August 02, 2020
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Pulping books -- Ashutosh Varshney's Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, Anita Rau Badami's Tamarind Mem, Vinod Kumar Shukla's Naukar ki Kameez ...

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Some publishers are sticklers for quality. Finding a few errors in Ashutosh Varshney’s Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, his publishers, Yale University Press, have decided to take what would be considered here as a drastic last resort: to pulp the book and bring out a new edition. Pulping, despite the way it sounds, is not about enhancing its popular appeal. It means putting the condemned book through a shredder. Publishers here use a cruder method—literally ripping the book apart after stripping off its cover. The nightmare for the manual paper shredders must be when the orders are out for a revised edition of a dictionary. All the outdated dictionaries are then sent to the condemned department for execution.

The reasons for such brutality to books are several: in the West it’s mostly for quality control. In India, there are other pressing reasons for pulping. What does a publisher do, for instance, with a book that’s stopped selling? He’d be a blockhead if he let it occupy precious warehouse space. Instead, he reverts the rights back to the author, asks him or her to buy the remainder, and if all fails, pulps it. After all, no self-respecting publisher wants his unwanted copies to land in the pirated books market. Then, in a country where a book is prized more for its weight than wisdom, there’s the raddi value. Many a good book has ended up this way. Anita Rau Badami’s Tamarind Mem, for instance. It flopped dismally when it was first launched in India a few years ago. But now that it’s being launched for the first time in the US, the book is being rescued from pulp by Penguin India.

Such uncivil methods of treating literature finds no favour with authors. Marathi poet and writer Dilip Chitre, for instance, talked feelingly and at length about how humiliating it was to learn about the fate of the English translation of Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Naukar ki Kameez (Servant’s Shirt). "It’s been called one of the finest novels of the 20th century, and what does his publisher, Penguin India, do? He pulps it!"

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