Hindi Aur Hum… it is purely about LOVE & DEVOTION
a sentiment that perhaps Indian languages publisher will relate to, says Arun Maheshwari, publisher & managing director, Vani Prakashan Group in conversation with Smita Dwivedi.
For almost six decades, Vani metamorphosed as a platform where multiple cultures and languages unite. Their writers have been conferred with the most prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award, the largest literary award in India for excellence in Literature. As per Mr Maheshwari, publishing is a noble profession, which brings the greatest ideas of the world together on a single piece of paper. Being a publisher is the most adventurous profession one can be in.
Vani – of the people, for the people, by the people
Vani Prakashan was established by Dr Prem Chand ‘Mahesh’ with the sole aim to promote Hindi, as he was a devoted Hindi lover. He wanted to create a bigger space for writers. To share more about the inception, Mr Maheshwari added, “My father was a writer and great lover of Hindi. He was facing some issues with his publisher, that was common in those times, so his friends suggested him to start his own publishing house. The idea of Vani came into the picture with the help of my mother Smt. Shiromani Devi because my father couldn’t own a publishing house as he was a government servant. And that’s how Vani Prakashan came into existence in the year of 1963 and produced its first book in the year 1964.”
“Both my mother & father used to visit southern and northeastern parts of India to promote Hindi. My mother accompanied my father in chasing his passion for the Hindi language. She always went to the Southern states with my father to meet their non-Hindi friends. They also actively participated in the ‘Hindi Bachao Andolan’ in the 50s,” he further added.
While growing up, Mr Maheshwari learned publishing nuances and earned business ease too. Further elaborating his early life, he added, “Publishing, books, and studies were going hand in hand while I was growing up. But after my father’s death at the young age of 42, my mother took the charge and we supported her. Publishing happened naturally to me. I even went for a job for one year after the death of my father. So, we worked hard to survive this business and it was obvious for me to join it full-fledged. Later, my wife Ameeta joined the business and has contributed to the development of its financial intelligence immensely. It is a family business in the real sense.”
Hindi, in its present form, is the language that is born in modern times and is a mode of interaction with the modernity of Indian thought and culture. The last six decades have witnessed some serious engineering in the arena of Hindi language and literature and Vani Prakashan, now Vani Prakashan Group with Vani Digital, Vani Business, Vani Book Company, Vani Prithvi, Nine Books, Vani Pratiyogita, Yuva Vani and their not for profit arm Vani Foundation, has always been an active force in this revolution and has contributed as a catalyst in the Hindi and socio-political change. Arun Maheshwari who recently celebrated his 60th birthday shared his journey and evolution as a leading Hindi Publisher, with a diversified portfolio.
Letting words be the witness
For more than 58 years now, Vani has been working tirelessly to bring the best books available in Hindi. With over 6000 titles, 2800 authors, several prestigious awards, collaboration with prestigious think tanks like the Centre of Studies of Developing Societies, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies and having Nobel Laureates-Zwigniew Herbert, Wislawa Szymbroska, Herta Mueller and now our very own Nobel Peace Award winner Dr. Kailash Satyarthi, in their catalogue, how it feels to which he shared with a smile, “I never think I have done anything extraordinary, we just followed our father’s vision. Today, we have the best authors from all over India and the world as well. We are never a part of any controversies, be it authors or peer publishers. And it feels great to have earned amazing friends in the industry.”
“Nevertheless, we do have some controversies around books, but I feel it is always around good books. The Hindi book business is a progressive business; we grow and develop every moment. The post modernity version of Hindi is open to western thoughts, but we always keep our traditions and value system in mind,” he added.
Yes! Hindi does have many Bestsellers!
After having a dark period of a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, Hindi books are again selling in big numbers. Today, most of the big names in English publishing have an inclination to enter the Hindi publishing business and explore this segment. On asking about his opinion, Mr Maheshwari elaborated, “Almost 10 years ago, a very big conglomerate publishing group of English language came to us and started corresponding regarding entering the Indian market but I realized their intentions were not right. They came to us seeking distribution support, but ended up asking for our selling centers and tell-all marketing strategy. They did not want to make books for the Hindi readers. They wanted to dump theirs in Hindi public sphere. They totally miscalculated and underestimated the power and intelligence of a common man and woman in the Hindi heartland. And so, they came and went back in no time. Hindi publishing is very simple and transparent. Some people try to make it complex by adding so many business prepositions to it.”
