Celebrating India: A book review

What makes India a nation? What gives a common Indian identity to its billion plus population? Is it religion? Is it race or ethnicity? Is it language? Or is it something else altogether? In his essay on “The Invention of India”, Shashi Tharoor says that the answer for a common national identity, unlike in other countries, is neither religion nor race nor ethnicity nor language, but diversity.

India is never truer to itself than when celebrating its diversity. (in Celebrating India, p.14)

Celebrating IndiaThese particular lines in Tharoor’s essay sets the context for Celebrating India (2012, Nivasini Publishers, pp. 152, Rs. 200), an anthology that aims to celebrate this diversity and the “India in each of us” through memoirs, poems, short stories, travelogues and art. A special feature of this book is that all the contributors have waived off their fees and have agreed to contribute the profits of the book to the Yamini Foundation, Hyderabad.

An initiative of the publishers themselves, this anthology has contributors from various backgrounds — journalists, engineers, editors, academicians, film personalities, students, bloggers… In fact, nearly half the contributors have blogs !

The contributors are a mix of well-known names like Tharoor, Gulzaar and Deepti Naval and unknown writers (for me at least) and have attempted to elaborate on the theme of the anthology in their individual pieces. And do the contributors succeed in communicating this? Let’s see.

Since each contribution is personal, rather than analytical, there is a wide variety of topics covered in the anthology. For example, while “Examination Result” (M. Gopal Singh) highlights the poor communication system in remote Vijayawada, “Nathdwara: A Celebration of Life (Ratna Rao Shekar) is about life and devotion to Shrinathji, the reigning deity in the temple town; and “The Vulture” (Rahul Karmakar) is on the witch-hunting practices among certain tribal communities in Assam.

And yet, at the same time, nostalgia is a common thread running through most of the contributions in the anthology. To cite just a few: “Kaaki” (Freya Dasgupta) , “Madras: The Once City” (Ashwin Mudigonda), “Kashmir” (Girish Kute), “Grandfather’s House” (Gita Bharat), “A Whiff of a Childhood Breezed by Too Fast” (Sagarika Chakraborty), “Home Town” (Jatin Kuberkar), “Is Your Tongue Orange, Sweetheart?” (Shaily Sahay) …

The quality of the contributions also varies widely from the good (“The Public Library in Cubbon Park, Bangalore” by Sreelakshmi Gururaja), to sweet (“Bajaj Chetak” by Tejaswy Nalam), to nice (“An Ode to Indian Bazaars” by Anuradha Goyal), to so-so (“Reflection” by Neha Srivastava), and to the downright incomprehensible (“India … She !” by Fouqia Wajid). There was one contribution by Kenneth Lens titled “The Map of India”, which left me puzzled as to why it was even included in the anthology in the first place; in spite of the misleading title, the article has nothing to do with India or Indians or celebration of any kind.

Reading the book brought about the familiar sinking feeling where the good intentions of the author/publisher falls short of delivering them. Let me elaborate:

  • A lot of thought and brainstorming must have gone into the making of this anthology. And yet, none of this has been shared with the readers; a single page of acknowledgements and a rather clichéd “Foreword” does not really convey this. Since this was an initiative by the publishers, a preface detailing how this book was conceived, how the contributors/contributions were shortlisted, the challenges faced, etc. would have gone a long way in adding value to this anthology.
  • The book has not passed by either an editor’s or a proof reader’s desk. Some good and meticulous editing would have rid the book of awkward titles (for eg: “A Whiff of a Childhood Breezed by Too Fast”); incomprehensible sentences ( for eg: in “Examination Result”), and unnecessary translations like “Temple of Eight Lakshmis” for Ashtalakshmi temple (pg. 20) ! Nearly every page has typographical and/or grammatical errors, with some articles having more than their share. Tharoor’s article is riddled with typos like “eithy-five” for eighty-five (pg.3), and “anit-Congress” for anti-Congress (pg.6). These typos would have shown as errors on the computer screen and could easily have been corrected !
  • I am not a poetry expert and seeing the rather large poetry section (it makes up nearly 50 % of the total contributions) in the anthology did worry me initially. In hindsight, my worry was justified but for an entirely different reason — this section is the weakest in the anthology. With the exception of “I Met Mahatma” by Amit Charles, “Church at Erengal” by Deepti Naval among, and a few more, most of the poems are nothing home to write about. Seeing the general quality of poems in the anthology, it appears as if the publishers did not have any policy for shortlisting them. The section on short stories section is the best in this anthology, and I wished there was more of this and less of poetry.
  • I like my books to have at least basic typesetting and layout in place and it was very irritating to see that this book had neither — the leading, page margins and font size kept changing throughout the book. While I can understand this was done to keep page numbers to an economical minimum, there are other ways of doing it, rather than compromising on basic design principles.
  • The 5 paintings on “celebrating India” are given right at the end of the anthology, almost like an afterthought. Again, this section could have been better presented with a little bit of planning and care.

I am at a loss to understand as to why many Indian publishers do not invest in the pre-publishing process (curating and reviewing the manuscript, copy-edting, proof-reading, etc.) preferring to put in resources and time in the post-publishing scene (publicity, marketing, etc.). They seem to have their priorities wrong here. Much like our country, isn’t it? And Celebrating India is an example of this and also of an idea that had so much potential, but one that just failed to deliver. Much like our country itself.

Note: This book was sent to me for review by Nivasini Publishers and the views expressed here are my own.

PS: With so many bloggers as contributors in this anthology, I couldn’t help but observe that many of the contributions read like blog posts rather than articles in books. Perhaps this could have been taken care of if the entire manuscript had been copy-edited. Or perhaps this is an indication of changing trends as defined by blogger-writers ! I’m going to wait and watch :-)

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18 thoughts on “Celebrating India: A book review

    • Thanks, Bhavana. Glad you found the review useful.

      I doubt if one can ever be truly objective. I remember something that my qual research teacher said. “If someone tells me that they are very very objective and that their work reflects it, I get very worried.” As a researcher, writer and sometimes teacher, I agree with this statement.

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  1. What I like about your book reviews is that they objectively state the facts instead of subjectively panning or praising them. As TGND has pointed out, it is a wonderful concept and if care had been taken to include a representative collection, it would have been great. I wouldn’t want to buy this one, but would love to borrow it from you and read the ones you have recommended :P

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    • Thank you, Zephyr. I try to be objective, but as I replied to Bhavana’s comment, it is not entirely possible. My likes, biases and dislikes do creep in, even though I try my best to not let it influence it too much.

      And yes, you can borrow the book and read the better ones in it :-)

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  2. Like zephyr has mentioned, I would rather borrow the book from you and read the few recommended chapters, and see the paintings too. The lady on the cover is absolutely gorgeous.

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    • Yes, the cover is gorgeous isn’t it? I loved the old lady’s smile. Isn’t it full of mischief and joy and one that just lifts your spirits? And yes, you can borrow the book. Just tell me when you want it :-)

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  3. Sudha, I absolutely love reading these book reviews of yours! i recently heard about this book, and was thinking of picking it up, but now, I am going to add my name to the list of ppl waiting to borrow it from you so i can read just the better pieces!

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