Pitaji goes the Penguin

An article in an English daily, recently, mentioned that a move had been on in the late 80’s and early 90’s to phase out English and push Hindi through. People spoke vociferously against western influences and argued that as long as the Indians continued with the usage of the ‘colonial tongue’, they would remain colonised. The phrase employed was: ‘Angrez chale gaye, angrezi chhod gaye’.

Government offices (and the like) were French in their dislike for English, and sometimes one took to rehearsing before asking questions in chaste Hindi, careful to replace the erring English word with its closest Hindi translation. You spoke, and then you looked apprehensively at the babu or his peon, checking whether you had used the right word. Depending of the situation, sometimes there would be a tinge of uneasiness when you spoke, and a slight accent that would serve as a hint that you would rather converse in English.

Today, Hindi is treated in much the same manner in western and southern India. Queries in colloquial Hindi are sometimes ignored, sometimes chastised. In the North, particularly in the Hindi belt: Hindi is a compulsory subject for those enrolled in Delhi University for those on whom the language was forced until the Xth. Insecure statements in the text attempt to sell the language by emphasising, ironically, that it is the national language and hence requires proselytisation. These are people who would like to see the language dominate the country; their thinking is rooted in the past and they still harbouring the useless pride that seeks to ignore the global implications of English: Liberalisation may not have impacted the paan stains corridors of low-end power that is derived from the authority to shift files from one table to another, but it has opened up opportunities for those comfortable with the language. Whether the competitive advantage of outsourcing will hold for more than six to eight years is another story, but it does exist now, and the Indians relative comfort with the English has implications that stretch from Economics to Politics.

The domination that English enjoys is unparalleled: no race or religion has enjoyed such popularity or acceptance. While it would be obvious to credit the dominance of first the British, then the Americans and their businesses, and now Microsoft and its MS Word software, its popularity may also be attributed to the one thing that makes it different from most other languages – its ability to grow and adapt. Also, English is probably the most common ‘second language’ in the world, something that makes it the largest market (in terms of language) for writers.

Contemporary writers in India have often complained about all the attention that Indian writing in English commands, and one is reminded of Rushdie’s selections for The Vintage Book of Indian Writing: 1947-1997 that was the cause for much criticism because it included but one translated story – the incisive Toba Tek Singh by Manto. While a large number of people speak and read English, and the spread of the language is gathering momentum, what with cricketers’ renditions of the language becoming progressively fluent, publishing in local languages would mean tapping a much larger market. In a much needed, but unexpected move, Penguin India launched four Hindi titles on the 16th of April, 2005:

1. Hamara Hissa, an anthology of contemporary Hindi stories edited by Arun Prakash
2. Jannat Aur Anya Kahanian (Paradise and Other Stories), by Khushwant Singh
3. Ladies’ Coupé by Anita Nair
4. Shakuntala: Smriti Jaal (Shakuntala, the Play of Memory) by Namita Gokhale

Penguin will move next to Marathi and Malayalam, with more languages being added subsequently. On the anvil are an anthology of stories in Marathi, translations of selected stories by Ruskin Bond, Arundhati Roy’s new book of essays, `An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire’, and Shobhaa Dé’s latest book `Spouse: The Truth About Marriage’.

The Penguin Group suffered a 69 million dollar drop in profits last year, and this is obviously to increase scale and reduce risks by catering to a reader base and exploiting their incontestable reach and marketing strength. A first ever for Penguin, lessons learnt in the Indian market will probably impact strategy in other markets where Penguin plans to go local.

Smart move? Only time will tell whether potential eyeballs will shell out upto Rs.200 per copy. One doesn’t know how authors who write in local languages must be feeling, though. With 25 titles per language per year, some of them have gained from a publisher as big as Penguin ‘going local’, and others, with the loss of a whipping boy, have been robbed of headlines. In true capitalistic spirit, the open market shall now deliver judgement.

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