Issue 19

The Forces Behind Amazon’s Decision to Shut-Shop on Westland

When Amazon Inc, the global e-commerce behemoth which also owns a book-publishing arm named Amazon Publishing announced on February 1, 2022, it was closing down Westland Books in India, a company it had acquired fully in 2016, there was a concerted wail of despair across the English language publishing industry in general and among many of the authors published by Westland. 

Two weeks later, author Sharanya Mannivannan, whose graphic novels have been published by Westland tweeted: ‘Exactly 2 weeks ago today, everyone at Westland found out the company was being shut down & our books would go out of print. Too soon, the date for distributors to place their last orders for most of the catalogue has come. From now, our books will begin to disappear from the market.’ 

Almost immediately, the publishers wrote to all those who have published with it, promising to return their rights—acquired over the preceding five years—on April 1, 2022, if Westland were not acquired by then. This, of course, begged the question of why Amazon had chosen to close down the company instead of selling it in the first place?

There was also the additional question of whether, for a company the size of Amazon, the losses of a small company it owned in India could really prompt such a drastic measure. According to a report in Mint, Westland ran up losses of Rs 46.3 crore, Rs 33.8 crore, and Rs 19.2 crore, respectively, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. While these figures are not small, they also showed a trajectory of narrowing losses, which is perhaps even more noteworthy, considering most of 2020 and all of 2021 were pandemic years. 

According to the same report, the Indian operations of the multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House also posted losses in 2021—of Rs 36.2 crore and Rs 4.6 crore, respectively. Westland, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House—possibly following an industry-wide trend in the face of many bookshops shutting down and book distributors shrinking their operations—saw their revenues slip in 2021. Westland went from Rs 31.2 crore in 2020 to Rs 25.1 crore in 2021; HarperCollins, from Rs 139.9 crore to Rs 137.5 crore; and Penguin Random House, from Rs 260.6 crore to Rs 245.6 crore.

So, it wasn’t as though Westland was doing particularly badly while the rest of the English language trade publishing (non-textbook) industry was thriving. Moreover, for multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, the lion’s share of sales comes from imported books—from their British and American lists. In contrast, Westland’s entire list was homegrown, which would, by industry estimates, not put it very far behind the Indian lists of other companies in terms of sales.

There was also speculation that Amazon had decided to close down the firm under pressure from the Indian government, for publishing books that speak up against the current dispensation. While it is true that Westland has published books critical of the Narendra Modi administration, the BJP and the RSS, by writers like Aporvaanand, Aakar Patel, Christophe Jaffrelot, Dhirendra K Jha, Sanjay Jha, K.S. Komireddi and Saba Naqvi, among others, it has also published narratives supporting the right-wing in India, by Ram Madhav and Sanjeev Sanyal, for instance, besides Nalin Mehta’s sympathetic account of the BJP’s growth. 

But this is extremely unlikely, given that English language books barely move the needle on public opinion. They only serve to consolidate currently held views by providing evidence. Moreover, the Indian government has so far shown no inclination to catalyse such extreme steps as closing down a company because of the books it publishes.

That leaves financial performance as the key factor. And while Amazon itself is perhaps too big to be dented by Westland’s losses, its publishing arm is a much smaller business, which needs to be successful in every market it operates in. Five years ago, there were expectations of quick expansion in the publishing market in India—this has not materialised. And the decision may be on those grounds alone. However, Amazon officials familiar with the matter have not commented on the subject.

But why did Westland run into financial trouble despite having two of India’s top-selling authors—Chetan Bhagat and Amish—on its list? Back in 2018, Bhagat signed a six-book deal—not with Westland but with Amazon—for, reportedly, a combined advance of Rs 36 crore. Of course, such advances are never paid out entirely upfront, they are calibrated with the delivery of manuscripts and the publication of the books. At that time, Amazon must have bet on the success of these authors, which Westland would benefit from. Those expectations have probably not been met by the sales of works by these authors. Nor has Westland’s considerable depth in categories like spirituality and self-help—which usually rack up large numbers in terms of sales in India—helped its financial performance sufficiently. All of which points to the problems of the industry as a whole.

What lies ahead for Westland and its list of published books and authors? On the one hand, after the news broke of the closure, several companies directly or indirectly connected with publishers are believed to be considering purchasing the company. On the other hand, rival publishers have already begun making informal offers to some of the writers to acquire their titles, if rights are given back to the authors and translators. 

What will a potential purchaser be buying, though? If it is a company already in publishing and wants to expand both its list of books and its distribution and marketing network, the acquisition will offer a quick route to expansion. However, for a multinational, this would mean adding redundant capacities. All it might be interested in are the books themselves, and, perhaps, the editors. It can easily hire the latter, and pick up the former once the rights go back to the respective authors.

