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Speaking out of a book

Jayashree Mantri Easwaran and Jai Zende believe that the pleasure of reading a book in your mother tongue far exceeds that of reading one a book in English Photo: Murali Kumar K.   | Photo Credit: K_Murali Kumar

Jayashree Mantri Easwaran, a Tamilian from Kerala grew up in Kolkata. She was a cost accountant with Standard Chartered Bank and later moved to a BPO. Jai Madhukar Zende, an avid quizzer who studied to be an engineer, went on to do his MBA, worked with GE before he moved from Mumbai to a BPO in Bangalore.

This is Jai and Jayashree once upon a time: now, the two of them have shed their diverse pasts to come together for an innovative enterprise, Books Talk.

“It really grew out of thin air,” Jai and Jaishree giggle uncontrollably as they narrate how Books Talk, their audio books project took shape. Both of them worked for the company Fidelity, but had never met each other. Towards the end of 2009, they met through a common friend at their work place, Uday Banerjee. “We had not exchanged even 25 sentences together, but both of us were talking about doing something out of the box, in our own separate conversations with Uday,” says Jayashree. A whole lot of ideas were being tossed around — tea lounge, sandwich bar — and finally Uday said, “You must meet each other.” Once Jai and Jayashree met, they got serious about the various possibilities before them.

But why on earth would anyone give up a high-salaried job and its cushy comforts to take a road that wasn't even in sight? “Regular promotions, an annual 30 per cent hike, all this had stopped exciting me...,” explains Jayashree. “There was no deeper sense of satisfaction, and what energy work was giving me had begun to dwindle,” adds Jai. It's impossible to hang on to a job for the money that it brings in, they agreed, but disagreed with practically every idea that they brought to the table. “I was a crazy reader all my life and suddenly reading books had become so difficult in a metropolitan context. I used to download audio books and listen to them all the time when I drove and got stuck in long traffic jams. But when I went around looking for them in huge bookstores, I realised that a pack of five to six CDs was really expensive, and it was too general an offering. Then I wondered why shouldn't we do it?” Jayashree got excited as well, and Books Talk began.

Once it was decided, they wasted no time. They told their respective families, quit their jobs and got started. That was when they realised that they had walked into a completely unknown territory. “We had no experience in media publishing, or hardcore selling. Trying to change the habits of an entire nation was no easy task,” recalls Jayashree. It was a big learning process for them.

Initially, they brought in voice-over artistes to studios and did pilot recordings but the result was poor. They soon realised that reading was a twilight area of literature and theatre and that's when they started thinking of people who could bring alive a book. “We got in touch with Jagdish Raja, C.R. Simha, Chippy Ganjee and they helped us a lot. We knew no one, but they put us on to people who could help us,” says Jai.

From the moment they set out, Jai and Jayashree were clear that the biggest motivation to do this was to get into regional markets. “The pleasure of reading a book in your mother tongue far exceeds reading a book in English,” they both say. Yet, they were aware, that the upwardly mobile 300 million of this country are not reading in their mother tongues. “The effort was to light a fire,” and so along with bestsellers like Ruskin Bond, Rujuta Divekar and Rashmi Bansal, regional literary heroes like Tagore, Sunil Gangopadhyaya, Ananthamurthy and Bhyrappa also shared space. “We wanted to explore both sides of the divide. Of course, popularity determines our choice in a big way, but that doesn't diminish our concerns at all,” reasons Jai.

Nearly 80 per cent of this country has no access to books. How much of the 20 per cent can they tap? “The 80 per cent is also our concern. This is not a technologically complex project. CD players are all over the place, and hence we were trying to hark back the era of sound tracks on radio, when not everyone got to watch a film,” says Jayashree. And Jai explains how his unlettered maid was excited to listen to Bhyrappa's novel “Dharmashree” and even brought her husband over to listen to it. “They are entering a new world, and it fascinates me,” avers Jai, whose imagination, as a kid, was fuelled by listening to Marathi writer and musician Pu.La. Deshpande's readings on the radio. Their next step is to try and get on to mobile handsets and community radio.

Books Talk ( has created a lot of enthusiasm even on the Net — they have 20,000 followers on Facebook, where they have left audio samples. They are the only Indian language audio books to be available on Amazon. They are also available on Flipkart, and at bookstores like Landmark and Crossword.

“Even at the cost of sounding self-important, we really want to change the life of the community. Books Talk is not just about trade, but also about the right learning — cultural and aesthetic. We are keener on its intangible benefits,” they say. Jayashree and Jai have started working with regional artistes and make interesting sleeves for their audio books. “We are very excited, and hopefully we should have more meaningful days ahead...”

There is truly a lot of enthusiasm in the air.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 5:52:29 AM |

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