The day began with a small singular intent.

The cover of my new novel Everything the Light Touches (forthcoming October 27, 2022), was scheduled to be printed that morning, and I thought, how lovely, I’d make a visit, take a few pictures, make a few videos, stand and grin foolishly holding up print-out, and be out of there well before lunchtime. We made our way to Faridabad on a rainy morning; I thought it would take ages, it didn’t, and I arrived long before my 11 am appointment.

The building was deceptively compact, at least from the front. A car park, a bit of garden, and an entrance to the reception area. A plaque greeted me, “Through wisdom is an house builded; and by wisdom it is established” (Proverbs, 24-3) and I learned that Thomson Press was established way back in 1967 how different this area would have been then, how different the country, the world.

The plaque also informed me that this project was inaugurated by the Honourable Zakir Husain, Vice-President of India, and “dedicated by Lord Thomson of Fleet to the development of India through education.” Lord Thomson of Fleet, I later Google and discover, was a Canadian-born British newspaper proprietor, who became one of the moguls of Fleet Street in London. Regardless of how I felt about Lord Thomson, I was ushered into a waiting room, one wall of which was given over to the awards Thomson Press had accumulated over the years; a trophy shelf in a corner displayed the same.

Rajesh Sethi, Sales Manager, a kindly man with a quick smile, offered me tea and biscuits, which I accepted, and we chatted. So many changes, he told me, over his twenty-five years here. Gone were the analog days, everything now was digital. Recently, to keep up, Thomson Press had bought a slew of the latest, newest machines, but things had been difficult, with the war in Ukraine affecting paper supply the world over. The press was sometimes able to procure only half of what it required. “We hope things will improve,” said Sethi.

I said I hope so too.

When the Deputy Art Designer from HarperCollins, Saurav Das, arrived he was there to oversee the colour corrections of several cover jackets for various Harper titles, including mine we proceeded inside, and in that instant, I was wholly, and utterly mesmerised.

‘Huge and complicated’

We stepped into a large, cavernous room filled with printing machines. It wasn’t as though I expected anything else, but I was strangely awed and moved. If you haven’t guessed already, this was my first time inside a press, especially one of this scale, and it struck me just then how little thought I had given to the actual making of a book. This is what goes on, I exclaimed inwardly in delight. With immense generosity of time and spirit, and admittedly some bemusement, I was given a tour of the place by Mr Sethi and the Production Manager, Stanley Petrus. He’d been at Thomson Press for four years, he told me, and before that, for 16 years at a press in Dubai. He seemed fond, and proud, of the way things were done here.

Each printer worked at varying capacities, I was told, the first in line, one that printed “4x4”, four colours on both sides of a sheet of paper, the next, only one, black on white, the other, four colours on one side, while another managed five. And what were these four basic colours, I asked? Magenta, cyan, yellow, and black. They were all that were required and in their various combinations it was possible to print almost every colour in the world.

The machinery looked huge and complicated, especially to my untrained eye, but they worked on a simple concept. At one end the feeding of large sheets of paper, that rolled through turners awash in ink, and emerged at the other end, complete, and swiftly dry. “See,” said Petrus, wiping his hand across a print-out. The colours stayed unblotted, unstained. This is what most machines did, but others were more ambitious. In the next room, a machine the size of a ship, had the capacity, I was told, to print at the rate of 35,000 sheets an hour. “Do you use it to print novels?” I asked. Mr Sethi smiled and said, “Maybe only ones by Amish.”

All around me, of course, were stacks of paper, of varying grades. Bible paper, thin and delicate, used for, well, Bibles. The thick luxury of photo paper. The familiar grainy in-between for trade books. What happened after text or pages were printed? The sheets of paper were machine folded, neat and swift, into what looked like pamphlets. These were called “sections”, I was told, and they were gathered at the end of the folding process, and fed into another machine, that placed different “sections” together to form a complete book. Here, their spines were checked, to see whether the marks aligned, and this would indicate whether the sections had been ordered correctly. “If not,” said Mr Petrus, “we start again.”

