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The Book Fair in January is an important event in the cultural calendar of Chennai. The 46th edition of the Chennai Book Fair took off at YMCA Grounds, Nandanam on January 6 and will go on till January 22. This time, the first edition of an international book fair is also being hosted in parallel. The Book Fair gets hordes of visitors and enthusiastic readers every day, even at a time when there’s obviously more excitement among the public about the latest films of top stars Ajith and Vijay .

In an interview called ‘Verkaanal’ (Finding the Roots) programme with Inmathi 2.0, G  Olivannan, CEO of Emerald Publishers, traces the history of the book fair and speaks at length about various issues and current trends in book reading. The major point he makes is that the government must set up a permanent book fair in Chennai, on the lines of a food court or a textile park, so that present and future generations can keep spreading the love of book reading eternally, keeping the publishing industry always alive and kicking.

Asked about the origin of Chennai Book Fair, Olivannan says the event started in the 1970s. His father M D Gopalakrishnan set up a children’s book fair at Rajaji Hall.

It was in 1977 that the first Chennai Book Fair was held at Madrasa-i-Azam school near Quaid-e-Millath College on Anna Salai where, Olivannan remembers, he, as a boy, used to sleep over at night amid books, along with his father. The book fair, which initially had just 22 stalls, started gaining popularity and growing in the 1980s. The number of stalls rose over the years, touching the three-digit number before the year 2000. Now over two decades into the millennium, Chennai Book Fair boasts over 1,000 stalls. It reflects people’s increasing patronage of the significant annual event, he says on a note of pride.

Initially, it was the English publishers who were dominating the scenario. After the 1990s, Tamil Publishers descended on the scene, and began grabbing the attention of readers. This trend, coupled with economic concessions given by the government to Tamil publishers at the fair, served as a catalyst for the rising popularity of Tamil books, Olivannan says. Besides, the government support in the form of large orders for Tamil books for libraries proved a gamechanger in this regard. This opened the floodgates for Tamil publishers, including Olivannan’s Emerald Publishers, he says, adding that now several Tamil publishers are doing spectacularly well at the book fair.

It was in 1977 when the first Chennai Book Fair was held at Madrasa-i-Azam school near Quaid-e-Millath College on Anna Salai

This year’s unique feature at Chennai Book Fair is the international book fair being held alongside, which has been made possible after a group made a study of the Frankfurt book fair recently.

Olivannan recalls that in 2020 when the Covid pandemic had shut the world down, no public events were held anywhere in the world, of course, but that in March 2021, the book fair came back, albeit amid many restrictions. Again in 2022 owing to curbs related to the spread of the Omicron strain of Covid, the book fair was pushed to February. So, after an uncertain three years, this year the book fair is being conducted in full swing amid the Chennai Literary Festival and the Chennai Sangamam cultural festival.

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Speaking of books and culture, we ask what steps have been taken toward translating more works from one language to another, considering that translation helps bridge cultures. Olivannan says that a writer’s joy comes in two phases. “One is when s/he completes writing their work. Next is when their work is discussed by readers. So, quite naturally they want their writings to reach as many readers as possible, not only in the language the book was originally written, but also in other languages.

“English being one of the most important global languages, a writer must see that their writings are translated into English first, so that they can gradually be made available in other languages as well.”

G  Olivannan, CEO of Emerald Publishers

Olivannan narrates his own experience to drive across the importance of translation. At Frankfurt Book Fair, Olivannan was waylaid by a foreign writer at a stall who asked him to sign a translation agreement with him. But Olivannan told him that Tamil readers would not be able to relate to his style of writing or the content of his work. Standing his ground, the author simply said that the more the languages his writings were translated into, the more his stock among the literary and commercial worlds would rise. Hence, he wanted to add a Tamil translation to his repertoire.

Regarding the general perception that social media outlets including YouTube and Instagram, along with streaming services like Netflix where one can binge-watch shows and movies, has dented the reading habit, Olivannan says it’s just a myth. “Ask any two persons whether their reading habit is on the decline, one will reply in the affirmative because he/she has probably given up the habit. But the other will keep quiet for he is perhaps still into the reading habit,” he says.

Thelivathai Joseph’s short stories delve deep into the plight and predicament of the Lankan estate workers who had migrated there from Tamil Nadu in order to escape caste-oriented cruelties. But their case was something like falling from the frying pan into the fire

In fact, millennials and Gen Z’s brains are wired such that they are able to adeptly handle technology while also being prolific readers and writers, perhaps more than previous generations. In fact, it is people above 50 who have stopped reading long ago, Olivannan says. But millennials and Gen Z are reading a lot and writing on several social media platforms. In our youth, we used to read books such as Ponniyin Selvan, taking a great deal of time. But nowadays the young read a book like Ponniyin Selvan — the magnum opus of Kalki — in no time at all, and hop on to other books, he adds.

