Ideas From JLF
Idea of Jaipur Nightcafe AI
The 80:20 of books
At the inaugural dinner of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I asked Manasi Subramaniam, of Penguin Random House, to explain the business model of publishing. Between waiters bringing around snacks and friends coming up to greet us, she said:
“In a nutshell, 20% of the books make 80% of the profits.”
“That’s just like investing, especially venture investing” - the parallel was precise.
I’ve been investing in start-ups for some seven years now, and though one shouldn’t notch up one’s gains till the money is in the bank, I do track the value of my portfolio regularly. Since 2015, I’ve invested in fifty start-ups. As of today, five of these start-ups - only 10% by number - account for 77% of the value of my portfolio. Since I’m still actively investing, many start-ups are less than two years old, and hopefully some of them will thrive and add value to the portfolio. The 20:80 thumb rule*, or a close variant of it, seems likely to prevail.
A friend had joined our knot, and asked Manasi,
“Do you know which books will make a lot of money?”
I wish I could answer in the affirmative for investments - but that would wrench the 80:20 law. Manasi’s reply was interesting,
“No, but we do often end up bidding too much for manuscripts…Publishers are conservative by nature, and have a good idea of what we should pay for a book. But, we often end up paying more than we would like, because of competitive bidding.”
Oooph - sounds just like the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that ruled the start-up universe over the last decade. Investor FOMO was fuelled by the great wash of global liquidity; now that money is getting tighter, the fear of omission is turning to the pain of commission, as the prices of newly listed shares like Nykaa, Zomato, or Policy Bazaar plunge. The loss in valuation of start-ups that never got listed - a massive number - will largely go unrecorded, just like the unheralded books that get remaindered each year.
*first formulated by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pods, and that 20% of Italians were responsible for generating 80% of the nation’s wealth.
In a session on ‘Many Hindis’, one speaker resented the fact that the words khasra-khatauni are used for land records in many parts of India. This resentment seemed to come from the fact that these are words of Persian origin, and should have no place in the ‘shuddh’ Hindi of a proud nation.
A couple of weeks ago, I had spoken to Peggy Mohan, who wrote the fascinating book, Wanderers, Kings and Merchants, and learned a little bit about the roots of Hindi; once called Dehlavi or Hindavi, it was the language of the Delhi region, forever enriched and fertilised by languages spoken in North India, whether Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Maithili, Persian, or, yes, Sanskrit. To claim that Hindi is a descendant of Sanskrit, and now must be purged of other influences, especially those of Persian descent, is to claim for it a purity of lineage that is fiction.
If this political project were to succeed, it would impoverish the language. All languages are enriched by what they borrow from others. One of my favorite words in English is the German Schadenfreude, and no architect’s vocabulary would be complete without ‘bungalow’, borrowed from our own state of Bengal. The biggest grossing film of 2022 was ‘Avatar’, and a search on Financial Times threw up 990 quotes using the word ‘thug’, which first described criminals in India of the 1350s. In the last four quotes in the Financial Times, the word ‘thug’ was deployed to describe Putin’s gangs roughing up anti-draft protestors, Saddam Hussein’s regime, inhabitants of social media, and arsonists at an Iranian prison.
To go back to khasra - this is a Persian word for survey number, the unique identity allocated to an individual plot, used across north India, and down through to Gujarat and Maharashtra. Quite apart from the administrative hassle of changing the terminology across millions of documents, there is also the question of what exactly you would replace it with. As far as I can make out, the only readily available candidate is the Sanskrit-sounding ‘sarvekshan’. Except that you quickly realise that only the sound is Sanskrit, while the root verb is the very English ‘survey’. In the xenophobic war against foreign words polluting our language, we would have to choose sides in a battle between the Persian and the English. What fun.
In her book, Peggy has a similar observation about a signboard asking people to keep off a piece of land. “Pratibandhit Kshetra”, it reads, which sounds awesomely Sanskrit. So Sanskrit, that most speakers of Hindi would not be able to figure out what it means. And, though the words are not borrowed from the English, they are a direct translation of the term, “Restricted Zone”.
