John Vater, A Subcontinent Goes Global: Hindi Publishers Reach Out

Publishing in India: an industry perspective--

Following his return from India, John Vater is currently a student in the MFA in Literary translation at the University of Iowa.           


 A Subcontinent Goes Global: Hindi Publishers Reach Out

 “We’d like you to pitch books to publishers, find translators, and close the deal,” Aditi Maheshwari said in the director’s office. A chaprasi placed chai on the table for us. Aditi’s father Arun, publisher and managing director of Vani Prakashan (VP), listened quietly at his desk.    

A portrait of his father, Shri Premchand Mahesh, hung on the wall, adorned with garlands. Dr. Mahesh—teacher, novelist, essayist—founded the publishing house in 1964, 17 years after India’s independence. Like many Hindi publishing houses, VP is both a family business and a literary legacy. Dr. Mahesh believed in promoting Hindi to expand social dialogue, and publishing books for the betterment of society. His son Arun and granddaughter Aditi consolidated that vision, and today VP is seen as a leading Hindi publisher of literature, criticism, social sciences, translations, and alternative voices, as well as a powerful distributor, with nationwide readership. VP publishes 225+ books per year[1]— on par with multinational and large trade publishers in India.[2] The country’s publishing industry is highly fragmented, lacking official industry status. Rather than being regulated by the government, it is run by autonomous government agencies and rival trade federations and associations representing rival industry interests, which can result in unstructured governance, policy making, and planning.[3] Nevertheless, the industry is a giant; according to Sudhir Malhotra, president of the Federation of Indian Publishers, there are roughly 60,000 big and small publishers who put out around 100,000 titles each year,[4] making India the sixth largest book market in the world, and second largest in English.[5] Walk into VP’s office any day of the week and you’ll be greeted by a sight not uncommon in Indian publishing: bundles of books wrapped in newspaper, stacked with cardboard, and tied with string, destined for bookstores, libraries, and universities across the Hindi heartland—Patna in Bihar; Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh; Jaipur in Rajasthan; Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh; Calcutta in Bengal—all the way to Hindi readers in south India. Each generation of Maheshwaris has confronted new challenges: for the third, the major tasks are intertwined with global literary culture.

VP’s main office is in Delhi’s Old City, just off of Ansari Road, the traditional row for publishers, distributors, and more recently, online retailers like Flipkart and Infibeam. A month previous, in August 2014, the house had launched the non-profit Vani Foundation, aimed at popularizing Indian language literature abroad through translation. Similar earlier projects tasked with this responsibility, for instance Indian Literature Abroad (initiated by the Ministry of Culture and entrusted to Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters) had failed to produce adequate results. Now, Vani Foundation’s founder trustees—Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and former chair of the Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s National Academy of Arts; Namita Gokhale, novelist and founder-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival; and Bimlendra Mohan Pratap Mishra, scion of the Ayodhya royal family—wanted to pick up speed. VP, too, sought to add a new dimension to its motto, taki shabd gawahi dete rahein, “that words may bear witness,” exposing the world to unheard Indian language voices.

I was excited to be a part of this project. Of all books published in the US, only 3% are traditionally said to be in translation, and only a fraction of that are from South Asian languages. The assignment also resonated with me personally. Much of my passion for reading derives from the translations I read in my childhood: in my Catholic schools in Oklahoma. I devoured the Russian greats, like Dostoevsky, and contemporary international literary superstars like Haruki Murakami, but regretted to find almost no Indian language literature. In its stead I picked up the Indian English authors—Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy for instance. While their stories of characters caught between countries and cultures were immensely enjoyable, their depiction of India also felt caught in-between. It was like gazing at the country through a window rather than walking its streets.   

Initially I knew little about the political economy of how and why certain books are published in the United States, and the many obstacles impeding translations—especially those from South Asia. Only researching Indian publishing on a Fulbright in 2014 did I become aware of the effects of British colonialism and globalization on Indian publishing—for instance the monopoly of English books at the university level, where English is the preferred medium of instruction, or the favored placement of English books on general bookstore shelves, with the Hindi titles relegated to back corners. Add to this the pressures of the global literary marketplace in the 1980s and 90s, which incentivized Indian English writers to publish in New York and London to reach larger international audiences, linking Indian English language literature with narratives of migrancy, postcolonialism, and transnationalism.[6] It was only after I spent time in India that I began to see how local and international socio-economic realities affect the decisions of Indian language publishers—such as why Hindi publishers are turning to translation into and out of world languages to reinvigorate their profiles, or what institutional challenges prevent Indian language translations from traveling abroad— challenges reflected in (and obscured by) the language politics between English and Hindi, which often devolve into essentialist arguments about Westernization and authenticity. Many Indians (and others worldwide) associate English with the opportunities and prestige of the global capitalist marketplace. Hindi, on the other hand, is often championed as the language of the masses, a link among India’s other languages, the preferred language of social movements, as well as of advertising—and sometimes derided as backward. This is especially noticeable in certain affluent areas of Delhi, where Hindi-only speakers can be perceived as uneducated, rural, or unmodern. Despite India’s overwhelming linguistic and literary diversity, which encompasses differences in caste, class, geographical perspective, and traditions of thought, only a few fixed narratives circulate about India in the US—narratives of diaspora depicted by English Indian authors; sensational media reports about gruesome rapes; or updates on India’s previously stalling, now again rising, GDP as a BRIC economy. I wanted to widen that restrictive frame.   


