A British historian once said that being published by the Oxford University Press was like being married to a duchess—the honour was greater than the pleasure. My experience was otherwise. Not long before I began working in their archives, the OUP had published my first book. As scholarly books go, it was a work of art—set, using hot metal type, in an elegant Baskerville by the legendary PK Ghosh of Eastend Printers, Calcutta. The cover was arresting—a photograph by Sanjeev Saith of a Himalayan oak forest cut up by the designer to represent the ‘unquiet woods’ that the book documented. The prose inside, jargon-ridden and solemnly sociological in its original incarnation, had been rendered moderately serviceable by the intense (and inspired) labours of the book’s editor, a young scholar with a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.
To enter the Bombay office of the OUP in 1993 and 1994 was, for me, like entering an ancient club of which I was a privileged new member. The honour was manifest, but so also the pleasure. In the foyer were displayed the works of the best Indian sociologists and historians—André Béteille’s The Idea of Natural Inequality, Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy, Irfan Habib’s An Atlas of the Mughal Empire. Also on display were the works of OUP authors who were not Indian, among them such colossally influential scholars as Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin and HLA Hart. The gentry and literati of Bombay came to this showroom, and I spent some time there myself. But my main work lay upstairs, where, in a locked cupboard, lay the correspondence between a writer whose life I was writing and a publisher who had once dominated the building in which I now sat. …
A historian’s happiest days are always in the archives. In the case of this now somewhat elderly historian, the days have accumulated into years. Yet of all these days and years, the weeks in the OUP archive in Bombay may have given me the most joy. The letters I found there were, for my purposes, infinitely rewarding; but the real pleasure (and honour) lay elsewhere, in seeing (and sensing) oneself as being part of a great, continuous, scholarly tradition; a freshly-minted OUP author enters a building that stocks the works of the greatest OUP authors to work on the letters of a long-dead OUP author—all for a book that would one day be published by the OUP itself.
It ends with a sad tale of decline which I will allow you to discover for yourself; in between are some wonderful stories and personalities. I object, however, to his calling himself “somewhat elderly”; the man’s just a tad over fifty, for heaven’s sake. (Thanks, Paul!)