David Davidar was a bored Bombay journalist when he enrolled in a course on publishing at Harvard in the 1980s. He returned to launch Penguin India and publish some of the best Indian writing in English in the 1980s and 90s before moving to Penguin Canada in 2004. He’s also written two novels: The House of Blue Mangoes (2002) and The Solitude of Emperors (2007). In 2010, Davidar resigned from Penguin due to a controversy over sexual harassment allegations by a former employee; he claimed the relationship had been consensual and the matter was settled out of court. He moved back to Delhi a few months ago setting off fierce chatter about him starting his own publishing firm. The rangy, slightly bulky Davidar spoke intently with Gaurav Jain at his Delhi home about writing his third novel in two months last year, why he’s intrigued by Bhutan, where he’ll be in May for the literary festival Mountain Echoes, and why he’s still got a lot of publishing left in him.
Excerpts From An Interview
Why is your new novel called Ithaca?
It’s the story of a journey like Odysseus [but] not quite as dramatic. Ithaca is also one of my favourite poems by Cavafy. The thread is we do things because we think that’s what we’re meant to do. There’s an arc of a journey but the reason is the journey itself.
It is also about publishing. There has been no real novel about publishing. It’s quite a mysterious world if you’re not a publisher. You see people receiving advances, rejection notices and you have no idea how that works. So I wanted to lay that bare. It’s a novel about the making of books, about all the associated people from assistants to superstar writers. And there’s a thriller element in a weird way, a twist in the tale.
The protagonist is a London-based publisher, half Indian and half English who works for a mid-sized independent publishing firm. It is set against the backdrop of present day [publishing] where everything is in flux. It takes place in seven cities, starting in Bhutan, which he escapes to because his wife has just left him and his company is about to be taken over. He escapes to a place of silver beauty and happiness. He also likes the idea of “gross national happiness” [a phrase coined by a Bhutanese king]. He figures, let me go hang out in this place where this is State policy.
Are you hopeful about publishing?
Very much. Storytelling has now reached its pinnacle. When people say there are more writers and readers, it’s because it has become much more democratic. You can call yourself a writer online [even though] you are nowhere near somebody who’s published 20 novels. There are more writers because the definition of reading and writing has changed. A lot of people are migrating to the online space where reading is done differently. [But] publishing will survive. The critical function that it fulfils is to act as a filter when there is so much out there. [And] roles are going to change. Big publishing houses may become smaller, small might take the place of big, retailers might get into publishing, and writers might start publishing themselves. But what will never disappear is a bunch of people who regulate the flow of writing for people waiting to receive it.
What about the clamour that young people are not reading?
But publishing houses’ sales have not dropped rapidly. I will bet my bottom dollar that no person anywhere has any degree of certainty that this is fact, by way of explanation of what is going on. My thesis is: the world’s population is expanding [and] the nature of what is meant by reading is going to change. This is why I am excited about e-books. You are starting to have something of a hybrid text, moving pictures and that is not too bad because what you’re doing is going back to first principles.
‘Something takes off and we all rush to it. So everyone’s looking at Pakistan for the next great thing, but the trend is already gone’
How do you see Indian publishing’s prospects?
It is a very young industry compared to Canada or Australia. Penguin India was the first company that stabilised their investment for more than 25 years — not a very long time compared to more mature environments. In India, from being focussed on literary or classics publishing, the industry has started to differentiate, so it’s adding new areas. Tomorrow, hopefully, you’ll have commercial fiction expanding. Earlier there was a kind of strict [slot] writers were put into — literary novels irrespective of whether you had the interest or skill. Now people are getting comfortable with writing mystery, fantasy, etc.
Publishing is a form of entertainment. When we started — because we are serious people — the fact that you’d already written a book, you could write only a certain kind of book. But tomorrow comics could take off. In non–fiction, perhaps a hybrid between games and novels. You can’t arbitrarily decide what people should write. A great romantic novel is worth as much as a literary novel by an established writer.
Why has it taken this long in India?
Pretension. We are a very pretentious people and now that is being overturned. Readers are demanding it. There will always be publishers who focus exclusively on a certain kind of book just the way there are car manufacturers who focus in a particular segment, and that is totally acceptable. [But] you can’t sit there and say, “No, you can’t write that line,” which is what has been happening for a number of years. This industry has scope for optimism because you can never know where the next talent is hiding.
The problem with a lot of publishers is that something takes off, we all rush to it and the trend has already passed. So when everyone’s looking at Pakistan for the next great thing, it’s already gone.
Would you still like to be a publisher?
Indian publishing has changed since you were here last. Would you still be able to compete with the other houses?
If I were to start a publishing company I would want to have the partners [and] the kind of resources to compete with anybody, otherwise I’d go in a different direction — like creating an imprint. Pretty much everybody you can think of has approached me for one or the other; and to run existing firms, [to which] I’ve said that I’m not interested. That’s definitely out. I’ve been a CEO for the last 12 years, I’ve spent 25 years running large organisations. I want to do something where I can be close to what I want to do — working in an office and creating books. It’s as simple as that.
But wasn’t the controversy last year the real inflection point that has made you change direction?
Absolutely, and it is interesting how you do not anticipate how your trajectory might change. But this might have happened three to five years later [anyway] when I figured I’d done everything I wanted to in terms of being a part of a large corporate. So it’s happened earlier but it was going to be an eventuality.
How does it feel to return now and try to start your own thing?Does it affect you?
One thing that works best in my favour is I have always had a good careless gene. I don’t give a shit about what people think, what they say. I lead my life. It was true 25 years ago, it’s true now. If I spent too much time worrying about people I’d never have done what I managed to do. When people start writing obituaries what does that mean? The fact is that there are so many people who’ve made me offers — doesn’t that give the lie to the premise?
Have you poached Ravi Singh of Penguin?
(Laughs) I was amused at all the speculation. Nothing is on the cards yet.
Gaurav Jain is Literary Editor, Tehelka