Illustration: Priya Kuriyan / May 2011 Himal Southasian
Illustration: Priya Kuriyan / May 2011 Himal Southasian

From Ansari Road

A journey through English-language publishing in India.

A little over three decades ago I made my first, accidental, entry into the world of publishing in India. I was just finishing my Masters degree, and wanted to make a decisive move away from English literature to something more 'relevant' to my life in the thriving, bustling, politically alive city of Delhi. The university was a hotbed of furious political debate, the women's movement was just taking off – surely, I thought, there has to be more to life than Spenser and Milton (much though I loved them). At the time, a friend worked as a secretary in the Oxford University Press office in Delhi. Perhaps, she suggested, I should do some freelance work there and see how I liked it. I thought it was a brilliant idea.

At the time, a great deal of publishing activity in Delhi was concentrated along two roads. The longer one, Asaf Ali Road, lay just outside the wall of the old city, while a shorter strip, Ansari Road, lay just beyond. Ansari Road housed large and small publishers alike, and during the lunch hour many of them (almost all male) could be seen at the samosa and paan stalls, exchanging gossip and news, while small lorries and hand-drawn carts loaded with packets of books made their way to publishers' warehouses.

I remember walking into my first job in the Indian branch of the Oxford University Press (OUP), on Ansari Road, feeling a great sense of trepidation. At the time, OUP was adapting (they called it 'Indianising'), for Indian schools, a series of English textbooks called Active English, and I was employed in the inglorious role of a 'paster upper'. My task was to paste Indian names (at the time – our imaginations were a bit limited – we used the names Ram and Sita) over Western ones (John and Mary), while an artist named Dean Gasper coloured blond hair and blue eyes black, and chopped off the top halves of double-decker buses. That first experience with art pulls and rubber solution (things most people in publishing would probably not recognise today) was enough to make all fear vanish without a trace.

In those days, OUP was a special place to work. The remnants of British domination still existed in the shape of a few employees. A gentleman called Charles Lewis, for instance, ran the place, and two eccentric Englishmen – Adrian Bullock and Christopher Stocks (the latter routinely came to office wearing a dressing gown) – ran the production and editorial departments. A young Oxford-returned man who wore Indian kurtas and smoked beedis was the head of academic publishing. His name was Ravi Dayal, and he was slated to become the head of OUP, along with a Bengali gentleman called Santosh Mukherjee, as the British directors were on their way out. In the post-Independence scenario, publishing, like everything else, was required to 'Indianise', and expatriate employees had to leave. The companies themselves, meanwhile, reduced their shareholding to a maximum of 49 percent – though this did not apply to OUP, because it saw itself as a department of Oxford University, rather than the Indian branch of an overseas company. Still, over time, OUP lost the battle to convince the Indian government of this.


OUP was one of a handful of colonial-era publishers (the others being Blackie and Son, Macmillan and Orient Longman) who dominated much of the educational market in India, although the government-run National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was making rapid inroads. This small coterie was eventually joined by American-Indian collaborations such as Prentice Hall and Tata McGraw Hill. Then there were many Indian houses – Vikas, Asia, S Chand, Frank Brothers, Jaico, B I Publications and others. Not surprisingly, rivalries between these groups were fierce, and the federations of publishers – the original FPBAI (Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Associations in India) and its breakaway group, the FIP (Federation of Publishers in India) – reflected this, with the former being the publishers and importers' lobby and the latter being the so-called Indian publishers' lobby.

One of the early projects I worked on for OUP was the translation of the Oxford School Atlas into Hindi and Punjabi (Gurmukhi). The bosses at OUP had managed to bag a contract to provide 475,000 copies of the Atlas to the Punjab government, for use in the state's schools. (Such collaborations between the government and private sector were possible at the time, and could take place without any apparent corruption.) We used to have to travel to Chandigarh almost every week to meet with government officials, who would check and recheck everything.

It was on the last of these drives, in a mild state of euphoria with the first few copies of the Atlas to show to the Punjab government, that we noticed advertisements for Atlas cycles, Punjab's most famous bicycle brand. And we noticed, to our horror, that the word Atlas had been spelled in Gurmukhi differently from how we had it on the copies we were carrying. The copies were all printed – would the government officials notice? We hoped not, but of course we were wrong. They noticed, not because they were vigilant but because the officer in charge had changed, and the new one had his own views on the Gurmukhi script, views that were in direct contrast to those of the previous officer who had okayed the cover. He duly rejected the book, and large sections had to be reprinted.

It was then that I realised that the legacy of colonialism was not so easily removed. It was not just a matter of Indianising the structures of business; we needed also to look at issues such as how our languages had been structured, whether or not their scripts and systems of spelling (put in place initially by the British) were free of political power struggles; and whether we wanted simply to work with those inherited systems – or create our own.

The process of Indianising was not easy. The state had to create a fine balance between openness, based on the belief that knowledge should be free and easily available, and protectionism, based on the understanding that the Indian book trade should be allowed to develop. So, for example, while there were restrictions on almost everything else in terms of imports – you could not bring in a refrigerator or a car, or even clothes – books were notoriously free of such restrictions, and the conditions governing their import were liberal.

