Beyond English

Renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o visited India in February 2018 on the invitation of Seagull Books and the Seagull Foundation for the Arts. He addressed and interacted with the students of the Seagull School of Publishing on 13 February 2018. This is a report by one of the students.

Beyond English[1]

Ramhaith N Nasat

A Prelude against Their Selves

I have always felt at a loss when it comes to language. My grandfather, when in Pakistan, wrote Punjabi in the Nastaʿlīq style and spoke Punjabi. After migrating to India, he had to literally become a Hindu—in his language and mannerisms. That’s what most of us are forced to become these days in India—a Hindu. As his grandson, I felt like I was in a labyrinth because people in my family spoke in Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani, English and Punjabi, while I was forced to speak in English at my school. After a point in time, speaking in English became a matter of pride, and with that came the pride in lifestyle, mannerisms and my ‘superior’ hybrid identity. Despite trying to wear a mask, every now and then, I felt at a loss. What kind of loss? I am still to figure that out. But it was lingering around me, sometimes hiding, at other times standing—stark naked, its voice being rendered gibberish by my English self. Questions pertaining to language and identity troubled both my mind and my tongue:

What is it about language that binds and divides us? What happens when one language bleeds into another? What experiments are we doing with language? What about translation? When and how does a language die? What about those Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi texts that I cannot read any more? What about so many other languages that remain untranslated, unrecognized, getting lost in a fathomless abyss, along with the voices, identities, communities attached to them? Is chutnification of language enough to decolonize the Indian mind?

There was never an easy answer to any of these questions, but that never meant that these questions weren’t critical enough to be asked or thought about.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has been an important figure in making me raise these questions about and to various languages, particularly English. The more I read his works, the more interested I became in establishing a connect with the progressive writers of India who were raising these concerns at a particular point in time. But now hardly anyone is paying attention to their voices. Reading these texts and finally having the opportunity to listen to Ngũgĩ fortified my belief that these issues are relevant in India and it is essential that we assert the need to talk about them. What Ngũgĩ rendered in these sessions was more of a performance piece (in the form of storytelling), an art form very central to the oral cultures of Africa, through which he took us back and forth to particular moments in his life. These were tales about Ngũgĩ changing his name from James to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; the West’s interest in Africa; the outflow of various resources being more than the inflow, resulting in a huge disparity; how confinement and exile didn’t stop Ngũgĩ from writing; the need to write in one’s own language or mother tongue; translation being the language of languages; and Mahabharata being a significant source for many of his writings and characters. One of the stories that stayed with me was about the Pen Conference in New York in 1966. He said:

‘In one of the sessions, Pablo Neruda of Chile was sharing the podium with the writer who authored Bread and Wine. He was complaining about the dearth of Italian books being translated into English. He had acidly remarked that Italian is not like one of those Bantu languages which had one or two words in the vocabulary. I was so disturbed after hearing that, as it wasn’t true. So, I raised my hand, got up and made a point that Bantu didn’t just have a two-word vocabulary. This was my way of protesting against the attack on Africa, a continent that I was representing.’

This hierarchy has existed vis-à-vis many languages in India. But who all are expressing their concerns against the attack on a ‘minority’ language? And are we even listening to the ones who are trying? English has been feeding on Hindi; Hindi, on other ‘minor’ languages. In the process, many languages are lost, left unrecognized, judged and, as a consequence, this has changed the identity of many communities and individuals. Ngũgĩ’s concerns are relevant to that of India and many other colonies. There is no easy answer to what is to be done, for most writers would say that since it was not their choice to write in English, there is no point in struggling. But is there no point in struggling? Is there no point in providing an opposition (rooting from one’s native language) to the power?

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, on his views about power, says that power is exercised by human agents and is also created by them, influences them and limits them. Colonialism, which brought with it strategic plans of cultural domination, used language—both as a process of communication and cultural formation—as a medium of power to exert force on various sections of society, controlling and giving boundary to a culture. This language, though, as a tool of power, also possessed the potential to undermine power, for it was both a medium of power in and behind a particular discourse. But is that enough?

Secure the Base answers this question. It brings together essays spanning nearly three decades raising Ngũgĩ’s concerns for the place of Africa in the world today. He talks about the place from where Africa has emerged, its struggle for decolonization of the mind, what Africa has failed to do and the crimes it has brought upon itself. Most importantly, it speaks of securing the base and suggests that people should avoid being intellectual outsiders in their own land. He urges African artists to reconnect with their African memories, their folklore, their literature, experiences and languages. He mentions that it is only because we all had to learn the European languages that we use them. ‘There is nothing inherently global and universal about them; they just happen to be the language of power.’