Olivannan narrates some examples in the defence of his opinion that Gen Z is far more advanced and faster than the pre-millennial generation in book reading and the search for knowledge. When events were held in the run up to Chennai Literary Festival to ascertain college students’ knowledge of books and culture, their performance was breath-taking, including in meme-creation as well, he says. “I saw them engrossed in writing page after page to the point that our stock of papers was almost depleted. Somehow, we managed to get more paper delivered at the eleventh hour,” says Olivannan, illustrating his point. “See, you can’t write unless you have gleaned knowledge from books.”

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At another event called ‘Come, Let us Read’ at Olivannan’s Egmore book house, writer Imayam, while addressing the audience, was listing one by one the 14 books he had written when a participating student interrupted and completed reeling out the rest of the names. The writer was pleasantly surprised when the student said he had read all 14 books. “That’s what I’m talking about,” Olivannan says with an envious glint in his eyes, adding that in his prime, he had no such range or speed in book-reading.

“We conducted workshops on media and content writing at Loyola College, in which over 4,000 college students participated, of which 20 per cent belonged to the same college,” he says.

All these incidents have broken the myth to pieces that the young are no longer reading books. Only that most of them pursue reading of serious literature in electronic mode. “So what? Reading is always reading even if it happens outside printed books,” he remarks crisply.

As for the print-on-demand trend in the publishing world, Olivannan says it is a fairly new technology. “We started experimenting with it way back in 2016 itself despite several warnings from friends,” he says. Yet, offset printing still exists, as also the old practice of printing, say, 500 to 1,000 copies of a book at a go. But the problem with printing such a large number of copies is that the errors in the first edition can be rectified only in subsequent editions, if at all.

Print-on-demand does not face that problem, as only limited copies are printed first. Depending on market demand, more copies can be printed in a more refined form after errors, if any, are set right. So, print-on-demand has come about in keeping with the changing times.

Nowadays, more and more people are writing on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. “If such people want to compile their posts and publish a book, they are quite welcome to do so,” says Olivannan. “They may not be celebrated writers like Essaar, Nanjil Nadan, Sujatha and so on, but they need not feel discouraged or daunted. Their writing will get refined and they will also cultivate workmanship down the line.”

Replying to a question about publication of complete short stories of veteran Sri Lankan Tamil writer Thelivathai Joseph, Olivannan says that Thelivathai’s short stories delve deep into the plight and predicament of Sri Lankan tea estate workers who had migrated there from Tamil Nadu to escape caste-based cruelties. But their case was something like falling from the frying pan into the fire, as they had a hard life in the plantations where they worked as well. Joseph’s stories on their life of miseries and misfortunes are so poignant that the readers cannot help but feel moved to tears. The stories can be compared to Pudhumaipithan’s short story ‘Thunbakeni’ (Pond of Grief) and ‘Eriyum Panikadu’ (Burning Forest of Fog, a Tamil translation of English novel ‘Red Tea’ written by P H Daniel). “We are trying to bring the edition of Thelivathai Joseph’s stories to the fair now,” Olivannan says.

Asked what books Olivannan, a publisher, would recommend to buy and read, he says it all depends on what kind of readers are seeking this suggestion. Those who are new to reading Tamil fiction, can start with the books of Kalki and Sujatha, which are easy reads. From there, you can move back to literary works by poets such as Bharathidasan and Bharathi, and at one point of time, move further back in chronology to ancient Tamil Sangam literature. As for English literature, you can start with fiction by Charles Dickens, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry and Emily Bronte.

In a nutshell, he says, go for the classics as it will give you knowledge and help you develop insights and imagination. Reading, in fact, makes your brain release dopamine, which makes you feel delighted and even inspired; it’s a bit like an intoxicating habit. Only that reading is a positive habit.

Millennials and Gen Z’s brains are wired such that they are able to adeptly handle technology while also being prolific readers and writers. In fact, it is people above 50 who have stopped reading long ago, Olivannan says. But millennials and Gen Z are reading a lot and writing on several social media platforms

Asked about some publishers having got only a limited space at the book fair, Olivannan says that as 1,000 stalls have been put up, there is naturally a space constraint at the venue. Yet it is a ‘constructive problem,’ because unlike in other states, in Tamil Nadu we have a regular book fair whose popularity has been on an upswing. When the Chennai Book Fair had a limited number of stalls in the past, it was held at Quaid-e-Millath College grounds and later at some other venues. For several years in a row now, it has been held at the larger YMCA grounds, but the  number of book stalls has increased, leaving us with space constraints.

Talking about the rising cost of printing paper, one of the major problems of the publishing industry, Olivannan suggests that in order to make books available at affordable rates to the readers, the government will do well to slash GST from 18 per cent to six per cent, if not to zero.

Finally, we asked about the controversy over missing late DMK leader and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s name from the BAPASI announcement on the recipients of the Kalaignar Porkizhi Award instituted with the leader’s own funds, Olivannan says that he has not been in the organising committee for the past two years, and therefore he is not in a position to answer the question. Referring to minister Thangam Thennarasu’s angry post  on social media, Olivannan says the issue has been taken up with the BAPASI administrative committee, which attributed the mistake to oversight and assured that it would not happen again.

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