A stubborn devotion to quality and Kolkata characterises Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books, bringing Nobel winners and world literature to a bookshop near you, writes Sandip Roy
Sometime in the mid-1980s, Naveen Kishore, publisher at Seagull Books, found himself in a quandary. Seagull had just landed a major coup—the rights for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1,100-page autobiography. Eisenstein’s student, film historian Jay Leyda, had recommended his protégé Alan Upchurch as translator. Kishore had agreed to pay Upchurch 5,000 dollars.
Although foreign exchange was scarce in 1980s India, Kishore pressed ahead with typical sangfroid, convinced that the universe would figure out a way. Around that time he was also putting together a show by the artist Chittrovanu Mazumdar in Bombay. An elegant brunette showed up and wanted to buy one of the pieces. Kishore promptly asked if she could make the cheque out to Upchurch. Later he looked at the cheque. It was from Bianca Jagger.
Having cobbled together the money to pay Upchurch, Kishore waited for the manuscript. And waited. But Upchurch had disappeared. Buried in old binders in Seagull’s office are yellowing letters and desperate telegrams from Circus Avenue, Kolkata to W 73rd St, New York.
“MYSTIFIED AT SILENCE. ARE YOU THERE? ARE YOU WELL? MY NOVEMBER LETTER CONTRACTS EVERYTHING REMAINS UNANSWERED.”
When there was still radio silence at the other end, a worried Kishore hopped on a flight to New York, armed only with an address for his missing translator. There he discovered the reason for the silence. Upchurch was dying. The AIDS epidemic was ravaging America. Upchurch had already lost his partner to the disease and he himself had been given three months to live. There was no way he was going to translate Eisenstein’s memoir. Kishore told him not to worry about returning the money. Within months Upchurch was dead.
Kishore raised the money again. William Powell was roped in as translator. The Eisenstein books were published. This year Seagull Books will reissue those books to mark the centenary of the October Revolution, though Bianca Jagger will probably never know of her little cameo in their history.
It’s a story that’s quintessentially Seagull—about a publishing house in Kolkata whose windows opened out onto the world, about unexpected connections that crisscross the globe, about a man who impulsively jumped on a plane when his letters were unanswered, and about a publisher who put books and relationships ahead of money.
The international heft of the Seagull list today is the envy of many publishers: Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes, Alexander Kluge, Mahashweta Devi, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, László Krasznahorkai. When the Goethe medal was conferred on Kishore in 2013, German publisher Elizabeth Ruge described him as a “bricoleur” in her laudatory speech—a magpie of letters, who audaciously brought “together all those texts he perceives as glittering, often uniting books and authors that at first glance don’t relate to each other.”
Some of those relationships are forged through charm. Some through persistence. Some, like much else in Seagull, is serendipity. In 2005 Kishore escorted Mahashweta Devi to Italy where she was receiving an award. A Chinese writer was also receiving the same award. Kishore spent a day in Venice with the Chinese writer and his daughter who spoke English. Later Kishore sent them some of the black-and-white photographs he had taken that day. When Seagull planned a series on Communism he reached out to the Chinese writer. That book was called Change. Later he got the English rights for his novel Pow! Just as Pow! was being printed, that writer, Mo Yan, won the Nobel Prize in literature. Leading publishers in Europe snapped up the language rights for Change which had been a slow-seller until then while Seagull scrambled to have 10,000 copies of Pow! printed before the Nobel ceremony.
There can be as many as half a dozen Seagull authors in the running for the Nobel each year. “It’s not a stable built to nurture Nobels,” says Kishore. “You just build a list that you enjoy doing and it rings a bell with a lot of people.”
“It’s been a door-opener, the calling bell, the Nobel,” laughs Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull’s senior editor, designer and the creative mastermind behind its iconic covers.“It boosted the experiment Naveen has been trying to do which is to say that great world literature does not need to come from the traditional centre which has been America and the UK.” “Our book title pages say London New York Kolkata,” points out Kishore. “All that means is you can exist anywhere.”
But Seagull chooses to exist in Kolkata, a faded metropolis nostalgic for its once-upon-a-time cosmopolitan sheen. The window at the Seagull office looks out onto an old shuttered movie theatre. But Seagull’s office is vibrant with red, green and cream walls—a jewellery box spilling open. There’s art from ceiling to floor, from Padma Vibhushan KG Subramanyan to Tintin and King Kong posters. The toilet boasts a dashingly handsome Prithviraj Kapoor. One shelf is filled with frogs, another with birds—hornbills, ducks, roosters. Kishore walks in with a clutch of ceramic cows from a folk art exhibition. There seems to be no room at the inn but he says airily, “We’ll find space.” And, of course, they do.
