Tag Archives: Siddhartha Deb

Flaps over jackets

What’s behind the various covers of Indian books? ♦

beautyfullOn the US edition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a girl squats in a swamp, surrounded by a slum. Her face, tilted towards a pale, yellow sky, could reflect grief or devotion. The UK and India edition’s cover is the polar opposite – saturated with shades of cerulean, yellow, and pink, its subject is the figure of a boy in motion, running up a flight of stairs: a symbolically hopeful image that recalls the kitsch aesthetic of Slumdog Millionaire.

Are American readers so wracked by guilty privilege that they’re more likely to pay money for an image of abject poverty? Do Indian readers respond better to stylized, uplifting images of the poor than confront them as stark, hopeless reality? In their role as packaging, book covers are beholden to market tastes, which vary from place to place. It’s often tempting to spin sociological theories from the differences between them around the world. But drawing conclusions about cultural differences based on cover designs is a complicated exercise.

A complaint we’ve heard often among editors, designers, authors and intellectuals in the Indian publishing scene is that books by Indians or about India often get the exotic treatment by cover designers abroad. Freelance book cover designer Pinaki De said he thinks the typical Western design reflects a “pigeonholing, [a] very claustrophobic idea of India”. HarperCollins India’s publisher VK Karthika listed “mehndi, the Taj Mahal, bindis, even a sort of Sanskritised looking font” as the recurring stereotypical motifs she sees cross her desk from abroad.

Some authors actively try to ensure that their books avoid orientalist treatment. Sonia Faleiro recalled her ground rules about the international covers of Beautiful Thing: “Firstly, no stereotypes. So, no henna, no precious fonts. Second, if you put a woman on the cover she must have brown skin.” With a dozen editions in print or in the pipeline, there are almost as many covers of Beautiful Thing – variations on a portrait, a crop of a woman’s torso, and even a painting.

The book cover of Open magazine editor Manu Joseph’s Serious Men has as many variations. Joseph, who aired a similar opinion about the American edition’s Shiva cover in the Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time blog last year, was quick to qualify the thought when we spoke to him. “India is a selling point,” he said, with “a set of visual images which work – it could be a sari, it could be a bindi, it could be any of the gods. The Italian cover of Serious Men has Akbar holding a broken rose.” These stock stereotypes exist for a reason, Joseph said, “as long as people are thinking so deeply about your book, or how to sell your book, I think as an author you feel a bit secure.”

Typically, authors do tend to come around to a cover, especially if it enjoys commercial success. Siddhartha Deb, whose The Beautiful and the Damned ran with a techie pastiche in its American hardcover edition, said, “I initially really disliked the pink cover for the UK paperback/India edition and gave a very grudging yes to it, but people do love it… I’ve grown pretty fond of it myself.”

Traditionally, the use of different covers in different markets stems from a split in US and UK cover design (conventionally perceived as a divide between commercial American covers and artistic British ones). In both these big markets, publishers’ representatives take books to major sellers, who can veto covers if they believe they won’t catch on. Here, as Karthika explained, “we present [the book] as a finished product to the trade.” Of course, every country has its own self-exoticising tendencies as well, and a need to differentiate each product. “There may be a Mughal romance,” Karthika said, by way of example, “you want it to look like a Mughal romance, and play the stereotype up, but you also want the book to look different from any other romance out there.”

However, as the internet plays a bigger role in how books are sold, there’s a new tension between the old wisdom of tailoring covers to particular audiences, and standardising them. There’s a move towards using very slight or no variations. “Because of Google and the way searches work, you really want one look for the book,” Karthika said.

Joseph agreed, “It would be nice if there were only one cover. You want a single visual branding where a person looks at a cover and knows that this is that book, without having to read the text.” He added that “for most publishers, Amazon is the biggest client now, so they are looking at covers which would stand out as… a very small thumbnail on your screen.”

Several people pointed to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger as an iconic example of a typographical cover that was used successfully internationally. As the Indian market grows, and eventually surpasses, foreign markets in size, we’ll likely see more Indian edition covers being picked up abroad. Pinaki De, who has had his designs used internationally, thinks this is already happening. “Increasingly, covers from India are being taken internationally, so that’s good news,” he said. Perhaps Indian designers have their own clichés about the West, he said. “But I personally feel a lot of designers in India are actually doing a lot better than foreign designers.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, June 2012.

