Tuesday, July 30, 2002

a mystery revealed

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2002).

In 1985, at the age of 26, David Davidar set up Penguin's Indian publishing programme. Now, aged 43, he still runs Penguin's Indian business and despite the success he's enjoyed with his first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes, he has no plans to give up his career in publishing.

The publication of his novel this year has made Davidar "more empathetic" as a publisher, he says. "Until I had done it I hadn't realized how hard it is to get a novel down on paper. It's an enjoyable experience, but really hard work."

Until 1998, no one except his wife knew Davidar was working on a novel. The next person to know was Vikram Seth. The acclaimed author of A Suitable Boy had read a story Davidar had written for a newspaper and encouraged him to write more. "He didn't know I had been fiddling around with a manuscript for years," Davidar says.

Seth read the first 200 pages of the manuscript and urged Davidar to continue. But finishing wasn't easy. "I woke up extremely early in the morning for years," he says. In all, it took him more than a decade to write the book.

Davidar's career in publishing undoubtedly gave him insider knowledge and access to people most likely to be interested in his book. But he was careful not to disclose himself as the author until after the book had been accepted on its merits. He told one of London's most successful literary agents, David Godwin, that he had custody of a first novel by a S.H. Jeyakar -- an anagram of Davidar's own middle name -- that Vikram Seth had liked. Godwin flew to New Delhi without knowing what he'd find. He read the manuscript and told Davidar he liked it. "He said this while we were having lunch . . . still not knowing the identity of the author," Davidar says. When Davidar revealed himself. Godwin was "electrified," he says.

Davidar wrote his pre-independence saga to explore his Tamil roots and common people's responses to major historical events. "I guess those of us who are deracinated, because of education, background and domicile are afflicted from time to time with a desire to discover more about our place of origin. This was the primary reason I wrote the book," he says.