Some people love books. Some people love animals. Very few have an equal passion for both. Maneka Gandhi is one such person. I was introduced to her by my friend, the legendary bookseller KD Singh, who was close to Maneka at the time. She was turned out of the PM’s residence by her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, when differences flared up between the two after the death of Maneka’s husband Sanjay Gandhi. It was KD who accompanied Maneka from the PM’s residence to her mother’s place, a brave job indeed.

Maneka and KD would often visit our Pataudi House showroom to buy books. Over time, our connection strengthened, and one day, she invited me to visit her at home in New Friends Colony. I drove down to her place around 10 in the morning. When I got out of the car, to my dismay, I was surrounded by around 20 odd stray dogs – Maneka routinely rescued strays from the streets. I was rather nervous when they converged on me, baring their teeth and barking. I was on the verge of leaving when Maneka emerged and pacified them.

I was settled in her study and noticed two little puppies beneath my chair, playing with several sheets of paper. When Maneka saw what I was looking at, she said casually, “Ah, this is the manuscript I’ve written for a publisher. The proposal didn’t work for them and so I have discarded it.” My curiosity was piqued and I retrieved some of the pages from under the puppies. As I glanced through them, I was impressed by what I was reading – up until then, I hadn’t been aware of Maneka’s talent as a writer. Unhesitatingly, I asked her to write for us – a book on animals. 1000 Animal Quiz was her first book for us. The book was a success and was reprinted many times.

Her next book had a unique title, Brahma’s Hair – a collection of pieces on Indian plants. Things were going well with our publication plans until we ran into trouble over the cover. Maneka had engaged a freelance designer to come up with a cover. She loved it but I knew it wouldn’t work. Neither of us would give in, and we were in a fix. I thought of a common friend, Pritish Nandy, a writer, journalist and MP, who I hoped could act as a mediator. Pritish is an extremely helpful person and he proved to be so on this occasion as well. He arranged for a new cover to be designed that both parties were happy with, refused any payment and salvaged the project for me.

Since this standoff has been resolved, our relationship with Maneka has been very satisfactory. Rupa has published several of her books on animals and birds. They are all quiz books that have sold well and gone into several reprints.

Some years later, Maneka’s son, Feroze Varun Gandhi, wrote a collection of poems, The Otherness of Self, which we published and it was well received. Varun had, by then, entered politics and was elected to the Lok Sabha from Pilibhit, UP. In 2009, he was embroiled in a controversy for allegedly making communally inflammatory speeches. He was arrested and sent to jail. When he was in prison, I sent him books to read. After his release, Varun thanked me for the gesture. Our professional relationship continues to flourish. In 2018, we published his enormous study on rural India, A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future Through Her Villages. Running into almost 850 pages, Varun’s critical commentary on the rural economy and society and the rural–urban chasm in policymaking is remarkable. He followed it up with another 800-page tome The Indian Metropolis, which talks about challenges faced by our cities and what can be done – at the policy and the individual level – to make them liveable. I look forward to publishing more of his books – he is a serious writer who is well worth publishing and promoting.

Excerpted with permission from Never Out of Print, The Rupa Story: The Journey of an Independent Indian Publisher, Rajen Mehra, Rupa Publications.