Book Review | How a hosiery salesman launched India’s first indie publishing giant

The Asian Age.  | Sridhar Balan

Rajen had already moved to Delhi a decade earlier to establish Rupa’s branch

Rajen’s family business was in the hosiery trade in Calcutta (Kolkata). His granduncle D. Mehra had been introduced to the family business at an early age and was quite adept at selling hosiery, setting up shop at a pavement outside Kolkata’s iconic New Market. — DC Image

“A literary book about publishing is extremely rare and this one is extremely readable.” These were the remarks of a reputed literary critic while reviewing my own book, Off the Shelf On Books, Book People and Places. The same words eminently apply to Rajen Mehra’s Never out of Print. The book adds to our knowledge on the history of publishing in independent India. Rajen has been able to weave a fascinating story about Rupa’s history not just by delving into his own memory and career but also because Rupa maintained its archives and records. It’s to be hoped that other publishing companies will attach the same value and importance to maintaining their archives.  Only then can we hope to have a record of the history of publishing in India.  

Rajen’s family business was in the hosiery trade in Calcutta (Kolkata). His granduncle D. Mehra had been introduced to the family business at an early age and was quite adept at selling hosiery, setting up shop at a pavement outside Kolkata’s iconic New Market. How D. Mehra came to sell books instead of hosiery was surreal. A visiting Scottish book representative K. Jackson Marshall was at the New Market and was impressed with this young “dhoti-clad” entrepreneur’s zeal and enthusiasm in selling hosiery. Marshall, with a typical salesman’s instinct approached Mehra. How they communicated is not known, for Mehra knew no English and Hindi was beyond Marshall. That chance encounter made book history. At the Grand Hotel, he was given The Collins English Gem Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary and Pears Encyclopaedia to sell. Mehra consulted his family for he would have to pay for the books the next day. He received support from his eldest brother and from his mother blessings and an unusual piece of advice. “If his first customer was a Muslim, his business was bound to succeed!” This was reflective of a time when communal amity marked the relations between Hindus and Muslims along with friendship and dependence.

As they say, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Mehra set up his “shop” opposite Presidency College in Kolkata’s bookselling College Street and his first customer was a “dapper, pipe-smoking gentleman”. He wanted to buy the Collins Gem but not having ready cash offered to pay by cheque. Mehra with the true trader’s instinct asked for cash. The book was kept aside at the customer’s request and paid for in cash the same afternoon. He introduced himself and to Mehra’s amazement, it was Humayun Kabir who was to later become the education minister. Not only had Mehra’s mother’s prediction come true but this was to lead to a life-long relationship.

This was the humble beginning of Rupa in 1936 and there was no looking back. After Calcutta in 1936, an office in Allahabad in 1939 and Mumbai in 1954. It was inevitable for Rajen Mehra to join Rupa. His entire formative years were spent in Calcutta where he studied up to the College level. Growing up amidst an atmosphere of books, he has a deep respect for the reading culture of the city, apart from the notable landmarks of the city and its famed cuisine including street food. As it’s said, “You take a person out of Calcutta but you can never take Calcutta out of the person.”

While N.D. Mehra had a foster-son who joined the business, it was Rajen who consolidated and grew the business. Rupa soon grew to be one of the biggest distributors of trade books representing imprints like Collins, Penguin, Andre Deutsch among others. It would not be out-of-place to say that Rupa established a market and a readership for these imprints.

The first foray Rupa made into publishing was the Indian edition of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It’s interesting to note that after consolidating distribution, D. Mehra’s venture into publishing was in Bengali. He never forgot the city which gave him sanctuary, refuge and an environment to grow his business. Between the 1960s and till the mid-80s, Rupa published about 300 titles in Bengali which included The Arabian Nights in 24 volumes, classics like O. Henry, Maugham and Dickens, the memoir of Sarla Devi and Isadora Duncan’s My Life in Bengali. It was the same city with its restive and troubled situation in the wake of the Naxalite movement that broke N.D. Mehra’s heart and he stopped going to the office from the middle of 1980.

Rajen had already moved to Delhi a decade earlier to establish Rupa’s branch. Here, he not only consolidated Rupa’s distribution network adding more foreign imprints but also began to scout around for authors to publish in English. While Rupa launched its cricketing imprint in 1962 with some memorable and notable books, Rajen describes Sunny Days by Sunil Gavaskar as the greatest of them all. It was an all-time bestseller with its first printing in 1976 and the thirty-first reprint edition in 2023!  The galaxy of ‘stars’ in Rupa’s list reads like a veritable Who’s Who! He has devoted space to the Kripalanis, R. Venkataraman, Mohit Sen, J.R.D Tata, Gayatri Devi, Natwar Singh, Ruskin Bond, Salman Rushdie Jaswant Singh and Chetan Bhagat.

Chetan Bhagat’s fifth book Revolution 2020 published in 2011 had a print-run of a million copies. His first two books, Five Point Someone, and One Night at the Call Centre had both been priced or underpriced at Rs 95. We now learn that the pricing was Rajen’s decision and Chetan had wanted Rs 150. While Hemu and Subbu of Landmark Bookstore, Chennai may have lauded this pricing strategy, to achieve this price, the production values had to be compromised. The paper quality and the printing did leave a lot to be desired. Pritish Nandy whom Rajen quotes summed Chetan up admirably. “He is for all those who stopped reading English literature the moment they stepped out of school.”

At the launch of Ruskin’s Once Upon a Time in the Doon a bouquet of flowers had already been presented to the chief guest Prannoy Roy of NDTV, when two more VIPs arrived, B.C. Khanduri and N.D. Tiwari. The same bouquet was now handed down to both the VIP in turn!

The bouquet of books from Rupa has enthralled generations of readers.

Never Out of Print – The Rupa Story

By Rajen Mehra

Rupa Books

pp. 504; Rs 500/-