Samuel Israel was born in Bandra, a suburb of Bombay, on September 22, 1920. His family of Bene Israel Jews came from the village of Wadghar near Murud in the former Janjira state in Maharashtra’s Konkan region, and originally bore the name Wargharkar. Samuel’s grandfather Ezekiel, better known as Bapuji, joined the 4th Rifles Regiment of the British Indian army at the age of 18. When being recruited he was asked for his caste name, which he gave as “Bene Israel” and was thus enlisted as Bapuji Israel.

Samuel, called Sammy by most, was the youngest in a long line of brothers and sisters, of whom 12 survived. The family had by then settled in Bandra following the early retirement of Sammy’s father Jacob Bapuji Israel from government service, including many years as Karbhari or chief administrator in Aundh state, for which he was given the title Khan Bahadur.

As a result of several failed business attempts by Jacob Bapuji post-retirement, the family was in straitened circumstances. However, all the children, boys and girls, were educated to the extent they chose, except for the eldest son who sadly had to give up his plans to study engineering in the US to help support the family.

The family lived in a large rented house with a sprawling garden where the children ran wild with their friends, learning to swim in the well there. Sammy remembered being provided with books and having his father read to him a great deal as a child.

His mother Rachel (née Killekar) spoke and read to him mainly in Marathi. She was a gentle and reticent presence in her children’s lives, being about 15 years younger than her husband. Sammy was 13 when his father died, and his mother passed away only a few years later. His elder brothers and sisters had by then already taken on the roles of guardians and providers, and the family always stayed close and united.

The house at 110 Hill Road, Bandra. When this photo was taken in the early 1990s, a block of flats had come up in the compound. Soon after, the house was demolished to make way for another block. Credit: Rivka Israel.

Sammy was educated at St Xavier’s High School in Dhobi Talao. He recalled that a large group of boys used to travel together from Bandra to Marine Lines by local train. They would walk along Hill Road about 2 km to the station to catch the train. In those days there was a solitary taxi in Bandra and a bus service was yet to start.

Bandra was home to a good number of Bene Israel families, though most of their synagogues were located in the areas of Masjid and Jacob’s Circle in southern Bombay. Sammy’s family kept the sabbath and followed Jewish dietary restrictions, attending synagogue on the High Holidays.

They visited regularly with other Jewish families in the vicinity. However, it was the Rawley family that provided two of Sammy’s dearest friends from his childhood, Navin and Kusum. Their father was Punjabi and mother was English; she and Sammy’s mother became close friends in spite of the language barrier. Navin, a year older than Sammy, attended St Xavier’s school and college, after which he joined the army. Sammy would have followed suit if it hadn’t been for his poor eyesight (he joined the University Training Corps in college).

University Training Corps in 1941. Sammy Israel is seated second from right. Credit: Rivka Israel.

Sammy described himself as an indifferent student but in his last years at school he developed a fascination with science and technology, and the possibilities their application held for enhancing human welfare. He read widely in all areas of popular and semi-popular science besides a range of other subjects.

After completing a BSc in chemistry at Elphinstone College he enrolled for a master’s degree at the Royal Institute of Science. But by then he was involved in student politics and soon began working for the Communist Party of India, giving up on his research. His entry into publishing was as a member of the team editing and producing the fortnightly journal of the Student’s Federation of India (The Student). As he wrote, “In addition to general editorial and production duties on the journal, I regularly contributed articles on popular science. I had become an editor and communicator.”

With a group of other young people who would remain friends for life, Sammy continued as a Communist Party of India worker though he never became a card-carrying member of the party. In the early 1940s, he travelled to Bengal with other party workers for relief work during the famine.

He once related how he with his friends had been at Gowalia Tank (now August Kranti Maidan) when Gandhi gave the “karenge ya marenge” (do or die) call against the British and began the Quit India movement. Though the party believed that India should support the British in the war against fascism, no young person could fail to be moved by Gandhi’s speech, my father told me.

In five years’ time, on the night of August 14-15, 1947, after listening to Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech on the radio, Sammy would be among the crowds on Bombay’s lit up streets, celebrating freedom, though in the devastating shadow of riots and violence in parts of the country.

Sammy’s first job was with a railwaymen’s trade union in Bombay, which involved mainly office work and publishing pamphlets. During this time he served two “short, restful” periods in jail as a political detenu in newly independent India.