Trying to impose an artificial notion of a pure language from the top-down will result in words and phrases that are artificial, drive a wedge between the language of government and the tongue of the streets, and most importantly, hobble the organic richness of a language that is spoken by hundreds of millions.
Such an effort - to borrow from Salman Rushdie, that great cobbler-together of words - would be the ‘Khattam-Shud…of all languages”.
Mukulika Banerjee, the LSE prof who is always a treat to hear, reminded us that Fraternity is a core concept of the constitution of India. The first three guiding principles of the constitution - Justice, Liberty and Equality - require the active engagement of the government. However, Fraternity is a valuable ideal each of us can secure without demanding anything of the state.
Ours is a deeply caste- and class-driven society. Seven decades of legal equality and affirmative action have only nibbled at the edges of a riven past, as two JLF sessions reminded me - one with the Dalit scholar, Suraj Yengde, and the other with the Harvard business professor, Tarun Khanna.
Whether you look at marriage or higher education, most of India is still divided along caste-lines. Perhaps you don’t go as far as Suraj urged us - become a caste suicide bomber in your own community. But exercising the joy of fraternity, reaching out across caste, class and language should be the natural state of being human, and does not require us to point a finger at the flailing state, that ponderous, misshapen beast.
Climate Change and Humans
“The most efficient way to save the globe from global warming would be to eliminate human beings.” I forget who said this, such is the storm of new thoughts that the five days at Jaipur engendered.
But, it is an accurate prescription, if you believe that anthropogenic activities are the main cause of global warming. This leads us to the philosophical conundrum - save the planet for whom? It is, after all, not the planet that is in danger. The planet has seen periods that were both much colder, and much warmer, and the globe is quite intact - thank you very much.
The concern, in fact, is that human activity has warmed the planet at a pace that could make life as we know it difficult for human beings. As we know it is the critical phrase, as I believe we are an enormously adaptable species, and have learned to live in ecosystems ranging from the Sahara to the Arctic. This is a point which people like Bjorn Lomborg repeatedly stress, that our money would be much better spent adapting to climate change than in fighting it.
As we know it is not only the emotional comfort with the status quo that is common to most human beings; it also informs carbon-reduction policies driven by the global elite, who cheerfully emit more carbon dioxide in a flight across the Atlantic than the average Sri Lankan does in a year. That’s if they’re flying economy, mind you, while the recent climate conference in Egypt, COPS 27, was host to a hundred private jets.
My own view is that the world moves on, it is never as we knew it. With or without global conferences, the world’s climate will largely be shaped by cosmic forces outside our control, and by the fruits of science and research. Climate stress is real, and its zones of conflict will shift from year to year. But, in the absence of meteoric destruction, or global conflict, the human race will be better clothed, better housed, and better fed at the end of this century.
As for the concerns about the planet - it will take care of itself.
The Meaning of Freedom
In an engaging session with Janice Pariat, one of my favorite writers, Jerry Pinto, talked of his book, The Education of Yuri. Like his book, the talk was filled with human warmth, the stuff of life itself. Jerry was witty, dramatic, and often challenging, asking the young people in the audience to find themselves, to find freedom, described as
“A morning when you open your eyes, take an ‘angdai’, and can ask yourself - Now what do I feel like doing today?”
I’ve been there, spent nearly six years living in the forest in a state of being close to that angdai with no boundaries. But the relationship between existence and freedom - it’s complicated. I wrote a note to myself to re-examine it.
That’s a subject for a longer essay, a standalone piece for a GimmeMo post. Perhaps next weekend.
There are prompts for at least 6 other pieces in my JLF notes, including
Josiah Wedgwood and the Industrial Revolution
The 4-day week
The ‘Hate Elon’ industry
The India-China question
Is Scepticism an enemy of Spirituality
That’s only by way of repeating that it was a richly rewarding time, not that I will necessarily write to any of those prompts in the near future. Have a good week, and do think of being in Jaipur in January 2024.