I read with much sadness about the passing away of Ravi Dayal my friend from Oxford days. I had read the many obituaries and tributes to his memory by some of his friends who had worked with him at the Oxford University Press in India and I learnt much about the many endearing qualities of the man and his work at OUP.
Here I like to share my rather many intimate friendship with this unique friend whom I treated as my own in my close circle both while at Oxford as well as back in India where we went about our ways in different directions.
What I immediately recalled when I read about his passing away was the very day back in the early Sixties, one day on the Oxford High Street, just not from where the original OUP was located, near his own University College, when he was just coming into the High and when we met he just mentioned: “Oh,… just now I got an offer from OUP to work in their office in India and I had accepted the offer…”I just said: “Congratulations..” and then we exchanged some casual talk and we went our ways. Even before, those days when we were together in Oxford at that time there were some 60 or so Indian students, some 10 or more Indian girl students and we, I remember, made a fairly close Indian community then.
We met often at the Indian Majlis where the Indian and Pakistani students were together and for some unknown reasons that Majlis split and the Pakistanis went to Majlis and we Indian students started our own Oxford Indian Students Association. I was active in this body and there were then clearly two blocs among the Indian students. Those who had come from the ICS family background with their own imagined Anglicization and the Indians of the more native dispositions.
The latter group comprised largely of the more mature students who had come to Oxford on some scholarships to do Ph.Ds. most of them having done some teaching and among them was none other than our own Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh himself! He was at Nuffield College along with Dr.Jagdish Bhagwathi, Nuffield was my favorite went there to do a tutorial in monetary theory(one Hungarian tutor, named Jassy was there and he was a monetary expert and who taught me some really insightful points. In fact, I used to argue with him at length and he would concede some points and when I criticized one of his published papers, he was rather startled and he stopped the tutorial and stood up and asked me, rather to hide the embarrassment,”… will you like to have some coffee” and then went on to light the coffee kettle and the intervening time of silence broke the tension in the room! I mention this anecdote now, wondering whether Manmohan Singh can recall Jassy, as Singh himself is now known as a monetary expert, I wonder! In fact, Manmohan Singh’s supervisor, Dr. IMD Little was also known to me, rather I read his text on welfare economics, and the text was then famous among the undergraduates.
I never took the PhD scholars in those days seriously, for I was full of the Oxford superiority complex about studying for an “undergraduate” course of three years and at New College, we the undergraduates thought of ourselves as the most privileged and most wealthy, the college had extensive lands and properties and also the faculty was first class… the great Prof.A.J Ayer, Gilbert Ryle,my own philosophy tutor (now Lord)Quinton and in economics Peter Wiles(both Wiles and Quniton had been Prize Fellows of All Souls) and the New College was a den for many serious philosophers, H.H.Price, just lived above my room as a retired philosopher after occupying the historic chair then occupied by Ryle(the author of” The Concept of Mind”) and Isiah Berlin was too much of a New College personality.
I used to see him often in the Quad often conversing with Ayer and as such I was almost living a life of dream-like life! I went to debate at the Oxford Union (the famous Debating Society that produced so many Prime Ministers) and I eventually became President of the Oxford University Indian Students and as such I was almost familiar with every Indian student there. In any of the meetings, I never saw Manmohan Singh who was known for his almost anonymous existence in our time and what I remember with warmth of those days and also about the research scholars was that they were very un-English in manners and habits and when they saw mea product of Santiniketan and Gandhian schooling, they found in me an ideal candidate to put up against the rather high-headed so-called Anglicized Indian students.
So, they prodded me to stand and I did and I won handsomely for the mood then was more nationalistic and Nehru’s reputation was at its height and that was why I dared to invite the redoubted Kingsley Martin, the famous editor of the famous Socialist Weekly, New Statesman to speak to the Indian students. Martin, typical of him, just sought to use the invitation to advise me to “call the Pakistanis too… After all you need to have them, we have to solve the Kashmir problem…”Martin at that time was almost waging a battle through his powerful media, to find a peaceful solution to help his “my friend Nehru”! Yes, it was all a highly rewarding experience to interact with such a powerful brain like Martin and I enjoyed every moment of it.
