I was the printer, who made the pages, got them printed, and also distributed the weekly. On the third day after my wedding, I was driving in a tempo with stacks of Suburban Echo and dropping it at all the newspaper stands in the western suburbs of Mumbai.
Printing does run in our genes.
Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi) was also a designer. When he went to England, he first enrolled with the Vegetarian Society in London and designed their logo. Thus, he became a designer before he became a printer. Printing, and its repercussions, became known to him in a very close and violent manner. On his first trip from South Africa to India, when he came to pick up his family, Bapu wrote about the situation of the Indians and Asians in South Africa, from Rajkot. This was published as what came to be known as the “Green Pamphlet”, and it was self-published. The pamphlet was produced as a booklet, with a green cover. This was picked up by an English daily in Calcutta and then by an English daily in England, and by the time it reached South Africa it was regarded to be of inflammatory tone, suggesting that Gandhi was demonising the South African white population and their treatment of the Asians, and so on.
Mobs were ready to greet him with stones and batons when he returned to South Africa. He was locked up for 23 days and not allowed to get off the ship. Even when he did leave the ship in disguise, he was beaten up. Printing did have a very detrimental effect in Bapu’s life but he didn’t feel discouraged by it. In fact, he said he had made his point, in the other party reacting to what he was suggesting; whether it was right or wrong being a different question. Printing, thus became a very essential part of his civil rights movement in South Africa.
Apart from Harilal kaka, his other three sons worked in some way or the other with the Indian Opinion, either as a publisher, or as a manager, or as a printer. My grandparents worked as printers for the Indian Opinion; my father and his two sisters worked in every department of the Indian Opinion unit in South Africa, which included composing, pagination and everything else. The first machine at Phoenix was a flatbed. Bapu started printing with that machine.
When Richard Attenborough was making the film Gandhi, all the South Africa scenes were shot in and around Panvel, where he recreated the scenes. One of their production members landed up at the Government Institute of Printing Technology, where there were working models of some of the presses. When we took admission in GIPT as students, there was a junk-like structure out in the veranda. The structure was rotting away, and had cobwebs and dust all over. And then suddenly this lady (the production member) came in and said, “We need this.”
That was a flat bed press, a replica of what Bapu used in Phoenix. They took it with them, and returned two days later inquiring about its operation. There was one technician, who knew how to operate the press, and he went along and was featured in the movie too. When the machine came back, it looked brand-new; painted, cleaned, put into working condition. That was the first time in three years we figured out that the junk-like structure in the veranda was a printing press.
Bapu used printing not only as a medium to convey his philosophies but also to instill his philosophies as ways of life. He used the printing press as the centre of physical labour, which he held very dear to his heart before he discovered the spinning wheel (charka). The spinning wheel was discovered much later, when he returned to India, at the Sabarmati Ashram; while printing was at the Phoenix ashram in South Africa. Thus, at the Phoenix ashram, the ashramites did physical labour on the printing press. That was his method of revolution, both for training his satyagrahis and for civil disobedience.
“Navjivan” was initially a pamphlet that he edited and published, and then it was established as a publishing house. One of the briefs that Bapu gave to Navjivan was that they should always publish affordable literature, affordable to the poorest of the poor. There was a whole division in Navjivan called Sastu Sahitya, which means anything that they would publish would not exceed a cover price of Rs 5. The costliest book in the Sastu Sahitya division was priced Rs 5. And, for a long period of time, until recently, his autobiography was published for Rs 10. It is only now that the price has been increased to Rs 25 or Rs 50 for the ordinary edition, and Rs 100 for the “deluxe edition”, as they call it. The brief was a major constrain for the publisher, as they knew they could never recover the production cost of the books. The only way Navjivan recovered the cost of the books was because after the Bible, Bapu’s autobiography became the largest selling title. And after Lage Raho Munnabhai revived “Gandhigiri”, the sales of all his books shot up. This benefited Navjivan and allowed it to continue working in this manner.
Even today, if they are continuing their work towards affordable literature, it is becase they are rendering public service rather than operating a business. They are doing this because of Bapu’s legacy and the brief that was clearly written in the constitution of Navjivan. Only at the beginning of this year did they publish one of their most expensive coffee-table books, of Bapu’s 100 potraits, which is priced at Rs 4,500. This Diwali many corporates used it as a corporate gift. I am happy that Navjivan must have made a fancy profit out of it, and hope that they will use this to publish more Sastu Sahitya.
This legacy of Gandhi continues. After me, there are no printers in the family. Although I hope there are some authors. I myself failed as a printer. I gave it up 25 years ago as I realised that I could not become a commercial printer. How my friends calculated even the amount of trimming done, for their profits, surprised me. I was never able to be a profitable printer.
I will be a bit adventurous to answer the proposed question of “Where will printing go?”. Technology is miniaturising things to an extent that even circuits are printed on inks. The revolution in books would come when there is a micro-chip embedded in the printed book, which allows the reader to switch between various output options, print, audio book and e-book. Thus, if I buy a book and I am a print lover, I can read the printed book; if I want to listen to it, it talks to me; and with the advent of flexible displays and such, it can transform into an e-book. Maybe that is the line of future, for publishing to survive.
To give an example, my book Let’s kill Gandhi, printed in 2007, is a 1,000-page book that gives you physical exercise because of the weight, which an e-book could never give. That is the kind of technology Bapu would endorse. He was not against technology. He always promoted technology that made people more efficient. He was only against technology which replaced humans. I think, if this kind of technology is developed, it can be endorsed in the Gandhian manner.
If he hadn’t become a lawyer, if he hadn’t become a freedom fighter, Bapu would have ended up becoming India’s biggest publisher.
Tushar Gandhi is the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the son of journalist Arun Manilal Gandhi. He is the author of the book, Let’s Kill Gandhi. He runs the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and he is the Goodwill Ambassador of the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition, IIMSAM. He is a peace activist and has worked against Child Trafficking.
Tushar Gandhi spoke on 6 November on day one of the Print Fair at Max Mueller Bhavan; where he was special guest who launched PrintWeek India’s Book Special along with Ramdas Bhatkal, founder and managing director of Popular Prakashan.