Shelf Life

A personal history of the Oxford University Press India at 100

01 February, 2012

IN THE 1990S, I spent many weeks in what must be, or at any rate should be, every Indian’s favourite city—Bombay, a city whose depth of history and richly lived (and intensely felt) cosmopolitanism is in such stark contrast to the even-tempered blandness of my own home town, Bangalore. I would go there twice a year, in February and November, and book myself a room in the Cricket Club of India. Every morning, I would walk across the Oval Maidan, dodging joggers and the odd flying cricket ball, and then skirt round the High Court to the side entrance to Elphinstone College, where, after climbing a staircase stinking with piss, I would arrive at the reading room of the Maharashtra State Archives. Three or four hours of work in the files was a reward in itself, though I often gave myself the further bonus of a Rajasthani thali at Chetana restaurant before returning for some more digging.

In those days, the Maharashtra State Archives were moderately well run (I remember in particular an experienced hand named Lad), and their collections were very rich indeed. Still, my warmest memories of research in Bombay are linked to a private archive that lay down the road, in Apollo Bunder off Colaba Causeway. This archive was housed in the third (and top) floor of a sturdy, stone building owned by the Indian Branch of the Oxford University Press (OUP), the world’s oldest (and greatest) publisher.

A British historian once said that being published by the Oxford University Press was like being married to a duchess—the honour was greater than the pleasure. My experience was otherwise. Not long before I began working in their archives, the OUP had published my first book. As scholarly books go, it was a work of art—set, using hot metal type, in an elegant Baskerville by the legendary PK Ghosh of Eastend Printers, Calcutta. The cover was arresting—a photograph by Sanjeev Saith of a Himalayan oak forest cut up by the designer to represent the ‘unquiet woods’ that the book documented. The prose inside, jargon-ridden and solemnly sociological in its original incarnation, had been rendered moderately serviceable by the intense (and inspired) labours of the book’s editor, a young scholar with a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.

To enter the Bombay office of the OUP in 1993 and 1994 was, for me, like entering an ancient club of which I was a privileged new member. The honour was manifest, but so also the pleasure. In the foyer were displayed the works of the best Indian sociologists and historians—André Béteille’s The Idea of Natural Inequality, Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy, Irfan Habib’s An Atlas of the Mughal Empire. Also on display were the works of OUP authors who were not Indian, among them such colossally influential scholars as Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin and HLA Hart. The gentry and literati of Bombay came to this showroom, and I spent some time there myself. But my main work lay upstairs, where, in a locked cupboard, lay the correspondence between a writer whose life I was writing and a publisher who had once dominated the building in which I now sat.

This writer and his publisher were both Englishmen who had gone native. They were expatriates of standing who knew, or knew of, the most powerful Indians of the day. Their own relationship was personal as well as professional. They were (as in those days writer and publisher sometimes could be) really close friends. In their correspondence they discussed books, but also food, music, politics and, occasionally, sex. Their letters were sometimes businesslike, at other times warm and gossip-laden. Reading them, 50 or 60 years after they were written, was an exhilarating experience.

Occasionally, hearing me chuckle or gasp, the occupant of the next cabin would come to have a look. Named Rivka Israel, she was a senior editor at the OUP, and the person who was in charge of—and lovingly tended—the archive. (She came from a family of Bombay Jews who made their living as craftsmen of learning—her father, Samuel Israel, had been an admired editor himself.) Rivka, in turn, would sometimes call in the branch manager, a cheerful Gujarati named Ramesh Patel, and have me read out once more that passage about, for example, life with Gandhi’s “sexless and joyless entourage”.

A historian’s happiest days are always in the archives. In the case of this now somewhat elderly historian, the days have accumulated into years. Yet of all these days and years, the weeks in the OUP archive in Bombay may have given me the most joy. The letters I found there were, for my purposes, infinitely rewarding; but the real pleasure (and honour) lay elsewhere, in seeing (and sensing) oneself as being part of a great, continuous, scholarly tradition; a freshly-minted OUP author enters a building that stocks the works of the greatest OUP authors to work on the letters of a long-dead OUP author—all for a book that would one day be published by the OUP itself.