Naveen Kishore is an accidental publisher, a science student who switched to English literature in college. “I remember a cousin sat up for nine nights and read Paradise Lost and I was hooked.” At St Xavier’s College he came across calls for auditions from Red Curtain, a theatre group. “I was told they had sexy cast parties, orgies even,” recalls Kishore. “That turned out to be bullshit.” But they asked him to work backstage.
Kishore was appointed assistant props person for Red Curtain’s performance of Wait Until Dark. When the blind woman in the play flailed at a light, it was Kishore’s job to smash old bulbs. Next thing he knew he was doing set design for a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. “I went to the British Council library, picked up the first set design book and turned it upside down,” says Kishore. Then he adds wryly, “I learned that if you turn anything upside down it looks original.” It is a life lesson that has stood him in good stead.
There was passion in theatre but little money. Kishore’s father, who had been with the Oberoi group, had lost his job. Kishore scrounged around for advertising jobs. He produced Birju Maharaj and Begum Akhtar concerts and a Viennese evening with an entire orchestra at the Victoria Memorial. He put together a Wills Made for Each Other event, building a set with a 40-foot-high blue sky and stars on a dimmer. Then from midnight till four in the morning he would be at the old Blue Fox restaurant on Park Street, choreographing transgender dancers for a musical. “Again I was cheating,” he says.“From Martha Graham this time, still turning books upside down.” “He was an impresario,” says Anjum Katyal, who worked as an editor for Seagull for 20 years. “He knew what it was like to be in the arts as a practitioner.”
Seagull Books was born in 1982 to document the arts, with Kishore as the inexperienced but enthusiastic publisher and Samik Bandyopadhyay, an Oxford University Press veteran, with deep connections to Kolkata’s experimental theatre and alternative cinema world, as the editor. The name had its own story. In 1972 Kishore was the stage manager for a hugely successful Red Curtain concert with local rock band Great Bear. One of their songs was “Seagull Empire”, seagull being slang for cocaine. When Kishore started doing more events he used Seagull Empire Presents, creating in effect an event management company before anyone called it event management. Seagull Books was the obvious choice for the empire’s literary offshoot.
Its first book was on woodcut prints of 19th-century Calcutta and it made the cover of the Times Literary Supplement. “We did not know scale,” smiles Kishore. “I ordered 10,000 copies. It’s still in print.” The little publishing house built on the connections it already had, with the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen and Badal Sircar. Sen gave Seagull the screenplay for Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine) even before Kishore finished his pitch. It was a copy of that script that persuaded Jay Leyda to trust Seagull with the world rights for Eisenstein. Satyajit Ray initially hesitated but eventually gave Seagull the Apu trilogy. Somewhere in the archives is a handwritten letter from Ray congratulating them for their work on it.
The real seal of approval for Seagull however came from a legendary printer-editor named Prabhat Kumar Ghosh, the proprietor of the Eastend Press. A tall chain-smoking man with thick glasses and a glint in his eyes, impeccably dressed in dhoti-panjabi, Ghosh was the terror of book editors. “Prabhat babu built a close relationship with Naveen because Naveen did not compromise on quality,” remembers Katyal. “We were using the same resources as other publishers,” Kishore says, “but with the best paper, the best design, the best block-maker, the best quality. So the books were noticed.” That was important to him. He admits freely he had a chip on his shoulder. “I come from Calcutta. We have been told we are a dark continent of shoddy printing, that we don’t know how to design. That’s the baggage I carry.”
These days Seagull is legendary for its catalogues which are books in themselves, gorgeously designed by Sunandini Banerjee. “Beautiful books about beautiful books,” is how Ruge described those catalogues when presenting Kishore with the Goethe medal. The catalogue became Seagull’s ambassador. “It is an unbelievably unique calling card, a conversation-generator whenever it’s presented,” marvels Rick Simonson of the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. In a pre-website world, those handsome (and heavy) books, lugged around the world by Kishore, brought Seagull international acclaim.
From December 2004 to May 2005, Kishore did a stint at Verso Books in London after its long-time editor Colin Robinson had moved on. Robinson, who is now the founder of OR Books, says that while Verso benefited from Kishore’s time with them, Seagull did as well. “Verso is a terrific cosmopolitan publishing company, and I think Naveen realised that Seagull could become something like that, not identical but sharing strengths of seriousness in content, and confidence and stylishness in presentation.”
