Alternative Publishing: The Threat Looms Large
By Auswaf Ahsan
22 December, 2012
In his How the Regime keeps Dissent at Bay published in the Economic and Political Weekly,[i] Anand Teltumde made an interesting survey of the state of media in the context of well-entrenched market forces controlling the media agenda and keeping the government as their stooge. It is significant to note in this regard the downturns in the social value of the enterprise of publishing- the oldest and the longest-lasting of all media.
A rather prevalent assumption regarding the business of publishing, or any media activity for that matter, is that giants speak whatever people who can buy find interesting, leaving the space of narrating unspoken lives vacant for small scale publishers. We can expect a publisher of the stature of Harper Collins to publish one or two titles on the landless aborigines in India, only when their issue is so hot as to be sold. Highly experienced publishers like Andre Schiffrin are of the view that beyond getting involved in the issues of subaltern communities in the context of controversies, there is no serious attempt from the corporate publishers to chronicle the lives and experiences of those communities for the generations to come.[ii] But nobody expects the giants to do that. They invest for the maximum return, not for enlightening people about the voiceless.
It is in this context that one expects the state to intervene. What the Maharashtra Government did to the discourses of Ambedkar is remarkable here. Although in below-the-par quality of printing, the government took initiative to bring out almost all titles by Babasaheb Ambedkar. But this was before all states incapacitated themselves in the deluge of liberalisation. Governments did not have as much purchasing power as to focus on chronicling and archiving unprofitable lives of the subaltern communities in India. There were some other factors as well, the rise of Brahministic, Hindutva politics being the major one. History and social issues of Muslims, Dalits and sexual minorities were kept aside from the ramparts of mainstream knowledge industry and culture. These issues have borne taboo to the extent that to speak them, one has at least to hesitate.
Small ventures formed inside these communities resorted to publishing to bring out their ideological assumptions and historical vicissitudes. These ventures, dubbed 'alternative', tried to air the voice of the marginalised in the style and treatment not matched with those adopted by the corporate publishing. This is primarily because of minimum resources, infrastructure and workforce caused by inadequate funding. However, there are notable instances like the Pluto Press in London, and Navayana in New Delhi which adopt editorial and production strategies similar to those of the corporate mainstream. A notable feature among the community publishers is their camaraderie. But there are some problems which impede sharing and free-wheeling association among them. Religious reasons might force Muslim or Christian publishing groups to become indifferent to the issues, say, of the LGBT community. Feminists with strong Marxian lineage might keep distance from religious or caste-based marginalised communities. However, newer discourses help, to a great extent, these communities iron out their differences and share common spaces.
State or corporates don't stand idle to these developments. Since the proliferation of these communities will in the long run hamper the interests of casteist oligarchy and the corporate power by creating discourses for the grass-root level organisation, corporates and the bureaucracy will intervene in the scenario so that these communities remain stagnant or dysfunctional. Andre Schiffrin in his Business of Words has posed the practice of merger in which cash-strapped small-scale publishers are bought over by the corporates.
Other forms of control are implicit bureaucratic intervention (delaying the sanction of loan, slapping the copyright regime, legal hassles following the alleged publication of objectionable content etc.) and the explicit intervention of the state through the police machinery. Though the former intervention has sufficiently manifested in the experience of some publishers, the latter has not been noted much. Here I narrate my experience of the explicit intervention by the state to state how this kind of intervention will/may have deleterious effect on the community publishing in India.
Other Books was started based in Calicut in 2003. It was an initiative by a consortium of academics, students and activists and our aim was to market books on new and emerging discourses, including Dalit studies, gender, feminism, post-structuralism, Islam, religious reform etc. In our initial years we realised the vacuum existing in the publishing scenario. There was not/has not been as many titles on the Mappila community in Kerala as it deserves. Dalit identity and politics have been only marginally chronicled in English. A majority of Muslims in Kerala were completely in the dark about the iconoclastic developments in their religion the world over. There had been some major titles on Islamic feminism and the critiques of thinkers and journalists like Ziauddin Sardar and Tariq Ramadan. All these works deserved translation and reading in Kerala. So Other Books became a publishing house in 2006. In six years' time, the house brought out around 40 titles both in English and Malayalam, which, not on account of sales alone but because of raving reviews and responses, made a huge impact.
Police Raid and its aftermath
A major spoke in our wheel came about in 2010, when Other Books was raided by the Kerala Police. The reason cited was that the publishing house had links with Popular Front of India (whose political faction is the Social Democratic Party in India (SDPI)-the erstwhile National Democratic Front (?) A few weeks before the raid, TJ Joseph, a professor of Malayalam at Newman's College, Thodupuzha, fell victim to some thugs, who allegedly belonged to the SDPI. His hand was cut off by the attackers for having denigrated Prophet Muhammad. When the police arrested suspects all around, they could find some books published by Other Books at the house of one of the suspects. In the meantime some distribution houses in Calicut were raided by the police for having links with SDPI. We were also raided and the hard drive of one of our computers was taken away for inspection.[iii] So far, nothing objectionable was found in the drive, as we were told. But the raid set fire to some mass media furore. Media celebrated the event with the headline 'Publishing House of NDF Raided', though the group itself was a major critic of us, owing to our publication of titles on Islamic feminism and of the book by Ziauddin Sardar.
