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Sunil Sethi: Why Delhi is India's Book Capital


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

For years the annual book fair in Kolkata used to be the big noise in India's world of publishing, and deservedly so. Spread over the city's central Maidan it was both a joyous celebration and a literary feast in a city that strongly nurtures its intellectual tradition. Delhi's book fair used to be Kolkata's poor relation. But, this year, owing to public interest litigation that has argued against use of the Maidan as both polluting and hazardous (fires and power breakdowns have been frequent as a result of poor planning on the part of the organisers, who neither observe safeguards nor properly clear up the mess afterwards) the High Court ruled against the venue and Kolkata's bookfest was cancelled at the last minute. The organisers had been forewarned to find an alternative site, but believing that a bookish chief minister would somehow save the show, they were at sixes and sevens and rapidly fell about in an unseemly display of public bickering. America was to be the theme country at Kolkata and Paul Theroux, the famous novelist and travel writer, was to be the inaugural guest. The court ruling left the American Centre in a flap, and Theroux high and dry, giving interviews disconsolately in the Centre's brutal-looking fortress on Chowringhee.
It is an irony of the changed political predilections in the country that while America was the theme country at Kolkata, Russia is the country being honoured at the 18th Book Fair in Delhi. (Russian puppets, 12,000 Russian titles and Russians in embroidered peasant blouses doing brisk business in selling matryoshkas and lacquer ware.) The Delhi Book fair has neatly stepped into the breach left by Kolkata but it is also better off, better organised (a well-calibrated interaction between book trade guilds, universities, the National Book Trust and the HRD Ministry), has a designated trade fair site (45, 500 square metres. and 13 halls of Pragati Maidan) and more variety (1,343 participants; 22 overseas countries; 2,500 stalls). There are plenty of restaurants and cafes for sustenance; and because the Metro comes right up to the fair grounds, greater attendance than earlier years. Even the toilets are better maintained.
From a drab and left-in-the-lurch event of previous years the Delhi Book Fair has emerged as the Cinderella preparing for the coming out ball. Its colour and swagger and bustle this year were surprising but also a fair indicator of India's booming publishing industry, now estimated at Rs 100,000 million. Forty per cent of the 80,000 titles published yearly are in English, making India the third-largest publisher in the English speaking world after the US and UK.
Foreign publishers are flocking in, not only to use India as a printing hub but to source writers, designers and new business partnerships. International publishing giants such as Random House and Harlequin have set up shop recently; the latter, a $450 million Canadian company, which owns the 100-year-old Mills & Boon imprint, leading purveyors of women's romantic fiction, plan to print 10 titles a month, priced at Rs 99 a copy. "We want to create Mills & Boon titles for Indians, by Indians and set in India. Our 1,300 authors include people such as US army colonels and Egyptian doctors. Why not Indians who have proven writing and story-telling skills in English?" the company's sassy CEO Donna Hayes, who sits on the board of McGill University, told me.
The stalls of homegrown Delhi publishers such as Penguin, Rupa & Co, HarperCollins and Roli Books, once modest ventures, are much-expanded dazzlers this year, with impressive layouts and designer displays. Stylish repackaging of old titles is very much part of the scheme: from P G Wodehouse to Arundhati Roy, Doris Lessing to Amitav Ghosh, all are available in eyecatching new editions.
From being the political and fashion capital, and some say the new money capital of India, Delhi is now also the country's literary capital.

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First Published: Sat, February 09 2008. 00:00 IST