The other day an author visiting our office, one of those brilliant ones who take time delivering a manuscript but give a splendid one when they do deliver, commented how we, as indeed many of the editors and CEOs in other publishing houses, all seem connected with Penguin while it was headed by David Davidar in India. Hence Ravi Singh at Speaking Tiger, VK Karthika and Sudha Sadanand at Westland, Poulomi Chatterjee and the CEO, Thomas Abraham, at Hachette, Udayan Mitra and Diya Kar as Publishers and CEO Ananth Padmanabhan at HarperCollins, besides Hemali Sodhi till recently in Penguin, Raj Kamini Mahadevan who could get the tardiest authors to complete their manuscripts, and many others one is missing out – all of us at some point in their career had worked with David Davidar.

More to the point, except Thomas and a couple of others, all these editors and CEOs driving the engine of Indian publishing and taking its local list, besides the agency imports, to double-digit crores, actually started working in one corner fourth-floor office in Chiranjiv Tower, in Nehru Place, in New Delhi, right across the road from Eros Hotel.

When electricity was available, and it was still morning and cigarettes had not been lit, it was very nice. But as summer progressed and, worse, once the rains started, so did the power cuts. Supplementary power was a sputtering generator in the pantry, and the smoke leaked into the office, whose windows were sealed and given an ugly tint by the plastic film pasted to block the sun. The only outlet was a large glass main door which could be left open for the fumes to trickle out into the corridor.

The Nehru Place office where it all began was in this building.

One memorable day, an author entering pushed it open and all six feet plus of the thick glass, too heavy for its frame, crashed. It was only the beginning. The cabinet in the pantry was the next to go with a resounding bang. A panel in the split AC above my head – a heavy metal affair – came after. Then the cabinets with books – all this, of course, over a month or two, except for the AC panel, thanks to the smooth-talking carpenter who had installed these in the office.

One describes these details to set the scene. When I joined, the only space was a small table where I sat facing the wall. However, soon I was shifted to a larger table displacing Sudha Sadanand, legendary editor in her own right, who moved to another table in the middle. Sudha, who was with Penguin in its previous avatar when it operated out of an independent house in Safdarjung Enclave, was looked at with awe for, among other things, working till the last minute – and sending the book off to press, if I remember right – before going off for the delivery of her child.

Directing this team – Karthika, fresh from JNU in her first job, Ravi from a small magazine focused on Delhi, Hemali from English Literature at Lady Shri Ram College, and Renuka Chatterjee, the only one with the experience of publishing a book on the team, but the rest with little or no experience of doing so, leave alone finding an author and coming up with a subject – was a young Davidar. If he had much to learn, he didn’t show it.

But somewhere along the way, while doing a short publishing course and learning on the job during a stint in Penguin in London, he absorbed some key things about running and growing a business, and giving his team the right inputs about dealing with authors and commissioning a book, and then leaving the editors to find their feet and form their style.

David Davidar
David Davidar | Image courtesy: An Author's Afternoon

One of the earliest lessons was: Go out and meet authors, no matter who. And it was really no matter who. It could be authors with mile-long reputations, former and sitting Prime Ministers, Presidents, Chief Justices, Election Commissioners, chiefs of the armed forces, top movie stars, anyone – go and meet them, take them out to lunch, or dinner, or whatever. Extraordinarily enough, that is just what one did.

Usually, one just picked up the phone and called. Appointments would follow. Thus, one morning, having identified a subject I wanted to discuss with APJ Abdul Kalam, I picked up the phone and called him. Introducing myself over the telephone was hard enough, even more so explaining why I wanted to see him without having ever met him. Forgetting completely in the process that he had just received the Bharat Ratna the previous day and that congratulations might be in order.

The only couple of examples I can think of where meeting people was hard are ones that involved people like lawyers. Once, after fixing an appointment, I went off to meet a high-profile lawyer, an expert in constitutional law. It was a second meeting, and the lawyer was moving into politics though he would continue to fight cases, having made more money than he knew what to do with. As it happened, there was a client with him, discussing a case where the dowry law was allegedly being used to harass him.

Time, for an expensive lawyer, is lots of money, and the client was probably paying him many thousands for a fifteen-minute or half-hour consultation. Increasingly irritated by my presence, he soon shooed me off. I never approached him again either. There was no book going to happen there.

In general, though, people had time, and lunch – sometimes a good old languid publishing lunch, extending well into the afternoon – helped move along a project. One author I never ventured to ask out, however, was Kalam.

There were a few other key lessons. Salaries were very low to begin with but working for a good publishing house, as we were told, was a huge perk by itself. Publishing then and now can be hard to understand – it’s a difficult business – but in the case of Penguin, some other substantive benefits soon followed. It might have seemed an obvious necessity that editors should travel by air and stay in a decent hotel, but in the mid-nineties it was not so apparent. Specially in an operation that was floundering and would go through crisis before it started some serious growth. In any other media company one thinks these benefits would have taken a long time coming through.

Another piece of clear thinking was, of course, to move up salaries. From those abysmal levels in the beginning – some editors used to pay as much room rent as their salary – they rose to quite decent levels. Add the constant churn of books and fresh launches, with the new big book or author every few months – the excitement of a new Vikram Seth or a barely fictional novel like The Insider by PV Narasimha Rao, not to mention some appallingly difficult manuscripts to keep editors up at night, time passed rather quickly.

The centre-point of all the change and directions was Davidar’s office. Initially, the commissioning meetings, where ideas were discussed, were held around a small table there, and were sometimes so long that, as an editor commented, one needed a cast-iron stomach to survive them. The windows were firmly shut, and David’s swivel chair rested on a patch of bare floor in the middle of a frayed rug. Here, entering the room with a query or for clearance on a project, one approached the nerve centre of the operation, with his head rising like Mount Olympus above a layer of cigarette smoke that hung like cumulus at waist height in the room.

Time passed. It was a decent-sized office but becoming too small for us. There was additional sales and marketing staff. An adjoining office was rented. From fifty books a year the number moved up to a hundred or more. Somewhere in that very ordinary office a story was scripted that has had far-reaching impact.

Between them, today, the publishers who sat in that room as editors then, some completely fresh, others with some experience in a different line, today acquire and publish over 500 books every year, the non-editors looking after imports of a few thousand titles more from international publishers, or managing school textbook businesses. Besides pioneering the infamous book launches. Their books have won most of the major awards – from the Booker and the Hindu Literary Prize to the Shakti Bhatt prize for debut fiction and non-fiction. Numerous first-time authors and books that have created a storm or helped change attitudes (The Hindus, Life of Pi, White Tiger, Serious Men), even books like India 2020 that have set a national agenda, have come off their desks.

Somewhere in an age of digital start-ups and ideas requiring quick thinking and action, Davidar set something going that required alertness, had impact and was also thoughtful and demanding as a business.

There is some other office in that fourth-floor corner now, though the paan shop owner and his son, now grown up, still operate near the entrance to the building. At its peak, there was a shared purpose and a drive to do better. Perhaps it was the constant challenge. Even if it was carrying fresh CRCs ready for press in a leaky autorickshaw in pouring rain from the typesetter, after quick changes and corrections over several hours, as I remember carrying Everybody Loves a Good Drought, more than twenty years later still steadily reprinting. As a start-up story, it remains one of the best.

And what of Davidar himself? He continues to publish books of choice, beautifully produced, not far from Nehru Place.