The shuttering of a publication house of the order of Westland was an unprecedented event. When the news broke on 1 February, 2022, it led observers and readers to question the financial weather of an industry already under the strain of the pandemic-induced losses. Further, the announcement left Westland’s authors and employees in the lurch – what will happen to their books, their jobs, and their careers?
Even as various stakeholders were coming to terms with this, the singular question on everyone’s mind was of the fate of the books once Westland ceased operations.
It was soon communicated to the authors by Westland that the books would be available for ordering and stocking by the bookstores up until 28 February and will go out of print in the coming months. This led to a rush from readers – in a bid to salvage whatever they could from the soon-to-perish publisher, people from various parts of the country stepped in to buy as many titles as possible.
At public libraries
Somwya Swaminanthan, a writer and an educator with Lead School India, who’s based out of Chennai, realised that neighbourhood libraries and educational institutions could ensure access of these books to innumerable batches of students and readers in times to come. “All of us have had that neighbourhood libraries where we have walked to, borrowed books from, taken memberships of. They’ve always been an integral part of the ecosystem,” she says.
If you're heartbroken about what happened to @WestlandBooks - there is something we CAN do. I'm doing a tiny project to help folks buy and/read their books widely and immediately. DM me ASAP & let's collab! Please amplify! <3 pic.twitter.com/gT3q0eyQEp— Sowmya Swaminathan (She/Her) (@sowswamin) February 6, 2022
Swaminathan put out a tweet on 6 February, asking people to contact their nearby libraries, bookstores, and educational institutions, to persuade them to buy and stock as many books as possible from Westland’s diverse range of fiction and non fiction. She says the response to this tweet was so tremendous and overwhelming that she had to let go of the control after one point. “I received messages on Whats App, Twitter, Instagram, wherever it was possible. I couldn’t manage all at once. I told people hence to contact the libraries and colleges on their own and just update me on the status,” she added.
In literary circles too, the preservation of titles from Westland became a big and obvious concern. Authors uncertain of the future of their books promoted on social media their Westland-published titles, and joined worried readers in their calls to purchase before stocks ran out. Saikat Majumdar, Professor of Creative Writing at the Ashoka University, recalled how an e-mail from a fellow writer started a conversation around buying the titles from the Westland backlist. He and his colleagues at the Creative Writing Department of Ashoka decided that the department would buy and house 119 literature titles — mostly fiction, some poetry — from Westland. Currently, their library is in the process of cataloguing the same. “Beyond the first reviews and the media attention, the best place for books to live is in the University,” Majumdar says. He hopes that the books they’ve bought enter the classrooms one day, to be discussed and researched, by generations of students.
In another attempt, Deepan Mitra, a 21 year old book blogger and a student, conceived a readathon of Westland titles. Called ‘The Context Readathon,’ Mitra stuffed this reading spree with a pre-planned list of books from Westland’s Context, their imprint for literary fiction and non-fiction. He then invited participation by sharing the requisite information of the book list and the hashtag “#ReadFromContext” to be used through his social media handle @deepans.bookshelf on Instagram.
This found new allies in people who weren’t from the blogging community too, says Deepan. The idea was to be vocal as a community about reading these books. “They could buy one or two books, or just pick one from their existing collection,” says Deepan. He plans to host similar Readathons for Eka, Westland’s imprint for translations and Tranquebar, their oldest imprint, too in the near future.
An online resistance
Special online sessions too were organised. For example, The Quarantine Train, a writers collective on Facebook that critiques and discusses poetry and fiction from around the world, hosted a reading of Westland-published poets on 12 February. “The special session saw people join in from different countries,” says Arjun Rajendran, the founder-curator of the group, adding that more such sessions, by individual poets, were in the offing.
“Stories need to be told, not shut down,” Resh Susan, a book reviewer, and writer, with a following of over 50,000 on her Instagram handle @thebooksatchel, said in an email conversation. Susan also promoted some Westland books actively on her social media handles.
As unprecedented as the crisis was, people pinned their hopes at a miraculous comeback, or as Susan put it, “a rise from the ashes, like a phoenix.”
There were also instances where readers lined-up at the bookstores, in what was an extension of solidarity to the Westland titles. Bookstores, in turn, bought these titles in abundance, making their contribution to the efforts of the reading community. Till any further news on what might happen to the published titles, as well as those that were still in the works, these efforts will keep their reading going.
Raunaq Saraswat is a freelance writer and a final year undergraduate at IIT Delhi