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Delhi Workshop Presentation 4, Contemporary Indian Literature Project

Presentation by researcher Arunima Paul at the Delhi workshop

Sighting Markets, Moulding Readerships: A Study of The Little Magazine as a Distinctive Publishing Initiative

The emergence and continued growth of any reading culture in a particular language, in particular, a literary one has two simultaneous and inextricable dimensions to it. While this growth is precipitated by an easy availability and circulation of print-commodities within particular socio-economic domain(s), it in turn conduces the further production of these commodities by providing potential markets for them. However, any reading or literary culture particularly a 'mass-culture' is sustained by the easy and wide circulation of various kinds of literary commodities from the cheapest dailies and newspapers to the middle-rung more specialized magazines (on current affairs etcetera) to the high-end, expensive lifestyle magazines as well as elite, academically-inclined publications. These general to specialized print commodities can be seen to address themselves to fairly discrete as well as overlapping markets and readerships. It is possible to see urban India of today as having become the site for such reading cultures. The calibration of these cultures as together constituting a 'mass' reading culture is justified by not only the massive volume of sales of newspapers and magazines but also the diversity in print production and the commercial viability and success of large numbers of publishers, distributors and booksellers. This paper shall attempt to read the innovativeness of The Little Magazine as a publishing venture within this context.

The Little Magazine (henceforth referred to as TLM in this paper) can be seen as a new and distinct print commodity that made an entry into this existing market in the year 2000 and has been trying to cull out an expanding readership since with a fair degree of success. On its website, TLM describes itself as 'South Asia's only professionally produced independent publication on literature, art and social concerns'. 'Social concerns' remain the central logic within each issue of the magazine, determining the contents. These concerns have ranged from the imbalances of globalization, the media, history, the environment to gender injustice and violence. Therefore, TLM can be seen to locate itself within the spectrum of two categories of magazines – magazines with 'serious' political content and orientation (such as India Today and Outlook); as well as 'literary' magazines/journals like Indian Literature brought out by Sahitya Akademi(1). Antara Dev Sen and Pratik Kanjilal both held secure and well-paid jobs with commercially successful newspapers like the Hindustan Times and The Indian Express which they quit due to a sense of creative dissatisfaction. In their interviews with us, both told us that they felt intuitively that there was a market and readership for a magazine like TLMthat was waiting to be addressed and tapped into. Today, they say, TLM is subscribed to by every university in the West that has a South Asian Studies department.

Looking at the ways in which TLM defines itself, or what it resolutely excludes, the FAQ that features in every issue of the magazine asks its readers and aspiring contributors 'not to send anything that you'd consider sending to a mainstream magazine such as articles on travel or food. Send fiction and poetry rather than essays or reviews.' The brief profiles of authors and reviewers who feature in the issues of the magazine reveal most of them to be well-published and acclaimed writers, many of them being recipients of prestigious literary awards like Jayanta Mahapatra, Gulzar, Nirmal Verma, Bhishm Sahni, Krishna Sobti, Dom Moraes. Others are mostly well known academic scholars and faculties at national or international universities like Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen or Joseph Stiglitz; or individuals who are affiliated with prominent institutions like K. Satchidanandan.

While TLM with its topical choice of theme for every issue tries to find for itself the the socio-political magazine-reader, it also tries to distinguish itself from other magazines in the same category through an open articulation of its own political, ideological and ethical commitments. The editorial of Volume II Jan-Feb Issue1, 2001, describes this issue as one which may disappoint faithful readers who have till now appreciated its ideological commitments, by its apparently sensational choice of subject – 'Sex and Violence'. This partly-provocative tone seems to ironize the elite, literary reader who only reads literary journals and magazines of the ivory tower kind that are divorced from the overwhelming political and socio-economic issues and debates enveloping us today. Then the editorial goes on to give a scathing profile of the 'mainstream consumer' who buys the issue attracted by the 'picture of [a] tribulated babe on the cover', the title and entertaining hope of finding titillating first-person accounts inside. Then it tenders a mock-apology to this consumer for its focus on the 'boring' and pedestrian aspects of violence instead, for exploring 'theory rather than praxis'.

