Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Twist in the Tale
South China Morning Post
Penguin India CEO talks about his debut novel, February 2002

It’s not every debut author who can claim to be edited by Vikram Seth. But then David Davidar is not just another Indian author. As CEO of Penguin India, his first novel The House of Blue Mangoes had reviewers, and probably several smarting authors, impatiently waiting to see if he could deliver. And he did­—in spectacular fashion.

His lush and ambitious family saga of three generations of the privileged, yet tragic Dorai family has been almost universally praised. “I began the book as a way of finding out about myself,” says Davidar, who was born near the southernmost tip of India.“ Like most of us who live in cities, I didn’t know very much about my ancestry. I have never lived in a village and have spoken English most of my life.” And while comparisons to Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth’s own family sagas are inevitable, Davidar’s book is entirely about the much overlooked deep south of India. “The thing that has always annoyed me is that nothing has been written about the freedom struggle and the days of the Raj from the southern point of view, “ he says. “I wanted to remedy that.”

How much of Davidar is in his novel? “I did grow up on a tea estate and my paternal grandfather did found a family settlement called Davidnagar, similar to the book’s Doraipuram. I wanted to create a parallel universe,” says Davidar. “All the sights, sounds, and some of the events are from my childhood, but the characters are imaginary because I didn’t want to offend my family,” he laughs.

Beginning in 1899 and ending in 1947, the novel covers an eclectic range of subjects. Cataclysmic events such as the two world wars, caste riots, and the last days of the Raj are juxtaposed with enchanting details: making a perfect cup of tea, savouring a mango and the sport of well jumping. Davidar wrote from 4.30 to 6.30 every morning to fulfill his self-imposed quota of a thousand words a day, though he often tore up more than he wrote. “I decided to write a saga because it was open ended enough to allow me to work with the characters, explore my interests and go in any direction,” he says. Davidar counts Giuseppe di Lampadusa’s “The Leopard” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” among his influences.

After researching and “fiddling” with the novel for nearly ten years, Davidar asked his friend Vikram Seth to look at it. Despite his fifteen years of editing experience, Davidar still felt he needed guidance. “Although as an editor you think you know what a writer goes through, you really don’t. The editing process is very different from the writing process. I wanted the mentoring of someone who had written a saga, and I think A Suitable Boy is one of the greatest sagas ever written. I told Vikram that if he didn’t like the first few pages, I would just throw it away and neither of us would tell anyone about it,” says Davidar. Luckily for readers, Seth liked it well enough to ask to see more, then helped Davidar’s wife Rachna to do a “brutal” preliminary edit. “ I edited A Suitable Boy, so this was a chance for Vikram to get his own back,” quips Davidar.

Davidar then submitted it under a false name to David Godwin, the agent who handled Arundhati Roy. “I did not want to rely on my connections in publishing to get me published. I wanted the book to stand on its own merits,” he says. “Besides, if the book failed, nobody who knew me would be any wiser.” Godwin flew to Delhi immediately, demanded to meet the author, and then was apparently flabbergasted when Davidar confessed. “He went red in the face, his jaw dropped and he had to take a little walk,” says Davidar gleefully.

Unlike most other writers, Davidar didn’t grow up wanting to write the Great Indian Novel, or even publish it. “I never thought of publishing as a career. I haven’t really planned anything in my life.” he says disarmingly. After a degree in botany, he “drifted” into journalism. He also wrote an unsuccessful first novel—“a crappy autobiographical tale of a young man in Bombay trying to get girls”— that was rejected and never resurrected. Following a publishing course in the U.S, he was offered a job at Newsweek in New York. Instead, he chose to return to India and set up Penguin India in 1985 with three employees. At the time there were virtually no English publishing houses or recognised writers. “It was a hard road,” says Davidar with some understatement. “Even RK Narayan (the respected Indian author of Malgudi Days) asked me why I was bothering to set up a company in India when it would only wind up in six months.”

Sixteen years later, Penguin employs 90 people, and publishes about 150 original works annually, including virtually every Indian author ranging from Seth, Roy and Rushdie to newer stars such as Rohinton Mistry and Kiran Desai. “A decade from now, India is going to be as big a market as Australia,” predicts Davidar confidently. “There is a new generation which has English as their first language, incomes are rising rapidly and big bookstores are coming in.”