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The following piece is my response to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s sessions on Secure the Base at the Seagull School of Publishing and Victoria Memorial Hall on 13 and 14 February 2018 respectively. It is an attempt at exploring different aspects of a language and how these have come to influence the people of India in particular and the world in general. A quest to make the self question its own privilege and choices, vis-à-vis language in particular, the piece is written from the perspective of the powerful. It is a criticism of my own self by the other within and outside the self. It attempts to direct a gaze inward—to question, unearth and unsettle my own position as an upper-caste, English-speaking man in India. These questions, as they howl within the four corners of this paper and/or this/your screen, attempt to incite an introspection and then glare—long enough—at the English-speaking bourgeoisie. It attempts at discussing the art of killing, eating and replacing languages by the authority that aims at rendering the powerless helpless and a little more lost.

 

The Art of Linguicide and Glottophagy Attempted on the Other

An Address Given at the Organization of the Selves

Friends, Selves and Conformers,

The only prerequisite for learning the art of linguicide and glottophagy is to be aware of the Book of Genesis. Most of you are well versed with the Book of Genesis, and so are they—those who have been and still are to be tamed. It is our duty to civilize the uncouth through language. So, if they are ignorant about the creation myths in the Old Testament, tell them not to panic! For it shall be slowly drilled into them. The main objective, we’ll tell them, is to cultivate them and their tongues. After that we can even instigate violence and inspire them to eat another minor tongue. The Organization of the Selves is aware that it has to put a halo of its self around the other, through myriad strategies by making them feel ignorant and at a loss. This has happened for long and should be taken forth with utmost sincerity.

I am not going to define linguicide and glottophagy for your convenience. I want you to look it up in the dictionary so that you start working towards learning about the movement of struggle which aims at our survival with an intention to intimidate. How does that make you feel? Halt, think and then proceed. It is, therefore, urgent that you constantly push yourself—to manipulate, throttle and master the art of killing a language.

I’ll make it easy for you by breaking down the process of learning this art. The case of the Golden Bird, a beautiful land on the other side of the planet, is particularly worth mentioning in this context. This address will talk about the Golden Bird as the other which is below us and lacks that which we have and they can never have. It is crucial to learn how we pushed it to the periphery and made it an other so that our other selves can subjugate many other others. Language in the Golden Bird, as it is now, was formed by reversing the order of the creation myth. First came temptation, deflowering, exile and then they started to use our language and make their own universe. They think they are successful, but we are the real victors because we have survived, flourished and uprooted many of their languages. So let them be on a wild goose chase! They won’t get anything out of it. Their design is, and will always remain, a copycat.

The story began with the earliest recorded translation of Panchatantra from Sanskrit to a number of European languages. That remains the earliest recorded transaction between the self’s and the other’s literature (5th century ce). This was followed by the translation of Yajur Veda (by Voltaire) and the Upanishads. In the 1780s, we took over and translated texts (led by William Jones and Sir Charles Wilkins) to cause what Raymond Schwab calls an ‘Oriental Renaissance’ in the empire. This was a quest for the supreme romanticism in the Orient by us. However, our regard for others’ texts declined with our increasing military victory, and then followed our attempts to make them learn English. Macaulay’s appropriation of the ambiguity of the 43rd section of the Charter Act of 1813 and his famous minute, in which he stated, ‘We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’, and the 1835 English Education Act of Governor General William Bentinck to establish the exclusivity of learning English language and literature started the proselytization and caused the advent of a ‘renaissance’ in the other. With this act, English became the official medium of instruction in other’s Education, manufacturing babus and bibis who would start the process of writing in English. Clearly, our motive was to make sure that the impact of English was much more than any other language and we used it not only as a cultural and literary influence but also as a strategic and comprehensive act of hegemonic oppression. Our motive was and remains only one—imperialism.

So far, we have been able to drill in the culture and lifestyle of the selves into the others. They are talking in English and being English. Most of them have come to conform, have started wearing white masks and those who haven’t are often being rendered jobless. Students are being forced to speak in English, the base for departments of literature in most states of the other is literally English, and English can save them from innumerable struggles. Or so they think. So why not kill your own language and train yourself in our language? We have been successful in creating hybrids who are dying to become more of us and less of themselves. Every day, new hybrids!

But there is something that chokes this proselytization. Imagination! Osip Mandelstam, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and the biggest threat of them all—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. His original name was James, though. Just saying. His writings have influenced many to ‘decolonise’ their minds. They have been passing through various phases to subvert and challenge our language. A few are even getting inspired by Ngũgĩ and are attempting to write in their own language and carry out translations from English to other Indian languages and vice versa. But, it is a minuscule number. Some of the writers have been successful but the Radcliffe Line[2] and many other lines have been successful in creating a delightful divide. With partition comes pain and spite. With spite comes revenge. Linguicide has been one aspect of our hold at the centre; the other is glottophagy. That is even more gratifying.

