Why Amazon closing down Westland feels like we’re living in a Mohsin Hamid novel

In these days of Covid, it can feel, for the streaming elite at least, like we are living in a daze of make-believe. Inside the plot of Successionfor example, or inside the intersecting plots of multiple novels, all subsumed inside the plot of disaster-pandemic films like contagion.

I am feeling particularly like that today, as I walk the icy-cold streets of Princeton. Like I’m sitting inside the plot of The Reluctant FundamentalistMohsin Hamid’s prescient novel, which features a scene where a young Princeton grad, employed by a global consulting company, is sent to value an eminent publishing house in Valparaiso, Chile.

The head of the publishing house is not happy to meet the Princeton analyst.

“What do you know of books?” the publisher asks the analyst, and the scene unfolds as such:

“Does it trouble you,” he inquired, “to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?”

“We just value,” I replied. “We do not decide whether to buy or to sell, or indeed what happens to a company after we have valued it.”

I have said; he lit a cigarette and took a sip from his glass of wine. Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?”

“No,” I said.

“Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were fierce and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

The publisher’s words make the analyst suspect that he is a “modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire”.

Ultimately, it is suggested that the Princeton grad will shut down the literary wing of the company, which is described as “a drag on the rest of the enterprise”.

The voices of many writers in a postcolonial society will be silenced. And another one bites the dust.

Today I am reminded of this scene, one that is immortalized in the Mira Nair film of the same name. I woke up this morning to the news that Westland books, a 60-year-old Indian publishing company, acquired by Amazon in 2016, has been shut down. Not sold, but shut down. No good reason has been given.

I have many friends in the book business in India, and I know how much they have strived, with heart and soul over the years, to keep good books afloat in a country that is facing the everyday cutthroat competition of worth and value that is at the center of global capitalism. What firms should be allowed to exist? What companies must be killed? What, really, is a book worth in the world?

This overnight shutdown feels more personal still.

Over and over I have read, to my seven-year-old daughter, Westland author Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids in the Moonlight. I received Mermaids as a gift from a friend who breathes books like air, and my daughter and I have both loved it so dearly.

This is a book that tells us, “On full moon nights, if you enter the Kallady lagoon in Mattakalappu, Ilankai (Batticaloa, Sri Lanka) and dip a paddle or oar into the water and hold its dry end to your ear, you will hear mysterious sounds from deep underwater.”

The author of this book, in a shocked Facebook lament, wonders what is to happen to her mermaids in the future?

Writers entrust books to publishers imagining a certain protection for them, a certain lifespan for the words and images and dreams they have spun.

Did Amazon shut down Westland because mermaids have little worth in this world? Particularly brown mermaids, from brown conflict-ridden countries, who sing brown stories, to be read by little brown girls in the middle of a pandemic. What value can something like that have?

But was this purely a hard-headed business decision? Who acquires a small book company hoping to make a large profit? Surely there are other companies to acquire in India for that. For a truly gargantuan behemoth like Amazon, how much could Westland possibly cost to run?

Westland has also published, in the last five years, a series of acclaimed, carefully-researched and hard-hitting books critiquing India’s current regime. No unsupported hatchet jobs these. Writers on Westland’s list include Christophe Jaffrelot, acclaimed as one of the most important scholars of contemporary India by the rigid and exacting standards of global academia.

It includes Josy Joseph, who has won many of India’s top journalism awards, including the Crossword and the Ramnath Goenka. Social media is awash with talk of Amazon’s decision being made in response to the pressures that any strong critic of the current regime in India faces.

This is all speculation. We don’t know why, because Amazon doesn’t explain, in any credible way. Instead, an Amazon spokesperson released a statement that said, “After a thorough review, we have made the difficult decision to no longer operate Westland. We are working closely with the employees, authors, agents, and distribution partners on this transition and we remain committed to innovating for customers in India.”

It seems incredible that a book company, painstakingly built in a postcolonial nation over the course of 60 years, can be demolished in a day.

What takes so long to build takes so little to destroy. This is true of the death of any company, any product. And yet, books are not merely products.