Therefore, on the one hand TLM claims to expand the breadth of 'serious' subjects that the 'respectable' magazines deal with, while on the other, it distances itself from the routinely uncritical way in which the commercial 'glossies' deal with their subjects. TLM's distinctive treatment in the issue discussed above consists of revealing 'the gentle undertow of sex and violence that pervades everyday life'. These strategies, make certain kinds of media the moral target of the magazine and make certain kinds of reading pleasures unethical by pointing out the violence inherent in these readerly expectations. By making these postures and expectations untenable in this manner, the magazine tries to generate from amongst these irregular 'mainstream' buyers, a critical, loyal and ideologically responsible readership.

The political orientation of the magazine can be described as being very vocally feminist, moderate, left-liberal and anti-religious fundamentalist. With regard to a phenomenon such as globalization, it seeks to admit both positions on it as long as there is an agreement on the necessity of equitable distribution of wealth, resources and knowledge. Here, it projects itself as a site for a broad, reasoned and ethically committed debate. The magazine has also carried a “Mapping India” series raising questions such as 'how well has India really fared under the reforms?' In order to tackle this question differently, the article offers alternative indexes (such as – percentage change in real agricultural wages, growth in school attendance rates, anemia among married women etc.).

The usual categories according to which the contents of any issue of TLM are arranged are: essays, poetry, fiction, novella, news story, new fiction, “Roundtable” (ususally a converstaion with a renowned academician/author/filmmaker), books, review, story board etc. The sheer volume of discursive writing on these themes published in the magazine reflects how the magazine broadens the concerns of a 'literary' magazine (by no more limiting itself to merely “creative” writing). Also, its 'literary' agenda and vision themselves are worth exploring. TLM publishes short stories, poems and novellas translated into English from other Indian languages (like: Punjabi, Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi and Urdu) in large numbers. However, most of those published are literary giants within the context of their respective languages. The fairly long and detailed descriptions of the authors' works at the end of the piece are aimed at introducing the unfamiliar reader to the author's work and its position within the literary tradition of that particular language.

TLM also publishes writing by non-professional or first-time writers under the category of “New Fiction” (for instance, a short story by a student at the University of North Carolina). However, this is not a regular feature in the magazine. Besides play-scripts, it also publishes film-scripts which has emerged as a distinctive form in itself. These are almost always chosen from the tradition of what is called 'parallel Indian cinema' and many of them are scripts of renowned films made in the so-called 'regional' languages, translated into English. The film-script provides the reader with technical details about precise camera shots as well as camera movement. It also publishes art reviews, for instance an article looked at the current work and social concerns of the painter, sculptor and poet Jatin Das.

A review published in the magazine typically cover multiple books on the same subject, tracing the engagement of each of the books with the issue at hand. Often, there are articles that review the movements, trends and patterns within the literary productions of a particular period with respect to a specific genre. For instance, Uma Chakravarti in the review article “The Unspoken: Violence and Conjugality in Women's Writing” (Jan-Feb 2001) demonstrates how the depiction of violence in the biographies and autobiographies by women from Western India in the 19th century was often unevenly penetrative. Caste violence because it involved an enemy outside one's house or community was frequently depicted, but physical or verbal abuse within the home, perpetrated by fathers or husbands was depicted very rarely and indirectly. Teesta Bagchi's “When Women Went Astray” (Jan-Feb 2001) looks at two autobiographies that belong to 19th century women's writing in Bengal - one, Tanika Sarkar's translation and critical commentary on Rashsundari Devi's autobiography called Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban: A Modern Autobiography(first published in 1868 in Bengali and translated into English by Sarkar in 1999) and the other, Pictures in Words and in Silence: Selected Writings of Priyambada Devi (first published in 1912 in Bengali and translated into English by Sumita Chakrabarti in 1996). In these two works, separated by four decades, Bagchi locates two kinds of involvement with as well as utilization of literacy by these two women.

