The City as Literary Field

Rashmi Sadana

Sujan Singh Park is a tiny neighborhood by Delhi standards—more of a large square than a full-fledged “colony,” as the upper-middle-class neighborhoods of South Delhi are called. But this one happens to be where the city’s linguistic, social, and architectural capitals meet. Madhu Jain, a chronicler of the Indian arts scene, describes Sujan Singh Park as forming “a golden triangle” with the India International Centre and the India Habitat Centre, two of the most well-known cultural venues for Delhi’s post-Independence elite and part of a larger area known as Lodi Estate. (For a map of Delhi literary landmarks mentioned in this article, please click through here.)

This well-kept, airy part of town centers on Lodi Gardens, where retired bureaucrats and tourists come to stroll among fifteenth-century tombs. The area includes the India Islamic Cultural Centre, UNICEF, the Alliance Française, and other venues that link Indian cultural worlds to those abroad. Joseph Allen Stein, a father of regional modernism who lived in India from 1952 to 1995, designed several of the buildings in Lodi Estate, including the India International Centre and the Ford Foundation building (as well as the Triveni Kala Sangam arts complex a few miles north in central Delhi). Using local stone and tiles in his constructions, Stein’s designs blend an aesthetic forged in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Delhi’s Sultanate architecture, with the results characterized by low-level stone exteriors and traditional jalis (lattices) rendered in gray concrete forms.

I first came to Sujan Singh Park in February 2001 to interview Ravi Dayal, one of India’s pioneering publishers. Dayal, who passed away in 2006, was a child at the time of India’s independence from the British in 1947. Accordingly, his life and career in Indian publishing spanned two eras and visions of subcontinental literature and thought. As the first Indian to head the Indian office of Oxford University Press (OUP), Dayal mostly published academic books, until 1986 when he published The Golden Gate, by the then-unknown Vikram Seth. In 1988, the book went on to win the Sahitya Akademi Award for the best book in English, launching Seth’s now transnational stardom. Crossing between academic and literary circles, Dayal built a network of associations that set him at the center of the Indian literary world.

Dayal left OUP in 1987 to establish his own imprint specializing in literary fiction, Ravi Dayal Publisher. The first book he published, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, in 1988, was his second to win the Sahitya Akademi Award. Small and independent, the publishing house distributed its titles only within India, which would seem to suggest a modest regional significance; yet Ravi Dayal Publishers—together with other niche publishers like it—catalyzed the “boom” in Indian literature in English. Dayal’s approach to English-educated Indian culture and its potential international reach exerted a global influence in literature and ideas from his doorstep in Sujan Singh Park.

Eventually, these Delhi publishers fashioned an industry, but one that flourishes within a paradox: the rise of an English-language culture industry in the wake of Indian independence from Britain.

When I met Dayal in 2001, he was, as always, involved in all aspects of the publishing process, from reading new submissions and designing book covers (each with the trademark owl logo that he drew himself) to corresponding with distributors, dispensing royalties, and ordering paper. In contrast, the multinationals on the Indian scene, first Penguin in the 1980s, and, more recently, Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and others, follow a standard industry model: draw on local talent, including a rising class of editors-in-chief, but employ production processes based on scale and scope dictated by head offices abroad. Although Dayal’s authors and peers considered him a fine manuscript editor—he once left, mid-conversation, to fetch the manuscript he was currently working on, covered in red ink—Dayal understood his role to be a modest one, and resisted receiving any thanks in his authors’ acknowledgments. The publisher’s main purpose, he believed, was to reflect the intellectual currents around him. He told me, “It is writers who write books. The publisher works as a kind of junior partner. He shouldn’t flatter himself to think he’s the generator of ideas.” Among Indian English publishing houses (and like the Hindi publishers Rajkamal Prakashan and Vani Prakashan), Dayal’s approach was striking, but not unusual; these publishers didn’t just print books, they crafted them. Eventually, they fashioned an industry, but one that flourishes within a paradox: the rise of an English-language culture industry in the wake of Indian independence from Britain.

