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A pretty long shelf life for fact and fiction: Biblio turns 25 – books

Our goal has always been to be serious but approachable, says Brinda Datta, 58, Biblio’s managing editor. One of the longest running small magazines in India, it is an independent company that has dedicated itself to book reviews, a niche that it felt was important enough to deserve unbiased and expert attention. Browse an eclectic range of fiction and non-fiction works. This year, the effort turns 25.

Datta was part of the launch team. Biblio’s founder-editors, the late journalists Dileep Padgaonkar, Arvind N Das, and Darryl D’Monte, started this 40-44-page magazine in 1995, referring to their own bookshelves to put together lists of what India should be reading, with reviews that go deep into why (the typical review is still 1,500 words).

Datta joined as art director. The design is his, the stylized Biblio: it is perhaps the only magazine in the country with punctuation at the head. “The colon meant something else was coming,” says Datta. It was meant to generate anticipation. Among his most widely read editions, and one that generated buzz, was an early revision of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Little Things months before the Booker won. “Our goal is to be a bridge between the laity and the world of books and academia. No jargon or footnotes. Just long reads, ”says Datta.

(Top left) The inaugural issue for April 1995. (Top right) Biblio put Arundhati Roy on the cover and reviewed The God of Little Things months before his victory at Booker. (Photos courtesy of Biblio)

The first issue cost Rs 20; now it is 200 rupees per issue (print and online). What has not changed is the reduced budget with which it is executed. In fact, lack of funding has been the reason why Biblio, which started monthly, became first bimonthly and then, three years ago, quarterly.

The team’s first office was a half-finished building in one of Delhi’s urban villages, Zamroodpur. Cows and buffalo roared around him; the owner lit a hookah in a charpoy; climbing a flight of stairs, the team worked around a single computer.

The target audience continues to be college students, readers, book lovers, and the intelligentsia. “Biblio has standards; it is not an easy platform to impress, ”says historian and writer Manu Pillai. “It has been a place where critics can say what other magazines would not allow a critic to say. I have had a review that I wrote that was not published in a magazine, which I suspect is because the author in question is an important figure. That wouldn’t happen in Biblio. ”

Around 2020, readers want Biblio to be more than just a keeper of high literary taste. Nilanjana Roy, who has been reviewing books for Biblio since the 1990s, says: “Biblio needs to be seen more rather than locked away. There is a gold mine out there. But if you now want to read a Biblio review on your website, you need to register. It’s a barrier for readers. ”

Datta knows it’s time for a reinvention. “People say we should have a digital presence, be on Twitter,” he says. “The big challenge is finding the financial stability to do it: a new website so that our articles can be shared more easily, a full-time salaried team and better pay our collaborators.” The pandemic has affected a circulation that is already small. Circulation was cut from about 2,000 to half, a sad drop from the peak of the Arundhati Roy edition, which sold 5,000 copies.

“Books are expensive. We want people to be able to read only the reviews and learn things that they would never otherwise know. That’s why the Biblio archive on the web is so urgent, ”says Datta.

In a few decades, each issue will constitute an archive not only of literary history, but of the thought of more than a generation, says Pillai. The July-September issue, for example, is based on the theme of India-China relations. Contains a shipping journal from Wuhan when a city quarantined; stories of how an Indian officer helped the Dalai Lama escape to India. There is mystery, intrigue, subterfuge, and the best part: everything is still unfolding. That’s the magic of books, as Datta would say, and the magic of Biblio.

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