It is a pleasure to see one language eating another. English eating Hindi; Hindi eating Urdu, Tamil, Assamese and other languages has by far been the most supercalifragilisticexpialidocious sight for the self. What? I am not here to make you feel comfortable, my selves. I am here to make you, me and us realize the importance of doing this with language and make one experience loss. The act of glottophagy, the way one language sucks in another, absorbs it and replaces it, once it has licked every single piece of the other, gulped it down its throat and excreted the waste other, has always made us sturdy and strong. The language of the other’s intellectual make-up is surely a threat, no doubt about that. But they still look for validation from the self. From awards mostly. This reinforces our position, again and again, as the language of the world. And that we are. Whenever a Sea of Poppies loses to a White Tiger,[3] a Ngũgĩ loses to a Bob Dylan and people buy into and firmly believe in the Booker Prize, the self others the others and reinforces its supremacy.

Students, artists and intellectuals, though sometimes a threat, hardly unite to struggle, translate, unlearn the selves’ mission or relearn their own language. What is the need to bother about a language, when something universal is being talked about in every book, every story? Right? It is important that we tell this to the others and not our own selves. Doing that (not caring about our language) will be a sacrilege and the organization won’t spare the perpetrator of such an ideology in the land of the pure. So, be wary of this, my conformers. We have our own ways to purge those who rebel against that which is sacrosanct.

The education system of the others still serves us well for it teaches English through our canon. The readers, as a result, continue to serve and feed our many selves, while 1599 other languages are ostracized by the majoritarian others themselves. Loss, pain, unemployment, identity crises prevail, but most ‘radicals’ turn a blind eye to this ‘unresolvable’ issue and say: ‘How unfortunate!’ They use language as a tool to shave their armpits, groom their texts and not as a weapon[4] to lead, to expose, subvert and overturn the hierarchies of language. We do have a few exceptions like Mahasweta Devi. But she’s dead now and her stories are too real to be read. So who cares? They are not going to read her anyway. As long as the abolition of the English Department does not take place, as long as the canon is taught, promoted and put on a pedestal, we are safe! The progressive others are lost and forgotten and they are not coming back any time soon. We continue to flourish, making a hybrid even closer a copycat to the selves. Soon the others will feel like they’ve come closer to the selves by oppressing the otherness within themselves and in the other others (non-Hindi-speaking audience).

Come closer my friends,

Come closer to the Selves,

Conform to Excellence.

Even more close, closer than ever! Look at me. But, no matter how much they try, they would always feel at a loss or so we shall make them feel by (not) giving them awards. The gist of the art of linguicide and glottophagy thus lies in luck, manipulation and pulling down the others to make them yearn for the selves. It lies in colonization of the mind and creation of a hierarchy. It lies in shaking the others’ base and never letting them feel secure. Pull them down to maintain the arrogance of the lucky races and it is a victory.

May the sun never set in the Empire!

Cheers to the Self!

(Applause and uproar)

To the Self!

Your Ruler of the Other

Major Self.

 

Bibliography

Bhabha, Homi. ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. October 28 (1984): 125–33.

Chaudhari, Amit. Clearing a Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008.

Cheele, Ellie. ‘The Booker Prize: Scandal, Controversy and Marketing Tool’. The Journal of Publishing Culture 1 (2003). Available at: https://goo.gl/iMTGQL (last accessed on 11 March 2018).

Clark, Anna. ‘Language, Hybridity and Dialogism in The God of Small Things’ in Alex Tickell (ed.), Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’. New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 132–41.

Narang, Harish. Colonial Influence, Postcolonial Intertextuality: Western Literature and Indian Literature. Modern Language Studies 43(2) (2007): 121–33.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1986.

——. Petals of Blood. London: Penguin, 2005.

——. Secure the Base. London: Seagull, 2016.

Viswanathan, Gauri. ‘The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India’. Oxford Literary Review 9(1–2) (1987): 2–26.

 

Notes

1 The title is inspired from Agha Shahid Ali’s Ghazal ‘Beyond English’, published in the New Yorker on 1 July 2002, in which he is waging a war (no, jung) beyond English.

2 The boundary demarcating India and Pakistan is often known as the Radcliffe Line.

3 The Booker Prize, which grew to prominence after a scandalous speech where the winner of Booker 1971 denounced the Booker corporation as a colonialist enterprise built on the backs of black plantation workers in Guyana, sets its one most important criterion for selecting the winner as being the ‘best’ original full‐length novel written in the English language. Multiple debates have emerged regarding how one decides what is this ‘best’. Moreover, the Booker is also considered as a marketing tool, for it is now aired as the most popular award show on TV. For instance, one could analyse the statistics of White Tiger by Arvind Adiga. Between 12 weeks prior to winning and after it, the novel saw a sale increase of 32.38 per cent, which shows how big a brand name it became. The Daily Telegraph has, in the past, described the Booker Prize as an embarrassment to the entire book trade, with the Economist declaring it as a ‘sad and shoddy farce’. One, then, does not need to wonder why Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea Of Poppies, full of indictment of the Western culture and their exploitation of colonies for the opium wars and which provides a rich chrestomathy (a term coined by Ghosh himself, for his lexicon in the novel) of words that are neither italicized nor glossed to attract the Western audience, lost to Adiga’s White Tiger.

