GJV Prasad, Who is Reading Anyway?
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
The New Delhi Reading Group was hosted by the British Council Library, which is located in Connaught Place (called CP by Delhi wallahs), the central business and shopping area of the city. The BCL hosts a reading group regularly and the members attend sessions according to their preferences and availability of time. While there seems to be loyal core of a few members, no two reading group sessions seem to have the same members! This was a serious drawback in our experiment. Also the BCL is no longer seen as a library and has lost its dedicated student/scholar base. The people who came to the sessions did not seem as interested in reading as in spending their time in a cosy session with fellow travellers, people who bring their children to the library for activities or who come their in order to soak in the atmosphere. Since the British Council Library itself is more a corporate/management and entertainment centre, the people visiting it are quite different from the usual library visitors. Many in the reading group would attend sessions without necessarily having read the books!
In any case, the fact is that you cannot expect people off the streets to have a reading culture in English, in a country like India, or that they would take the time to read what was not being talked about in the press. English is not a major language in India, whatever the press and the media may think. According to the census data from 2001, only about 226,449 people listed English as their mother tongue. The census data is incomplete because we still don’t have figures for how many people speak English in some form. An India Today survey in 1997 put the figure as one-third of the Indian population, which seems hard to believe. Educated estimates would put the number of English speakers in India around 40 million (of a total population in excess of 1025 million). But this does not mean that even a majority of them read in English at all. The average print run for an English book in India is still about 2000 copies and publishers are hard put to sell them. English language publishers in India are now trying to enter bhasha (Indian language) markets now – Penguin India has entered the Hindi market and even an academic publisher like Sage publishes translations of its books in other Indian languages and manages to sell more books in translation than in English. English is thus the language of aspiration, of upward mobility, of empowerment, but people have an asymmetrical access to it. It is not the language of cultural capital, not yet, only that of capitalism. English is what gets people into management and IT – the bookseller in the poster for this project has only such books in columns in front of him, not English fiction! English takes people places; that is what most Indians hope, especially places in the west.
Hence the reading group was most interested in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane because it had been controversial and talked about in India. Jackie Kay’s wonderful work, The Adoption Papers, had four people attending the session. While Monica Ali’s book did not excite them too much, they could read it with a sense of involvement. This involvement was missing in their reading of other books. Interestingly not many would list Brick Lane as the best book in this series of readings. They felt that Hari Kunzru was the better writer of the two. The reading group took up the following books, in the same order:
Monica Ali, Brick Lane (2003)
Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004)
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2001)
Jackie Kay, The Adoption Papers (1991)
Hari Kunzru, Transmission (2001)
The first meeting of the group was on 7th April 2007 and met over the summer till August. I must say that the books did not really excite them overall, but then reading them in the short time they had each time must have been difficult for most of them. They had to borrow copies of the book a few days in advance and return them after the session. While the numbers of people who attended each session varied, I would say there was a good response except for The Adoption Papers, but at least two of the four who attended that session told me later that it was the best book in the series. Otherwise, it was a choice between Small Island and Transmission.
The readers tended to like books that they could identify with; in any case they read the books in terms of their lives, their choices and their moral codes. This is not necessarily a bad thing but very often the discussion would tend to veer towards contemporary Indian metropolitan life and away from the book. Overall, the reading group enjoyed itself and wanted to connect to readers in other groups. This group gave them an opportunity to see themselves as part of a global network, English finally delivering what it had always promised, but only partially. They may have enjoyed themselves more and read more if they had managed to have video conferencing with other groups. This may have helped to give a wider range and depth to their responses.