The phenomenal success of Indian writers has spawned a swarm of imitators. “Everybody seems to have a book in them. I get about fifty manuscripts a week,” says Davidar, “most from people who should never have put pen to paper.” Indian reviewers often complain that most Indian writers seem to write only for a Western audience—long winded yarns about the Raj, Partition, arranged marriages, oppressed women, domineering husbands, holy men, bizarre rituals, and other exotica. This unending flood of novels on the brown man’s burden appears to have annoyed even V.S Naipaul, who at last week’s literary festival in Delhi berated Indian writers for continuing to write about colonialism, gender oppression and other “banalities”.

“The tragedy of Indian writing is that everybody thinks they have to write a novel because it is novels that have sold in the past,” agrees Davidar. “So you have a lot of mediocre writing, a lot of clones of clones of clones. I always tell people, the book you have in you might be a gardening book, or a cookbook, or a biography, or a non-fiction book, or a children’s book. There is a lot of contemporary writing happening in India as well, but it doesn’t travel as well as the novels about colonialism, because publishers in New York or London want to see something different from their own reality. ” He also agrees that many Indian writers are not quite as highly regarded at home, where readers prefer less gloomy fare. “There are really only four brand name authors in India: Roy, Seth, Khushwant Singh and Shoba De, “ he says. Interestingly, Shoba De’s racy potboilers have collectively sold more copies than Seth or Roy, and Khushwant Singh’s bawdy humour remains enduringly popular, despite being savaged by the critics.

Still, things are changing. “We have to remember that Indian literature is a very young literature; it is only in the last 15 or 20 years that we have had this wave of novels. Give it time and we will see more variety—travelogues, short stories, romance, crime fiction, essays, children’s stories…We will have it all,” believes Davidar. “This craze for exotic Indian novels will pass and only the great books will survive,” he says. Despite some criticism in India that Penguin should be choosier about picking its books, Davidar believes in letting the market decide. “What I am really proud of is creating a situation where comments like this arise, because fifteen years ago there was nothing being written at all. The goal of Penguin India is to encourage as many new writers as possible, to create an environment where people who may never have contemplated writing earlier will be encouraged to write. I am a strong believer in letting ‘a thousand flowers bloom’, of which a few will be rare and precious. Let the readers decide which books they want to read.”

He also cautions writers against believing everything they read in the papers, particularly exaggerated tales of Indian writers laughing all the way to the bank. “The fact is, that in the last twenty years, not more than 15 Indian writers have got six figure advances. You have a better chance of getting rich by buying a lottery ticket than by writing a novel. Until publishers can sell a million copies in India, advances are going to be ridiculously low.” Still, says Davidar, while most Indian writers would like to first publish in the West where the money is, many also want recognition from an increasingly discerning Indian readership. “What’s encouraging is that earlier a book would only sell well in India if it was recommended by someone in New York or London. Today Indians are making up their own minds, and I am selling more Indian writers within India than I have ever sold before.” Meanwhile, points out Davidar, Penguin has just set up shop in Singapore. Penguin Singapore will handle writers from Singapore, China, Hong Kong, and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Does it help, as critics have griped, to be young, attractive, or come from an elite university? Penguin’s stable of writers includes such fine but unphotogenic writers as Ruskin Bond, Shashi Deshpande, and the late RK Narayan, veteran authors who remain unknown outside India. “I think there is a time for everything, and these writers were unfortunately ahead of their time, before Rushdie and Seth made Indian literature popular. It is true that young attractive women will play well anywhere. That is the way of the world,” admits Davidar. “ But I am not that cynical. When I read a book, I look for originality, style, strong characters, and a good story. If there is a great book written by someone who is seventy and a fat slob, I still think it will find its way.”

Davidar’s next book is to be set in Bombay, and will focus on the “manipulation of religion in India.” Despite his “dream run” with The House of Blue Mangoes, he doesn’t intend to give up his day job. “My advice to would be writers is to write what you must. Write the story that claws its way to the top; not what you think will sell. Write the story that only you can tell.”