(Carried in ‘Speaking Volumes’, the Business Standard, in June 2006, this was written a day after the death of publisher Ravi Dayal.)
In the week before he died, Ravi Dayal looked after his cats, sent off royalty cheques, decided he would learn how to use digital cameras in order to enhance his book covers, and drank his usual quota of whisky. Wen he spoke to long-term friends Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy just before he went into hospital for cancer surgery, he mentioned that he would much prefer not to have memorial meetings, should he happen to die.
Ravi Dayal, Publisher: that legend began in 1988 with the publication of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines , Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and a book by Ranga Rao. Dayal remembered the writing of The Shadow Lines by an untried author very well—Ghosh shaved off half his facial hair in order to ensure that he stayed home, writing, in his inhospitable, summer-unfriendly barsati, rather than yield to the fleshpots of Delhi in the late eighties. Ranga Rao’s works were re-translated in new editions by Penguin and Katha after Ravi Dayal, Publisher, had shone a spotlight on this man’s inimitable talent. And while Ravi Dayal may have been the son-in-law of Khushwant Singh, it was the literary merits of A Train to Pakistan that persuaded him to republish it when that work was languishing in a sadly debased paperback edition.
Over the next two decades, Ravi Dayal, Publisher, formed an elegant presence beside the crude multinational seductions of other imprints. In an essay for Seminar , he wrote about the sudden burgeoning of publishers in Delhi: “Initially it was Ansari Road in Daryaganj that hosted the publishing renaissance…but matching the expansion of the city further south…publishing too is no longer concentrated along the rim of the Old City. Penguin are now in Panchsheel, OUP on Jaisingh Road, IndiaInk in New Rajendra Nagar, Permanent Black in Patparganj and Ravi Dayal in a back-room facing a garden and a pomegranate tree in Sujan Singh Park.”
Over the next few decades, Ravi Dayal would be responsible for publishing most of Anitav Ghosh, several volumes on Delhi, assorted poetry, including that of Agha Shahid Ali, and an eclectic selection of literary fiction. I met him for an initially soulless interview, that ghoulishly regained its soul when we discovered that the magazine’s photographer had been detained by a road accident.
We spent a self-indulgent hour discussing Isaiah Berlin and Margaret Atwood, Javier Marias and Vijay Tendulkar, Vilas Sarang and Lampedusa. When I complimented him on the unnatural orderliness of his book cupboards, Ravi confessed that his books had been farmed out—some to his daughter’s house, some to his home at Ranikhet—allowing him to retain this semblance of organized purity.
I don’t know how “Ravi Dayal, Publisher” would have fared in a harsher publishing climate. But in an era where publishing successes were counted in print runs of a thousand or so, there was room enough for his broad, eclectic, but deeply discerning, vision. “Indian publishing still has room for the bestsellers that sell in the 2 or 3 thousands,” he told me a bare two months before he died, “that allows me room enough to shoehorn my people.”
“My people.” That included the likes of Amitav Ghosh and Mukul Kesavan, of long-time colleague Rukun Advani, whose first—and to date only—novel Beethoven Among the Cows — was published by Ravi Dayal. It also included a clutch of historians, and linguists, and literary theorists, and poets, and naturalists, all of whom preferred to trust their books to Ravi Dayal, Publisher, rather than look for more mainstream imprints.
In the end, Ravi Dayal stood for something. At its most banal, it was good paper, good design, great proofreading—if there was such a thing as the perfect book, Ravi would help you get to it. But there was something more. A promise of integrity, made by a man whose innings at OUP (he joined Oxford in 1971) included the publication of the Subaltern Studies series, and Jim Corbett’s books. He turned down so many of the people whom, in Delhi’s lexicon, he could have “accommodated”. Ram Guha recounts the anecdote of how OUP for year after year was denied corporate status at the India International Centre while other publishing houses made the cut. The rumour went that Ravi Dayal had refused the manuscripts of the entire board of IIC trustees, and the rumour went on to say that given the choice, Ravi Dayal would prefer no membership for OUP rather than membership on compromised terms.
I think of his bidis, and his love for Isaiah Berlin and Lampedusa, and our last conversation, on Vijay Tendulkar, and I know just how much I’ll miss Ravi Dayal. There was only one of him; there won’t be another for a while to come.