When I met Shekhar Malhotra in Delhi, in November 2020, never in my wildest dreams had I imagined it would be the last time. The Coronavirus scourge claimed Shekhar’s life on May 2, 2021, taking with it one of the last grand old pillars of Indian publishing.

I first met Shekhar in 1999 when he was visiting Bhopal on a book tour with Dominique Lapierre, promoting a book which Full Circle had just published. From the moment I met him, we established an instant rapport and connection, driven by the warmth and charm of his persona. Our relationship was admittedly something of a mentor-student one. I hoped to learn from his experience in the business of books, wisdom which he very generously imparted to me. Eventually, our friendship blossomed into a business association that lasted over 15 years.

The Hind Pocket Books story

Shekhar’s grandfather, Mahashay Rajpal ran a small book printing business in Lahore that produced books based on the Arya Samaj philosophy. Shockingly, he was murdered after a dispute over one of the books he had printed.

His son Dinanath (Shekhar’s father), joined the DAV College in Srinagar as a professor. After a few years, he decided to move to Delhi for its better business potential. In 1958, Dinanath and his elder brother, Vishwanath, established a publishing unit in the Dilshad Garden area of Delhi. They named it Hind Pocket Books.

Over the years, HPB slowly but surely blossomed into a full-fledged, successful publishing house. It was a self-sufficient unit with its own letter-press printing machine, a binding machine, editors, and proof-readers. Vishwanath moved on to run Rajpal & Sons and Orient Paperbacks, while Dinanath nurtured and expanded Hind Pocket Books to international acclaim.

The concept of publishing paperback books in Hindi, which proved to be a game-changer for Indian publishing, was pioneered by HPB. Dinanath was greatly inspired by Sir Allen Lane, one of the three Lane brothers who founded Penguin Books in England in 1935. They were the first to publish good quality, affordable, paperback books for the mass market.

Dinanath decided to replicate this for Hindi books in India. He started by bringing out a set of five well-produced pocket books in Hindi, with paperback binding. He was able to price them as low as one rupee each. The runaway success of the first set of five books prompted him to start the “Gharelu Library Yojana”, which created a readership revolution in its day. At its peak, it had an executive membership of over 65,000.

Under the scheme, a set of eight paperback titles, costing one rupee each, was delivered right to the reader’s doorstep. It was accompanied by a postcard with information about titles being released the following month. The popularity of the scheme resulted in the postal department sending out one of their larger vans to complete the job. The van would collect and deliver the parcels and the postcards that were painstakingly handwritten by over a hundred clerks.

Such was the impact of HPB that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dubbed Dinanath the torchbearer for Indian language publishing. He was later given the Padma Shri in 2000. HPB became a pioneer, a legacy which would was further enriched by Shekhar.

Over the years, HPB gained a cultural identity of sorts, publishing some of the best Hindi, Urdu, and English books. HPB’s repertoire, carefully collated and nurtured by Dinanath, already boasted of a diverse and extensive array of critically acclaimed and commercially successful authors and titles from the subcontinent and around the world. Names like RK Narayan, Amrita Pritam, Acharya Chatursen, Narendra Kohli, S Radhakrishnan, Nayantara Sahgal and Gulshan Nanda were amongst HPB’s notable authors – through original works in Hindi as well as translations.

The print runs for their books were impressive – in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 copies for both English and Hindi. Immensely popular Hindi authors like Amrita Pritam and Gulshan Nanda actually sold in the millions. Many of HPB’s titles and authors have won several prestigious awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Jnanpith Award, and other notable international accolades.

New spaces for publishing

Shekhar completed his education in two of Delhi’s most famous institutions – Modern School and the prestigious Hindu College. He joined HPB in 1976 and took over the reins in 1989. Once he took charge, he realised that its existing list of authors and titles would have to be further augmented with new and popular bestselling names, some of which were already being published by others. He also realised that the printing and binding technology at HPB was now obsolete.

With this in mind, the existing letter-press printing machine was replaced by a modern offset technology-enabled printing press in 1978-79. The old binding machine was also replaced by a state of the art, imported binding machine. HPB thus became the only publishing house in India to have these modern machines available in-house.

