Former Penguin Canada president David Davidar left Canada under a particularly dark cloud early this year. But somewhere over the Atlantic, that cloud dissipated, and he landed here to an open-armed welcome. He has resumed his place at the top of the flourishing Indian literary world, and that nasty allegation of sexual harassment in the (other) colonies is yesterday’s news.
Two months ago, Davidar, 52, announced he was launching a new publishing house, Aleph Book Co., focusing on literary books, both fiction and non-fiction. The Indian industry, centred here in Delhi, has been watching eagerly: It is a current favourite preoccupation in book circles to speculate on which authors and which executives will defect to Aleph.
His new house will publish 15 or 20 books by the end of next year, Davidar says, although he won’t name any of the authors of those planned books, saying he is saving that for a “spectacular announcement” in December. “There will be people Canadians will recognize,” he says. “There will be big-name novelists, and the next generation of novelists who will set the world alight.”
But he acknowledges he has yet to sign contracts with any authors, and while he has hired a number of high-profile staff, he says, none of the appointments has been announced.
Aleph is a joint venture with Rupa & Co., India’s second-largest English-language publishing firm; Rupa is known for publishing commercial books with big budgets (including the novels of Chetan Bhagat, India’s biggest-selling author) and for the country’s largest distribution network – which is critically important in a market where the bulk of book-selling is still done by independent stores.
“There is a place in India for a company like McClelland & Stewart was when Jack McClelland started the place 40 years ago – a company deeply rooted in this country, with one eye firmly fixed on quality,” Davidar muses over lunch in an upmarket and airy Delhi restaurant recently. Poised, solicitous but restrained, he has a sort of global-citizen quality that suggests he would be equally comfortable anywhere.
The ease with which Davidar has been able to re-establish himself here speaks to the position of immense respect he enjoyed before he left India in 2004 to take up the top job at Penguin Canada. Davidar was a bored Mumbai journalist who took a publishing course in Harvard in the early 1980s, so the legend runs, when he caught the eye of Peter Mayer, head of the international Penguin group. Penguin was eyeing India, and Mayer tapped Davidar to start up the company (in a small apartment, with $10,000 as his total budget); it was the first branch of an international publisher here.
There were no big international names in Indian literature, then; it was only a few years since Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, a book that caught both Indians and the wider book-reading world off guard. But Davidar began to cultivate Indians writing in English, new voices, and in 1992 he edited a surprising and monumental bestseller, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Davidar went on to bring a host of other Indian writers to a global audience; at the same time, he created a new book-reading public in India, for literary fiction and for commercial bestsellers such as the sex-and-shopping novels of socialite Shobhaa De, a sort of Indian Jackie-Collins-cum-Sophie-Kinsella. He also published a successful novel of his own, The House of the Blue Mangoes, in 2002.
Two years later, Davidar left for Toronto, and there he presided over a renaissance at Penguin Canada, wooing big-name writers such as Joseph Boyden, who won the company’s only Giller Prize, launching the Extraordinary Canadians biography series, and doubling the company’s publishing revenue. In the midst of all that, he published a second novel. And in 2009 he was made CEO of Penguin International (which included India, Africa and the Middle East, as well as Canada); he was widely seen as the top contender to head the entire Penguin Group.