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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Time for audiobooks has come?

For a country that spends hours listening to music, India has yet to discover the potential of audiobooks. Frankly, there is no organised audiobook market in India, except some productions like Karadi Tales targeted at young audiences. In popular fiction or non-fiction categories, however, we don’t have any audiobook versions.

Globally, audiobooks are believed to be the fastest-growing segment in the industry. In 2015, the audiobook market was valued at USD 2.8 billion.

In the west, all major books, whether popular books like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, or books by celebrity authors, come with an audiobook version, along with its printed and digital versions. There are three ways these books are produced. One, the author of the books reads the text. Two, a voice actor reads the text. Three, a full cast production, akin to a radio play, where the dialogues are recorded by different voice actors corresponding to the characters in the text, whereas a voice actor reads the narrative segments.

In the case of a celebrity authors, for example, Hilary Clinton’s What Happened, the text is read by the author. This invariably adds to the selling point.

Audio books come in two formats, Audio CD and Audiobook file, available in the sites like Audible, iTune and others, from where a buyer can download the file after making the purchase.

In India, however, we don’t have such availability of options. There are several reasons for this. One, audio CDs have become almost obsolete in India. As for songs, most Indian listeners depend on illegal downloads. Besides, there are the numerous radio stations. On the other hand, audiobook files are expensive. For example, the audiobook file for Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness read by the author is priced at 22.05 dollars in Audible.com. This is a lot of money in terms of rupee for an audio file.

On the bright side, the fact that the audio versions of Indian books exist is itself a tremendous achievement. With Amazon, the parent company of Audible, aggressively looking at the Indian publishing market (few years back, it acquired Westland), chances are that there will be more book in this format.

Even other publishers are trying their hands. One of them is Penguin Random House. We recently saw the audiobook version of the Rishi Kapoor autobiography Khullam Khulla, read by Shalmin Sheriff being released, among other books.

Talking to Live Mint in January 2018, Markus Dohle, global chief executive, Penguin Random House, said, “The good news is that people are listening to books while doing something else. And that goes across all demographics and all activities. So while there is growing competition from other media categories and electronic devices, audiobooks present a huge growth opportunity for us as publishers.”

Coming to independent players, we have Storytel India, which started in November 2017, with 60 titles. Talking to Scroll.in Yogesh Dashrath, country manager India, Storytel, said, “In the last two years, smartphones have become ubiquitous and the high-speed mobile internet has become affordable to a significant number of Indians. In addition, people are commuting more and consuming more entertainment content while doing so. We see all these developments as positive.”

On the positive side, audiobooks allow for multitasking — you can listen to an audiobook while doing almost any other activity, all you need is a smartphone and a pair of headphones. On the downside, the cost of owning an audiobook remains high to persuade the Indian audiences who are used to buying pirated books off the footpath and download songs free of cost.

Personal Speaking

As an independent publisher, I am a believer of print. I don’t event do eBooks. So my experience of listening to audiobooks has mostly been as a freeloader (discounting for the audio cassettes that appeared in 1990s, like Kaifi Azmi’s Kaifiyat and Javed Akhtar’s Tarkash; those I paid for).

I came to audiobooks via the internet, through the free download sites, before discovering dedicated sites like Librivox.org or Open Culture. It started with listening to poetry read by the author and then I focused on books that I could not find in India or books that were beyond my reach to purchase. There was some experimentation as well. I downloaded and listened to Spanish for Dummies for one whole month; not sure it helped.

Sure, it has its advantages, for example, you can listen to it on the go, and you don’t need to carry a book, but I am not a convert yet. I believe the retention level is far too low in audiobooks. When they announced a TV series on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I wanted to read the book first. But I didn’t have it, but soon found an audiobook. It’s read by Gaiman himself and he has a soothing voice. I got the gist of the narrative, but it did not give me the same pleasure as reading other Gaiman books. A few months later, I acquired the book and reading the physical book was a different experience altogether. The aesthetic pleasure of holding a book, looking at the lines, words, is something else.

Like all technology, audiobooks are no-fuss, efficient alternative. It gets the job done. It doesn’t concern itself with individual experiences. It’s for mass consumption, to disseminate information. So if you are listening to an audiobook for information, it’s a great invention, but I don’t think it’s a viable alternative to reading a physical book.

However, I have discovered that audiobooks are a great way to revisit your favourite works. I am a die-hard fan of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. So when his new Book of Dust came out last year, I found an excerpt of the audiobook in YouTube. The reading could hardly hold my interest. Then I searched for the His Dark Materials; they were there, and I listened to them, the whole 15 hours of it with renewed vigour. Because I knew the books; it was like visiting an old friend.