Liberal, that is for those who wanted to import books for our personal use, but within the book trade there were some restrictions. Booksellers and distributors were allowed to import up to 1000 copies of a title per year. However, many ended up opening multiple companies to allow them to get around this restriction. This and the existence of something called remainders – heavily discounted unsold books that were dumped into India from foreign markets – ensured that whatever bookshops there were had mainly imported books on their shelves.

Reversing the flow

Publishing has changed beyond recognition. Not only have technological changes transformed the practice of publishing, with metal typesetting, letterpress printing, blocks and galleys long gone. Actually, the change is far more profound, far more wide-ranging.

Today, a new entrant walking into Ansari Road would see many of the same company names. But much of the action has moved elsewhere, to other parts of the city, into neighbouring Gurgaon or Noida. Ansari Road is no longer the only home for publishers in Delhi; there are just too many of them to fit there. More importantly, Delhi is no longer the only home. Indian vernacular publishers have always been located in the particular state to which their language belongs, but during the 1970s many English-language publishers moved to Delhi. Today, though, location does not mean the same thing, and publishers can choose to work from anywhere. They work with typesetters located in other cities, and printers who might even be in other countries.

The change is not only geographical. When I began working in publishing, there were only two or three kinds of books that were taken seriously – school textbooks, academic books for use at university level, and the odd novel. Trade publishing had yet to make its presence felt. (I should explain here that the term 'trade', in publishing jargon, is used to denote the general book, read by the general reader. So this can include fiction, biography, autobiography, non-fiction, books for children, etc.) Very few publishers – in English, at least – were publishing fiction; and although reasonably priced editions of classics by Western authors could be found, these did not make money. It was only during the 1980s that things began to change. In 1984, I and a few others set up Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house. Having cut our publishing teeth mainly in academic publishing, my then partner, Ritu Menon, and I focused mainly on that. Yet we too began, slowly, to publish fiction.

India has always been a large – and generally stable – market for exports of books from the UK and the US, so it was not surprising that the country's bookshops carried so many titles published outside the country. With the decline of the rupee against the dollar, however, this began to change a bit: books priced in dollars became more expensive, and bookshops began to look at alternatives. Enter Indian trade books in English, in particular during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rupa, Stree Publishers, Ravi Dayal and Orient Longman were among the pioneers in this field, but the big change actually came with the entry of Penguin India, which brought scale, size, marketing skills and a general 'sexiness' to trade publishing.

Still, over the next few years the market remained predominantly educational and predominantly Indian. The next big change came during the mid-1990s, when India began to open up to foreign investment. Very quickly, large multinational publishers started to look towards this market – one of the few in the world that still showed considerable potential for expansion. Today, India is home to a variety of international publishers, many of which are in joint ventures with Indian companies, and others that are fully owned by their parent corporations. While the real profits come from the scientific, technical, medical and legal genres, it is trade that receives the most attention. This is no surprise, perhaps, for it is here that the excitement is palpable, with the demand for books by Indian writers growing as they become known both at home and abroad.

While the large and medium 'foreign' actors worked hard to open up the space for Indian trade publishing in English, however, it was the Indian actors who often took the initial step of experimentation. Rupa, a publisher and distributor, was one of the first to look at mass-market books in English, moving away from the literary to the more popular. The success of some of its young authors, such as Chetan Bhagat, whose books sell in the hundreds of thousands, is by now well known. If Rupa made the initial foray into the mass market, publishers such as Tara and Tulika broke new ground where children's books were concerned, just as Kali did with women's books.

It is not only in content that one sees a change, but also in how publishers position themselves. One of the most interesting and exciting experiments in recent years has been carried out by Seagull Publishers in Kolkata, which has chosen to re-invent itself not as an Indian publisher based in India but rather as an international publisher based in India. Seagull consciously publishes non-Indian authors, distributes their books throughout the world, and is making a name for itself in doing so. This is an exciting development: if successful, it could begin a process of reversing the flow of information that has traditionally been from the West to the East, the North to the South.

For anyone and everyone

In response to the growing numbers of books being published all over India, large and small bookshops have blossomed, and stocked at least half of their shelves with Indian books by Indian authors. In fact, the difference in the retail trade is significant. Several years ago, the British Council brought out a listing of 100 bookshops in India – and evidently was hard put to list that many. Things are very different today, with three major bookshop chains – Crossword, Odyssey and Landmark – and many individual stores that could well develop into chains in the future. In the early days, there were really only two 'chains' worth discussing. Higginbothams was mainly concentrated in South India, while the other, A H Wheeler and Co, was a railway-station chain. Although the retail sector has considerably expanded, its development has been slowed somewhat due to the global economic recession of recent years. Plans by Tatas and the Future Group for instance to add many more bookshops have been put aside.

