He’s widely hailed as a legendary doyen of the publishing business, harbinger of the comic-book revolution in India. The list of awards and accolades conferred on him include the International Quality Summit Award for Excellence and Business Prestige from the Business Initiative Directions, Madrid, Spain; International Professional of the year from the International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, England; Bhartiya Udyog Ratna Award from the National Education & Human Resource Development Organization; World Business Leader Award from the World Confederation of Businesses Houston, US, besides the recognition and felicitation from the WHO’S WHO Historical Society, US.
But little does the world know that his vocational strides – from humble roots to succulent fruits – has been a mixed bag of remarkable achievements, mind-boggling challenges, breathtaking breakthroughs and mind-numbing tragedies. His life story is truly a towering inspiration for the mavericks of today and tomorrow; they would do well to emulate the quality and clarity of his conviction that has helped his time-tested enterprise stay relevant even in this age of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The story of his legendary enterprise dates back to the era before his birth, in Multan, Pakistan, where his father ran a successful business called the Bhartiya Bhandar Pustakalaya, which specialized in the sale of schoolbooks. After partition, the family moved to India, and the same business was rechristened as Punjabi Pustak Bhandar in the year 1949. It was set up as a small shop in Delhi’s Dariba Baazar of Chandni Chowk selling Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Sanskrit books. The bookstore became the supplier of unanimous choice for literature pertaining to religion, Ayurveda and Sanskrit. By this time, Punjabi Pustak Bhandar had carved a niche in publishing, having added Urdu and Punjabi literature, fiction and nonfiction, to its repertoire. In 1964, Hindi star pocketbooks were introduced in collaboration with Hind Pocket Books and four years later, a new showroom was launched at Asaf Ali Road in the name of Hindi Books Center; it was the biggest exclusive store in India with a collection of Hindi literature published across India. In 1971, the family established an export house at Bara Khamba Road, Connaught Place christened Publications India and also opened a shop in London under the name of Star Book International.
He was born in 1951, a couple of years following the inception of Bhartiya Bhandar Pustakalaya. He briefly studied at a government school before joining D.A.V School at Daryaganj. A diligent student with a penchant for science, he secured 1st Division in Higher secondary examination and enrolled for a Physics Honors. in Delhi university. Given his studious ways, he cleared his graduation in 1st division and appeared for the IIT entrance examination with thoughts of pursuing a Post-graduation or enrolling for IIT. But destiny had other plans. After having cleared his IIT entrance, just when he was looking forward to an independent professional life of his dreams, his father was averse to his son seeking employment elsewhere. During this time, a summer vacation pursuit, of learning photo processing and offset printing along with his school friend who was in possession of an automatic offset printing unit, eventually, not immediately, triggered a dramatic twist in his professional life.
What transpired is best narrated by, the man himself, Gulshan Rai, founder-editor-publisher, Diamond Comics in this exclusive conversation:
Physics to Publishing – what explains this astounding diversion?
Although I had no intention to join my family business, my aging father was keen that I follow the footsteps of my elder brother who joined the family business after his graduation. However, my uncle was of the view that a science student had no future in book trade. Unable to voice my true feelings, I decided to chart my course on my own. I absconded to Mumbai and joined the highly coveted Ajanta Print Art owned by my brother-in-law. My father was unaware of my plans, but I had taken my mom and brother in confidence. At Ajanta, I learnt the intricacies of printing, processing and photography in a short span of one year. Happy with my progress, they sent me to Heidleberg University for a course in advanced printing technology. Back home, I had landed plum job offers from prominent companies like Metal box and Thomson Press.
Then why and how did you join the family business?
On one of his visits to Delhi, my brother-in-law met my uncle and briefed them about my rapid progress as an accomplished printing professional. My uncle was mighty impressed and urged me to come back home. Although I had no inclination whatsoever, my father compelled me to join the family business. Besides, my sister’s in-laws cajoled me to abide by my father’s wish and command. I joined my family business on a condition that one department will be managed exclusively by me. Consequently, I was given independent charge of the Pocket Book Center. My father was overjoyed with my involvement which translated into a hectic schedule. Every morning from 9 to 11, I handled the purchase and dispatch of export orders at Publication India, my uncle’s office at Connaught Place; from 12 to 5, I worked for my section at another Dariba shop; and from 5 to 9, I was at Punjabi Pustak Bhandar, which was my father’s principal preoccupation.
How was the experience of working with your father?
I initially struggled with my Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. I had no knowledge of bookkeeping of accounts, which was singlehandedly managed by my father for the main office and all branches. But with time, I learnt Urdu, Punjabi and accounts from private tutors; slowly but steadily, with the help of my father, I became a pro at managing the diverse affairs of Punjabi Pustak Bhandar.
Did you get the opportunity to launch new titles during this time?
