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Delhi Workshop Presentation 3, Contemporary Indian Literature Project

Second presentation by researcher Shvetal Vyas at the Delhi workshop.

The Book - Review Section of The Little Magazine

My paper began as an exploration of the book-review section of The Little Magazine, an Indian liberal leaning periodical which builds each issue around a particular theme, usually one of contemporary debate. The magazine publishes socio-political essays which attempt to depict the debated theme from various points of view, along with novellas, short stories, poetry, and, at times, film scripts and play scripts, that deal with the theme under debate as well. It attempts to synthesise the cultural and the literary with the socio-political, an endeavour that is also reflected in the book-review section of the magazine.

Frequently, two or three books are reviewed together and a broader argument is made about a specific topic, which might not or might be allied to the theme of that issue of the magazine. For instance, a review might identify an absence in the ‘everyday’ delineation of a topic and look at a series of texts as suggestive of that absence. Thus, Urvashi Butalia’s review of five books on war, talks about the absence of any consideration of women’s plight during war in these texts(1). Sometimes, the process of defining a phenomenon is also labelled as a review, one example being Suranjan Sinha’s analysis of middle class consumerism in the Indian metropolis. Although Sinha’s essay does not focus upon any published text per se, it is still designated as a review(2). Here, middle class consumerism itself becomes the text that the reviewer seeks to decipher. In the samples of the magazine that I looked at, art exhibitions and exhibitions of photographs too were ‘reviewed’ quite often.

At times, a review becomes the occasion for its author to launch off on a narrative that is close to the author’s heart. For example, Amitav Ghosh’s discussion of The Baburnama is more a profiling of Babur than an examination of the text at hand(3). This brings me to my next observation, namely, that certain reviewers are permitted to define the genre of the review in more idiosyncratic ways than it is usually understood, and this leeway is allowed to them because of the eminence that they have achieved in their respective fields of operation . At an interview with Antara Dev Sen, one of the founding editors of The Little Magazine, we asked her if the articles for the magazine were commissioned or not. We were told that most of them, including reviews, were commissioned. It is perhaps this that allows the reviewers for the magazine to have the kind of flexibility that would perhaps not be available to reviewers for other magazines in India today.

Another issue highlighted in the interview with Antara Dev Sen was a sense of discomfort on our part with theThe Little Magazine repeatedly showcasing certain canonical authors like Ismat Chugtai and Amrita Pritam. From our own location in the academia, we brand authors as canonical, especially since they are prescribed in the B.A.(Honours) English syllabus of the University of Delhi. Antara Dev Sen , however, spoke about these authors differently, identifying them as a ‘lost generation’, sandwiched between the better-known figures of Mulk Raj Anand and Premchand on one hand Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth on the other. The Little Magazine believes that though these authors may be well-known and even reasonably successful among the academia, they are by and large unknown to a larger reading public and deserve to be published far more frequently than they currently are.

Our interview with Antara Dev Sen further made clear that she and Prateek Kanjilal (the other founding editor) have identified and demarcated the mooring of The Little Magazine clearly in their own minds. They see it as an alternative magazine within the parameters of Indian journalism, but the audience that they are looking at is not just an ‘alternative’ one. They see themselves as ultimately competing with mainstream magazines and it is against and alongside these that they aim to exist. Since it is privately funded, they consider the sense of community that they have formed by creating a niche readership for their magazine as the defining benchmark of their success. In fact, in her interview Antara Dev Sen interestingly remarked that they sell around five thousand copies of each issue of the magazine and these statistics would make for a bestseller ifThe Little Magazine were a book. But if these statistics were to be compared to the sales statistics of a mainstream magazine like India Today or Outlook, the statistics would fall short by a huge margin.

I want to pick up this remark and argue that The Little Magazine problematises the boundary between a a book and a magazine. The Little Magazine, which usually appears once every two months, costs seventy five rupees, against mainstream magazines which are available on a weekly basis in the range of ten to twenty rupees. What Indian publishers call a ‘mid-list’ book usually costs ninety five rupees, so for a reader the difference between a book and The Little Magazine becomes negligible.

In the course of the interview, we also encountered Antara Dev Sen’s healthy scepticism about stereotypes regarding readers and markets, and the assumption that ‘readers like us’ existed to lend support to their venture.The term ‘a reader like us’ presupposes certain ideological similarities that the readers of The Little Magazine presumably share. Certain characteristics that I would identify as constituting this reader would be an engagement with current socio-political issues and an interest in thinking through matters with a liberal predisposition -- though within this liberal framework The Little Magazine explores as many shades of opinion as possible. For example, the volatile issue of caste-based reservation in education and employment is strategically straddled by the ‘balanced’ presentation within the magazine of both pro-reservation and anti-reservation points of view.

As far as the influence of The Little Magazine on the market is concerned, as I have earlier argued, it cuts into the book market by being an alternative to the mid-list. In its own way, The Little Magazine is both influential in certain ways yet limited in its influence in others. It enjoys a lot of cultural prestige and its influence is certainly impressively disproportionate to the number of copies it sells. It also succeeds in pushing contemporary ideological debates further but all the same it attracts a tiny percentage of the constituency that should read it. Also, a majority of its readers are already complicit in its stated world-view.. This is not to detract from the success of The Little Magazine but to argue that in terms of its reach its impact has been limited, though it is arguably the most successful contemporary ‘little magazine’ in English in India today.

  1. Urvashi Butalia, “Where Have All the Women Gone?”, The Little Magazine, June 2000: 36-39.
  2. Suranjan Sinha, “The Muddle Class”, The Little Magazine, July August 2000: 51-53.
  3. Amitav Ghosh, “Man of his Word”, The Little Magazine, June 2000: 40-47.