Gitanjali J. B. is a lot of different things — an MBA and a science graduate, an Odissi dancer and a ballerina (who trains in Russia for a month every year), a wife and a mother, and a karate black belt as well. But there's one goal she'd set for herself a long time ago that she didn't achieve until recently — to become a publisher and bring out the sort of books she wanted to read but didn't find in bookstores.
That's how Helios Books, Chennai's newest independent publishing house, came into existence, last year. Its maiden publication, “The Wind and the Rain”, an evocative period novel set in God's Own Country, and written by the late George K. Mathew, former head, Department of English, Madras Christian College, was recently launched before a packed audience by the Madras Book Club. But bringing out quality English literary fiction is just one of Gitanjali's ambitions for Helios.
“Our vision is also to rediscover the forgotten values of Indian culture in a modern context,” she says. “What do we know of the Vedas and the Upanishads and their relevance to our world today?”
Gitanjali, as you might have gathered by now, is not one to do things in half measures. So not only does she have in-house researchers — fully funded by Helios — working on this vast project (“we're planning to bring out 40 volumes on Vedic symbolism”), she's also enrolled in a PhD programme to learn more herself.
No armchair publisher
“I didn't want to be an armchair publisher — I needed to understand the Vedas and the Upanishads myself,” she explains. “So I've enrolled for a PhD at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Advanced Research, studying the concept of immortality in various traditions in the world.”
This love of literature, publishing and Indology comes, she says, from her “106-year-old best friend” K.D. Sethna (also known as ‘Amal Kiran', as he was named by Sri Aurobindo), the poet, publisher, philosopher and author of more than 45 books.
“I would spend entire days with him in Pondicherry as a teen, reading everything from Shakespeare to Shelley,” Gitanjali recalls. “Years later, as a final-year college student, I went in search of his book ‘Light and Laughter' and couldn't find it anywhere. I vowed then that one of the hundreds of things I'd do is start a publishing house and make sure it's never out of print again!”
That dream was put on the backburner as she finished her MBA, worked in a multi-national company for years, and later with her husband in their family business of setting up power plants. “When the company grew to the point when we could hire directors to handle the workload, my husband asked me — ‘ is this what you want to keep doing?'” she says.
Three months of self-reflection later, she had her answer. “Helios is not about the numbers or about making ends meet,” she says. “I can afford to take on a project that adds beauty to the world, even if I sell just 500 copies. If a book we publish touches even one person, I would consider it successful.”