Vivek Kumar and India’s first book on copyediting—reminiscences of a heroic journey

I received a complimentary copy of Vivek Kumar's Discover the Editor in You—Copyediting as a Career just two days ago. I had written a chapter for the book.

For several personal and unrelated reasons, I’d never thought seriously about the book in the last two years. I didn’t think much of it even when editors posted pictures, holding their own copies of it, except perhaps to smile at the joy that each one expressed. But holding the same book in my hand and flipping through it suddenly brought in waves and waves of memories, some dating back to the turn of the century.

In the early years of my career, I had to learn and then teach copyediting to those reporting to me. And Vivek was one of my earliest students. Our souls probably had some past connection; I've read that the lives of some Number 4 persons (having birth dates totaling to 4) are sometimes interlinked.

I had learned my copyediting some years earlier, from a book in the British Council Library at Chennai (we had no books on copyediting those days), from a teacher I had never seen in my life. It was at TechBooks, New Delhi, that our lives crossed in a strange way. But I was so much in awe of my teacher that I dared not write to her. It was Vivek who knew my secret and finally convinced me that I should write to my teacher. (You can read about that on The Art of Copyediting website, here).

It was also at TechBooks that I personally experienced my first joy of being a teacher. A teacher has the greatest satisfaction when he can see that his teaching has been understood and put into practice by at least some of the students. I had trained many copyeditors during my tenure at TechBooks (1999–2004), but four editors stood out. I used to call them my Four Musketeers. Vivek was one of them.

Years passed, but we stayed in touch. Off and on, Vivek used to tell me of his desire to compile a book with various contributors. I had my own intention of writing a book on copyediting. That idea too was born in TechBooks, but I was clear that I’ll have to collect enough first-class material before I even write my draft. While at TechBooks, Vivek used to tell me that I should have my own website. I wrote a draft of over 300,000 words of my book in 2011, but only after Vivek had built his first website. (Even this happened only because my own guru—I was fortunate to have a spiritual Master for 16 years of my life—suggested that I quit my job for a while and consolidate all that I had collected till then.)

Vivek had that social instinct in him all the time. I still remember those days when he used to nudge his coeditors to write birthday messages. Those were days when we used to write with paper and pen, and almost everyone received fabulous messages on their birthdays. Some years later, Vivek even brought out a small book of birthday messages. Although I used to talk a lot with my copyeditors, my own social life ended just there.

Vivek did handle teams for some years, but he became a freelance editor quite “soon.” The word soon does have a catch here. Many do not know that he used to catch a bus at 6 am to reach the office at 8:45 am; he used to leave the office a few minutes before 6 pm to catch his bus and reach home by about 9 pm or later. And there were days when he’d miss the evening bus and reach home still later in the night. He followed that discipline for almost 11 years before he became a freelance editor.

I had my own administrative roles, although I was always deeply involved in setting up and establishing departments (at times in charge of project management, copyediting, and indexing). When mobile phones became common, we used to talk, often between 9 and 10 pm. My entire life revolved around the office, and we used to talk whenever I was lucky to leave the office early.

No matter what we talked about, they bordered on certain broad themes, which went somewhat like this:

  • Although academic copyediting is a complex and vast field, it can be taught to postgraduates.
  • People can be trained, and because we had plenty of postgraduates in science, we had immense potential for training copyeditors in India.
  • But the companies in our industry in India simply did not seem to have the inclination to invest in training or did not understand the potential for growth once a base was set up. Or they were perhaps caught up with simply managing the ever-increasing volume of work that was pouring into India.
  • Nobody seemed to understand what an international standard was. Even journalism courses in India did not seem to have the required focus on grammar or an understanding of a professional standard.

Central to our phone-call conversations was our wanting to do something about this, despite our total inability to change anything in the system. Businesses revolved around money, but ours was an idealistic passion for the copyediting profession. Businesses were run purely for profit, without the concept of serving the greater goals of community needs. A society needs both idealism and capital to grow, but somehow, ideals are forgotten too soon. Our conversations revolved around the deep anguish we felt in our hearts about the need to do something to arrest the decay that we were seeing all around as well as the ever-existent possibility of doing something to make young people learn and grow in the editorial profession.

Whatever importance the world gives to money, it cannot survive without idealistic pursuits. Vivek did what he could on the social front. He started an Editorial Heads group on LinkedIn and did his best to rouse interest. He spent his spare time observing international groups and volunteering to help them remotely in their work. But I was caught up in my own office work.

In 2015, Vivek came to know that the first international conference for editors was to be held at Toronto, Canada. He urged me to make a presentation there and said that some of us should go there together. Vivek managed to convince Sunita Dogra, who also attended the conference in Toronto. (Sunita was another of my Four Musketeers.) I must say that were it not for Vivek’s constant nudging (and my guru’s insistence), I would never have talked to my company management about permitting me to make that presentation at the international conference.

That conference changed Vivek forever. He noticed that most editorial organizations had their social networking groups on Facebook. So the first thing he did after coming back was to start The Indian Copyeditors Forum (ICF) on Facebook. ICF completed its eighth year just a few days ago—and you all know what ICF has done to bring editors together.

