Decades ago, in the 1980s, when I was a magazine journalist with literary ambitions in Bombay, I asked a favour of Zamir Ansari. As the head of Penguin Overseas, which oversaw the import and distribution of Penguin books throughout the subcontinent, he was one of the most powerful figures in the world of books in India. I knew little about this world, save that there were no local English language trade publishers of any consequence in the country at the time. This was why I was asking the favour.

A friend had written a novel and wanted it published – she knew no one in the business, and as I had been intermittently in touch with various book distributors about review copies for my magazine’s book pages, I offered to help. Zamir was the first person I reached out to as I thought he would be able to pass the manuscript to an editor at Penguin in the UK or the US, so it would at least be read and
judged on its merits. He responded swiftly: he said he would not be able to place the book abroad but suggested I wait a bit as the company was thinking of setting up a publishing operation in the country and was planning to recruit a publisher – whenever this person was hired, he or she could take a decision on the manuscript. Unbeknownst to Zamir and I, our career paths were about to collide.

A colleague and friend

A few months later, bored with journalism, I applied to, and was accepted by, a publishing course in New England. The keynote speaker at the publishing course was the head of Penguin worldwide, Peter Mayer. We struck up a conversation, and by the end of it, Peter was telling me about the publishing house he was planning to establish in New Delhi; he wondered if I might want to set up and run the company’s publishing programme. Imagine Zamir’s surprise, and mine, then, when I became Penguin India’s first employee – the publisher he had referred to in his letter to me some months previously. That first novel was never published but Zamir and I became colleagues and friends – and established a connection that would last for several decades.

I first met Zamir at the India International Centre, soon after I moved from Bombay to Delhi. A slim, handsome, balding man, dressed elegantly in a grey suit and knit tie – what I remember about that initial meeting was the incredible warmth and generosity he displayed towards the newcomer to a world he was already a titan in. It was because of his drive and enormous strengths as a bookseller that Penguin was the dominant publisher throughout the subcontinent. In every bookstore you walked into the 1980s and 1990s, orange was blazoned on every wall (most Penguin paperbacks had orange spines at that time). Penguin dominated in the media as well – again, it was Zamir’s superb marketing skills and media relationships that were responsible for the publisher’s towering presence in the book pages.

In the early years of our relationship, Penguin Overseas and Penguin India ran in parallel and Zamir was in charge of the sales and marketing of Penguin imports as well as the books the new company published. I would often drive across to Nehru Place from Safdarjung Enclave to seek his counsel. His office was a paradisiacal place for any book addict. Towering shelves of books lined every wall and corridor; there were stacks of books on the floor, his desk, on the window sills, in the adjacent office of his colleague, Sudhir Bansal, in the pantry; along with the smell of coffee, the unmistakable scent of new books permeated the air. I would often forget what I had come to discuss and lose myself in one of the great books that lay around everywhere you looked.

As Penguin India grew bigger, the two companies were merged and we became proper colleagues. We had a long and fruitful working relationship, and much of my foundational knowledge about the Indian publishing ecosystem I owe to him. This didn’t mean there weren’t tussles. Zamir was short-tempered and held strong opinions, and I was raw and opinionated, so we didn’t always see eye to eye; anyone who has worked in publishing will know the sort of points of contention between editorial and marketing departments that I am talking about here. However, these would soon blow over and I would find myself relying once more on his great instincts for what books would and wouldn’t work – these would help Penguin India quickly establish itself as a major player in the Indian book market.

The last of the legends

In many ways, Zamir was one of the last of India’s legendary book people. Men and women like him, who flourished a few decades ago, knew their books, customers, and authors in ways that those who market and sell books today seldom do. He had read every major book he sold and was well-acquainted with the merits and nuance of even the most obscure book on the Penguin list; he had strong relationships with booksellers and distributors, visiting them regularly, establishing friendships, and nourishing the relationships, again in stark contrast to the way books are sold today, with algorithms and social media bots trying to stand in for the very human element that is the bedrock of great bookselling and book marketing. He had extraordinarily strong connections everywhere in the media. And he excelled in caring for his authors, many of whom became his close friends.

In private, he was a warm and sociable man who loved a drink and good food and was fond of Urdu ghazals and other kinds of poetry. A few drinks down, he would quote with great authority from Ghalib, Faiz, Mir, and others. After he retired from Penguin, and I moved cities, we didn’t meet much, but we kept in touch. When Aleph put out its first set of books a little over a decade ago, one of those I sent our first catalogue to was Zamir. He was fulsome in his praise, displaying once again the great generosity I will forever associate with him.

When I heard of Zamir’s passing, I looked around the bookshelves at home and my gaze lingered on many volumes that he loved and shared with me almost forty years ago in that glorious book haven in Nehru Place. They are now a permanent part of my life. That’s one of things about friends from the world of books – they will always live on in the pages of titles we once treasured.