Today, I find my audiobooks in YouTube, which are mostly from Audible, therefore, the production quality, voices are pitch-perfect. For random books, LibriVox is the best. Here the files are in public domain, therefore free. But the quality is often a suspect, as the books are read by enthusiasts, not professionals. However, for beginners, this is a great place to explore.

PS. I wrote this while listening to George RR Martin’s The World of Ice & Fire, in YouTube, because I cannot afford to buy the book yet.

(Based in New Delhi Dibyajyoti Sarma runs an independent publishing venture called Red River)

(Parts of this first appeared in Sakal Times.)

Monday, June 11, 2018

A review of the book 'Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet Ram Rahim' in Sakal Times, Pune, 3 June 2018.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A quick comment on my experience of listening to audiobooks, and why I am not a fan, in the Reading Room section of today's Sakal Times.

Read the Full story here http://www.sakaltimes.com/art-culture/no-fuss-it-aesthetics-something-else-18717

Monday, May 14, 2018

A long interview with Sananta Tanty in Melange, the Sunday Magazine of The Sentinel, Guwahati, on 13 May 2018
Proud to be able to write a review of ‘The Collected Works of Homen Borgohain’, impeccably translated by Pradipta Borgohain. Not just the book represents the best of Assamese writing, the author’s work has also been influential to me during my formative years and it was an honour to be able to write the review.

Read it here.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The material is ripe with Hollywood potential. As I read the book, I could imagine a European film producer already working on the project, an Oscar-bait film a la Captain Phillips. The key ingredients are all there — an abducted Italian tourist (who also happens to be great family man), a misunderstood revolutionary (a role tailor-made for Irrfan Khan) and a heroic TV journalist (you could probably hire Rajkummar Rao) who braved the hostile Odisha jungles for the sake of the story and ended up rescuing the great Italian family man.

The book itself offers great clues for an engaging screenplay, where two narratives (or five) could be intercut — the Italian’s love for India and its tribal people; his abduction by a Maoist faction in the interiors of Kandhamal, the home of the Kondhs and the hotbed of Naxalite activities; the journalist’s race to get the story first; the reaction of the family in Italy; government manoeuvrings; the Italian’s experience with the armed militants; the journalist’s foolhardy adventure to meet the militant leader, and finally, a happy ending, back in Rome. As the screen fades to black, you could put up some texts with figures, about the Maoist movement in the heartlands of India, which no one will read.

What’s more, it is based on real events.

//

Wrote this review of Kishalay Bhattacharjee's new book, 'An Unfinished Revolution' for Sakal Times. Now I am not sure of the tone. It's a good book, but perhaps not quite satisfactory. Perhaps, I was expecting more.
Read the full review at Sakal Times.



Sunday, March 25, 2018

Getting on a cycle is a tremendous act of independence

Sometime you find a book because it’s a gimmick and then it surprises you with its content. Dominic Franks’s Nautanki Diaries (Rupa Publications) is such as book. The book recounts the journey the medical doctor turned sports journalists undertook from Bengaluru to New Delhi in 2010. Inspired by his mentor, nicknamed Shikaari, Franks trained for the ride, got a ‘doodhwallah’ bicycle and embarked on a 22-day ride. And Nautanki? She is the cycle, Dominic Franks explains to Dibyajyoti Sarma

Let’s talk about Nautanki, the cycle. Why the name?
I flirted with the idea of the cycle-ride for almost a year; I almost didn’t get off the ground. The idea of reaching Delhi was always something I never entertained in early training. Whatever physical activity I managed was either because of dancing or walking.

So to cycle 100 km everyday for 20 days was something that seemed impossible initially. When I first met H Shivaprakash (Shikaari) to chalk up a training regimen, I suggested maybe 70 km/day, just to be safe. He was of the opinion that ‘if something is too easy, what’s the fun in doing it. He also believed I only needed three weeks of training to be fit. I opted for five. So the first time I began to fantasise about Delhi while scaling the slopes of Savanadurga, I began to think it was a mad idea — me fit enough to boom for 2000 km in a time-bound manner. I was already diddling over El Loco Poco & Pariv Charaka – the idea of madness and everything it connotes appeals to me. Besides, I always wanted the name to be vaguely subversive or against the grain because everyone (except Shikaari) thought using Nautanki — a Hercules DTS — was a bad idea because of the weight and I think the novelty of it too.

