Sambha Lamarr, creative director of Shillong CALM Festival, speaks to publisher-novelist David Davidar about all things literary
CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED as ‘an absorbing saga’, and a ‘gripping, deeply intelligent novel’, and compared to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Forster’s A Passage To India, David Davidar’s The House Of Blue Mangoes has hit the bestseller list yet again with its new jacket as powerful and passionate as the saga itself.
Davidar hails from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. Son of the manager of a tea plantation in Kerala, he recalls an idyllic childhood wandering around with a gun and terrorising birds. David graduated in science from Madras University, and later obtained a diploma in publishing from the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course at Harvard University. After taking his diploma, he returned to India to help set up Penguin India, and then worked with the publishing house for a number of years before setting up his own firm, Aleph Book Company, in partnership with Rupa Publications India.
“We are a small company that publishes high-quality literary fiction and non-fiction works in the English language by Indian writers. We publish approximately 25 new books a year and have already signed up over a 100 exceptional writers. These include some well-known names as well as some brilliant debut writers,” says David about Aleph.
David considers himself fortunate that his “entry into the world of publishing coincided with what seems to have been some sort of ‘golden age of Indian writing in English’ for he has published or edited an astonishing number of major Indian authors including Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Pavan K Varma, Shashi Tharoor, Khushwant Singh, Vikram Chandra, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Nandan Nilekani, Romila Thapar, Ruskin Bond, R.K. Narayan, Nilanjana Roy, Allan Sealy, and Jerry Pinto among others. International writers include Damon Galgut, Mark Tully, William Dalrymple, John Le Carre, Khaled Hosseini, Nadine Gordimer and Musharraf Ali Farooqi.
Following are excerpts from an interview.
I was hooked to the hardbound The House of Blue Mangoes when I read it 10 years ago, much before I started The Bookmark Sahaki. I recently re-read it and to my delight, the magic of the book had not waned. So when did you start writing?
In school for the school magazine. Poetry for various unappreciative girls – the usual stuff but then seriously from about the age of 19 when I got a job as a reporter with a small left-of-centre magazine called Himmat that was based in Bombay and started by Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. This was also the time I began writing my first novel, a dreadful, derivative attempt called Some Anger Spent that fortunately does not survive in any shape or form! All I remember about it is that it had a small town boy who comes to the big city and at the end of the novel is running through a sugarcane field pursued by men with knives.
You’ve changed the jackets of your books and they are as beautiful as the previous ones, making the sales soar yet again. Do you thing customers judge a book by its cover?
It is critical to refresh the covers of books from time to time. Both The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors have been continuously in print for years now and it was important to re-imagine their jackets for a new generation of readers, which Aleph’s creative director, Bena Sareen, has done quite brilliantly. We also took the opportunity to completely reset the text to make it visually more appealing for the reader. I think the new editions of both novels are the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Did you expect to receive an overwhelming response both home and abroad?
My most successful novel The House of Blue Mangoes has sold over a 100,000 copies and been translated into 16 languages around the world. Even though I am a publisher, I can tell you that I quite honestly had no idea it would prove to be so successful because it is quite impossible to predict a novel’s success with any degree of accuracy. All you can do as a novelist is write a book that has a great story at its heart and that is anchored by strong characters. Further, the novel should be as stylistically original as possible with great narrative flow and all the other ingredients that make for a successful novel. Once these are in place you’re entirely at the mercy of the reader.
Personally, I felt connected with each of the Dorai men – from Solomon to Kannan, especially Daniel. But did you have an intended audience while writing the book?
I think the intended audience for both novels are the readers of literary fiction and all those who like to enter into the worlds created by generational sagas which are the case in The House of Blue Mangoes. It is a genre that I find very appealing if it is well done. In my own pantheon of favourites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude remains at the very top and I am sure everyone has their own particular favourites. I have been delighted to hear from readers around the world who have said that they have liked entering into the world of the Dorai family in the southern tip of India and spending some time there. I think that’s the whole point of fiction. To create plausible worlds that readers can lose themselves in.
Were you ever approached by film producers for The House of… Whom do you picture in the four main roles along with Charity?
The House of Blue Mangoes has been optioned a couple of times by movie producers but nothing has come of it. I have no idea who would play the main characters although I do think Naseeruddin Shah could play Solomon, Farhan Akhtar – Aaron, Irrfan Khan – Daniel and Tabu would probably make for an interesting Charity.
What makes a writer successful? Any tips for our budding authors?
I think what is essential for writers is that it is critically important that you must always measure your own books against the greatest books ever written in your genre whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I have found in the course of my career, and I speak from the standpoint of someone who has published hundreds of books, that the greatest shortcoming I’ve found in a lot of the manuscripts I receive (and subsequently reject) is that writers have simply not invested enough time and effort in trying to make their manuscripts the best they can possibly be. They have either not revised enough or they have given up halfway or they have not researched enough or they leave it up to the editor to fix all the flaws in their work or they have not taken the trouble to compare their manuscript with the best books available in that particular subject area or they have not read enough on the subject or they think they are geniuses who are not in need of any training whatsoever as a result of which their efforts are usually pitiful. And so the only advice I can give is do your homework, figure out what you want to write about, work out your structure and your plot carefully in advance of beginning to write your book and then once you’ve written your book revise it two or three times, send it out to people whose judgement you trust and then revise it again once you’ve received the brutally honest comments of your referees and only then send it to a potential publisher.
Sikkimese author Chetan Shrestha’s book The King’s Harvest by Aleph Publications will be launched in Shillong soon. How would you rate our North Eastern writers?
I think the Northeast, without exaggeration, has the greatest potential to make its mark on the country in terms of original fiction and non-fiction because we haven’t heard from its writers yet. However, it should be remembered that the originality of the material is not the only thing that makes for great writing. Writers from the region should be rigorous about honing their craft; they will need to work really hard on their writing, if they are going to have an impact.