Earlier this month, one of the few world-class organisations wholly Made in India celebrated its twentieth anniversary. This is the publishing house Permanent Black, which was founded by Anuradha Roy and Rukun Advani on the 1st of April 2000. Originally run out of Delhi, the firm is now based in a small cottage in the Kumaun Hills. Its two founders are effectively its only employees, unless one counts the three (or maybe four) dogs of indeterminate breed that hang around their feet as they edit and proof-read manuscripts.

I shall return to Permanent Black presently, but first I want to pay tribute to its remarkable and now sadly forgotten predecessor. This is (or was) Asia Publishing House, founded in the 1940s in the great city of Bombay by an enterprising Sinhala businessman named PS Jayasinghe. Mr Jayasinghe was in the rice trade; seeking to diversify his portfolio, he decided to go into publishing as well.

The beginnings

Also based in Bombay was the Indian branch of Oxford University Press, the world’s greatest (and oldest) publishing house. OUP India was headed at the time by RE Hawkins, an Englishman who had adopted desi ways (he was an admirer of Gandhi, and wore khadi). The OUP made its money selling textbooks and dictionaries published in England. To this, Hawkins added some original works of natural history and popular anthropology.

The three authors he most relished publishing were his fellow Indianised Englishmen Jim Corbett and Verrier Elwin, and the Anglicised Indian Salim Ali. Books like Corbett’s Man Eaters of Kumaun, Elwin’s Tribal Art of Middle India, and Ali’s Indian Hill Birds were the pride and joy of the OUP’s list.

Man Eaters of Kumaon

The expatriate Sinhala in Bombay, PS Jayasinghe, saw what Hawkins was doing, and also what he was not doing. He had identified a gap in OUP India’s publishing programme, which was with regard to works on social science and history, written by Indians. Independence was in the air, and young (and not so young) scholars, based in universities in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Baroda, Aligarh, Lucknow and Poona (among other places) were beginning to produce serious, well-researched works of scholarship on their own country. Sensing that Hawkins either did not know of these studies or had no interest in them, Jayasinhe rushed to publish them.

As an early essay on the firm observed, “a special reason for the founding of Asia Publishing House was to provide an authentic view of India – past and present, to the rest of the world”. For the long period of European rule had “produced a grossly distorted, frequently patronising, view of this large mass of humanity”, and of its history and culture. One of Jayasinghe’s aims was to correct the tendentious portraits of India by Western writers, “by publishing books by outstanding Indian scholars dealing with history, sociology, politics, law and other disciplines”.

Enter the editor

In his bid to establish himself as India’s premier scholarly publisher, the Sinhala entrepreneur had an indispensable ally. This was his Chief Editor, a native of Bombay called Samuel Israel. Israel was a Bene-Israel, from the community of Jews that had lived on the Konkan coast for centuries, working chiefly as oil-pressers (hence their local name, Shaniwar Telis, the Telis for whom Saturday was their day of ritual rest). After the British began to rule India, the ambitious Bene-Israel moved to the port city of Bombay, where they took to other crafts.

Such as the editing of books. Samuel Israel’s love of learning was stoked at Bombay University, where he studied, and which then had some outstanding teachers as well as a politically active student body. Like many other young men and women, he was attracted to the Communist movement, and was detained several times by the colonial police.

Left-wing politics gave Israel his first exposure to print and publishing – he helped edit the journal of the All India Students Federation, and brought out pamphlets for the railwaymen’s union. He was then recruited to the newly established Peoples Publishing House, where he worked variously as copyeditor, proofreader, and production manager. Seeking to shift out from a niche party outfit into a wider world of publishing, he applied for a job at Oxford University Press, but was found wanting by RE Hawkins. At this stage, PS Jayasinghe stepped in, and asked Samuel Israel to join Asia Publishing House.

Kinship Organization in India

What ensued was possible only in the Bombay of the 1950s – a Sinhala and a Jew, publishing works by the best scholars from across India. Among the early acquisitions was the anthropologist Irawati Karve’s pioneering Kinship Organization in India. A major writer in English and Marathi, the first Indian woman to get a PhD in her discipline, Karve was just the kind of scholar whom Hawkins wouldn’t be keen to publish – in part because her field would seem arcane to him, in part because he (in common with most men at the time) didn’t know quite how to deal with independent-minded women.

Shortly after publishing Karve’s book, Asia acquired a book co-authored by two other anthropologists. These were DN Majumdar and TN Madan. They had written an introductory textbook on social anthropology; after the OUP declined to publish it, the work was eagerly secured by Samuel Israel. The two authors of this textbook (which is still in print) went on to individually publish original works of ethnographic research with Asia, Majumdar’s Himalayan Polyandry and Madan’s Family and Kinship.

Another OUP reject published by Asia Publishing House was Irfan Habib’s Agrarian System of Mughal India, a book that has profoundly reshaped the field of medieval history and had a wide and enduring influence. A work of equal importance to appear under the Asia banner was the sociologist MN Srinivas’s Caste in Modern India and Other Essays, whose contents are still read, taught, and debated today, sixty years after the book’s publication.

Publishing the Prime Minister

Other major scholars published by Jayasinghe and Israel at Asia include the statistician PV Sukhatme, the literature professor KR Srinivasa Iyengar, and the historian KM Pannikar. But their main catch, without question, was the serving Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Before Independence, Nehru had written three important (and elegantly written) books – Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography, and The Discovery of India. It was the leisure permitted by extended jail terms that allowed Nehru to write these books.