4 In the 2001 documentary titled ‘Mahasweta Devi: Witness, Writer, Advocate’, directed by Shashwati Talukdar, Devi asserted: ‘Language is a weapon; it’s not for shaving your armpits.’

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A Writer’s World That Doesn’t Exist: Master Class with Léonora Miano

Pooja Sharma

French Cameroonian author Léonora Miano, whose novel Season of the Shadow (translated from the French by Gila Walker) has been recently published by Seagull Books, spoke with the students of the Seagull School of Publishing on 31 January 2018. Pooja Sharma, student of editing at the school, shares her experience of the master class—in English and in French.

For someone who is trained to deal with the minutiae of finance—what is a master class by an author? For someone who devours literary non-fiction—what is a discussion over imaginary, built-up stories? I was just excited to be attending a class by a francophone author, occasion my French and, gradually, discover my fit in the publishing sphere. For all of that, I found my answers when I learnt about Léonora Miano.

A Cameroonian author, she told us about how she started writing at the age of eight. She wanted to become a singer following her inclination towards poetry and music, which doesn’t fail to leave its trace in her writing. The titles of her novels were enough to intrigue me: Season of the Shadow, Dark Heart of the Night, Soulfood Équatoriale—to begin with. The premise of her novels—conjured realities (if I may say so)—is so reflective, I wanted nothing but to dive in.

Her oeuvres are fictional adaptations to understand the African and Afro-diasporic identities. And yet, she describes feelings that are universal. While she read an excerpt from her novel Season of the Shadow that unearths the lives and enslavement of the people of sub-Saharan Africa, lost in the folds of history, I formed a mental image of her poems, written as a child only to be burnt later, floating in the shadows—enclosed in their could-have-been form.

She writes of emotions plucked from people’s lives, holds them aloft and onto the foreground—I prefer to see it as an infusion of reality and narrative in thin air, and at the core of this mélange, there exists nothing. However, beyond this abyss, we find a surreal partake in one’s life, witnessed by another; one that traverses years, frontiers and the line between fabrication and reality.

It was interesting to see that her style of writing mirrors her personality (nothing obscure— everything on the surface and yet overpowering) or vice versa. When enquired whether she’s narrating true stories and how does one collect material, she opened the first gate into the realm of fiction for me and asserted, ‘It’s a writer’s world; it doesn’t exist.’

I couldn’t have come across a better way to fall in love with the world of publication: of languages, of translations, of people’s lives and the privilege of reliving them.

 

Le Monde D’un Auteur N’existe Nulle Part

Pour quelqu’un qui a étudié le finance—c’est quoi un cours avec un auteur? Pour quelqu’un qui préfère la littérature non romanesque—c’est quoi l’échange sur des histoires imaginaires? J’en avais hâte uniquement d’assister un cours avec une auteure francophone, profiter d’une conversation en français et graduellement, découvrir ma place dans la sphère de publication. Mais voilà, j’en ai trouvé les réponses en me familiarisant avec le monde de Léonora Miano.

Une romancière Camerounaise, elle s’est consacrée à la poésie et la musique dès qu’elle avait huit ans. Grace à ce gout inné, la musique faire des traces et des empreintes dans sa l’écriture. Il me fallait connaitre juste les titres de ses romans pour m’intriguer: La Saison de l’ombre, Contours du jour qui vient, L’intérieure de la nuit—pour constituer un point de départ. Les prémisses de ses romans—la vérité monter de toutes pièces—si profondes, je ne voulais que plonger.

Ses œuvres sont l’adaptation romanesque dans le dessein d’entendre des identités Africaines et Afro-diasporiques et en même temps le démontage des sentiments universelles. Quand elle a lu un extrait de son roman La Saison de l’ombre qui déniche le vécu intime et l’asservissement des gens de L’Afrique Subsaharienne, perdu dans la péripétie; J’imaginais ses poèmes, celles qui avaient écrits dans son adolescence et brulés plus tard, flottant dans la silhouette—clos dans la forme qui n’existait guère.

Les émotions retirées par le vécu des gens, enlever et relever dans un œuvre—je préfère le regarder comme une imprégnation de la réalité et l’histoire en l’air devant nos yeux et tout au fond de ce mélange, il n’existe rien. Toutefois, au-delà de cet abysse, on y trouve une transmission géniale du vécu d’un, témoigné par d’autre ; une telle transmission qui traverse des années, des frontières et la ligne entre le mirage et la véracité.

Ce qui était intéressant à voir c’était que son style d’écriture est bien animé dans sa personnalité (pas d’obscurité—tout clair et encore pénétrant)—ou inversement. Quand on a demandé des renseignements sur ses documents des recherches et si les récits sont des vraies histoires, elle a ouvert la première porte vers la fiction pour moi, en disant que c’est le monde d’un auteur—ça n’existe nulle part.