So, where did Ravi Dayal and others like Ashok Thapar (now a happy exile in Spain with his dear wife Ana!) who all came from the ICS background and were my close friends and the point is that their being from the ICS families didn’t bother me and they too for their part never felt quite at home in such an artificial tag! In fact, I have much to say Ravi’s about the peculiar paranoia I find even now among the rather current breed of the Oxbridge set that dots the New Delhi’s own paranoia of many hues! New Delhi at any time had been an uncomfortable place to live and exist and for the average well-educated Oxbridge types, the place can produce some really uncivilized experiences, more so now with the so many illiterate political leaders who dominate the political landscape. Upstarts of any kind can’t make it to vibe with the Oxbridge types. Now, I have learnt to sympathize with the Oxbridge set and yet I have to say this much. There is no point being alienated from your own soil, can you? Anyway, one relation of Ravi, Rajeswar Dayal was a high ranking UN official, who was sent out by the great Dag Hammersjold(?) on some African mission and Ravi himself, my suspicion is, might have gone into the ICS and he was rather naive to accept the OUP offer, in my opinion, was not that much a prestigious job even in those days.
So I always imagined whenever I met Ravi, in Mumbai and then in Delhi I used to imagine that he was not in fact doing a job that was to his talents. But then, as I now say to myself and to close friends, life is what you can make of it. For some life is a challenge, it is for me always(!) For many, life is what they reconcile with. Ravi, I imagine took the life as it came along. He used to invite me to his attic flat in Mumbai, he was a bachelor then and we used to discuss late into the night and I found him a very natural, unpretentious person, he spoke his mind without any pretensions and lived a very simple life. He used to sport simple khadi kurta and pyjama, wear the Kolapuri chappel and smoke the native beedi! (It was tobacco that killed him in not so old an age).It was while in Mumbai he came into contact with the Kushwant Singh family and married ,Mala, their daughter. Kushwant Singh’s son, a journalist, was also in Mumbai then and he was also my friend, he was editing the Sunday magazine, launched by Vinod Mehta, who was also known to me in his Mumbai days.
In fact, Ashok Thapar, my close friend was also there along with Prem Shankar, Jha, all from Oxford and all chose the journalistic career, some stuck to the civil service but already in my time civil service was blocked for many Oxbridge, the caste and other restrictions into the entry of the much-vaunted civil service was abandoned for more civilized options. Ravi was unique among this crowd for the simple fact he was the one who stuck to publishing and making a name.OUP at the time when he started was still a textbook publishing company and I met all the early recruits, Girish Karnad and R.Parthasarathy joined as Asst managers, both started at the Chennai unit and so I was meeting them more often than would have possible elsewhere. When I was traveling more often to Delhi, I used to stay at the YMCA International Hostel, the adjacent building which housed the OUP. So, it was almost a daily practice with me to walk into Ravi’s room and have a brief chat before I set out into the mad jungle of politics!
From Daryaganj to YMCA building OUP also changed its colors, so to say. It became a well-known academic publishing company and as others had mentioned, the credit goes to Ravi for having brought out a series of good books, by well-known scholars and academics, Amartya Sen, Irfan Habib and others.
I also met Ravi once or twice after he left OUP to run his own firm, Ravi Dayala Publishers. I asked him why he left OUP. He said:” Simply for a change. I wanted to devote my time to publish some general books novels and other creative works”. But then I knew he was attracted by the entrepreneurial potential of publishing. At that point of time I got a book of mine published by the then well-established Vikas.I knew how much money the Delhi publishing industry was making. I don’t know how materially prosperous was Ravi but I knew from hindsight that careers in India, in journalism and publishing were poorly rewarded. I knew even the highly paid Dom Moraes was not so financially well off. But then that was an India that was pre-IT revolution age. Also, Delhi always remained a paranoid place and it was no paradise for such sensitive individuals like writers and publishers of the genre like Ravi.
Looking at the publishing scenario from Bangalore, even now when so much new talent had come out in the Indian publishing, I know both the English and the Indian language publishing to some extent; life for the average writer or publisher is more insecure! And when you live in Bangalore or do business in the IT industry, money is now made more aggressively and more easily!
So, when we think of writers and publishers, I take it Ravi’s legacy, great legacy it would be, is to have helped to see the current highly talented publishers, those who left OUP and set up independent imprints, the new high quality English titles, more so the new scholarship in diverse fields is the best legacy Ravi had left us behind. May his legacy live long and put India on the international publishing map!