The fall of a publishing legend

The fall of a publishing legend

Soon after David Davidar’s second novel The Solitude of Emperors came out in 2007, Penguin India hosted an evening for the author at the Oberoi, Mumbai. The author read from his book in front of an audience that included ad men, authors, actors, aspiring writers, journalists and socialites. The first few reviews of the book had been out; none of the critics was astounded. The questions for Davidar, then CEO of Penguin International in Canada, after the reading veered towards not his own work, but others’. “Are you a better publisher than a writer?" someone asked. He wasn’t surprised. It is, of course, true that Davidar is a better publisher than he is a novelist.

The scandalous end to Davidar’s 25-year stint with Penguin last week, with a court case accusing him of sexual harassment, is tragic. He is one of the publishing world’s sharpest CEOs. He makes authors. As one of the founders of Penguin India and later as its captain, Davidar launched authors who changed perceptions about how India writes. Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Chandra, Kiran Desai, Shobhaa De, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Suketu Mehta—possibly all the names that altered the canvas of Indian fiction in English were Davidar’s finds. Before the late 1980s, V.S. Naipaul, who loathed his own Indianness; or Nirad C. Chaudhuri, who sniggered at the very idea of independent India, and just a few more were our authors. Stories and characters from Indian states and cities—their ugliness, prejudices, beauty and contradictions—suddenly became stuff of literary fiction. India became exotic in the process perhaps, but a new generation found voice. After he took over Penguin International in 2003, Davidar signed up Joseph Boyden and Michael Winter. The Canadian division has reportedly doubled its revenues; in 2008, it won a Giller Prize for Boyden’s Through Black Spruce.

If Lisa Rundle’s accusations, that Davidar abused her in Frankfurt, are true, it is serious loss of face for the company Davidar helped nurture for 25 years. We don’t know for sure whether a souring relationship led Rundle to sue or whether Davidar was a sexual predator.

After his last day at Penguin, he plans to return to India and write his third book. The bird’s fortunes without David Davidar will certainly not be the same.

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