Imiss it twice but take one more round of the block in Delhi’s Daryaganj, wandering again into a by-lane filled with tikka and kebab shops that opens into a sludgy back lane. Surely, the office of one of the biggest Hindi language publishing houses in India, one whose writer won the International Booker Prize no less, should announce its presence with some fanfare? Apparently not.
To rescue me, someone from Rajkamal Prakashan descends from a little opening between a row of narrow buildings and waves me up a cramped staircase. As we reach the landing, a stream of white light behind a glass sliding door illuminates the many stickers and posters on it. One clearly stands out: a flyer of the 2022 International Booker Prize win for Geetanjali Shree, the 65-year-old Hindi writer. Rajkamal Prakashan first published Shree’s Ret Samadhi, translated into English as Tomb Of Sand by Daisy Rockwell, in 2018.
This is the only giveaway to Rajkamal Prakashan’s role in making history. The win opened up a new world for Indian language book publishing. Having coincided with the beginnings of a more mainstream market for translations within the Indian English publishing landscape, the award also became a moment for the Indian language publishing industry to see itself and its work a little differently.
But Rajkamal Prakashan, the Hindi language publishing house that is celebrating its 75th year of operations this year, and whose journey runs almost parallel with the journey of independent India, shows off its part in this global achievement in the only way most Indian families would show off their children’s laurels: in an almost overlooked yet “no-of course-we-remember!” kind of way, important mementos endearingly jostling for space with smaller wins and everyday things.
It feels almost on-brand. The office of Ashok Maheshwari, the Rajkamal Prakashan group’s chairman and managing director, is not through the main sliding door, which opens up to a bookshelf-filled, low-ceiling reception. In a tiny room at one corner of the landing, he sits behind a standard office desk, with rimless glasses and in a crisp beige shirt.
Maheshwari has been at the helm of Rajkamal Prakashan for 29 years. Having recently launched their multi-city literary festival, Kitab Utsav, to promote their rich Hindi and Urdu catalogue and writers, and to engage with literature in the cities they visit, he recalls that the possibilities seemed endless when he took over the reins as a 36-year-old in 1994.
“It was like a dream come true,” he says. In 1963, when Maheshwari’s father, a teacher named Premchand Mahesh, started Vani Prakashan, his own publishing house, Rajkamal Prakashan had already been running for about 15 years: “At that time, we used to view Rajkamal as our competitor, no one else—they had all the big writers like Nirmal Verma, Krishna Sobti, Bhisham Sahni,” Maheshwari says.
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Vani Prakashan hoped to serve the cause of Hindi, says Maheshwari, reminiscing about how his parents would spend the two-month summer break from their teaching jobs to travel around south India and promote Hindi. In fact, Vani Prakashan initially focused on “publishing non-Hindi-speaking Hindi writers…so that they would be encouraged to write more in Hindi, so that they could get their kids to learn Hindi,” Maheshwari explains. His father died young but his mother and uncle kept the business afloat.
Some years later, his brother Arun was given full responsibility of Vani Prakashan; and after his master’s in Hindi literature from Rohilkhand University in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Maheshwari began to chart his own course in Hindi publishing, working with Lokbharti Prakashan (acquired by Rajkamal in 2005) and then Radhakrishna Prakashan (acquired in 1988).
By this time, Rajkamal Prakashan had changed hands from its original founders, Om Prakash and Devraj, the brothers from Punjab who started it on 19 February 1947. Sheela Sandhu, a fierce lady, full of ideas, took charge in 1964 and built up their literary catalogue, moving away from their earlier focus on academic titles—the establishment of organisations like the National Council of Educational Research and Training made it harder for private players to compete in this segment. For 30 years, Sandhu worked on making Rajkamal Prakashan one of the most well-regarded publishers of Hindi literature.
“It wasn’t easy when I took over,” Maheshwari says, recalling the day, 4 October 1994, when he joined Rajkamal Prakashan as its managing director, going on to become the group’s chairman in 1996. The change of guard was big news. But the literary stars and stalwarts Sandhu had brought on board were not sure if the young Maheshwari could lead such a big and respected publishing house. He too was in awe of a few big names: “Some of them even complained to Sheelaji and wondered if she was sure I was the right one to pass on this legacy to,” he recalls.
