Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The dwindling legacy of Soviet-era books

The enduring film Gone With the Wind opens with lines that exalt and reminisce about the Old South with its cavaliers, cotton fields, fair ladies and slaves. “Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilisation gone with the wind,” it says. But what do you do if books, considered to be history’s refuge, become history themselves? Where do you look for those dreams if the pages are scattered with the wind?

Many Indians who grew up on books printed in the USSR, specially those hardbound and colourful editions of folktales and stories for children, face a similar dilemma. After the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, which stopped their production, these books are now hard to come by.

Till then, the government spent a lot of its money on producing books in several Indian languages as part of the game of winning minds across the world. “Many Indians in fact developed a reading habit because of these books that were as cheap as 10 paise,” says Ram Pal, the owner of Jaipur-based Rajasthan People’s Publishing House, which was one of the two main importers of Hindi books printed in the USSR.

Now he is selling off the dregs of his collection. “It is only the slow-moving titles that are with us. About 90 per cent of the titles would be history in another five years,” he adds. Even the Delhi-based People’s Publishing House estimates that they have books that would last another four years or so. These two houses got most of the remaining stock of books in Indian languages at reduced prices as people there sought to destroy the legacy of Communism.

Once known for their superior printing quality – some would even surpass today’s standards – these books are fading out. They are in tatters, rat-eaten and yellowing with neglect. And often, the volumes are incomplete. “It’s not in our hands,” says Ravi Kant, a freelance education consultant, who remembers finishing books of Ukrainian folktales at exhibition stalls.

The Russian Centre of Science and Culture (RCSC) in New Delhi has informed that none of the publishers in Russia print books in Indian languages. "Mir, Raduga and Progress are mostly concentrated on publishing in Russia itself and translate works of foreign writers, which are in high demand in the market,” it said in an e-mail. “It may not be very pleasant for all of us,” added Sergey Cherkas, the Head of the Cultural Section at RCSC.

Many also criticise the books for being a larger part of the Communist propaganda. But Pramod Kumar, a city-based researcher on culture, denies this. “I purely remember them for being fun books with exotic names like Misha and Vassily. They were written in simple English and had simple plots like a lost horse in the woods. What possible propaganda can you get from such a story,” he says.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times


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