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IRREPLACEABLE PIONEER - Obituary: Ravi Dayal (1937-2006)

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By Rukun Advani
  • Published 11.06.06

Outside the arcane area of legal philosophy, the name of the Oxford scholar, H.L.A. Hart (1907-92), does not ring much of a bell now. Straying from philosophy into law, he happened to write the foundational text of his discipline, The Concept of Law (1961), and is sometimes dutifully remembered for that reason.

Unknown to most, there is a far more interesting reason for remembering H.L.A. Hart. In 1961, he inadvertently laid the foundations of Indian academic publishing. He managed to do this when he dissuaded one of Oxford University?s Indian history graduates from taking up research, persuading him instead to consider the attractions of a career in publishing. Sensing that the vacillating graduate needed a few sensible words in his ear, Hart said Indian publishing was uncharted terrain and the Oxford University Press needed good men in India. And so, quite by chance, in that far off era ? long before OUP India itself began looking like a good man fallen among thieves, accountants, jumped-up salesmen, and semi-literate editors ? this history graduate heeded Hart?s advice and went on to pioneer the field of Indian academic publishing virtually single-handed. He was born Ravindra Dayal; for most of his life and until his death on June 3, 2006, he was known as Ravi Dayal, the publisher.

?History of the book? is now a rapidly developing academic field, and someday soon some Larkinian Jake Balokowsky, sensing s/he can milk the Mellon Foundation, will put up a Spivakian research proposal arguing the indispensability of a biography of Ravi Dayal for any ?hermeneutically nuanced? and ?epistemologically problematized? understanding of Indian academic publishing. In the interim, a few lines of antique clarity about this foot soldier, who did all the groundwork on which an industry flourishes today, may serve as a memorial in his honour.

Ravi Dayal lived much of his life in Delhi but was at heart a pahadi. Kayasthas, like Kashmiri Pandits, often became munshis in legal and bureaucratic enclaves such as Allahabad, Lucknow and Srinagar, but Dayal?s family had a house in Nainital and packed him off to attend Sherwood College. He grew up loving the clatter of rain on a cold tin roof and the sight of deodars blurred by mountain mist. In his later years, he inherited a family mansion in Ranikhet and perversely loved being marooned there by the monsoon, in the company of childhood friends, reliving the joys of his growing-up years.

One early experience of his Nainital days in the Forties was serendipitous: while walking to school he accidentally bumped into a man whom he had frequently seen on that road. On this occasion the man asked the boy his name. When the boy replied ?Ravi Dayal?, the man introduced himself as Jim Corbett. ?You?re the man-eater!?, howled the confused boy, bolting in terror in the direction of his school, leaving Corbett ? as Dayal put it in his impeccably articulate style when recounting the story? ?somewhat bemused?. Later, as head of OUP India, Dayal sold hundreds of thousands of copies of the Corbett corpus, published the best biography of Corbett, and gave Corbett?s biographer, D.C. Kala, the Ranikhet rooms in which Kala still lives.

Corbett and Elwin were perhaps the only two major OUP India bestseller-authors that Dayal did not personally bring into the OUP: they had been brought in by Roy Hawkins, OUP India?s Bombay-based head at the time, under whom Dayal trained. Hawkins was apparently a great editor, but Dayal found him intellectually stifling. He soon accepted a posting in OUP?s Madras branch, where he worked alongside Girish Karnad, with whom he became great friends and whose plays he later published. In 1971, Dayal moved to Delhi to set up OUP?s new headquarters there.

Girish Karnad?s view is that Ravi Dayal, though something of a live wire in Madras, really came into his own when he became head of OUP India about thirty years ago. This is true. Dayal?s most singular and enduring achievement is that he put India on the world?s intellectual map. He did this by transforming OUP India from being a run-of-the mill textbook publisher dabbling in higher learning into the world?s most reputed centre for South Asian academic publishing in the social sciences and humanities.

In his time, and largely because of his eminence and repute, OUP India became unquestionably the first press of choice for anyone wanting to publish in South Asian history, sociology, politics, and economics. In the history of post-independence Indian publishing, he is more important than M.N. Srinivas is in the history of Indian sociology or Irfan Habib in the history of Medieval Studies. Srinivas and Habib had rivals and followers who were roughly their equals. Ravi Dayal was in a publisher?s league of his own. He created what was in his era an unrivalled institution. He ran the institution. In his day, he was the institution.

This opinion will be seconded by most people who worked with Dayal between the early Seventies until 1987, when he took early retirement to start his own publishing company. Puffing continuously at a bidi, he exhaled integrity and commitment to publishing as a discipline. People lucky enough to get in the way of his smoke soaked in the craft of book-making tinged with the aroma of tobacco. He sustained his organization by creating and nurturing a creative publishing ethos, advising and supervising judiciously, delegating and encouraging all the time. Working with him, people learned not a business but a craft: editing, typesetting, cost-estimating, printing, binding, everything.

