September 24, 2020
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Interview

'You Must Have The In-Built Shit-Detector'

CEO, Penguin India , MD, Dorling-Kindersley, and author of the House of Blue Mangoes spoke to Nandini Lal about his book, his life, his work and his so-called critics and rivals.

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'You Must Have The In-Built Shit-Detector'
Gireesh G.V.
'You Must Have The In-Built Shit-Detector'
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Nandini Lal: When Davidar the writer worked on his novel, did Davidar the publisher peer over his shoulder often?

David Davidar: No!

At least some of the time?
Some of the time? Well.

Is it such a terrible thing?
It's a bad thing. I think the editorial and writing sensibility are two different things. You must have what Hemingway called the in-built shit-detector and...

A "shit-detector"?
Yes, a self-critical faculty which tells you if it's utter rubbish. But if from the get-go you think as an editor, then you won't be able to write a word! You'd be too self-conscious, wonder why the world needed another book. So I just strip myself of that and say, I'm going to jump into this. See what happens.

Did you really "jump in"? Honestly?
See, when I say I took a dozen years to write it, I found my basic characters a dozen years ago - the Dorai family. But then I wrote about 450 pages, which was basically going nowhere.

But Blue Mangoes seems more mapped out than most maiden novels are.
Yeah?

It's not even autobiographical. When did you exorcise all those typical debut-book demons? You'd toyed with another book earlier, hadn't you?
Yes. At 20.

And it was totally different?
Yeah, it was about a young man in Bombay trying to get laid, drinking a lot, etc. I got past that, fortunately. It wasn't published, even more fortunately!

You know, the books that I've always liked the most are books which make me think, which throw a new light on things I only vaguely know about and so on.

BBC Books mentions you in the same breath as Angelou, Sebald, and places you right next to Franzen's Corrections.
I don't make any claims!

You said your book started with this image in your mind of a boy leaping across a well. Now this incident really occurred. Your book gives the impression that you think a lot in images.
Absolutely! Because I was writing historically. I was writing about people, places I knew nothing about. The only things I knew were these were places from my childhood. The colours, shapes, smells I knew. I needed to situate myself in those places, imaginatively throw myself back a hundred years, and be a participant or at least an observer - which is why it is written like I was seeing it, otherwise I couldn't write them.

Yes, there are so many cinematic images -- the rape, Solomon dying in the rain, his son Daniel reconciling with his brother Aaron as he dies in jail, his shocking will, his son Kannan finding peace back to Chevathar. What for you is the defining moment of your book?
(Laughs) You tell me. I just wrote the book! I have no idea!

Then what is the theme of the book?
It's damned difficult for me to say. That's why I'm fascinated by what people think of it. The moment you say, I've got this noble cause, you just wreck the book.

The mistake most of us make is we think our lives are so damn interesting that the whole world is just waiting to hear our tale. Which is very untrue.

But still...
I was trying to understand myself as an Indian who belonged to a particular time, a particular region, because all of us are born somewhere, because that is the core on which we build. And I didn't want to look at the present time.

Why?
You know, the books that I've always liked the most - and this is an oblique way of saying that this is the book that I wanted to write! - are books which make me think, which throw a new light on things I only vaguely know about and so on. I found it quite interesting to go back into the past because of the benefit of hindsight and perspective and all of that.

So I suppose I was trying to understand myself as an Indian who lived in the present time, but trying to figure out how the past led to the present. All these vague, ill-defined objectives were subordinate to the STORY which was paramount.

One advice you give to authors is that they mustn't wait for inspiration to strike, but do their research first.
Yes, if you know what story to tell. You need to have some inspiration. But if you want to write something about what is personal to you, I think you need to figure out exactly how you're going to make that of any interest to someone besides you, your friends, family, lovers.

The mistake most of us make is we think our lives are so damn interesting that the whole world is just waiting to hear our tale. Which is very untrue. Most of us lead very uninteresting, pedestrian, commonplace lives. So once you have a basic story to tell, you need to research it. The way you make a newspaper article interesting.

Arre, this is a novel, yaar! I'm not writing a biography of Moradabad or whatever. And this is a very common device -- to create a fictional entity

See, you just used the term "newspaper article". With so much research, isn't there a thin line where fiction shades off into journalism?
If you start worrying about what might hinder your work, you might never write it. What is crucial is to have a roadmap. This is where you start, where it might end, but in the writing it could change. It's very important that you figure out what narrative voice (first, second, third person), what structure (if saga or satire, read great sagas carefully to find out how bits interlock, some people go to writing school to learn that).