Why did English publishing thrive in Indian society in the years following the exit of the English? The soundscape of Delhi’s street life is typified by a mix of Hindi, Urdu, and, post-Partition, Punjabi to boot. Delhi’s publishing scene should have been an arena in which these languages could compete, just as the city itself at times was the site of epic struggles between, Hindi, the language of “the people,” and English, the language of the elite. It was one thing for English to be the language of bureaucracy, where law, government, and other institutions had direct ties to the former institutions of the British colonial administration; it was another for English to represent India on the global literary stage, defining the cultural image of India, when only 5 percent of Indians, at best, speak English fluently. Meanwhile, Hindi—a language composed of about forty dialects (including Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, Marwari, and Awadhi)— is the mother tongue of about 40 percent of Indians, and a second language of many more. In just about every Indian city, multilingual books, advertisements, television shows, film dialogues, song lyrics, street slang, and bureaucratese enliven, expand, and limit everyday communication and thought. How did the linguistic diversity of the street get transmuted into monolingual literary texts, especially in a language that the vast majority of Indians don’t speak? What produced the explosion in the transnational publishing of Indian fiction in English, of blockbuster prize-winners like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger?

Part of the answer lies with publishers, the middlemen of the literary world. But the path of this history, too, sidesteps expected narratives of nation and language. In the colonial period, when literary publishing in India was almost entirely in the Indian languages, British publishers distributed English-language textbooks (for the ever-growing, English-medium education market) and some popular fiction for an elite Indian audience. In the post-independence 1960s, southern Indians famously rejected Hindi as a national language, cementing the role of English in India for the educated and aspiring classes. Only then did the acceptance of English in higher education and among the country’s elites point toward new kinds of investments and institution-building in the language. And only in the decades after independence did Indians’ own cultural productions in English gain prominence and a foothold in the local publishing world. Today, textbooks still form the majority of books published in English, but literary publishing in English has created its own cultural cache, winning a place on the ever-elusive world stage, even if literary books in Indian languages vastly outnumber those in English.

English, rather than be “phased out” and replaced by Hindi (the hope of many nationalist leaders at the time of India’s independence from the British), would become the language of higher education and remain a requirement for the best jobs (cementing the elites’ hold on it and dependence on it).

Ravi Dayal’s career caromed along these changes in the Indian-English ethos, taking him from the OUP headquarters in the Old City publishing center of Ansari Road to Sujan Singh Park, the epicenter of Delhi’s English-speaking elite. From the 1970s onward, as Delhi became the major hub of Indian intellectual life, English academic and then literary publishing outfits relocated their headquarters and, together with other institutions such as the British Council, established the city as the center for the exchange of ideas in English. Seeded in this fertile ground, these ideas would ultimately pass into the multilingual intellectual and literary spheres in the city and beyond, reinvigorating India’s language debates. English, rather than be “phased out” and replaced by Hindi (the hope of many nationalist leaders at the time of India’s independence from the British), would become the language of higher education and remain a requirement for the best jobs (cementing the elites’ hold on it and dependence on it). English would also continue to serve as the language of the vast, intricate, and obstinate Indian bureaucracy, with its layers upon layers of institutions.

Sujan Singh Park displays the history of Indian English in the built environment and in the many vivid characters living in the quarter. The most well-known literary resident of Sujan Singh Park is not Ravi Dayal, but his ninety-something father-in-law, Khushwant Singh (b. 1915). Singh is perhaps the first popular English-language novelist in India, known for both serious work, such as the Partition drama Train to Pakistan, and bawdy tales about women, wine, and the city, like Delhi. Singh’s father, Sobha Singh (1890­–1978), was contracted to build much of New Delhi, including Sujan Singh Park, the South Block, the court of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Vijay Chowk, the War Memorial Arch, Baroda Palace, All India Radio, the National Museum, and, as Singh has written, assorted “bungalows, chummeries, and clerks’ quarters.” He tells us that his father “shared with Lutyens and Baker,” the British architects of New Delhi, “a vision of the shape of things to come,” a foresight that led Sobha Singh (like his keen colleagues), to teach himself English in order to win building assignments from the colonial administration. Under the favor of the Crown, Singh “became president of the New Delhi Municipal Committee and member of the Council of States” and was eventually “knighted by the British government.” Delhi’s history is often told through its architecture: the striking tombs, landscaped parks, and assorted Mughal and British colonial monuments; Sobha Singh layered these earlier achievements with the mortar of a “new” Delhi—an English-knowing Delhi—laid out in stone or, in Sujan Singh Park, brick by brick.

