Abstract: It was a bitterly cold winter day in January 1976 when the first issue of The Book Review was proudly displayed by its three founding editors – Chitra Narayanan, Uma Iyengar and Chandra Chari – at the New Delhi World Book Fair organised by the National Book Trust every two years. It was priced at Rs. 3.00 with an annual subscription of Rs 10.00 for four issues. Dr S. Gopal, one of the four eminent members of the editorial advisory board accompanied us from stall to stall and the first copy was presented and sold to Professor Nurul Hasan, the then Chairman of NBT. The new-born journal was toasted by a host of intellectuals at K.R.Narayanan’s residence, then a modest C/1 flat in Pandara Park.
Keywords: coming of age, publishing industry, gender study
The reaction of most readers, especially in the academia, during the first years of The Book Review’s existence was that welcome as long as the venture was there, implying it would not last – most such niche journals had faded away after a year or two. However, for the founding editors, the enthusiasm with which publishers began to support the journal with review copies and advertisements was pure adrenalin. Thiry-five years later, the scenario only seems to get better and better.
Looking back, it would seem that the birth of a journal devoted solely to book reviews symbolized a larger phenomenon, the coming of age of publishing in India. Until the seventies, the publishing industry came off as a very poor third or fourth to its counterpart in the West. Reviewing of books as a genre was not taken seriously either. A miniscule space was devoted to book reviews by some newspapers in their weekly supplements. Reviewers often felt that it was not necessary to read a book to review it – the blurb gave one enough substance.
Things began to change quite dramatically in the late seventies. New imprints were established by young people avid to give the industry a new look. It was about this time that the first feminist press in India was started by two young women. Attention to editing and get up, choice of cover designs and other production details became the norm. With a visible improvement in these key areas, book buying too got a boost as the reader was no longer hamstrung by the prohibitive cost of buying imported publications and yet unable to settle for the shoddy Indian product of the fifties and sixties. Indian publishing began to exude a new confidence in its ability to stand competition with the West and to attract scholars from foreign academia to publish their works in India. Computerisation gave a fresh impetus to publishing, by revolutionising the presses.
Thus it was that to the three young women setting out to run a journal of book reviews, the hard work and much time devoted to chasing reviewers was offset by the surprisingly smooth path that unfolded. Within a year, we were emboldened to increase the frequency from a quarterly to a bi-monthly. However, the real challenge that confronted the three editors was how to negotiate with the reviewers in terms of content, to translate the standards of excellence set by our luminous editorial board – the intellectual quartet of K. R. Narayanan, S. Gopal, K. N. Raj and Nikhil Chakravartty.
Working together, as Chitra, Uma and I were in 1976 on the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru project in the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, the business of running a journal meant learning on the job. Selection of reviewers, the right one for each genre, was the first challenge as personal biases and predilections had to be taken into account in order to get critical but objective reviews in the first years. This was made surprisingly easy by the members of the editorial board who could persuade the leading academics of the day from all over the world to contribute.
Next came the choice of format. We started with the journal format which continued for four years. When the three editors suddenly found that they had to leave Delhi for personal reasons in 1980- and The Book Review was taken over by Nikhil Chakravartty’s Mainstream Publications, an act of generosity which saved the journal from an untimely closure. The format changed with the logo sporting a crow. The crow disappeared when I took over the editorship once again in 1986. It was only much later, however, in the nineties that we switched to the large tabloid format on the advice of Tejeshwar Singh, the head of Sage Publications which opened up innumerable possibilities for visual display and formatting of the pages.
By 1989, the ownership of the journal had again changed hands with the setting up of The Book Review Literary Trust. The editorial board too had expanded to include Meenakshi Mukherjee, Mrinal Pande, Narayani Gupta, Romesh Thapar, Tejeshwar Singh, Pulin Nayak, in addition to the original four members. This reflected the different genres of books being covered in the journal. The frequency of publication too could be upgraded and the journal became a monthly in 1993.
The Book Review has over the years identified several areas to publish special issues. One of them is the area of Indian languages. By reviewing creative writing in them, The Book Review has not only brought to the readers, information about it but has the distinction of facilitating translation of such works into other languages and into English.
Special issues on Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, and Gujarati form part of the TBR archives. As part of the mainstreaming of Indian language writing in the world of criticism, The Book Review Literary Trust has showcased in English translation, classics of the nineteenth century like Kanyasulkam (a play in Telugu about bride price performed to this day in Andhra Pradesh, Saraswativijayam (a novel in Malayalam which highlights the role of English education in empowering dalits) and Kapalakundala (Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s historical novel in Bangla) and Songs of Chokhamela (from the Marathi) in its series entitled Past Continuous under the General Editorship of Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee.
