In January 1915, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa and gave his first public speech in the ornate hall of Hira Baug in the CP Tank area of Girgaum, a young litterateur, reformist, linguist and publisher who ran his business from two rooms on the ground floor of Hira Baug was among those in the audience. In his early thirties then, Pandit Nathuram Premi had already established himself as a significant nationalist of the early 1900s in Bombay, having published the first Hindi translation of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Titled Svadheenata, it was a first from the publishing house, he had set up in 1912, called Hindi Granth Karyalay.
Now also a bookstore and treasure trove where readers can find the complete works of Chughtai, Manto, Tagore, Premchand as well as religious texts in a multitude of languages, translations of classical works and more, the publishing house continues to operate from the same location.
Seated in the room where Premi must have confabulated with historical writers and thinkers of that period, his great-grandson Manish Modi, 47, who now runs the business, has a little nugget of history tucked away — not only was Premi present at that historical Hira Baug address, but he would also be later approached by Gandhi to edit the Hindi version of Harijan.
“It is believed that Premiji recommended Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi for the job,” Modi says. Dwivedi, a stalwart of Hindi literature and also editor of Sarasvati, a literary and reformist magazine followed closely by freedom fighters of that era, had collaborated with Premi — Svadheenata was his translation of Mill’s tour de force.
Svadheenata more or less set the tone of the spirit that the publishing house continues to embody. Among those whose works were published by Premi were Munshi Premchand, Jainendra Kumar, Yashpal, Sharatchandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Hajariprasad Dwivedi and more.
Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, Premchand and Premi were also close friends and the first edition of Premchand’s Godaan was published by Hindi Granth Karyalay. “Premchand lived with our family for three months,” says Modi, who learnt about his great-grandfather from his mother, who had come to Mumbai as a new bride, having studied till Class X, but was then encouraged by Premi to continue her studies. She would go on to complete her BA in Sanskrit. “Premiji was part of the intellectual revival of the time. Literature of great standard and reform were equally his focus,” says Modi. “The books he published enshrined those ideals as much as he lived those ideals in his own life.”
Premi came to Mumbai in the early 1900s, having found employment with a Jain trust at the Hira Baug dharmashala at
CP Tank. Impressed with his work ethics, the owner of Hira Baug encouraged Premi to start his business from rooms in the building.
A Jain from Deori in Bundelkhand, Premi was a scholar of Jain philosophy and edited Jain Mitra and then Jain Hitaishi as he worked at the publishing house. His magazines were modelled on Sarasvati, the magazine edited by Dwivedi. A keen student of language, he also learnt and mastered Bengali, as well as Sanskrit, Gujarati, Marathi and Prakrit. Not only did he exhort readers of Jain Mitra to give up orthodoxy, he even got his own brother married to a widow. That progressive streak continues to define Hindi Granth Karyalay.
Modi, himself a scholar of Jainism and an aficionado of literature in languages ranging from Prakrit to Urdu, is also a linguist, translating from Prakrit, Sanskrit and Urdu into Hindi and English. Modi seeks out the best works in a set of niche subjects from publishers across the world and have these translated.
Premi, who had turned Hindu Granth Karyalay into one of India’s top three Hindi publishing houses along with Nirnaya Sagar and Khemraj Shrikrishnadas, left behind a legacy that Modi treasures. “And I will continue to nurture it as long as I can,” he says.