Goodbye Dhanesh Jain, Ratna Sagar’s gentle giant

Appreciation

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Dhanesh Jain 1939-2019. Photo: Dinesh Sinha
Dhanesh Jain 1939-2019. Photo: Dinesh Sinha

By Sridhar Balan

The received wisdom then and even now was that return on investment was better in textbook publishing and best in school textbooks.

When my article on Ravi Dayal of the OUP was published on his passing away in 2006, Dr Dhanesh Jain, the managing director of Ratna Sagar, decided that a copy be sent to all the managers in Ratna Sagar. I felt it was rather long and an additional reading burden on the managers and asked Dhanesh Jain why he did so. He replied simply and rather disarmingly, “It’s written from the heart and it would do good for our managers to read it.” Little did I realize then that eventually I would be writing an obit piece on Dhanesh himself and doing it with a heavy heart.

Dhanesh passed away in Delhi in the early hours of Sunday, 31 March 2019, quietly, without fuss, unobtrusively, almost apologetically as if imposing one last burden on us. The manner of his passing symbolized the way he had lived, quietly, always self-effacing and in the background. But the impact of his life was anything but this. He was a friend, guide, philosopher and mentor to the large number of people who worked with him, never for him.

There were no employees in Ratna Sagar, the remarkable publishing house he founded in 1982. Everyone was a member of the staff and a colleague whose contribution to the office may vary but was equally valued. From the very beginning, he never visualized an elaborate structure, organization and hierarchy. Though he realized designations were necessary, he was very sensitive to hierarchy. He would insist on circular seating arrangements at meetings where everyone felt equal and encouraged to contribute. As far as it was practically possible, he did away with the concept of a ‘head table’ at meetings both in Delhi and off-station. He was very happy when after a visit to Jamshedpur, I told him the board room at the Xavier Institute of Management had a circular table.

Dhanesh Jain came into publishing through a rather curious route. Originally from Jammu and though he joined the family business, he had an abiding interest in academics. Educated at Hindu College in Delhi and at Fergusson College in Pune, Dhanesh went on to do a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. Studying at Delhi University was not without its benefits. As is their wont, boys from Hindu would visit the girls at Miranda House, and one such visit yielded a friendship with Kusum who became his life-partner. Years later, he was to remark humorously when a book launch was being organized at Miranda House, “Oh, what’s the point of now going to Miranda. I got my partner from there years ago!”

Returning to India after a longish stint in the US, Dhanesh decided to join the faculty as a CSIR Fellow in the Linguistics Department of the newly established Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Our paths may have crossed, for I was among the first batch of students in the Masters program at JNU and I knew his colleagues CJ and Tillotomma Daswani well. Later, I too did a teaching stint in JNU.

Not sure whether he wanted to become a permanent member of the faculty and not sure whether full-time involvement in the family business was for him, Dhanesh decided to start a publishing company. He held extensive discussions with publishing stalwarts like Rajan Mehra of Rupa, consulted colleagues and friends like Shyam Mohan Zutshi, who was teaching English at Delhi University, and finally, Ratna Sagar was born in 1982. Dhanesh’s friendship with Shyam Mohan was to prove fortuitous on two counts. It yielded him Shyam’s brother Ashok Mohan Zutshi who joined him and has been with him ever since and more importantly, yielded the first set of textbooks, Pattern Writing, under the joint authorship of Dhanesh and Shyam Mohan. These books are still in print. It’s curious that an academic chose to make quality school textbooks as a feature of his publishing house. The reasons are not far to seek. The received wisdom then and even now was that return on investment was better in textbook publishing and best in school textbooks.

I joined Ratna Sagar under slightly unusual circumstances. Though I continued with OUP as a consultant after formally leaving them in 2003, I had no intention of rejoining even if the circumstances were to change. This I let Atiya Zaidi, then the chief editor in Ratna Sagar, know while I was director of the course on publishing conducted by the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Association. It was Atiya who set up the interview with Dhanesh Jain. I had last met him at a tea reception at vice-president KR Narayanan’s house hosted by the Book Review. Narayanan’s daughter Chitra was one of the founders of the Book Review along with Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar. I remember in my meeting with Dhanesh Jain, we discussed ethics and values in publishing!

I got recruited into Ratna Sagar at the IIC (after an initial meeting at the Imperial Hotel) by the shortest appointment letter I have seen. Written and signed by Dhanesh Jain in his own hand, it read. “Pursuant to our discussions, you are invited to join Ratna Sagar as a Senior Consultant to help Ratna Sagar grow in every way possible. You will be paid the following, etc., etc. With Best Wishes, Dhanesh Jain.” The only condition he imposed was that I would be in for, as the French would say, “Le longue duree (for the longer duration).” My formal engagement with Ratna Sagar continued for 12 years. At my farewell I said neither of us expected it to last that long. Dr Jain in his reply said the relationship would continue in a less formal way and it did.

In those 12 years, we saw Ratna Sagar grow. It had achieved early success with its ‘Living Science’ series, which achieved iconic status in the school market. Schools continued to use the series well after its ‘expire by date’ had passed. I know of an international publisher who had a special meeting with Dr Jain to find out the reasons for its success. But the top dogs in school publishing were those who achieved success in English Language Teaching (ELT). Ratna Sagar was a slightly late entrant into the English course book market. However, with its communicative approach to the teaching of English, where students are encouraged to be active participants in the learning process, Ratna Sagar’s ‘Communicate in English’ got a boost and unit sales began growing.

Dhanesh Jain priced the Ratna Sagar books competitively and slightly on the higher side. This was sensitive in a price-conscious market. He believed books could not be sold by the kilo like vegetables or fruit. And what did he bring to the table? Apart from their content, some of the finest designed books, in terms of typography, layout and illustrations and, above all, in the quality of paper used and the best binding possible. For the schools that used the Ratna Sagar books, and there were many, Dhanesh Jain promised a whole range of support services in terms of training and teacher-oriented workshops. He felt the books were truly gems much like the manuscripts of the ancient library at Nalanda from which it had derived its name. I remember a principal from a leading school in Delhi speaking as the chief guest at a meeting in Colombo. She extolled the virtues of the Ratna Sagar logo (a shell with sound waves emanating). Nothing pleased him more that day.

Dhanesh’s passions were coffee, cigar and chaat. The cigar, an indulgence, was discarded after he underwent a heart procedure. But the other passions continued; he was a foodie at heart and a strict vegetarian and abstained from alcohol. The office lunch when we ran a pantry where food was made without onion or garlic – and it was delicious. Visitors would fix their meeting around lunch-time!

Dhanesh’s academic engagements continued apace. His book, The IndoAryan Languages, co-edited with George Cardona and published by Routledge in the UK, was a standard reference work on the subject. Published in 2003, it was reissued as a paperback. He has been the series editor for Linguistics for Motilal Banarsidass, one of the oldest publishing houses devoted to Indology and Sanskrit studies. Associated with the Bhogilal Leharchand Institute of Indology for years, he was its current chairperson.

In Ratna Sagar, he oversaw the launch of new imprints – Primus for academic books and Ratna Books for translations. His son, Sugat, on return from the University of Texas in Austin, took charge of digitization, eBooks and 2D and 3D animation in the books.
Our meeting on Ratna Books in early March was to be our last. In it he also expressed his wish to create an endowment to institute an annual lecture series which would be self-sustaining and asked for my help. I write this from Mumbai where our son is recovering from surgery. His last mail to me was to wish my son speedy recovery.

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books. First published in The Asian Age on 5 April 2019. Reprinted by permission from Asian Age and the author. Slightly edited with the permission of the author. – Editor