The other major success has been the special issues on South Asia which are being published bi-annually since 2000. These are now much sought after all over the subcontinent. Authors from the SAARC countries are reviewed in the special issues and reviewers from these countries are regular contributors. This forum has succeeded in building a bridge across the subcontinent, mirroring as it does the commonality of concerns and problems, the diversities amidst much that is shared, how South Asia perceives itself within its individual national identities is well as the role it aspires to in the larger comity of nations. It would be no exaggeration to say that in the last thirty-five years, the editors of The Book Review and reviewers have grown together to evolve a philosophy of book reviewing and demonstrate what role critical reviewing plays in publishing and academia. An international seminar organised by TBRL Trust in New Delhi on this subject provided the forum for editors of review journals like the TLS, and The Philadelphia Review, critics, authors and book publishers to debate the issue of reviewing as a genre of literature and academic writing. The Trust has been organising similar seminars both at the national and international levels to garner inputs into what is expected of a book review/ article.
There has been constant interaction with the editors of The New York Review of Books. Barbara Epstein delivered a lecture at our invitation to celebrate the journal completing twenty years of publication in which she outlined a trajectory that the NYRB had followed which was very similar to the TBR experience. Later Robert Silvers came to India invited by TBRL Trust to take part in yet another seminar on the role of critical reviewing in publishing and criticism as a genre. The text of the lecture and the seminar proceedings are available in our archives.
It is the extended TBR family of reviewers which has helped us sustain and evolve over these thirty-five years and to go from strength to strength. Amidst this abundance of goodwill we have managed to put together issues with unfailing regularity, and to seek out reviewers who write critical reviews free of jargon, written in luminous prose and give a flavour of the book to make the reader want to buy it. As The Book Review provides a great deal of space for reviewers to develop their arguments critically and highlight the salient features of a book, the journal has acquired a niche for itself in academia which brings us to the role that the journal has played in the area of gender studies.
Gender Studies as a genre too has had a similar trajectory as The Book Review. As more and more seminal works began to be published The Book Review began to reflect the scholarship in the area. We planned special issues on gender, the first of which literally a collector’s item, made its appearance at the International Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. The second was published in 1999 and is a very comprehensive survey of the state of the genre up till then. In addition to reviewing books on gender-related issues, The Book Review Literary Trust has over the years subsidised several volumes in the genre as part its Book Subsidy Programme conducted jointly with The Ford Foundation.
What The Book Review highlights very effectively is the multidisciplinarity of the different genres. This has become more and more the norm during the past decade. If one were to talk of gender, it has to be looked at from the perspectives of International Relations and Economics, Sociology and Literature, too. The issues of gender such as violence, disernpowerment and a search for gender justice, are concentric circles which merge and mingle. Every aspect of any one of these problems has its roots and effects in some other. It is no longer possible to straitjacket any subject into compartmentalised classifications and Gender Studies is no exception. This is where an innate logic operates in the production of every issue of The Book Review where ideas get reflected across a spectrum of disciplines. This multidisciplinarity is a welcome approach as it imbues every genre with a kind of a’ hybrid vigour’. The archive of the journal is a storehouse which scholars, researchers and students can use to trace the evolution of many trends in various genres.
Today, with over three decades of the coming of age of the publishing industry in India, women publishers – not necessarily only the feminist publishers – throng the scene in large numbers and with great vitality. While the commercial successes like Penguin-Random Books, Harper Collins and Rupa spell a different story, it is the small independent publisher who makes a real impact on academic and alternative publishing in India. Tulika Books, Stree/Samya, Katha, The Book Review Literary Trust, The Little Magazine, The Social Science Press, as well as Tulika Chennai, Karadi Tales and Tara, which specialise in producing quality books for children, are all headed by women.
However, in spite of the vision and vitality that women bring into publishing, it is in the area of distribution and marketing that the independent small publisher encounters the roadblocks. Direct mail orders and sales of single copies through news agencies and booksellers in the metropolises have been the avenues open to small publishers. Distributors take away a very large chunk of the jacket price which in real terms means – in spite of the tremendous mark-ups – that the publisher is left with little. To overcome this hurdle, eight publishers have come together to form an Independent publishers’ group in New Delhi, and set up the IPDA for marketing purposes. It was felt that in addition to dealing with the nitty-gritty of how to sell a book, this coming, together has contributed to a spirit of camaraderie among these publishers. Each one of these has to face similar problems in their profession and exchanging inputs, insights and information about the industry has proved extremely useful. The IPG is also linked to the international networks like Women In Publishing (WIP). The Book Review Literary Trust as also many of the publishers headed by are part of these activities.