For the Westland list to go out of print would be a tragic outcome. But, equally—or more—important, this episode points to the structural problems in the English language trade publishing business in India. The number of readers isn’t growing, streaming platforms are a huge challenge to books, bookshops are dwindling, distributors have cash flow problems. Unless the sector is reinvented with new technology, new financial structures, and new ways to get books into the hands of a much larger number of people than at present, these problems will only get worse.

Arunava Sinha is a translator, a professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat, and co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.  

Picture Credits

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 17

Lawyer-Author & Sci-fi Fan Gautam Bhatia Chats with 95 yr old Sci-fi Legend Chandler Davis

In recent years, within the science fiction community, there has been a reckoning—of sorts—with the genre’s racist, sexist, and colonial past. From pioneer and first-contact stories being thinly-veiled justifications for colonialism, to male-coded obsessions with conflict and conquest, to a near-absence of non-white characters except as props or as antagonists, there is much in this history to confront, to discuss, and to overcome. And as the last decade has shown, this discussion is not always a comfortable one.

In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said talks about the “contrapuntal canon”. In discussing how colonialism forms an (often) unacknowledged backdrop to the classic literary texts of the Western canon, Said writes that, nonetheless, “we must … read the great canonical texts with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works. The contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.

While Said’s point is about tendencies internal to literary texts, we can also think about it in the context of literary traditions. Science fiction is not a monolith: even as racism, colonialism, and sexism played a dominant role in SF-production through the long 20th century, there were always writers and texts that questions, challenged, and subverted that dominant paradigm. The contrapuntal canon, or the hidden transcript, as it were.

At Strange Horizons, we see ourselves as committed to a plural and diverse vision of SFF, and therefore, as a continuation of this older – and sometimes submerged – tradition of against-the-grain writing. To know – and understand – more about our forebears, for this Fund Drive Special Issue, we decided to interview Chandler “Chan” Davis, one of the most outstanding exponents of the contrapuntal canon, at a time at which the dominant, regressive tendencies of science fiction were at their apogee: the 1940s and the 1950s.

A mathematician and a science fiction writer, Davis was notoriously dismissed from the University of Michigan, and jailed, during the McCarthy years. He wrote a range of science fiction stories (some of which are collected in the anthology, It Walks In Beauty), exploring themes around nuclear disarmament, sexism in society, labour and capital, and first contact and language. The science fiction critic, T.G. Shenoy, recently put together a compilation of his stories, which can be accessed here).

Now 95 years old, Chandler Davis very kindly agreed to this interview, which was conducted via collaborative Google Doc earlier this year. The interview also contains responses by Hannah Taieb, Professor Davis’ daughter. Through this interview, we hope to give you a window into a lost – but important – part of the history of our genre and community.

Gautam Bhatia: Let me start with a somewhat broad set of questions. You wrote science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s as an avowed communist, at a time when the United States was consumed by the Red Scare (which saw you jailed for a time, as well). Your stories reflect your politics, whether it is satirising corporate culture in “Adrift on the Policy Level”, or the very direct references to union-busting in “Last Year’s Grave Undug”. How welcoming and open was the science fiction community at the time to left-wing ideas? Was it more difficult, say, to publish pro-Union stories than anti-Unions ones (such as “The Roads Must Roll“, for example)? Was there a group of writers who shared your views and beliefs, and wrote stories that, in a similar fashion, reflected those views?    

Chandler Davis: The science fiction community in the 1940s was a strange conglomerate. The Futurians were Communists or sympathizers from before my time; Robert Heinlein had several biases including a sentimental acceptance of militaristic values; John Campbell had his own biases, including a worship of technical fix carried over from the Hugo Gernsback era … I could go on and on. The strangest thing was the extent to which it was a community, without people dropping their individuality. Now to some degree this was illusory: an author might think it prudent not to rhapsodize about the wonders of a future Soviet America in submitting a story to an anti-communist editor (prudence we had to practise in our non-SF life as well), and an author might try to improve chances of acceptance of stories by writing under pseudonyms concealing gender or ethnicity.

To some degree it was mere expression of allegiance to the science-fiction tradition we all honored. But on the whole it was a genuine sense of community, across fracture lines which outside the genre-bubble, in the real world, were guarded by snarling watchdogs. I don’t think I resented “The Roads Must Roll” when it appeared, for example, I may even have been grateful that unions were recognized as part of the scene, but my firm pro-union beliefs were not shaken. (Going to work in a union shop about that time, I volunteered to serve as a shop committeeman the first chance I got.) We listened to ideas coming from ideologues of world-views we didn’t share at all. It was for me a liberating time in the same way as the New Left twenty years later. Maybe somewhat older leftists like Phil Klass and Fred Pohl didn’t feel the same liberation.