For a global corporation to acquire and shut down, over the course of six short years, a 60-year-old Indian biscuit company, say, would be painful enough. Imagine if the largest-corporation-in-the world bought and liquidated Parle-G. How outraged we would be.

But for Amazon to do this to a publishing company interferes not just with the tastes of a nation, but with a nation’s ability to tell its own stories; to criticize its own government; to express, openly and without fear, its immeasurably many selves. In short, it interferes with a nation’s very democratic processes, its right to dissent and voice.

When I was 23, I was lucky enough to intern at the New Press, a remarkably successful alternative press based in New York. One of its founders, Andre Schiffrin, a publishing legend, said of the book business, “Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of mass media, offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds…The resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would have thought possible in a free society.”

As I think about the loss of Westland, equally affecting books about mermaids and Modi, I think about Schiffrin’s words again and again.

What has Princeton to do with all this? Aside from the fact that, funnily enough, Princeton University Press publishes Jaffrelot’s Modi’s India in the US, even as the book loses its Indian publisher?

Nothing and everything, as Mohsin Hamid points out in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He presents it as training ground number 1 for the “janissaries of empire”, the place where his central character Changez was taught to become the person who would shut down, overnight, book publishers in Valparaiso, no matter how old or how important.

Hamid says of the eminent old university, “Every fall, Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters who came onto campus and – as you say in America – showed them some skin. The skin Princeton showed was good skin, of course – young, eloquent and clever as can be.”

Elsewhere Hamid talks of the “Analytical eyes of a product of Princeton”.

As it so happens, as fiction swerves into reality in these long Covid daze, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, is a product of those same analytical eyes. Like Changez, Bezos’ undergraduate degree is from Princeton. Like Changez, he finds his company unceremoniously shutting down a publishing company in the Global South. Like a cowboy hat, this is not a particularly good look.

As reality imitates fiction, I think of how wonderful it would be if fiction could create reality.

I walk the icy streets of Princeton, at least in part because of the equally-freezing logics of separation, divorce, custody, and Covid’s devastating second wave in India. These stories are so painful to me that I can’t go into them, except to say that, like Changez, I find myself unable to forget the taste of tea in South Asia. Like Changez, I am where I am, reluctantly.

Part of me can’t help but think that if we were in a novel, or a Netflix show, the only happy ending to this sad and sudden shutdown of Westland would be if genres crossed. If we could create a mash-up between The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The First Wives Club. Lit fic meets chick-lit.

Instead of “don’t get mad, get everything”, “Don’t-get-mad-get-the-publishing-company-your-ex-shut-down-and-be-part-of-the-global- fight-to-protect-dissent-and-democracy.”

For there’s another Princeton grad who could set this story right.

If we were in a novel, the former wife of the founder of the biggest-company-in-the-world, the receiver of the largest-divorce-settlement-in-the-world, herself a writer, a lover of books, a philanthropist who supports progressive causes, who explicitly funds non-white voices in the world, would buy Westland and allow critics to continue to speak, and mermaids to continue to sing, in India.

Sick at the demise of an important maker of books in India, I present this as a joke, as a wishful what-if scenario. A fellow single mother, who worked in publishing, and suffered from the vicissitudes faced by the publishing industry in a country that slides down daily in global democracy indices, says, “I like your wise divorce talk.” Neither of us are joking.

We are living inside the plot of The Reluctant Fundamentalistand there is nothing remotely funny about it.

Mohsin Hamid is particularly good about capturing the ability of capital from here to affect dramatic changes there, in unthinking, impersonal ways.

If this is the story of capital, it is increasingly complemented by the story of philanthrocapital – the ability of very, very rich people to give staggering amounts of money to the causes that catch their whims and fancies, or their hearts. Whether this is a good way for societies to run themselves is a story for another time.

What matters to today’s story is whether someone steps up and helps Westland to continue, in some way or form. If it were a former wife, what a great story that would be. If we were indeed living inside a novel, or a streaming show, what a fitting end to the saga.

For, after all, they were once a student of Toni Morrison’s at Princeton. Toni Morrison, who said, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Empower Westland. Sixty years in the making. In the destruction, overnight.

Durba Chattaraj teaches writing and anthropology at Ashoka University. The views expressed are the author’s own. This is a work of wishful thinking.

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