For the next two years, Vivek kept on saying in social media that India must have its own conference for editors. By mid-2017, he managed to inspire Visalakshy Loganathan, who did conduct India’s first conference for editors in February 2018. At the end of the conference, while giving mementos to the speakers, Visalakshy said that Vivek was the champion behind the scenes. Vivek encouraged participants to write about their experiences, and soon we had quite a few people writing about their experiences at the conference.

My guru used to tell me that Vivek, with his social skills, and I, with my knowledge of copyediting, could do something useful for India. However, as things unfolded, I came out of corporate life and founded The Art of Copyediting in 2018, with a mission to provide copyediting training to as many as possible. I did not know at that time that my guru had his own plans of nailing me on a cross for some years.

I now knew that because we had our own creations to look after, Vivek and I would have to work parallelly to do something worthwhile for editors in India. In 2019, we jointly registered for a course on social media to learn how to manage things in the digital world. And without doubt, Vivek made full use of what we learned there.

Vivek wrote again in social media about his desire to bring out a book with various contributors. But somehow the idea didn’t take off again.

During the pandemic, when the whole world was shaken to the core, Vivek urged us to have weekly, fortnightly, and monthly meetings, and you know how so many of us made presentations one after another to keep the concept moving—almost till the end of the pandemic.

It took me some years to understand what my guru had done to me. Spirituality is not easy to comprehend. Nor is it something we can consider separately from all other aspects of life. Whether we understand it or not, the spirit pervades every aspect of our life. So here I was, the intellectual, the eternal recluse, who analyzed and scrutinized everything—concepts, beliefs, processes—who made sure that everything made sense before accepting anything. And there was Vivek, who accepted events and people as they came, no matter how they were. I had a hundred filters—and Vivek had none. And when the time seemed ripe to start working on the book and he so trustingly asked me if I would pitch in, I—sadly—couldn’t say Yes.

You may wonder why I am saying all this. It was Napoleon Hill who said that 98 of 100 people do not know what they want in life. He also said, “Riches do not respond to wishes. They respond only to definite plans, backed by definite desires, through constant persistence.” I understand this very well, as I have been a staunch follower of Stephen Covey and his planning methods for over 35 years. No doubt all these are practical aids. But it is the Indian scriptures that go far beyond and tell you that it is simply your sense of purpose—and nothing else—that ultimately determines how the cosmos responds to you.

Can you imagine what it means to run ICF?

  • Do you understand that most people who come there do not have much of an idea of what they want to do with their lives—and Vivek still tries to help them all, despite the varied group that it is?
  • Do you understand that he is trying to create interest in copyediting in a country where most editors do not have any clue as to what international standards are?
  • Do you know what happens when Vivek creates a poll to find out a general collective opinion? Twenty people give 20 opinions, and he is still at square one! And what happens when, day after day, he has to take decisions when most are unclear about what they want? Do you know how frustrating it can be to lead like this, and when such a situation extends for years?
  • No doubt so many people have come forward to help him in bringing out this book. But each one does their part and moves on, and he is still alone, taking important decisions, working as a self-appointed project manager. Can you imagine how that can be?
  • Can you comprehend what it means to live with a sense of purpose, when one's own purpose is not clear? Do you have the patience to not give up even after 10 years?

This is where Indian scriptural injunctions can be very helpful. It is said that shraddha (faith) and bhakti (devotion to one's ideal) are the only two things that can help a man in an uncertain world (and the world always seems like an uncertain place). When a person holds on with faith and devotion to the ideal for a sufficiently long time, something happens to the individual. When there is no meanness in the heart, when there is no crookedness in the intellect, when the heart and intellect are purified in the fire of service, man becomes a nondoer—even when he does a hundred actions:

The seers say truly that he is wise
Who acts without lust or scheming for the fruit of the act:
Its chain is broken, his acts fall from him, melted in the flame of my knowledge.
(Bhagavad Gita, Ch 4: 19)

Accepting whatever each day brings in its wake, being willing to adapt and change at every moment, never losing one’s focus amidst a hundred disparate voices—these are the hallmarks of a man who has a clear sense of purpose. It is simply an open attitude to life, which is born out of the awareness that one's own vision is best offered to the Almighty to make Him carry out whatever needs to be done to achieve the desired goal. We may think that a certain goal may be good for everyone, but even that may not necessarily be true. But when the intention behind it is good, the goal will become whatever satisfies the larger interests of the group.

One does not have to be religious or spiritual to understand these. I have often smiled to myself when Vivek would subtly change the topic when I bring in my usual philosophical overtones to our conversations! But Vivek is a man whose heart is clean.

Some of this may sound Utopian, unrelated, or impractical in today’s world. But these are eternal truths that may never be proven but can always be experienced in the human heart. And sometimes you may have to be nailed on a cross to know the unknowable truths of life.

Vivek’s life has been one of constant caring amid the reigning chaos that surrounds most of us. That is why his vision has come true—and he has three more books coming up! What more can a teacher want from a student?

I’m sorry if I have, in writing this piece, crossed the lines between the professional and spiritual aspects of life. For me, they are simply one and the same, even if we maintain some distinctions externally. I just felt a bit emotional when I held Vivek’s book in my hand—and I instinctively felt I must write something to honor him.


You can support ICF by ordering the Indian print edition of Discover the Editor in You—Copyediting as a Career from here:





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