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Diversity in the Stacks: Westland Books and the Complexities of Publishing in Neoliberal India

In the last year, the Penn Libraries purchased more than 400 volumes published by the recently-shuttered Indian publisher Westland Books.

A pile of colorful books. Visible titles include "Reconciliation: Journey of Solidarity Through A Wounded India," "My Days In the Underworld: The Rise of the Bangalore Mafia," and "Queen of Hearts."

The abrupt closure of Indian publishing house Westland Books in February 2022 stunned readers and authors alike, significantly disrupting the book industry in South Asia. Amazon, which had acquired Westland Books from the Tata Group in 2017, gave little reason for shuttering one of the top trade publishers in India, stating merely that they had opted to no longer operate Westland after a thorough review. Speculation ran rampant, with publishing circles citing poor editorial decisions in the face of fickle reader tastes, business critics pointing to overly large advances for big-name writers, and social media theorizing potential government pressure following publications critical of the current regime. Although the Penn Libraries has been acquiring Westland imprints for some time, the announcement of the closure underscored the importance of collecting comprehensively before the remaining Westland publications disappeared from the market. Following the news of the closure, the Libraries worked with two Delhi-based vendors to purchase more than 400 volumes published by Westland in recent years.

The Many Faces of Westland Books

Westland Books began as a Chennai-based distributor in 1962 under the moniker East West Books, founded by K. S. Padmanabhan. They later rebranded as Westland Books and began publishing under a number of imprints: Westland, Tranquebar, Context, Eka, and Red Panda children’s books. As an eclectic independent publisher, Westland offered titles in a broad range of genres and topics, “from popular and literary fiction to business, politics, biography, spirituality, poetry, graphic novels, health, and self-help.” Though the majority of their publications were written in English, they also offered books in a number of South Asian languages, particularly Hindi. Despite operating under large corporate ownership for nearly a decade, Westland maintained the spirit of an independent publisher, with Gautam Padmanabhan, the son of the founder, continuing to lead operations.

Though Westland’s publications tended towards the general audience more so than the academic, their influence on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus is apparent. Just this fall Rukmini S., an independent data journalist based in Chennai, served as a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), where she offered presentations and discussions on her impactful book published by Westland in 2021, Whole Numbers and Half Truths; that work, which probes data collection and reporting in India, also served as the basis for Lecturer Brian Cannon’s Critical Writing Program sections for Penn undergraduates. This spring, Parismita Singh, an artist and author from Guwahati in Northeast India, has been in residence at Penn to participate in the Making Books in South Asia symposium and to foster discussions about art, community, and censorship; she also led an interactive workshop in which participants were encouraged to destroy the last remaining copies of her Westland-published book, Peace Has Come, giving new life to volumes slated for pulping.

A person colors in a book with red and blue crayons. Only the person's hands are visible.
A participant "destroys" a book as part of Parismita Singh's interactive workshop. Photo by Gregory Wright.

Many of the Westland titles recently acquired focus on issues of politics and contemporary Indian society. While Westland has historically published books across a wide variety of political viewpoints and affiliations, some speculate that their recent left-leaning publications or works critical of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have influenced Amazon’s decision to shutter the publishing house. Hindu Rashtra by journalist Ashutosh, for example, explores how the BJP’s platform of economic reform and increased development has been co-opted and merged with a philosophy of Hindutva that seeks to edit history and reshape modern Indian religious culture. Similarly, Reconciliation follows the Karwan-e-Mohabbat campaign, led by activist Harsh Mander in solidarity with victims of communal or religiously motivated violence; the book highlights the suffering and oppression of minority communities in India while critiquing the State and increased global corporatization. Other Westland publications, however, offer more balanced assessments of the Indian political climate or even laud the current political establishment—Shades of Saffron traces the historical rise of the BJP; Because India Comes First assesses recent decisions made by the BJP-led government regarding topics such as confrontation with China, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and domestic terrorism; and Modi and Markets offers a favorable economic outlook under current political leadership.

Literature — including poetry, prose fiction, and short stories — constitutes another area of focus for Westland. Geared toward popular literature for commercial consumption, Westland’s writers have included some of the most notable in the field, particularly in recent years. For example, Westland published Chetan Bhagat’s One Arranged Murder and Anuja Chauhan’s The House that BJ Built after luring these widely popular authors from Rupa and HarperCollins, respectively. Feminist mysteries such as Eating Wasps from bestselling author Anita Nair offer portraits of modern Indian women, while peripheral settings in many works bring readers to less traveled parts of the subcontinent, such as Assam (The Muddy River) and Kashmir (Zoon and Kashmir Blues). Likewise, Akhil Katyal’s poetry collection Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue reveals a strong sense of place in its descriptive revelations of Delhi, accompanied by striking pen and ink depictions by artist Vishwajyoti Ghosh. In addition, Westland has often platformed the short story, a particularly popular genre in South Asia. With Baker’s Dozen, for example, they partnered with ELLE India to publish the top short stories from their Fiction Awards, which featured a diverse array of emerging voices.

Text of "Khusro and Nizam: a villanelle" from the collection Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue
Excerpt from Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue by Akhil Katyal.

Particularly relevant to research interests at Penn are Westland’s publications related to South Asian performance, including music and dance, but especially cinema. The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan delves into the life of one of modern India’s most renowned sitar players, tracing his path and influences through more than seven decades. Similarly, An Epic Life: Ramanand Sagar follows the professional trajectory of a director who ultimately shaped Indian television with his serial Ramayan in the late 1980s. Sridevi: Queen of Hearts highlights the trials and tribulations of one of the first superstars of Indian cinema, while Sheroes: 25 Daring Women of Bollywood explores 25 roles in Indian cinema that showcase a heroine over a male lead.

Westland also publishes a number of lifestyle works, including cookbooks; the Penn Libraries continues to build its collection of historical global cookbooks, particularly in recent years with increased interest in food studies. While works such as The Vegan Kitchen: Bollywood Style! offer contemporary takes with Indian flair, many foreground traditional regional specializations: The Pondicherry Kitchen delves into traditional Indo-French; The Seven Sisters features recipes from the Northeast; A Sense for Spice reveals the tastes and stories of the Konkan; and Savour Mumbai presents cosmopolitan eclectic fusions.

Westland's Future

Such broad-reaching and varied publications offered by Westland have benefited the publishing landscape of South Asia, so Amazon’s closure of the publisher has resulted in the silencing of certain writers and uncertainty about the future of the industry. However, Westland’s story isn’t over just yet. Shortly after Amazon turned out the lights on Westland in March last year, members of the former Westland team entered into partnership with Pratilipi, a digital publishing platform owned by Bengaluru-based Nasadiya Technologies. The scope and aspirations of this renewed version of Westland Books continue to take shape, with the first volumes in Westland’s nascent imprint, Pratilipi Paperbacks, scheduled for release this spring. As we await these new releases from a reinvigorated Westland Books, browse the previous publications included in our holdings.



April 19, 2023