At 26 David Davidar was one of the youngest publishers in the world, when he became one of the founder members of Penguin Books India. The CEO and publisher soon made Penguin Books the name to watch out for in English language Indian fiction. From Vikram Seth to Shobhaa De, from Rohinton Mistry to R.K. Narayan, whether they were expat or homegrown, they are all in the Penguin stable. Now Davidar is in his own stable too. His first novel The House of Blue Mangos, 10 years in the making, made its own splashy Penguin debut to excellent notices in India and abroad. He spoke to India Currents about his new novel, as well as the state of Indian writing in English.
What was the vision for Penguin India?
When I started there was nothing in India really. There was Vikas and Jaico but mostly there were distributors, reprinters, no real publishing houses. At that point my only knowledge of publishing was a course I did in the U.S. I had to forget all that because India was so different. Not that you can really teach anyone publishing. So I didn’t really have any great vision. I was 26 and I thought it was an interesting job. After a couple of years I thought we wanted to create the first world-class Indian publishing house and I think we have that. If you look at Penguin India now it’s comparable to anything in the world of publishing, in terms of its dedication to excellence.
But what is the market size for English fiction in India?
None of the data is trustworthy. You see figures about what percent of Indians understand English but that’s not the right figure to use. Two percent use English as a first language. Until you use English with that degree of facility you won’t buy a novel, you might buy educational books. Shashi Tharoor thought 20 million was an underestimation. I said he was crazy. I would put it at 6 or 7 million. Of that 6-7 million probably about 1 million would be a real market—I mean bankers and venture capitalists might not really be reading novels. You scale down from 1 million to maybe 100,000 who regularly buy one or two books a year. A decent sale in India is 2,000 copies. A bestseller would be between 5-10,000 copies. A humungous seller would be above 10,000.
In the U.S. if a book sells 5,000 copies in hardcover you could expect it to sell 20 times as much in paperback. In India if you sell 5,000 copies in hardcover, you won’t sell more than five to 10,000 copies in paperback. It’s a total market. But the number of people using English as a first language is growing. A new generation is growing up and we could start seeing 100,000 copies sold. Good bookstores are coming up. And prices are going up. When all three intersect, we will have the third largest market which actually makes money for writers, for publishers, and gives readers a multiplicity of choices.
The problem now, is all the literature is undifferentiated. I am waiting for the time when it becomes mature enough to be differentiated into mystery writers, romance writers, commercial writers, spiritual writers.
At one time all you had were Vikas General Knowledge Refreshers and in the literature section dusty copies of Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan. Now we have the booming Indo-Anglian literature. Is that a reflection of a change in culture in India, or a new generation coming of age or is it Midnight’s Children?
It is a combination of all those things. But the interesting thing is to look at the age of all these writers. Apart from perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri they are all in their late 30s to late 40s—the two Vikrams (Seth and Chandra), Manil (Suri), Shashi (Tharoor), Chitra (Divakaruni), Amitav (Ghosh). So obviously while they might have very little connection with each other, they had the same kind of education. All have been born in free India.
Rushdie broke open the shackles and showed you can write about what you want and as long as you do it really well people will read it and you don’t have to stick to the heat and dust school—you can go out celebrate your particular kind of India. So this is a new generation that has come of age.
But critics say even these writers do stick to the heat and dust school in some variant. They complain that these writers write about the things the West wants them to write about—arranged marriage, spirituality, caste, and poverty.
All those things exist in India. They are part of reality. You cannot only write about happy things like flowers blooming in Kashmir. As for writing for the West, I didn’t write Blue Mangoes for anyone except myself and my intimate circle. That’s all a writer can do. You cannot figure out a market and then write a book unless it’s a cookbook or something.
As a publisher what is one of the riskiest decisions you had to make that may or may not have panned out?
I think Shobhaa De is certainly one. I commissioned her on the basis of a one page synopsis. Vikram Seth wasn’t risky at all. He had already published The Golden Gate. And I said to him you should publish with us. And he asked why. I said “We are completely passionate about you and I would be there personally at your beck and call and can do a great deal for you.” So he said “fine, what are you offering?” At that time I think our advance was Rs. 5000. And he asked “Will you match OUP’s advance which I think was Rs 7500.” So I said fine. I had no inkling that Suitable Boy was coming. And so we bought that.
The one jewel missing in my crown was Arundhati Roy and she moved to us last year. We had never gotten a chance to look at the manuscript of God of Small Things. It went straight to India Ink which was formed by a few of her friends to publish her. So now we really publish everyone.
Romesh Gunesekera quoted you as saying that any publisher needs bad books to sustain the good ones.
(Laughs) As a publisher I love everything I publish. If I was asked to stand by that statement I’d say you need commercial books to sustain the books that set off more slowly. That is a problem with Indian publishing at the moment. Every literary novel is expected to make money immediately which doesn’t happen anywhere. You need your J.K. Rowlings, your Danielle Steeles and Stephen Kings to support the first novels, the slow burners.
Has the enormous success of Arundhati Roy made things harder for you as a publisher—does everyone want to be the next Arundhati?
Sure, I think there are expectations. But I think J.K. Rowlings and Arundhati Roys don’t happen all the time. Arundhati apparently sold her novel to 40 countries. That is astonishing. 10 countries makes you a superstar.
Do you foresee in the future more and more Indian writers writing in English supporting themselves as writers?
