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Literary Review

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Give stories a chance


A lot of stories never get written because the authors see no future in it. Can the situation be changed?

Countless Indians lock away their creative talent somewhere inside them because they don't see a future as writers.

After focusing on the pitfalls of publishing last month, I was planning to turn my attention to the technical side of writing. However, something occurred over the course of the month that forced me to rethink.

In the second week of May, I received an email from an old friend with whom I had lost touch since our school days. Now a sociologist in Canada, she had stumbled upon one of my stories, “Another's Wealth”, on the Internet while conducting research on women's issues in India. The story moved her enough to seek me out after 20 years and tell me how much she enjoyed it. As a writer I was gratified. But the episode set me thinking about other issues as well.

“Another's Wealth” was published in The Hindu on August 27, 2006. It is an episodic story dealing with the issue of female foeticide in India. It instantly resonated with a lot of people. In the week after it was published, The Hindu was forwarding emails to me from translators eager to reproduce it in other Indian languages. A number of readers also wrote letters to the editor. While I had expected the story to be well-received — it dealt with such a topical issue — even I was taken aback by the response.

Bleak prospects

The truth, however, is that if I had not had a relationship with The Hindu I wouldn't have written that story. Why? Because, chances were, it would never have been published. It certainly wouldn't have resonated in the West, where they have had gender equality for more than 30 years and can't relate to the fact that someone would want to abort a foetus because it is female. It is an Indian story that speaks best to an Indian audience who can instantly attach to the central issue. But where in India are the outlets for short stories? The publishers won't put out short story collections. Creative writing is not taught as an academic subject; hence there is a paucity of venerable journals publishing short fiction or poetry in literature departments. And there aren't any notable competitions for unpublished stories.

Luckily, “Another's Wealth” did not suffer the ignominy of dying in its writer's head. But there are so many Indian stories that do not get told because their writers don't see a future for them. By the same token, countless Indians lock away their creative talent somewhere inside them because they don't see a future as writers.

I am sure you know this already. So rather than dwell on it, let me attempt to make a start towards reversing it. We don't have a New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly in India. But we have three weekly newsmagazines with the kind of circulation figures that would make their Western counterparts drool. I am talking about India Today, Outlook and The Week. They publish about two pages of book reviews every week. In one issue each month they could devote those two pages to a short story and, in a text box to one side, a short poem. Their readers won't be averse to reading a story and/or a poem once a month and it might even do for literature in India what twenty20 cricket has done for cricket. Get readers who normally do not read it interested in it. Out of the 12 stories and poems published in a year, three can be by unpublished authors. To choose these authors they can hold a competition once a year and make it pay for itself by charging a nominal entry fee. Some of the proceeds can go towards paying a fiction writer and a poet to judge the competition. The rest can be set aside to award a small cash prize to the winners, with the real prize being the satisfaction of seeing their work in a nationally circulated magazine where it could catch the attention of publishing houses.

Make an exception

Now, I understand that, normally, newsmagazines do not publish fiction and poetry. But there is no harm in throwing the rule book aside for the cause of literature. After all, when the editors of these magazines were kids, stories and poems would have sparked their love of reading, not the corrupt politicians straddling the front pages of newspapers. And just think of the interest the competition would spark among the unpublished writers out there, especially the ones juggling a fulltime job. It is hard to dedicate yourself to a long novel if you are a nine-to-five working stiff. But anyone can take the time out to produce a short story or a poem in the hope it might be read by millions.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said, ‘Talent is useless without opportunity.' Something like this could breathe life into thousands of moribund dreams.

Hopefully, someone is listening.

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