Je n’aurais pas pu trouver un meilleur moyen pour me susciter de tomber amoureuse avec ce monde de publication: les langues, les traductions, le vécu des gens et le privilège de le revivre.

Joseph Schreiber’s Art of Book Reviewing and Publishing

Mihika Agarwal

After an array of different poets, authors, editors and translators, we had a fun, exciting master class taught by Joseph Schreiber. Schreiber is a writer, blogger, critic from Calgary, Canada and maintains a literary blog called roughghosts, where he reviews books.

All of us probably looked exhausted with all the master classes; however, when Schreiber started the conversation as to how he got into writing and blogging, we were all immediately drawn in. His first piece, ‘Your Body Will Betray You’, was the starting point of his career. He spoke about how he became an experienced storyteller. He introduced us to different websites where aspiring bloggers and book reviewers can publish their work for free! Being a blogger myself, I found the session enlightening; I got to learn about the how the industry works. He not only gave us simple tips, such as writing and reading without fear, but also more complex ones, such as how to create one’s own blog through WordPress.

One thing that really struck to me was the concept of book reviews. Personally, I find book reviews difficult to write—because when I am writing them, I end up talking more about the story and often give away the ending of the book. If I was reading my review, I would probably find this really frustrating. Schreiber told us about his ideology—a review should not give away the end and it does not have to be entirely about the story. The review should be about what you liked about the book and it should be an interesting piece in itself, whether or not the reader actually wants to read the book.

One of my peers raised the question of whether we should write a review of a genre we are not familiar with or do not like. Schreiber replied, Absolutely not! I found this interesting. If we find a book boring, we should not take it up, as we would not to justice to the text; we would also torture ourselves doing something we do not like. Furthermore, he said, life is too short for that. That brought me back to reality as it made me think how I should always do something I love and only then would I be satisfied.

Schreiber also brought up the subject of self-publishing. Being aspiring editors, authors and designers, who dream of working in a publishing house or publish our own books, we found this discussion enlightening. He mentioned how one of his friends started his own publishing house called Inside the Castle and published a book called F Text. This fascinated me, since I have majored in English (poetry) and my senior writing project was a book of poems in which I used a variety of voices and stories with the help of visual effects­—blackouts, erasures, caesuras and white space. Schreiber was kind enough to gift me the book, for which I was extremely grateful and excited. I recommend it to everyone!

And to wrap up this piece, here is an excerpt from Schreiber’s piece on ‘Your Body Will Betray You’ which I have used to create an erasure poem.

Your Body Will Betray You — Joseph Schreiber

’Cause Everything Is Design: A Conversation

Shashank Bhargava

After multiple failed attempts of trying to come up with something for this blog post, which is meant to be about my ‘experience of grappling with the nitty-gritty of learning design’ at the Seagull School of Publishing, I ended up having the following conversation with my girlfriend, Swati, trying to figure out how I should be going about it.

Swati. I think you first have to figure out what are the issues that you faced. You can’t gloss over them because otherwise it becomes just any other design student’s account. It has to be personal enough—why did you have those problems?

Shashank. Personal? Hmmm. Well, for some time I thought since I had only paid Rs 10,000 out of the Rs 50,000 for the course and I could still back out from the course. Because I’m not a designer, I have no background in design and that I don’t fit in. There are people in the class who paint or draw or have studied in Srishti and I have not done either, so that used to be quite intimidating. Plus the decision to join the course was kind of impulsive. So I’d think about leaving every day. I don’t know how serious I was about that because I don’t know if I would have actually left.

Swati. Did you not leave because you thought you’d get to learn or because of inertia? As in, now that you’re there you might as well do it.

Shashank. Learning, yes. But also because it reflects poorly on you when . . .

Swati. . . . you leave something.

Shashank. Yeah. Then you’re a quitter. You didn’t even give this a fair shot. But, when I designed the first cover and I compared it with the others’, I thought it wasn’t that bad.

Swati. You were thinking about leaving even before the first cover?!

Shashank. I did think about it. And I thought that even after the first one, but that first one had given me a slight confidence.

Swati. What is the cover that makes you feel like—I can do this?

Shashank. Maybe the Panchtantra cover.

01 Panchatantra Cover Shaskank

Swati. That is actually pretty professional.

Shashank. Well, yeah, it does look professional but this is exactly what I didn’t want to do. Because this leafy pattern has been done to death in books like Aesop’s Fables or Penguin Classics. But it still looks alright.

Swati. What about the Jeet Thayil one?

02 Jeet Thayil Cover Shashank

Shashank. I like the idea of it, but I don’t think it can go for print.

Swati. Yeah, I think so too. It looks like a draft right now.

Shashank. I think the colours need to darken a little, the outline needs to be highlighted more and I think another element needs to be placed here. I was thinking of adding circles here . . .

Swati. What about textures? You haven’t worked with textures yet.

