Udayan Mitra is a busy man. In January, he acquired acquired the worldwide rights for an authorised biography of Ratan Tata authored by former bureaucrat Thomas Mathew. The same month, another book he worked on — The Book of Dog, with 45 essays from various contributors on their relationship dogs, compiled and edited by Hemali Sodhi — became a much-talked about title for weeks in the lead-up to its release. He now has Amitava Kumar’s The Blue Book: A Writer's Journal, an account that reveals in short passages how “an author's mind reacts and responds to the world around us”, coming out this month.
“I have always looked for that thrill in every manuscript that comes my way, and I’m so thankful to have found it again and again,” Mitra, who will complete 25 years in publishing this year, says.
Like the rest of us, he and his team also inevitably dealt with the disruptions to workflow that the pandemic had caused. They’d lost access to their office space, affecting the way the team collaborated.
But he is optimistic, even excited, about what publishing has in store for 2022. He looks forward to going back to office on Monday — especially also because he and his team will be returning to HarperCollins India’s new office space, in Gurguram. The team briefly got acquainted to it, but the swift sweep of Omicron over the last couple months had sent them all back to WFH.
“The brief was simple,” says Mitra, when asked about the design-think that informed their new space. “Publishing is a unifying and highly collaborative process, across every step of making a book, and we wanted a space that enabled that between teams.”
Going forward, they plan to adopt a hybrid model of work, splitting their time through the week between home and office. Mitra speaks to Lounge on how this will influence his relationship with his work, and on the excitement of putting new books together in the new office space. Edited excerpts.
Describe your new workspace to us.
We moved into a new office space very recently, in November. It is a modern office, full of natural light, and with a lot of bookshelves, of course. It is also a space designed for better interaction between teams. While we do have workstations, more than half the office space is for collaborative meetings. We've removed all desk phones, encouraging people to walk across and talk to each other. There is no designated seating – so every desk is a ‘hot desk’. It is also an office where we will have a lot of authors coming in, so we wanted to create a space where they can put in a day's work if they would like to. We worked with Gaurav Chauhan of Unified Workforce, who got what we wanted bang on.
Many of us need our work space to be our own — with personalised knick-knacks or necessities surrounding us. Or we gravitate to one corner, out of habit. How has this played out in the new office?
I don’t think we were thinking of ‘imagine no possessions’ when we were designing the office, but yes, there just can’t be any sense of ownership of the workstations. Conceptually, every day there’s the option of possibly choosing a new place to sit. People did identify places that they’d like to sit in, though — and quite soon! Just as we did as kids in a classroom. We’ve also had (teams) choosing to sit together. But I think that having completely bare desks — no phones, no pullout drawers — is clutter-breaking and makes you think afresh every day. You can have your knick-knacks of course, but you need take them back with you at the end of the day. I feel this also provides a firm sense of closure at the end of the work day.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
It’s a bit too soon for too many eureka moments in the new office – but in November, we had a lovely moment on the day Remo Fernandes’ autobiography was published. There was music and cake, and Remo joined us virtually from Goa, where we’d got cake delivered for him. We reached a slice out towards the Zoom screen as if feeding him, and he pretended to take a bite from us, bringing his physical slice to his mouth just in time – talk about virtual reality!
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
A cottage in the hills, far away from anything, or a desolate cottage by the sea. But that’s more of a pipe dream in terms of a personal workspace, I don’t think the logistics would work out for an office space!
What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years?
A calendar that I got from the MoMA in New York ages ago. I set the date every morning – takes a bit of doing (if it’s before I’ve had my coffee), because there are six numbers to each cube of course – you have to work out the right combination in order to work out the date! Before Wordle came along, this was a nice way to kickstart my brain in the morning! And, you know, it reinforces that thing about every day being a brand new day.
What was your first memorable read/discovery as an editor? What about that moment or the manuscript stuck with you and why?
I joined publishing as a copy editor. I had done a PhD in English literature and dabbled in filmmaking; I knew next to nothing about publishing, except that I liked to read, and to edit things. The first manuscripts my boss put on my desk, saying ‘these are yours to take through’, were RK Laxman’s autobiography The Tunnel of Time, O.V. Vijayan's Selected Fiction (an omnibus), and Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence. I will be grateful forever to the editor-in-chief for entrusting these to a newbie. I was struck immediately by how varied the books were, how different, yet strong each of their storytelling was.
Writing and editing are usually solitary pursuits. How did WFH help (or not) your editing process?
Yes both writing and editing (and reading for that matter) are solitary pursuits in part, where you’re engaging with the text all by yourself; but they are also in part collaborative endeavours aren’t they — where a writer discusses his/her work with first readers, an agent, a publisher; an editor with the author of course, and with others in the publishing company; a reader with other readers…
I think for me, WFH enabled both the solitary and collaborative aspects of my job. I was in the comfort of my home, at my familiar desk, working at any and all odd hours; and when I needed to reach out to others, they were just a phone call or virtual meeting away.
What was it like to transition back, albeit briefly in November, to office and working in physical proximity with colleagues?
It was absolutely great to see colleagues after a very long time – it was almost like a reunion. The new office space reinforced a sense of community – we had all been working in isolation for so long.
What are your thoughts on hybrid work? Is a sense of routine and discipline of coming back to a specific work corner to writer, edit, create not as important as traditionally thought?
I think a hybrid work model can actually help. You’ll plan a day in office differently from a day when you’re working from home; you can set up a to-do list and meetings accordingly. There’s much more flexibility this way than if one has to go into an office five days a week (this rings true for me personally, since my commute to our previous workplace in Noida was two hours each way, every day!). It also takes away the predictability quotient from our workdays — and if there’s one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that our future is not going to be predictable anymore!
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.