Monday, November 01, 2004

The Pamphlet Project

Himanshu Verma, the young director of the recently formed company Red Earth Creatives, is very interested in the historic link between coffee-houses and the development of literary forms. So there’s something apposite (and at the same time something very not) about our fixing on the Saket Barista as a meeting point to discuss Verma’s attempt to revive the pamphlet as a literary genre. Red Earth has just published the first issue in its Pamphlet Project series, a neat, elegantly produced 40-pager with metrosexuality as its subject.

Verma is the sole author for this one but he’s open to the idea of future issues having numerous contributors. "We’re not going to be rigid about the structure of our pamphlets," he tells me. "And while we don’t intend to compromise on content – as in, we won’t go ‘flip’ just to cater to popular demand – we are open to all kinds of writing styles." That’s evident enough from the issue I’m holding in my hand. The writing varies from didactic to comic as it discusses aspects of the metrosexual man ranging from the Beckham-centric definition popular in the West today to the thesis that androgyny was a key element of masculinity in traditional Indian culture. Even the terms coined by Verma vary from ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Gatsby’ to the ‘Gurgaon metrosexual’ and the ‘Patiala metrosexual’. But that the text is informed, intelligent and well researched is never in doubt.

It was as a student of English literature that Verma first became interested in pamphlets, or rather what they once used to be. "Right from the period of the Renaissance and through Elizabethan England, pamphlets and broadsides played the role of society’s watchdogs," he says. "Pamphleteers openly criticised state policy, moulded public opinion and even festered revolutions." We discuss the correlation between the pamphlet and the development of the novel, which started out in serialised form; some of the founding fathers of the novel, like Jonathan Swift, had been pamphleteers in an earlier avatar.

Is it entirely coincidental that the development of literary forms like the pamphlet and the periodical reached its peak in Europe around the same time coffee, that great stimulant, started coming in from Turkey? Verma is fascinated by the coffee-house culture prevalent on the Continent from around the 17th century, wherein men of letters would gather in a café to discuss and debate the important issues of the day. "Some of them even had their mail – including feedback on their articles and essays -- addressed to them at the café-house," he says. "There are stories of newspaper editors having makeshift offices inside cafes. Many of the great ideas of the time had their genesis in that setting."

At the table behind me I can hear two gigglers slurping at their Mochas whilst discussing the relative merits of Isha someone and Shruti something as item girls; this could be a form of post-modernist Irony. Any chance of a lit-coffee house culture of sorts developing in India, I ask, half-joking. Verma dubiously scans the Barista interiors. "Well, probably not in a commercial space like this one," he says, "but it’s amazing how much can be done when small but dedicated groups come together for a purpose. I think, though I’m not sure, that Mumbai has such a place, or a rough equivalent."

One step at a time, then. In fairness, it should be acknowledged that the many recent tie-ups between cafes and bookshops (Café Coffee Day-Teksons, Barista-The Corner Bookstore) and the encouragement of a "sip, loll and read" culture are welcome developments.

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