Hannah Taieb: I was moved and fascinated to see that the “bubble” of science fiction fans and writers took shape so firmly as a community, superseding the harsh divisions of 1940s/50s America. I guess as a daughter, having grown up watching my father pushed away and attacked by McCarthyism, it was moving to me to imagine that within the sci-fi community Chan was not rejected by sanctimonious red-hunters, or at least that he didn’t experience things that way— didn’t see himself and other leftists as somehow in a separate world. Instead, he experienced a sense of “community across fracture lines”, a feeling I didn’t get the sense of  Chan often experiencing.

GB: In 1949, you wrote an article titled “Critiques and Proposals”, that dealt with stereotyping in literature generally, and in science fiction in particular. In that article, you called upon science fiction writers to make an active effort to not only avoid stereotyping (on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity etc.) but to work towards breaking them down, even if it means an – initial – defamiliarising effect for the reader. You made the point that the very fact that much of science fiction was set in the future allowed writers to imagine realities in which those stereotypes no longer existed – foreshadowing something that Ursula Le Guin would say many years later, about the role of science fiction writers being to imagine alternatives (including to capitalism). Do you think that more than other genres, science fiction allows for such possibilities, and that writers in the genre should be actively thinking about how to construct such possibilities in their fiction?     CD:  Oh, thanks for bringing this out so clearly, Gautam! Yes, emphatically. Is this to say merely that science-fiction ought to be always utopian (imagining and figuring forth a better world) or dystopian (warning against wrong policies by exhibiting horrid futures they might lead to)? Not at all. With Ursula LeGuin, I want SF to open up thinking about the future in more complex ways too.

Ursula Le Guin wanted science fiction writers to imagine alternatives to the way we live.

GB: In “Critiques and Proposals”, you talked about how editors (in 1949) were unlikely to accept a black or Jewish individual as the protagonist of a story, and how science fiction continued to have problems with gender (even though it was ahead of other genres of writing at the time). In many respects, the science fiction has made great advances in these respects over the years. But one thing that you don’t mention in your article is class—and in that respect, there doesn’t seem to have been such an advance. I can’t, for example, recall many recent works of science fiction I’ve read that have had a trade union member as a protagonist. Do you think science fiction has had—and continues to have—a certain obliviousness when it comes to questions of class? 

CD: Yes, to some extent. But many SF stories have presented a class structure different from that we know today, an aristocracy, or an elite privileged in some novel way. Think of Brave New World, for example. That counts as awareness of class structure, and imagining new structures societies might have is manifestly a desirable part of the genre, and recognized to be.

GB: Also in “Critiques and Proposals”, you advance a set of proposals for how writers can escape stereotyping black or Jewish characters in their stories. One suggestion that I didn’t see in the essay is something that the genre grapples with now to a great extent: that it is the job of editors and publishers to actively seek out writers who come from backgrounds that—to quote the end of your essay—“have been discriminated against.” So, just to take your own example: one of the solutions to the stereotyping of black people in science fiction would be to ensure that black writers write for, and are published by, science fiction magazines. I was wondering why you didn’t moot that as a proposal for editors. Was it something that would have been dismissed out of hand at the time?           

CD: No, I just didn’t think of it; I wish I had.

GB: In this 2013 interview with Josh Lukin, you discuss the centrality of the “resourceful protagonist” to science fiction, and the importance of “no hero” stories, in order to highlight that it is structures or institutions that are oppressive. I think this remains an issue with science fiction even today: the writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted about this recently, and I’ve flagged the point in a couple of reviews I’ve written on contemporary science fiction (that is otherwise quite good). Do you think the individualist bent of science fiction has detracted from an accurate identification of the systemic root of the problems that we face, and the need for collective action to overcome them?     

CD: Thanks once again for clear expression of a major challenge for authors. But even if, like Saladin Ahmed, the author is conscious of it, there still may be a protagonist who feels lonely, who suffers from the lack of an effective community of fellow rebels.

GB: Let’s get to the stories themselves! One thing I am struck by when I read your stories is their range: in your science fiction, you’ve explored corporate culture, robots, post-apocalyptic societies, nuclear war, eugenics, and the arms race, First Contact, space opera, the world of work and labour, and so much more. Could you tell us a bit about how these themes reflected your own preoccupations at the time, and how you’d situate your work in the context of what your contemporaries in the science fiction community were writing then?