“Similarly, many Indian publishing houses also started their Hindi imprint. Hindi has a huge readership and a big market but don’t expect quick success…it takes time and requires devotion. Hindi language and the literature it produces is very expansive and global. For example, if we read Ramcharitmanas which is a 500-year-old literature we can find the words of Arabic and Persian too. I feel Hindi is eternal. It will flourish and expand, but only for the right reasons.”
Urdu Shayari, Hindi Poetry and Translations: The Saga of Tahzeeb and Parampara
In an ever-growing endeavour to quench the thirst of Hindi readers, Vani entered into the world of Urdu Shayari and presented it in the popular reading culture of Hindi literature for non-Urdu reading gentry, way back in the early 1990’s. On asking about such milestones, he added, “We are experimenting every day. And yes, we have established a few trends as well. For example, in the 1990s, popular poetry and Shayari had lost their existence. This was the time we started exploring this segment and published books by famous poets like Nida Fazli, Bashir Badr, Munawwar Rana, Kaifi Azmi, and Gulzar. We translated 800 books from Urdu into Hindi and recreated a new era for poetry.”
“My introduction with poetry started accidentally when a bookseller gifted me a book titled ‘Ujale Apni Yaadon Ke’ by Basheer Badr, and I was mesmerised. Later, when I explored this market I found that there was a lot of untapped potential in it,” he shared.
Taking about another trend, Mr Maheshwari shared, “When Taslima Nasrin came to India in 1994, I went to meet her and encouraged her to publish her autobiography in India’s biggest connecting language so that her story reaches out to as many readers as possible. She gave words to new definitions of love in India, when we started translations of her work. Now, Lajja has gone under more than 25 editions of reprints. Translations are like fresh air window in a room, which brings in the freshness of the outer world. Hindi literature is like flowing water, it has to keep moving As a part of the national promotion of translation as an art and profession, we set up Vani Foundation Distinguished Translator Award at the Jaipur Book Mark. This is the award that is closest to my heart and I am grateful towards the Jury- Namita Gokhale, Sundeep Bhutoria and Neeta Gupta to share the vision.”
Every new person brings newness, which is always appreciated at Vani. Now, it’s been a while that third-generation has joined the family business, on asking how it feels, he said, “When my father started Vani, it was only love for language and literature, when my wife and I joined we added business and profit prepositions to it. Now both my daughters Aditi and Damini have joined me in the business. They are better educated and technically trained. They bring in a very strong work ethic and rich international and equality based work environment at the publishing house. They have seen their grandmother work hard, their mother as a hands-on business woman all their lives. They accelerated our growth expansion plans and are looking forward to diversifying.”
“Gen-Y has a better understanding of technical advancements, market trends, online selling, e-books, audio books, and many more. They are working on making our physical bookstores as a rich cultural center in various cities. What I like the most is professionalism, which was missing in our times. There were so many of our authors with whom we never had any agreement or contract, it was all in the verbal and sentimental relationship. But this new generation will not start any project without a contract to set the expectations right for both authors and publishers and avoid any future conflict. They have also made sure that the Author and the Publisher are like a team now. I just wish them all the best to play a glorious match,” he said.
“Despite being a family managed business, the entire set up is almost semi-corporate with different departments and each department having qualified and experienced personnels to take care of the portfolios. So, the book in the entity is being taken care of by very established professional people in the book industry who not only understand the Indian book market but also understand what authors, both new and established, really want. That is what makes Vani so contemporary and popular at the same time,” adds Mr. Maheshwari.
“Besides, we need to have good literary agents as it creates a healthy atmosphere around book creation. The author is the soul and the publisher is the body, and so we need to have transparency to avoid any conflict. Today, needs and expectations have changed as a lot of money is involved in the book business, so the contract is very important,” he added.
Scope for improvement….
On asking about the scope for improvement, he shared, “The hard work and dedication demanded by the process of creating a book is easily being robbed by book pirates. To counter such a situation the trade bodies have to work in tandem with all governmental agencies concerned including the police for identifying, nabbing the offenders, and preventing piracy. He also appeals to peer publishers to be united to deal with rampant issue.” As an elected representative of the Indian languages Publishers at the General Body of the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi, Mr. Maheshwari rallied for anti-piracy campaign in a big way.