Isn't that a little business-like?  
Because there are no new structures left! I don't believe in primitive geniuses. In fact, the word genius is much abused. I wouldn't apply it to 99 percent of writers. All you have is a very good craftsman with a really absorbing story to tell. That's what it comes down to.

But plot isn't necessarily the overriding thing for all books.
That's a different kind of book. For some, plot is paramount. For some, it's the sheer brilliance of the language or perception. It's important to get a fix on what model you want to follow.

So is your book character driven or plot driven?
You've read my book. Have you liked it? What do you think?

Plot-driven.
Well, I think it has both. Characters too. Because this genre requires that. Now if I was writing stream-of-consciousness... (shrugs).

I am Tamil. But I am as deracinated as you can get. I could live in Iceland for all it matters.

Is Chevathar like RK Narayan's Malgudi? Or real, like Naipaul's Half A Life, partly set in a lightly disguised Mozambique?

It's a parallel universe. See, I actually started out with Daniel's death (which now takes place 2/3rds of the way into the novel). It sparked me off, but it found its own place in the text. Now Daniel's death - I had this image of this old man who's dying, who's grumpy about something, but I didn't know what. I had to tell his back story. So I had to tell the story of his father. Now where would I locate Solomon?

Where indeed?
I was on a holiday in an aunt's house in the outskirts of a village near Kanyakumari. She took me to a place where a river -- I think Periyar -- cuts through the beach and then joins the ocean. I thought it was such an amazing thing to see this river that travelled for miles. So I figured I wanted to locate my village at the junction of the river and the sea.

Was it your intention to give the illusion of authenticity without actually running the risk of being pinned down to details?
Yeah, irritating controversies. Like, this place is 20 kms away and not 25. Arre, this is a novel, yaar! I'm not writing a biography of Moradabad or whatever. And this is a very common device -- to create a fictional entity. Narayan has in Malgudi, Seth, even Golding in Lord Of The Flies.

Speaking of Golding, when I interviewed him before his death, he insisted the pig's head scene ran away with him, he had no control over his work! Does this really happen?
I've edited dozens of books but you know, you learn this thing only when you write one yourself. So yeah, that's what happened. But it's a very common device to create a fictional entity, then you control that universe. But as Marquez said, "To make a work of fiction true, you must have some fact about it. To make a work of non-fiction false, you only have to slip up once." There's a lot of factual stuff here.

This book happened because of a private obsession which has now become public. The initial reception has been so overwhelming that it has given me the confidence to write again.

Doesn't all this having to tread carefully over facts ruin your imaginative momentum?
Not at all. I had a blast doing this. Exploring stuff. I had lunch with somebody yesterday, and she said, I didn't know there was something like the Breast Wars. I said, it's true. It's a tiny fragment of time in this vast country, but it affected thousands of people then. I found it in an obscure history book.

How exactly did you go about your research?
I went to libraries, talked to old people, remembered stories told when I was a kid, so it was an amalgam of all these things. Also, remember: one of the things I discovered is that south Indian history is not as well covered as north Indian. Because the great movements took place there. Old gazetteers, maybe a small paragraph. I thought I'd try and understand a little bit more. This was a completely fascinating process. I loved it.

Loved being a born-again Dravidian?
I suppose that sprang from the fact that I am Tamil. But I am as deracinated as you can get. I could live in Iceland for all it matters. You don't really meet others, know local stuff. In a way, it was a kind of journeying back.

Why a village, why caste wars, when most writing here is on contemporary urban India?
This is what interested me. Tomorrow something else might. I'm done with this. I don't think it's an enduring obsession.

You may have sent your MS under a pseudonym. But after that you out-Royed Roy, from advances to translation rights. Is hype a good thing or a bad thing for a book?
I think it's an excellent thing.

English August? I think it's a fantastic book. When a reckoning is made, this will be one of the books that will be remembered. He is an amazing talent and he wrote an amazing book.

Spoken like a true publisher.
Given that there's so much jostling for the potential readers' attention, I think it's important for a book to be noticed. I would love to get hype for every single book. But you can only take it that far, because somebody has to then buy into that hype.

