Last year, the literary roster of various publication houses included biographies of political leaders as well as books on Indian history. In an article titled, What you read in 2019: Political biographies, books on climate change, mental health and #Metoo — intended to explore these trends — various editors had spoken to indianexpress.com about the same. Manu S Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, Vikram Sampath’s Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past among others were published and widely read. “People want to read about history and not just colonial history,” Sayantan Ghosh, senior commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster, India had stated.
A year since then, the trend continues with more book titles and voices being added to the list. Editors from three different publication houses talk about this as well as share the parameters they keep in account while approving of such a project.
Juggernaut has an incredibly successful history and politics list. Our authors include Tony Joseph, Manu Pillai, William Dalrymple, Sagarika Ghose and Vasanthi among others and we believe that there is a massive interest in well-researched and well-told stories of the past. The key is that books should be properly researched, yet not academic – so a book for a lay reader, that is written well.
–Chiki Sarkar, co-founder
Books aren’t just competing with other books for mind space and attention and time. They are competing with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Instagram and TikTok, and the latest blockbuster movie. So the main criteria to green light a book is that it should both be hugely entertaining and hugely edifying. It should combine the deepest, most rigorous possible research with the highest standards of storytelling. Too often in India we see one without the other. But a truly great book combines both. Our greatest commercial and critical hits are proof of this: Indira by Sagarika Ghose, early Indians by Tony Joseph, rebel sultans by Manu S Pillai, Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, Savarkar by Vaibhav Purandare.
I guess the way in which politics is unfolding, there is a lot of focus on Indian history, proximate and far back. For instance, Savarkar became a mainstream issue that many people were thinking about and that’s why we decided to commission a book around Savarkar. The issue of the Aryan migration into India is another area of heated political debate and that ties into Tony Joseph’s Early Indians. Given that there is so much being said about India is glorious ancient past, I think in the times to come we will see a lot more books on ancient India.
There is also a new fascination with all things military. And that’s why we decided to commission Watershed 1967, a book on the India China battles of 1967 that have been largely forgotten.
–Parth Mehrotra, non-fiction editor
Simon and Schuster, India
“Numerous popular books have been written on our country’s freedom struggle and that period in general, all notable and worthy of attention. For instance, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire published by Simon & Schuster continues to be a bestseller even after more than a decade has passed since it was originally published. Currently, we are trying to build a series of titles which celebrates some unsung heroes of pre- and post-Partition India.
We have already published Intertwined Lives: P N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi by Jairam Ramesh which is the first definitive biography of India’s most influential civil servant, P N Haksar, and V P Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India by Narayani Basu which brings into focus the life of a bureaucrat who was unarguably one of the chief architects of the modern Indian state. Both books have been very well-received. Next in this series is a book on the life and works of Syud Hossain, an eminent scholar and writer, and India’s first-ever ambassador to Egypt, who participated in the freedom movement alongside Gandhi, Patel, and Nehru. We are hoping that these previously untold stories inspire and engage readers in equal measure, and help them understand the sharp difference between true patriotism and jingoism better.
–Sayantan Ghosh, senior commissioning editor
Penguin Random House, India
It seems quite natural that in epochal moments one looks towards the past to gather a sense of the future, and much of the renewed interest we see in works of history is, I think, to do with that. We live in strange times, and we can’t help mining history for little moments of clarity – I know I do.
Another factor that influences this, I suspect, is access. With historical archives, both state and private collections, which are literal time capsules of national legacy, increasingly opening up and getting digitised, young scholars have extraordinary access to primary source material. As documents get declassified, more information becomes available as well. In addition, I have been an admirer of online archives like the Indian Memory Project, which prizes human memory as part of history. Projects like the Murty Classical Library too unveil treasures – for example, the volumes of Abu’l-Fazl’s biography of Akbar.
At Penguin Press, I’ve been amazed by the response to books like Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India by Arun Mohan Sukumar and The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India, both debuts by young writers that offer the long view of subjects that tend to be touchstones of conversation today.
What also perhaps contributes to the increasing interest in popular history is that the genre combines the intellectual and academic rigour of scholarship with the pace, brevity and narrative style of popular nonfiction. I know I for one, as a reader, absolutely loved this aspect of the books of Ira Mukhoty and Manu Pillai, two writers I hugely admire and learn much from.
–Manasi Subramaniam, Executive Editor and Head of Literary Rights
(As told to Ishita Sengupta)
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