I launched a series of mini paper backs under the fold of Pocket Books Centre, besides the first set of ten mini books called Filmy Nagme: sargams of noted singers Lata Mangeshkar, Mukesh, Mohd. Raffi, Hemant Kumar, Asha Ji, Talat and others. I also published a series of Binaka Geet Mala. The second set of mini books was dedicated to the sher-o-shayari of Galib , Zafar, Sahir, and Shakeel Badayuni and many others. As part of miniseries, I published books on different topics including cookery and beauty. After the demise of singer Mukesh, our mini filmy Geet Mala series became bestsellers across India; we sold Mukesh ke Nagme to the tune of 10 lac copies in a mere six months.
When my dad was unable to devote substantial time due to health issues, the entire responsibility of managing Punjabi Pustak Bhandar fell on me. I quit Publication India and focused all my energies on Punjabi Pustak Bhandar and Pocket Books Center. We became the exclusive Delhi zone distributor of several top-notch bestseller publications including Times of India’s Indrajal comics, Amar Chitra Katha comics, Champak, Lotpot , Madhu Muskan, Deewana Tez, and Chanda Mama.
This was the time I planned to launch a series of comics based on indigenous cartoon characters as the market was flooded with foreign comic characters like Archie, Phantom, Mandrake, He-man, Tintin, Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. I shared my plan of writing a series of stories based on my own creations with my uncle. Unfortunately, he dismissed the idea and told me to stick to the existing business.
How was Diamond Comics (DC) born? What were the earliest DC characters?
In February 1975, following my father’s demise, we decided to part ways with my uncle. Soon after, we were left with Punjabi Pustak Bhandar and Diamond Mini Books, as rest of the business was captured by my uncle.
I and my brother struggled for three years; we eventually set up our own enterprise at Daryaganj under the new name of Diamond Pocket Books Pvt. Ltd. We published monthly fiction and nonfiction paper backs in Hindi, English and other regional languages. I was, in parallel, writing stories and was on the lookout for artists. In 1978, we launched a set of four comics in single-colour: Lambu Motu, Tauji, Chacha Bhatija and Fauladi Singh. We did heavy publicity on Vividh Bharti Geet Mala besides an add-spot on All India Radio.
However, the market didn’t accept single-color comics, and we had to quickly switch over to dual color and later four color; soon after, we began publishing a set of four comics every month, this continued for three years in Hindi, English , Bengali. Subsequently, we introduced six more Languages. The comics became a national rage in quick time.
How did your association with the great cartoonist Pran Sharma begin?
In 1979, I approached Mr. Pran whose comic features were regularly published in the weekly Lotpot. Pran in turn approached Mr. Kripa Shankar Bharadwaj and conveyed my proposition of bringing out a comic book, a collection of features published in their weekly magazine. Happy with the idea, they agreed the rate of Rs. 5000/- per book of 48 pages containing 12 features of each characters Chacha Chaudhary, Billoo, Pinki and Motu Patlu. Thanks to the publicity across different media platforms, Diamond Comics assumed cult status; I managed the entire pre-production while my brother managed the rest.
How did you go about setting up the DC team of writers, artists, technical professionals, and support staff?
I was able to set up the team of writers and artists in quick time given the huge popularity of the Diamond brand. Meanwhile, my dream of having a captive printing press was also fulfilled in 1981; we began the full setup of offset multi-color printing unit with processing setup under the name of Best Photo Offset Printers, and the whole range of comics was printed in my supervision. Artists from other publications approached me for employment. I was given the exclusive rights for publishing comic books of features run by other magazines. In 1981, Diamond Comics became a Private limited company and solely focused on comics; Diamond Pocket Books published pocketbooks on fiction and nonfiction, and Punjabi Pustak Bhandar was the sole distributer of Diamond Comics and Diamond books.
What were the different magazines across diverse spheres that you published during this time?
We published a Diamond Horoscope every year in Hindi , English and Bengali; its popularity rivalled other players in the market like Bejan Daruwala. After the demise of Prime Minister Mrs. India Gandhi, we released a comic book Shanti ki Maseeha Indira Gandhi in her memory. We sold about 10 lac copies in a single month. We followed it up with another best-seller paperback in Hindi “Nostradamus ki Bhavishyawanian” which sold over 5 lac copies over six months
In 1988, we launched a series Film Chitra Katha every Friday, a comic book based on the Friday film releases. We published over 250 issues for five years at a stretch. In 1990, I edited and published a weekly crime magazine Dafa 302 based on sex-specific crimes; we achieved a sale of 5 lac copies weekly in Hindi , English , Bengali , Oriya and Nepali.
In 1991, when India Book House stopped the publication of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), a visibly distraught Anant Pai called me up for help. He wanted me to join hands with him to resume the publication of ACK. I immediately went to Mumbai to reassure Uncle Pai of my support; I published and distributed all 275 titles of ACK. In January 1992, I launched a family magazine Grehlakshmi in Hindi for which I was the editor; I also floated a new company called Diamond Magazines.