But I loved the way you gave Nauranki character traits, a personality throughout the book…
Thanks. Every piece of sporting equipment I treasure has a name. It’s nice to believe that inanimate objects have souls. My motorcycle and car have names too – Black Betty/Kaari & Sevalai Maadu. But, Nautanki had to stand out because it was very important to emphasise her road-worthiness. I had never ridden a Nautanki until I bought her. None of my friends had either, and hence they always advised me that it wasn’t clever. So it was very natural for Nautanki to become larger than life and take on a personality of her own.

I imagine, the title stems for the idea that you wanted to write a funny book. The book is indeed funny, even flippant at times. With this material, you could do a traditional travelogue…
I didn’t start out to write a funny book, but I’m pleasantly surprised that people are finding humour in it. The title is self-explanatory in that Nautanki is the cycle and these in a sense are her/ our travels and the book is written in a diary form. But yes, I’m happy that people are finding Nautanki funny. There can never be too much laughter, can there?

I, did, however set out to write a book about cycling across the country. One of the reasons why I wanted to write a book was because when I was searching the internet, I never found someone who’d crisscrossed the land on a cycle like Nautanki. Most of the people I found were cycling aficionados, or cycling groups, or people with some form of specialised cycles. Another important idea was to travel as cheap as possible – to try not to sleep in hotels and lodges, sleep free would be putting it best, and I thought detailing my sleeping circumstances would be helpful too for anyone who might want to adventure forth.

If I read it correctly, you made a film on your cross-country bicycle journey, called ‘It’s Not About the Cycle’, which won an award in Toronto. Is the book a follow-up of the film or both are totally different?
I didn’t make the film unfortunately. When a friend/ ex-colleague heard that I was cycling from Bengaluru to New Delhi, he wanted to document it. The film won best adventure documentary in Toronto.

The book and the film happened simultaneously. I knew I wanted to write a cycling book because there are a lot of travel books on motorcycles, trains, chai, cars, cars modified for disabled people, but I hadn’t yet seen a travelogue based in India where the mode of transport is cycling. So I guess both me and Achyutanand (the director of It’s Not About The Cycle) knew that some artistic effort was going to come from the physicality of the trip.

The book is my perspective of the journey, and the film is a director’s perspective of the same journey. Since they both chronicle the same events, there is a fair degree of overlap, but a fair amount of dissimilarity too. For example, Shikaari isn’t mentioned in the film, nor is Timbaktu.

So you planned the book before starting on the journey?
I knew I was going to write a cycling book while training. It’s just the format that changed. Initially, the thought was to split the book into two – the first half would be stories from training, the second half I would reconstruct Shikaari’s journey.

But seeing how difficult that might be, I thought maybe the best thing to do would be to split versions of the two journeys and have them run in parallel and possibly see if we could trace how much the country had changed in 28 years. But once I got on the road, every sensation was no novel and acute I gave up the idea of reconstructing Shikaari’s journey because it would be futile to have so much conviction about one journey and have the rest in the realm of reconstructed reality.

I would make notes, scribble lines, jot down character sketches, themes, ideas to dilate upon when ever I felt like. Once every two or three nights I would make notes on the most striking thoughts of the days. But the beauty of being on a cycle is you spend so much time with yourself in your own head because it doesn’t demand the endless concentration that driving demands. This is of course when you are cycling at 20 km/hr which is what I must have been travelling at on an average. So you have a lot of time to roll things over in your head, embossing the memories forever is just as easy because there’s lot of time for reflection and crystallisation.

Your journey begins as a foolhardy adventure, and ends with an almost life-changing experience. Do you think this book will inspire more people to take up long distance cycling trips?
I certainly hope so. One of the basic premises to write this book was the hope that it may inspire a reader to do something similar – even if it’s a shorter than 500-km trip. The only reason I did it was because Shikaari told us the story of his journey and the idea fascinated me. If he hadn’t chosen to narrate the story, I would never have attempted it or this book. If Nautanki Diaries could inspire three people to undertake something similar – I’d say she’s done well for starters. I had a reader tell me the other day that she wants to start cycling after reading Nautanki – which is great. Anyone getting on a cycle is a tremendous act of independence.

What’s next? Did you embark on any more journeys following this? You are also making a movie on man-animal relationship…
Unfortunately, I haven’t gone on another 100-km ride, let alone a trip of any significance. But another reviewer has just mailed saying she did Manali to Leh/Ladakh on a desi cycle. It’s something I’ve always wanted to attempt (on any cycle). The fact that she’s already done it desi-style is good motivation. Now if only I can find a six-week window!