You've described yourself as a publisher-publisher-publisher-author. Why not the other way around?
It was quite simply that my profession is that of a publisher. That's what I've spent the last 15 years of my life doing, that I think I have some element of competence in. It excites me. It hasn't palled for me. So I see myself, touch wood, going on as a publisher for some time to come.

This book happened because of a private obsession which has now become public. The initial reception has been so overwhelming that it has given me the confidence to write again. I'll need to find (a) a subject; (b) characters that interest me; (c) the time.

I assume now that one has actually published a book, one can call oneself a writer. But at the present moment that's a parallel track. So I'm three parts publisher, one part author.

So when you were typing away at your...
I wrote in longhand. A lot of people think better on a keyboard. I can only handle a computer for emails. When I was a journalist I used to type, but for the past 15 years, I haven't. I've lost the art. So my wife typed it.

Wasn't that painstaking?
Fortunately, once it was on the computer, I could fiddle with it. But first it was written with a fountain pen. I think it's what enables you to think, rather than pausing to deal with whatever mode.

Did you start out with the Dorai family saga and take it from there?
Yes.

The best editing is invisible. You get into the work, you adopt the persona of the writer, work from within. You're trying to get the best out of it through that voice.

Did that particular period interest you : pre-independence?
No, none of that. I knew it was going to be about the Dorais. But then if I was going to do three generations, I figured I'd have to go some way back into the past. It was originally going to end at 2000 so I'd have a span. But it ended naturally at '47, so I just left it there.

421 pages, 3 generations, 50 years, 2 world wars. Whew! Was it your intention to cover things on such a grand epic scale?
I like the sweep of the canvas. It gave me room to explore everything. If it was a more narrowly focussed novel, then I couldn't have kept going at a tangent as I did.

Were you ever afraid that its length would be a stumbling block in sustaining interest?
Length doesn't matter. Basically what you're looking at is, do the characters work? Is it getting boring? Is the narrative pace quick enough? Are the perceptions good enough? As a perceptive reader you know when your attention is flagging.

What is it about publishing that really seduces you? Is it the hand-holding down the last tear? Or the deal-making down to the last dollar?
That's interesting too. But finally it's the joy of reading a new work, trying to get the best of that work showcased. I think that's a great joy. And no book is like another. So it's new. Always.

Do you personally cross a lot of Ts?
Yeah. But I do a lot less these days. I edit just 3-4 books a year. I run Penguin, I'm MD of Dorling Kindersley. So it doesn't leave time for line editing!

Meyer went to RK Narayan, one of the authors. RK said, there are no Indian writers. You'll wind up in a couple of years!

As a publisher, when you're nudging another author's book along, how much is smothering and how much is not doing enough justice?
That's a very good question. You see, the thing -- what you learn very early on, if you're to make a go of a career in publishing -- is, the book you're working on is not your book. It's a writer's book. The best editing is invisible. You get into the work, you adopt the persona of the writer, work from within. You're trying to get the best out of it through that voice. So that answers your question. You have to understand the text as closely as you can be to the creator. That's when you're of maximum benefit to the person. Because when you say something to him, that person will accept it or reject it, knowing that you're not trying to mar the book, but just trying to get it to its potential.

What did you think about English August?
I think it's a fantastic book. When a reckoning is made, this will be one of the books that will be remembered. He is an amazing talent and he wrote an amazing book.

You were Upamanyu's editor with Mammaries. It had great moments, but wasn't as successful. You were the editor. Do you feel if you'd just tweaked it a little more ...
The point is, when do you stop? Each book assumes a shape of its own. Your perception - writing, editing, reviewing - everything is a subjective process. So which is the ideal? You never know. Is Ullysses this vast bloated unreadable voyage of matter or a masterpiece? Who decides? So ultimately all an editor can do is to figure out what is best for the book at that point in time. That's all he can do.

How did you make your switch from journalism to publishing?
I was doing a course in publishing at Harvard. The then chairman of Penguin was thinking of setting up an office in India. So he said, how would you like to help with the founding. I was the only Indian on the course. So I got very lucky.

People trace the burgeoning of Indo-Anglian writing to you.
(Laughing) You tell me! I'm too young to be the dad of IA writing.

Vikram Seth said, why should I publish with you? I said, we'll be passionate about your book. Finally I made my offer to him in the form of a sonnet. And he replied in the form of a sonnet!