Through these 'literary survey' articles, the magazine also offers alternative criteria for the evaluation of contemporary literary productions (including older works made available through recent translations) as well as the literary scene at large. These 'alternate' criteria include - the degree of creativity and ingenuity in the literary productions, their ideological orientation as well as their actual commercial success. For instance, the article “Growing Pains: Contemporary Children's Literature in India” by Sandhya Rao and Radhika Menon, editors with Tulika Publishers, Madras published in Vol IV issue 3, 2003 investigates why Indian Children's literature has not developed as wide a readership as the Harry Potter series. The complaints include - mediocre writing, irresponsible editing, unimaginative illustrations, heavy doses of didacticism, politically incorrect content, stories that are shaven clean of cultural inflections but well-packaged and produced merely to cash into a burgeoning market for children's products. It compares these to the richness of folktales which successfully address a more diverse audience, they use the fantastic, are often open-ended and subversive. The article then gives a short history of successful children's writers. The same issue then includes stories by Satyajit Ray and Jay Shankar Prasad so that the magazine also becomes the space where this alternative and more effective model for children's literature is made available and disseminated.

Therefore, as a 'literary' magazine with a difference, it also participates in a kind of literary activism by publishing and arguing in its discursive contents in favor of the commercially less-favored and non-canonized genres, themes, languages, literatures and writers.

Using a newspaper-derived 'page-3' format, the section called “Update” provides the reader with 'Some milestones and cultural news of India' which includes a mention of the works and contributions of authors who have died recently. It covers conferences and writers' forums held in India and summarizes their thematic concerns giving a list of their more prominent participants. It also covers book releases, exhibitions, literary and cultural award ceremonies, film festivals, the screening of documentaries, notable theater productions and concerts. It also covers in detail the activities and events conducted by TLM itself. For instance, a brainstorming session titled “India 2003: Are we having fun?” held in Calcutta is described as 'a public stocktaking of our collective lives', 'how we were faring as citizens of the world's largest democracy and multicultural society'. It also summarizes the stances of its leading speakers Amit Chaudhuri, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Anita Agnihotri, Mrinal Sen, Alka Saraogi and Samik Bandyopadhyay on the issues. The magazine also does extensive coverage of specific film festivals.

The reader feedback page of the magazine called “Reader's Block” is a very active forum where readers express the appreciation of various things in the magazine like particular articles published in earlier issues or the publication of vernacular literature in translation, or the magazine's reproduction of paintings or film scripts. For instance, one reader appreciates the fact that TLM is no longer restricted to only India but has also published someone like Selina Hossain from Bangladesh. Many individuals in their letters and emails also complain about what each differently perceives to be an 'over-emphasis' on either translation or Indian writing in English or on Indian writers. Most often, the 'Gnome' (the editorial persona of the magazine) responds to the complaints by promising more of the desired element in subsequent issues.

“Open Space” is projected by the magazine as the reader's 'own forum, reserved for your opinions about the world we live in'. Here a reader may discuss any literary or non-literary issue. One often finds here articles that discuss the politics of a particular author or a particular category within a literary genre. One case in point is the articles titled “What's in a name?” in which the writer argues how a novelist like Jhumpa Lahiri with her 'overemphasis [on] contextual information about cultures and places' may end up ghettoizing herself and thus preventing a novel like The Namesake from enjoying a wider readership.

TLM channelizes its political, social and ethical commitments by stepping beyond its purely in-magazine workings. Through the 'Do It Yourself' approach, it has conduced the establishment of forums called “TLM locals” in academic, professional or community spaces. In every issue, it publishes in the section called “Neighborhood Watch”, reports sent in by such forums about their activities, discussions, reading sessions or film-screenings. The meetings of these bodies usually comprise of discussions on mutually agreed topics, for instance the aftermath of the Gujarat riots. Individuals also present their research on subject such as caste at such meetings. Often these groups invite authors to read from their works or to share their opinion on a particular issue. These reports usually dwell on how the discussions and debates are heated and yet open-ended, meandering from the theater scene in Delhi to cricket.

