Mark this! 40 plus years, the history of seagull books

December 6, 1992. It is the hour following the demolition of the Babri mosque. Naveen Kishore, the founder of Seagull Books (then in his 10th year), was preoccupied with designing a stage for an Indian music concert featuring Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute and Ustad Zakir Hussain on tabla, when he heard a rumor that some people had apparently rushed on a train from Pune to Bombay, wanting to cut off Hussain’s hands.

With a start, he realized that the found objects and the ephemeral smoke effects he had been playing with until then would no longer be enough. So he grabbed an aluminum “A” ladder located in the theater, and another ladder and placed them diagonally across the back of the black velvet-covered 16×8 foot platform. He placed this square platform on the stage floor which was wrapped in a matte black fabric. He then inserted wooden slats like giant spikes between the various rungs and tore reams of blood-red fabric, hanging one end from the blackflies (the theatrical term for extending the walls of the stage upwards to allow the set to fly up until the audience can no longer see it) above the ladders, while the other end was used to tie the ladders. The rest of the fabric spilled over the black velvet, cutting through the black of the mop.

“There was no stopping the blood. It flowed freely and unchecked. Like a split artery. It covered the seats bisecting the hall, going into the hall, up the stairs and out onto the street. The public should sit on the bloody seats. This ability to make the invisible visible, to admit the inadmissible, to be politically incorrect, to be passionate about art and to publish books against the grain, is is what Kishore, and by extension Seagull Books, have always stood for.

“The editor is an accidental historian”

Seagull Books – synonymous with publishing serious and meaningful books from around the world in English translation – was born out of Kishore’s desire to document the exciting work around him in the arts, film and theatre. “The editor is an accidental historian, documenting the era in a more tangible form. We started 40 years ago, “the period of new Indian cinema”, when you had filmmakers Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and others. Yet nothing was documented because, in purely business terms, for a publisher who had many mouths to feed, it was not always the first choice to document the arts. But it had to be done. That someone was him, and he’s been doing it for four decades now. On June 20, Seagull Books turned 40.

Since 2005, the company has published English translations of fiction and non-fiction by great African, European, Asian and Latin American writers. It now boasts of a list of over 700 titles. Beginning with authors such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges, Theodor W. Adorno, Aimé Césaire, Thomas Bernhard, Edward Said, André Gorz, Satyajit Ray and Max Frisch, Seagull Books now represents the greats contemporary writers such as Yves Bonnefoy, Philippe Jaccottet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Mahasweta Devi, Peter Handke, Pascal Quignard, Hélène Cixous, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Marc Augé, Nabarun Bhattacharya and many others. In 2012, Seagull author Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Maryse Condé, whose three Seagull volumes have been translated and published in English, won the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018.

The company’s success is proof that you don’t need multi-billion dollar investments and offices across the globe to have a global footprint. Kishore registered the global publishing house in London, but established a base in Calcutta precisely to make a point – that location doesn’t matter. From his cozy corner of the capital of Bengal, Kishore releases an annual list of books that is the envy of all publishers. “I have learned to disrespect the notion of borders because they are man-made. But culture travels. Translated. Therefore, we transgress. Not just borders but also imagination. We subvert frames existing ones by suggesting others. They have created nation-states which have ghettoized the book. Commodify it. In the world of publishing, too much time, energy and money is spent on the creating structures that ultimately enclose us.

“It’s taken us 40 years to get to the point where our books are getting noticed”

The soft-spoken, multi-faceted Kishore, however, remained an enigma in Indian publishing – almost an outlier. Maybe why you won’t hear of all the times he put Indian publishing on the global map, including May 25 when he received the first Cesare De Michelis award at the Incroci di civiltà (Crossings of Civilizations) – an international literary festival launched in 2008 – for having distinguished itself “internationally through the development of exceptional editorial projects” for four decades.

Reader’s paradise Some book title covers from the publishing house

Seagull’s translation of Herberta short story by Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya (translated by Sunandini Banerjee, editor at Seagull), published in the United States by New Directions, received a mention in the new yorker, and rave reviews in The Washington Post and The Paris review.

And yet, a few years ago, a German journalist who was interviewing Indian editors in Delhi for a documentary told Kishore, “I’m surprised you’re doing all this world literature, because in Delhi everyone was saying that you were a regional editor,’ Kishore recalls. “People will perceive you as they will, and I won’t try to fight that perception. Our work speaks for itself. It took us 40 years to get to the point where our books are noticed. It is therefore important to continue working. »

“Pockets of resistance will always be a minority exercise”

Kishore knows the futility of resistance in today’s political climate – and yet he must resist through his words, drawings, photos and books. His first book of poems – Knotted Grief (published by Speaking Tiger) – published to great acclaim, was Kishore’s heart in response to the Kashmir crisis. “It was a personal, political and national mourning. He needed an outlet, and that outlet was poetry. He says that publishing cannot isolate itself from this need of the hour. “The important thing is that the stories have to go on, especially today when governments are trying to stop people from telling their stories and instead spreading their own versions of the stories. In such a scenario, we must do our best. Until we can. The ’till’ isn’t just until we drop dead, which has now become a serious fear of being genuinely stopped in your tracks,” he says. “Pockets of resistance will always be a minority exercise. There will come a time when this minority will be able to influence the masses, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to do that yet.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

“The important thing is that the stories must go on, especially when today’s governments try to stop people from telling their stories and instead circulate their own versions of stories” Naveen Kishore, Seagull Books

Would he withdraw or retract a book he believes in? “No,” he said firmly. “I will face the consequences of what I set in motion. This is why our contracts do not contain a defensive clause which obliges the author to protect you against defamation and obscenity. We believe that creating books is a collaborative act, when two minds meet. So where’s the need to protect yourself from something you didn’t find offensive when you decided to post it? How then does it simply become the responsibility of the author because another person took offense in this work? But Seagull also pulled books when he disagreed with the author’s policy. “Someone who grew up reading and admiring his politics, and when the book comes back to you translated, you realize the author’s politics have totally changed…you have no choice but to withdraw the book.”

“No one can know for sure what people will read”

Seagull wants to be different from the mainstream, not out of arrogance, Kishore says, but because it’s all already done. “It’s not about size or scale. It’s about making the choice that allows you to risk leaving the structures so ‘magnificently’ put in place by the world of corporate publishing. Publish books that we believe should exist. And to find readers who must exist because, “target audiences are a myth”. “No one can know for sure what people are going to read. It is always after the “event” of buying and reading the book that you become aware of the fact. Not before.” Meanwhile, Kishore is thrilled that Ret Samadhi’s English translation won the Booker Prize this year, but also pragmatic. I doubt it will change the face of Indian translation.”

“I don’t look back”

You can’t put the maverick editor in just any box. He does things his way. As a true visionary, he evolves with the times. Like a true legend, he blazed a trail that many others follow and will continue to walk. It may possess the old-world charms of politeness, integrity, and chivalry, but it also constantly reinvents itself, Seagull and its authors. This includes republishing the works of its authors in modern formats such as graphic novels or audiobooks. Of course, he has no time to look back. Even less, looking back with regret. “I don’t really look back and I don’t feel like I could have done anything differently. Yes, there is always stress and anxiety that is universal to independence. Every new book is like starting over, and sometimes it feels like you’re on a treadmill. What balances the treadmill is the joy of doing what you feel like doing. And the freedom that goes with it. »

(This appeared in the print edition as “40 and it counts”)

Nilanjana Bhowmick is a freelance journalist and author

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