No, but you were suddenly right in the thick of it. Was it a question of right timing, was there a vacuum?
I think it was a great opportunity. At that point Indian writing was very sporadic. Somebody somewhere had published a novel. But absurdly much of the publishing took place in UK or the US. Only 2 or 3 got published here. Now there are thousands of Indian writers.

I'm not talking about educational publishing, OUP, etc. which has always been there for the last 100-odd years. But the books that you buy in bookshops - general or trade publishing -- did not exist in a very big way. So I think Peter Meyer was the visionary. He said there's a great opportunity here. India is ready for this.

Did others share that optimism?
There's an interesting story here. Meyer went to RK Narayan, one of the authors. RK said, there are no Indian writers. You'll wind up in a couple of years!

Was it tough going?
For the first few years, it was quite a struggle. People would ignore our books. We didn't sell enough copies. But we just stuck in there. Persevered. And now look. It's transformed the landscape! Prime shelf space is for Indian books. They dominate the bestseller list, the review pages, Indian authors get profiled all the time. It didn't exist 15 years ago. I don't know about being a big part of it. But I do know that we were part of the process.

Any funny stories from publishing or writing?
One of the interesting anecdotes is how I got to publish Vikram Seth. At that point Penguin had 3 people. Seth was already famous. He said, why should I publish with you? I said, we'll be passionate about your book. Finally I made my offer to him in the form of a sonnet.

There will always now be Indian writers, no longer exotic, who are seen as crucial to tastes of readers around the world.

You wrote Seth a sonnet?!
Yes. And he replied in the form of a sonnet! Since then, we're the only publisher around the world who's published all his books.

Which of the Indo-Anglian writers do you rate very highly?
I LOVE THEM ALL!

No, honestly.
All, all. Come on, don't forget I publish 95 percent of them. I have to love every man or woman jack of them. That's all I will say. I'm a publisher.

But as a reader you are entitled to have legitimate biases.
What do you expect me to say? When we have a drink away from this recorder, I will tell you!

Do you think that after the mad scramble in the West for Indo-Anglian writers post-Roy, we have finally arrived at a more realistic sense of ourselves?
Yes, yes, absolutely. Because I was talking to a British agent yesterday visiting Delhi. She said there were a couple of much hyped books which flopped.

Are we thinking about...
I'm NOT naming names!

Well, Pankaj Mishra did say, "We were deluded about the demand before we even began."
There were 5 or 10 years when anything Indian was snapped up. Post-Roy and post-Suitable Boy. 1992 and '97. Inevitably, not all books are going to achieve that kind of sales. So there was this decline. Not all books.

But it's not even "not all books". There's not been a single success story since then.

(Laughs.)

I think it's about 5 to 10 million which is like the population of New Zealand. So our book sales reflect NZ's book sales almost exactly.

No, but seriously, what was the reason? It's not lack of visibility, so is it lack of talent?
No. It was expectations pitched much too high. Everything has been hauled back. Expectations have been much more realistic. Rushdie first stormed the barricades, followed by Seth, Roy. So now you'll find Indian books on every single publisher's list. At least one book, say, every year. But the advances are much more modest, no matter what the newspapers say. If you write an amazing book, you'll get money not for the book, but because you're an Indian writer. If you write a more modest book, you'll get money commensurate to that.

I think it's very good for Indian writers. Now they will be judged on merit, rather than just flavour of the month, which is transitory. This is enduring. There will always now be Indian writers, no longer exotic, who are seen as crucial to tastes of readers around the world. Fantastic.

It must be "fantastic" out there, what about here? Why such disparity in sales figures?
It's been growing every year.

Yet if you manage 2-3000 copies, you consider yourself lucky.
But 10 years ago, it wasn't even that.

But abroad even mediocre authors do 5000 easy.
5000 is excellent. Here you sell 3000. There's not that much of a difference. The difference is when you become successful here, whether you have massive hype or minimum hype, you'll still sell around 10 to 15,000 copies. Whereas out there, they are into quarter of million. That is the difference between India and England.

Why? We have a fairly huge population out there, of people who read English books. Why doesn't it ever translate into astronomical sales?
Because our readership is limited.

If I have three gurus, they’re probably Rajmohan Gandhi, Dom Moraes and Peter Meyer who introduced me to publishing.

