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Lunch with BS: Chiki Sarkar

The book seller

Chiki Sarkar
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One of Indian publishing’s most visible faces talks about spotting great authors and her new job.

This is all a bit fraught. The day is hot, I’m getting late, she’s on time but the restaurant she picked is unexpectedly closed, she decides on another, a new place named Lah! three floors up from a tiny side lane in Hauz Khas Village, which passersby have not yet heard of and cannot offer directions to...

So, 15 minutes late, Rrishi Raote falls into a seat across from Rudrani “Chiki” Sarkar, lately Editor-in-Chief of publisher and now Publisher of Penguin India. Lah! is thankfully restful to begin with, isolated as it is near the rooftops, a single dim and cool room with deep green walls and a shiny floor.

Sarkar has studied the menu, so she orders for us both. Hers is a complicated-sounding noodle bowl with corn, black mushrooms, chicken and lamb, flat noodles and “soy garlic cilantro”. (Noodles? I think, impressed — isn’t that reckless, because potentially messy, for a working lunch?) Mine is a Malay chicken curry with rice. This will be washed down with beer.

Sarkar is, for an Indian publisher, an unusually visible figure, being quoted, written about and writing off and on in papers and magazines. In part the prominence is inherited – her father is Aveek Sarkar, whose family controls the Kolkata-headquartered media company ABP Group – but it also comes from the way she shaped Random House India and its publishing programme, the way she has made media-ready celebrities of her debut authors and commanded coverage on a scale not thought of by Indian publishers.

“When I came to Random House,” she says, “I was 29 years old and Random House had just been set up. We had very few authors. We were competing with a Harper or a Penguin who had a long list of very eminent authors. And I was a very young woman who also looked even younger than she is” – note the present tense – “which wasn’t always an advantage. So what I did, naturally rather than strategically, is to think that what I wanted Random House India [RHI] to be was the place of the great debuts.”

She launches into a list of RHI’s major titles since 2007, from Namita Devidayal’s Music Room to the redesigned reissues of Anita Desai’s backlist, which she says Desai was pleased with, to Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders — “and suddenly,” she says, “the hottest new talents were coming out of Random House.” The last year’s haul includes, she goes on, Shehan Karunatilaka's and Aman Sethi’s A Free Man.

The list is dominated by non-Indian writers, I say. “This is true,” she allows, but “largely because, which I’ve written before, I think that Indian fiction on the whole is not particularly interesting at the moment.” And then: “You can’t judge a publishing company by whether it’s bought a book from abroad or India. What you have to judge it by is what it didn’t publish, and what it’s put its money on. I said that these are the books I believe are great books from the subcontinent, no matter where I bought them.”

So what was not published? “A lot of books from HarperCollins, Penguin, which would have come out around that time I would have said no to. Didn’t love them. I’ll tell you the ones I missed that I would have loved. Tahmima Anam is a writer I would have loved to have published. Anjum Hasan I think is the one young Indian fiction writer that I would put my money on.”

Anam and Hasan, please note, are Penguin authors. Sarkar is this good.

And that’s just the literary list. At RHI she published 40 titles in four years, of which several were out-and-out commercial, on management, dieting (“health”), cooking. “The health and diet lists were fantastic because we got the pages designed by a magazine designer. The books were slick, they were well-edited.” She takes the opportunity to extol RHI’s food titles.

“What we missed,” she says, “was serious nonfiction and business.” But last year she had RHI tie up with the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad for a series of business titles, and she is fiercely proud of how RHI handled Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s recent book on poverty. What was published like a textbook in America, she says, RHI turned into a “huge” media hit, with cover stories, full-page reviews, TV exposure, excerpts, interviews, profiles and more. It has sold “10-12,000” copies, respectable for nonfiction though not huge; when I question the sales impact of the publicity, she says, “I think you don’t know much about the press, and publishing.” She’s right, though.

Back to the beginning. Sarkar came to RHI after seven years at Bloomsbury Publishing in London, which followed a degree from Oxford. (And her speech is peppered with the London sophisticate’s use of words like “brilliant” and “extraordinary”.) Bloomsbury was small but cool, until it became J K Rowling’s publisher, at which point “it got rich”, says Sarkar, and more professional. Sarkar started as an editorial assistant (“I made a lot of coffees”), and went on to edit and eventually commission.

Food arrives, at last. We start. The chicken in my Malay curry is dry, and the rice what the Italians call al dente. Sarkar says, “Mine’s really yum.” She doesn’t mind us trying each other’s food. The restaurant is now very noisy with music and voices. I have to strain to speak; Sarkar's speech is in no way damped by eating slurpy noodles or having to yell.

“Bloomsbury was home,” she says loudly. “I always kept toothbrush and toothpaste in the office, because I’d come in sometimes in my high heels and my party dress from the night before.” She worked under the highly regarded Alexandra Pringle. “I see her as a second mum,” says Sarkar. “She’s someone with whom I discussed the Penguin job before I talked about it with anyone else.”

Ah, the Penguin job. I ask what many have been wondering. Did her father have anything to do with that? After all, her father’s group owns Penguin India, though by all reports he is not a hands-on owner. “I hope not,” she says, offended. “I’ve had 12 years of amazing professional experience and done f***ing well. It was a good job offer. I took it.”

One expects she will quickly add her commissioning eye, marketing savvy and unwillingness to suffer fools to improve Penguin’s already formidable position. She took RHI, she says, to Rs 30-33 crore turnover, tied with HarperCollins for second position in India; but Penguin’s turnover is three times that and its market position unassailable.

There’s no time for dessert or coffee; her next meeting is half an hour away. We split the bill, because Lah! doesn’t take credit cards, and climb carefully down to ground level, where her white kurti and capris are blinding in the sun. She climbs an auto – the driver makes no difficulty – and is off.

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