THIS YEAR, 2012, marks the centenary of OUP in India. In the history of the press, two men stand out: one white, the other brown. In 1930 an Oxford graduate named Roy Ernest Hawkins came to teach in a school in Delhi. The school closed down during the noncooperation movement, so Hawkins found a job with the OUP in Bombay instead. In 1937 he was appointed general manager. By now he wore khadi, though this may have been a mark of gratitude rather than an affirmation of political solidarity; by closing down that school in Delhi, the Gandhians had given him a new life.

When Hawkins became general manager, the Indian Branch of the Oxford University Press had been in existence for a quarter of a century. In its first year, 1912, it published the first book of a then obscure academic: S Radhakrishnan’s Essentials of Psychology. However—as described by Rimi B Chatterjee in her history of OUP India’s early years, Empires of the Mind—the branch was viewed by Oxford as more vendor than publisher. It was set up chiefly to sell textbooks written by Englishmen in England and prescribed by the Raj for schools and colleges in the subcontinent. Sensing the mood, Radhakrishnan himself soon moved to another publisher, Allen & Unwin.

Under Hawkins, the OUP continued to make its money selling textbooks. However, this Englishman recognised that some Indians were now producing serious works of scholarship. He published a few such—A Appadorai’s The Substance of Politics, Asaf AA Fyzee’s Outlines of Muhammadan Law and, most notably, KA Nilakanta Sastri’s A History of South India, which, 70 years later, is still in print and still indispensable.

While not averse to intellectuals, Hawkins’ real interests lay elsewhere, in nature and natural history. The three authors he most enjoyed publishing were the ornithologist Salim Ali, the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, and the hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett. Their writings gave him much pleasure, and their books made the OUP a good deal of money. (None more so that the books by Corbett—Man-Eaters of Kumaon was bought by the American Book of the Month of Club, whose first print run of 250,000 sold out within weeks. Commissioned by Hawkins, this book was translated into 27 languages, and was even made into a Hollywood film, of which Corbett commented that “the best actor was the tiger”.)

In the 1940s and 1950s, Bombay was the intellectual capital of India. It had the country’s best social scientists, and its only decent English-language poets and writers. In this literary culture, an Englishman known affectionately as the ‘Hawk’ set new standards of editing and publishing. The writer Laeeq Futehally, working at that time with the magazine Quest, remembers that when they had to choose a printer, they settled on Inland Press, “for it was also patronised by the Oxford University Press, whose General Manager, RE Hawkins—in spite of having only one functioning eye—was known to be the best editor and proofreader in South East (sic) Asia”.

The books published by Hawkins were carefully edited, rigorously proofread and often beautifully produced. In the works of his favourite authors, words and pictures were exquisitely matched. No books produced in India before or since match, in this respect, such gems as Verrier Elwin’s The Tribal Art of Middle India and Salim Ali’s Indian

Hill Birds.

Hawkins retired from the OUP in 1970. Five years later, he was present when the 10th and final volume of the Handbook of Indian Birds was released in the presence of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Asked to speak, the Hawk read out the following verse:

William Shakespeare’s a master of words

And a tusker a leader of herds

But wherever you fare

Over land, sea or air

Salim Ali’s the raja of birds 

In his last years as general manager, Hawkins was assisted by two gifted young Indians. Girish Karnad was a mathematician by training and a playwright by temperament. Ravi Dayal was a history scholar who had read widely in the social sciences. After seven years in the press, Karnad left to make a career in films. Dayal stayed on, and in 1971 moved to Delhi to start a branch of the OUP there. Meanwhile, Hawkins was succeeded as general manager by Charles Lewis, a gentle, understated Englishman with an effervescent and politically active Indian wife. In 1975, the Emergency was promulgated, and Mrs Lewis was put in jail by Indira Gandhi’s police. The OUP thought it best now to move Lewis back to Oxford.

