even the pleasure and work distinction I’m making here is problematic. Indulge me for a second.) When these categories are confused or tossed aside, as they certainly are at the literary festivals, or in universities, or even by publishers themselves, the details of the machine are ignored. Actually it becomes a different machine altogether. Then we’re not looking at “how it’s made,” we’re looking at how they believe (wrongly) that it’s made or how they wish it were made. 

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Bookseller in Kolkata

This matters because each of the institutions I mention (education, commerce, arts) have tremendous but varying influence on what “books” and “reading” mean. If, for instance, I am a publisher who knows that recreational readers tend to buy more books, build their own libraries, and gobble up the latest releases by their favorite authors, I’d be heavily invested in reproducing the image of reading a book to only mean reading a novel or memoir or history.  I’d also know that by the virtue of their education, these particular readers are very likely to also buy their share of educational textbooks and professional textbooks. I might even discourage those readers from considering reading textbooks as “reading” or “books,” knowing that they’d read them anyway. I’d want my version of reading and books to be the only version that matters. I’d want you to believe that books are made this way. 

Similarly, if I knew that it’s easier and more profitable to concentrate my energies on publications that are printed in English, I’d put my resources into serving, if not building, that market. I’d offer larger advances to authors who write in English and I’d distribute their work more widely, enable digital platforms, maybe even pay these authors to attend literary festivals. I’d probably get more excited about books that speak to an Indian audience that has more money, more education, more digital access, and more likelihood of travelling globally. And finally I might also price their works more competitively. Before you know it, books would be made this way. 

You get the picture.

Next Post: Indian Booksellers

Books and stuff.

Thanks for stumbling onto the blog on popular Indian writing that I will be maintaining for the next several months while I am researching and teaching in Vadodara, India. If you’re here, it’s likely that you know me, or perhaps have heard about the guy from the Shippensburg University English Department who is spending his sabbatical semester on a Fulbright Fellowship in South Asia. If I’m doing my job, some of you are current or past students. Whatever the reason, welcome!

What I hope to accomplish in my time in India—and in some way also on this blog—is to develop a clearer understanding of what has become a major cultural phenomenon around these parts: popular writing (mainly fiction) in English, by Indian authors, for an Indian audience.  It may seem strange to think of this as new. After all, English is an official language of India, and by extension, India has more English speakers than any other nation in the world. It is common to find newspapers, television programs, movies, and advertising in English. And, of course, the most widely acclaimed pieces of Indian literature over the years have been written and published in English. But this, of course, only tells part of the story. According to some estimates, between only 510% of the population is conversant in English. That means that an overwhelming majority of the Indian public does very little in and with English. So what’s going on that has made Indian writing in English such a big deal all of a sudden?

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Bangalore

Many gigabytes of commentary have been devoted to the enormous expansion of India’s middle class and of India’s rapid integration into the global economy. And what language does global capitalism speak? You guessed it, English. English is the language of authority, of access, and of opportunity in the global economy. You might say that when it comes to language, India is still reeling from a colonial hangover. Increasingly, education and white collar employment are contingent upon one’s mastery of English. English is given institutional priority and privilege. For those who have it, English is a key element for garnering success. The rise of reading in English reflects the hunger of the Indian middle-class to cultivate their relevance, if not authority, in the global marketplace. As one of the biggest names in Indian popular writing today, Chetan Bhagat (more on him later) noted in a speech at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2009, Indian readers of English reflect a desire to “make it”:

Many people don’t understand that my books are read by government-school kids, for whom English is very much a second language, and who know that they have to learn it if they want to get anywhere in life – beyond a point you can’t be successful if you don’t know English. And my books often provide them with an entry point into that world. They would be scared if they picked up a more literary work and saw complicated sentences in the first paragraph.

Much of what I’ll be exploring in this blog is what “that world” looks like in the texts and to the readers that consume them.

What’s important to note, however, is the flip side of English’s privilege. If you don’t have English, you are kept out. In effect, language enforces a hierarchical distance between those who have it, read it, write it, publish in it and all the rest of India who don’t. One critic from the City University of New York puts it this way:

Those who have little or no access to the language [English] are perhaps the ones who best appreciate its power—they feel it in job interviews, in their children’s schools, in court rooms, in hospitals, in community forums— they know they are powerless and socially marked. English is not merely a signifier of class in India; it is a facilitator of class rule. (Majumdar 7)

One might say that English is rapidly becoming THE language, rather than A language, as its cultural position enforces an immediate social distance from the rest of India, even its literate vernacular sections.  English may exalt, but it also confers domination.

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Crossword bookstore, Vadodara

The primacy of Indian novels in English (and let’s stick with novels for now) has been the way it’s been for a while. What has been celebrated as the best of Indian writing by those who determine “great literature” (North American and European literary prizes, literary journals, and yes, university syllabi) is in English. The problem that my esteemed scholars in the field have been talking about for a long time, however, is that these novels are not commonly read by the Indian public. Most are written by Indians who no longer live in India (Rushdie, Mistry, Mukherjee, Seth, Chandra, Desai, etc.), and haven’t for some time, and most have little appeal to the Indians who do speak and read and English. In short, they are about India, but are not really for Indians. Their audience tends to be international in scope, highly educated, and fairly well versed in the conventions of high-brow cosmopolitan culture, for a lack of a better term. Not your ordinary English speaker. For the record, I’m not suggesting at all that these brilliant novelists aren’t deserving of the praise they’ve received, nor am I claiming that they aren’t Indian.  My point is that up to now, they have pretty much been what counts as Indian literature. And how they have counted as such seems to me to be worth some critical pressure, not just because it’s a good idea to question how we determine value, but because now what counts as Indian literature has been complicated by a huge and relatively recent industry of popular writing.

Bhagat’s earlier comment about the “complicated sentences” gives you an idea about how the new writing is deliberately, if not downright willfully, popular. By this I mean both for the people, but also reflective of the people. And the people, the 5-10% of Indians who speak English, have been gobbling it up. To give you some context, a former mid-level investment banker, Bhagat became the most widely read novelist in Indian history when in 2004 his novel Five Point Someone broke records for selling the most copies in a month. His subsequent 2005 One Night @ the Call Center became the country’s fastest selling book, as an entire print run of 50,000 copies was snapped up in a matter of days. Similarly, Bhagat’s 2008 novel, 2 States, sold a million copies worldwide in ten weeks and his latest effort, One Indian Girl, recently shattered the numbers on Amazon for pre-orders. Keep your eyes peeled for a future entry dedicated just to Bhagat and his cultural impact, but he is far from alone. There are plenty more authors who are working in an ever-widening array of genres. If you stick around, you’ll see what some of these look like.

So, my research and this blog are about a bunch of ideas at once: books, language, literature, class, education, capitalism, nation, culture, and identity, just to name a few. What I’ve written so far is just a teaser. More depth and nuance (I hope) is on its way.

While this blog has many purposes, not the least of which is to help me organize my research, it is mainly to translate my observations and analyses for a reading public (you) that may not know much about India (although many of you know lots, much more than I), or may not know much about academic research or cultural theory (although, y’know….). It’s also a place to brainstorm, so don’t be afraid to pose questions of the curious or challenging kind, or to lob observations my way. I’m game.