Despite our condemnation of the hand-chopping incident and the statement of social activists, academicians and intellectuals against targeting us, the incident became the first step of the state towards stifling us, which reached its acme, when one of our authors, Susan Nathan, landed in Kerala as our guest.
An author's dilemma
Susan Nathan is a celebrated author whose criticism of the policies of Israel based on her subjective experiences in the country is the book 'The Other Side of Israel.' Being one of the prominent Jews who raises her voice against the Zionist state, Nathan is described as a prominent critical insider. The Other Side of Israel was published originally by Harper Collins and was translated into nine languages. The book was received well in all versions. West Asian politics has topped the list of Other Books and we thought the book craved a Malayalam translation. More than everything else, the book is a telling example of the difference between the Zionist state and Jews as a religious community, a difference which is not noticed in some analyses of the Palestine problem, especially in Kerala.[iv]
Though the book was received well in all regions as well as Kerala, with the arrival of Susan it became a bane of the secular ethos in the state, where an apparently mild and deeply vulgar form of Islamophobia exists. Susan became sort of a guest of honour in the state with her inaugurating the book festival organised by the Kerala Language Institute, a cultural and literary initiative of the Government of Kerala. She wrote columns in leading newspapers including Mathrubhumi. Despite being instantly likeable, Susan's identity as a staunch critic of Israeli policy did not seem to fit well with the intelligence establishment especially at a time the Central government was appeasing the Israeli government following the declaration of Shimon Peres in February 2010 that the New Delhi’s security is as important as its own and in the event of two countries having a Joint Working Group to combat terrorism.[v] The attempt of the state to gag dissent against Israel is also understandable in the context of several defence deals and negotiations between the two countries, especially the visit of Lt. Gabi Ashkenazi in 2009 and the decision by the Indian Army to order thousands of Spike anti-tank missiles and peripheral equipment from the Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.[vi] Susan, who was getting ready to settle in Calicut, was shocked by a notice requiring her to leave the country. The Police cited her overstaying of the duration permitted by visa as the reason for having the court issue the order, though some media hatched up my erstwhile link with SIMI as a reason for the order![vii] Indeed, Susan had earlier requested for permanent citizenship. And, as a usual procedure, the government could have at least extended the visa term of a celebrated author who was the chief guest of the government for one or two occasions.
It was all of a sudden that the fingers were pointed at the Other Books. The police dubbed her activities as dubious and the media started their blaming exercise. Again, the SIMI and NDF link of the publishing house was bandied about. Susan came to mistakenly think that Other Books has tampered with the translation and made her work fishy. Susan told us to discontinue publication of the book and ratcheted up a publicity stunt against us.[viii] She said that Other Books mistranslated the book and even changed the title from The Other Side of Israel to Israel: Chronicle of Self-Deception. She also alleged that the translator was not a professional one and was a physician. This physician was Dr Abdulla Manima, one of good translators in Malayalam. The Other side of Israel was not the first attempt of Dr Abdulla Manima. His first translation, Sheila Cassidy's ‘Sharing the Darkness: The Spirituality of Caring' was published by Mathrubhumi with the title 'Sahayathrika' (Fellow Traveller). DC Books has brought out his translation of Dr Ang See Chai's 'From Beirut to Jerusalem' with the title 'The Address of the Stateless'.
We changed the title from 'The Other side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish-Arab Divide' into ‘Israel: Athmavanchanakalude Puravrutham' (Israel: The Chronicle of Self-Deception.) so that we could remove the ineffectiveness and the lack of clarity and beauty that might have come about out of word by word translation. That this is nothing new in the publishing industry is borne out by the two titles of Mathrubhmi and DC Books above mentioned. In the international public scenario, there are examples for such a change caused by the change in destination language. We have respected during the process the widely-held dictum: ‘the change should not do injustice to the spirit of the original title.’ The book was about the deception that Israel is doing to herself. Also Dr. Abdulla Manima had informed Susan that the Malayalam title would be ‘Israel: The Chronicle of Self-Deception,’ which she had then accepted. Later Susan emailed us with reference to a comment by one of her readers regarding the change in the title. She said: ‘I don’t get into conversation with by email with readers. Please tell him the title has my blessings and that of Harper Collins. He should read the book more carefully as your title describes the lies of self-deception that Jews have been educated on’ (04/06/2009)
This is just an instance of how the state can put a dissident writer on the defensive and thereby tarnish the image of publishing house, which by and large does not augur well for the alternative publishing scenario in the country. This event is also a pointer to the fact that a survey of media scenario in the country in the post-globalisation era necessitates a glance into the subjective experiences of alternative media initiatives
[i]Anand Teltumbde, How the Regime Keeps Dissent at Bay, Margin Speak Column, Economic and Political Weekly
Vol - XLVII No. 31, August 04, 2012
[ii] Andre Schiffrin (2011) The Business of Words: The first combined edition of The Business of Books and Words and Money., Navayana, New Delh
[iii] For a detailed review of the incident, see Have I Joined the Popular Front, J Devika, http://kafila.org/2010/08/08/have-i-joined-the-popular-front/
[iv] Susan Nathan, The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide, HarperCollins, Nioda, UP
[vi] Chief of Staff Concludes Visit to India, Globes, Israel Business News, www.globes-online.com-on March 24,
Dr.Auswaf Ahsan, Managing Editor, Other Books, an alternative publishing venture based in Calicut. email@example.com
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