Five books you will never hear about in B-school

Thomas Piketty’s 600-page Capital was the tour de force of 2014. This serious study of economic inequality depended on the works of Balzac and Jane Austen to dramatise the immobility of a 19th-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality—a world the 21st century is beginning to resemble once again.PrintWeek India looks at five Indian literary masterpieces which look at feudalism, zamindarism, and how income from labour could never catch up.

13 Jan 2015 | By Ramu Ramanathan

While Piketty borrowed from Balzac, Austen, Naguib Mahfouz, and Orhan Pamuk to get his fiscal arguments right, we look at some of the Indian masterpieces.


Premchand's Godan is set in Awadh (Uttar Pradesh), in and around Lucknow. It's a novel about Hori Ram, a poor but simpleton farmer. He is in debt. The title refers to "the gift of a cow made by pious Hindus to a brahman at the time of death".

While Godan is about many things like zamindari and caste, it is also about a village in which everyone is in debt - and the debts keep growing. Premchand highlights the perils of money-lending and the unavailability of ready credit at reasonable terms.

Message for the print industry:

This is when Raj Sahib says:

Our parasitic existence has crippled us. (...) Sometimes I think the government would do us a big favour by confiscating our lands and making us work for a living. (...) We've fallen prey to the system, a system that's completely destroying us. Until we're freed from the chains of wealth, the curse will keep hanging over our heads and we'll never reach those heights of manhood which are life's ultimate goal.



In the nineties, thanks to T M P Nedungadi (alias Nadir Shah), pundit and raconteur, I was introduced to Vaikom Mohammed Basheer's story Ente Uppapaa Ku Ooru Anna Indarunu (Me Grandad ‘Ad An Elephant). Nedungadi with his fiercesome moustache read the novella in Malayalam to me, twice.

The first time, I rolled on the floor with mirth. The second time, I felt the English translation lost most of Basheer's earthiness and contempt for grammar. What was lost was the blurry world of kuzhi anna (a bug) with an anna (an elephant). Imagine being told as a child that there are kuzhi anna (a bug) or miniature elephants that live underground. And then I try to dig up the soil (with my bare hands, naturally), in the hope of capturing a real elephant.

Me Grandad ‘Ad An Elephant is a rollercoaster ride through the Basheer-land of childlike innocence coupled with the fundamental orthodoxy and imperfections among Muslims in Kerala. Its protagonist is Kunjupathumma, an illiterate village beauty, who falls in love with an educated, progressive, Nisaar Ahmed.

Message for the print industry:

Be a believer in the future. ... and not protecting and preserving age-old prejudices ...


Rabindranath Tagore is credited for Gitanjali - the collection of poems which bagged him the Noble prize; and Gora - a fictional portrayal of the human condition of colonial subjects but my focus is on two short stories. These are: Sangskar (Belief-system) and Khata, both relevant for 21st century India.

In Sangskar, the narrator is travelling in a car with his wife who is active in the freedom movement and very busy attending meetings.

The husband and wife see a mob beat up a sweeper of the locality, an “untouchable”, who has just had a bath and is wearing clean clothes. The crime of the untouchable is, instead of walking carefully and avoiding the touch of a passersby, he was walking normally and “polluted” the people with his touch.

When the husband tries to get down from the car and offer the sweeper the protection of his car, his freedom-fighter wife prevents him from doing so, because clean or not, the sweeper is still an untouchable.

Khata is equally scathing of Indian hypocrisies. Published in 1891, Khata tells the tale of a young bride Umā who learns to write even though her family makes no attempt to educate her. She is married at the age of nine. Howsoever, she secretly carries with her an exercise-book to her marital house and scribbles from time to time. When her in-laws find out, her educated husband destroys the exercise-book.

Tagore says: For Uma (like million other women in India), freedom is a mirage.

Message for the print industry: 

Rabindranath Tagore (like us) has modern ideas of women empowerment but he (like us) seems helpless against the social milieu of the times.




R K Narayan’s book is about gentle life in Malgudi. It's about people, society and a printer. Let me narrate an incident from a chapter in The Man-eater of Malgudi.