Says who? The English speaking population here is huge.
All that is bunk. People claim 20 million Indians use English as their first language. Bullshit. I think this figure includes everyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with English. I think it's about 5 to 10 million which is like the population of New Zealand. So our book sales reflect NZ's book sales almost exactly.

I think one more generation from now, you'll have 20 to 25 million people who use English as their first language. At that point you'll see giant sales happening in India. More and more kids are learning English as the first language. Our generation, the one before in their 50 pluses, and then our next, in their teens. So you have 3 generations contiguously. So the percentage of people using English as the first language will go up. Prices of books are going up because wage levels are going up. Retail also is expanding.

So all 3 will converge in about 10-15 years time. And you can actually have potential 100,000-copy bestsellers etc. which will give the author a nice remuneration as opposed to today which is our biggest frustration. Now whether you have massive hype or minimum hype, you'll sell 2000 to 15,000 copies, whereas in the West you get into quarter of a million range.

You use the West and India as blanket terms.
No, I think we're starting to develop characteristics of our own. But we need to have critical mass in terms of readership and enough outlets to expose that readership to new books. Look at the review pages. That has to change. Isolating one or the other segment of the publishing process to blame - publishers, writers, readers, retail, the media - won't do. Everything has to change.

But what does one do? You have magazines like Gentleman folding up anyway.
No, there'll be new ones which will come up, naa. I'm sure you'll have book related programmes. It just needs to get bigger. Give it 10 years. Once that market segment is deemed big enough, you'll have publishers advertising in the book review pages of a magazine or a newspaper. Newspapers therefore devote more pages. It'll all happen, don't worry. Because my yardstick is, 15 years ago the scene was dismal. Today the fact that you're interviewing me about an Indian novel means it's not slipping back. This would have happened once a year 15 years ago. It's getting stronger -- we all hope.

Favourites? Coetzee. Cormack Macarthy, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster, Tim Winton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Guiseppe Thomase Lampedusa, Kingsolver, Forster, Berniere, Durrell...

You started out as a journalist, with Rajmohan Gandhi’s Himmat, didn’t you?
I was just talking to Rajmohan Gandhi this morning. I sent him a copy and said if he hadn’t picked me, I’d have gone into -- I don’t know -- shipping or something! But that’s how I got my first break in journalism. I studied in Madras Christian College, then I came to Bombay when I was 20. I spent a couple of years in Himmat. Then after it shut down, I went on to work for a shortlived magazine called Keynote that Dom Moraes started. After Keynote, I worked in Gentleman for a couple of years with Minhaz Merchant. Then I went off to the US to study publishing.

So if I have three gurus, they’re probably Rajmohan Gandhi, Dom Moraes and Peter Meyer who introduced me to publishing.

Don’t you miss journalism sometimes?
For the last 10 years, I’ve been writing a column for The Hindu on books. I deliberately didn’t let go of that because I didn’t want to get rusty. So I haven’t left journalism.

I think a lot of your journalistic past has rubbed off in your book -- there’s a lot of …
Of course, of course! There’s no question about it. I’m really grateful for that. Because -- forget all of that -- just the discipline of writing: I said I’m going to write 1000 words a daily, come what may. Good/bad/indifferent. I can always revise. That I put down solely to my journalistic training.

Favourite authors?
None directly important to this novel. But I like all sorts of writers. Coetzee. Cormack Macarthy for his exceptional use of language, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster, Tim Winton, an Australian writer, who's written a saga called Cloud Street. F. Scott Fitzgerald who’s written perhaps the perfect short novel, The Great Gatsby. Hemingway.

I was certain I was not getting into any real life situations for fear of offending the family. And also restricting the imagination. That’s a big hobble on the imagination -- trying to stick close to reality.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you were influenced by Lampedusa.
I’m a complete mongrel. But in this genre, the books that were my touchstones were The Leopard by the Sicilian Guiseppe Thomase Lampedusa. 100 Years Of Solitude where I was interested in the way Marquez tackled span. But because it wasn’t going to be a magical realism novel, obviously that wasn’t as much a model as Leopard.

Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Durrell’s Alexandria QuartetA Passage To India with the caveat that it’s a dated book. The attitudes are quite quaint actually. But in terms of writing, Forster’s a beautiful writer. Those were the books I was reading and thinking about at the time I was conceiving the novel.

You’ve written about tea plantations. Is it because you grew up in one?
My dad was a planter, which is why the third section is strong. I have a sister who is a nutritionist, has published her first book on food. There's a family settlement called Davidnagar outside Madras.