Slowly, however, Maheshwari won them over. He began by ironing out issues with sales, finding more agents and increasing the number of market visits to have a finger on the pulse. He also established direct relationships with universities, colleges and libraries, to whom they could sell books in bulk. For marketing, he began regular book launches, author felicitations and similar programming, then still relatively new to Hindi publishing. This included, for example, a big function to mark Nirmal Verma’s Jnanpith Award in 1999. “Once we streamlined our practices, and when writers started seeing that we were working hard, they were reassured and satisfied,” he adds.
Headquartered in Delhi, with branches in Patna and Prayagraj (UP), the Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh, with eight publishing houses, currently employs 150 people. Maheshwari says the Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh acquires 300 new titles every year and prints about a million copies of all its books, including those in the backlist. In 2012, Maheswhari’s son Alind, a graduate of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, joined the group, starting their foray into e-books and e-commerce. He now heads their digital marketing and copyright divisions.
Rajkamal has built up a redoubtable list of 2,500 authors. “We have five-six generations of authors currently associated with us,” he says in Hindi. From a 92-year-old Vishwanath Tripathi to a 29-year-old Parwati Tirkey, Maheshwari rattles off at least 15 names, including Anamika, Vandana Rag, Mandeep Punia and Anuradha Beniwal. It’s an exciting time to be a Hindi reader.
In recent times, however, Rajkamal has come under fire for not being as responsible towards its authors as it should be. While the International Booker win for Geetanjali Shree catapulted sales of her Hindi original (over 35,000 copies in the week of the announcement), many writers and translators believe Ret Samadhi’s translation into French and English, and the subsequent recognition, happened despite the system. Around the same time, a video of the noted Hindi writer Vinod Kumar Shukla claiming Rajkamal and Vani Prakashan had paid him peanuts by way of royalties over the years, had also gone viral.
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In news reports, Maheshwari’s response was perfunctory. But he gushes about Rajkamal’s legacy: “There isn’t a writer in Hindi who has not been published by Rajkamal...whether it is Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Bhagwati Charan Verma, Sumit Nandan Pant, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Geetanjali Shree, Abdul Bismillah or Akhilesh. If I also consider the work of Radhakrishna Prakashan, we have translated big writers from other Indian languages into Hindi.” This includes Kannada writers such as U.R. Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad and Shivarama Karanth. In 2021, they published a translation into Hindi of Dayanadi, an Odia work by Gayatribala Panda; its original went on to win a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2022. “This has happened with international authors who have won the Nobel too,” notes Maheshwari—he mentions Olga Tokarczuk and Alice Munro. Their editorial leadership, under editorial director Satyanand Nirupam, wants to introduce good literature to Hindi audiences, he suggests.
This is important when considering the criticism about Rajkamal’s lack of role in Ret Samadhi’s journey to the International Booker. Some observers argue that pushing for translations of their lists need not be a publisher’s priority. However, Maheshwari’s life in publishing, including his father’s impulse of “seva” for Hindi literature, and his own work at Radhakrishna Prakshan, which focused on translating books of other Indian languages into Hindi, should have ideally ensured Rajkamal proactively pushed Hindi writers and their stories to a wider, non-Hindi reading audience.
The bigger problem, says Maheshwari, is that while there is a fair amount of work in translating from other languages into Hindi, there is a gap in taking Hindi literature into other languages. It is clear that his father’s initial approach of campaigning for Hindi through individuals or by tapping into the networks of organisations like the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha, will not work any more. Maheshwari insists, however, that the solution is simple: A clear road map to systematise and professionalise translation from Hindi into other languages; “this would facilitate familiarisation, and any opposition would fizzle out”.
This is the vision that fills him with energy for the next 25 years, when Rajkamal Prakashan will turn 100. “Ye kayi dinon se mere mann me hai (this has been on my mind for a while now),” he says. “More translations…will of course help business but it will also do good for national integration. Aur ye desh ke boudhik vikas ke liye bhi accha hoga (this will help the intellectual growth of our country too).”
Over a cup of chai and a plate of til gazak, Maheshwari offers a belief in simple solutions and a low-key approach as the secret to longevity in business. The ceilings at the Daryaganj office may be low but Rajkamal Prakashan’s ideals and ambitions seem nothing less than sky high.