How Many People Does It Take …?

9 Mar

A 700,000 square meters Hindu temple—the world’s second-largest Hindu temple—was recently inaugurated in New Jersey. The sect that built the temple is known for building many other elaborate temples, see, for instance, the temple in Delhi (TripAdvisor rates it as the second biggest attraction in Delhi) or the temple in Abu Dhabi. What is more wondrous is that many of these temples have been built in the last two decades.

BAPS Temple in Robbinsville, NJ

BAPS is not the OG of non-state groups building astonishing religious monuments in the modern era. That title rests with the Bahai. The oldest extant Bahai house of worship dates back to 1953. Since then, the Bahai have built many masterpieces, including the Santiago Bahai Temple and the Lotus Temple in Delhi.

Such architectural feats make you think of tens of millions of wealthy followers. The reality is more modest and hence more impressive. “After over 100 years of growth, the organization [behind the Akshardham temples] has … over 1 million followers” (BAPS website). The Bahai have more followers (~ 8 million at the maximum), but they have been relentlessly persecuted over the last century. All of this makes me wonder what we could accomplish if more of us came together.

p.s. The flip side is the harm that relatively small groups of people can impose on the world. For instance, the Taliban forces are no more than a couple of hundred thousand.

p.p.s. It is striking that we don’t have parallel secular achievements that are non-state and non-billionaire funded. I suppose the closest we have is open source software (though a lot of the work on major projects is done within companies).

From Living Instinctively to Living With History

4 Mar

Listening to my maternal grandparents narrate their experience of living with Muslims was confusing. According to them, Hindus and Muslims lived harmoniously. They also liked each other. Hindus and Muslims wouldn’t eat at each other’s houses or may use separate utensils but that had less to do with discrimination and more to do with accomodating each other’s faiths. Even in their recollections of the partition, I couldn’t detect bitterness. They narrated it as an adventure. But to many Hindus (and Muslims) today, it is hard to think of a time when Hindu-Muslim relations did not have a strong undercurrent of historic grievances and suspicion. Today many Hindus have a long litany of grievances, of repeat Muslim invasions, destruction of temples, and such.

Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies may have an answer to the puzzle.* People may go from a time when the “wider world is unknown” because they are “without the means of understanding this world” to a time when they have the means and the politics that comes with that greater capacity, from living instinctively to living with grievances.

“… The British forces the correspondent William Howard Russell had seen at the siege of Lucknow had been made up principally of Scottish Highlanders and Sikhs. Less than 10 years before, the Sikhs had been defeated by the sepoy army of the British. Now, during the Mutiny, the Sikhs – still living as instinctively as other Indians, still fighting the internal wars of India, with almost no idea of the foreign imperial order they were serving – were on the British side.”

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul

Here’s some color on the sepoy army:

“From Russell’s book I learned that the British name for the Indian sepoy, the soldier of the British East India Company who was now the mutineer, was ‘Pandy’. ‘Why Pandy? Well, because it is a very common name among the sepoys …’ It is in fact a brahmin name from this part of India. Brahmins here formed a substantial part of the Hindu population, and the British army in northern India was to some extent a brahmin army.

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul

“people who – Pandy or Sikh, porter or camp-following…Hindu merchant – run with high delight to aid the foreigner to overcome their brethren. That idea of ‘brethren’ – an idea so simple to Russell that the word is used by him with clear irony – is very far from the people to whom he applies it. …The Hindus would have no loyalty except to their clan; they would have no higher idea of human association, no general idea of the responsibility of man to his fellow. And because of that missing large idea of human association, the country works blindly on ….

the India that will come into being at the end of the period of British rule will be better educated, more creative and full of possibility than the India of a century before; that it will have a larger idea of human association, and that out of this larger idea, and out of the encompassing humiliation of British rule, there will come to India the ideas of country.”

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul


To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one’s group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.

From India: A Million Mutinies by V. S. Naipaul

* The theory isn’t original to him. Others have pointed to how many Indians didn’t see themselves as part of a larger polity. The point also applies more broadly, to other groups.

Topgraphy of book sales: What lurks beneath?

3 Dec

A full one-third of books sold worldwide are sold in the US. US is a phenomenally important media market and the success or failure of a book in the US can literally make or break the career of an author.

It is interesting to explore who reads the books, where are they sold, what books are read and the reasons behind these.

Let me start by providing the numbers around book sales in the US. In 2004, Nielsen Bookscan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States and they found:

  • Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

*The last point should be interpreted carefully as the average of a skewed distribution is neither an intuitive nor accurate representation. Here, the average of book sales distribution is disproportionately influenced by the few really large numbers. A much more useful statistic would be the median book sales figure, which is unavailable.

The statistics above show that a very small minority of books contribute to majority of book sales in the US. Let me put this in perspective with a separate set of numbers – of the around 120,000 titles that are published each year – only about 500 books (.4%) sell more than 100,000 copies.

This raises the question then that what is it that creates this extremely skewed topography of book consumption in the US (and elsewhere in the world)? A variety of hypothesis have been forwarded by people to explain this phenomenon – some trace it to the relative paucity of quality books (if we for a second don’t bicker over what means by quality – it seems like a reasonable assumption), paucity of works produced by popular authors (now we are faced with the chicken and the egg question – how did the author become popular), the book display patterns of major book vendors (books displayed on show windows of 2 major book chains in US – Borders and Barnes and Noble – are highly correlated to book sales), media coverage of books and authors (so topicality plays a role – controversial topics or authors, celebrity authors etc. will all sell more), topicality (feeds into above point), length of book’s title, complexity of sentence structure etc.

Business of Books

Book business is by varying estimates between $16.6 billion (US Census Bureau) and $26.9 billion (Association of American Publishers- 2002 figures).

Not only are the book sales limited to a few top earners, the book sales are also limited by publishing houses. Andre Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books, in “The Business of Books” states that in 1999, the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of sales. Later in the book, he states that 80% of book sales originate from five media conglomerates.

Media and the medium

Book consumption is mediated by mass-media. The book is today a cultural product whose value is still primarily gauged by elite reviewers though this is changing with the onslaught on online review sites.

For more statistics on the publishing industry, visit:

Merchants of Art

26 May

“Shakespeare Wallah” was my introduction to the magic of Merchant Ivory Productions. An elegy to a lost era, a bitter-sweet tale of a traveling English theatre troupe in India right after the Indian independence, it is still vivid in my memory. The debonair Shashi Kapoor and Satyajit Ray’s beautiful score are the two other things that I remember from the film. Since then, I have seen many other Merchant Ivory productions. And their films have always left me simultaneously reassured and disturbed.

A constant in all their movies has been the excellent production values, largely a product of Mr. Merchant’s vision, and his acknowledged genius for creating beautiful, authentic sets on a shoestring budget. With the demise of Ismail, we no longer have a producer who fussed over each detail.

The troika of James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, and Ismail Merchant over the past four decades virtually invented a new genre of films. They showed that you don’t need to compromise on art to be successful. And to me, that is the legacy of Merchant Ivory.

I will forever be indebted to their patience, art, and virtue.

Further Reading:
BBC article on Ismail Merchant