A paperback, which is what the press in Faridabad prints, (hardbacks are printed in their Noida plant), is then sewn with thread, which allows its spine greatest flexibility, or glued into “perfect binding”. Slimmer texts, children’s colouring books, for example, are either spiral-bound or pinned together. I watched Jenny Han’s It’s Not Summer Without You, travel from sorted separate sections, to complete book, to being glued, papered over with the cover, and trimmed into shape on three sides, all in the length of one winding conveyor belt it was magic!

Credit: Janice Pariat

All around me also was the bustle of people, workers at the machines, carefully keeping an eye on the paper, fixing small hiccoughs, checking colour levels off the spectrophotometer, and myriad other things that I couldn’t, as a fleeting visitor, put a name to but what struck me most was the care and dedication conducted at every stage of the process. I hadn’t previously imagined the colossal tactile effort that went into the making of books. All this while, the focus for me had sat quite solely on the author, the editor, the publishing house, and very little on the actual “production” of a book.

I followed Petrus and Sethi around trying not to feel too ashamed. I learned how boxes are made for box sets, the workings of holograms and scratch cards (often pasted on the cover or the front page), how books are checked assiduously for quality control, and shrink-wrapped and packed into boxes and then moved to enormous dispatch room, where trucks of various sizes awaited, backed into the space, their doors welcomingly open.

‘Our words begin their life in the printed world with light’

To understand how exactly a book is born, I was led to “Pre Press”. Here, a very dedicated Harish Chand Maurya, the Assistant Foreman, explained, that everything begins with the receipt of an email with detailed cover and text specifications. From this is conjured the first dummy copy of every book. “What’s most important,” he said, “is pagination.” Having seen the sheets of paper being folded in sequence, I now understood why. A team of experts work on this, carefully signing off a paginated text, that is then test printed and folded, and I watched as a young man did exactly this at a table before me with pages that carried the story of the Rani of Jhansi.

Ajay Chawla, the Pre-Press Manager, brought across a hardback medical book the size of a small carton Canadian Fundamentals of Nursing, I squealed. I had seen copies of the book being sewn downstairs at the binding machine. This one though was blank the dummy version, to check that measurements for the cover and spine were all in alignment. Once this is all approved, the text is sent to the “plating station” which sounded to me like something out of Master Chef but is a machine into which colour-coated aluminum sheets, light yet sturdy, are fed, and “imposed” upon with text. “How?” I asked, confused. “With light.” UV light.

Our words, I thought to myself in delight began their life in the printed world with light.

This aluminium sheet is then washed so the colour dissolves, and a water-based substance coats the “non-image” or non-text areas. When affixed onto the printer, oil-based inks only adhere to the image areas, which are pressed into a rubber blanket and in turn presses, like a stamp, onto paper.

Meanwhile, at one of the machines downstairs, the printing of my book jacket had seen completion. Saurav had checked, meticulously, that the version used was as close as possible in colour and texture to the original file. With an eyepiece we observed the print-out closely, and under this magnification one could see the “spots” of colour that gradually built up an image. I was terribly excited, of course, to see the cover come to life in this manner, but in all honesty, I felt as though my time at Thomson Press had served a far greater purpose. Bigger than my book, or my book cover, and the taking of a few pictures and videos to document the process.

Credit: Janice Pariat

As a writer, I am privy to the journey my book makes before it exists in any tangible form as a seed of an idea and I am there through the writing of it, through the months and months of editing and back and forth with my editor, and then, as it has happened previously, the book seemed to go into a black hole, only to mysteriously emerge as a physical item that could be held and sniffed and touched many weeks later.

My day at Thomson Press helped me fill that blank space, helped me follow much further the journey that a book makes, how it is the result of many decisions and attentions in the space of a press. Beyond my own, I thought of the books I had bought, that had passed through my hands, the ones that still had place in my bookshelf, and I felt a surge of appreciation for the effort that had gone into their making.

How many hands had helped coax them into being. I’d always thought the writing of a book a collaborative effort that our notions of a writer as a lonely (usually male) genius sitting locked away churning out masterpieces on their own, needed to be dismantled, that the writing of books was shaped by conversations with friends and other writers, in the form of chats, the sharing and recommending of texts, of continuing dialogues that you feel might have started elsewhere but how glad I was to discover that the collaboration continues long after. That a book comes into existence because of the meeting of many efforts, each indispensable, each playing a role in bringing them into our lives to love and to cherish. And that books move along their journey touched again and again by light.

Credit: Janice Pariat