The Indian Book Ceremony for the WSJ

OPINION INDIA APRIL 8, 2010, 10:59 A.M. ET

How cultures differ in their approach to the literary limelight.

Attending a book reading in Bangalore recently, I was struck by how different such events are in India from those in America, and how the contrasting styles epitomize the two cultures. In the United States, the publisher manages the event to celebrate the author and then sell as many books as possible. By contrast, for “the argumentative Indian” it’s all about a well-spent evening of discussions and disagreements, regardless of how few copies were sold at the end of it.

Indian book readings are “launches,” usually performed by a pair of luminaries who ceremoniously tear open the gift wrapping around a new book and hold it aloft for clicking cameras. Then three to four guests (it helps if they are famous) hold a panel discussion about the work. The book-signing seems almost tacked on, as if selling the book was almost shameful.

Visitors browse through books at the Pakistan stall at the World Book Fair 2010 in New Delhi .

In the U.S., everybody accepts that there’s a mini cult of personality around the writer. Here is how the Barnes & Noble store in Princeton announced a recent book reading: “Renowned author and Newberry medalist Kate DiCamillo reads and discusses her latest book, ‘The Magician’s Elephant.'”

In Bangalore last month I went along for the launch of “Notes from an Indian Conservative” by Jaithirth “Jerry” Rao, an entrepreneur and columnist for the Indian Express newspaper. First the Crossword Bookstore representative thanked the audience for their presence, and a Penguin India publicist introduced the panelists. An Indian Express editor talked about the newspaper’s role in nurturing Mr. Rao’s columns into a book, and each of the three panelists spoke about their take on the essays. Finally Mr. Rao read out a few passages, followed by more panel discussion and a Q&A session with the audience. When it came time for book signing, much of the audience had already left.

We Indians are a ceremony-driven people. Book readings are not merely announced in the local paper but through personal invitations sent to friends and relatives. Sometimes the bookstore sends these invitations to everyone on their mailing list; other times the publisher does this. Likewise, politicians are welcomed to conventions not merely with a handshake and introduction but with garlands and bouquets—like the garland of 1,000 rupee notes that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati recently received.

Conferences—even legal and medical ones—begin with the lighting of an oil lamp, a Hindu ritual that is done at the start of a prayer. The judge lights the oil lamp and then the lawyers hammer out intellectual property rights and other laws. Stores open with a traditional ribbon-cutting, followed by the lamp-lighting.

Inviting a panel of speakers to a book launch also reflects what I call pehle aap, which is Hindi for “after you.” In India, unlike in the West, pehle aap is not just about form and politeness; rather it is used selectively and judiciously. Just as a New Yorker will rarely give up a taxi to a stranger, no matter how polite he is, Indians don’t bestow pehle aap on just anyone. It is a sentiment reserved for family and friends, whose good opinion one seeks.

The same Indian who rudely cuts ahead of a queue of strangers will refuse to help himself to the buffet until his elderly uncle has eaten. All suggestions to “go ahead and eat” will be met with pehle aap. The same applies to authors who are loathe to be the only ones talking about their book. Instead they follow the literary version of “pehle aap,” where they get a panel of guests to go first. To the Indian, talking about one’s own book or accomplishments is intrinsically boastful.

Like all cultures, India too has its paradoxes. We are both garrulous and reticent; pragmatic and romantic; rude and courteous. We want our women to fit certain romantic stereotypes no matter how claustrophobic these stereotypes are for the women in question. We want our authors to be high-minded and pure, unfettered by commercial considerations. We are fatalistic—we don’t believe that hustling will sell books, so we might as well talk about them instead. And unlike the West, we are comfortable with unscripted chaos. This, in the end, might be the most important difference between India and the West with respect to book events.

To a Western publicist, panel discussions are a minefield. They can go off-message, ramble all over the place so that the audience gets bored, take the spotlight away from the author, and in the worst case scenario, criticize the author and book. But these are chances that Indian publishers and authors readily take. The panel discussions do ramble away from the book in question; some panelists do steal the author’s thunder and elicit questions from the audience that have little to do with the book.

But Indian authors want a panel anyway. We are comfortable in crowds; we need people around us, even on a dais. We are used to loud and vocal disagreements, having heard it all the time in family quarrels. Hollywood stars and American politicians revel in the spotlight. In India, it is the opposite: Being surrounded by people is the true show of strength.

Ms. Narayan is a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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