Ambedkar in, Modi out: At Chennai book fair, politics play out through readership

A key event for the Tamil publishing industry, the Chennai book fair has seen a rise in books on politics, the global economy and caste.
Ambedkar in, Modi out: At Chennai book fair, politics play out through readership
Ambedkar in, Modi out: At Chennai book fair, politics play out through readership
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The papery scent of freshly-printed books hangs heavy in the air, waiting for readers young and old to bask in, at the Chennai book fair. It is hard to fathom that it is a Thursday afternoon, with crowds thronging the stalls, picking up everything from literary classics to magazine collections to guides for competitive exams. The hottest topics this season, however, are caste, politics, and economics. Even as India is months away from the world’s largest democratic exercise, publishers say that there has been a perceptible rise in the demand for books on national and international issues of interest.

True to their word, stall after stall at the YMCA grounds features prominently on its display books on the events of the past couple of years -- a volume on the life of late Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, a photo album on the life of late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, Tamil translations of interviews with American politician Bernie Sanders, books on the 2016 banknote demonetisation, corruption in India and the global economy. Perhaps the starkest contrast the publishers have observed from the year before has been a heightened interest in books on caste politics.

Back to basics

“We are nearly sold out on beginner books on leftism and Marxism. There is a huge demand for books on economics and the mechanism of capitalism like Das Kapital by Karl Marx. There is a return to the foundational texts. There is a churning to know about the capitalist system and why it is failing the world over. People want to understand the economic crisis today,” observes PK Rajan, editor, Publications at Bharathi Puthakalayam. The publication, established by the Communist Party of India(Marxist), also reports that BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste and Caste in India have been selling like hot cakes.

Pointing to another popular Murder in Mudukulathur: Caste and Electoral Politics in Tamil Nadu, Rajan says, “For example, the incidents in this book are over 60 years old. But it is an iconic event in caste politics in Tamil Nadu. Whatever is still happening in society, is reflected here and people are picking up these books.”

Modi out, Ambedkar in

Standing next to a shelf of the most popular books this season, Marudhan, editor of the popular Kizhakku Pathippagam remarks that the pattern of sales could reflect the politics of the day, with a steady rise in readership for the non-fiction genre.

“If you ask me for Modiyin Gujarat, a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Gujarat Model’ that was popular around 2014, I will struggle to find it. I don’t even know if there is a copy of it here,” he says, looking around the crowded book stall. “We used to sell it in the thousands back then, there were repeat orders too. But people’s mentality has changed. There has been a dramatic reversal. Modi Maiyai (which translates to ‘The Modi Illusion’ in Tamil) and books on demonetisation are among the top sellers this time around. Both translations and original content do well,” he says, adding that the publication has also received requests for books in Tamil on Brexit and US President Donald Trump.

“Books on Ambedkar and Periyar do well too. Generally, Tamil audiences have the perception that we know about the affairs at home, we want to know more about national and international affairs. My book on the European refugee crisis is also doing well,” he adds.

However, Marudhan cautions that it is not possible to fully gauge the level of political awareness among people, just going by the sale of books.

Younger readers, societal churning

Kannan Sundaram, publisher of Kalachuvadu that specialises in classic literary works in Tamil, explains that the Chennai book fair is a crucial one for the Tamil publishing industry.

He says, “It acts as a backbone for the whole industry. Readers come from other parts of India as well as from other parts of the world. It has become an international event for Tamil books. I find those who come to the book fair very sensitive. A commercial book might sell in the general market is not what will be popular here. The readers choose books that bring in good content, quality and diversity. Readership is going up.”

Kannan also rubbishes the myth that the younger generations have fallen out of the habit of reading. “Things like e-books and the ability to order a book online have expanded the market. There is generally a wrong notion that younger generation is not reading. That is just ridiculous. The younger generation is reading more than ever. The percentage of people who are educated is going up every year and so too is the economic power to buy. Their mode of reading may be different but obviously they are reading more,” he says.

He adds that Perumal Murugan’s Kalimugam is topping the list of bestsellers.

Writer Ajayan Bala of Nathan Pathippagam points out that the discernible rise in the demand for books also extends to readership of books on films and society. As readers enter his stall to pick up Tamil translations of books on Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh and American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, he says, “Whenever the society is under pressure, they turn to books. We can see the impact of current events on the readership. After the 2015 Chennai floods, people turned to books on water so K Sivasubramaniyan’s Neer Melanmai (Water Management) did well. When the jallikattu issue was at its peak, people read a lot about the global political economy. So the Tamil translation of John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man sold very well.”

“Similarly today, there has been a rise in demand for books on caste-related issues. Earlier, stalls would not even stock books on Periyar and Ambedkar but today, these are the bestsellers,” he says.

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