Destiny In Paperback

MADHUMITA CHAKRABORTY | Updated: Apr 28 2004, 05:30am hrs
In 1990 a petite young woman journalist walked out of one of the monuments on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, New Delhi, with a more clear plan in her heart. Renuka Chatterjee did not return to journalism, even though she did not find a job before another six months.

A decade and a half later, her movements in the publishing industry (from Penguin to HarperCollins and thence to Roli Books) sets the grapevine abuzz, and her name draws authors. She has already made her presence felt as managing editor of Roli Books by bringing in new fiction titles in a publishing house known mostly for its coffee table books.

Spearheading another foray of Roli Books into untrodden grounds is another woman, who began as an author, (Paro: Dreams Of Passion), but says that she always loved hanging around the Press. The Namita Gokhale Editions have so far included potboilers like Father Dearest and recently, The Psychology Of Love.

Padmini Mirchandani had not thought about publishing till she was almost in mid life. I always loved reading, but never imagined that books would be my destiny, she muses. Fate propelled her into the family business in December 1986, and today, she is probably the reason why the India Book House imprint is so strongly present in the UK and the US. Im quite clear. I want to see IBH books in the international arena recognised for quality of content and production, she says.

Nitasha Devesar abandoned her Ph.D in economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University when she stumbled into publishing. She began as senior commissioning editor at the Oxford University Press, but soon found herself growing restless. I wanted to be part of the process, she says.

She applied for the job of a product manager and spent a year in marketing at OUP, to learn to control the fate of the books editors commission. She is among the small tribe of women who marched into the traditional male domain of marketing, simply because she wanted to do the tough job. She also wanted to understand the business, an experience that earned her the job of OUPs academic publishing manager.

Eight years ago, a young girl in love with literature, decided that she did not want a career in academics. The Jawaharlal Nehru University is full of civil servant aspirants, but it wasnt for me, recalls VK Karthika. When she walked into Penguin Books Indias office in Delhi in response to an advertisement for editors, she did not know that she would one day be among publisher David Davidars successors there.

As executive editor, Karthika now heads the publishing end of Penguin Books India, along with Ravi Singh. She represents Penguin Books India at the Frankfurt Book Fair every year and is credited with path-breaking strides in selling rights to Indian titles overseas. She is hugely responsible for having taken Indian authors around the world.

Women were always somewhere in publishing, even way back in the days of the Victorian novel, written amidst home chores on the kitchen table. But suddenly, they can be seen in more powerful places. Some say it all began in 1997, when Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things and propelled Indian writing in English from a narrow native niche into the realm of contemporary literature.

The God Of Small Things really presaged a cloudburst. Suddenly there was a whole generation of Indians who thought in English and wrote in English. As suddenly, there were publishers, willing to publish them. India Book House executive director and publisher, Padmini Mirchan-dani says publishing had been bitten by the globalisation bug, like everything else. Whatever the reason, 1997 could be that signpost on the road to a publishing boom, and riding on its crest were some feisty women.

Two of the most admired among them are Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon who began Kali for Women in 1994. Urvashi began her career with OUP, got involved in the womens movement and began feeling it may be more creative to work independently. She began corresponding with Ritu Menon (who was trying to create a womens list for Vikas Publishers) while working for a publishing house in England. The two met and Kali was born. Last year, the countrys first feminist publishing house (now there are others, like Stree in Kolkata) split into Zubaan and Women Unlimited, where they will continue to publish titles by and for women.

Even though young firebrands like Karthika say publishing is gender neutral, fact is that very few women have actually reached the top. In the West, Jane Friedman became CEO of HarperCollins in New York way back in 1997 and Marjorie Scardino is CEO of the Pearson Group (that owns Penguin), but in India, men are still in the driving seat. As Renuka Chatterjee says: A lot of women are embarrassed to say, this is what I am worth.

Those women who are at the helm of affairs are, like Padmini, either born or married into publishing. Kiran Kapoor, for instance, runs Roli Books along with spouse Pramod, as does Poonam Malhotra who is married to Full Circle proprietor Shekhar Malhotra. Nevertheless, as Urvashi Butalia puts it, the real activity in publishing is now being done by women..

Perhaps, as Padmini says, women are happy working behind the scenes. Perhaps, they are there because, as Renuka says, a man would tell off a cranky author much sooner than a woman would. Perhaps, women are drawn to publishing because, as Namita Gokhale says, a lot of publishing today is in the womens market. And, who knows women and their issues better than other women