When he married Khushwant Singh’s daughter, Mala, Dayal inadvertently became a resident of this storied colony. Fittingly, the Dayals met through the small world of Delhi publishing in the early 1970s. Mala Singh had been editing children’s books at the state-run National Book Trust (NBT) when a friend asked her, “Why are you working with the government? Why not OUP (Oxford University Press)?” Government jobs were secure, but OUP offered both international connections and a sterling reputation. An informal meeting led to an encounter with Dayal, but not a job, so she stayed on at the NBT, though found herself “running into” Dayal at book fairs. At the time her father was living in Bombay and editing the Illustrated Weekly of India, the subcontinent’s most widely circulated English-language magazine. Singh knew Dayal independently of his daughter, and when he came back to Sujan Singh Park to see his family, he noticed Dayal lingering outside the house. Assuming Dayal had come for a professional visit, Singh invited him in. There was no way she could have told her father that she and Dayal were interested in seeing each other, Mala Dayal told me, since the news would have immediately spread all over town. Anyone who has read Khushwant Singh’s work can understand this; part-scribe, part-gossip, he writes about everything and everyone’s business, in multiple eras.

In his later years, I sat with Dayal in his well-appointed sitting room adorned with antique English furnishings and a large dining table covered with doilies. Just behind his wide-armed chair stood a bookshelf lined with the Indian English fiction titles he had published. Dayal maintained his Oxbridge accent and an admirable thicket of white hair. Short in the back but kept longish in front, his fringe lent him a boyish charm, even though years of smoking had graveled his voice. Physically slight, he carried an unmistakable presence, both formal and open at the same time.

Like many of his generation, class, and caste, Dayal inherited a dual legacy even before he married into Delhi’s cultural elite. He grew up in Uttaranchal (now known as Uttarakhand), part of the western Himalayan range, though he made it clear that his family were not pahadis (mountain people) strictly speaking. They were Mathurs, a subcaste of Kayasthas, who were traditionally employed in the fields of “reading and writing” and usually assumed government posts. The hill station of Nainital was the site of their old family home, where he said his family had been “for over a century.” This location, away from Delhi and in the mountains, was to be a central part of Dayal’s identification throughout his life.

Considering his family background, Dayal remarked, entering publishing was entirely accidental. His father died when he was only four, and so he spoke of his uncles, most of whom were officers in the Indian Civil Service; and one who taught English at Allahabad, a city in Uttar Pradesh known for its universities and intellectual life. As civil servants, his uncles spoke English, but “out in the districts” they spoke Urdu, and at home a mix of dialects. His uncles, he said, “all went off to England at some point, were all ambassadors and diplomats.” And with his usual wry sense of humor, he added that “going into publishing was almost a caste blemish.” Dayal compared the dexterity of living in two or more languages with the ability to straddle two civilizations: “To be familiar with Indian classical music and Bach and Beethoven at the same time—some would say what happens is that you don’t know either culture very well, that it’s always surface, a mannerism. But that’s not really true.”

Dayal arrived in Delhi for college where he studied at St. Stephen’s from 1954 to 1959, a time, he said, when the college “wasn’t as English medium as it is now; you still heard Hindustani and Urdu,” and that university life in general “still wasn’t quite so Anglicized; you had students from Daryaganj, Chandni Chowk, et cetera.” These neighborhoods and their borders, the ones that now constitute “Old Delhi,” mark a social contrast to central (bureaucratic) Delhi and south (upper-middle-class) Delhi. But in the physical geography of the city these distinctions are never so clear-cut, especially when one considers the poor, bastis (informal settlements) that dot the entire Delhi landscape. Instead, Dayal connected this kind of cultural fluidity to bilingualism and what he called “such interesting writing.” Defined by a dual heritage as well as caste privilege, Indian work in English percolated in his distinctly urban milieu. Dayal’s role as a publisher, as he understood it, was to notice its vibrancy and bring attention to it.