Shashank. Yeah, not at all. All my covers—and I was also telling this to Sunandini [Banerjee] today—that all my covers are two-colour. And she said, ‘Great! You’ll be saving someone incredible amounts of money!’ And in fact even for today’s assignment, we had to bring a textile from home, scan it and use it to design a cover. So I borrowed my landlady’s sari for it. So now the image that I’ve used obviously has a texture but again I’ve reduced it to two colours.

Swati. Yeah, maybe this can be your thing but this can’t become your limitation. The reason you’re doing this can’t be because you can’t work with more than two colours.

Shashank. Yeah. I think for the next cover I have an idea where I will be using more than two colours.

Swati. Hmm, that’s also part of your growth, I guess. Earlier you couldn’t do it and now you can or at least that there is potential.

Shashank. I think another reason that I didn’t leave or didn’t want to leave is because this is a cool place. Plus it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student. That’s something I’ve not experienced since college. So learning something with other students or hanging out after classes and the school itself is a great place to be. You enjoy spending time there and look forward to coming to it everyday. Plus, I’m staying in Kolkata which is something I always wanted to do. Actually experiencing Kolkata.

Swati. So what are you finding the toughest about designing a cover right now? It is the font? I see you’re using similar kind of fonts.

Shashank. Yeah, I have a preference for sans-serif fonts. And Sunandini also noticed this and told me that I should branch out. And for Panchtantra I used a serif font because it can do with a decorative sort of font, but I don’t like serif fonts because they look old for some reason.

Swati. Any other aspect?

Shashank. I think we will get a collage assignment and I have no idea how I’ll fare in that. For me I think it’ll be putting a lot of things together in a cohesive way—that’s what I would find really hard. My covers right now are relatively minimalist and so, for example, the cover of Indica by Pranay Lal (designed by Gunjan Ahlawat)—that’ll be really hard for me to do. Those are a lot of different elements coming together and beautifully so. Those images were provided to him by the author but the way they’ve been put together—that I think would really hard for me to even reconstruct.

INDICA Cover correction.indd

Swati. That I think will come with a lot of technical knowhow.

Shashank. Yeah. Like for Panchtantra I wanted to use different animals but they were all illustrated by different people. So if you put them together, they clearly seemed like they are from different places. So I’m sure there’s a way in Photoshop to make it seem like they are from the same place. I think that’s what Sunandini did with the cover of The Open-Winged Scorpion. Hmm, maybe I should try to construct that cover.

04 bashar openwinged scorpion Sunandini Banerjee

Swati. So you started with being interested in covers and generally a little interested in design. Where are you now?

Shashank. Hmm, maybe it’s not very ambitious but right now I feel I can design a cover for a small place. Like for small regional publishing houses. A lot of them don’t have good covers. Or company brochures. A lot of them are very sad.

And one thing that has definitely changed is how I look at design. Like earlier, I’d like a cover but now I find myself deconstructing it, trying to figure out how it was made, which is also something we do a lot in class. And I love that part. Those are times I wish the class didn’t end. And also colour. In every cover, you have to take the decision of what colours to use—so just keeping a lookout for them.

So now when I’ll be watching a movie and I’ll look at a wall or a couch, I’ll be like, ‘Oooh, that’s a very interesting green.’ So I’ll screenshot it and see if I can use it somewhere. Or you come across some font . . .

Swati. Oh, that’s a big change.

Shashank. Yeah, ’cause everything is design.

Swati. And it makes you appreciate the world a little more, doesn’t it? And now to be able to look at something and be like, ‘Oh I think they should have used another font’ or ‘They shouldn’t have put that there.’

Shashank. That’s something that I would always do I think. But this course gives the answer to those questions. About what are the different kinds of things that can be done.

Swati. But do you think anyone can do design? Or, rather, do you think design can be taught?

Shashank. I think techniques could be taught.

Swati. So what can’t be taught?

Shashank. I think . . . aesthetics can’t be taught. Your cover can be technically good. Title is clearly visible, crop marks are in place, images that you’ve used are of good resolution but still it doesn’t look pleasant. I don’t know how that can be taught. You can have some broad rules. Like, say, in fonts, Sunandini would tell us not to use Helvetica. Apart from the fact that it does not look great on covers, it’s also the default font that QuarkXpress gives you. Using it means you didn’t put any effort at all. And sure you can be told not to use Comic Sans or Arial for that matter, but I’m not sure how one will teach how to use a font that matches the overall design of the cover. But we are yet to have a class on typography—so let’s see.

Swati. I think design course is a tough place to know if you’re good or if you’re good as per lots of people.

Shashank. I mean, even in art, if a large number of people find something good, then it’s considered good. Or if critics, whose opinions are respected, think it’s good, then it is considered so. And the difference between a painting and book cover is that a painting is an artist’s expression while a book cover is supposed to visually represent another artist’s work and make it marketable.

Swati. Yeah, a cover is representing a content while a painting is the content.