However, after 1947 the pressures of his job meant that, though there were more books within him, there was now no time or space to write them. Yet there remained within Nehru a yearning to reconnect with the literary world. When, after ten strenuous years as Prime Minister, he was able to take a brief holiday in Kulu, he took along with him a pile of the personal (and political) correspondence he had collected over the years. The selection he made appeared as a book entitled, A Bunch of Old Letters in 1958, for which Nehru chose Asia (and not anyone else) as his publisher.

A Bunch of Old Letters

A majority of the letters in the book were not by Nehru, but to him – by Gandhi, Tagore, Annie Besant, Jinnah, Sarojini Naidu, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad, CF Andrews, and Bertrand Russell, among others. Reviewing the book in the Economic Weekly, the Lucknow sociologist DP Mukerji wrote that the book was “a political testament of India in the last twenty five years”, further noting that “all the letters of Jawaharlal are dignified despite affection or dislike”.

Nehru’s A Bunch of Old Letters made Asia Publishing a fair amount of money. Which was handy, for PS Jayasinghe liked living well. He had an air-conditioned office in the prestigious South Bombay locality of Ballard Estate. He drove around town in a black Cadillac. But he seems to have over-extended himself; this, coupled with the economic downturn in India in the 1960s (caused by wars and failures of the monsoon) finally finished his firm. One of his authors recalls visiting Jaysinghe in his office just before the Asia Publishing House was “about to formally declare bankruptcy. His family life also was in a shambles. He looked a sad figure, angry, defiant, but he cried, using his handkerchief to wipe his tears.”

A new OUP

The space vacated by Asia was filled in by Oxford University Press. While Hawkins was still formally in charge until 1970, the energy of OUP India was now being provided by a brilliant Oxford graduate named Ravi Dayal. It was Dayal who made the firm a powerhouse in history and the social sciences, publishing the works of (among others) André Béteille, Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy and Veena Das, while bringing in scholars whom OUP had once turned down, such as Irfan Habib. It was also Dayal who was instrumental in publishing the influential Subaltern Studies series, whose early volumes reshaped historical scholarship not merely in India, but the world.

Ravi Dayal
Ravi Dayal | Image courtesy: Permanent Black

Through the 1970s and 1980s, OUP’s place as the pre-eminent publisher of history and social science in India was unquestioned. In 1987, Ravi Dayal left to start his own eponymous firm, where he chose to publish novels, poems and plays rather than works of scholarship. Dayal was in physique a little man, but his stature in publishing was large enough for several men to have to fill his shoes.

After he left the OUP, the editorial side was looked after a team headed by Rukun Advani, while the operations of the firm as a whole were overseen first by Santosh Mukherjee and then by Neil O’Brien. The latter was succeeded by a person who knew how to read balance-sheets but not books. Meanwhile, the focus of the firm worldwide had shifted from the promotion of scholarship to the pursuit of profit. Now, the Indian Branch of the OUP entered into a steady and irreversible decline.

The coming of Permanent Black

Back in the 1950s, the indifference to Indian scholarship on the part of OUP permitted Asia Publishing House to grow and flourish. In a curious recurrence of historical patterns, the decline of OUP in the 1990s allowed the emergence of a second, and arguably even better, swadeshi initative in scholarly publishing. This was Permanent Black, established (as it happens) by two editors who had once worked at the OUP themselves. Turfed out by their employer, Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy bravely chose to strike out on their own. They had no office and little capital, but they enjoyed the goodwill and trust of the authors whom they had worked with.

From the beginning, Advani and Roy focused on quality, and quality alone. Their predecessor, Asia Publishing House, had sustained its financial operations by publishing scientific textbooks that sold in large numbers. Permanent Black, however, has published original works of history and social science alone. While they occasionally venture into essays and natural history, they have absolutely eschewed the publishing of textbooks and guides. This may be as much for aesthetic as commercial reasons – for one can’t quite see these temperamentally reclusive editors going from town to town, meeting Registrars of Universities to urge them to prescribe their books to students.

A Princely Impostor

In the twenty years they have been in operation, Permanent Black has published some four hundred books, by the finest Indian scholars and the finest foreign scholars on India. A full list of their tiles is available online. Of this list, among the works that I have myself most enjoyed (and learned from) are Partha Chatterjee’s A Princely Impostor? (a compelling story of a raja-turned-mystic in colonial Bengal), Niraja Gopal Jayal’s Citizenship and its Discontents (a magisterial history of citizenship debates in India), DR. Nagaraj’s The Flaming Feet (a brilliantly original analysis of Dalit politics), Jean Dréze’s Sense and Solidarity (a book of “jholawala economics” that speaks directly to the coronavirus crisis, and which the Prime Minister would do well to read) and Nayanjot Lahiri’s Finding Forgotten Cities (a riveting history of Indian archeology).

This article is written as a modest contribution to publishing history, but also by way of discharging a personal debt. The books published by Asia Publishing House in the 1950s and 1960s, and by Permanent Black more recently, have deepened my understanding of my own country in more ways than I can relate here. This has been the case for thousands of other Indians, and for scholars and book-lovers of many other nationalities as well. If there ever was a Publishing Hall of Fame in India, surely Asia and Permanent Black would be among its first entrants.