Be it books or biryani, David Davidar looks for authenticity and bite

How do you get an author-editor-publisher to stop talking about books? Not easy on the easiest of days, the exercise is even more difficult when one is talking to a man whose very new publishing house is beginning to carve out its own niche. A bit of gloating is due and deserved. But then there is a reminder playing in my mind: I am here at Hyatt’s Café for lunch with David Davidar, the man who is trying to steer Aleph Book Company into a segment very much its own. David might be all about books but the column is more about food.

Initially, he gives me the impression of being a man in a hurry. But once he settles down to talk of his love – publishing books – he smiles generously, chooses words carefully, showing as much skill in leaving out certain names and descriptions as in selecting others. A few minutes into our conversation across a table overlooking a pool, I find David ordering a club sandwich for himself. To that he adds watermelon juice. I opt for French fries and fish tikkas. But all along, David only talks of books. However, he polishes off his club sandwich without much ado that enables me to ask, “What prevented him from trying out something more sumptuous, maybe something that would help carry on a chat?” “No, it is a working lunch and I have to head back to office,” he says, then adds helpfully, “I can eat practically anything. I am a carnivore. I have eaten a crocodile. I have eaten a kangaroo….” He is certainly not boasting of his exploits, merely stating that adaptability, not choice, governs his food matters.

As a publisher he is keen to bring out a food book that is readable, comprehensible and maybe, even “memorable”. “We do not have very many good books on food. What we do have in India are cookery books. We need a good food book.” “ASAP,” I add. “Indeed,” he nods in agreement, then gives a smile that tells me he is revealing only a little, concealing much more.

But hasn’t that been the case with David, ever since he started publishing books, way back in 1987? “I have brought out a thousand titles,” he states, this time his tone is a little more matter of fact. Pride, that wonderful expression of accomplishment, droops out of his eyes. Among all the authors, lit fests and the like, where does food find space in his scheme of things? “Oh! It very much does,” he says. For proof, we order another club sandwich, which he agrees to have in part following some cajoling. “I love Japanese food; absolutely love sushi. I am looking forward to a time when there will be a sushi restaurant in every corner of the city.” Like one finds chicken tikka and chowmein, one adds. And David gives one of his generous smiles, his mind envisaging the good times.

Yet for this food lover, food is an item best cooked by others. “I can only boil an egg!” Then he decides, it indeed is the right time to share some of the best kept secrets. That he is publishing Ruskin Bond, Ramachandra Guha, Valmik Thapar is probably an ill kept secret. What is not, is David’s fondness for cakes. And biryani. And Malabar cuisine. And that from Hyderabad. Also Lucknow. Mouthful? Well, his food preferences are, to put it succinctly, varied. “I love biryani, be it Hyderabadi, Lucknowi or even that from Chennai. Each has its own distinct aroma, unique method of preparation. I love Malabar cuisine.”

Distinct and unique as that love is, it is second to David’s love for books. Now that calls for another rendezvous. Maybe next time in a bookshop!