Reading Father: The Accidental Businessman

Reading Father: The Accidental Businessman
My earliest memory of my father, K.S. Padmanabhan, is of him reading bedtime stories to me. It was his deep voice combined with images from the Classics Illustrated series that first transported me to the fictional universe of Alexander Dumas and Jules Verne. He especially enjoyed Tintin and was as excited as me every time a new volume was released.

Later, when I started reading, no weekend was complete without a visit to the neighbourhood bookstore, along with Bappa (as I called my father) and soon I was accompanying him on business visits as well. Thus, many of booksellers with whom I worked later would have first encountered me as the quiet boy in shorts. 

In the initial years, my father's business essentially involved importing and distributing higher academic books. During my summer vacations, I would play "office" and my father would patiently share with me discarded documents and correspondence pertaining to titles about plant soil mechanics or solid state physics! While selling academic books made sound business sense, it was the reader in him that brought about a change in direction. He opened a bookstore. In many ways, I believe I found my calling that one summer when I worked at that store. However, it was the further shift into distribution of general trade books that cemented my decision to become a book industry professional. At least to me, the world of Agatha Christie, Arthur Hailey and Robert Ludlum was certainly more interesting than solid state physics!

By the time I reached high school, I was telling my father that I was ready to join the business but he was against it. He wanted me to have a basic degree and perhaps, make time to consider other options before I took the plunge. Yes, I did briefly consider becoming a chartered accountant but the thought of wearing a safari suit — the "uniform" of the ilk those days — quickly cured me of such dalliances!

The year I officially joined the business, two key events happened that would have a lasting impact on the Indian book scene. David Davidar launched Penguin's Indian publishing programme and Hemu Ramaiah launched modern book retailing with her first Landmark store in Chennai. When I first went to meet Hemu officially with my father, I remember her greeting me with "So you have finally grown out of your half pants!" The concept of a fully air-conditioned book store, that too in a basement, seemed like a recipe for disaster but Bappa was perhaps the only one who saw the potential. He got me working with Hemu to plan the initial stocking of the store with as wide a range of books as possible. "Friends" in the trade tried to dissuade him from supporting this venture but in his own quiet way, he knew how to be adamant. Needless to say, the store was a hit and its success led to the growth of modern retail in this country. It also led to a lasting relationship between our company and Landmark which found its expression in a joint venture that was set up a decade later. That joint venture finally resulted in our being acquired by the Tatas, along with Landmark. It was a decision that continues to define my career. 

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