Sunday, December 26, 2010

The book we made at home

First published in The Bengal Post

“I have fixed 11th December as the date for the book release by the Prime Minster.” My wife’s cousin Cheenu was smiling confidently as he dropped this bombshell. “What book?” I asked, nonplussed by this casual remark Shrinivasan, son of Radha Viswanathan and grandson of T Sadasivam and MS Subbulakshmi, made in mid-October a couple of years ago.

My wife Gowri confessed that in the midst of a debilitating illness in July of the same year, she had agreed to write a book about the special relationship between her grandaunt MS and her daughter-disciple Radha. Bedridden for months, she had forgotten all about it.

Cheenu then cheerfully entrusted me the task of finding a publisher for the proposed book! I explained to him that no publisher on earth would even accept or reject the proposal in that time. I tried to persuade him to postpone the release by a few months, but he assured me that that was an impossibility.

Gowri and I came up with a compromise formula. She had written an article on Radha for Sruti magazine in 1983 and several on Subbulakshmi over the years, for The Hindu and Frontline, among others. She had also to her credit a childhood biography of six artists, including MS. I collected all the relative files stored at various locations on the Internet and our own home computer, and suggested Gowri compile it all into some 10,000 words, to be supplemented by several superb photographs from Cheenu’s collection. And we would publish the book ourselves, looking for a good distributor to promote it. This was the best we could do in time for the December deadline.

The task of scanning thousands of photographs and selecting the best through several iterations of parleys between Gowri, me and Cheenu, now back in his hometown of Bangalore, was a mammoth one. Our team at this stage consisted of Gowri, my assistant Ravikumar and me. We emailed the images to Bangalore for Cheenu to approve and mail back. We had to try a variety of methods of handling the enormous files.
Once Gowri started writing, the book possessed her, and her 10,000 words grew and grew until they reached a very respectable 65,000. She was still in some pain from her ailment but just about able to type on her computer all day long, sometimes late into the night. She had replaced Radha as the late MS’s vocal accompanist back in the 1980s when Radha fell seriously ill and could not continue her sterling onstage contributions to MS’s Carnatic music concerts, which she had started as a young girl in pigtails. Memories of the years she had watched Radha accompany MS and help her on and off stage, her own unforgettable years playing the same roles, the tragedy of the meningitis that felled Radha in the prime of her life and Radha’s indefatigable spirit came to Gowri in a torrent of emotion. She was in tears most of the time as she stuck to her labour of love.

Soon we set up a smooth daily routine. Gowri emailed me her day’s output—we worked in different rooms—I did one round of editing and proofreading, though the spontaneous outpourings were almost print-perfect most of the time; I then emailed my copy to my daughter Akhila in the US (she too was in tears, most of the time, she tells me); she sent it back within hours; I then emailed the file to Abhirami Sriram, our efficient and empathetic Chennai-based editorial associate; and Gowri gave the copy she returned a final once-over. The whole process took about 24 hours.
Ashok Rajagoplan, the friend who designed the book, stayed some 20 km away and hated commuting, so he too was a long-distance resource. We realised rather late in the day that he did his work in Coreldraw, hardly the best book publishing solution in the world—at least back in 2008. Throughout the period he must have visited our home-cum-office two or three times. We also met a few times at a coffee shop in neutral territory, carrying laptops, CDs and USB devices containing the files relating to the book.

The book was beautifully designed and I was sure it would look gorgeous. But would it be ready in time? No, not by a long margin, I realised just a week before the scheduled date of release. That is when another friend Arun Ganesh stepped in, converting the files to Indesign and getting the whole book print ready within 24 hours.

The printer would need at least ten days to give us a sufficient number of copies for the two release functions planned, the one at Chennai two days after the Delhi event. Our Plan B was to make some fifty copies via digital printing to take to Delhi. Parliament was in session and the PM decided on a semiprivate function at his official residence, so we could not sell the books during the function. It was a blessing in disguise as the guest list was small and 50 copies would be just right.

The last straw was when the digital printing equipment crashed and we were able to carry exactly seven copies to Delhi. Alls’ well that ends well, and the book launch went off without further troubles, with Pandit Ravi Shankar graciously receiving the first copy from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (MS and Radha by Gowri Ramnarayan can be bought online at


VThinkTank said...

This is sheer brilliance and poetry in simple words, only you can do it Ram Sir.

Vichaya said...

Great to read what went behind the making of the book which is loved and cherished by all I have shared it with.
Thank you so much.

Ramnarayan said...

Thank you Venkaty and thank you Radhi. Lucky me!

jaya pydah said...

Came across "The book we made at home" during some random surfing today. This sounds so much like a thriller; what a photo finish!! Only the passion and self belief of all those involved could have pulled it off. Thanks for this interesting sidelight.