Bishwanath Ghosh meets K.S. Padmanabhan, who retired last week after a long career in publishing — his company being one of the oldest in the South to bring out literary works in English

How does one introduce K.S. Padmanabhan, considering the variety of hats he has donned? He has worked at a bookshop; run a bookshop; owned a publishing house; been a distributor for other publishers; started the Madras Book Club; and brought out the Indian Review of Books, a highly respected journal, which ran for a decade.

It would be safest — and perhaps most appropriate — to call Padmanabhan, who is now 75, Chennai's own Book Man. Last week, at the Woodlands Hotel in the city, he was given a warm send-off by the staff of the company whose seeds he had planted half-a-century ago and which today stands tall as one of India's top publishing houses — Westland. Even though he had sold the company to the Tata group in 2006, he had been playing the father-figure in the capacity of a consulting editor. But on June 30, he formally retired.

“This is just my first week in retirement,” says Padmanabhan, when asked how it felt to be leading a retired life, “I hope Gautam (his son, who is the CEO of Westland) will still give me manuscripts to look at. I will be reading more books, and I will be spending more time with my grandchild.”

Fortunately for Padmanabhan, he has had company while retiring. His wife Chandra, who has been his partner in the book business ever since they got married in 1965, retired along with him. But while the mild-mannered Padmanabhan is looking forward to play with his grandchild, the indomitable Chandra, who is an award-winning food writer, says it is going to be life as usual for her. “I am going to write more cookbooks,” says Chandra, 68, who has already authored three.

Today, to those who are unaware about their backgrounds, Padmanabhan and Chandra will come across as the gracious couple next-door, who are rooted to Chennai. But Chandra is Calcutta-bred whereas Padmanabhan grew up in Bangalore, went to college in Bombay, worked for a while in Calcutta and launched his career in publishing in Delhi.

It was in 1975 — he was nearly 40 then — that they shifted to Madras.

“Immediately after I passed out of college in 1957, I was offered a job in a bookshop called the International Book House, which was run by an American living in Bombay. I learned far more about the business of books during the two years that I worked there than I could in the rest of my life,” says Padmanabhan. Among the people he remembers attending to at the shop include Rev. Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta and actors Ashok Kumar, Bharat Bhushan and Shashi Kapoor.

He quit the job when his father, a former Army officer who had been just transferred from Bombay to Calcutta, suffered a heart attack. Padmanabhan wanted to be with his father. In the meantime, the American owner of the bookstore, Dallas Tembroeck, sold the shop and returned to his country. In Calcutta, Padmanabhan found a job with an automobile company. But that was meant to last only for 18 months.

“In 1961, the U.S. government started the Indo-American Textbook Programme, under which reprinting of American textbooks in India was to be subsidised. As a result D Van Nostrand, a large company that publishes scientific and technical textbooks, wanted to set up an Indian arm. They approached Dallas, who was by now eager to return to India, to start a company in Delhi. He in turn asked me if I would like to join him. And so we started the Affiliated East West Press in 1961,” recalls Padmanabhan.

In 1970, Dallas' wife was diagnosed with cancer and he returned to the U.S. for her treatment, transferring the shares of the company to Padmanabhan and his colleague, Kamal Malik. Chandra too came on board as a director. “By then the U.S. funding was coming to an end, and we realised that just publishing books will not be enough. We got into distribution, which gave us the turnover necessary to carry out publishing,” says Padmanabhan.

Action-packed years

In 1974, he happened to visit Madras and liked the city so much that he thought: why not have a branch in South India? He relocated to the city, where the next two decades were to be action-packed for the Padmanabhans. They diversified into distribution of general books as well; and started a bookshop in Teynampet called Manas. The venture, even though unsuccessful, established their association with Rupa & Co. which made them their exclusive distributors in the South. The arrangement, which lasted till 2001, was a big boost to their business, encouraging them to start publication of literary works under an imprint called Manas. The Manas imprint included first translations of Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia and Mahesh Dattani's first collection of plays. In the late Eighties, they started the Madras Book Club; and in 1991 the Indian Review of Books, with S. Muthiah as its editor (in the archives one can see the review of a Harold Robbins novel by Muthiah). It was Padmanabhan who published Muthiah's definitive book Madras Discovered (since then being reprinted as Madras Rediscovered) in 1981.

In the mid-nineties, Padmanabhan finally formed his own company, East West Books (Madras) , and got into a 50-50 partnership with Landmark, the chain of bookstores, to form a new distribution company, Westland. “But Westland did not have its own infrastructure; it was relying on East West. So when the Tatas bought over Landmark and Westland in 2005, they decided to buy East West too,” says Padmanabhan.

Today, he is rather pleased that the company he started is in the safe hands of India's best known corporate house. He is now reconciling to other changes in his life; and it is not just retirement. Recently, when he was confined to bed for a couple of months due to illness, he read books on the Kindle device that his son gave him. And he was quite thrilled with the experience, considering he has spent most of his life smelling fresh ink on paper.

“The mode of transmission {of books} may change, but the publisher will always remain in business,” smiles the Book Man.