Navin Kishore pulls out books at random. Andre Gorz, Slavenka Drakulic, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tariq Ali, Guillaume Apollinaire — the names come tumbling out. A heavy downpour has brought traffic outside to a grinding halt and drivers are letting their horns rip. But despite the open windows, the room in the first floor Seagull Books office in south Kolkata is quiet. “The road outside was an avenue lined by trees when we rented this place in 1976, but it’s getting worse by the day,” says Kishore, who founded the independent publishing house that brings out books on art and culture.
“We’re not just an Indian publishing house,” he says, rattling off names of a fast growing international list of authors. “In today’s globalized world, we should be able to publish anything and everything in our chosen field of interest regardless of where we are physically as long as we can provide quality and assure our authors the courtesy of a worldwide distribution. We are bringing back thought that had disappeared from bookshelves because it doesn’t sell vast numbers,” says the man whose publishing house has the world rights for Paul Celan, Rabindranath Tagore and Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
“For instance, Sartre’s The Aftermath of War may not find favour with mainstream publishing companies, for whom it’s all about figures,” says Kishore, lamenting the fact that most bookstores nowadays, especially the chain bookstores, don’t stock the works of most such authors. He recalls a small store at The Oberoi Grand hotel arcade, named Foreign Publishers, which he used to frequent in his college days. “Not only did the old gent who ran the place know what authors a reader liked, but would also lead the reader into other realms,” says Kishore, adding that many of the authors he loves to read now were introduced to him by “Mr Chatterjee of Foreign Publishers”.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi: I grew up on ideals that Gandhi lived by. In fact, our Peaceworks Programme has been inspired by the teachings of Gandhi. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“Chain bookstores need to train their staff better. The young men and women wearing red, yellow T-shirts try hard, are earnest, but don’t know anything about books,” says Kishore. “What is needed are more independent bookstores such as Foreign Publishers, where the owners are good at reading the mind of the buyer.”
According to Kishore, whose parents came from Lahore during Partition, the independent, stand-alone bookstore which lost ground initially to chain bookstores is gradually staging a comeback and is the only way forward for serious book lovers. “Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waterstones are all in trouble, but independents are surviving because of their specialist stocking and lack of complicated overheads.”
Besides buying world rights, and not merely the rights for India or South Asia, to the published and unpublished works of serious authors, Seagull also commissions original work such as the What Was Communism? series, which includes Drakulic’s book Two Underdogs and a Cat, to mark 20 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Offence series, a collection of six books that discuss offence from the perspective of the offender, the victim, and the religious context of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians. “We are trying to change the traditional India-West relationship and not end up merely reprinting their original titles for the Indian market,” says Kishore. “We print books here and in the UK and distribute in the rest of the world.”
Outside the subcontinent, Seagull’s books are distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “The interesting thing is that we have no offices in the UK or the US, only good distribution which is fed by books being shipped by sea and by air from the different printing locations, Kolkata, London and soon, Chicago. We want our books to originate and resonate through the world as a complete entity—designed and edited by us in Kolkata, printed as we want, where we want, on the kind of paper we want,” says Kishore.
Seagull, which also publishes the works of eminent author Mahasweta Devi, artist K.G. Subramanyan and film-maker Mrinal Sen, among others, invited representatives from Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag, a leading European publisher of fine literature, to Kolkata to meet a number of Bengali publishers last year.
Kishore rues the fact that the Bengali publishers who are doing exemplary work in promoting young, upcoming Bengali authors as well as the established ones are not organized enough to move to the world stage. “For instance, they have to learn to prepare their advance information of future books at least a year in advance so as to be able to circulate it at venues such as the Frankfurt Book Fair.”
Kishore’s association with the arts, particularly theatre, started at the age of 16. He worked as a theatre lighting technician after ill health forced his father to leave his job with the Oberoi hotel chain. “As children in the 1950s, we would spend eight months at the Oberoi Palace hotel in Kashmir and the remaining four at the Grand (Kolkata),” says Kishore, who still remembers how he and his sister would play at the alfresco restaurant of the Kolkata hotel, Scheherazade, which used to be where the hotel’s swimming pool is now. His involvement with theatre continued as an English literature student at St Xavier’s College from 1970-73, though he also started working for a motor parts company. His job was to dictate letters and he got paid Rs65 every month, of which Rs19 went in college fees and books.
“From 1974, I did a lot of lighting under the watchful eyes of Sumit Roy (whose group Red Curtain is one of the oldest English theatre groups in the city). We also did a lot of popular theatre to subsidize the so-called ‘workshoppy’ theatre.” In 1982, while working at a theatre festival with scholar and critic Samik Bandyopadhyay, whom Kishore calls his mentor, they felt the need for a publishing house for theatre. “Over Bloody Marys on the lawns of Astor (The Astor hotel), the plan was hatched,” says Kishore.
With a loan from Syndicate Bank and ITC Ltd’s support, Seagull launched on 20 June, 1982. ITC gave seed capital of Rs5 lakh and over the next five-six years the company gave a total of Rs13 lakh. “I was already doing some promotionals for them and they bailed me out, with practically no strings attached,” says Kishore.
The name Seagull came from a 1972 rock concert Roy had produced, in which a band called Great Bear, which later became High, performed a song titled Seagull Empire. “Afterwards, I started doing a lot of concerts on my own under the Seagull Empire banner, so when the book business was launched in 1982, Seagull was a natural choice,” says Kishore.