David Davidar has been a publisher for over a quarter of a century, first of Penguin (India and Canada) and later as co-founder of the New Delhi based Aleph Book Company. He has also charted out a successful writing career with novels such as The House of Blue Mangoes and Ithaca. He has recently edited A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present. Below, he shares snippets of his life and work with Kitaab’s Interviews Editor, Dr. Debotri Dhar.
Please tell us something about your childhood and early experiences – the sights, the sounds, the anchors and the excursions that have sculpted your identity.
A lot of my childhood revolved around books. My maternal grandfather was the first person to introduce me to the joys of reading but there were books in my parents’ house and in school my English teacher, Mrs Murphy, would constantly unearth great books for me to read. Besides my interest in books I was a solitary child as my father was a tea-planter and we lived rather isolated lives. Our nearest neighbours lived miles away but if you loved nature and the hills, as I did, it made for an idyllic existence. When my sister was away in boarding school I would often spend the whole day on my own, wandering around with my dog, a fox terrier called Asha, and an air-gun with which I would try to shoot all manner of birds—fortunately they would usually escape.
A renowned publisher, you were also able to chart out a successful writing career. What, according to you, are the gaps and overlaps between your craft as an editor and a writer? How have the sensibilities of one shaped the other?
I have found that in order to be a novelist and a publisher you necessarily have to compartmentalize the way you deal with writing—your own as well as that of others. If I started editing my own work during the process of creation I wouldn’t get much done. The way I usually work is to give my imagination free rein while I’m composing a first draft; I then revise and edit the first draft three more times to arrive at the final manuscript. As a professional book editor it is imperative that I work from within the voice and technique of the writer whose work I’m editing. It wouldn’t do for me to try and impose my own style on the work of other writers. The best editors are always invisible—that is to say, their contribution towards improving the writer’s work is never obvious. I believe my work as an editor has helped my career as a writer, especially when it comes to things like concision, building plot and characters and so on.
Authors David Davidar, Eleanor Catton, Damon Galgut and I. Allan Sealy spoke about humankind’s need for narratives to make sense of our world: The Hindu
From V.S. Naipaul to Tom Wolfe and Will Self, naysayers have foretold doomsday for the novel for a few generations now. While on one hand breathing its last, and on the other, powerful enough to warrant death threats, the novel swings along a wide continuum in our times. And it is this vast spectrum that David Davidar explored with Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton, two-time Booker nominee Damon Galgut and 1998-Booker nominee Irwin Allan Sealy, in their session, ‘The Deeper Truth of Novels’.
Stolen by Amrita Narayanan
Parvathi, squat, generous-hipped, sweaty, is scraping seeds from the flesh of a papaya. She is working slowly, attentively, her brow furrowed in concentration, as she strokes and probes with her curled brown fingers, her hands tracing slow ellipses to pull the glittering seeds from their sticky embrace with the sometimes red, sometimes orange flesh. At its wet centre, the fruit is exactly the colour of her santra-red sari and blouse.
Sitting across from her, Meenakshi, equally full of figure, still dusted with talcum powder and carrying the Mysore-sandal scent of her morning bath, is speaking. She is talking about papayas: how this year’s bumper crop has dropped the prices and rendered accessible to everyone the exotic fruit that is usually the preserve of the wealthy; how, if plucked early, the hard, sour fruit makes for good pickling. It is mostly a monologue.
Parvathi keeps working as she listens, but doesn’t say much; all through her chatter Meenakshi’s eyes are riveted on her companion. Though she is silent, Parvathi speaks with her body. Her thighs flex and twitch under the tightly wound cotton sari; a roll of flesh slick with sweat trembles just below the edge of her blouse. And now her feet flatten and dig into the tiled kitchen floor as she begins to juice the pile of lemon-halves she has sliced earlier. She twists and grinds the hard yellow rinds on the mound of the ancient glass juicer, until the pulp yields its tart juice into the waiting saucer. As she works, her breasts move within the enclave of her blouse, the cotton alternately caressing and chafing her nipples.
David Davidar on his fascination with short stories and how he put together A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: The Hindu
Apart from being a well-known publisher, David Davidar is also a novelist, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction from the time he was a teenager. His latest anthology, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, has 39 short stories from across Indian fiction selected by Davidar. From Khushwant Singh, Munshi Premchand, Chugtai and Vaikom Muhammed Basheer and Ruskin Bond to new voices like Shahnaz Bashir and Kanishk Tharoor, the volume covers a spectrum of Indian fiction. In this interview, Davidar talks about the short story and the making of the anthology. Excerpts:
What makes a short story?
R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general and the short story in particular. He writes: Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament.
The Hindustan Times has published a list of the greatest Indian novels ever written. The paper says, “It might feel incomplete (only books written in English or translations of works in Hindi and other regional languages figure here). It might seem biased (they’re personal picks from the best literary minds of our time). It might even appear as though we’ve missed your personal favourite (lists tend to do that). But for anyone looking to jump into the rich world of Indian writing, it’s a beautiful and imperative start. ”
A jury of eight – writers, publishers, academics and book critics – nominated 10 books each. The jury comprised of Amitava Kumar, Chiki Sarkar, David Davidar, Harish Trivedi, Jeet Thayil, Jerry Pinto, Ravi Singh and Sunil Sethi.
Ravi Singh of Aleph ‘quits’ over decision to put Doniger on hold, publish Modi verse.
Ravi Singh, co-publisher of Aleph Book Company, has quit apparently in protest against the manner in which Aleph seemed to have yielded to those calling for a ban on Wendy Doniger’s On Hinduism. Sources said he also questioned the decision by Rupa — Aleph’s publishing partner — to publish a translation of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi’s poetry during the election campaign.
Aleph Book Company’s co-publisher Ravi Singh has parted ways with the company.
“It is with regret that I would like to announce the resignation of Ravi Singh as Co-Publisher, Aleph Book Company,” said David Davidar, publisher and co-founder of the premium publishing company on the official website of the company. “He has decided to strike out on his own as an independent publishing consultant, something he has been wanting to do for a while now. Ravi is a publisher and literary editor of great gifts and was instrumental in getting the firm off to a flying start. I would like to thank him for everything he has done for us and, on behalf of everyone at Aleph, wish him the very best for the future.”
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