Ah, like Doraipuram in your book!
But if you’ve read my author’s note, I was quite clear that was a point of departure. I like the idea of someone setting up a settlement. But I was certain I was not getting into any real life situations for fear of offending the family. And also restricting the imagination. That’s a big hobble on the imagination -- trying to stick close to reality.

Was your grandfather like Solomon Dorai?
(Laughs.) Not like him. He was a judge, so he was a much more exalted figure. But I was determined this settlement Doraipuram was unlike Davidnagar. Completely invented.

You write because you are compelled to write. You don’t write to make your fortune. That’s silly, that will never work. You must have a story that’s pushing its way out of you.

What was your childhood like? You weren’t raised in the city.
Not at all. I grew up on a tea estate. Solitary child. Long walks with a dog. My Dad wanted me to get into the army. So off I went to Sainik School. Spent -- what? -- six miserable years doing PT. Marching up and down. That sort of rubbish. Then I went to MCC which was great fun. I did botany.

Just like Kannan in the book!
Yes. Then I went to Bombay because I wanted to be a planter like my dad. I was very mixed up. First shoved into the direction of the army. Had a blast as a kid on the estates. But my dad said, no way you’re going to do tea. You don’t use your brain very much here, you’re looking at crop yields!

Didn’t you or your mother get bored there?
Those were vast palatial bungalows, running them was quite an effort, it kept her preoccupied. But I wasn’t bored. I used to run around.

You used to read a lot.
That was my mother’s father’s influence. A headmaster, he got me school library books. I’d read very fast. So for a long time he wouldn’t believe that I read them. He thought I just looked at the pictures! So he’d quiz me what happened to the character on page 100. Since then I’ve developed into a book junkie. I have to read everyday. I can speed-read manuscripts.

As a publisher, what do you look for in a book?
Very strong characters, a plausible plot, elegance of style, depth of perception. Very good readers make good editors, unlike journalists where a lot of editing is either rewriting or subbing. I think the editor of fiction differs from that in one major aspect.

When do you think the next Great Indian Novel is coming out? We’ve really had this long drought.
I don’t know. I think writers really need to be a little more ambitious. Not in terms of fame or fortune, but in terms of the books they want to write. If that happens, you’ll get a lot more big books I suppose.

Don’t forget our publishing game is still in its infancy. But you have to have publishers for writers to be able to publish. So you create an environment which motivates people who might otherwise be diverted to pick up their pen. Finally, you write because you are compelled to write. You don’t write to make your fortune. That’s silly, that will never work. You must have a story that’s pushing its way out of you.

Naipaul and Rushdie are losing some of their old magic as they age? Yeah, but that’s because they’ve just mined their insides till there’s nothing left.

And you believe in really long periods of germination!
I think so. Well, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone should write a novel for 10 years like I did! I think they should write faster! I’ve written one section of Blue Mangoes for every decade that I should’ve written my novel. The three sections for the novel I should have written in my 20s, 30s and 40s!

In Kingsolver’s "Author’s Note" to Poisonwood Bible, she says, "I believe there’s a time when you’re ready to write something." She’d written books before. But this time, she figured she’d write in the big canvas.

But it is only in your 30s, when you’ve lived life, that you’re mature enough to write in a way that’s not self-indulgent.

Do you feel that what older writers gain in insight or maturity, they lose in terms of fire?
I don’t agree. Often books written in their 20s are bursting with energy, but the depth isn’t there. Sometimes they electrify, but very rarely. Name five novels by writers in their 20s that are masterpieces.

Amis?
But that was Rachel Papers. He started writing his other ones later. There are very few - Rimbauds and Fitzgeralds and so on. It just depends on when you’re ready to write. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of age.

But there are those who would argue that Naipaul and Rushdie are losing some of their old magic as they age.
Yeah, but that’s because they’ve just mined their insides till there’s nothing left.

I don’t consider Permanent Black a general publisher, they’re an academic publisher. So that’s not a good comparison. They don’t have the first idea of how to run a publishing house!

Will your next novel be similar in genre?
I don’t think so. I think I have the central character vaguely figured out, and the setting: Bombay. There’s another thing I want to explore. Religion.