In the early 1950s he took up a job with People’s Publishing House along with “a bookseller friend” (possibly this was one Mr Kadri who ran Current Book House in Fort, and who was also a leftist). Based in Bombay, People’s Publishing House was owned by the Communist Party of India. It was here that Sammy’s skills in copy-editing were honed. He wrote in Editors on Editing (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1993):

… it was at PPH that I learnt that, even while one admired writers for the brilliance of their thought and their written expression, there are very few cases in which their writing would not benefit from the services of a sensitive and competent editor. Considering the highly political nature of the material published and the concern of the party for the strict adherence to its “line” one got a splendid training in ensuring that editing preserved not only the writer’s general meaning but also its minor nuances.

I thus came increasingly to regard my editorial self as an authors’ consultant on written communication. I thought I had found a job that suited my abilities and inclinations, and even my limitations. Even more fortunately, I found the job interesting and believed it to be useful – my job satisfaction was complete; my salary satisfaction was not. However, when one believes [in what one is doing] much else is endured or forgotten.

While at the People’s Publishing House, Sammy began reading in depth about publishing, editing, and book design, print and production, beginning with The Making of Books by Sean Jennet (1951). When People’s Publishing House shifted to Delhi in 1954, he moved there for six months, but by then his views had evolved and he was no longer a political activist; besides he was engaged to be married. He left the organisation on cordial terms, and began to explore other options.

The People’s Publishing House in Khanna Building, opposite Irwin Hospital, in New Delhi in 1954. Credit: Rivka Israel.

A short period of anxiety followed, as no one seemed to be keen to employ an editor with a Communist background. Sammy applied to and was rejected by several publishers, including Roy Hawkins of Oxford University Press.

This indeed turned out to be fortunate, because he was finally given a break (only months before he got married in March 1955) by Parakrama Singhabahu (Peter) Jayasinghe of Asia Publishing House, on the recommendation of a common friend, Romesh Thapar. Jayasinghe, a Sinhala businessman who had prospered in rice trading during World War II, had started publishing in India in 1943. He gave Sammy as chief editor a free hand in acquiring manuscripts by Indian academics.

At this point in time few English-language publishing houses were involved in academic and general publishing; even Oxford University Press under Hawkins stuck to a few pet authors – Salim Ali, AK Coomaraswamy, Jim Corbett, Verrier Elwin. Sammy would never have had the freedom to develop a list of his choice if he had been working under Hawkins. Oxford University Press would only later, under Ravi Dayal, build a formidable academic list.

Unfortunately, my father kept no record of, nor spoke much about, the multiplicity of authors he published in Asia Publishing House where he worked until the late 1960s, being quickly promoted to director, editorial and production.

Jayasinghe definitely had the vision and the contacts, and he recognised the talents of his employee who built up the list that is still respected today. Sammy’s excellent relations with his authors were matched by his close professional dealings with printers (in those days, Times of India Press, Leaders Press and Sangam Press), paper suppliers and binders.

Letterpress machines at Sigma Press in the 1970s. Credit: Rivka Israel.

Srinivas (Bertie) Iyengar, who joined Asia Publishing House in 1964, told me that two people in his life greatly influenced his thought and attitudes, personal and professional. The first was DN Marshall, the widely respected librarian of Bombay University and also a friend and author of Sammy’s. Iyengar had done a year’s course in Library Science under Marshall, and was librarian at Mithibhai College for four years before joining Asia Publishing House. There he met Sammy, and said that his feelings for him were “plain, unadulterated adoration; we were on the same wavelength”.

Iyengar says that he learnt all his “professional ropes” through Sammy, who was not just boss, but colleague and friend, outstanding for his “sensitivity, humility and gentleness towards subordinates. He unobtrusively taught us, making suggestions rather than imposing his opinions, and we instinctively felt he was right.”

BH Pujar (at centre, wearing spectacles), S Iyengar (the tallest) and Reuben Israel (in dark shirt) at Sigma Press. Credit: Rivka Israel.

(Incidentally this is how my brother and I remember our father too. Reuben said: “… he never imposed his will or even opinion on me or on anyone else. He would let you know his view and would give you the option to hold on to your own. More often than not one saw the wisdom in his way and went along willingly. I do not remember a single occasion when he ordered me or anyone else to do what he wanted. He was truly non-violent in thought and deed.”)

Bertie Iyengar recalls the good old days at Asia Publishing House, with other colleagues in editorial and production such as BH Pujar, Surendr Jha (later the editor of Science Today and Science Age) and one Mr Asharaiha who subsequently became a pastor. Narharisinhji of Limbdi was director, sales and marketing, and his niece Sneh Sinh worked in the publicity department, while Yeshwant Dhavale, Nandi Mehra and Ramesh B Patel were in sales.