Appointed general manager in place of Lewis, Ravi Dayal shifted the head office of the OUP to New Delhi. The city was beginning to replace Bombay as the intellectual capital of India. An air of self-confidence was abroad. Scholars in the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University thought they were among the best in the world. Some certainly were—such as the sociologists MN Srinivas and André Béteille, the historians Sarvepalli Gopal and Romila Thapar, the economists Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Kaushik Basu, and the unclassifiable social scientist and social critic Ashis Nandy.

The early works of these scholars had often been published overseas—by Cambridge, Chicago, Blackwell and other presses. Ravi Dayal persuaded them to offer their next books to the OUP, so that they would be edited and printed in the country where the scholars lived and about which they wrote. Most agreed, because they recognised that there were now more Indian than foreign readers of their books, and because it was impossible to refuse Ravi Dayal.

From left to right: Charles Lewis, Ravi Dayal, Girish Karnad, Neil O’Brien and Martin Pick, all of OUP, in the late 1960s. COURTESY CHARLES LEWIS

A small dapper man dressed (by choice) in churidar-kurta, Ravi Dayal had a great (if subtly subdued) intelligence, and a greater (and visibly manifest) charm. He was a Kayastha, from a community that produced North India’s best scholars and scribes, and also its finest cooks. The Kayasthas were also keen patrons of Hindustani classical music. Dayal himself could talk food like an Indian and talk Dickens (and Mill) like an Englishman. He was both vernacular and cosmopolitan, a mixture that characterised the scholars whose books he was seeking. For men such as André Béteille and Irfan Habib were likewise desi and videshi in equal measure. They were naturally drawn to a publisher who bridged their worlds.

By the end of the 1970s, Ravi Dayal and the OUP had shifted the locus of scholarly publishing on South Asia out of the West. This was the stamp that scholars working on the subcontinent most craved. Historians and social scientists, whether living in India or overseas, of whatever nationality or ideological affiliation, were, so to say, lining up outside the OUP’s offices in New Delhi. Their manuscripts were subject to rigorous vetting—scrutiny by the concerned editor, and by at least two external referees, in a process that saw perhaps four out of five proposals turned away to other, lesser, publishers.

In the summer of 1979, Dayal, now the most respected publisher in India, received a proposal from a middle-aged, middle-ranking Bengali academic based in England. His name was Ranajit Guha. At that point, Guha had published one rather obscure book, and that 20 years prior. This was a very specialised study of a single aspect of agrarian policy in 18th-century Bengal. As a student in Calcutta, Ranajit Guha had been a fiery orator, and as an academic he continued to work for the most part in the oral tradition. So although he had himself published little, he had gathered around him a group of bright young devotees who promised to publish a great deal.

Ranajit Guha’s proposal to Ravi Dayal was that he and his acolytes would publish a series of collected essays under the running title ‘Subaltern Studies’. Where other editors might have been deterred by Guha’s lack of distinction, and turned off by the confusing (not to say bizarre) series title, Dayal saw here an exciting move away from the elite-centred narratives of Indian historiography. Guha and his disciples were genuine interdisciplinarians—historians who reached out to anthropology and political theory to make meaningful sense of the past. They had also moved beyond the colonial archive to seriously explore sources such as vernacular tracts and oral testimonies.

A first volume of Subaltern StudiesWritings on South Asian History & Society—was commissioned, and duly appeared in 1982. Three more annual volumes appeared in quick succession. Although some librarians persisted in placing them in the military section, the first four volumes of Subaltern Studies were to radically alter our understanding of Indian history. For the first time, the voices of peasants, tribals, workers—those hitherto excluded from the standard narratives—were brought to centre stage.