Hindi, the most widely spoken language in the country, is counted as a mother tongue by 41% of the population (roughly 400 million people) in a country comprised of 22 “official languages” and roughly 780 spoken languages, and is influential in politics, mass media, and popular culture. Although Hindi shares roots with Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, originating in linguistic intermingling during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire eras, it was only standardized in the nineteenth century, and campaigned for as a national language during the Indian Independence Movement of the 1920s–40s. Despite considerable agitation in civil society (most notably by South Indian communities in the 1930s–60s), the Indian government enshrined Hindi—alongside English—as the official language of the new union, hoping most citizens would adopt it as, if not their first language, then as a preferred second or third. The Ministry of Education established committees to develop new words adequate for meeting the literary, scientific, and administrative exigencies of the nation, drawing heavily on Sanskrit for terms equivalent in meaning to modern concepts. The government also provided subsidies to Hindi publishers and distribution to libraries, schools, and universities.[7] 

This nationalist vision for Hindi’s preponderance never came to pass, however. English became naturalized as an Indian language (if limited to the middle and the upper class) while Hindi assumed the role as a go-between for India’s (mainly northern) national and regional languages and identities. The key reason for this failure—if we can call it a failure—is the discrepancy between how Hindi was conceived in government offices and spoken on the ground, a discrepancy also present in the language of Hindi literature. Hindi literary writing limited its readership by clinging to a pure Sanskrit register, indecipherable to practically all but the cultural elite. On a more practical level, Hindi publishing was criticized for relying on bulk purchase orders to libraries and state institutions rather than publishing for the popular market. That said, its proponents sometimes claim that among reasons for why Hindi hasn’t developed a reading culture on par with English are the relative newness of the language, the high price of retail space, and the tendency of Hindi speakers to use their discretionary income on recreational activities other than reading. The English-language book industry has had the luxury of centuries to develop its infrastructure, and of course benefits from being the lingua franca of the global market. Although within India the absolute number of Hindi book sales outstrips English (26% versus 23% of total market share), more Indians per capita read in English than in Hindi, raising questions about the success of Hindi publishing in cultivating its readers. Data about Hindi reading demographics is limited, however; the market is concentrated in developing cities, and few surveys exist about Hindi book sales, which makes profiling these readers nearly impossible.

 The general perception of both writers and industry observers is that while Hindi is doing well, its readership could be larger, given its demographic weight, as corroborated by the fact that newspaper sales outperform English, and the millions of viewers tuning in to Hindi television and cinema. Who are the Hindi readers? they ask. And if Hindi is not selling, why are publishers publishing us? This urgency to profile Hindi’s readership is felt especially in New Delhi, not only the center for Hindi publishing but also a hub for global literary culture, and home to a large number of young people aspiring to read in English.     


This phenomenon of the ‘aspirational reader’ became apparent to me at the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival. While hailed as the largest free literature festival on earth, JLF draws its attendees largely from the middle-class who come to see their favorite international English-language authors. Students who I asked about their reading habits said they preferred English, due to its range (“more topics”), accessibility (a “faster” and “more interesting” read) and “peer pressure.” At the “Geographies of Reading: Contexting the Indian Reader” panel, praising Hindi’s tradition of book criticism, and locating new readers, Aditi nonetheless admitted to shortcomings in content delivery and marketing given the changing demographics: “In India we dream in Hindi, cry in Hindi, sleep in Hindi, but aspire in English.”          

 A more technical perspective was offered by Alind Maheshwari, of Rajkamal Prakashan Group, Vani Prakashan’s largest rival, at the 2014 New Delhi World Book Fair: “More attention is given to bulk purchasing than it is to content,” Alind said, explaining that hundreds of thousands of Hindi books are published each year for bulk purchase orders at the expense of identifying good writers. While big Hindi publishers like Vani, Rajkamal, and Yashpal are publishing cheap paperback editions and organizing various literary events to attract new readers, “work isn’t being done on the level it needs to.” Aditi emphasized how this did not detract from the good work being done in Hindi, especially in translation: “There is a lot happening between Indian languages right now … We are doing a lot from Malayalam, a lot from Bangla, a lot from Assamese, lots from Rajasthani and Bhojpuri, Marathi, Tamil, and Punjabi … Additionally, all the European languages have a good reputation in Hindi.”

