It was almost an automatic reflex: most articles about Ravi Dayal instinctively appended “gentleman” before the descriptive “publisher”. He regarded the phrase with some amusement himself. Lighting one of his trademark bidis during an interview I conducted with him some years ago, he said, “It’s revealing, that phrase, of what journalists secretly expect publishers to be–anything but gentlemanly, hmmm?”
Ravi’s erudition and instinctive politeness made the “gentleman publisher” label stick, but that tag was too small to contain his energy, or to convey the zest that he brought to intellectual arguments.
He joined OUP in 1971, leaving in the late eighties to start his own imprint, Ravi Dayal Publishers. He was the first to see potential in a young, untried author called Amitav Ghosh–Ghosh, unusually in an era where authors change publishers the way politicians change suits, insisted that Ravi Dayal remain his Indian publisher all through his career. Ravi published poetry at a time when no other Indian publisher would touch the stuff, took chances on new and untried authors, from Indrajit Hazra to the late Shama Futehally, and built up one of the few independent publishing imprints that could hold its own against far larger congolomerates.
In a short article he wrote for Seminar a while ago, he examined “his” Delhi:
The cohesive, urbane combine of New and Old Delhi no longer exists and while Delhi has grown into a vast city over the last few decades, its different parts don’t seem to make up a whole. The area covered by it appears to have reverted to what it was before Shahar came into being – a collection of disconnected villages, each with its own ways and mannerisms, and altogether more provincial than the stylish, integrated city of not so long ago….
There is, thus, no such thing as a Dilliwallah any more, and this absence seems to be part of the present, amorphous identity of the city. There are Londoners and New Yorkers, Parisians and Mumbaikars, Mysoreans and Hyderabadis, but the inhabitants of Delhi are now anonymous. Even the Mathurs have stopped calling themselves Dilliwallahs. How can it be otherwise if you live in GK II, your spouse perhaps a Sikh, your son an investment banker in New York, your daughter-in-law an Italian and your grandson unable to digest a decent, spiced kabab made of goat meat?
While the Dilliwallah may have gone into oblivion, the other Kayastha conceit – of being traditionally literate and literary and, generally, good pen-pushers – has prospered in the changed environment. The Mathurs were quick to take to the new educational system introduced by the British and soon entered professions that needed the skills so acquired. Pedigree Mathur that I am, I became part of a comparatively new form of pen pushing in 1961 – publishing, and from my publishing peep-hole have not only witnessed and participated in the flowering of publishing in Delhi over the last few decades, but also been struck by the spectacular growth in Delhi’s educational system and intellectual infrastructure which catalyzed publishing.
India’s educational system is much derided, no doubt with good reason, but the good should not be interred with the bones: one of the good things is that in the hurly-burly of the last five decades, as Delhi shed its old scales and didn’t quite refashion itself as a cohesive whole, it also became India’s premier educational centre and a magnet for the country in this area. If Delhi has more automobiles than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together, it also probably has more authors than in these cities put together, and produces books in a similarly excessive proportion.
He died late on Saturday night, after a few weeks of illness; the bidis he always smoked exacted their toll in the form of cancer. The cremation was held this morning; and along with his family, the larger family of Indian writers mourned, but quietly, eschewing the excessive sentiment that Ravi would have deplored himself.
The last few times we’d met, we’d talked about his beloved cats more than books and literature. They were lined up outside his house today, waiting for Ravi to come home. He’ll be missed, by all of us.