Shashank. It’s like how Sunandini says that as designers you are problem solvers. That she’d rather we don’t have a style so that we can design for any kind of book or project. Designing a cover is an artistic solution to a marketing problem.

The problem that I also struggle with right now are meeting deadlines. For me it’s like, I’ll design something and it won’t work out and only then I’ll come up with something else. And that for me takes a fair amount of time right now. Like the first Rupi Kaur cover I designed for an assignment was absolutely shit. Now when I open the cover I’m really embarrassed. We had a deadline for it and I had submitted it in a panic but then Sunandini didn’t end up seeing my cover on that day. But the idea that Sunandini was going to open that cover and it’s going to be projected on the screen for everyone to see . . . I was shaking! And then the next day I came to class early and I think within 10 mins or so I designed something much better. And then I requested her to take this file instead. The worst part was that I think that cover was problematic and the idea that everyone is going to see it . . . my hands were shaking while holding the mouse.

Swati. It’s interesting that you are so passionate about this.

Shashank. Passionate? I don’t know.

Swati. You can call it whatever you want. But hands shaking is a very . . .

Shashank. I think I’m just nervous in general.

Swati. That’s not true. And you know even nervousness requires a lot of investment, right?

Shashank. Yeah, I guess. But that I am. And I think the impression that people in general have of me in class is that I’m always fretting. And in the end Sunandini will open my cover and say, ‘Arré, why were you fretting? This is fine.’ I think it’s the idea that your cover is being judged. And I know that it’s just your cover that’s being judged and not you, but it’s hard to distance yourself from that.

Swati. Yeah, I think very few people would have. And apart from overconfidence, maybe it would show that you’re not much invested in what you are doing.

Shashank. Yeah, but it’s different when you relate it to your self-esteem.

Swati. People react in their own ways but very few people don’t feel anything. Others are just better at hiding it.

Shashank. Yeah for me it shows. Because even now when I think about what if Sunandini would have opened that cover and ‘Oh God, what would she think of me?!’

Swati. It’s interesting that in the Rupi Kaur cover assignment, you set yourself your own deadline—the actual deadline you had already missed—but you had to come up with something before Sunandini could open your cover.

Shashank. Yeah, a lot of things happen when you’re just trying to avoid falling flat on your face. That’s kind of motivational.

Also, I think this point could come at the end of the blog post.

Swati. Yeah, I think so too.

Master Class by Jeet Thayil, (Un)forgotten Poet

In the middle of a week filled with dissecting the virtues of the comma and hyphens, we finally had our first master class. Before applying to the editing course at Seagull, I religiously read through all the blog posts by past students describing the many master classes conducted over the years. It was all so exciting! That was one of the many reasons that prompted me to apply and after my own master class experience, I am truly glad I did. And if I’d known I had to write this, I would’ve taken notes!

Jeet Thayil is not your usual run-of-the-mill author. Not only has he written two novels, he is also a well-known performance poet and an accomplished musician. His new book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, is a wonderfully rich novel about the forgotten poets of Bombay, which seems to be a point of contention for him. While reading up on him, I realized that Jeet is a fierce believer in bringing ‘undeservedly little-known literature’ to light, which I found very interesting. His new novel does exactly that—it blends fact with fiction and introduces the reader to a previously overlooked world.

The session itself was quite enlightening. Jeet was incredibly friendly and made an effort to answer all of our questions until he was ‘all talked out’ at the end. He spoke to us about his thought processes while writing, which was fascinating to hear. For instance, I would never have guessed it takes 15 drafts before he’s satisfied with a poem. He told us about how he carved out two whole novels from his initial draft of Narcopolis, his first novel. He apparently still has some of that original material left, which he unfortunately doesn’t plan on making into a new book.

Like all authors, Jeet is an ardent reader. He spoke passionately about his favorite poems, books and his least favourite word—discourse. Poetry, of course, holds a special place in his heart. There’s a chapter in Chocolate Saints titled ‘Of What Use Is a Poem That Cannot Pick Up a Gun?’, a line I simply cannot get out of my head. We discussed all aspects of poetry, and he gave us a few examples of great poems that he loves, including the nine-line poem by A. K. Ramanujan titled ‘Self-Portrait’. He knows that poems cannot always bring about tangible change in the world, but that doesn’t stop him from writing.

One interesting point raised was his relationship with his editor David Davidar, who helped shape Chocolate Saints into its current form. As an aspiring editor, this was invaluable insight into the process of enhancing the value of an already good book. He believes that a writer who refuses the advice of their editor is just plain stupid (his words!). Davidar’s suggestion of including more background on the novel’s main character led to Jeet introducing an ‘oral history’ section that derived its style from his 23 years of experience as a journalist. He was surprised by the fact that Davidar approved two controversial bits in Chocolate Saints, which he was sure was going to be cut or at least modified in some way, which I personally thought were the most interesting parts of the book. He also mentioned how lucky he was to find editors as crazy as he was. In fact, the prologue of Narcopolis is just one continuous sentence lasting almost six pages. A beautifully poetic sentence, but one which most editors would’ve rejected outright just for the sheer unconventionality of it.

