Top tips from a printer in Malgudi about how to thrive in today's times

Everyone admits commercial printing is in trouble. The offset industry appears to be in decline, and there seems no solution for the humble commercial print firm.

31 Jul 2013 | By Ramu Ramanathan

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let me tell you a story from RK Narayan's The Man-eater of Malgudi (Penguin Books, printed at Replika Press(2010)). I picked up a copy at Goa airport along with my colleague Sachin Shardul; as we were heading back from the LMAI conference to Mumbai. Shardul picked up two Ruskin Bond titles from which he hoped to read to his six-year old daughter, one published by Rupa Publications and printed at BB Press in Noida, and the other, published by Penguin Books India, printed at Thomson Press.

The reason I picked up The Man-eater of Malgudi was because the book revolves around Nataraj, a mild-mannered owner of a small printing press which is located in a busy bazaar of Malgudi.

The humble printing-press owner is a recurring character in RK Narayan's novels. Be it Nataraj in this novel; or Srinivas, the editor inMr Sampath, the Printer of Malgudi. Both are closely associated with the printing business. The printing press appears in Mr SampathThe Financial Expert and The Man-Eater of Malgudi.

Some simple anecdotes that Narayan etches out about the print business in his novels:


Mr Sampath's press is in Kabir Lane, and that of Nataraj’s on Market Road, which is behind Kabir Lane in the topography of Malgudi. As Nataraj says in the opening lines of the novel The Man-eater…, "I could have profitably rented out the little room in front of my press on Market Road, with a view of fountain. It was coveted by every would-be shopkeeper in our town. I was considered a fool for not getting my money's worth out of it, since all the space I need for my press and its personnel was at the back, beyond the blue curtain."


The blue-curtain is a crucial prop in Nataraj's printing press. Interestingly, there exists a similar curtain in the Truth Printing Press in Mr Sampath... This curtain becomes a blue-dotted curtain in The Man-Eater of Malgudi. The curtain separates the outside world from the inside world of the print mysteries of how to achieve "colour effects". A customer is not permitted to step into the inner sanctum. No one is permitted to peer inside. When Nataraj shouts for the foreman, compositor, office-boy, binder, or accountant, the customers imagine that a lot of people are working on the other side of the curtain.


If a customer is keen to see the machinery or the printing press, then Nataraj shows them the kit at Star Press. This is the neighbourhood press, with all the staff and an original Heidelberg. Nataraj feels the purchase is a mistake, since "the groans of its double cylinder would be heard beyond the railway yard when formes were being printed". But the owner of Star Press is a nice man and a friend; but he gets no business, nor has any customers.


Even though Star has the best kit, Nataraj has all the customers in Malgudi, since he can offer them an assortment of chairs and a word of welcome. While they rest there, people of the town get ideas for bill forms, visiting cards, or wedding invitations, which they ask him to print.


Nataraj is not a fearless pioneer nor a great print genius. He runs a basic operation. His man-friday and only staff member is Sastri – an old man who sets up the types; prints the formes, four pages at a time on the treadle; sews the sheets and carries them for ruling or binding, to Kandan, four streets off. Nataraj lends Sastri a hand in all the departments.


Like all astute printers, any work that Nataraj cannot do is  passed on next door, to be printed on the original Heidelberg. As he says, "I was so free with the next-door establishment that no one knew whether I owned it or whether the Star Press owned me."


Nataraj and Sastri print three-colour labels. Nataraj says, "I prided myself on the excellence of my colour printing." The job they were working on, was labels for an aerated drinks producer. It was a serious piece of work. Nataraj is of the view that the coloured ink he used on the label was far safer to drink than the dye K J aerated drinks put into their water-filled bottles.


A customer arrives. His name is H Vasu, and he is the "man-eater" of Malgudi. He says to Nataraj, he wants 500 sheets of note-paper, the finest quality, and 500 visiting cards. Nataraj advises, why not print one hundred at a time. They would be fresh then. Vasu says, "I know how many I need. I'm not printing my visiting cards to preserve them in a glass case." Nataraj offers to print ten thousand then. Vasu softens his stance. Nataraj states, he can print them on an original Heidelberg. To which Vasu replies, "I don't care what you do it on. I don't even know what you're talking about." Nataraj tries to explain the greatness of Heidelberg. Vasu cuts him mid-sentence and says, he wants the job done the next day.


Vasu returns to the press after two weeks; and what follows is print blunderbuss at its best:

Vasu: You promised to give me the cards ...

Nataraj: When?

Vasu: Next day.

Nataraj: There was no such promise.

Vasu: Are we here on business or to fight?

Nataraj: Don't you see that we have our own business practice?

Vasu: What do you mean?

Nataraj: We never choose the type and stationery for a customer. It must always be the customer's responsibility.

Vasu: You never told me that.

Nataraj then orders Sastri to bring the ivory card samples and also the ten-point copper plate. When Vasu sees the samples in the type book and turns the various cards in between his fingers, he says, "I'm damned if I know what I want. They all look alike to me. What is the difference anyway?".

This is a triumphant moment for Nataraj; and he explains how, "Printing is an intricate business." 

Words that every printer loves to utter.


The Man-eater of Malgudi ends with a murder, an investigation, and an autopsy. In all this, the reputation of Nataraj's press is ruined, and his friends and other people start avoiding him.

RK Narayan's greatest achievement in this novel is making the fictitious Malgudi accessible to the outside world, through his literature. But there are also simple homilies about the printer. Narayan achieved this in The Man-eater of Malgudi in 1962; and in Mr Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi, in 1949. In Mr Sampath, the main protagonist is Srinivas, an ethical editor who is the sole contributor to a weekly magazine. The book describes how he copes with the confused ambitions of an overambitious printer, Mr Sampath.

The question to ask is: would both printers (and I can think of innumerable printers with a similar mindset) reach the pinnacle of print achievement even if they wanted to?

It is hard to imagine them surviving in a world this corporate, ambitious and expensive. It is hard to imagine a traditional print company having the vision to do so.

Today, it is the print companies which have a vision, and the money to back it, that are creating a new form of print, brand print.

In all this, the question one asks is, how can the printer from Malgudi fight back? What will happen to the Mr Natarajs and the Mr Sampath's of our print community?