Not caste wars again?
Caste I’ve explored already in this book. But the pushing aside of the liberal Indian, how do each of us deal with it, the communalising of the electorate, why did these things happen? Not in any obvious way. If there’s a story to tell, I’ll tell it. Otherwise not.

Why doesn’t Penguin have readings these days. Except for yours!
Readings are a tricky thing. A lot of writers can’t read.

So go get a Suhel Seth to do the needful.
But the Suhels have to want to read.

I speak as a book lover. At a launch, you have this captive audience.
About 75 percent of our dos have readings. It’s true. We have a marketing plan for every book. Sometimes the authors only want to celebrate the arrival of the book and if a hotel is willing to sponsor it, we’ll do it. In America they have reading groups. I’m all for it -- initiatives like book clubs. I’ll do anything to get a book off the ground. You have to budget for it and budgets work very closely with notional sales. So a percentage - 5 to 10 - is put towards publicity. Some books don’t lend themselves to readings. You can’t extract a bit out of a stream of consciousness novel which has no context. You don’t expect somebody to go out and buy that book.

That’s not necessarily true. With Woolf, you don’t feel, why isn’t she getting to the point? You say, my, what wonderful prose.
But not everybody writes wonderful prose.

Budding intellectuals in college coffee houses probably make for really bad writers -- self-indulgent, obscure -- and need to be shaken up and told, get real, buddy!

What would you say to those who say that Penguin compromises on quality, that its bottomline is always money whereas, say, Permanent Black would starve before they brought out milch cows like Shobha De or …
I don’t consider Permanent Black a general publisher, they’re an academic publisher. So that’s not a good comparison. They don’t have the first idea of how to run a publishing house!

But often assembly-line pulp gets churned out while an offbeat genius like Jamyang Norbu languishes in your slushpiles for decades -- till he is rescued by another publisher and wins the Crossword award, which some people describe as the Indian Booker.
Did we ever turn down Jamyang Norbu? Did we? I don’t know that we read him!

When Renuka Chatterjee of HarperCollins said publicly at the Crossword awards that Penguin was threatening to chop off 300 pages and make Norbu’s The Mandala Of Sherlock Holmes into a Puffin book till she stepped in, how did you react?
(Pause) This is news to me.

Shouldn’t a big house like you take more risks? You can afford to.
We take risks.

For example?
This year we took Manjushree Thapa and Brinda Charry and backed them to the hilt. Nambisan. Poets nobody’s heard of.

I have a problem with these sour, unsuccessful, pretty much failed publishers and writers who will carp constantly without substantiating it.

Then why is there this subterranean perception that Penguin’s marketing savvy isn’t always backed by great editorial choices?
I would not dignify it with a comment because they have no clue. It’s damn easy to run a publishing house which brings out 5 books a year. If Penguin did this, would the other 5000 authors get an opportunity? It is damn easy to criticise without having the faintest idea. We publish 150 new books a year. Does anyone know what these books are?

I give these short shrift. I have no time for this. Constructive criticism, yes. I will always have these. This book came to Penguin you didn’t publish it, why? I’d conduct an enquiry. Some idiot gets up and makes… It’s like me talking about academic press when I don’t run one. Everyone has a view about general publishing. What gives them any, any

Any right?
No no, they have a right. But only as readers. But when they try to tell me how to run a publishing house then I just look at them with great amazement, saying, where does this moron spring from? I get quite exercised about this. Which is why I don’t participate in discussions. I’d probably reach across and … (makes a gesture).

It’s not just rival publishers who say this, there are writers and …
Budding intellectuals in college coffee houses probably make for really bad writers -- self-indulgent, obscure -- and need to be shaken up and told, get real, buddy! I tend to ignore it almost completely. It doesn’t impact on me. At one time it did, when we were just setting out 15 years ago. Now I am sure of myself, I wouldn’t give them the time of day.

Look at the number of publishing houses that have folded up and lost their big authors. These guys don’t have a shred of sense on what it takes to run a balanced list! They don’t have any publishing savvy.

All they know is how to pick a good manuscript. That’s easy. We have 15 editors who know that! Look at a newspaper. It has entertainment, sports, business, comics, op-ed. It’s a balanced product. If they have to talk, they must know what you’re saying! Any book can be torn apart. You just approach it from a point of view which is inconvenient to you. Are these guys gods, geniuses? Have they written anything which stands up to critical acclaim? Who are they to talk? Why is their view important?!

