Not everyone will agree with the Outlook jury’s list of the 100 books that can change our lives; nor do we expect you to. So, as a fully paid-up Mysorean, let me be the first to strike an utterly parochial dissent note at the non-inclusion of my townsman R.K. Narayan, whose simple stories written in a foreign language when it was not fashionable, in a non-television era when there were no agents, no excerpts, no lit-fests and no champagne parties, unarguably touched more lives than all other Indian authors in English put together. And still does.
Reading the right books may change our lives, but does writing them change the authors’? All my growing-up years yours truly tried to chat up the great man as he walked up and down our roads but had to be satisfied with a stern harrumph—the result of too many cricket balls hit into his backyard. Or guavas plucked from his garden. For our school magazine, I sought a note. He declined. For my first newspaper story, I sought a quote. He snarled.
K.B. Ganapathy, India’s best-read editor (since you asked, Mukul), recalls he was at Narayan’s home one afternoon when the gardener came up and said there was someone to see him. “Ask him the purpose of his visit,” said rkn. The gardener went down and returned with a visiting card. Narayan saw the card and mumbled in Tamil, “Why do these people come without appointment and at odd times? Tell him I cannot see him.” The gardener went down again and came back to say the visitor had come from Bangalore and would take just 10 minutes. Narayan once again picked up the card, looked at it and told the gardener, “Tell him I cannot see him and he has come without appointment.”
It turns out that Gentleman magazine, where David Davidar held his last journalism job, had excerpted from Narayan’s novel A Tiger for Malgudi without his permission, thus violating his copyright. Narayan issued the publisher a legal notice. The publication wanted to negotiate with Narayan and it was about this the visitor had wanted to talk. “Why didn’t you meet him then?” the editor of Star of Mysore asked Narayan. “Why should I? He has not taken an appointment. Anyway, my lawyer is there,” he said, matter-of-factly.
You may not want to judge a book by its cover, but surely you can come to some conclusions by looking at the size of the author’s name on it? Either it is a reflection of the state of the Indian media or just a desire to put something down for posterity that in the year gone by, loads of employed, semi-employed and unemployable journalists put mouse on pad to belt out their tales and wails.
So, with no greater desire than to detect how much ‘brand equity’ these hacks see in their names, I armed our librarian with what we in the trade call the pica scale to go and measure the size of the byline in the books of the journalist-authors of 2014. She discovered the same ‘class system’ that exists in the newsroom: editors’ names big, reporters’ names small. Rajdeep Sardesai’s name is in 78 points, Harish Khare’s in 72, and—surprise, surprise—Shekhar Gupta’s is in 48 points. Without putting too fine a point on it, a point being 1/72th of an inch in typographical measurement, on top of the pile is Vinod Mehta, whose cover is emblazoned with his name in 90 points.
Self-effacing reporters are doing much better on the scale of self-importance: crime reporter S. Hussain Zaidi’s byline in his book on the Mumbai mafia is in 15 points, the banking correspondent Tamal Bandopadhyay’s, in his book on the rise and fall of the Sahara group, is in 16, and roving editor Sankarshan Thakur’s, in his bio of Nitish Kumar, is in 21. But clearly size doesn’t count when it comes to sales: Sanjaya Baru, whose tell-all tome on his days as media advisor to Manmohan Singh sold more than all the other editors’ and reporters’ books put together, has settled for just 32 points.
Let the record show that the byline of the 2014 Booker winner Richard Flanagan is in 44 points, and the Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano is in 16. Go figure.
Drink and thrive
The late Christopher Hitchens could blithely sit at a bar stool, order his drinks, light up incessantly, and dash off 1,000 cogent words by lunch despite all the noise and buzz around him. But there are some who can barely gather together their wits in the peace and quiet of their homes—long after last night.
Many moons ago, I wrote to the Bangalore-based playwright Girish Karnad requesting him to write for Outlook’s Independence Day special issue. In came a response by e-mail which I wish I had saved: “Dear Krishna Kumar. Many thanks for inviting me to write for India Today’s Republic Day issue....” Here’s wishing our readers a hangover-free new year.
Email your diarist: krishnaprasad [AT] outlookindia [DOT] com