You also had your share of turbulence…
In March 1992, an income tax raid was launched on all the offices of Diamond Group of Publications. All offices were sealed for one month. We won the case against the income tax authorities after three years, but at the same time, our head office at the Okhla Multi storied building was set on fire. The entire printing and publishing machinery was damaged. I was devastated but I somehow gathered the courage to rebuild the set up in two years with the help of my brother. Just when things began to look up, I had to separate from my brother. Both my sons were not interested in the family business while my brother’s sons were more than keen to join. In 1997, I took charge of Diamond Comics Pvt. Ltd. and Punjabi Pustak Bhandar besides a part of Best photo offset printers; the rest was handed over to my brother’s family.
But your penchant for innovation continued…
Of course. In fact, it grew stronger. Immediately after parting ways, I published a magazine Comic World in Hindi, English, Bengali, Tamil, and Malayalam ( a combination of all the features of the famous Indian and Foreign characters) and netted a sale of 1.5 Lac copies every month.
I also bought the rights for Phantom, Mandrake, He-man, Superman, Batman, and Spiderman after the closure of Inderjal comics of TOI, for publishing comics in Hindi , English and Bengali. I published over 160 issues of these characters in digest form across three languages and conquered the comic-book market. Of the 100-odd rival publishers of that time, only one managed to survive in the shadow of our popularity.
Soon after, I launched a series of mini Diamond comics priced Rs. 1 of over 500 different DC titles, which were given as freebies for the promotion of different products like Rasna, Maggi, Big Bubble, Boomer, Parle, and Britannia. I also initiated the publication of customized comics for different entities like Orbeez, Alex, Rasna, Todays Pen, Lays, Luxur, Stick pen, Mazaa, Perfeeti India among others. I also did comic series for Ford Motors and Sonalika Tractors. I have also published a series of comics for adult education, Yoga , Health , Swacch Bharat Mission. In the pipeline is a series on the Ayushman Bharat scheme.
In 1999, I launched 3D comics in Hindi and English, the first ever by an Indian publisher, which was blessed with a record sale. I then introduced printed Tattoos, again a first for India, for Boomer and Big bubble and sold tattoos worth 2.5 Cr. in just nine months. Later, I made tattoos for number of MNCs. In 2001, I started a series of monthly magazines Vastu Evem Jyotish , Manohar Kahaniyan, Satya Katha, Manohar Kaliyan in Hindi and Osho Dhara, Osho Today in both Hindi and English, and Health Plus in Hindi , English and Bengali.
How did Osho Today and Yog Sandesh happen?
In 1984, I met Acharya Rajneesh (Osho) in Pune with the help of Swami Om Prakash of Raj Yoga. I got the rights of all Osho discourses for publication in Hindi paperback; the sale of Osho books went into millions, and Diamond Pocket Books and Diamond Comics became the top selling publications in India; on the other hand, my uncle’s Star Pocket Books closed down.
During that period, Swami Ramdev’s Yog Shivirs were very popular across India. I met Acharya Balkrishna in 2004 and gave him a proposal to start a Yoga magazine in a specially designed format and books based on Swami Ramdev’s Yoga. The proposal to publish Yog Sandesh in Hindi , English, and other regional languages was approved. I myself designed the Logo for Patanjali Yog Peeth. Yog Sandesh achieved a sale of 5.6 Lac per month in 11 Languages with a subscriber of 4.1 lac, and the rest were sold and distributed by D.C.Magazines, a group of Diamond Comics
Some of Swami Ramdev’s books were translated in all Indian languages besides Urdu and Arabic under my supervision. I served Patanjali Yog Peeth for seven years, circulating their words of wisdom all across the country, even in the remotest areas. But due to few differences, I withdrew my services with them, and sadly Yog Sandesh and Swami Ramdev’s books disappeared from the market. Later, Patanjali Yog Peeth approached me several times later but I had made up my mind not to work with them again.
2007-2008 was one of the most difficult phases for you…
Yes. In 2007, I was diagnosed with cancer of the third stage; I underwent a major surgery. My business suffered in consequence, but by God’s grace, I recovered in three months and took 24 by 7 charge of DC like before. However, tragedy chased me yet again. My wife met with an accident in 2008; totally paralyzed, she was bedridden for seven years before I lost her. I was completely shaken but somehow resumed work, thanks only to the Almighty’s grace. Then, in the year 2014, my brother schemed with the son of Pran, and together they launched Diamond Toons based on Pran’s characters but made by another artist. As you are aware, Mr. Pran was heart and soul into Diamond Comics from 1980 till his death in 2014, but his son obviously believed in a different value system. I filed a suit against Pran’s son and my brother in court and managed to secure a stay order. The proceedings are yet pending in the High court.
What is the future roadmap of Diamond Comics?
I am an eternal optimist; I strongly believe in seamless continuity and I am confident of steering the cause of DC with the support of likeminded and committed individuals. I am now venturing into the digitization of all our multi-lingual publications for online and mobile access. I am also planning to develop innovative desktop and mobile games based on our memorable comic characters.
I am happy that I have throughout managed to keep Diamond Comics circulating in Hindi, English and Bengali. Now, I have launched an online platform for facilitating the digital sale, and boosting the physical sale, of all our offerings. Besides, top animation companies are working on five key DC superheroes at the moment. More characters would go digital soon.