 In her groundbreaking survey of language politics and postcolonial literary production in India, English Heart, Hindi Heartland, Indian scholar Rashmi Sadana puts translation at the heart of a strategy to promote and professionalize Hindi publishing by “creat(ing) a kind of cosmopolitanism” on par with English.”[8] In that spirit, Vani Prakashan translates, in addition to Indian language authors, European Nobel Prize winners like Milosz, Herbert, and Müller in what Sadana describes as an attempt to “bring in new ideas rather than try to gain more Hindi readers,” thereby potentially freeing Hindi from its “ideological constraints”—in particular nationalism, dominance by Brahmin caste communities, and influences of Marxism and socialist realist literature of the Soviet era—and extending the reach of Hindi.[9]

 If publishers are cultivating Hindi cosmopolitanism through translation, VP is also attempting to increase its ‘sexy’ quotient by catapulting Hindi into the ranks of world literature through tie-ups with foreign publishers to give it a second life through translation, which, ironically, might reintroduce Hindi literature to globalizing young readers back home. “We have to make (Hindi) more relevant for the younger lot … making sure (Hindi books) are on YouTube, on Facebook, that they are being talked about in the English newspapers as well,” Aditi says.

 Some reasons South Asian language literature in translation has failed to travel are explained in the recent “On the Dearth of South Asian Literature Translations in the United States” by Mahmud Rahman, a writer and translator from Bengali.[10] The reasons listed include a lack of focus placed on translation in the American universities, also seen in the way academic files are reviewed and how faculty are promoted (translation typically doesn’t count for promotion); the limited space for contemporary SAL translations in academic press catalogues, which is exacerbated by the low commitment to SAL works in the university (a catch-22 situation: if more academic presses published SAL translations, the availability of translations would rise, and likely increase syllabi demand); the conservative publishing decisions of commercial publishers wary of alienating readers with unfamiliar aesthetic sensibilities;[11] and the idea that South Asia has been covered with Indian English authors. One of Rahman’s suggestions is to create a space with information about South Asian literature—a foreign rights catalogue, e-zine, or informative webpage, similar to the German Book Office, which connects translators and publishers with recommendations, plot synopses, and author profiles. Something along these lines would be my job back in New Delhi: to draft a brochure for international gatherings like the Jaipur Literature Festival and New Delhi World Book Fair.  

 Part of the challenge in furnishing such a brochure was finding reliable recommendations. In 2014 VP asked writers, journalists, and professors to curate a list of the ‘best in Hindi.’ Such a request is a politically fraught process no matter what—but especially true when vast demographic differences complicate the idea of mainstream aesthetics, with ideological and caste affiliation and university politics casting a further smokescreen over the field of literature. By the end of the year, no news from the committee had arrived. “What are the best works in Hindi?” I began to ask office employees and literary acquaintances desperately. A strange silence covered the subject. The only way to finish the catalogue, it seemed, would be to read myself. This terrified me; I couldn’t exactly breeze through Hindi books. 

VP boasts a catalogue of 4,500 titles, organized into categories like fiction—kahani (story), laghu kahani (short story), upanyas (novel), and sanchayita/sanchayan (collections/complete works)—alochana (literary criticism), dalit sahitya and stri vimarsh (dalit literature and feminist discourse), samajshatra (social sciences), and others. After asking the sales team which books sold fastest, reading criticism, and other research, I selected titles that seemed to reflect the socially concerned ethos of VP, and perspectives perhaps unavailable in the market-driven world of English publishing—such as Govind Mishra’s memoir, Authors at My Side, with reminiscences from the 1930s Progressive Writers' Movement through the 1960s New Story and Poetry Movements; letters by Nirmal Verma, who explored Indian modernity after exposure to Kundera, Faulkner, Woolf, and Mann[12]; interviews with Manohar Shyam Joshi, a journalist during the media boom of the 80s, when Hindi newspapers first reached rural doorsteps; Feminist and Dalit criticism and essays; or non-fiction interrogating problems in post-liberal India, such as religion and power, sex trafficking, and the privatization and sensationalism of the mass media.  Novels tackled problems as well, like Anamika’s Billu Shakespeare Post-Baster, about English teachers who establish a school of stories for tribal students; Pradeep Saurabh’s Three Claps, about the ostracized world of transgender communities in Delhi; and Rajni Gupt’s This Is No Common Road, about a house-wife entering politics and pressured to bargain her body in an arena dominated by men and the rich.

