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Leaps Never Made


Everyone knew everything about everyone else in the neighborhood – this was your typical middle income neighborhood in India, you see. The kids could go into any house they pleased, and get lots of good food and free advice. Every adult (loosely defined as anyone five years older than you) was encouraged (even expected) to discipline you – stop playing, start studying, don't ride your bike too fast – it was like living in a prep school with a teacher-student ratio that would make the lefties delirious.

The whole colony (for that's what neighborhoods were called then) laughed when Pushpamma's son sent a money order back to himself; cried when Kumar Mami's husband passed away, and clicked tongues in disgust when Jayarani akka “love” married. It sympathized when Karikarar got scammed out of his money, pitied me on the street when I flunked a paper in college, listened as I angrily explained that it was NOT my fault, and demurred when I demanded to know how it knew.

So, yes, we all knew a lot about each other.

And that's how I knew that people bought a lot of magazines. Every household I went to (eat, play, wander about) bought at least two a week – in addition to the daily newspaper. Kumudam and Vikatan, Kungumam and Idhayam, Saavi and Rani, one or the other. Drawing Master had the Illustrated Weekly delivered weekly (“to improve Babykka's English”) and only stopped it when they published some pictures of naked women (Later he switched over to The Week, and always had the postman deliver it to his school address).

Strangely though, no one bought books.1

Hours were spent reading serialized fiction from magazines, and hours more were spent discussing what happened and what might happen, but that was it. The occasional maverick would buy a “monthly,” – sensationalized murder mysteries that a clueless moron churned out every month, but that was it.

There was a lot of patience exhibited for serialized fiction – read a few pages, wait for next week's issue; read, wait; read, wait… but the patience never extended to buying a good book, and reading it a few pages at a time. Dense vernacular fiction was lapped up when presented in magazines, the lightest novel was ignored when published. Poring over The Hindu for a long time was a sign of intellectual accomplishment (or a way to get there), but spending a few minutes reading Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn was wasting time.

No wonder the Tamil publishing industry languishes, with a 5000 copy run considered outstanding. No wonder every writer wants to become the clueless moron churning out sensationalized murder mysteries. No wonder the one guy (with skin thinner than Antara Mali2) that sells a few more books than the others is deified, and (ironically enough) all the magazines want him to write serialized novels for them. No wonder there hasn't been a book of note for the last twenty years, and no wonder all the good writers out of India want to write in English.

But why?

[1] Rapidex English Course, Guide to Get Government Jobs, Lifco English to Tamil Dictionary etc. don't count.

[2] Not counting extraneous appendages.