The ‘zamindar’ who turned book hawker

He lost his land and money over a bottle of wine, and then founded a publishing house that continues to thrive

Photo: Jayachandran/Mint
Photo: Jayachandran/Mint

In the previous century, there were few households in Bengal which did not possess a copy of the Student’s Favourite Dictionary, blazoned with the name of A.T. Dev or Ashutosh Dev, founder of the venerable publishing house of Dev Sahitya Kutir (DSK) in 1928. Easily the most prolific publisher of children’s books in this part of the world, DSK’s flagship was nevertheless its brick-thick but remarkably light dictionary, not just containing the English-Bengali lexicon but a series of appendices. From them I learnt the Greek alphabet, cricket field-placements as well as Latin tags that probably went out of use at the time of the silent movies. On the plus side, you knew exactly what Jeeves meant when he said rem acu tetigisti with patrician hauteur.

Our household copy of A.T. Dev, which came in red board binding with black lettering, has long gone the way of all pulp. The edition that currently features on DSK’s website is in a somewhat more sporty red and white and proclaims itself, with no sense of false modesty, as the “foremost dictionary of current English to Bengali. Thoroughly revised, illustrated and expanded. 40,000 entries. Over 3,000 new in this edition”. The latest edition available currently from online portals, on the other hand, comes in the Trinamool colours of blue and white, and boasts of an entry count of 42,000.

But who was A.T. Dev? The company website informs us that the business could be traced back five generations, to one Suvaram Dev Pandua who was conferred with the title Majumder for his “exceptional service”. He was followed by his son Barada Prasad, who came to Calcutta in 1860 and fell into “hard times”. But what was the nature of the hard times? In a remarkably forthright family history published as a book, we are informed that Barada Prasad presided over a flourishing zamindari and like many of his ilk, was excessively fond of the bottle. In the course of a night’s carouse, Barada Prasad discovered that he had run out of money and promised to make over his zamindari to anyone who could lend him a gold coin. One of his hangers-on duly obliged, more wine was bought and the party went on.

In the sober light of day, Barada Prasad discovered what he had done. But he was a man of his word. He made over his property to his bemused friend and contemplated a completely new life. This is how he came to be in Calcutta and fetched up near Battala, that area to the north of the city which has given its name to the book trade that flourishes there to this day. With his meagre savings, he became a hawker of books. At this time, there were very few bookshops as we know them today. Itinerant salesmen carried books on their head and Barada Prasad joined their company in the early 1860s. He may well have been the man referred to by The Church Of England Magazine in 1860: “One man in Calcutta realises more than 100 rupees monthly by this employment.”

Soon Barada Prasad had saved enough money to set up a small press of his own. From the late 1860s, we find the name of one B.P.M.’s Press beginning to show up in the quarterly list of publications issued by The Calcutta Gazette. Though the first titles were a bit of a mixed bag (e.g. Ramani Ratna: “a slight novel representing a curious couple”), the press soon found its métier in the field of educational notebooks, such as Subodhini, a two-part seven-anna “key” to the Sanskrit Rijupath.

Barada Prasad’s third son Ashutosh inherited his father’s business, and conceived of the dictionary which bears his name to this day. Then in 1924, he was able to buy the rights of a large number of Ishwarchandra Bidyasagar’s textbooks, and shortly afterwards set up the firm known as Dev Sahitya Kutir, dropping the title Majumder in the process. This firm was named after his son, but following his untimely death, Ashutosh continued to develop the firm’s list in the field of made-easies and cram books. When Ashutosh died in 1943, he left behind him not just the Dev Sahitya Kutir, but such ancillaries as the Barada Type Foundry, the Dev Library and so on.

Not unreasonably, the firm warns would-be purchasers that some “dishonest publishers” are also using the name of A.T. Dev and enjoins upon its customers to check the “halogram” [sic] of the firm and its name “behind it”.

Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is the director, Jadavpur University Press.

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