CD: One striking example of my writing responding to the preoccupations of the time is my responding to the threat of nuclear weapons. All of us in the science-fiction gang who learned of the Manhattan Project only in August 1945 felt at least a momentary joy of vindication: we had been saying this might happen, the general population didn’t know, and lo! we were in the right. But most of us soon realized, “Hey! this is a calamity, an atrocity” (and to think it was done in the name of the American people). Some of the authors sounded the alarm. I cite especially [Theodore] Sturgeon’s “Memorial”, my “The Nightmare”, and Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses”, but there were several others. We put it before our audience a rather large and international audience– that if your country is the target of nuclear attack, then it is up to you not to strike back but to do everything to RESTRAIN your country from striking back. We were right, but our message didn’t stick, in the USA or anywhere.

Theodore Sturgeon addressed the issue of nuclear war in his stories

GB: Cooperation and language are two recurring themes in your work. They come together in your story, “To Share The World”, which is quite a wonderful First Contact tale: a species that human beings refer to as the Nibblies communicate through electric current, and their form of communication constructs a world that is by definition experienced and articulated in and through community. It put me in the mind of some of Samuel Delany’s work, and more recently, China Mieville’s Embassytown. How do you understand the role of language in shaping the world, and the role of science fiction in interrogating this relationship?     

CD: Language may not shape the physical world, but it surely shapes the social world, and I don’t think I brought out in “Share Our World” or any of my other stories what range is imaginable in other intelligent species. Hey, to make this point clear, I’ll have to get back to the task of writing and dream up some more extraterrestrial alternatives! It’s worth thinking about. In the real world, I don’t think we’ll experience First Contact in the sense of Murray Leinster‘s SF, or mine, or Carl Sagan’s, but thinking about it is important for life in the real world because it helps enable us to handle the changes going on all the time in here-and-now social evolution.

HT: Gautam raised the question of the “resourceful protagonist” and the importance of “no hero” stories, and later came to the issue of cooporation, using as example the Nibblies in To Share the World which Gautam points out have a “shared world” that is in contrast with human beings. I just wanted to point out that to me there is a link between Chan’s interest in “no hero” stories and his creation of stories with multiple heroes with complex interconnections. My favorite of Chan’s stories, along with It Walks in Beauty and Letter to Ellen, is Hexamnion, with its coorperative multiple protagonist(s). I am not making a point here, except to bring together the two issues, and to say that I think Hexamnion deserves a mention along with the Nibblies, in talking about images of cooperation.

GB:  Sticking with the theme of language, in your novelette, It Walks In Beauty, there is a point in the story when the protagonist, Max, resolves to think of and refer to Paula as “her” instead of “it”. Immediately thereafter, he catches himself wondering “how much difference would a pronoun make to – her?” “It Walks in Beauty” was published in 1958, and it’s quite extraordinary how these lines foreshadow an issue that would come to the fore many decades later; it’s only now that we are seeing mis-gendering being started to be taken somewhat seriously, and there’s still a long way to go. I wanted to ask what was in your mind when you made your protagonist think of correct pronouns as something important, as almost a revolutionary move.

CD: It is a fortuitous resemblance. I didn’t imagine the kind of gender-challenging we see now, though Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delany did, impressively. I did fix on stereotyped sex roles, as they exist, and the damage they do to genuine human relations, and I’m proud of the acuity of my critique. “It Walks in Beauty” is near-future SF as opposed to imagined-world SF, as I intended to make clear by reference to an actual 1940s popular song. Exaggerated though the problems were in the story, they’re real problems, and I meant Paula’s optimism at the end—despite the failure of her attempted lesson—to stand for my own determination in 1954 (when I was writing) to do something to fix them. The editor, my friend Fred Pohl, thought the bitterness had to be let stand, and changed the ending. Without consulting me, yet! I told Judy Merril, and she agreed that my original ending was better. I insisted that subsequent reprinting of the story use the original faintly hopeful ending. I’m still determined to try to fix those problems. We’ve come a long way, baby … well, a little way, and there’s a long way to go.

HT: With regard to It Walks in Beauty, I preferred Fred Pohl’s ending; perhaps, as a woman, I identified with the bitterness of Paula watching the fellow prance off cluelessly. But I’m still glad that Chan, in 1954, the year of my birth, had determination to stick to his feminism even when it got hard and challenged his conceptions of femininity. I’m sure I benefited from that, growing up.

