Three unsung writers

Topics BS Opinion | writers

There are two reasons for writing this article. One is that Dawood Ali McCullum, about whom it is, is a terrific writer. The other is that the publishers did not market his books to the extent warranted. Indeed it was by the sheerest accident, while surfing on Amazon, that I discovered him. Dawood Ali is not his original name. It was Neil. He became Dawood Ali later. I found five books by him. Two of these, which I have just read, are about Indians in England. One of these two is of the usual novel length, about 300 pages. The other is a novella of 125 pages. The .....
There are two reasons for writing this article. One is that Dawood Ali McCullum, about whom it is, is a terrific writer.

The other is that the publishers did not market his books to the extent warranted. Indeed it was by the sheerest accident, while surfing on Amazon, that I discovered him.

Dawood Ali is not his original name. It was Neil. He became Dawood Ali later.

I found five books by him. Two of these, which I have just read, are about Indians in England.

One of these two is of the usual novel length, about 300 pages. The other is a novella of 125 pages.

The longer book is set in England in 1943. In Swindon, to be precise, where there is a huge railway factory and town.

The novel has three Indians of highly differing backgrounds. They are called upon to help the British war effort.

One helps with train movements. Another helps with engineering. The third helps with codes.

The novella is set in Heathrow airport. It’s about a Sikh family settled in England. They came there from Kenya. It could make a nice little one-act play if someone adapted it.

Mr McCullum writes in a nice, slow paced way. You have to read him like you are sipping a good scotch.  No gulping. He crafts the story so well that you keep turning the pages.

That’s why it’s incomprehensible why the publishers, or rather the importers in this case, didn’t make a better effort at marketing his books. They have had so much time to do it.

 
Had Mr McCullum been a celebrity, perhaps, they would have tried harder. Content, it seems, is less important than the name.

Two more misses

There are two other new writers who haven’t been properly marketed in India. Both are brilliant. Both write about India in the 1920s. Both are of Indian origin.

One is called Abir Mukherjee. The other is Sujata Massey. Mr Mukherjee is from Scotland. Ms Massey is from England.

Mr Mukherjee has created a dogged English character called Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police in the Calcutta of the 1920s. Wyndham has a Cambridge educated Indian colleague, a mere Sargent though, called Surrender-Not for Surendranath.

It’s the Morse-Lewis model because Wyndham, like Morse, is brilliant but given to substance abuse. Morse drank too much. Wyndham is an opium addict. Morse had a bad, early love disaster. So does Wyndham.

The stories are as well-crafted as were the ones by Colin Dexter. Morse was made into a highly successful TV serial. I hope Wyndham is, too. I can just see Saif Ali Khan in the role.

Ms Massey, on the other hand, has created a female Parsi lawyer character called Perveen Mistry working in the first quarter of the 20th century in Bombay. She solves murder mysteries, a female Perry Mason if you like, but a far more elegant one. These books are page turners, too.

What is so special about these three writers? It’s their ability to capture the sense of the times they are describing and do it with such understated finesse that you don’t really mind that the plots are implausible.

None of these authors seem to have written for an Indian audience. But how many non-Indian English speaking people will find these books interesting? The main market therefore is India and the publishers-importers have failed all of these writers, not least because these writers have created a new genre. That’s surely important in itself, just as the Rushdie genre was.

Whither publishing?

That brings up something I wrote about last month: The Indian publishers’ new obsession with celebrity writers. They have started turning down perfectly good manuscripts or asking the non-celebrities to buy back as many as 1,000 copies. In fact, the emphasis is now on biographies because the “biographed” — if they are still alive — or their families buy a few hundred copies. Indian English language publishing is on life support provided by authors!

But markets being markets, a host of self-publishing outfits — printers, actually — are now offering to print the books. The author pays just over cost to the printer who, posing as a publisher, places the books on some online portal.

It’s not yet clear who is supposed to do the marketing, the printer-publisher or the author. I imagine it’s the author.

But one thing is clear: The intermediation that the old-style publishers offered is almost gone. We can safely expect a lot of old imprints to die out. Perhaps only the university presses will survive.


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