The OUP had also begun publishing the works of creative writers. Girish Karnad persuaded Vijay Tendulkar and Badal Sircar to pass on the English translations of their plays to the OUP. An even greater coup was the rendition in English by AK Ramanujan of UR Anantha Murthy’s Kannada novel, Samskara, which may by now have sold more copies than any other Indian work in translation, with the exception of the writings of Tagore and Gandhi.

To the scholars he wooed, Dayal was a publisher who understood scholarship. To his staff, he was a boss with no sense of hierarchy. One person who worked with him wrote that Dayal “refused an airconditioner in his room because it would have made the organisation inegalitarian in a way he considered unacceptable. This was the sort of Gandhian trait that earned him huge respect, and which made his organisation congenial and unhierarchical. It created a sort of ‘Dayal Bagh’ in which everyone grumbled about low salaries but where everyone stuck it out because the bidi-smoking boss at least looked like he was in the same boat as the bidi-smoking chaprasis. No one cultivated unglamorous socialist fellow feeling with as much perverseness as Dayal. Most people who worked with him secretly hoped he would one day see the light of capitalist hedonism. But he never did.”

It was not, of course, merely a matter of personality. The subordinates respected Dayal because he knew every side of the business—finance, marketing, sales, etc—and cultivated an atmosphere of professional pride all around. The scholars trusted Dayal because he was a superbly skilled editor. After he retired from the OUP and set up his own list, he published the early novels of Amitav Ghosh, who has said that Ravi Dayal was the best editor he had.

Ravi Dayal may have left the OUP in part because the prose of academics requires far more work than the prose of novelists. He had stayed long enough in any case, so long that (as one protégé claimed) Dayal “coauthored and ghostwrote and may well have rewritten more books and authors than any editor in the history of Indian publishing”.

One story nicely illustrates Ravi Dayal’s integrity as well as his achievement. Sometime in the 1990s, a young journalist went to interview the man who had been India’s best academic publisher and was now India’s best publisher of literary fiction. She found him walking in the small—50 feet by 100 feet—park that lay outside his apartment. Since the capacious (and glorious) Lodi Gardens lay just down the road, the journalist asked Dayal why he didn’t take his exercise there instead. “Too many rejected manuscripts” was the answer.

Shortly after this I went to meet Ravi Dayal myself. I had come to ask for a favour—that he recommend me for membership of the India International Centre (IIC). The IIC needed ‘full’ not ‘associate’ members to provide recommendations, and I knew only two such grandees, an old family friend and Ravi Dayal. He suggested I find another signatory. “I would be happy to recommend you,” he said, “but I fear it won’t help your case, since I have offended all the trustees of the IIC.” I took this to mean that he had turned down their various, and variously mediocre, book proposals. But I didn’t know any other full member, so I asked him to sign on the form anyway.

My application was approved, whereupon a friend commented that the IIC trustees perhaps hoped that they could now make fresh approaches to Ravi Dayal with me as their messenger.

IN 1989, TWO YEARS AFTER RAVI DAYAL had moved on to start his own firm, my first book was published by the OUP. It was commissioned by Rukun Advani, an introverted scholar from Lucknow who was recruited by Dayal immediately on completing a Cambridge PhD on the nonfiction writings of EM Forster. Advani lacked—and still lacks—Dayal’s charm, but in my view he was, and is, an even better editor of historians and sociologists. Like Dayal, Advani is deeply attentive to language. Unlike his mentor, he has a scholarly background. To write and defend a PhD thesis, and convert it into a book, means that one can conceive of a large, complex project, break it up into discrete parts, do a great deal of original research, and then write this up as a coherent and connected narrative.

