Publisher extraordinary
Keki N. Daruwalla

Ravi Dayal: 1937-2006
Ravi Dayal: 1937-2006

RAVI Dayal passed away a week back, leaving a lot of authors and friends floundering in grief, not to mention people in the publishing fraternity. Those lucky enough to have known him will remember the frail figure smoking away, the shy self-deprecating smile, his gentle manner, unfailing courtesy, and the fresh ideas he would throw up each time you met him. He was as gentle as a dove but he had a falcon’s nose, a Dayal family trademark. I served under his uncle Rajeshwar Dayal in Zimbabwe during the historic 1980 elections. I remember someone telling me about the old man that it must have taken a thousand years of good breeding to develop a nose like his.

The last I met Ravi was barely three weeks before his death. He looked frailer than usual and was wheezing away, complaining of asthma. I asked him why he wasn’t going off to the hills (he had a lovely house in Ranikhet—left to him by his aunt Leela Rao Dayal. I used to play tennis with her in the sixties and remember her shrill tone as she called my shots out—she hated losing.). He talked about his mother’s illness. But he had no idea that he was suffering from cancer. I had actually barged in because two poets were after me to find out what Ravi intended to do with their manuscripts.

His friends and admirers, and they are a multitude, have talked and written about his tremendous contribution to various disciplines—history, sociology, fiction and drama—even art. There has not been enough talk of what he did for poetry. It shows how marginalised poetry is in popular perception. It doesn’t even strike people—people who have been writing or publishing all their lives.

I shifted to Delhi in 1974 with a Standard Herald that was already getting rickety, and an ochre-coloured Vespa scooter. I also had two poetry manuscripts—poems about Benares, which I called "Varanasi Vignettes" and another called "The Keeper of the Dead," named after a miniature by that name, painted by the ailing Bireshwar Sen. Ravi was living in Golf Links those days and I would scoot off on my Vespa to meet him, goading him into publishing poetry. He was never averse to the idea, but was testing the waters—the market, likely sales, reactions in his office. (He was not the General Manager of O.U.P. then.) Others too were at it, I presume, including his colleague in the OUP, the poet R. Parthasarathy. Partha shifted to the Delhi office and by late 1975, our manuscripts were being asked for.

There were no book launches those days, no weighty speeches glorifying some light weight author, no wine, not even a samosa and a cup of tea. But for the first time in the country, English poetry books written by Indians were in the bookshops. Most probably, 1976 was the biggest year for English language poetry by Indians. Oxford published half a dozen books—Nissim Ezekiel’s Hymns in Darkness, A. K. Ramanujan’s Selected Poetry, Parthasarathy’s Rough Passage, Shiv K. Kumar’s Subterfuges. Ravi, Partha and Nirupam Chatterjee handled the editing of the books lovingly. Nirupam made me change the title "Varanasi Vignettes" and we compromised on Crossing of Rivers. Partha’s anthology with its hyperbolic title Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets was also a part of the set. (It has gone into over 20 reprints).

Incidentally, the volumes were priced at six rupees each, while the anthology cost ten. Despite that, true to our North Indian culture, I remember people spending much more than six bucks on their petrol as they came to the house demanding their "complimentary copy." (‘Lao saaley’ etc.)

But that was not the end of the 1976 story. The Bombay poets had been ignored—you can’t publish 10 poets at a go, can you? They got together and went into private publishing, calling it "Clearing House". Arun Kolatkar designed their books beautifully. Gieve Patel, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Adil Jussawalla and Kolatkar himself—it was a very formidable team of poets—and they took the market by storm. Obviously the print media (there was hardly any TV then) went gaga over Clearing House. Moreover Kolatkar’s Jejuri stole the thunder, going on to win the Commonwealth Poetry (First Book) Prize. But what I wish to say is, had Dayal not come out with the Three Crown Series, as our books were called, no one knows when the four books from Clearing House would have emerged.

A whole list of books and anthologies from Oxford followed over the years. Ravi’s interest in poetry continued even after he left OUP and he published Arvind Mehrotra, Seeme Qasim and me among others. As a mark of his meticulousness, I can cite an example. For my book The Map-maker, I gave him a slide of a map of the world, thought to have been drawn in the 1250s, before Marco Polo began his travels. It comes from the Ebstorf monastery in Germany. (Incidentally, the Garden of Eden also figures on the map and Jerusalem is placed in the center of the world, where else?) The map as cover would have been far too flamboyant. Ravi embarked upon a process of getting the colours toned down. In doing so the photographer had to make another nine slides. Who but Ravi would have gone to such lengths?