Dayal emphasized that what was important about this burgeoning space of English-language intellectual production was not the numbers of English speakers but who was using the language, how, and where.

Dayal emphasized that what was important about this burgeoning space of English-language intellectual production was not the numbers of English speakers but who was using the language, how, and where. Delhi’s cultural milieu, including its political and bureaucratic aspects, inspired the leadership of nearly all the major houses to move their offices from Bombay. Delhi had a higher concentration of universities, scholars, and readers, and it also possessed the infrastructure that government agencies provided for the production of books. Dayal described the culture and convenience of working as an editor in Delhi in the 1970s:  Around him new institutions were being set up or expanding, like the Delhi School of Economics (D-School) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The Green Revolution was also motivating novel social imperatives, transforming Indian agriculture by dramatically increasing food production and elevating the country’s self-sustainability by introducing genetically modified crops and chemical pesticides. In the world of letters, book-buying programs were set up in regional and national libraries, creating a ready-made market for publishers, and often keeping them afloat.

After his studies at Oxford Dayal had chosen to return to this reinvigorated India. He explained, “In those days I don’t think people wanted to be expatriates in quite the way they do now. I certainly could have stayed on and done a D.Phil. and taught and done a Ph.D. working, oddly enough, on India. That seemed a bit absurd.” Instead of studying India in England, Dayal went back, landing his first position publishing English books in India at the Oxford University Press headquarters in Bombay, working under the head of OUP in India, Roy Hawkins. After a stint in Madras, where he worked with and befriended the Kannada playwright Girish Karnad, he landed in Delhi to set up the new OUP head office.

The New Delhi headquarters of OUP were ideally situated, offering both intellectual and prosaic productivity. The location on Ansari Road meant proximity to Chawri Bazaar and its paper merchants, as well as to the Delhi Railway Station where goods (published books) could be dispatched, and to the post office across the road to mail correspondence. The area had a host of dhabas (roadside food stalls) and restaurants where you could take authors for lunch. And it was not far from Delhi University. The Feroz Shah Kotla cricket ground was also near-by, and Dayal chuckled as he described how he would sometimes stand on the roof of OUP, watching “the odd cricket match while editing a manuscript.”

Five years later, in 1976, Dayal became OUP’s first Indian general manager, a position where he could use the resources he saw within India for bookmaking. The intellectual scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired him:

Immediately you know when you come back to India the place is bubbling a bit, new frameworks are being worked out. In history, Irfan Habib’s changing the face of modern India, Amartya Sen is working on something. Because you belong roughly to that period, you can follow the importance. The earlier lot of people at OUP were out of touch—they didn’t know the nature of the debate. They had fine editors, even when I joined, but they really weren’t following what was happening in post-independence India, even though they were quite sympathetic to independence. This happens in publishing; a publisher can lose touch with ideas.

This was a turning point for Dayal: the recognition that it would take Indians educated in English to feel these currents, to harness them, and to keep up with them as they took new directions. Post-independence, English had become Indian. The language was now attuned to the experiences and ideas of an influential class of Indians and allowed the expression of their common goals, as well as of a wider cultural discourse, as seen in the peppering of Hindi films and songs with English words. It was the medium of elites, but in the service of the nation.

Ironically, the indigenizing of intellectual life in the English language was beneficial for OUP. Still a British-owned company, under Dayal OUP was able to make a name for itself in India. The publishing house became known for being on the cutting edge intellectually and, for authors, for being the leading place to be published on the issues transforming the subcontinent.

Delhi fast became the center of a web of creative and intellectual influences and personalities, or, as Dayal put it, where “the economist reads the historian reads the sociologist reads the novelist.” In his view, the flourishing of this intellectual and creative climate was no accident. Indian-English literary vibrancy was part of a larger cultural movement, one Dayal likened to such culturally and creatively significant movements as the German Bauhaus, whose members created a new aesthetic in art and design that influenced at least a generation of intellectuals, writers, and artists. The kind of high-caliber writing being produced by Indians in English was not occurring in isolation; instead, a thick skein of ideas spun through India’s urban milieu producing author after author. Creative writing, he claimed, comes out of an “intellectual hinterland.” For Dayal, the examples were plentiful, from Vikram Seth, who trained as an economist, and Amitav Ghosh who was a social anthropologist, to Shashi Tharoor, who studied political science, and Mukul Kesavan, who teaches history. “They’re all part of, have been to some extent nourished, by ideas in their back garden,” Dayal noted, a garden that included the universities and streets of Delhi and Calcutta.