It took a Ravi Dayal to see the potential of Subaltern Studies; and it needed a Rukun Advani to edit the volumes and see them through the press. As a well-trained scholar, Advani knew what made a book (or essay) credible, original, readable and saleable. It was fortunate for the OUP, and for the world at large, that he was the main editor for the Subaltern Studies series, and that he edited, too, the individual monographs that the Subalternists published under their own names, among them such influential works such as David Hardiman’s The Coming of the Devi and Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory.

To be sure, Advani published some superb studies by non-Subalternists, too. These included Harjot Oberoi’s dazzlingly original The Construction of Religious Boundaries; Chetan Singh’s Region and Empire, which radically altered our understanding of the later Mughal Empire; Vasudha Dalmia’s important work of literary history, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions; and Mahesh Rangarajan’s fine environmental study, Fencing the Forest.

Speak to any or all of these writers, and they will tell you that they were profoundly fortunate to have had an editor like Rukun Advani, that, in fact, he rewrote their books as effectively and elegantly as his mentor rewrote the books of an older generation of scholars.

Speaking for myself, when I wrote a first draft of my biography of Verrier Elwin—the writer whose correspondence with the ‘Hawk’ lay in the building in Apollo Bunder—Advani told me to tear it up and start afresh, since a biography had to be approached differently from the sociological treatises I was accustomed to writing. As advised, I went back to my notes and wrote them up chronologically, rather than by theme. This draft came back marked up in red ink, with a final comment: “This is fine as a study of Elwin the scholar and public intellectual, but where is Elwin the man?”

I now read, more closely than before, my subject’s correspondence with his mother, sister and friends, writing this all into the next draft. Advani had, as before, very many stylistic suggestions, ending with the remark that “this is fine as a book about Elwin the son, brother, friend and husband, but where is Elwin the writer and polemicist?”

I went back to my desk and rewrote the damn thing again. Advani approved, on the whole, of this next version, but before it went to press he inserted some references to (among others) TS Eliot and George Frideric Handel, references that enriched the narrative while giving the impression that the historian who was its author was a connoisseur of modernist poetry and classical music.

What I owed to Rukun Advani, other OUP writers owed, more or less, to their editors. Ashis Nandy speaks with much affection of Salima Tyabji, the woman who edited his manuscripts. And my late friend, the combative Bangalore critic TG Vaidyanathan, became an OUP author only because his editor, Anita Roy, had great skill and even greater patience.

In 1988, the year after Ravi Dayal left, his successor as general manager, Santosh Mukherjee, was persuaded by Rukun Advani to launch the ‘Oxford India Paperbacks’ series—the attractive republication in soft cover of the less recondite of their scholarly books. Advani also conceived a ‘Themes in Indian History’ series, under which appeared collections of pioneering papers, edited by an acknowledged expert in the field. These books also appeared in paperback, thus continuing the work of the Hawk and Dayal in bringing the fruits of Indian scholarship to a wide audience of scholars, students and thinking citizens.

Perhaps because Bengalis were disproportionately represented, the production and marketing staff of the OUP were also extremely literate, with a proper respect for the books they printed, bound, displayed and sold. Whether working in editing or printing or sales or finance, the staff had a noticeable sense of belonging. As publishing houses go, this was a very high quality operation. It was also an organisation at peace with itself, its sense of cheer radiating through the OUP’s branches around the country—in Mission Row Extension in Calcutta, on Mount Road in Madras, in Koramangala in Bangalore, in Daryaganj in Delhi and, not least, in Apollo Bunder in Bombay, all places which this Indian who read and wrote books in English once regarded almost as an extension of his own home.

IN 2011, THE INDIAN BRANCH of the Oxford University Press entered its 100th year. Plans for an extended celebration were afoot: new releases of classic works by OUP authors in India, seminars and conferences, and a great big bash at the New Delhi World Book Fair in February 2012, to be attended by the Delegates of the Press, men of distinction in British intellectual life.