A second-generation publisher, Shekhar followed an unconventional approach to handling the demands of the trade. He famously never talked business with booksellers, leaving his sales managers to handle those conversations, and in the process, won tremendous admiration across the board. Shekhar also established a new fiction imprint, Abhinav Pocket Books, in order to boost the Hindi publishing list.

Under Abhinav, he managed to acquire popular and trendy authors who were at the top of their game at the time, such as Surendra Mohan Pathak, Ranu, Ved Prakash Sharma, Prem Vajpai, and Rajhans, among others. Around 1976, the English list under the Orient Paperbacks imprint was taken over by Vishwanath’s older son, Sudhir Malhotra. HPB was retained by Dinanath and Shekhar.

With this new development, Shekhar went on to begin publishing books in English under HPB. He tied up with the UK publishers Futura Publications, from whom he bought rights to bestselling titles which he then published in India. He was able to acquire the publishing rights for such well-known titles and authors as the ace espionage thriller writer Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle and Triple), Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), David Seltzer (The Omen, parts I and II), and Charles Shobhraj (The Serpent).

Many of these books sold over one lakh copies. He also formed alliances and personal friendships with two well-respected independent publishers in the UK – Andre Deutsch and Peter Owen, with titles by VS Naipaul, Yukyo Mashima, and Herman Hesse.

In those days, You Can Win!, a self-help book written by Shiv Khera was all the rage, selling in the lakhs in its original English edition. Shekhar felt that a Hindi edition was required for the masses. He went about courting Khera patiently in order to have him publish a Hindi edition with HPB, and eventually he succeeded. The Hindi edition went on to sell more than a million copies and became one of the largest-selling books in Hindi at the time.

Another instance of Shekhar’s being extremely intuitive about an author was when he relentlessly pursued the stubborn but immensely popular astrologer, Bejan Daruwala. Shekhar made innumerable trips to Mumbai to woo him. Daruwala eventually consented, but only to publishing the series in small format volumes. This annual series proved to be a turning point in HPB’s success story, as it went on to sell in extremely large numbers for many years to come.

In 1999, Shekhar set up another publishing company, Full Circle Publishing, with the intention of publishing books on wellness, spirituality, alternative healing, and mindfulness. The idea for a new imprint, specifically in genres like health, wellness, and spirituality, came about when Shekhar and his wife Poonam discovered that by and large, publishers ignored these genres.

Hardly any bookstore bothered to stock such books, believing them to be unmarketable. Full Circle went on to publish a variety of books by renowned authors such as The Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Osho, Thich Nhat Hanh, Louise Hay, and Ruzbeh N Bharucha.

Handing over the baton

In 1997, Shekhar and his wife, Poonam Malhotra, started the first Full Circle Bookstore in Santushti Complex, in the elite Chanakyapuri area of Delhi. Given its popularity, it was shifted to a larger space in Khan Market in 1999. The aim was to provide a better and wider variety of books on wellness and spirituality to readers. The store quickly became one of Delhi’s best-loved bookstores, known as much for its books as for its warm ambience and the personal attention paid to patrons. A few years later, Café Turtle, the now iconic coffee shop, was added to the bookstore.

After completing her publishing course in the UK, Shekhar’s elder daughter Priyanka joined the business in 2000. She helped start a second Full Circle Bookstore and Café Turtle in Greater Kailash II Market. Apart from handling Full Circle’s publishing programme and the bookshops, she also started a new children’s imprint named Tota Books.

After spearheading HPB’s success story for many years , Shekhar decided to take a backseat and eventually sold the imprint to Penguin Random House in 2018. It was a tough decision but he wanted to pursue his other interests and enjoy a retired life. Exactly 60 years after it was established, HPB was acquired by Penguin – the company that had inspired Dinanath in the first place.

According to Shekhar, he was a “reluctant publisher”, for what he had actually aspired to become was a musician. He had a tremendous love for jazz and other western music genres, and had even formed his own band in his college days. He had mastered the piano and went through great pains to acquire an antique piano, which had not even been put up for sale by its owner. He made innumerable trips to Meerut in order to convince the owner to sell the piano to him. In the end, as was often the case, Shekhar got his way.

The winds of change that Shekhar Malhotra brought to the literary world transformed some things in publishing, even if in an unobtrusive way. His death now leaves a void – and lessons for publishers.

Vikas Rakheja is the managing director of Manjul Publishing House, and publisher at Amaryllis.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.