How has Roli Books grown in these four decades?
I was very young when I decided to build a publishing house. My maternal grandfather (D Mehra) was the founder of one of the most celebrated publishing house Rupa, and I used spend my summer vacations with him. And my father, in Varanasi, used to be a distributor for paper, and my brothers were into printing. I used to help out at their press. I also read a lot of comics and classics. I think a combination of all that led to publishing. The job at Macmillian India groomed me further, and then MacGraw-Hill FEP Singapore happened.
Roli Books started with just me, a stenographer, a typewriter and a hired table. We were first to introduce in India colour textbooks and met with astounding success but my heart wasn’t in that. There were no art books publishers in India at that time. I thought if I could give the same production to Indian authors, photographers and designers I could beat the best in the world. That was the formula and it worked very well.
You also ventured into journalism with Sunday Mail, a weekly broadsheet.
When Operation Blue Star happened, I thought it needed to be documented, so we produced an anthology – The Punjab Story. Then we did two more books on Indira Gandhi’s assassination (The Assassination & After) and another on the pulling down of NT Rama Rao’s government (Governor: Sage or Saboteur). These three books led to the idea of starting a newspaper in 1986. We created a team of finest young journalists and photographers. It was for the first time that a newspaper had offered advertisers an option for colour ads. Eventually, the paper became a very strong voice and perhaps overly aggressive. But because it was too bold for its time, the advertising diminished. It flopped financially.
Why hasn’t Roli Books published fiction in all these years?
We tried. We bought a company called India Ink, which was started by Arundhati Roy, Tarun Tejpal and Sanjeev Saith, but could not take it to a level of excellence. We had a brilliant set of editors but our team was more adept at books on art, architecture, illustrated and non-fiction books, which was my interest too. Personally, I don’t know how to create fiction, to be honest. It’s not my skill.
What’s your next book about?
While researching on Gandhi (An Illustrated Biography; 2015), I read about the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946. These naval ratings were young, just 17 to 24 years of age, but they shook the empire. There are records and evidence to suggest that it was one of the reasons why the British decided to quit India early. Ironically, it was opposed by Congress and Muslim League too, as they didn’t want anything to jeopardise the independence that seemed imminent. Politicians asked the youngsters to surrender. It’s a fascinating story and I want to document it.