Chennai will miss K.S. Padmanabhan, the man behind East-West Publishing, the Indian Review of Books and the Madras Book Club.
K.S. Padmanabhan, who helmed a movement of sorts from the South and put Chennai on the literary map of the country, died at age 77 on July 13. Litterateurs and lovers of books from all over the country have been paying rich tributes to the man. “Sad to hear of the passing of a pillar of the Indian book world, KS Padmanabhan. A wonderful man and true book lover,” wrote Amitav Ghosh on his personal Twitter page.
In Chennai, his loss is felt more keenly, for Padmanabhan also started the Madras Book Club that continues to bring the best of writers from across the country to meet readers. Besides setting up East-West, a publishing house (now Westland), he was also the man behind the journal Indian Review of Books. Historian S. Muthiah, who worked with Padmanabhan in the founding and running of both Madras Book Club and Indian Review of Books, says, “He made writers out of several people when he introduced general publishing and, in a sense, he revived that genre.”
Padmanabhan was also best known for never getting in the way of writers once a book was finalised. “When I was writing Madras Discovered, he never interfered while I prepared the manuscript. He trusted me and said, ‘You do your work’. There are so few people in the publishing industry like that.” Calling him ‘kindness personified’, Muthiah recalls how he was always gentle and smiling, even when the firm was going through a rough patch. “Not many people know that he was a great fan of Carnatic music. In fact, during the December season, he would take a break from books and enjoy the music,” Muthiah adds.
Chennai-based V. Sriram, who writes on Carnatic music and the city’s history, continues, “He knew a lot about music.” In fact, after hearing Sriram’s talk on Carnatic music, Padmanabhan told him that he should write a book. “He was very important to me because he made me write a book. He was completely unobtrusive as I prepared to write about the lives of musicians. He even gifted me a book on Hindustani musicians so I could use it as a starting point. I wrote the book the way I wanted and he never asked any questions.”
At a time when aggressive sales are the order of the day, Padmanabhan maintained a graceful approach to the world of books. “Just when I was supposed to complete the book, I had to travel on work to the Middle East. When I wrote to him apologetically, he was unperturbed. He simply said, ‘What’s the rush anyway?’ Here was a man at peace with himself.”
Padmanabhan demonstrated his love for the written word by reading a lot, across genres. “He would read everything from biography to sports writing to fiction,” remembers Sriram. And if he felt it was good, he would give it to us and encourage us to read. He introduced a lot of us to many different books. When he retired, he wanted to just sit and read but it’s a pity he didn’t get enough time to do that because of his health problems. Even then I am sure he read more than many of us will ever.”
“He was way ahead of his time,” says Ranvir Shah, founder of Prakriti Foundation. “He did his work with generosity; with the ability to give freedom, without being judgemental. He believed in the world of words.” Ranvir worked closely with the Madras Book Club to organise several book launches. “Once he figured out that we could organise a book launch well, he never asked us any questions. His is an enduring legacy from which we must all learn. And carry the torch forward.”
“He was a transparent man with no hidden agendas,” says cinema writer and wildlife conservationist Thedore Bhaskaran. “He published my book The Eye of the Serpent, which won the President’s award, Swarna Kamal (Golden Lotus), and we travelled to Delhi together to receive the award.” Like others, Theodore too recalls the lunches he has had with the Padmanabhans. “He invited me home and when I explained what I had in mind, he understood me perfectly. He had a lot of friends. I am glad I was one of them.”