This month, the Canadian booksellers, Indigo, celebrate Indian authors with a series of interviews, guest bloggers, essays.
My father was a field geologist and in my childhood he was away half the year in remote places. The months he was home in Calcutta, rules and routine were jettisoned. There were cream rolls for dinner, concerts, and tram rides with no fixed destinations. And soon AbolTabol, Sukumar Ray’s Bengali book of nonsense verse, was dug out and dusted off. We knew the poems backward, but our anticipation of my father’s characteristic intonations made us laugh even before he started reading. That is my earliest, happiest memory of a book.
I didn’t know then that books would be the bricks of my adult life. My husband and I run an independent press. My father-in-law, at 91, has been running his own bookshop for over sixty years. For some years I ran a newspaper’s book reviews page. And I also write books. Whatever we do to stem the tide, books advance into every corner of our home-office like a stealthy guerilla army. We’re almost afraid to move some of them: what if the house fell down, what if our walls were held up by that corner stack of The Small Voice of History (hardback, 600 pages)?
I may be biased of course—but working in the world of the books is the best kind of work. It’s certainly one where you get to know the most interesting people, and do the kind of work together that encourages long friendships (or enmities). The first real publisher I encountered was Ravi Dayal, who used to head Oxford University Press, Delhi. By the time I joined it as an editorial slave, he had left to start his own imprint, but he strolled in some days to cast an appraising eye over his old patch. He operated in chaotic solitude from a tree-fringed, wood-panelled study in his bungalow. Out of this room emanated the books on his distinguished list, all edited and proof-read by him, and clothed in jackets he designed with ink and crayon, innocent of technology. He had strong views on type and book design, loving statuesque fonts like Bembo and scorning pallid, sans-serif upstarts such as Arial. I was stunned by the honour when, after years of observing my work,he asked me to design a book jacket for him.This, I thought, was what soldiers felt when medals were pinned to their chests.
Ravi Dayal is not the only quirky publishing person I’ve known. My British publisher, Christopher MacLehose, goes on epic drives across Europe every year, with his dog Miska, and a bag of manuscripts. He camps in various towns en route meeting authors and agentswho have got used to the idea that if they want to talk books with him, they might need to trot across a meadow in wild pursuit of a publisher who is chasing his hound, who is chasing a frisbee.
There are water diviners who roam the arid stretches of rural India, using no more than rudimentary loops of wire to predict where underground aquifers lie. Christopher has a similar ability to pinpoint those points in a manuscript where seams of untapped possibility lurk, to which the author needs to return, rethink, rewrite. He has the diviner’s ability too, to grasp the potential of manuscripts that everyone else thinks worthless. In this way, most recently, he published the Stieg Larsson trilogy in English when about eight other publishers had turned it down.
I met my husband because of books, and our first conversations were about manuscripts—but that’s another kind of story.
In Delhi all those years ago, after two numbing years of editorial plodding through scholarly manuscripts, the classical singer Sheila Dhar turned up in my room one day. Her book Raga n’ Josh is unmatched for its rich blend of observation, learning, and story-telling. We met as strangers—author and editor—and in a few months both my husband and I were under the spell of her great wit and intellect, and her infectious sense of fun. She could turn dreary days into carnivals, stealing us from our desks for long lunches where she sang, mimicked, and planned future books. Dutifully, we scribbled deadlines and outlines into diaries, sustaining the pretence that these were working lunches.
Because it wasn’t really pretence. This is how books get made: in an alchemical process, through chance collisions of people, places, energies, thoughts, ideas. Many of those books make it to our shelves. A few make their homes within us.