A large number of Hindi readers have remained untapped till today. A chunk of the blame goes to the publishers

At a rough estimate, Hindi is spoken by nearly 500 million people. Yet, the number of books published every year is yet to cross the 50,000 mark. While literacy as well as purchasing power of people in the sprawling Hindi region has increased a great deal over the past decades, the culture of buying books is yet to take firm roots and spread in a substantial manner. Students are forced to buy books prescribed in their syllabus but the practice of buying second-hand books from seniors is still prevalent. While people do buy books that can be categorised as pulp fiction while travelling in trains and buses, serious literary books do not enjoy a market that would do such a widely spoken language proud.

The reasons responsible for this situation are manifold. Television is taking up a lot of people’s time and now the social media too has joined in. People are devoting less time to reading serious literary books than surfing the Internet or watching news and entertainment programmes on television. However, one must admit that even before the advent of satellite television, the situation was not significantly better. A large part of the blame must be apportioned to the changes that the nature of literary production has undergone over the past four decades.

It’s an irony that while the number of Hindi speakers and readers has grown exponentially in the post-Independence period, the number of those who are interested in buying and reading books of literary merit has gone down because a hiatus has occurred between high-brow and low-brow literature. Earlier, novelists and short-story writers like Prem Chand, Jainendra Kumar, Amritlal Nagar, Bhagwati Charan Verma and Yashpal were respected for their high literary standards and, at the same time, were also very popular among readers of diverse social backgrounds and tastes. Soon, the situation underwent a fundamental change and a disconnect developed between those who were well-regarded in literary circles and others whose works were widely read by the less discerning public. Much before fiction, poetry had already moved away from the masses and serious poetry stopped being heard in all-night kavi sammelans. Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ could be described as the last Hindi poet who was equally popular among high-brow litterateurs as well as lay readers. This phenomenon of widening schism between works of literary worth and popular tastes has been considerably responsible for the declining importance of literature in the Hindi region.

The anti-colonial national movement gave rise to simultaneous movements to spread education, eradication of social evils and cultural uplift of the society in general. Schools and colleges were founded — especially for girls — and social reform movements were launched. A robust library movement was also part of this broad socio-cultural transformation and educated elites came together in many cities and towns to set up libraries with their own resources, resulting in a vast network of these privately-established public libraries. Over the years, these libraries came to acquire large collections of high quality books in literature, history, philosophy, science, politics and such other subjects. Naturally, they created a substantial demand for literary books, giving a spurt to their publication. Sadly, like all other institutions, the library network in the Hindi region has more or less collapsed.

In Malayalam or Bengali, hardly any poetry collection is brought out in an edition of less than three or four thousand copies. However, even two decades ago, when the situation in Hindi was much better, the maximum print-run for one edition was 1,100. These days, as printing has become computerised, publishers print 200 or 300 copies to begin with and reprint more if they are sold out. For a language whose speakers outnumber all other Indian languages, this state of affairs is obviously dismal.

Hindi publishers do not follow publishing norms. Literary books do not carry their publishing histories. A few days ago, I bought a copy of Amritlal Nagar’s celebrated book on Lucknow titled “Ham Fida-e-Lakhnau” published by Rajpal & Sons. It gives the year of publication as 2012 (Nagar died in 1991!) without indicating how many editions the book has seen in the past or when it was first published. Most Hindi publishers follow this practice. Little wonder that it is difficult to find a Hindi writer who can dream of living on royalties from books.