Monday, 13 July 2020

B is for Books

The Indians are bibliophiles: they love books as only a developing nation hungry for knowledge and the power that comes with it can be.  For example, in Delhi, up by Connaught Place on the corner of Janpath, there are a number of second-hand booksellers' stalls.  Books range from dog-eared Frederick Forsyths of great vintage and many airport lounges, to the most recent releases from Penguin.  People pore over them all.  Nothing, it seems, is too old, trivial or obscure.

More impressive still are the main bookshops on Connaught's inner circle.  One is devoted entirely to computer books.  Another has a selection of British publications which would do credit to a U.K. bookseller.  It also carries a series of Indian works, printed on the characteristically poor quality paper, with worn, uneven typefaces.  Favourite subjects are religion - there are so many variants to choose from - related subjects like astrology and palmistry, and general self-improvement.

As far as Indians are concerned, most books fall into this category.  Whether or not it is some directly applicable subject like accountancy or agronomy, any book becomes an aid to self-help when written in English - by definition, the language of betterment.

The same is true of magazines.  Many of them are news weeklies, and offer a chance to gain some perspective on a huge and disparate continent.  They also carry articles tailored precisely to the hopes and fears of new rising classes which read them.  Just as in any Western yuppie magazine, the Indian equivalents are full of tips on how to succeed, how to shine, how to avoid the social faux pas.  Complementing the articles, the advertisements portray a world of luxurious homes and cars, shining domestic appliances, soignée wives in elegant designer-label saris, and plump smiling children.

In contrast, the core function of the national newspapers remains that of providing news.  Indian newspapers are more rigorous in this respect than their western counterparts, most of which have become little more than daily magazines, offering entertainment as much as information.  This high-mindedness, together with the formal tone of English language newspapers in India, betrays their roots in the similarly stern editorial approach of British publications fifty years ago.  Like them, they succeed in conveying an underlying sense of order in the events which they report, even if the world they reflect is violent and threatening.  Indian newspapers have yet to lose their innocence and integrity to a more sensationalist and low-brow vision of life.

As a populist medium, television has a more ambivalent attitude, reflected in the way it uses English alongside the myriad Indian tongues.  Hindi predominates for drama and entertainment, with the odd few minutes' airing in a song for languages like Urdu, Bengali and Tamil; but as soon as the tone becomes serious - a discussion or documentary - or the news begins, everything switches to English.  It is as if important matters require the old imperial tongue, with all its connotations of power and authority.

A Partial India: A to Z

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