The printer is busy. Nataraj is going to print a book which contained a grand poem about the marriage between Radha and Krishna. This was the printer's special "dream project".

As a result, the "normal" work of composing and printing was pushed into the background. One of the top priority print jobs was for the fruit juice man (K J), The owner had prospered more than ever and wanted 4000 three-colour labels. But Nataraj was not willing to give the job to him, as yet. He had only been able to print the first basic grey.

As Nataraj said, "I put it away to dry and said every time the messenger from K J came. Print it elsewhere."

But Nataraj knew, "Where would K J get the magenta, that thirst-creating shade which drew people to his bottle?"

After the sixth time, when the messenger boy from the fruit juice company was sent back, K J came to the print shop, thundering in, shouting at Sastri outside the curtain. K J did not know Nataraj was inside, assisting Sastri in composing a fund appeal for the celebrations of the poetry book.

The waiting game began.

After a long wait, K J hollered, "Sastri! Are you delivering the labels or not? If you can't, say so, instead of making our boy run to you a dozen times."

This is when Nataraj emerged from the inside room; and stepped out; polite pleasantries were exchanged.

K J fired the salvo. He asked cynically, what is it this time, "Blocks not ready? Ink not available? That's why I made sure of sending with my order that can of ink which I got from Madras."

"And your can of ink is perfectly safe here, Nataraj said and produced it. Then he showed K J the said can; and made a great show of scrutinising the label on the can, and exclaimed, "This is unsuitable. If I had used it, people would run away from your bottles. Do you know what it looks like when it dries? It assumes the pink of an old paper kite picked out of a gutter.

"I got it from Madras, the same brand as you suggested", said K J.

"But I use only the imported variety. This is canned in Delhi, did you know that," said Nataraj. Then he added, "I wouldn't use stuff like this on your work even if you forced me at the point of a gun, I have my responsibility as printer."

Then he showed K J a can of imported magenta ink. Naturally K J could not see the "difference". 

To cut a long story short, Nataraj informed K J that "no work has been done on the label work for the fruit juice company". Not just that, Nataraj almost managed to get a Rs 100 donation from K J for the poet's project of printing the book; plus a grand book celebration. 

Nataraj won. K J retreated. Print zindabad.

Message for the industry:

Today, many printers would love to be in the same shoes as the printer from Malgudi. And many of them would love to replicate the Malgudi algorithm in their own business model. But is this the way to go?




Raag Darbari (Melody of the Court) was penned in the year I was born. Penned by an IAS officer, Shrilal Shukla, the brutal satire is peppered with folk witticisms of Avadhi. The book is about education and the rot therein due to the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and criminals.

The books transpires in Shivpalganj (as fictional a village as Malgudi) in Uttar Pradesh during which a post-graduate (Ranganath, a research student in history) from the city comes to spend a sabbatical with his maternal uncle, Vaidji, who is a power-broker and manipulates the village panchayat.

Shukla rips apart the veneer of Indian democracy and points out tongu-in-cheek that “politics is the state’s main industry”.

Shukla pours withering scorn in the book.

A truck driver tells the educated- hitchhiker who refuses to bribe a daroga (police officer) on his behalf tumhari yehi taleem hai? (What have you studied?). This is followed by Shukla’s point of view, "Vartaman shiksha paddati rastay mein padi hui kutiya hai jisay koi bhi laat maar sakta hai. Driver bhi us par chalte-chalte ek jumla maar gaya. (The present education system is a bitch on the road, who can be kicked by anybody. And so, the driver had a go at it).

Raag Darbari has three insider tricks to win an election: the Ramnagar trick, the Nevada trick, the Mahipalpur trick. According to me, all three are most relevant in India. But I am not going to disclose them. The EC may not grasp the irony and humour and put me behind bars. So please buy the book and read it.

Message for the industry: 

A month before Shukla passed in October 2011, he said in an interview that his depiction of the village politics might pale in comparison with today’s corruption, but that is what makes the book even more relevant.

If you have a favourite Indian book that mirrors the reality in the print industry, please send an eMail to me: