20 November, 2007

Shakti Bhatt, Jet City Woman

By Ankush Saikia

My first novel Jet City Woman has just been published by Rupa & Co. It’s a short novel set in Delhi and northeast India. The last page has this acknowledgement: “The author would like to acknowledge his debt to Shakti Bhatt (1980–2007) for her role in the editing of this book and in the conceptualisation of its cover design.”

I met Shakti Bhatt in March of 2006. I had finished writing my first novel and was submitting the manuscript to publishing houses. One of them was the newly set up Random House India, where Shakti worked as an editor. The RHI office was on the third floor of the World Trade Tower in the Hotel Intercontinental Complex on Barakhamba Lane, near Connaught Place. The day I visited, I found that the main road had been blocked and narrowed in places due to the Metro Rail project, and the side street was under a thick layer of dust. The receptionist at RHI pressed a button by her desk to open the locked glass door—I entered and asked for someone from editorial. The receptionist called up Shakti, who came and led me in; we sat at a table where we had a short talk and I handed over the floppy which had the manuscript as a PDF file. A wasp hovered outside one of the office windows in the mid-day sun, cars and buses moved on the flyover outside the building, and two young men walked along it carrying the decorative light stands used in wedding baraats. She struck me as someone very different from the other editors I had met so far.

That first meeting was brief. I heard from Shakti a few weeks later: she said she liked the book and was pushing for it to get accepted, but that she might have to drop it as RHI was looking at just a few books that year, with a focus on non-fiction. I waited for responses from other publishers, and those weren’t encouraging. Then I heard from Shakti again: she said that my book might get accepted after all. A short while after that she left RHI. The months passed. I still hadn’t found a publisher. Then in October 2006 there was a mail from Shakti from the Frankfurt Book Fair asking me to mail her a PDF of my manuscript. She was planning to set up an imprint with one of the largest book distribution companies in India, she said, and was looking for manuscripts.

We met about a month later, in a coffee bar in her beloved Khan Market. The imprint was to be called Bracket Books, and she wanted Jet City Woman to be the first book it published. I sensed an ambition and drive in her, along with a sharp intelligence. We started work on the editing: she had me cut out a lot of flab from the book, and got two new scenes added. There were some issues to be ironed out with the distribution company over the contract, so that took some time. By March this year the editing was over, the contract was being drafted, and she had got two options done for the cover by a graphic designer; one of those became the final cover. I spoke to her for the last time on the evening of 3oth March. I remember it was a Friday. She suggested we meet the following Monday at the designer’s studio as there were a few more ideas for the cover she wanted to discuss. That Monday morning I got a call from a mutual friend telling me that Shakti had, suddenly and tragically, passed away on the night of the 31st. I thought it was a sick April Fool’s joke at first. It took a couple of days for the news to really sink in. Shakti’s husband Jeet had already flown down to Bangalore by then.

Whenever I think of Shakti I remember her in one of the coffee bars in Khan Market, sipping her coffee and looking around through her sunglasses as she talked about ways to market Bracket Books, a stylish and elegant woman with a very down-to-earth sense of humour. She was a genuinely nice person, and bought a touch of the glamour and sophistication of the media scene in New York (where she had worked for a while, and had first met Jeet) to Delhi’s growing but still staid and dusty publishing world. I went over a couple of times to Jeet and her flat in Defence Colony, and also met them socially. I found them to be very open and friendly people. By nature I am something of a closed book; I regret now that I didn’t make an effort to know her better.

Shakti was the first person from publishing to take my novel seriously and to say that it was good (and that it also needed quite a bit of work). Unless you’re an unpublished author met with rejections everywhere for a manuscript you know is worth enough to be published and read, unless you’re in that desperate state and start questioning your own worth as a writer, you’ll never know what it feels like to find a person who believes in your book. For that I shall remain eternally grateful to you Shakti. May your soul rest in peace.

The Bracket Books venture was put on hold indefinitely after Shakti passed away. A friend helped me find a new publisher, and a couple of months down the line Jet City Woman has finally been published. How I wish Shakti was here to see the book.