Not really. I read statistics that said that worldwide only 1 percent of writers support themselves exclusively by writing. In places like the U.S. and England people do a lot of things to keep the home fires burning—grants, moonlighting. In India you need a proper day job. I hope one day people will be able to make their money from writing related activities but not purely writing.
But what about by publishing abroad?
That’s the one thing that will work in favor of Indian writers. Except that 90 percent of Indian writers don’t live in India anyway—they live in Canada, Britain, and America.
Recently some Indian writers have been getting rave reviews in the West and then being panned in India. I can think of Rajkamal Jha (The Blue Bedspread) as an example. You called this the crabs in the bucket syndrome where the crabs at the bottom drag down anyone who tries to make it to the top. Now as a published author do you still believe this?
I don’t think that’s unique to India. I first heard about this in Australia. Only they call it the tall poppy syndrome. It’s true the only country I was really nervous about reviews was India. But to my great astonishment I only got one bad review. This really blew me away. Until someone said that’s because you are a publisher and everyone wants to be published by you. So they are sucking up to you. You hope that’s not the case. I don’t know if I still believe in the crabs in the bucket syndrome. Sometimes you can definitely see there is an agenda going on—you see the byline and the writer being attacked and you know why. English writing in India is incestuous terrain—everyone knows everyone and everyone is reviewing everyone else.
Though you are painting an optimistic picture, the novelist Ashok Banker complained about how Penguin didn’t do enough to promote his work?
What can I say? As a publisher we bend over backwards but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t force you to sit down and interview me just because I wrote a book. But I love the fact that these are the criticisms leveled at Penguin India today. Fifty years ago there was nothing. Now you have book events in Delhi, publicists, people who follow trade publishing, interviewers. These criticisms mean we have advanced a great deal.
It was a coming of age novel set in Bombay. It was completely boring and self indulgent and I am glad it wasn’t published.
Blue Mangoes had its own intriguing publishing history. You wrote it in secret and then sent it under a pseudonym to David Godwin in London so you could get an honest opinion. What happened then?
He emailed me to find out if I was in town. I had emailed him to say I had custody of the manuscript and next thing I knew he was in Delhi wanting to see the manuscript. He hadn’t even seen the manuscript. He came on the basis of an email. I gave him the manuscript. He took it to his hotel room and spent 48 hours there. Then we had lunch after that. And he said, “I really liked the book.” He gave me some suggestions on how it could be improved here or shortened there. Then he said, may I meet the author. At this point I said, “I am the author.” He didn’t believe me. When I said again, “I am the author,” he went very red and said, “how could you do this to me?”
If you were going to write a novel in secret why did you choose a saga that spanned generations and needed so much research?
If I had known what it would evolve into, I would have probably just said forget it. Books have a way of growing. Writers have told me about it. Now I discovered it in practice. I set off writing a smallish story about an old man dying rather grumpily in this huge mansion but the story wouldn’t progress until I told the back story. And it grew and grew. And I had a blast doing research. A lot of us Indians, who have moved away from our places of origin, tend to have lost contact with a lot of our history. It’s the age-old thing of going back and looking for your roots.
But Chevathar, where the story is set is not real though you based it on your roots.
I based the place near Kanya Kumari. I didn’t want to get into unseemly squabbles about “you got this road wrong, or this landmark wrong.” So I figured I’d create a world and invest it with the sights sounds and smells of the place I knew.
You didn’t just invent landmarks. You invented some of the castes in the book.
The two things that have held India back and had a completely deleterious effect on the country are caste and religion. I think they lend themselves to exploitation by vested interests of every stripe. In this book I was interested in exploring how caste works and how it could be perverted. Again I didn’t want to create controversy—so I figured I won’t get involved with actual castes and instead invented three castes so I could explore the idea of caste.
The lead family in your book—the Dorais are Christians. How did they fit into the caste system around them?
Pretty much everyone in India who belong to various faiths have been converted from a previous faith. Christianity does not admit caste. But Indian Christianity is Indian so it takes on the shapes and contours of India and that includes caste. Just because someone is converted doesn’t mean that they lose their caste ties or the community that comes with caste. In the classical estimation of caste, it grew out of a guild system and gave people a sense of belonging and kinship. Now we have just have a callous exploitation of caste.
This book starts in 1899 and basically ends with India’s independence. Why did you want to map these issues over that particular period?
I have always been fascinated by that period. To my mind that’s always been the most tumultuous period of modern Indian history. It had been covered in detail from the point of view of the west and east and north of the country but there was nothing from the south. So this was a journey of exploration for me to look at that period in South India.
Your book is being translated in 18 languages. What does a Swedish person make of the Dorais of Chevathar?
The latest country is Poland. And I wonder what they make of Chevathar in Warsaw. Then I thought to myself I have read books set in the Warsaw ghetto. I think the world readership is getting more adventurers and sophisticated and that’s great.
Ten years of writing before you went to work. How did you keep going?
It was a constant battle to keep at it. The one thing I discovered when I actually began writing the book is that no writer, not even one that has published 10 books, actually feels confident that what’s in front of him or her on the monitor or on the page actually has any validity beyond himself or herself. That insecurity holds true for every writer I spoke to. Why on earth would anyone be interested in something that springs from your imagination? On bad days you think it’s a self-indulgent bit of nonsense. And there were days when the writing just flowed. There is no high like writing something which you can look at and say, “that’s pretty neat.”