At the 2015 Jaipur Bookmark and at the New Delhi World Book Fair, it was good to see just how many foreign buyers were interested in the Hindi world. Independent publishers requested books that broke mainstream narrative and stylistic conventions. A Spanish agent representing Taiwanese publishing interests asked about Hindi travelogues for tourists eager to break free of, as he put it, the Western, Orientalizing gaze; a small Singapore publisher spotted a promising cultural bridge via the strength of feminism in both countries. A Chinese agent wanted the Hindi classics, which he thought would pass censor boards in China. There were also more popular demands, for stories about urban youth and crime noir—crossovers in identifiable genres. What all publishers wanted, however, was the full text. The summaries and author profiles I had drafted were enough to whet their appetites, but not enough to conclude a deal. For that, a full-length plot synopsis and two or so chapters of sample translations were needed. In other words, Hindi literature had to sell itself.

            The translations I thus took on were especially stories that might resonate with readerships of other sensibilities abroad. Among those I chose from were Suraj Badatiya’s short story collection The Comrade’s Box, about Dalit youth in urban, globalizing India—characters dogged by caste prejudice but with new paths for mobility; Prabhat Ranjan’s stories of young romance and crime in Bihar, the poorest state in India, beset by corruption, underdevelopment, and media scams; Pradeep Saurabh’s Countries Within Countries, a Romeo and Juliet tale in which the boy is driven to pursue economic rise in Delhi, while the girl remains in Assam out of loyalty to her people’s struggle for autonomy and independence; and Vinod Bhardwaj’s novella, A Truthful Lie, about Hindi journalism, in which the protagonist’s struggles to tell the full truth in the news are carried on in the gray space between fact and fiction. Its protagonist, I was pleased to see, also read Dostoevsky in his youth: “Beauty will save the world,” he quotes from The Idiot, and concludes it was the beauty of books that saved him.[13]

            It is now to be hoped that some of these terrific titles will find their way to new readers inside India as well as abroad. With a crop of new translation awards announced, the prospect is far from hopeless.[14]



[1] Dibyajyoti Sarma and Rahul Kumar, “A New Book Every Working Day,” Printweek India 10, April 2015.  

[2] Vinutha Mallya, “Numbers and Letters: The Possibilities and Pitfalls Before India’s Publishing Industry,” The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture, April 2015, 2. According to Mallya, multinational and large trade publishers in India publish at least 200 titles per year.

[3] Ibid, 1.

[4] IANS, New Delhi, “Unlike in West, Publishing is Growing in India,” Gulf Times, February 2013. Although Sudhir Malhotra, the president of the Federation of Indian Publishers (FIP), places the number of publishers at 60,000, estimates vary. “The Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015” places the number at approximately 9,000, although Indian language publishers are arguably underrepresented. Nielson, “The Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015: Understanding the India Book Market,” Nielson, October 2015. The Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB), by comparison, estimates over 16,000. Naorem Johney Adamson, Mayank Jha, Talimeren Longkumer, Sher Singh Meena, and Amit Soni, “Navneet Publications – Adapting to Changes in the Indian Book Industry,” Tejas@iimb: an IIMB MANAGEMENT REVIEW initiative, June 2010.

[5] PTI, “India Book Market to Touch 739 Billion by 2020: Survey,” India Today, December 2015.

[6] On this topic see for instance Rashmi Sadana, English Heart, Hindi Heartland: The Political Life of Literature in India (Ranikhet, Uttarakhand: Permanent Black, 2012): 156.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Ibid, 82.

[9] Ibid, 93.

[10] Mahmud Rahman, “On the Dearth of South Asian Translations in the US / Why So Few South Asian Translations Are Published in the US (Parts I-V),” Asymptote, 2014.

[11] All this could be said regarding the situation of most other literatures in the US. This is hardly a “failure” but rather a structural condition of an imperial market/language/literature.

[12] Zafar Anjum, “From the Archives: Remembering Nirmal Verma,” Kitaab, April 2013.

[13] Vinod Bharadwaj, Sachhaa-Jhuth (New Delhi: Vani Prakashan, 2014), 37.

[14]  Recently Vani partnered with the Indian Habitat Centre at the annual Indian Languages Festival Samanvay to bestow the Vani-Samanvay Distinguished Translator’s Award of one hundred thousand rupees to the Malaylam poet and translator Attoor Ravi Varma, for his contribution to literary exchange between Tamil and Malayalam.“Attoor Ravi Varma Wins The Debut Vani-Samanvay Distinguished Translator Award,” City Air News, November 2015.