Another area for improvement is the development and strengthening of technical and scientific vocabulary. “We need to work a lot in terms of e-books and technology. There is also a dearth of technically compatible fonts for Indian languages. We need fonts to reflect the linguistic diversity,” he informed.
“I feel publishers should always come up with new ideas. Fortunately, we have millions of ideas which we have shared in the market. We never keep our ideas secret and want more and more people to implement them. In fact, I come up with something ‘new’ every day, which can be implemented for the betterment of society, traditions, and literature, of course. With this, we can justify our role as publishers,” feels Mr. Maheshwari. “I am not a publisher who just wishes to sign cheques, rather I wish to contribute to the society, and therefore I am often asked for suggestions by my authors and editors as well,” he added.
Hindi for ALL
“India is a land of stories and I feel proud of the diversity of Indian literature…today, the world is waiting to hear Indian stories,” he feels. “ The Western ideologists have found the Indian mythology very fascinating. But I believe not just mythology, but our scriptures like Bhagwad Gita, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Puranas are definitely scientific. I feel there is a greater need to analyze these books with a scientific angle,” he envisioned.
Also, marginalized voices of India, Dalit literature, LQBTQ+ literature & tribal folklores are still hidden treasures to be explored. “Society, tradition, and people have to be there in every publisher’s heart. Hindi publishing can never be a fully commercially viable project. Social and national welfare are indispensable parts of it,” concluded Mr. Maheshwari.
Unlocking Covid-19 times:Lockdown impact & advantage
While a lot of debate has happened over the impact of Covid-19 pandemic globally, It has lent some introspective time to the few in publishing businesses. According to Mr Maheshwari, “It gave everyone time to introspect and rethink, reduced the pace, and taught to utilize resources sensibly. The ever mushrooming Literary Festivals culture has also taken a backseat for a while. Lately, some of these festivals became events backed by glamour while literature was missing somewhere.”
“Post-Lockdown era has given us more stability, as we utilized this time to revise our terms & conditions for choosing manuscripts. We completed some of our long pending projects and even made our presence stronger in the digital world. In fact, we are so proud to share that a survey by Google ratings has ranked Vani Prakashan Group as the top-selling publisher in the Hindi segment, and the credit goes to Gen-Y tech-savvy team who has been working hard to position it. Moving ahead, we aim to launch some great books with an elegant and intellectually charged marketing plan. The focus would be only literature, including primitive literature like Mahabharat and Ramayan, and some interesting books on next generational technology, besides books on personality development with new analysis,” he informed.
To normalize things post-lockdown and ensure normalizing business, Mr Maheshwari along with his daughter Aditi, kick-started a 4000-km road trip covering the entire eastern UP region. Sharing more about this journey, he added, “I visited an iconic book shop ‘Universal Book Shop’ in Hazratganz (Lucknow) where I saw just 20 books that too backlisted. On enquiring, the owner said that there were no supplies of books. This situation motivated us so much that we instantly decided that we will not only publish more books but will also ensure smoother distribution as per demand.”
“Remarkably, we are the first ones to publish books and open the book market post-lockdown. Every month, we were publishing 36 new books and supplying to booksellers, just to attract readers and bring business to the shop owners,” he informed.
In terms of new genres, he feels Artificial Intelligence (AI) is next big thing and Indian publishers have not explored it yet, “I believe AI is next big thing and it is going to become very big sooner or later, so we need to explore this genre and bring useful and helpful literature around it.”
“Also, we need to work really hard for children’s literature – Bal Sahitya. It is one of the most difficult genres for any author, in my opinion. They read books which are meant for adults, which is not preferred choice. It limits their creativity, I want to share a thought through Nida sahab’s sher, “Baccho ke chote haatho ko chand sitatre choone do, chaar kitabe padd kar who bhi hun jaise ban jayege.”
“Today, if someone asks me what I did for my country I can proudly say that I took the initiative of re-opening the Hindi book market and provided all possible solutions to the book business owners. As part of this ‘Bazaar Kholo Andolan’, we were able to sell 5000 copies of our books in just two weeks. In this, digital media played a bigger role. We also launched competitive books for students, which contributed to business growth. We explored and entered this new market in a big way, and benefited greatly,” he shared. So, what are his parting words on his 60th birthday? “Main Zindagi ka sath nibhata chala gaya…”, he signs off.