Delhi’s publishers organize more launches in a week than most Russian cosmodromes manage over their entire operational lives. Hotels, restaurants, the Alliance Française, the British Council, bookshops, colleges, ‘centres’ (the IIC, the IHC) host literary debuts and triumphs every day. The interesting thing about this crowded literary calendar is how recently it came into being. Twenty years ago, the book launch was unknown in Delhi. My impression is that with the exception of Salman Rushdie’s early novels, the first book that was given a proper send-off was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, sometime in 1993. I can’t remember earlier novels like English, August, or The Shadow Lines or The Golden Gate being formally flagged off. They made a stir but they weren’t given coming out parties.
I think launches can be wonderful occasions because they celebrate books and writers, and the promise of cocktails afterwards nearly succeeds in making the mid-list novel glamourous. But it’s also true that having made the book launch a durable part of Delhi life, publishers now complain of the expense and futility of the exercise. This is in part because they feel besieged: where once they could choose the book they wanted to promote, they’re now pressed by all their authors. Writers have come to see the book launch as a kind of birth ritual. In a world of launches, the unlaunched book begins to feel orphaned and unwanted.
But it’s the settled ritual of the book launch as it has evolved in Delhi that is interesting. The totemic power of the printed word in India is immediately apparent in the size and fit-and-finish of the enormous sign or banner that forms the backdrop to the event. This announces the title of the book, the name of the author and the identity of the publisher.
These signs are always beautifully produced and perfectly displayed. They are also very expensive and can’t really be used again. But while your publisher might balk at the expense of a cocktail reception afterwards, no one stints on the banners and no author ever objects to performing in front of something that is, in effect, a large indoor billboard or hoarding. I don’t think the purpose of the sign is to supply necessary information to the people at the event. It isn’t there to tell the Shobhaa Dé fan that he has wandered into an event centred on Ashis Nandy. It is there to testify to the book’s being, it is a formal assertion of existence.
In the infancy of the book launch, you had an editor introducing the author, the author reading from his book and a Q&A afterwards. Over time, though, this naïve template was elaborated. The idea that the most important person in the room, the writer, was actually addressing potential readers directly began to seem crass and undignified, resembling as it did the peddling of a product. A way had to be found to merge the role of author with the more significant role of chief guest.
One small way of doing this was to get someone other than the author to ‘release’ the gift-wrapped book and hold it up for the photographers. This had the effect of turning the launch into an inauguration, an udghatan, which is altogether more elevated and respectable than a marketing event. But the real breakthrough in dignifying the author occurred when publishers decided to replace the reading with a ‘conversation’. So the lectern was replaced by two easy chairs and a coffee-table and a person who hadn’t written the book took charge of the event. He (or she) took on the responsibility of introducing the book to the audience by asking its author a series of leading questions. In this tableau, the author was no longer putting himself forward; he was being drawn out by someone else.
This reassignment of active agency is sometimes taken to remarkable lengths. There was a launch where the author of a first-rate travel book was in conversation with one of Delhi’s many polymaths. This person — critic, artist, activist, curator, impresario — asked questions so comprehensive that they came complete with answers. This left the author in a state of mute dignity. It wasn’t clear that she enjoyed this condition (being foreign she wasn’t used to the protocols of the desi launch) but so powerful was the convention of the ‘conversation’ that she didn’t have a choice. Even the readings from her book were performed by her interlocutor. “In that context,” he would say, “I want to read this wonderful passage in your book,” and for the next five minutes the writer would have to listen to a book that she had written.
But while the ‘conversation’ still occasionally features at book launches, it has been superseded by the panel discussion. The panel discussion takes the dignity of the author to properly third-world heights: three or four people who haven’t written the book talk about it with no assistance from the author at all. The author reverts to his proper role as creator, while other people discuss the world that he has brought into being.
The panel discussion has many virtues. It’s a way of freighting the event with distinction: in a city like Delhi you can, if you are lucky or well-connected, have a fashion designer, a serving secretary in the government of India, a television anchor and the moving spirit behind some luminously committed NGO on the same stage at the same time. Since they’re all important enough to have their own constituencies and followings, the chances are that the venue will be filled with people and TV cameras.
The drawback, if there is one, of the panel discussion is that it’s hard to predict how long it’ll go on. A foreign correspondent for an English paper published his take on India. He spoke off-the-cuff for half-an-hour about the book in a lively and attractive way. Nearly everyone in that room would have bought the book if the launch had ended there, but the talk turned out to be merely the appetizer for the main course. The main course was a panel discussion that featured four ‘senior’ journalists and editors. A senior journalist in Delhi, is, by definition, someone who is unconcerned about the patience of unimportant people and people in an audience for a book launch are, again, by definition, unimportant because if they weren’t, they would be on the panel. So these four men talked amongst themselves for another two hours and by the time they finished, no one wanted to buy the book, but the panel had achieved its purpose: it had buoyed the book launch with prestige.
The literary panel discussion in Delhi is derived from two models: the academic seminar and the TV news panel. Delhi is crowded with universities and 24/7 news channels. Its literate, educated citizens are used to people of distinction holding forth serially. So regardless of how tedious the cumulative effect of three or four blowhards in one session is, the audience doesn’t really mind because it isn’t there to listen to the author; the people are there because they want to be irradiated by importance and the best way of meeting that need is to invite a panel of people who are, individually and collectively, radioactive with self-esteem. Also, the tedium doesn’t really matter because beyond the horizon of the panel discussion, cocktails gleam.