The Indian English media’s relationship with the literary world is, at best, a tempestuous one. The country’s biggest newspaper, The Times of India, does not, as a matter of policy, carry reviews of books by Indians although Salman Rushdie‘s latest squeeze or V.S. Naipual‘s visits to prostitutes will get acres of coverage.
The English magazines at least have designated books’ editors but the range of books reviewed is limited. On television, the country’s most respected English language network, NDTV, has a dedicated weekly programme called Just Books (Saturdays, 12.30 pm) hosted by Sunil Sethi, formerly of India Today and Sunday Mail.
On top of that, there are all the usual questions: Do enough readers read books to merit dedicated coverage? Do book review-reading readers buy books? Should the media be bothered about who buys the books? Should books in the Indian languages get coverage in the English media? Who decides what books to review, what author to feature? Can an author demand coverage as a matter of right? Etcetera.
Enter, Amaresh Misra (in picture), film critic turned columnist turned war analyst.
Author of Mangal Pandey: The true story of an Indian revolutionary (Rupa) and the biography Lucknow: Fire of grace (HarperCollins), the Allahabad-born Misra wrote his magnum opus War of Civilizations: India, South Asia, Europe and the World, to mark the sesquicentenary year of the Indian war of independence last year.
But, Misra claims that NDTV’s Sethi refused to feature the book or the author on his programme. Worse, Misra alleges that Sethi made “racist remarks” over the phone. That exchange has led to a fullblown war of words between the author and the channel.
Misra has dashed off an angry, invective-laden letter to the channel’s compliance officer, Rajiv Mathur, alleging, among other things, an “anti-India attitude” and a bias against “secular authors from the Hindi-Urdu belt”.
Dear Mr Rajiv Mathur,
At the outset let me explain some things to you. I have not written War of Civilisations “allegedly”; it has been published by Rupa in January 2008. It has been reviewed in The Hindu, The Indian Express, Financial Express, Hindustan Times, and other Hindi, Urdu, Marathi and Gujarati journals and magazines.
It seems you are too ignorant a person, you do not read newspapers, and you do not care to check facts. You look down upon Hindi, the regional language and the Urdu press. Obviously, Sunil Sethi has fooled you.
You lie when you say “we neither appreciate nor entertain any requests, influence” in Just Books or any other program. You do not give enough space to secular views especially if they come from the Hindi-Urdu belt. In 2004, your channel too succumbed to portraying that BJP is going to win. All you English speaking ignorant people got that one wrong.
You have a prejudice against the Hindi-Urdu belt and Muslims; because that is the land and those are the people who gave India freedom, something which you anti-national people do not like; the Hindi belt also, does not speak in your wimpish language.
I am writing a letter to all leading secular politicians from Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sonia Gandhi, to V.P. Singh, and Sitaram Yechury, and all other intellectuals who respect me as a writer.
This is now war.
I was in a mood to compromise but you guys are too smug. It would be interesting to see how even the BJP will react to the fact of Prannoy Roy‘s British ancestry and how that has translated into an anti-India attitude in NDTV English.
I have no quarrel with NDTV Hindi.
The letter I am writing will explain how the only detailed book written by an Indian on the 150th anniversary of 1857 was ignored by NDTV. Sunil Sethi personally told me that he has time for Salman Rushdie and not for me. You first review William Dalrymple‘s book (The Last Mughal) and then you ignore mine, which is a bigger work on 1857 and which has created waves in London as you can see from the Guardian article attached with this mail.
Tell me if you were in my place, what would you have construed? Isn’t this racism? Dalrymple is white, so he is reviewed but not Amaresh Misra because he is dark?
Now you will say that you have reviewed other Indian writers. Let us make a list of those writers. And let us see who they are. They are people who are anti-small town India. Barring exceptions, they are people who cannot digest the fact that a dark skinned man like me someone who is rugged, capable of taking on all you guys single-handedly in intellect, use of English language and physical strength, who laughs at the pathetic pretensions of Delhi’s English pseudo-elite wimpish culture and their kowtowing to “C” grade foreigners roaming in Delhi—has written a book which can be compared to likes of Kay, Malleson and Eric Stokes. It would be too much, of course, to expect that you have even heard of these names.
As it is Sunil Sethi knows nothing and even your English speaking Delhi intelligentsia laughs at him. Charlie Chaplin would have made a film called The Small Book Buffoon on him. If you had ignored my any other book (which you have) I might not have complained. But this is a book on 1857—it is about Indian nationalism.
You cannot, I repeat, cannot ignore it, whatever happens.
A thousand NDTVs can be closed down, a thousand Prannoy Roys, Rajiv Mathurs and Sunil Sethis of the world can be grinded into dust on the issue of Indian nationalism. The British killed 10 million Indians; Bhagat Singh sacrificed his life; what are you in front of them—not even a speck in the dust.
The issue is too large. You guys take direct orders from foreign embassies and on the nuclear deal your views are pro-American. 1857 goes against pro-Americanism. That is why you do not want to publicise the book.
You guys are racists—you portray UP and Bihar as a land of darkness; you do not want to give a chance to a man from that region, even though he is far more accomplished than all of you put together. I will charge you formally with the criminal charge of racism and anti-national activities.
Let hell reign.
Photograph: courtesy Kedar Nene/Fotocorp, The Hindu