Almost every reader in India is familiar with the story of how Penguin Books was founded. It is printed right on the back cover of the Popular Penguins, and is present on practically all of the ubiquitous publisher’s books:

It was in 1935 when Allen Lane stood on a British railway platform looking for something good to read on his journey. His choice was limited to popular magazines and poor quality paperbacks. Lane’s disappointment and subsequent anger at the range of books available led him to found a company – and change the world.

The business model in 1935 was simple – to publish great books as cheap paperbacks, thus getting through to a wider readership. It met with immediate financial and popular success.

Sir Allen Lane is credited, and rightly so, as having started a publishing revolution. But not many people know that he wasn’t alone when he started Penguin Books. He had a tall, thin young man from Calicut with him.

Back in India…

VK Krishna Menon was born in 1896 in Calicut in the erstwhile Madras Presidency; he was of aristocratic lineage on both sides. His father was the son of the Raja of Kadathanadu, and his mother was the granddaughter of the Dewan of Travancore.

Educated at the Madras Presidency College and the Madras Law College, the incredibly talented young man spent his time in the College Union and various debating societies, before he threw himself into Annie Besant’s Home Rule League. One of his major exploits at the Presidency College was flying the red and green flag of the Home Rule League on the mast, for which he almost got himself expelled.

However, Annie Besant and others at the Home Rule League identified his talent, as well as his propensity for hot-headed mischief, and sent him to England in 1924. In the capital of the empire, he joined the London School of Economics, and set up his own practice as a barrister.

Whose big idea was it?

It was there that Menon became interested in publishing, joining Bodley Head in 1932. He remained at Bodley Head for three years, working on its 20th Century Library series as well as editing its Topical Books series. According to S Muthiah, the idea for Penguin Books was Menon’s. In his celebrated history of the old British port, Madras Miscellany, he writes:

“ .. he (Menon) dreamt of flooding the market with cheap paperback editions of quality titles. He discussed the idea with a colleague at Bodley Head and Allen Lane jumped at it. In 1935, they quit Bodley Head and with 100 Pounds capital, set up office in the crypt of St Pancras Borough Church. Thus was born Penguin Books.”

Sir Allen Lane would edit the fiction that Penguin would put out, and Krishna Menon would edit the light blue-covered Pelicans, the imprint which would fundamentally transform non-fiction publishing. The Pelicans, launched in 1937, became a British institution, revered by generations of readers and read by millions. When the imprint was relaunched after a 24-year hiatus, in 2014, The Guardian extolled the influence of the Pelicans on British public life:

“Pelicans helped bring Labour to power in 1945, cornered the market in the new cultural studies, introduced millions to the ideas of anthropology and sociology, and provided much of the reading matter for the sexual and political upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s.”

Allen Lane wrote in 1938, “They were the true everyman's library of the 20th century… bringing the finest products of modern thought and art to the people.”

Parting ways

Unfortunately, the man who first edited them would not remain long enough to see Penguin become one of the great companies of the 20th century. Krishna Menon’s abrasive personality and Leftist leanings would become famous in later years, but at that time, it was his idealism that clashed with Sir Allen Lane’s head for business. Disagreeing over the way the company was headed, they parted ways, and Krishna Menon went back to politics.

But he was no longer a hot headed young man from Madras. Krishna Menon was now a cultured, London-educated gentleman, who was already involved in activities related to independence for India. He was working with the India League in London, an organisation born of the Home Rule League.

It was at this stage that he met another young man from Allahabad who would become his lifelong friend, and in whose government he would achieve the notoriety he would ultimately become famous for: Jawaharlal Nehru.

But the Pelican imprint will always be VK Krishna Menon’s legacy.