Society

Journey with the written word

Ashok Chopra. Photo: V. Sudershan

Ashok Chopra. Photo: V. Sudershan   | Photo Credit: V_Sudershan

Ashok Chopra’s close association with publishing industry is thoroughly reflected in his latest book

Last April seasoned publisher Ashok Chopra went to Dilip Kumar’s residence in Mumbai with a copy of his biography. There was his wife Saira Banu, there was Baby Naaz. Yousuf Sahab was in the middle of his siesta. His wife woke him up. The ageless star, still on his bed, was thrilled to see Chopra. He took his hand, placed it on his heart, kissed him and said, “I love it when you come. You must come more often.” It was a compliment well deserved for Chopra had waited for 24 years for this manuscript.

His feelings took Chopra 40 years back in time when he met Begum Akhtar at the residence of Uma Vasudev in New Delhi. One evening after a dinner meeting, she placed her hand on Vasudev’s cheek, pleading with her to work out her differences with her husband L.K. Malhotra and even touched her feet though she was about 15 years older to Vasudev. Incidentally, recalls Chopra, Begum Akhtar was born Akhtari Bai Faizabadi who fell in love with a barrister in Lucknow. He reciprocated her feelings but put one condition for wedding: she won’t sing anymore. So Begum Akhtar instead of checking her music notes got busy with entertaining her guests with her culinary skills. She became a housewife. But this separation from music started affecting her health. “Dua aur dawa kuchh na kaam aayi. Somebody suggested music. LK asked her to come to All India Radio in Lucknow and asked her to sing but promised not to record it. He later told her music alone would help her heal. Her husband agreed and gave her permission to sing only for AIR.”

These and other such instances dot Chopra’s “A Scrapbook of Memories”, a book he says is not quite an autobiography. Sitting at Le Meridien in New Delhi he says, “It is not a memoir. It is my journey with and through the written word.” Chopra is a much lauded publisher who has published Khushwant Singh for over 30 years besides the likes of Dominique Lapierre, Shobha De, Dom Moraes, MF Husain, Satish Gujral, Raj Kumar, Anupam Kher, Kiran Bedi and others. So a book from the eyes of the publisher makes complete sense. “There is not a single book on how a publisher sources a manuscript, how you hire an academic. In India we do not have literary agents either. It is an insider’s account of the publishing world. I have not hidden any titles, some of which were not finally used too. There are facts you would not know. Read my book and you would like buying it,” he says, before reproducing words from the jacket of his book, “A good book is like good sex: It should drain you emotionally and physically –– something you can go back to again and again. And still enjoy it.”

Talking of going back to the book again and again, Chopra has been doing it constantly and he has kept a count too. “It has taken me two years and 11 months for the book to be published.”

That is not a little time in a country where youngsters are used to finishing a Chetan Bhagat or Ravinder Singh over the weekend. “As long as people read, it is fine with me. You can read whichever author you want. Let’s face it, before Chetan Bhagat came on the scene, people did not know of sales of a million copies and the like.” As for his book, he is straightforward. “The book is entertaining. It is also educating. It is also informative.” Incidentally, the book was initially 1200 pages long and included chapters on the likes of Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Sardar Jafri. Then the cruel compulsions of space meant that one by one, all these names and incidents related to them were edited out.

All these years that he has spent as an executive editor with Vikas Publishing House, vice-president Macmillan India, publishing director UBS Publishers and later as chief executive and publisher of HarperCollins Publishers India before becoming the chief executive of Hay House Publishers, have given Chopra a microscopic eye for detail. And an ability to know just where to cut things out. It reflects in his written as well as spoken word. “Poetry and short stories do not sell. It is said everybody writes poetry, only some people buy poetry, nobody reads poetry.” On a more serious note, he is optimistic about the future of books in the country where people are not known to read too many books.

“The number of book shops is going down but online sales are going up. So many people say, ‘I love the feel of the book in my hand’. But Kindle is the future. Instead of a hundred books on the shelf, you can have two hundreds on your ipod…Remember India has never been a nation of book lovers.”

So, it becomes all the more important to promote a book. Yet, Chopra is against book launches. “Book launches are supposed to boost ego and sales. But I do not think any book launch over cocktail has ever resulted in the sale of even a hundred copies. For 40 years that I have been in the industry, I have never had a book launch yet I have published some of the best names in the industry. I published 37 books of Khushwant Singh. I published Fali Nariman, Tarun Tejpal and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I can do book reading or discussion but not a launch over dinner and cocktails. I firmly believe a book does not sell with such a launch. The word of the mouth always helps.” And what about book reviews? “I do not know how reviews help sales but yes, good reviews do help. The controversial ones help more. Also, distribution is the key to success. Book distribution is a complex system with dealings with retailers, shopkeepers, distributors, etc. Discounts play an important role.”

“A Scrapbook of Memories” is out. What’s next? A book in August. Then a novel. Then….Well there is plenty to look forward to from Ashok Chopra. The memory bank is getting richer.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 2:53:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/ashok-chopras-a-scrapbook-of-memories/article6882844.ece

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