Rusi Lala was another friend who ran the London office of Asia Publishing House; later, Sammy would edit his books Creation of Wealth and Heartbeat of a Trust. According to Iyengar, “all those who worked with Sammy without exception had nothing but praise for him”. He recalls that Sammy’s cabin was on one side of Peter Jayasinghe’s room; on the other side was that of his wife Lily Jayasinghe (née Guzder) who was also involved in the publishing house. After Lily separated from him, Iyengar states, Peter was a broken man.

Bridget Rodricks was another person dear to Sammy from his Asia days. She stayed in touch, visiting him as often as she could, and always remembering his birthday (she still continues to do so). She joined Asia Publishing House when it was in its old premises in Contractor Building, Ballard Estate. It later moved to Calicut Street to a new four-storey building owned by Jayasinghe which became known as Asia House, and Bridget too recalls the placement of the cabins on the top floor (my brother Reuben remembers these being airconditioned and freezing, with connecting doors between them).

Bridget first worked with Dinshaw Mistry in the research department (it is not clear what its purpose was), but one day she was asked by Sammy to take dictation. After that he requested that she should work with him and Mistry agreed.

Bridget recalls how much she enjoyed the work, and told me she has kept her shorthand books, with dictation she took of his letters in “impeccable English”. Bridget got married in 1961 and soon after that gave up her job, but Sammy sent a message through her cousin who was also at Asia Publishing House that she should come back.

He adjusted her timings to 11.30 am to 5.30 pm, instead of the official 10 am to 6 pm, and insisted that the same salary should be paid to her, as she put in more work in those hours than many others did in the whole day. Bridget remembers Sammy as “straightforward and hardworking, and a kind and sensitive boss”.

Most of Sammy’s old friends from the Asia Publishing House days are no longer alive. Yeshwant Dhavale moved to Oxford University Press but unfortunately he passed away prematurely; his eldest daughter Vidya Newalkar took up a job in the accounts department, and some years later she and I met and became colleagues and friends.

BH Pujar too would be my colleague at Oxford University Press Mumbai where we worked closely as the sole editorial and production staff, with Ramesh Patel as branch manager. Nandi Mehra would go on to work with Springer Verlag and later start his own publishing house, Narosa. When Sammy set out as a freelance editor, Nandi gave him office space to work in; he was also very fond of my brother Reuben who briefly worked with him at Narosa.

Sammy’s years at Asia Publishing House were in his own view the most rewarding of his career, where he gained experience of editorial assessment and choice as well as a comprehensive knowledge of the publishing industry.

He learnt from experience and making his share of mistakes, as well as from books on the subject and professional journals to which he had access while in Asia Publishing House. He observed that the memoirs of British and American publishers were interesting but not wholly relevant to conditions in India. He felt that a major lacuna in Asia Publishing House was the lack of interaction between publishing and financial management.

In the mid-1960s, his job turned increasingly stressful as Asia Publishing House began delaying payments to printers, paper suppliers, binders, and even authors. Sammy’s position became difficult and he had no option but to leave. Iyengar remembers being heartbroken, and says he found it hard to contain his tears when Jayasinghe called the two of them into his cabin and peremptorily instructed Sammy to hand over to Iyengar.

Some titles from the Asia Publishing House, in the 1950s and ’60s. Credit: Rivka Israel.

The first section of an article by Ramachandra Guha titled “From Asia Publishing to Permanent Black”, which pays tribute to Indian publishers and editors, features the “remarkable and now sadly forgotten” Asia Publishing House and highlights some of its major titles and authors.

Guha writes: “The books published by Asia Publishing House in the 1950s and 1960s, and by Permanent Black [run by Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy since 2000] more recently, have deepened my understanding of my own country in more ways than I can relate here.”

After working on the first draft of this article, I stumbled on a piece by Sasanka Perera, “Reflections on a Personal History: Excavating the Memory of P.S. Jayasinghe and Asia Publishing House” published online by Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer in December 2021. Largely based on Guha’s account, this article concludes: “Jayasinghe and Israel were smart enough to quickly identify a serious gap in scholarly publishing in India at the time and exploit it well, both as a matter of business and as a matter of ideology. Moreover, they were capable of searching for, and carefully identifying authors with promise to publish. It is entirely possible that the social sciences in India might not have evolved historically as they have done had Asia Publishing House not existed.”

In 1968, Sammy joined a new venture, Somaiya Publishers, and was followed there by some of his old colleagues, or rather friends, like Iyengar and Pujar. Incidentally, the three of them with some others even ventured into printing and invested in the setting up of Sigma Press; unfortunately they were cheated out of their shares by a dishonest partner. Sammy, like his father, was no businessman.

By the early 1970s, the English-language publishing business had begun shifting its centre to Delhi, and Sammy left Somaiya to join Tata McGraw-Hill there. The chairman, JJ Bhabha, wished the company to develop a list in the humanities; however, the US company, known for its scientific and technical publications, did not go along with this. So then Sammy joined Macmillan in Bombay (also because his wife and children were still in Bombay).

