This Word For That Books

The book and the podium

Ask any writer. He’ll tell you that after your tenth page, you’re riding a tiger

Having worked with a hundred writers and more, I’m convinced that people do not write for money. How can research on Koodiyattam or on the nomadic Bhotias of the trans-Himalaya be assessed by a beady eye on the rupees-column of life? No. Apart from the promise of glamour and status that a book brings its author, there are complex instincts that set a writer off on that lonely path of script creation.

There is the need to share, to affirm, to record, to educate, to put it out there once and for all. The possibility of an improved bank balance might cross the mind of a writer as she prepares a script but it is only a tiny mote that floats somewhere at the edge of self-esteem. Ask any writer. He’ll tell you that after your tenth page, you’re riding a tiger.

True, there are different genres. Some experiences literally go straight into the terrain of poetry. Others could be fashioned into short melodrama and every person you know is material for a novel. Every day brings a call from an ambitious parent. Her eight-year old had put down some lofty thoughts. How soon might she be published? If they were not bound by secrecy post-retirement, any civil servant can splinter at least one seat of power.

Product, not process

Be that as it may, in recent, markedly voyeuristic reading habits have influenced the market, and the world of books is full of tell-all stories real or fabricated.

Autobiographies read like fiction, fiction reads like reportage. Or look at an unexpected off-shoot of Dalit writing in English translation—Indian writers in English who have no direct contact with Dalits are mining this rich vein from a safe distance and carom-shooting it into their work for novelty with neither the effort of translating nor the risks of publishing.

A respectable distance away from the boiling centre is the cool crust formed by the dreaded reviewers and managers of literature. Many literary critics see only the text, not the relativity of the process of literature. The fraternity of images and echoes, the intertexts—these tend to fall outside the 800 word review or the 40-minute lit-fest session. Perhaps they are impossible to discuss.

The Province of the Book

The Province of the Book  

 

Most books live for about a year and are pushed into the graveyard of words by more words that arrive between the covers of more books, nearly every one of which is announced as the wildest and the best. Launches are arranged with great tension and pain—the author working for weeks before the date with his publisher’s PR. Book readings and literary festivals appear to be good launch-pads not so much for the book as for the writer who, quite rightly, is treated with the kind of awe usually reserved for celebrities. There follows a whirligig of invitations to a string of similar sites where a privileged few watch and listen. After 12 months, even the really good books from the previous year fade from bookshops, book-sites and lit-fests, flung into the eternal dark from whose bourn no book returns.

Book launches of yore

It was therefore with great interest that I read A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s beautiful volume The Province of the Book which describes the arangetram (literally ascent to the stage or podium) of a written work.

The arangetram is a highly ritualised event which began in pre-print times and continued into the last decades of the 19th century. It was a “book” premier and given the importance and significance of a debut performance by a musician or a dancer. On an auspicious day/ date a book, or rather a palm-leaf manuscript was presented to the public. Organised by the patron of the work, its release was a pompous affair from which the patron (yesteryear’s publisher) drew both social and cultural prestige.

Book arangetram were sometimes held in temples or in large traditionally decorated halls. The function would begin at an auspicious time with the manuscript being offered to the presiding deity before being handed over to the author. The text would be read aloud not by the author but by an admiring follower or a student. During the reading the author would intervene to explain or expand a particular line or word.

These sessions scheduled for the late afternoons would sometimes go on for days; at the very least till bed-time (on some occasions it lasted for several days). During the premiere, the audience was free to raise questions or seek clarifications.

Quite often the book arangetram was an occasion for explosive scholarly rivalry and jealousy. Naturally the patron took care to control and deflect any adverse publicity for the object of his patronage.

How much have things changed?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 6:57:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-book-and-the-podium/article19523911.ece

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