Nautanki being released in a book format though is the biggest motivation to restart cycling though. Can’t be the author of a long-distance cycle-ride and lug around a paunch which is what I’m doing right now.

Yes. Achyutanand and I are currently working on a feature length documentary that explores man’s relationship with animals against the backdrop of Jallikattu.

(First Published in Sakal Times, Pune.)

Thursday, March 22, 2018

An original poem in print after a long, long time. Both perlexed and thrilled. I, somehow, no longer believe in my own poetic possibility, but was mighty thrilled to be featured in International Gallerie, a magazine I have long admired. I mean, look at any issue of International Gallerie, it's an work of art; each issue a collector's item. Also, excited to see a translation of Sananta Tanty's poem in the same issue, entitled 'Resistence.' Thank you, Bina Sarkar Elias, for your kindness, generosity and encouragement.
More on the issue @ https://www.gallerie.net/issue-41-resist/

Monday, March 19, 2018

We are happy to announce that Sananta Tanty will be conferred with the Assam Valley Literary Award, along with Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi and Rita Chowdhury, on 24 March 2018. Instituted by the Williamson Magor Education Trust, this is one of the highest literary awards for the Assamese literature. The award ceremony will be held in Guwahati.
As we celebrate, our gratitude to Sananta Tanty for his unsurpassable contribution to Assamese poetry.
Red River (formerly i write imprint) was honoured to publish an English translation of Tanty’s poems, ‘Selected Poems Sananta Tanty’ in 2017, which was longlisted for the first Jayadev National Poetry Award 2017. You can get the book here. http://www.amazon.in/dp/8192935531

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Beyond good and evil on Colombo streets

Loyal Stalkers
Chhimi Tenduf-la
PAN
Pages 232
Price 499


This being a short story collection, I started with the last story, titled ‘Balls’, finished it in one sitting and was blown away. A ‘coming out’ story of a high school kid, Tenduf-la handles the narrative with such light touches and with such humour that it must be read to be believed. There are usual bigotry and homophobia, coupled with peer pressure and twitter-bullying. Yet, Tenduf-la’s young protagonist remains confident about his sexuality and of course, he is rewarded for his tenacity in one of the most heart-warming ending I have read in a long time. Tenduf-la’s take here is modern and pragmatic, as opposed to, say, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, a queer coming-of-age story steeped in trauma.

So I started reading Loyal Stalkers, a collection of 15 short stories by Sri Lanka-based author Chhimi Tenduf-la, with extra-excitement. Set in Colombo suburbs, the stories are loosely connected in the sense that the narrator of one story may appear as a minor character in another. This conceit itself is not new, but how Tenduf-la uses it to add depth of his characters is extraordinary.

Take, for example, the title story, where Chin-up Channa, a buff gym instructor with severe speech impediments as regards to opposite sex, falls in love with a young divorcee with a child. He talks to her in his imagination and come to accept all her reactions as consent to his overtures. Soon he invades her home, sleeping under her bed, taking care of her baby and cleaning up the leftover biryani. The story ends with a terrifying implication and a looming threat, and it is likely to gross out an average politically correct reader. However, Tenduf-la undercuts the morality of it by making Chin-up Channa a first-person narrator and as a result despite his unethical actions, we remain largely empathetic towards him. If this was not enough, the author gives us a back story for his protagonist in another story involving a religious leader cum local gangster.

I was looking for a series of idealised narratives on individual identity, but Tenduf-la gives me something more, a series of complex characters beyond the confines of good and evil, living their life the only way they can, not always happy but always without regret. And suddenly the oxymoronic title of the book begins to make sense. In Tenduf-la’s Colombo, two polar opposites can cohabit and make up a colourful narrative.

This tenuous thread that runs though all the 15 stories of the collection, some absolutely macabre, like the story of a 17-year-old mother and the story of a woman chased by man with devil mask tattoo after a one night stand and some absolutely heartbreaking, like the story titled ‘Loveable Idiot.’

If you thought this wide variety would make the book tonally inconsistent, Tenduf-la makes up for it with his informal, chatty and often brazen storytelling, which is at once real and funny. He is not afraid to peer into the darkest of human experiences and always returns with a witty quip. This clear-eyed look at the complexity of human experience makes Chhimi Tenduf-la’s Loyal Stalkers a book to be read and remembered.

(First Published in Sakal Times, Pune)