A pioneer in publishing low-cost books and dictionaries that were sold for Rs. 2, Lifco has been a part of most Chennai homes. Anusha Parthasrathy on its journey that began in 1929
Born into an orthodox Vaishnavite family in Manjakuppam near Cuddalore, V. Krishnaswamy Sarma, a first generation entrepreneur, moved to erstwhile Madras to begin a small publishing firm. He wanted books to reach remote corners of the state and travelled to these places on a cycle to see what they needed. He went to his mentor and school Principal, Reverend Verdure, who gave his enterprise the name Little Flower Company or Lifco and the business was launched in 1929.
Three generations later, T.N.C Vijaysarathy is now at the helm of this family business and is looking at reviving some of its characteristic publications. “My grandfather used to work with Defence Accounts and then became an entrepreneur. His vision was to spread education through publishing,” he says. “He introduced the English-English-Tamil dictionary to cater to the underprivileged and those who wanted to learn English.”
Published first in 1950, the dictionary was sold at Rs.2 and became an instant hit. It now costs Rs.80. And this was published keeping in mind that not everyone could afford an Oxford or Macmillan dictionary in those days. With the dictionaries, which Lifco pioneered, they set a benchmark for future competitors. “In this city, every home has a Lifco dictionary,” says Vijay. The English-English-Telugu and Tamil-Tamil-English dictionaries were added later.
Lifco’s main policy was and still is to make information accessible to everyone. “The focus was to get into the minds of people by publishing low-cost books,” he says, “Our Great Little Books (on grammar, speaking, communication and more) used to cost 1 anna and even now are priced only Rs.4. These books continue to be very popular among school students as they are pocket-sized handy books.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the publishing house expanded to include guidebooks for higher secondary and college syllabi, grammar and composition books. Religious books entered the picture simultaneously. “We published a translation of Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa in 1949 and Srinivasa Ayyangar’s Valmiki Ramayana in 1964.” In 1971, Sarma’s wife published a How to cook book, which became a great gift option in those days. “Every bride would get at least one copy of the book and sometimes even more,” laughs Vijay.
The first edition
The first edition of the Ramayana ran into several volumes and was sold along with a carved wooden box to preserve the books, a chikku palagai (book holder) and a picture of Rama printed on an aluminium plate. In the 1990s, Lifco began to publish English translations as well and the book is now available in two volumes in English and Tamil.
There were other books such as the Sakala Kaariyam Sithiyam which has answers to every possible problem, taken from the Ramayana, the Bhagvad Gita, Sundara Kandam, Vratha Pooja Vidharam (which gave information on 36 poojas that one can perform) and Kalidasa’s Kumarasambavam (1968). “We have published about 250 titles so far and are known for our books on the epics and religion too,” says Vijay.
Among Lifco’s popular English editions were the ones on idioms and phrases, Lifco’s Big Letter Writer (which came in two volumes and is no longer in print). “There were letters for official and personal purposes. A reader who recently purchased it in a second-hand book shop wrote to us saying it’s useful and that we must publish it again. But the English that was in vogue then and now is different and moreover the way we write letters have changed,” he adds.
While Vijaysarathy plans to bring back some of the old titles, he admits that it might be tough. “My grandfather’s friends who wrote a lot of those books were scholars. I am unable to find people to replicate their work,” he says. “My grandfather and the writers he worked with simplified subjects so that it reached people from all walks of life.”
Lifco is looking at bringing back letter writing in a contemporary format and some titles of religious books with a CD to help with pronunciation. “We’re also thinking of publishing an English book with a CD on pronunciation for those in smaller towns or rural areas. We are working on a lot of other projects because every time I meet someone they tell me that Lifco has been a part of their life in some form and it’s a matter of pride that we’re here today,” he smiles.