When Gita Wolf is presented with an idea she has not previously considered, her forehead folds into a charming crease, and her dark brows draw down over big eyes: She looks like a quizzical six-year-old, rather than a venerable businesswoman and writer of 52.
In a conversation about the deeply improbable success of her publishing company - perhaps the most decorated in India's thriving, multilingual industry - that quizzical expression comes back again and again. It is elicited, for example, by the suggestion that at the precise moment that the world economy was tanking, when publishing companies were foundering, when tiny independent bookmakers were collapsing - that that might not have been the most obvious moment to invest her company's resources in producing a handmade, limited-edition, quite expensive book of illustrations of an obscure Indian tribe's relationship with trees?
When it's put like that, well, yes, The Night Life of Trees does seem like something of a gamble, Wolf agreed.
Moments later, the forehead smoothed, and she moved on.
The Night Life of Trees has, like so many other creations of Tara Books, been hugely, implausibly successful. At this moment, teams of young Tamil men are at work in a thatched-roof warehouse, hand-screening each rich illustration onto thick black pages for German and Italian editions. French publishers who ordered the book last year for Christmas found it was sold out before they ever got the Christmas displays up. Yet another English print run will be done, as soon as the team of 15 printers and bookbinders can find the time. Publishers Weekly, among many others, fell under the book's peculiar spell, and deemed it "alluring."
"It's always like that with any kind of pioneering work you do - you can't imagine it until it's there," Wolf concluded in a recent conversation in Tara's cramped and colourful office.
She founded Tara (the name means star in several Indian languages) in 1994, in what could be called the first of the improbable decisions. She moved back to south India from Germany, where she had found herself bored and unhappy teaching comparative literature. Far away from the thrumming publishing industry in Delhi, in the large, yet largely overlooked city of Chennai (formerly Madras, and capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadhu), she decided to start a publishing company. She pulled in some friends who were writers and designers; they decided that they would begin with children's books with bold illustrations, because they wanted Indian children to see their own world in books. "It was crazy, I suppose," she said - forehead crease, shrug. "But I never thought we wouldn't be okay - I have a blind spot."
The business was challenged from the first by India's poor infrastructure, its price-wary buyers and high government taxes on paper. There are no government subsidies of the kind Canadian publishers receive; instead, the state piles duties on exports and shipping. But Tara's first few books did all right. Wolf approached artists from India's indigenous groups, known here as tribals. "Tribal artists are the best contemporary artists we have, and there is no reason why their work has to be simply historical," she said.
In 1996, an artist named Indrapramit Roy of the Warli tribe in Maharashtra came to Chennai to do a project with Tara. He asked Wolf to tell him a story, and she recounted a folk tale she recalled from her grandmother, about a luckless and lazy lion who tries to avoid hunting. Roy began to draw magical, colourful illustrations; the setting is very Indian, full of overcrowded trains and irritated villagers. Wolf was then on her way to the giant Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time. She wanted to take some samples of the lion story, but they had only two finished pages, silkscreened onto nubbly handmade paper. So she took those, a sample of a book that would later be offset print, like most are. The sole appointment she had been able to fix at the fair was with Toronto-based Annick Press; her brother, who lives in Toronto, called up founder Anne Millyard and asked her to meet Wolf.
Tara's early recognition came from Europe, where the children's books scooped up awards, even when they were only available in tiny print runs
As Wolf recalls it, the Canadian publisher took one look at her two pages and said she wanted the book - but she wanted it to look "just like this" - on this paper, in these colours, handmade. She would take 8,000 copies - a huge print run for Tara. Wolf gulped, and said fine. "I waltzed out of the meeting, floated down the escalator - and I came to earth," Wolf said. "How were we going to do this?"
Back home, as her panic was building, a friend mentioned a talented young silkscreener she knew. Wolf found him sharing a single room with six other students (rotating through the beds days and nights). Together, they began to try to produce the pages, mixing the colours in oil drums with cricket bats. "It was like cooking for a wedding versus cooking for two," she said.