Image Credits:

GB: Quite a few of your stories portray human beings failing—or refusing—to cooperate with each other, even in situations where it would be in their interests to do so, and sometimes with tragic consequences (and in “To Share the World”, the literal “shared world” of the Nibblies is placed in stark contrast with how human beings imagine the world). At times your work almost feels like a critique of the atomism that capitalism has brought us, an atomism that has perhaps become worse since the time you wrote these stories. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about these ideas of community, cooperation, and atomism in your work, and in science fiction more broadly?    

CD: You’re quite right, Gautam, to relate the ideology of market economics to weakness of cooperative behaviour in capitalist society. Not talking about actual markets but about the terribly prevalent ideology of the inevitability of competition—an ideology now called neoliberalism, though there’s nothing neo about it. And you’re quite right that science fiction should bring more to the struggle to break out of it. Utopias are likely to be free of dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, but all kinds of SF could do more to address this.

GB: My personal favourite out of all your short stories is perhaps “The Aristocrat”, where a nuclear disaster seemingly divides people into “human” and “Folk”. The story is told from the perspective of a human who exercises what he believes is an enlightened-despotic rule over the Folk, in order to preserve civilization—until things start to go wrong. I read both It Walks in Beauty and The Aristocrat as being stories that interrogate, and undermine, the categories with which we order the world, and demonstrate, in a way, the futility of endeavours to exercise control over diverse and plural ways of being as well as the arrogance of those who think they can unilaterally shape the future. In particular, “The Aristocrat” pushes back against different forms of historical determinism. I was struck both by how this is at odds with institutional communist ideology, and also at odds with some of your contemporaries, such as Isaac Asimov, whose idea of psychohistory does depend on the world being knowable, and therefore subject to human control. Would you have any thoughts about this?       

CD: Isaac Asimov has Hari Seldon’s knowledge of laws of societal development, and hence his ability to predict the future, break down due to one unpredictable event, the appearance of one individual, the Mule, with unique capacity to influence. Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, and was surely commenting on the great difficulty of understanding history well enough to predict it. I also come from the Marxist tradition. I believe that history can be understood, as the result of deterministic causal processes, but I also believe that the unpredictable events are everywhere. (Too bad we can not ask Asimov whether he agrees; he well might.) If this is a contradiction, I hope it is of the fruitful dialectical kind.  In short, I believe that there is no bound on how well we can know the laws of history, but that our knowledge will always fall short of taking every small contingency into account, and that small changes can have large consequences, so that our predictive power, while improving, will always fall short. I call myself a radical contingentist. Have you read “The Next Thousand Years or So”, a lecture I gave here a few years ago? It accepts unpredictability without accepting unknowability, and attempts to justify this.

GB: Your other post-nuclear disaster story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug”, feels oddly prescient in many ways, especially when Pop says to his companions, “the US invaded itself.” I was reminded of the recent Capitol attacks, and the firmly tongue-in-cheek comments about how the US was finally serving itself a sliver of the taste of its own medicine. Many of the themes that you explore in that story—in particular, how, even in a ruined world, people will still cling tenaciously to the world-views that they have instinctively come to inhabit—feel very real today. In fact, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” could literally be written today and feel entirely contemporary, other than a few odd dated references. Did you anticipate, when you were writing that story, that six decades on, we’d still be exactly where we are now?         

CD: No, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” is another warning story. Magnifying some present trends to show them more clearly. I’m glad we are not where that story depicts us! By the way, this is an instance of the difficulty even of understanding history, let alone predicting. As I also explained in my essay “The Next Thousand Years or So”, mentioned just now, I could not imagine in the 1950s that our society could survive unless we achieved nuclear disarmament.  Indeed it still remains to be understood! We must try to solve that riddle, as part of our solving the grand riddles of history—at the same time as we try to steer the course away from nuclear catastrophe, which is still terribly threatening, but not inevitable.

Chandler Davis; Photo: Alan M Waid

GB: Professor Davis, thank you so much for your time, and thank you to Hannah as well. I hope you do get around to resuming writing those First Contact stories!

This interview first appeared in Strange Horizons and has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.

Issue 3

Stoned, Shamed, Depressed – A Conversation with author Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava

Stone, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens is a book that examines the lives of urban teens. Children as young as middle schoolers have started engaging in activities like social media usage, substance abuse, body-shaming, video gaming, sexual bullying and online-bullying. The author, journalist Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava, highlights the urgency of these matters. How does one deal with impressionable teenagers being exposed to virtues and vices that even adults have difficulty navigating? Why do these children, who have all possible resources and comforts at their disposal, engage in these activities? Here, I talk to the author about her observations and why she is worried.

Isha (I) – Starting with the topic of drugs, I always assumed that increased usage is a result of increasing freedom with age? Is that true or is there something else at play here? 