On his travels for OUP, Dayal journeyed to less-urban and rural areas in search of knowledge and ideas in the “real” India but came up short:

From the sixties, there was an enormous expansion in the university system. There were maybe ten or fifteen universities at independence. By the Sixties there were about one hundred—the good, bad, and the indifferent. But each university had one or two faculties or one or two teachers who were influential teachers or supervising interesting research, so even if you went to what seemed like the backwaters, there were one or two very good departments there, working on something interesting. I traveled a fair amount for OUP just to find out what was happening everywhere, and this is what struck me: what little work was being done in the Indian languages. There was a fair amount of plagiarism, a lot of subcontracting. They get research grants and don’t do the research themselves. There was all this talk that the truth lay in the Indian languages, but that was not the case.

New and progressive thinking, concluded Dayal, was happening in English; the cultural influence of the language—including its difference—was its virtue. In his intellectual map of India, the bhashas (the term for all Indian languages other than English) were regional languages, outposts.

Dayal was, in this sense, a prototypical Englishwallah, not just an English-speaking Indian, but a person who places English at the center of Indian society, espousing the ideology that English in India is the most fitting mode of expression for the cosmopolitan, liberal, and secular elite.

Defined by an ethics that stressed egalitarianism, Dayal’s books were paradoxically fostered by and in a cultural milieu that was unquestionably elite, and yet, he did not seem to feel conflicted by this apparent contradiction. Dayal was, in this sense, a prototypical Englishwallah, not just an English-speaking Indian, but a person who places English at the center of Indian society, espousing the ideology that English in India is the most fitting mode of expression for the cosmopolitan, liberal, and secular elite. For Dayal’s generation, these values are not British or “foreign” in any simple way, but rather principles that elite Indians could mold to their own, often anti-colonial, needs. In the 1960s and 1970s, Indian intellectuals tied English to pursuing national good.

Dayal’s linguistic preferences did not mean that he was indifferent to the other Indian languages in his daily life or even outlook, even if he was skeptical of their potential to harness intellectual creativity. English was simply the language to think with, serving as an Indian asset and a social necessity. Dayal drew a contrast with the Hindi cultural elite— Hindiwallahs. It was not that Hindiwallahs did not know English, but they were culturally oriented and politically bound to Hindi and to ideologies associated with Hindi promotion. They could also more easily win debates over cultural authenticity, even if the formal, Sanskritized “Hindi” many of them espoused was not spoken on the streets. Hindiwallahs also had the population numbers on their side. For Dayal, however, the significance of English in post-independence India was not a statistical but a cultural influence.

In 1991, Dayal wrote that the burgeoning of English in India was evidence of “the growing independence of the Indian mind," advancing the argument that English offers liberation to Indians as the language that enables a fully modern life. Over time, this independence would also offer a way for Indians to reverse the intellectual traffic that formerly began in colonial metropoles and moved out toward the peripheries. Having imbibed English ideas in India, Indians—through English—could have their ideas disseminated throughout the world. In his obituary for Dayal, his protégé Rukun Advani, wrote that his mentor had “put India on the world’s intellectual map.”

Today Penguin India produces and distributes over 90 percent of Ravi Dayal Publisher’s backlist. The future of this list of books seems secure with a large publisher, and this acquisition is indicative of the trends in Indian publishing that Dayal himself had envisioned: better and larger distribution networks for Indian English work. Vigorous debates continue within the industry over the relationship between multinational publishers (as OUP was, even in the early days of Dayal’s career) and the small, independent ones. For most, these arguments have moved beyond sorting what is “Indian” publishing from what is not. Instead, they rest on the persistent challenges of production—from the price of paper to the efficiency of supply chains—and the need to cultivate audiences and the book-buying habit. Business interests and economic globalization have largely displaced identity and authenticity as central concerns now that the Indian field of cultural production in English is a given.