30 April, 2007

Memories of Shakti

by Anita Roy

I think the first time I met Shakti Bhatt – properly, like to talk to, and not just to kind of gape across the room at, wondering how anyone could be that elegant, vivacious and balance on such kinky heels – when she was an editor at Random House. RH were launching their first book in India – Manju Kapur’s Home, and Shakti (I’m still not sure how or why) decided that I would be a good person to be ‘in conversation’ with the author. She rang up – and I quickly agreed, partly because I loved the book, partly because as an editor in India, I was kind of intrigued to know what was happening at Random House with this bright new spark in charge, partly because – hey, it’s always nice to be asked, and partly because I thought this person on the other end of the phone sounded like a genuinely nice person: intelligent, passionate, sparky, fun. The sort you wouldn’t mind spending time in the company of. The sort who might in fact make that time fly.

The event, at the British Council, went down really well. Manju is a wonderful writer and a lovely woman, but a notoriously skittish performer. In the pre-event chat, as the three of us sat in Manju’s elegant home, sipping chilled nimbu pani and talking about how the discussion should go, Shakti came across as something of a horse-whisperer. With a few gentle, well-placed, confidence-instilling words, you could visibly see Manju’s poise-ometer going up, until she was scoring something like Shakti’s own.

Right then and there, I realised that this industry, this publishing business, was a good place to be. If it could attract young women like Shakti to it, then it was somewhere I wanted to be, and I silently applauded Random House’s far-sightedness in appointing her to their fledgling operation, and not going for the obvious, more established names that swim around in this little goldfish bowl we call Publishing in Delhi.

I was sad, therefore, to hear that she’d left RH – after just six or seven months, I think – but only because it was a loss to Random. As we leant on the balcony wall, sipping drinks one evening, and she talked about her work and her frustrations and her aspirations, I had absolutely no doubt that this was a young woman who would go far. She was a woman simply bursting with ideas, ambitions and energy. And it came as no surprise to hear that she was setting up her own imprint – Bracket Books.

She had been frustrated by how slowly the wheels turned in Random House. I remember sounding like one ancient old auntie, saying “But beta (well, I didn’t actually say ‘beta’ or even ‘dearie’ but you get the gist) you’ve only been there six months… everything takes a loooooong time in publishing.”

Before the name of the imprint had been decided, and long before her first book was even signed up, she was already talking about hiring staff and office space. The Ancient Aunty in me rose to the surface once again, as I counselled patience and perseverance and taking it a step at a time. All the while, thinking – zowee! I wish I had one tenth of her energy and impatience and bit-between-the-teethishness (and hells bells what is that fab shade of lipstick?)

Her unstinting support of other peoples’ publishing projects marked her out immediately one of those people in whom generosity of spirit overrides almost everything else. Not for her the pettiness or backstabbing or gossipy nay-saying that so often passes for chitchat in Delhi circles.

I knew only tangentially of her own writing – she tended to focus the spotlight on others. To my mind, the recipe for making a good editor has to be something like this: an innate love of literature coupled with this genuine zest for promoting the work of others. All of us in the publishing world, were watching and waiting to see what this remarkable young woman would do with her brand new publishing house. And all of us, I’m pretty sure, were certain it would be something good, something to be proud of. Something that we, in turn, could support and cheer about, just as Shakti had periodically supported and cheered our own efforts.

Her loss is not just a personal grief: it feels like we have lost a vital element in the publishing mix. Oh, I know that books will continue to be published, and read, and reviewed, and even sold (and pulped and remaindered); new imprints will start up, and fold down, and people will come and go… life goes on, so they say. And it does, it does. But Shakti was not just another element: she was a catalyst, and not having her here somehow feels like the chemical soup is that bit more inert, that bit less sparky, a bit more ‘stable’, bit less colourful. She was a great one for stirring it up, she was a wonderful mixer, and she would have been a great publisher, maybe a wonderful writer, a stupendous mother, a closer friend, an irreverent grandmother – all those things that would have been part of a long and fulfilled life. We have all been deprived of her future. And it still hurts.

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