On 19 April 2005, Seagull London was incorporated. Seagull had been looking to crack international distribution and Berg Publishers agreed to take them on. Seagull needed an address in London and then New York. The independent publisher had gone multinational, “except we do not wish to have offices around the world,” says Kishore. Later the University of Chicago Press became their distributor, breaking them, says Simonson, “out of a very constrained academic press ghetto”.
It was a dramatic shift. Historically, Indian publishers were told to cherry-pick titles from a list but just for the Indian subcontinent. Seagull flipped the equation around. “My money is as good as yours if we have the distribution,” says Kishore. “Why should we not buy for the whole world?” Urvashi Butalia, the co-founder of Kali for Women, applauds Kishore’s daring: “I think this was a really audacious move, one for which I have the greatest admiration (and even some envy—why the hell did I not think of this myself?), and also a very political one. Seagull sees itself as both a local, Calcutta-based publisher, and an international Calcutta-based publisher. In this it is unique.” It changes the perspective. Writer and academic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says that, for example, when it came to legendary Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi, “Naveen understood her from the point of view of an international readership rather than the Bengali left intellectual tradition.”
But Seagull still remains an odd bird in the world of publishing. “Seagull almost never looks at the commercial aspect of publishing a book,” says translator and editor Arunava Sinha who is building an India list for them. “They believe the market will honour good books. Nor are they in a hurry for quick sales. This dramatically changes the nature of the discussion on what to publish.” Their “devotion to publishing what they believe should be published,” Simonson says, is a trait that puts them in the “good rare company” of presses like New Directions, Graywolf and Canada’s Gaspereau.
There are challenges of doing things “the other way”, as Kishore puts it. Money can be tight. “Naveen was always finding ways of finding funding,” says Katyal. “But just about breaking even.” Sometimes,” says writer Tariq Ali, “I think of pushing Naveen to set up little Seagull shacks (addas, chaiwallas) in all the major capitals. Tiny structures that are the opposite of chains and big stores.”
In some ways Seagull seems old-fashioned, and Kishore a throwback to the owner-publisher who sips a Scotch on the rocks at Café Loup in New York eschewing spreadsheets and market surveys. Robinson, who actually does drink with Kishore at Café Loup every time Kishore visits New York, disagrees. “I think Seagull is very much part of the future,” he says. “They publish in a language, not a geographical territory. The imprint curates thoughtfully, developing themes and series creatively. I think it could build on these strengths to develop a stronger internet presence and direct-to-reader distribution system.”
“(In Kolkata) I think there is a complete lack of comprehension about what Seagull does,” says Katyal. “It has always been an outsider, its sensitivity international.” If it has been admired, it has been with the puzzlement reserved for something that is neither fish nor fowl, neither the Indian outpost of an international giant like Penguin nor an Indian house like Rupa. But there is pride too. Banerjee remembers coming back from the Frankfurt Book Fair after Mo Yan won his Nobel. “My father said hats off to Naveen. Chheletar jed aachhey. Kolkatay thekey Kolkatay boshey dyakhalo (The boy has determination. He stayed put in Kolkata and showed them it could be done).” Kishore, she says, refuses to “be defeated by circumstances—be they a fused lightbulb or a malfunctioning computer.” His multifaceted enthusiasm can make it hard to keep up with him but as Banerjee says it’s also meant that it “keeps him—and all of us at Seagull—on our toes and as far from any kind of ennui as we could possibly be.”
Seagull is still pushing boundaries. The Seagull Publishing School, started with funding from Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, runs design and editing courses to help launch the next generation of publisher-editors. Seagull is tying up with publishers like Penguin India and HarperCollins India to take some of their Indian titles to the rest of the world. On the other side, Seagull is going to the likes of New Directions to bring world literature to India to be sold as affordable Indian paperbacks through a distributor like Pan Macmillan. “Every multinational who brands themselves as an Indian publisher publishes a certain kind of India, whether it’s Butter Chicken… or Maximum City or Ram Guha,” says Kishore. “Some do translated literature. But world literature has vanished. We’re going to put our money where our mouth is.”
For a publishing house that eschews business plans, that sounds suspiciously like a business plan. “At a personal level I do like causing confusion,” says Kishore calmly. Banerjee offers a gentler spin: “We are leaving the door open—that’s our plan. Be hospitable.”
And, in the year that Seagull Books turns 35, the world continues to walk right in.
This article was published in the July-September issue of the Indian Quarterly. The issue explores the theme of “class”.