But as it turned out, in its anniversary year OUP India had what may, in retrospect, be viewed as the worst episode in its history. In November 2011, the University of Delhi withdrew an essay, written in 1987, by the poet, folklorist, translator and theorist AK Ramanujan from the BA History syllabus. The essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, explored the many renditions of the Ramayana in India, an exercise in scholarship (and ecumenism) that offended rightwing dogmatists seeking to impose a single, authorised, invariant text on the public.

The decision sparked outrage, for Ramanujan was a truly great scholar, whose work has had a profound, enduring influence on Indian and global scholarship. That his essay was being suppressed due to pressure from Hindutva extremists was particularly ironic—for his majestic translations of medieval Hindu poetry had done much to make the world aware of the beauty and depth of Hindu mystical traditions.

An informal gathering of OUP staff members following a sales conference in Calcutta. COURTESY CHARLES LEWIS

The essay had originally appeared in a volume edited by Paula Richman called Many Ramayanas, and then in The Collected Essays of AK Ramanujan. Both books were published by the OUP. However, they had been allowed to go out of print after a petition filed in a court in the small Punjab town of Dera Bassi claimed that Ramanujan’s essay offended religious sensibilities. In withdrawing the books, OUP assured the litigant that it “very much regret[ted]” publishing the essay, apologised for causing him “distress and concern” and assured him that the books containing the essay would be withdrawn.

As it happens, the vice-chancellor of Delhi University had justified his decision to drop Ramanujan’s essay on the grounds that since the books containing it were no longer being sold, teachers and students would not be able to access it. When these facts were made public, a series of critical articles appeared in the press. A petition urging the OUP to bring the essay back into circulation was endorsed by more than 500 scholars, many of them very distinguished indeed.

The anguish over the OUP’s betrayal of Ramanujan was in part because of the press’s reputation, in part because of Ramanujan’s own distinction, and in part because it followed on other such examples of the betrayal of scholars and scholarship. In recent years, the OUP has withdrawn books on the law, on medieval history and on Indian nationalism under pressure from fanatics and from the state.

Admittedly, Indian courts are ever willing to entertain frivolous or tendentious petitions, and fighting them can be costly in terms of time and money. On the other hand, the press has on occasion been willing to engage in a battle in court. While the OUP lately acquiesced in the suppression of AK Ramanujan’s work, it had recruited some of the country’s most expensive lawyers to fight a tax case on its behalf in the 1990s.

When the first series of articles on the Ramanujan controversy were published, the OUP dismissed them as the work of malicious or motivated individuals. Fresh articles appeared, highlighting previous instances of the suppression of books by the OUP in India. Then came the cross-continental signature campaign. In personal meetings with the company’s CEOs in Oxford and New Delhi, OUP authors expressed their anger and dismay. Eventually, the publishing house agreed to reprint AK Ramanujan’s Collected Essays as well as Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas.

The original disavowal of Ramanujan in court forces us to ask whether there is anyone working in the OUP today who has read his books and essays. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the focus on scholars and scholarship, so evident in Ravi Dayal’s day, is not anymore a conspicuous hallmark of the OUP’s functioning. I was myself alerted to this some years ago, when a book of mine appeared for the first time in paperback. Sent an advance copy, I found that excerpts from the reviews of the hardback had been inserted after the preliminary pages; in fact, between the Prologue and the first chapter. The editor to whose attention I brought this lapse had a hard time comprehending what I was complaining about. Other OUP authors have their own stories of works of scholarship published without an index, with pages transposed, and the like.

About a year ago, I asked the OUP for access to the files in their archives dealing with the abridged edition of Mohandas K Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, which they had published in the 1930s. I knew from other references that there were many letters to RE Hawkins from Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai, perhaps some from the Mahatma himself. The letters could not be located: worse, I was told that the archive, sections of which I had consulted in Apollo Bunder, no longer existed. It had been a casualty of the OUP’s decision to sell the property in South Mumbai and move their office to the suburbs. The acts were of a piece—the abandonment of that wonderful old building and of all that it contained and represented.