by Zac O'Yeah
Although weeks and months have passed, I still find that whenever I think of Shakti I must remind myself that I can't just dash off an email to her. Her mails in my inbox sink, day by day, further into the past. When I try to summarise our meetings over the few years that I knew her, I am astonished at the speed with which she rocketed through life.
When we first met in an espresso bar in Bangalore in 2004, she and her husband Jeet had just returned to India, and as I recall, she had plans to go to Kashmir to shoot a documentary on the poet Agha Shahid Ali.
We met again soon for an evening of drinks at one of those old joints from colonial days that still dot the Cantonment area, then there was a gallery opening and dinner at a Goan-style restaurant, followed by more drinks at an Irish pub. A typically Bangalorean mishmash! And I found out that they were moving to Delhi. Once there she started editing a lifestyle magazine and asked for our contributions (my wife, Anjum, did write a piece on Hampi during the year that followed).
Before I had time to think of writing something myself, I ran into her towards the end of 2005, Christmas shopping in Bangalore's Commercial Street. She was excited to tell me that she had chucked up the magazine job and joined Random House as an editor, and she asked if Anjum or I would like to submit manuscripts for her consideration. At our favourite espresso bar, a few days later, Jeet filled us in on the details - the interview process Shakti had gone through, the 32 book ideas she submitted, the Random House executives who flew down from New York and London to interview her over two and a half hours at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi, while Jeet waited outside in the car... Without any previous experience in book publishing, Shakti bagged the job. We were all rather amazed. And to top it off, a few days later she was back in Bangalore, early in the new year, to receive an award for young authors. As a matter of fact, she had written a splendidly well-crafted short story, which made me realise that she was somebody whose literary instinct could always be trusted because she was a writer as well as an editor.
I did ultimately send her my latest novel, after about half a year, when I was done with the editing. This was around the time when Anjum had her book launch in Delhi, and afterwards the party sort of seamlessly shifted to Jeet's and Shakti's Defcol house where we listened to old LPs and ate fruit—what an amazingly healthy cocktail snack!—late into the night. While she did send me an email saying that she'd like to accept my book for publication, she also informed me that she was leaving Random House... to set up her own imprint. The publishing house didn't have a name yet, but she asked me if it was okay to bring the manuscript along with her to the new venture. Already hugely impressed by her, I couldn't but agree.
As her publishing house took firmer shape, she gave it a name—Bracket Books—and asked me to send the latest edit of the book; I noticed that the headquarters of Bracket Books had the same Defcol address as their home in New Delhi. When she acknowledged receiving it, she wrote how great it felt to see, for the first time, the name of her new publishing imprint on a manuscript package. The sheer joy she displayed about being a publisher made me happy at the thought of being published by Bracket Books. She also told me that she had two other novels lined up for Bracket Books' first year—2007—"an edgy urban romance and a thriller based in Pakistan". What she didn't tell me, but I learnt later, was that she was simultaneously penning not one, but three novels of her own.
The last couple of times I met Shakti, in late 2006 and early 2007, she was full of projects. Bracket Books was all set to take off. There was talk of launch campaigns. Shakti said she was interested in acquiring good non-fiction, so I brought along a British writer friend, who happened to be in India doing a stint as a foreign correspondent, to a party at their Defcol house—where I was beginning to feel quite at home. One of Shakti's own short stories had just been selected for the shortlist of a prestigious British competition. Jeet's writing was doing spectacularly well, with several book projects at hand. So much was happening around her.
But March turned to April and she was already somewhere else.