Jyotsna (J) – I have heard lots of stories about college and there being choices available for every budget, but I find it fascinating the easy and casual usage in very young children, even in middle school. The difference in how they use it is that it isn’t recreational, it is an effort to fit in with their peers. It isn’t even a choice for many with the enormous pressure they are under to achieve ridiculous 100% cut-offs and very often you aren’t that student. As a society, we haven’t reexamined what we keep pushing our kids into. So kids are saying look, we’ll do it but doesn’t mean we’ll do it the right way. So many of them fall back on drugs to help stay awake and study constantly. A student told me that he started having marijuana at 13 and used it as an “experience enhancer” for movies. Why do you need that, why isn’t a movie enough for you? He said we’re all trying to fill a void, fill something. So there is a lot going on and it isn’t recreational for these kids.

I – In today’s environment where drugs have been vilified so much, I feel like this book could be used by someone to back their anti-drug stance. So how do you think this book fits into that whole conversation?

J – I have been very careful to not judge any of the stakeholders in the book and let others hopefully read between the lines and judge for themselves. Because it is not at all normal for 13 and 15-year-olds to be consuming marijuana and laced drugs.  My attempt is to bring a mirror to our society because very often we don’t want to acknowledge that things happen, and if we don’t acknowledge if we don’t accept we’re never going to able to realize that some stuff is more important. We don’t really have a very cohesive drug policy or we’re not really looking at mental health when it comes to the young ones, so I think my book has been an attempt to actually bring issues out in the open so that we can accept and deal with them. If there is no acceptance there will never be any conversations and change. 

I- So regarding policy, how do you think legalising marijuana or changing legal drinking age and such will affect this issue?

J- With everything, I think the buck stops with the family. Banning has never been the solution and I think really it all comes down to where you’re coming from. I could say that schools need better policies and sex education but the truth is we need to talk about it at home. I think there is an enormous amount of wealth being substituted for parents’ time and it is doing a lot of harm in the long run. Giving devices to these kids at the age of 6 and 7 and taking them back at the age of 13, it’s not working. It’s leading to aggression. Social media is a new toy for everyone and I think parents need to figure it out first and help kids harness it in a better way. We need to teach kids about cyber safety, or about how just because everyone is having drugs, doesn’t mean you should too. We need to normalise the existence of things that happen around us and say that this is no longer a western concept that everyone is smoking, drinking. One of the first people who reacted to the book was a gentleman on Twitter who said: “This is western bullshit”. This is precisely the reason I’ve written this book we’re still caught up in what should happen versus what is happening. If a child is using drugs, they need counselling and de-addiction centres, which is so against our values. So many children only have one question for me “How do we talk to our parents?” If someone is genuinely going through an issue whether it is mental health or sexual bullying, we need to deal with it accordingly and figure out what is and isn’t a mistake. If we aren’t willing to accept that a teenager hitting his parents or talking gangrape isn’t a mistake and other things are a mistake, we won’t realise that some issues do need deeper intervention. It all depends on how we acknowledge these issues.

I- Were a majority of your interviews based in Delhi NCR or how were they located?

J- No actually I have a lot from Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. Each of these has its own problems. I think NCR is rocking it when it comes to drugs while there is more gadget addiction in Bangalore, gaming in Chennai. A college student in Delhi told me there is a difference in how drugs are used in Delhi versus in Bombay. In Bombay it’s something done by the older lot, you hear about celebs and substance abuse but it’s done and over with. In Delhi, it’s a production. All of these kids who were already on drugs in school, they are going into harder stuff in college and I don’t think there’s anybody who’s stopped them or had a conversation to tell them that you know when you’re lacing marijuana with something else, you’re reaching another level. They’ve never had these conversations and always had money.

I- So how would you say this works in Tier 2 And 3 cities?

J- The issues are different in Tier 2 cities. But anybody today who has a smartphone, even in rural and semi-rural areas is vulnerable. The genesis of it all is that smartphone. We’re pretty much the biggest market, I think some 839 million smartphone users by 2022, and a bulk of our population is young. You can do anything on that phone. I demarcated it as an urban book simply because in the very rural the issues are very different, the addiction is very different, it comes from the frustration of having to make ends meet, versus this society where everything is on a platter By that I also mean Tier 2 towns, they have a lot of money and are giving smartphones to kids. I don’t think you can demarcate too much because that vulgar language of gangrape in Mumbai you can also possibly hear it in Patna. In Tier 3, there’s a lot of gaming going on. As a country we’re aspirational and social media has opened up everybody to it. So kids who are getting botox at 15 are no different than the 9 or 10-year-old kid who has gone on the reality dance show on TV because the parents may be from Ludhiana or wherever, they’re equally aspirational. Many parents I spoke with find no issue when it comes to privacy, They say it’s part and parcel of the game. I am talking to you about cyber safety, but in a tier 3 city where you’ve given your child a phone and he’s gone to study in a school where you’ve never been perhaps, you’re not even equipped to deal with the knowledge he has.