The publishing world is increasingly peopled with young, smart, intelligent, professionals, many of them women. Indeed, the increasing numbers of women in the profession has gone somewhat unremarked upon. Years ago, when I made my hesitant way into the portals of the OUP, my dad walked in with me. Unknown to me, he took my then boss aside and told him in no uncertain terms that he expected all the men in the office to behave. In turn, my boss, when offering me the job, said I needed to behave – by which he meant not getting married immediately and becoming pregnant. According to him, they had 'never employed a woman in an executive position before because women usually go away and get married.'

The situation is very different today. Not only are increasing numbers of small- and medium-sized publishing houses headed by women – Yoda, Yatra, Stree, Katha, Tara Books, Tulika, Karadi Tales, Women Unlimited and Zubaan – but women are the decision-makers in many of the larger houses too, including India Book House, Westland Books, Niyogi Books, Ratna Sagar, Random House and HarperCollins. Several of the bookshop chains are also headed by women (Oxford Bookstores, Strand and others), and there are many women printers, designers and typesetters in the sector today. Recently, when I helped to set up an India's Women in Publishing group, and decided to have a welcome party for its members in Delhi, we found ourselves sending out over 250 invitations – and this only in Delhi.

Then there is the entry of the adventurous young. Long ago, when I left my job to think of setting up my own publishing house, people thought I was a bit mad. But today, young people are making such decisions all the time. A few years ago a group of young men and women came together to set up Blaft, a wonderful, dynamic publishing house that focuses on translations of pulp fiction (see accompanying review by Meher Ali); there is Navayana, set up to publish works by marginalised communities; Phantomville, which focuses on graphic novels; Kalachuvadu, which publishes both fiction and non-fiction in Tamil; New Horizon, set up by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who sold their stake in an enormously profitable website, Cricinfo, to concentrate on books; Panther Books, set up by one man (and his family) to bring the best medical knowledge out in electronic form; Ratna Sagar, a quality publishing house focusing on textbooks and books for children that is providing strong competition to OUP; Wisdom Tree, a young and dynamic publishing house; Queer Ink, a publisher and online bookstore run by two women; Srishti, Social Science Press, Leftword, Three Essays, Samskriti … the list goes on and on.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the focus on textbooks and educational publishing also meant that there was not much happening with regards to translation. Given that India has 23 official languages and publishes in 22 of those, with many having rich, and strong literary traditions, this was an odd lacuna. Even when there were translations, they were seldom direct from one Indian language to another, but rather went via a link language such as Hindi or English. Today, translation forms a vibrant and lively part of Indian publishing.

Feeding the hunger
Most discussion on Indian publishing today tends to focus on trade publishing, where the growth is – some say as high as 30 percent a year, while others put the figure at 10 percent (which is a high enough figure). Much of this growth is attributed to the entry of the big Western giants, and there is no doubt that these houses are publishing new and interesting titles. But it is the independent, small (and sometimes not so small) Indian publishers who are really the ones who should be credited with putting Indian publishing on the international map. Not only are independent and small publishers doing exciting things, they are also thinking innovatively about distribution. One of the new models is to co-publish with a larger publisher, something that is unheard of within the same country elsewhere in the world. The Zubaan-Penguin list, as well as those by Collins-Ratna Sagar, Ravi Dayal-Penguin and Mapin-HarperCollins are examples of these, and there are more in the offing. Further, a group of independent publishers – the Independent Publishers' Distribution Alternatives (IPDA) – has come together to set up a collective to work on distribution and marketing.

Although the independents are at the cutting edge of change, there is no denying that the entry of large foreign companies is an obstacle to homegrown efforts. When the publishing sector began to open up during the 1990s, publishers' associations fought hard to prevent this, and even today there are petitions pending with the government in which publishers who see themselves as 'Indian' have questioned the presence of foreign publishers in India, even accusing them of being in the country illegally.

While this is battled out in court, the questions that lie behind this debate are important: Can we really, as publishers, prevent the entry of multinational publishers into India? Can markets remain protected in these days, especially as our own publishers are now expanding into foreign markets? At the same time, is the presence of foreign houses a new form of colonialism which hurts our society and economy? Will Indian publishing be able to hold its own in the face of competition from those who have established reputations, and whose resources are far more abundant? Already 'advances' to authors have begun to be offered in Indian publishing (largely, but not only, with the backing of foreign capital), a cause for worry for smaller actors who cannot match this money. The presence of foreign actors is complicated by the fact that many of them are publishing books by Indian writers. Further, many of them are working in collaboration with Indian business houses, so the accusation of 'foreign' becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.

Almost forty years ago, Robert Escarpit, writing on book-reading habits across the world, defined India as a region of 'book hunger'. Looking at developments today, he might be tempted to make a different assessment. Clearly, with the growth of its middle classes, the rise in their incomes, the expansion in retail, and the fact that it is one of the few book markets in the world that is not yet saturated, India presents enormous opportunities. And yet, even as we stand poised on the brink of many changes and new developments, it is worth remembering that, in a country where millions still cannot read, much  remains to be done.

~ Urvashi Butalia is co-founder of Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house, and now heads Zubaan, an imprint of Kali.

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