While the magazine advertises the books brought out by the same publication and offers a substantial discount on the same to its subscribers, it also advertises what is called “The Little Bookshop on the Net” at which these publications as well as books reviewed within the magazine and back issues of TLM are available for purchase. We were told that the TLM Bookshop itself that had been operating at the magazine office itself in Mayur Vihar, New Delhi is however, being wrapped up.

Expanding upon its role as a facilitator and provider of good socially-engaged writing, and a kind of arbiter of literary taste, TLM has also recently launched “SALAM” or the 'South Asian Literature Awards for the Masters and New Writing Award' by 'brush[ing] aside language and political boundaries and hav[ing] an award for the whole region'. It is the only professionally chosen literary honor that treats South Asia as one cultural unit. SALAM is a lifetime achievement award for literary stalwarts of South Asia. The SALAM awards for 2006 have gone to Vijay Tendulkar for drama, Kamala Das for fiction, Shamsur Rahman of Bangladesh for Poetry in Bengali. This initiative can also be seen as an indicator of the growing financial stability of the magazine. This is also signaled by the increased presence of advertisements by Indian Oil, ITC Hotels, Orange and the Tata Group on the back cover. There is also greater in-magazine advertising as many of these companies publicize their social and charitable ventures in the magazine, for instance, “Nanhi Kali” is an initiative to promote the education of young girls by the K.C. Mahindra Education Trust of Mahindra & Mahindra Limited – a leading Indian automaker. There are separate pages titled “Advocacy” where for instance, the multinational corporation Aditya Birla Group advertises their new Sarla Birla Academy. CIPLA or The Chemical, Industrial & Pharmaceutical company also frequently publicizes its retro-viral drugs against HIV/AIDS through the magazine.

With the magazine having entered its seventh year, it is possible to trace certain trends within it. In the earlier issues, for example, “Sex & Violence” in 2001, one finds an emphasis on revealing the various kinds of violence that women are subjected to not only in situations of war or communal violence, but also in everyday life and by the discourses of honor. However, in the later issues, like Vol. V, issue 1, 2004 titled “Venus Envy”, one finds a more positive and stock-taking approach as the issue shows how in spite of all the hurdles, 'women have been gathering up their resources, joining hands and improving their lives'. This issue contains fiction by women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It also includes an essay by Radhika Coomaraswamy on how war may empower women while also paradoxically victimizing them. Another essay talks about how globalization has empowered many poor women in various communities. The books selected for review are ones which show using the example of the members of the Rashtriya Sevika Sangh(2), how women are not mere victims but also active participants in the construction of patriarchal ideologies and structures. Finally, the long article titled “Living Feminisms: Reflections on a Journey of 20 Years” recapitulates the contribution of the organization Jagori to women's movements in India, emphasizing its search for local feminisms or 'narivad' in rural India.

We were told by Antara during the interview that though TLM's sales currently stand at a moderate figure of 5,000 copies, its circulation and readership is much higher with as many as thirty-five readers per copy in some towns which otherwise have few actual subscribers. While the continued existence of TLM and its growing readership is heartening, it is also important to acknowledge that the example of TLM has not spawned similar ventures in English magazine-publishing in India. So TLM remains a lone exception. With the annual subscription of TLM in India priced at Rs.400/- as compared to India Today at Rs.780/-, the magazine seems to be more affordably priced but its once-every-two-three months individual issues are priced at slightly steep Rs.75/- for the 'India Today bracket'. Moreover, TLM's literary emphasis does narrow down its potential readership as literature (like literacy itself) continues to be of limited scope in the Indian context (as in most others). Nevertheless, TLM can be credited with having attempted to galvanize reading, writing and publishing politically, socially and ethically; and thereby diversified the Indian and South-Asian 'printscape' considerably.

(1) The Sahitya Akademi is a national organization that was set-up in 1954 by the Government of India to promote the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards.

(2) The Rashtriya Sevika Sangh or the National Women's Volunteer Committee is the women's wing of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Sevak Sangh; and its organization, membership and leadership is restricted to women only. Its purpose is to work for the welfare of women.