I- Moving on to another topic you write about which is bullying, homophobia and body-shaming. These kids exist on social media where body-positivity and pro-LGBTQ+ stances are quite prominent. How do these kids exist in that space and still manage to act this way?

J- Again this comes back to the conditioning of our society. I can actually see that with 90% of people if a child goes up to their mother and father and says that I’ve been body shamed, I can actually see that the reaction is going to be, it’s okay, it’s a part of life, you’ll get over it. As a society, we don’t deal with anything that isn’t tangible. Even with the Sushant Singh Rajput incident, we circled around the issue for months. Finally, when we did come to mental health, we were talking about older people. We haven’t touched children. It’s enormous in the 15-20-year-olds. All kind of positivity starts with a society that says we may be traditional but that doesn’t mean it’s always correct that we need to move with the times and unfortunately I think that’s a long way from now.

I- A third topic you address is teenagers exploring their sexuality and having sex. How does one deal with this, at what age is it necessary to have a conversation about this?

J- My dilemma has been, how do you deal with consent by minors, when they have consensual intimate relationships and then have been asked to leave their schools and such. A lot of children are really sexually empowered and these conversations need to start very young, at 7 or 8 years according to some counsellors. Consent to me is a very big word with not adequate importance given to it by society. A lot of mothers have come up after some of these cases and said we’re teaching our boys respect but I think that’s tokenism. We need to go beyond it. A doctor made a lot of sense when he told me that in the last few years, we have been talking about how our girls are changing, how they are driving and working late doing everything. But we forgot to tell our boys to change as well. If they still remain where they were while girls are changing, we’re going to have this clash. There’s frustration in teenage girls as to why the onus is on them and we have done this to ourselves as a society. So consent is a very important word that we need to teach them.

I- In addition to body-positivity, social media is also urging women to embrace our sexuality. I am guessing that it’s targeting slightly older women but the narrative is also being embraced by younger girls. Since increasingly younger girls are trying to fit into this narrative of let me embrace my sexuality, how do you deal with that? 

J- To be one of the girls, you have to let go of your virginity or you aren’t cool enough. Getting rid of it is like a badge of honour and very casual for 15, 16-year-olds. It really does come down to how comfortable a child is in their skin to be able to take this enormous onslaught of peer pressure. And knowledge is important when you’re, say, trying to date a boy and you send nudes over Snapchat and you think they will disappear after being seen, but somebody else has recorded it it’s in circulation. When no one speaking to them, they’re listening to their peers and going ahead so I think it boils down to really what those conversations you’re having at home, that communication channel has to always be open. 

I find that even six months make a difference. If you keep pushing social media, say a child who gets in at 13 versus at 15 or at 8 versus at 12, I find that the child is evolving and learning more things. You can’t push beyond a point but that little bit of experience keeps adding up, that ability to scope things out react accordingly adds up.

I- How do you see these phenomena of drug usage and social media and such play out as these kids enter college and parents lose even more control. You have said that drug usage tends to increase in such cases, but what else changes?

J- I find that again it all depends on how solid your base is. Some things do change, for instance, people in their 20s are using social media for activism in unimaginable ways. Drugs may become a recreational activity more than before, but then mental health is escalating in the 20s. With the whole sex thing, I think kids are taking control of their lives you’re adults, so in that sense, it’s your life. Your parents have to make sure they’re around to hold hands be there if you want to talk. 

In my interviews, this kept coming up about social media anonymity, how do you trust the world with bearing your body and soul? But we’ve all had our rebellion, unfortunately, it’s a lot to be on social media and living a public life. So the pressure to be somebody is more for your generation. We went to school and got bullied, got home and forgot about it until the next day. You go to school and get bullied and you come home you’re still getting bullied so its 24×7 now.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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My Son’s Inheritance: India’s Invisible Violence

By Aparna Vaidik

Published by Association for Asian Studies on Thursday, August 27 2020.

Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophy of non-violence are facets of Indian history that have inspired generations of world leaders from Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. Also perpetuating this image of India as a land of non-violence and tolerance are some other facets of India’s history such as the conversion of the ancient Emperor Ashoka Maurya to Buddhism; his adoption of non-violence as a state policy in 3rd century B.C.; and the existence of a composite culture known as the “Ganga-Jamni sanskriti” (the comingling of waters of rivers Ganga and Yamuna), a referent to the peaceful Hindu and Muslim cultural intermixing in the Subcontinent. Indian public intellectuals from Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor have invoked these elements of India’s historical past to debunk majoritarianism, to decry communal conflict, and to critique right-wing political agendas.