His associates felt they were his friends: never, ever, did he make colleagues feel that they were subordinates or employees. He refused an airconditioner in his room: like everyone else, he sweated over scripts blown about by a fan, holding them together by paperweights and something weightier ? his uncommon editorial acumen. He never had a chauffeur, he drove his own jalopy. No flunkeys carried his briefcase to his office. This may have been because he never had a briefcase: he despised corporate symbols almost as much as neckties and kept clear of them. Most importantly, he kept his British bosses in Oxford at a clear distance, managing to wrest for OUP India a degree of autonomy that has been tamely surrendered by the house-slaves put in place there more recently. Dayal?s OUP was a community of craftspeople first, a corporation just by the way.

Lunchtime at the OUP canteen in the Eighties should have been caught on film: it would show a world completely at odds with the one run by homo-hierarchicized head honchos who run publishing corporations via power lunches in posh hotels. If Amartya Sen or M.N. Srinivas or Sukhomoy Chakravarty happened to drop in at lunchtime, they would be stood in the OUP India lunch queue and made to patiently shuffle towards daal-chaval on a standard railway thaali behind dispatch clerks and packers. This was Subaltern Studies embodied. Those socialist lunches, the product of a peculiarly Dayalian brand of brutal egalitarianism, actually served as a shrewd acquisitioning tool: they were, paradoxically, among the many small reasons for the most distinguished authors later lining up to have Ravi Dayal publish their books.

On the skills of editing a manuscript he said, reflectively: ?Oddly enough, my experience is that if you cut a manuscript down to half its size it frequently becomes twice as readable.? The bulk of academics are prototypical narcissists: when they are not in love with themselves, they fall in love with their own words. Dayal cut them down to size. He alone had the authority to be as ruthless as he liked. If Salman Rushdie had had the good fortune of being edited by Ravi Dayal, his novels would have been less prolix and twice as readable. The Almighty had endowed Ravi Dayal with the ?Order of Carte Blanche with the Blue Pencil, First Class?, at birth. What could mere academics do except acquiesce and applaud when Dayal?s pencil shreddingly improved their writing beyond all recognition? Besides, his spidery handwriting was part calligraphic, part indecipherable. So, even if you disagreed with some of his editing, you gave in partly because it was so beautifully done and partly because you couldn?t make out what he?d done. In any case, disagreeing with Ravi Dayal was not something you wanted to do in a hurry. Even if you won the day over some small syntactical point, something about him made you feel you?d actually lost. On his own turf, he wasn?t beatable.

On the skills required for acquisitioning manuscripts, he said: ?An editor should possess the authority to seem to an author like an equal, not a supplicant. A distinguished academic will only give you his book to publish if he feels he can trust you intellectually.? The irony is that, in fact, even the most eminent authors felt like supplicants when facing Dayal: the aura of distinction he carried made them sense he was more equal than them all. They virtually lined up to have their scripts considered for publication by him: S?lim Ali, A.K. Ramanujan, Romila Thapar, Burton Stein, Irfan Habib, Ranajit Guha, M.N. Srinivas, Ashis Nandy. Every major academic was in the queue unless he?d been turned down. (Dayal hated visiting the India International Centre, describing it as ?that den of rejected authors?.) Even the elusive Bernard Cohn of Chicago, who had resisted publishing a book, handed over to Ravi Dayal, at their first meeting, the manuscript of his hugely influential classic, An Anthropologist Among the Historians and Other Essays (1987). It was a coup: roughly, the academic publisher?s equivalent of Liz Calder bagging David Guterson?s incomparable Snow Falling on Cedars.

For charisma, style, elegance, and articulation, there was no one like Ravi Dayal in publishing ? or outside. It was a class act: he could have charged good money just to have people watch him being himself. Listening to him, you got the feeling he was an upper-class Bloomsbury Brit togging himself down in Gandhian garb so that he could feel at home conversing with Lalu Prasad, when in fact his natural conversational companion would have been Lytton Strachey. In profile, he looked an amalgam of Bertrand Russell and Jiddu Krishnamurti: forehead up Russell, eyebrows down Krishnamurti. Shortness of stature never came in his way: an atmosphere of authority extended his height a couple of feet. His austere patrician air gave you the feeling he was the publishing world?s Nehru. If Nehru was the last Englishman to run India, Ravi Dayal was the last Englishman to rule the Indian academic universe. His left liberalism, his interest in ideas and history, and his nationalism were all, like Nehru?s, the beliefs of a morally incorruptible nobleman devoted to enriching the intellectual life of his country in his own eccentric way.

Ravi Dayal was the second-last of the intellectually respected heads of OUP India. (His anointed successor, the saintly bhadra intellectual, Santosh Mookerjee, who retired in 1992, was the last.) Over the nineteen years after he left the OUP, Dayal published Amitav Ghosh?s novels, played the mouth organ with incredible proficiency, gardened with zest, ran a charitable trust which took medicine and literacy to his homeland, Kumaon, and charmed those who flocked to his house to breathe the same air as he did.

All men are irreplaceable. Ravi Dayal is more irreplaceable than others.