In any case, it’s a gamble.
Exactly. I’m always willing to listen to criticism. Say, if you come up to me and say, why are you not doing this? If it makes sense, of course I’ll adopt that. I have no ego about that. But I have a problem with these sour, unsuccessful, pretty much failed publishers and writers who will carp constantly without substantiating it. Let them give me something I can work on. Tell me how to do it right. That is what makes for doing things better. If you don’t have a solution, just shut your mouth! Because you’re not doing anything that advances the situation. You’re just a bag of hot air.

And Penguin has had a hard row to hoe, yaar. This didn’t happen overnight. We started with Rs 5 lakhs, just 5 lakhs, no other support. This has all been built up through some common sense, some luck, and a lot of hard work. Which is why I have no time to listen to these people. I don’t participate in these discussions which are mostly about people talking to themselves.

These days, even Indian writers pick up the nearest writers’ handbook and make a beeline for literary agents abroad. Where does that leave you?

It’s quite sound. I have no problem with that. I hope there comes a time when we have agents who can make a living in India through the percentage of the writers’ fee. Then you’re more comfortable, and what the editor and writer are working with is just the text.

Wouldn’t publishers like you lose out?
If a writer doesn’t have an agent, for example, we buy world rights of the book, we perform the functions of the agent, sell the book abroad, we are quite networked. Yeah. Penguin is a full service company we can do anything a writer wants.

You were talking earlier about those 450 pages of your first draft of Mangoes. And this was when?
When I turned 30. So about 12 years ago. Finished a few years later. Put them aside because they didn’t make any sense to me. Got preoccupied. Then in ’98 I asked Vikram Seth to look at it.

You went to Seth because he was with Penguin? An editor at Stanford? A famous author with contacts? A good friend?
Good friend - A. B, he’s one of the greatest writers in today’s world. He’d written a saga. He’d never worked with anyone before. So it was on the off-chance that he would… So when he said he could -- in a weak moment, I think! - I thought I’d hold him to his promise. A year later, I gave him 200 pages. I said if you don’t like it, I’ll trash it, but you shouldn’t tell anyone. It’s a secret. He said he wanted me to continue. So I wrote 700 odd pages. I wrote very fast.

Things were already in place. I think a novel takes time to come to maturity. It had been fomenting for about 10 years, so the last three years it came out at a rapid clip. Rachna was the first to read it, then him. At one point Vikram said, you really don’t need me because your wife’s opinions and mine coincide almost exactly. On the basis of what they said, I rewrote. And then as you know it was published under a pseudonym etc.

And David Godwin really didn’t have a clue?
No. He didn’t even have the ms. He came to Delhi to look at it sight unseen. All he knew was I emailed him saying, I have custody of a ms which Vikram Seth has liked. Would you like to look at it? So he got on a plane and came.

He read some of it before you revealed it was you?
Yeah. 48 hours later he said, if I like it, can I have lunch with the author? So we had lunch. He told me what he liked about the book, what he thought could be improved, etc. Then he said where’s the author?

And that’s when … ?
That’s when I said, Look, I’m the author. The effect was suitably dramatic! We submitted it to under the same pseudonym.

Why the pseudonym? Didn’t the practical agent in Godwin want to use your name?
Sure. But I was quite clear that I didn’t want to use my contacts for 3 reasons (and this is the truth!): I know most of the top editors in London and New York. A, it could be seen as because I knew them it was being published. B, if they didn’t like it, I wanted them to comfortable saying no. C, I suppose it was basic insecurity. If it wasn’t good enough for them, I’d have much rather put it away and forgotten about it.

What about editors?
I told David from my working with various editors, there are some editors who are especially good with Indian books. So I said if any one of those editors wanted, no matter what they pay, I want them, because it would be good for the book.

I had an amazing stroke of luck. To my mind probably the best editors in England bought it there: Maggie Mckernan at Orion who edited A Suitable Boy with me. Likewise in the US, I got Tarry Karten, who bought it in HarperCollins. She’s published Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Manil Suri, she lost the bidding war for Roy. I had the 2 best editors I wanted. So I said fine, I won’t look any further.

Last question. How did you meet Rachna?
I met my wife because I frequented The Book Shop. We shared a love of books. Quite apart from anything else, I think she’s an amazingly fun person. I met her six years ago, we’ve been married for about four.

No kids?
No kids. That’s another thing we’ve been trying to figure out!


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