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Hide bound: Printing stories across the empire

books Updated: Mar 09, 2012 17:50 IST

Rimi B Chatterjee, Hindustan Times
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In the late 19th century, a man called Philip Lyttelton Gell was shoehorned into the Oxford University Press (OUP) by interests that wanted the moribund body refurbished and ‘put on a sound commercial footing’. Gell was an Oxford man, but he had worked for Cassell, a publisher as plebian as OUP was patrician. He endeavoured mightily to threaten the complacency of the dons who ran the establishment until a series of moves worthy of a Cold War thriller got him ousted. He then retired hurt to work for the Department of Trade in Southern Rhodesia. Just a decade later, OUP had implemented nearly all his reforms and were sending out travellers to scout territories for overseas branches.

The Indian branch was officially set up in 1912, though preparations were afoot for at least six years before that. Very quickly, the new branch began to pay for itself, in spite of being overtaken by the World War 1. Profitability was important, because Oxford’s stated intent (as per internal memos) was to use the branches to earn money for the Press and thus for the University. The only way to do this was to break into the vast Indian textbook trade, hitherto sewn up by Macmillan, Longmans and Blackie.

This business-like approach contrasted oddly with the Indian perception of OUP, as remarked on by Noel Carrington, then a trainee manager in Mumbai and Kolkata. To Carrington’s puzzlement, the Indian view of OUP was that it was a blessed custodian of knowledge and an exalted distillation of all that was excellent in European academia. This impression rested on two legs: the publication of the Sacred Books of the East in the 19th century and the inaugural title of the official Indian list: Dr S. Radhakrishnan’s Ethics of Religion. As Humphrey Milord constantly reminded his managers, OUP’s first goal in India was not to promote Indian scholarship, unless individual employees dug their heels in and insisted on publishing this or that book. The head office was amenable to such publishing provided the bottom line did not fall. But this is a rather tough condition to meet: scholarship is not always profitable, and losses are starkly visible in balance sheets.

Perhaps this is why OUP kept its head down after Independence and let houses like Asia Publishing House and Popular Prakashan (established by a former OUP employee: possibly a generational pattern) snap up the works of the new Indian scholars. OUP kept its academic lists ticking with authors like Romila Thapar but was careful not to touch anything ‘discreditable’. In practice this meant that Indian academic writers who did not have a good grasp of both English and the conventions of academic writing and documentation were not particularly attractive to the branch. OUP set its writers’ standards of expertise at the level of the home country, which meant in practice that the sons and daughters of the soil who came to Oxbridge and SOAS to study were most likely to become Oxford authors (as well as employees).

A revolution in the 1970s saw the younger OUP faction including Charles Lewis and the late Ravi Dayal taking control and vowing to overturn the branch’s risk-averse policies. OUP published a number of pathbreaking scholars such as the Subaltern Studies group. For a while it looked like the public perception of OUP as a haven of scholarship was closing the gap with reality. The textbook market, always slow to respond to change, nevertheless began a tectonic shift away from the socialist pieties of the 1970s and 1980s towards a more ‘global’ educational outlook. In 1989, Ravi Dayal left to set up his own publishing house, beginning his list with a young writer called Amitav Ghosh. A decade later, history repeated itself when Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy left to set up Permanent Black and Black Kite, making OUP arguably the most prolific seeder of new publishing houses in the market.

In the new regime of competition and diversity in Indian publishing, OUP has preferred to stay out of the hurly-burly. The only times it hits the headlines are when various pressure groups create a stink about otherwise obscure scholarly titles that happen to hit a raw political nerve, and when the Supreme Court chases it for back taxes. Two instances of the former arose recently: the furore of James W Laine’s biography of Shivaji and over Delhi Unversity’s dropping of AK Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’. In the Laine case, the Maharashtra government temporarily banned the book after the Bhandarkar Institute of Oriental Research was vandalised because it was mentioned in Laine’s acknowledgements, and in response OUP India withdrew Laine’s book from sale. In the Ramanujan case, OUP India removed the ‘offending’ essay from Ramanujan’s Collected Essays. It is not clear how or at what level these decisions were taken, but they did OUP’s reputation no good.

As for the taxes, OUP India claimed that as a charity registered in the UK it was exempt from income tax, to which the Supreme Court responded that whatever OUP might be in the UK, in India it was clearly ‘a business’. The Court’s puzzlement is understandable. The Press is presently constituted as an arm of the University of Oxford and is run by a board of dons, and this is only the most recent, and possibly least bizarre, of its organisational avatars. In the past it has been a personal project of the Archbishop Laud, a shareholding of various London printers and papermakers, and a schizophrenic entity bringing out Oxford books from London and Clarendon books from Oxford. Nevertheless, the Press has come a long way from the days when it printed the works of the good and great. It remains to be seen where the next hundred years will take it.

Rimi B Chatterjee teaches English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata and is the author of Black Light, Signal Red and The City of Love