Our aim has always been to be serious but accessible, says Brinda Datta, 58, managing editor of Biblio. One of India’s longest-running little magazines, it’s an independent venture that has devoted itself to book reviews, a niche that it felt was significant enough to warrant unbiased, expert attention. It reviews 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 to 44-page magazine in 1995, referring to their own bookshelves to put together lists of what India should be reading, with reviews delving deep into why (the typical review is still 1,500 words long).
Datta joined as art director. The design is hers — the stylised Biblio: being perhaps the only magazine in the country with punctuation in its masthead. “The colon meant that there was something more coming,” says Datta. It was meant to build anticipation. Among its most widely read editions — and one that did build anticipation — was an early review of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things months before it won the Booker. “We aim to be a bridge between the lay person and the world of books and academia. No jargon or footnotes. Just long reads,” says Datta.
The first issue cost Rs 20; it’s now Rs 200 per edition (print and online). What hasn’t changed is the shoestring budget on which it is run. The lack of finances has in fact been the reason that Biblio, which began as a monthly, turned first into a bi-monthly and then, three years ago, into a quarterly.
The outfit’s first office was a half-finished building in one of Delhi’s urban villages, Zamroodpur. Cows and buffaloes bellowed around them; the landlord puffed a hookah on a charpoy; up a flight of stairs, the team worked around a single computer.
The target audience remains university students, readers, booklovers and the intelligentsia. “ Biblio has standards; it is not an easily impressed platform,” says historian and writer Manu Pillai. “It has been a place where reviewers can say what other magazines wouldn’t allow a critic to say. I have had a review I wrote not get carried in a magazine, which I suspect was because the author in question is an important figure. That wouldn’t happen at Biblio.”
Circa 2020, readers want Biblio to be more than a gatekeeper of high literary taste. Nilanjana Roy who has been reviewing books for Biblio since the 90s says: “Biblio needs to be seen more instead of putting itself under lock and key. There’s a goldmine out there. But if now you want to read a Biblio review on its website, you have 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,” she says. “The big challenge is finding the financial stability to do it — a new website so that our articles can be more easily shared, a full-time salaried team and paying our contributors better.” The pandemic has hit an already-small print run hard. Circulation is down from about 2,000 to half that — a sad drop from the high of the Arundhati Roy edition, which sold 5,000 copies.
Decades from now, each issue will constitute an archive of not just literary history but of the thinking of more than one generation, Pillai says. The July-September issue, for instance, is built around the theme of India-China relations. It contains a diary of dispatches from Wuhan when a quarantined city; tales of how an Indian officer helped the Dalai Lama escape to India. There’s mystery, intrigue, subterfuge, and the best part — it’s all still unfolding. That’s the magic of books, as Datta would say, and the magic of Biblio.
(This story has been altered to correct an inaccuracy that stated a Biblio archive was an urgent need. Biblio has an existing archive on its website.)