Sridhar Balan. (Photo: Amit Mehra)
The first thing Sridhar Balan mentions when we meet him at his residence in Delhi’s Hauz Khas is that he was part of the first batch to graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, the institute where students were attacked by masked goons recently. “In fact, it is a place where I began my career, teaching political science,” he says. However, after a few years as an academician, which included a stint at Shillong’s North-Eastern Hill University, he moved to publishing, by first joining Macmillian and then Oxford University Press. And thus began his love affair with books and it has been over 35 years now.
It is now he has penned his many experiences with “books, book people and book places” in his first book as an author — Off the Shelf (Speaking Tiger, Rs 350). “Trying to create a flavour of the bygone times”, Balan draws from his 17-year-long stint at Oxford University Press (OUP) and an interest in the history of publishing. “People had been asking me to write for long; so I started with writing columns in newspapers about various aspects of publishing. But this book is different. While writing it, I realised that one has to be conscious of the reader, and I hope I am able to do that,” says Balan, now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar. He has been involved with their programmes to promote reading in schools and the imprint for literary translations.
In the book, he acquaints us with EV Rieu, who set up OUP in India and later initiated the Penguin Classics Series. There is Roy Hawkins, popularly called Hawk, who is considered a legend in the history of OUP in India and responsible for publishing seminal works by people such as Verrier Elwin, Jim Corbett, Salim Ali, KPS Menon and Minoo Masani, among others.
“Not many know that Hawk’s flat in Mumbai also served as a salon frequented by artists FN Souza, KH Ara, MF Hussain and VS Gaitonde, where they sketched and discarded, and activists from the Indian People’s Theatre Association. In fact, Krishen Khanna was surprised when I told him this a couple of years ago, and told me that he was a subaltern then working with Grindlays Bank and was confined to the balcony,” says Balan.
He also writes about Ravi Dayal, who worked at OUP for over 25 years, and published the best of Indian social sciences, including works by historians Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar, MN Srinivas, Amit Bhaduri, Amartya Sen, among others. And Balan also tells us about Ram Advani — the bookseller of Hazratganj — who used to be “a storehouse of information and whose shop in Lucknow was a compulsory stop for academics”. We get to know about Dhanesh Jain as well, who went on from manufacturing buttons to establishing Ratna Sagar.
Stories like about how Jim Corbett came about to write his first book in the early ’40s make the book readable and significant. His Man-eaters of Kumaon had received an astounding response in the US, where two tigers cubs were brought in to launch his book, because Corbett could not make it. “What is remarkable is that he wrote a total of six books and all of them continue to be in print,” says Balan.
He also writes about his experiences at popular libraries in the world like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt or Uruyasu Public Library in Japan. But talking about libraries in India, Balan says that public libraries are facing a crisis, and are only surviving in educational institutions. “But investment in libraries needs to increase, reading rooms can be created, programmes on books can be organised. I tell principals to invite storytellers and artists and illustrators of children’s books. That will broaden a child’s perspective and understanding,” he says, adding that while the publishing model has changed over the years, with ebooks and audiobooks, the game still remains of publishing good books. “The matter of concern is people still need to know about good books and good authors,” he says.