Bad Economics, Good Literature

Updated: Oct 25 2002, 05:30am hrs
Manohar Joshi, the savvy Lok Sabha speaker, has been buying Diwali numbers (DNs) or special journals in hundreds and gifting these away to near and dear ones for years now. He may be an exception but most literate households make it a practice to buy at least one or two DNs every year. That is why this quintessentially Maharashtrian literary and cultural tradition has survived and thrived for close to hundred years now. Diwali is less than a fortnight away and DNs are flooding bookshops, footpaths and other distributional outlets.

The late Kashinath Raghunath Mitra, editor of the literary journal Manoranjan brought out the first Diwali number in 1909. As Jayraj Salgaokar, CEO, Sumangal Publishing House and publisher of Kalnirnay, the largest selling almanacs and the Kalnirnay Diwali number, says, A Maharashtrian has four passions : politics, cricket, theatre and Diwali Ankas. The Diwali numbers have become benchmarks of quality and excellence in Marathi literature. Many well-known names in Marathi literature and culture have grown on the succour provided by the Diwali numbers. It is not an exaggeration to say that Marathi literature has sustained on the strength of the Diwali numbers.

The DNs reflect the changing moods of popular mind. Among 450 odd issues as many as 10 are devoted to health, 10 to recipes, about 50 or so to religion and culture, 10 to astrology and the rest to fiction and general. Not all sell well though. Among the numbers that make it to ABC are: Awaz, Satayushi, Loksatta, Maharas-htra Times, Kalnirnay etc.

The market for the Diwali numbers is fairly large. On average every issue has a print run of about 1,000 copies. For 450 numbers it works out to 4.50 lakh issues. At average price of Rs 50 per issue the selling revenue comes to about Rs 2.25-Rs 2.5 crore. Advertisement revenue per issue at Rs one lakh nets in another Rs 4.50 crore. So total business is worth about Rs seven crore or so.

Yet the entire Diwali numbers business ends up being far from profitable, bar a few top 50 numbers.

For most it is a price of the pursuit of passion! Much owes to total lack of professionalism that marks the organisation and execution of the Diwali numbers.

Agents are paid around 33 to 40 per cent commission. Recovery of dues lingers beyond three months. But, for every 10 numbers that vanish, 25 new emerge every year. This is because circulating libraries are the mainstay of the Diwali numbers.

Lack of commercial sense is also reflected in the laid back attitude of the publishers of the Diwali numbers. Among the first 50 top numbers, Awaz, devoted to pristine humour, sells close to 70,000 copies. But for a full page advertisement it charges around Rs 25,000 despite the fact that it reaches right clientele. Mr Vijay Padhye of B Y Pahye Publicity, Mumbai, says, It is typical of Maharashtrian apathy towards money. The fact is that the Diwali numbers possess huge potential for advertisers. But this fact is rarely noticed by the publishers themselves who are too busy in indulging in passion to bring out the issues, often ignoring the economics of it.

Surprisingly enough, a few amateurs with corporate advertisement support bring out Diwali numbers. But these account for about 5-10 per cent.

About fifty years ago or so writing for the dilettante Satya Katha (now defunct) devoted to serious and creative literature and arts was considered a hall mark of quality writing. Such is the all-pervading influence of the Diwali numbers and their reach that even well-known artists like Deenanath Dalal and Raghuvir Mulgaonkar felt it necessary to come out with the Diwali numbers.

What future do Diwali numbers have in the coming decades Most Marathi intellectuals are worried over the inexorable march of English language that threatens the future of Marathi itself. Vijay Padhye is optimistic: I do not see any threat to the Diwali numbers nor to the Marathi language. However, Marathi must absorb the best from other languages and cultures to grow vigorously. Professionalism with good quality products should ensure its future.