However, within a few months the head office was moved to Delhi and Sammy had to report there. Unfortunately, he had to work with a rather nasty general manager, who brought in a raw young “editorial advisor” from England over Sammy’s head. So that was the end of that. Iyengar also worked at Macmillan when Sammy was there, and remembers the situation.

At the time, historian Sarvepalli Gopal was chairman of the National Book Trust, and Sammy was offered the job of director. He spent some happy years there, with congenial colleagues, notably Mala Dayal who then headed the children’s books publishing programme. She points out that he was the only professional publisher the National Book Trust ever had, besides being a kind and considerate boss.

PS Jayasinghe (December 31, 1908-November 5, 1977) with his wife Lily. Photograph courtesy Ananda Jayasinghe.

During his term, Sammy moved the venue of the biannual World Book Fair to Pragati Maidan, which made a great difference to the exhibition space and footfall. I remember him talking about the many details that had to be considered, his concern with fire safety in the halls, and his insistence that there should be enough exits.

Even after he left the Trust, he continued to be associated with it, writing a couple of books about the making of books and publishing for young people, and editing and contributing to the book Editors on Editing cited above. He also served for some years as trustee and member of the executive committee.

After National Book Trust, Sammy joined Orient Longman in 1978 as general manager. Here too, he made close friends, including Sujit Mukherjee (and his wife Meenakshi Mukherjee, who taught English at Lady Sriram College) and Priya Adarkar (the latter was my guru, providing invaluable training when I worked at Orient Longman in 1981-’84).

Sammy became particularly fond of a young man who was in the marketing department at Orient Longman when he joined – Bikram Grewal. At the time, Grewal was having trouble with the management, and he thought Sammy would be one more person against him but within five minutes of meeting him he realised this wasn’t so. They hit it off instantly.

Not too long after, things came to a head and Grewal was suddenly posted to Guwahati without Sammy’s knowledge. When Grewal informed Sammy that he was leaving Orient Longman, Sammy resigned as well in protest as the transfer had been decided without reference to him as general manager.

Grewal said, “I have never in my life met anybody that I have been so grateful to, not just in learning the craft – he was a master-craftsman – but because he stood up for me.” He would later return the favour, bringing in Sammy who was then freelancing to work with him on the Insight Guides on India (Apa Publications, Singapore) – a project that was enjoyable and also well-paid.

In Tokyo in the mid-1970s as Director of the National Book Trust during an informal address at the Asian Cultural Center for Unesco. Credit: Rivka Israel.

It must be said that, though Sammy had left Orient Longman, the company Chairman Rameshwar Rao continued to have high regard for him as a person of principle. When I was looking for something to fill time after my BSc exams, and thought I might try editorial work, my father felt Priya Adarkar would be the best person to teach me. Thanks to him I was welcomed at Orient Longman, and after three months’ working without pay they offered me a job. Incidentally, Iyengar, after a stint at the Press Institute of India, worked at Orient Longman (now Orient BlackSwan) from 1990 till he retired in 1994.

After Orient Longman, Sammy did not take up any more jobs but functioned as a publishing consultant, and this worked well for him, as he had built up much goodwill in his years at various publishing houses. He kept abreast of new typesetting and printing technologies and was excited by the possibilities of the internet and digital publishing. He continued to copyedit manuscripts into his 80s, when sadly his sight began to fail.

His wife Sarah, a doctor, herself had a wonderful command of the English language and in her last 10-15 years of work in the Ministry of Health, Government of India, had written and produced manuals for health workers and educators, often taking Sammy’s advice in the process.

After retirement she spent a good deal of time reading to and writing little books for her grandchildren, but also helped Sammy with his work besides doing some freelance copyediting and proofreading independently. Both their children unconsciously imbibed a lot from them and chose books as a profession, and their grandson followed suit.

When I look back on my father’s life, what appears to me even more valuable than the work he did are the relationships of mutual love, respect and trust he built throughout his career, apart from those with friends and family.

Writer Bill Aitken expressed this well, when he emailed me after my father’s death on September 16, 2009, calling him “a rare soul, if not unique, in never attracting anything but positive comment in his professional life”.

Note: This personal account has been written at the urging of AR Venkatachalapathy, Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. I am grateful to him for his interest and to my father’s old friends and colleagues, Mala Dayal, Bridget Rodricks, Srinivas Iyengar and Bikram Grewal, for sharing their memories with me. Ramachandra Guha provided invaluable editorial inputs and encouragement and Ananda Jayasinghe kindly provided the photo of his parents.