Published: June 4, 2012

Damn nation

 Siddartha Deb finds life less than shiny in the new India ♦

the-beautiful-and-the-damnedIn The Beautiful and Damned, F Scott Fitzgerald’s profligate main characters embody the two adjectives in the title. The novel – an attempt to critique the excesses of America’s jazz age – ended up as a rather self-indulgent byproduct of it instead. Fitzgerald’s narrative only superficially encounters the oppressed classes, on whose labour the froth of that era floated.

Siddhartha Deb added an article to that title for his first non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, and the alteration is significant. Here, the adjectives describe two discrete groups: the beautiful who, like Fitzgerald’s characters, are the face of India’s wealth; and the damned – those pinned to the peripheries of modernity by corrupt systems and the spread of capitalism.

The Beautiful… is a smooth, under-300 page read, dressed in a tastefully kitsch cover, and well-suited as a catalyst for conversation. Through a reflective introduction and five chapters, each profiling a different individual or group who represents a larger swathe of society, Deb concludes that a culture-wide acceptance of aspiration sustains the lopsided economy that separates the beautiful from the damned.

Deb opens with the story of Arindam Chaudhuri, the private management school mogul. A version of this chapter appeared in the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine, which, along with the author, Penguin India and Google India, was sued for defamation by Chaudhuri’s institution. That chapter, conspicuously absent from the Indian edition, is still being circulated on the Internet, where it has spawned a lively debate. “I like to think it’s become a bit of a multimedia project, Deb told Time Out. “The missing chapter is [the plaintiffs’] contribution. It’s a collaborative exercise.” While he felt that the Indian edition was “kind of an amputed version,” he’s Deb is glad that “in a way, it’s part of the debate that’s opening up”.

Deb had less provocative intentions when he took on the book. It began as a “wildly overambitious” way to secure a publishing advance, to cope with the financial demands of being a new father. Through five years of research, writing, and winnowing down, he settled on “five kinds of characters, who provided sufficient contrast to brush against each other.” Besides Chaudhuri, Deb explores engineers and identity crisis in IT-fuelled Bangalore in “Ghosts in the Machine”. He reports from the “navel” of India, writing in deft, evocative prose of the dusty farmlands of Telengana in “Red Sorghum”, and of steel factories stoked by the human fuel of migrant labour in “The Factory”. Finally, “The Girl from F&B”, follows a Manipuri waitress in an upscale Delhi restaurant.

As reportage, the chapters from the geographic heart of India are the strongest. Deb said he wanted to go beyond narrative journalism, to add “the layer of a novel”. Each chapter is prefaced by a series of outlining phrases, which bring to mind old-fashioned travelogues, or a novel published in installments. While writing, Deb watched The Wire – “a modern version of a nineteenth-century Dickensian serialised novel”. Other inspirations included George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s book includes the expenditure lists of unemployed miners, and Deb “was stunned by the fact that he could make weekly accounts so interesting”.

Apart from his engagement with similar accounting (digestible statistics punctuate and anchor the text), what makes Deb’s book so likeable is the narrator’s unhidden presence. The Beautiful… is a trustworthy account of a series of conversations with characters, each sketched with a novelist’s attachment (“I don’t think there’s a character I dislike”). Deb, who has published two novels, lays bare his alienation from events, and admits to sometimes viewing harsh reality in fictional terms. During his travels, he sees a limbless man approach an official to complain about government-issued footwear for lepers: “It was an absurd yet poignant detail, making Nizamabad… feel suddenly like a magical-realist setting, a feeling that was enhanced as we… saw nearly 100 children appear from nowhere… in the courtyard and shouting slogans.”

Though Deb doesn’t feel disconnected from India (he retains citizenship), as a US resident he is able to detach from this “vast, fascinating and grotesquely unequal country”. Appropriately, a main reason for staying abroad – his young son – ties him to his characters in the most fundamental way. For despite their wrenching poverty or blinding wealth, the common denominator among new Indians is still an old truth: the people around you, especially family, always take precedence over idealism or the common good. The Beautiful… isn’t an attempt to reverse this psychology – it’s a firm reminder that the personal and the universal go hand in hand. “I want people to know that we’ve been in a fever dream about becoming a superpower,” he said. “And if we don’t treat each other well, it won’t last.

The Beautiful and the Damned, Penguin, ₹499.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, August 2011.

Published: August 4, 2011