Nonsense is the new normal: You become what you read

The secret of my offline life is that, in secret (known although to a few), an offer for “let’s get a selfie”, lifts me up. It makes me smile and I enjoy it. Not to be able to share on any networks, but for the one glimpse afterwards into the camera. I do not judge the phenomena. Yet, a few days back, I saw, Amar Ujala- a Hindi national daily’s website advertising the winners of a “selfy” competition. In all honesty it broke my heart. I was wondering the truth behind: you become what you read.

Working in a bilingual environment – I see that while English rules over the Internet (being my choice medium as well), yet, integration and culture are deeply connected by the medium of language. I can not explain the details that fall through when my mother and I talk in English. Even if we speak in English, our pauses and sighs come from someplace else. I am a strong believer of finding common languages and also not depending on languages to communicate. Yet, my heart breaks when we raise kids ignorant of the stories and classics that come through the vernacular. We would fail at raising Riyu well, if he did not know that Vishal’s interpretations of Shakespeare were just as exciting as Luhrmann’s. And more than that, Ghalibs existed, like Shakespeares.

you become what you read Indian classic books in vernacular languages

Syamant shared this interesting gem of issues with Hindi (and vernacular in general I guess). I continued with how Amar Ujala’s nonsense was just another level. He said, nonsense is the new normal. Luckily, going through ever increasing photographs of cats that lace the Internet alongside noise of all other kinds, there are also beautiful opportunities. There are passionate people with an idea, plenty stories and cups of chai (I just do not see the coolness in chai tea). The Pratilipi founder – Ranjeet Pratap Singh, found me on Twitter. I found them right back.

Pratilipi is a Sanskrit/Hindi word which means copy. We strongly believe that every time we read a book, a part of the book comes inside of us and we become a part of the book (you become what you read). As George R.R Martin said: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one”. This is what Pratilipi means and stands for, to live more, and more meaningful lives.

I asked them a few questions on what it could mean for a story lover in me, especially in love with discovering art forms that seem to disappear with our obsession with just one language.

1) How did the concept of Pratilipi come about? 

I am a voracious reader, someone who is always on the lookout for reading great stories. While I’ve read and enjoyed Mario Puzo and Kafka, I’ve found Premchand and Nirala to be equally captivating. When I try to find my next read Shelfari, Goodreads and even Amazon/Flipkart help me find the next generation of Mario Puzo and Kafka, but finding the next generation of Premchand and Nirala has been elusive.

While this is a hindrance and a downer for me, since I can still read good English literature I can at-least read something, but for around 700 million people in the country who can only read in their native/vernacular language this problem makes it nearly impossible for them to read any quality content.

This got me thinking and I decided to meet some Indian authors to understand why there seems to be a vacuum in Indian literature. I personally met and talked to around 300 Indian authors and found that the truth was both surprising and heart-breaking.

Most of Indian authors, even the ones who have won Sahitya Academy/Jnanpith Award (two of India’s highest literary honours) find it hard to get their books published. In more than 90% of the cases an author has to pay money just to get published. Now, if a publisher is making money from the author, he has no incentive to try and sell the books at all. Even in the remaining 10% of the cases an author makes just 5-15% of royalty. Most publishers are happy to serve the easy market in the metros and tier 1 cities and do not even try to reach the hinterlands.

So, we have writers who write for the sheer joy of writing; who instead of making any reasonable money actually spend from their own pockets just to be read, and we have readers who are hungry to read their books but have no access to them.

This amazed me and hence I started finding out people who were similarly frustrated with the current situation and not surprisingly met many a people who were equally anxious to try and solve this problem. We came up together to create with the aim to provide readers with a plethora of quality content in their preferred languages and to provide an easy to use self-publishing and distribution platform for Indian authors.

pratilipi you are what you read

 2) As a reader and story collector, what can I expect from Pratilipi?

You can expect a lot of outstandingly good stories, poems and books written by various Indian authors in various languages including Hindi, English, Gujarati, Tamil etc. We are primarily focused on helping people read good literature, so you will find a lot of content on our platform is free to read as well as share.

3) How is Pratilipi different from Shelfari, Goodreads & other such existing services?

I am a fan of both Goodreads and Shelfari, but while they both do a more than wonderful job for the English literature and international authors they aren’t much helpful in finding out our next read in Indian languages.

Moreover with our focus on providing a platform to read as well as write stories, poems and books, I think our business model is closer to that of Smashwords or Wattpad than that of Goodreads/Shelfari.

4) Why do you think Pratilipi will find a community?

I come from a small village in Rae Bareli district of U.P. In my family almost everyone loves reading but no-one except me reads English. I know that they would absolutely love to read Hindi stories and poems. My other team-mates are from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bihar and they all have friends and family members who are eager to read in their native languages.

We have conducted a poetry event (Kavi Sammelan) and seen people rush to get the limited books available. We have talked to around 200 people in person (some friends and some random people) and over a half of them are eager to read in their native language provided they get good content at an affordable price. We have also seen some fantastic communities (often over 100,000+ members strong) built around niche blogs or aggregators in different regional languages.

So to answer your question, we do not ‘think’ we will find a community, nor are we trying to create a community. We are just trying to connect the community that already exists.

I read this many times over and realized this is why I feel excited about the Internet. As a person struggling with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake phenomena, or at least fearing it, while also being in love with books and stories across Indian languages, this just sounded so beautiful that I was forced to share it. Also- we are coming to close to 3 diverse Indian languages in the family, so the reference only to Hindi authors and film makers was purely because that’s what I read/ saw a lot more of in recent times.

I feel like attacking Flipkart and getting all these fantastic books, I’ve been wanting to get for a while…these topics somehow get me emotional in a foreign land…I can perhaps stop being unkind to all these non tax paying Indians who want to keep commenting on India. I am almost becoming one myself, writing post-its in Devanagari so that I do not forget my handwriting, missing the diversity of the land that captures my heart like no other…

  1. This sounds too exciting! as a book lover who tries to read as much of marathi/hindi as english I am looking forward 🙂
    P.S. Think you are homesick. come back 🙂

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