Talking about designing his book covers, he told us about how no one noticed the mistake on the original hardcover edition of Narcopolis until after it was published—the designer had clearly never smoked a pipe before and the smoke was coming out of the wrong place!

Jeet’s advice to all of us was simple: Read. A lot. He stressed on the importance of understanding the author’s themes and the style, which is something he hopes that all the reviewers in this country, regardless of tight deadlines, would do.

Although we missed the opportunity to see him perform his poems (I regret not asking), my consolation was he signed our books with the coolest signature ever.

03 Jeet Thayil Autograph

My first master class was better than I’d imagined. Looking forward to the ones to come!

Deepti Ganesh

The Business of Books: Master Class with Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal

Here I was hoping to become an editor—pursuing a course in publishing, trying to run as far as possible from marketing (which I had studied as an undergrad). Here I was making conscious efforts to remove myself from what seemed like an oil spill in the ocean—detrimental, polluted and superficial—and Aditi speaks to us about the efforts that went into creating an integrated marketing scheme for Vani Prakashan. Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal is the director of the Copyrights and Translation Department at Vani Prakashan, one of the leading publishers of Hindi literature that has metamorphosed as a platform where cultures and languages unite.

She emphasized on the need to create value, to create a readership for the books, without being gimmicky. She shared many fascinating experiences with us. One of them was how she had attempted to directly sell copies of a book she knew was beautifully written and produced, and yet was ridiculously difficult to get bookstores to commit to it. In another, she spoke of their successful collaboration with Oxford Bookstore to promote Hindi literature and organize literary discussions and seminars. Aditi gave us an insider’s perspective on the Indian publishing milieu and helped us understand how difficult and disorganized distribution networks can be, the near monopoly of those English-language publishers and the vagaries of language politics. In the same breath, she explains the importance of maintaining great relationships within the book publishing community and how it helps to grow together as an industry.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said the session was an epiphany of sorts—to note the importance of relevant content in terms of marketing especially for a book to get the attention it deserves; and how, more often than not, vernacular publishers grow horizontally—I believe I have come full circle and now, ironically, embrace marketing. The class helped me understand how publishing in vernacular can give voice to people from diverse social, economic and educational backgrounds; how it makes literature more accessible, not only by articulating their stories but also to make it known, inform the world of readers—so that good literature may not only survive but, rather, thrive. I would like to read in Hindi and Bengali too—I can ‘read’—but I am so overwhelmed by all the books around that I feel I must read in English first (I was indeed ignorant of the language I speak at home).

As the session ended, I was left to reflect on Aditi’s words and question: Why isn’t there an Indian Book Office, a cultural institute that promotes indigenous literature and publishing like the French or the German? Why am I so anglicized? Even though I am interested in literature, I am not half as informed about translations from and writings in vernacular, as I’d like to be—why?

I have now realized that I must engage with literature more deeply and not just escape into it.

Udisha Agarwal

Minor Matters: Master Classes with Michelle Dunn Marsh

When asked to write about the sessions with Michelle Dunn Marsh, I got excited! (And very, very nervous.) Michelle is founder of Minor Matters Books (www.minormattersbooks.com), an independent publishing house based in Seattle, that produces beautiful visual books. The books she carried with her were a visual treat, but the sessions with Michelle were even more so. Her warm smile and the enthusiasm were infectious. In no time, she made us all very comfortable. She shared with us her experience and wisdom working in a magazine, Aperture, and the publishing house, Chronicle Books. In her 20 years of experience, she has commissioned many artists and photographers.

What I loved about her sessions was that she discussed many facets of working in the publishing industry. And how one can go about creating a network, how predictable the industry is, and what are the ways one can start their own company. Interestingly, one of the most significant factors in this industry is time—time to conceptualize a book, time required to spend on each detail of the publication process while balancing the deadline and time invested to create and maintain relationships.

Now that struck a chord with me. In the day and age of apps and 4G, one forgets to pick up the phone and call. There is nothing better than a quick call to clarify the doubts and misunderstandings. Having the experience of working in the publishing industry, I know that these things make sense and are indeed very important.

Michelle also emphasized on how important it is to just ask: for help, for opinions, for guidance, for more options—or anything at all. Drawing from her personal experience at college and at work, she pointed out the incidents when she found many answers just by enquiring.

In order to summarize what I have learnt from her classes, I wondered about how I could really do justice. The thought made me lose my sleep, increased my appetite and haunted me through the day. Then I remembered my last chat with Michelle—regarding the publishing industry in India, graphic novels, zines—and I had my eureka moment! Thus, I made a zine on it (for all the uninitiated, ‘zine’ is short for fanzine—an independent magazine for self or small circulation)—my first ever zine! Read on . . .

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Shreya Mukherjee