Taking the classic texts to the masses has been one endeavour of writer Gandhi Annapaneni.

“Suddenly there came through the open window the sound of sweet music. Outside, on the bough of a tree, sat the living nightingale. She had heard of the emperor's illness, and was therefore come to sing to him of hope and trust. And as she sung, the shadows grew paler and paler; the blood in the emperor's veins flowed more rapidly, and gave life to his weak limbs; and even Death himself listened, and said, “Go on, little nightingale, go on.”

The nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen's tale is iconic of the life-spirit story-telling has always been.

Andersen also foresaw through the tale the fate of genuine art, thought and expression. Earlier in the story, a toy nightingale which always sings the same song in the same vein gets an overwhelming approval rating from his crafty courtiers and his people. The problem: None of them had heard a real nightingale!

It is like the fate of classic writings and great literature today. The massive difference in the situation from just a couple of decades ago is striking. To see the real collapse however you will have to peep a little into the vernacular world of contemporary Telugu publishing and reading, and ratings!

Why do the classics matter at all? Gandhi Annapaneni realised the difference they make to society during his two years stay as an international student in the erstwhile Soviet Russia. The lack of translations of classic writings especially from the sciences and social sciences in local languages throughout Africa and Asia was a glaring contrast from the situation in Europe. “Accessing and understanding the great ideas and concepts through your own language matters a lot in creating a sturdy intellectual foundation and building up native confidence,” says Gandhi. Considerable good work was done in the decades preceding and following independence in many languages in India but it was primarily focused on bringing in literary works. Even that has become a trickle now.

Remarkably, Gandhi's cherished project took shape and evolved amidst such exceedingly adverse climate. By that time sales of ‘serious' Telugu books had plummeted dramatically. Telugu publishing houses had to survive, as they still do, on a hot-mix of vaastu, astrology, religion, personality development and books for competitive exams.

The range and variety of the 58 well-translated and attractively produced books in Telugu which Gandhi has brought out in the last five years under the Peacock Classics label, aided of course by a small band of friends and well-wishers, comes as an exceedingly pleasant delight. It is a fine mix of philosophy, science, constitutional law, mythology, folk tales, children's literature and literary classics — ancient, medieval, modern, Indian and foreign. Finding suitable translators who could bring out the essentials of the original in lucid and contemporary Telugu was the most difficult task Gandhi had to face. His persistence shows in the results.

Sales figures, though un-encouraging, have not disappointed Gandhi too much. Kaalam Katha, a translation of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time for instance has had seven editions (each 1000 copies). About ten titles including Amma (Maxim Gorky) have done modestly well. The books are priced reasonably. “Yet, most of the target audience for these books, especially in the student community either do not have the resources or are unwilling to spend on books”, feels Gandhi.

“The public library system in Andhra Pradesh is no more what it used to be yet there are still 1500 functional libraries spread over the state. So we are inviting people who feel passionately about Telugu and good books in Telugu to pick any work choose any title of their choice from a list of 40 books. The books will be reprinted (with the donor's name) and the copies donated directly to the public libraries,” reveals Gandhi.

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