During the late 1920s, Varadachary Krishnaswamy Sarma, a young man working with the defence accounts department of the British government in Chennai, was upset at the way English education was made inaccessible to most of his countrymen. Barely out of his teens, Sarma, fired up by the emerging nationalist sentiment in the country and a deep urge to help the poor and needy, decided to do what many thought was impossible — he rented a printing apparatus to produce content he thought would benefit his people .
Soon, Sarma and friends started printing booklets on myriad subjects, including English grammar. In 1929 he named his venture the Little Flower Company, or Lifco. The name was inspired by the “benediction and guidance” of foreign missionaries who influenced the Hindu man’s quest for knowledge and service — a remnant of his schooling at St Joseph’s High School in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu.
“That was a humble start to a great innings in service,” says TNC Vijayasarathy, Sarma’s grandson and the current owner of Lifco, which will turn 90 next year. In South India, especially TN and undivided Andhra Pradesh, Lifco is fondly remembered for a series of low-priced, handy and neatly produced books with extremely useful content. “When I got married in the early 1980s, one of the most important gifts my wife, a non-Tamilian, received was a Lifco publication — Samaipathu Eppadi , a cooking guide on Tamil cuisine that was extremely popular in the region,” remembers a senior journalist based in Chennai.
Another Lifco title, The Great Little Book , which is a “handy letter writer”, was so popular and influential until the late ’80s that many scholars and writers of that time happily attribute their success to what they had learnt with the help of the Lifco titles.
“Former presidents S Radhakrishnan and APJ Abdul Kalam are just two of the many thousands of luminaries who were fans and well-wishers of Lifco,” says Vijayasarathy. In fact, what helped Lifco’s popularity soar was the dictionary, which is its most popular publication out of 650-odd titles. “But Lifco is more than a dictionary,” says Vijayasarathy. “Like its founder had envisioned, it’s a service publisher with no profit motive.”
Still, Lifco is not a loss-making enterprise. Its success has some lessons for entrepreneurs investing in “socially relevant or philanthropic ventures”, as Vijayasarathy puts it.
“My grandfather was purely driven by the long-term social capital this would generate. So he modelled Lifco as a community effort steered by a family devoted to social welfare.”
Sarma was in touch with social reformers and artists of his time, and gleaned lessons from their teachings and speeches. He even got some to write for him. “Poet Kannadasan, scholars like Anantharama Dikshithar, cartoonist Gopulu, musicians such as DK Pattammal, MS Subbulakshmi were some of the friends Sarmaji had who helped him in his many ventures.”
He was closely associated with Swadesamitran , one of the earliest Tamil newspapers published from Madras.
Sarma deserves a unique spot in the history of Indian publishing for his innovative spirit. He was the first to set up an association for publishers and booksellers in 1931.
He brought out India’s first book on physical education, Physical Education for Boys in Indian Schools by Dr GF Andrews. India’s first sales tax manual in English and Tamil came from Sarma’s Lifco. And, above all, he was the pioneer of low-cost, mass-produced books. Lifco’s English titles used to be priced at an anna and the Tamil titles for four annas (25 paisa).
Interestingly, Sarma and Lifco also brought out the country’s first mobile vans for book sales. These vans were meant to carry books to remote villages in Tamil Nadu.
In this era of DIY (do-it-yourself) books and self-help manuals, to think that Lifco and Sarma made guides on subjects such as using the post and telegraph, and how the public should interact with police and the postman is “quite overwhelming,” says Vijayasarathy, who wants to continue Lifco’s tradition of publishing affordable titles.
In the current digital publishing boom, how is Lifco faring?
Vijayasarathy says almost all Lifco titles are still in demand for their affordability and quality. But the company plans to bring out apps for mobiles and other digital gadgets. They will be free, says Vijayasarathy.
“We also plan to open bookshops where our focus will be on getting people to gather and read for free,” he says. “If they buy our books, we are happy. If they just read our books and leave, we’re happier that we have educated them.”
Lifco’s store in Chennai’s West CIT Nagar still maintains an old-world charm.
Vijayasarathy says the family will continue the tradition of service-oriented publishing and, with his wife Radha, is training daughter Vedashri to take charge of the establishment when she is ready.