Violence, if at all examined, is primarily done through the Weberian lens by studying state actions such as battles, wars, or political retribution. Other than that, it is the episodes of communitarian riots, gender violence, and subaltern resistance that are scrutinized. Seeing violence as episodic phenomenon, on the one hand, pathologizes it as an aberration or turns it into an exception in need of an explanation; and, on the other, reinforces the presumption that Indian society is fundamentally peaceful, non-violent, and tolerant. My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India challenges this munificent image of India to show that the ubiquity of violence has rendered it banal and thereby historically invisible. It asks, how is the violence not visible? Why is it invisibilised? How does it turn into a secret? What allows the unconscious denial of the existence of violence? Who are the recipients and witnesses of this violence? Finally, what is this violence?

My Son’s Inheritance traverses several centuries and explores the history of Vaishnavism and warrior cults in northern India; the history of Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century reformist organization; the role of a violent cow-protection movement in forging the Hindu majoritarian identity; and the myths of Hinduism that invisibilised the oppression of the lower castes in the Subcontinent. It uses pamphlets, popular publications, prints, poetry, and myths, as well as my own family history, to offer a cultural reading of violence. The book demonstrates how violence is secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language, and is therefore invisible. Framing my narrative as a message to my son, I acquaint him with his ancestors—those who abet and carry out lynching as well as those who are lynched. In this way, the “son,” a metaphor, embodies both the violator and the violated, much like the country in which he will come of age. The book lays bare the heritage of violence bequeathed from generation to generation and disabuses us of the myth that holds nonviolence and tolerance as being the essence of Indian culture.

The book argues that perpetrators of this violence have not always been the state, the rulers, the police, or the army, but the ordinary Indian who thinks of India and Hinduism, the majoritarian religion of the Subcontinent, as tolerant, spiritual, and non-violent. This person is often the silent witness or a bystander to whom the violence in Indian society remains invisible. In doing so, the book addresses the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argues it was not just the big generals and the Nazi party officers who were responsible for the Jewish holocaust, or Shoah, but also the normal, ordinary, everyday people who went about their everyday lives, did their jobs and obeyed the laws. It is easier to understand the mind of thinkers and ideologues but, as Arendt shows, it is immensely hard to fathom the mind of an ordinary person. Carlo Ginzberg has attempted this in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which seeks to understand an ordinary miller’s notions of how the cosmos came into being. In a similar vein, My Son’s Inheritance examines an ordinary law-abiding Indian’s mentality that either denies the existence of violence or sees it as something that foreigners or wrongdoers indulge in.

The inheritance of this violence, the book demonstrates, comes to us in a form of a secret, a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It is visible and yet we don’t see it. Once the secret is unveiled the question of atonement or redemption comes up: How do we redeem ourselves? How do we atone? According to My Son’s Inheritance, atonement lies in Indians owning up to their history of violence. The choice is to either hide one’s shame and generate even more violence, or to own up to one’s historical shame and break the silence around violence. For it is our silence borne out of privilege that perpetuates violence.

This is a crossover book written as creative non-fiction. A nagging worry as I embarked on this project regarded crafting the narrative. After writing years of staid academic prose, I felt unsure about transitioning into a more conversational narrative style. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I had imagined. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew served as narrative inspiration. Choosing a creative narrative strategy also required me to make “travel-style” field trips, first to my hometown, Indore in Central India and, second, to the ancestral shrine in the small town in Rajasthan. The histories of both places are woven into the book’s narrative. I was now seeing them with the eyes of a writer.

As I started conceptualizing this project, the question for me was how do I tell stories of violence? How do I narrate stories of conflict in a non-conflictual manner? How do I not fill the hearts of the audience with hate in talking about hate? How do I persuade people to pause and examine their own complicity in perpetuating structures of violence? These questions were also arising from the loss of my belief in the persuasive power of the historical mode of narration. For a while I had felt that we needed to tell historical narratives differently, ones that were more accessible to the public. This book is an acknowledgement of the fact that we as social scientists and humanists are accountable to not only one’s peers and the institutions we serve but also to the society and the times we live in.

This article was first written for The author has commissioned it for use by OpenAxis.

Aparna Vaidik is a decorated academic and an Assistant Professor of History at Ashoka University (India). Here she writes about her new book My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India (Aleph, 2020).

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).