As Seagull Books turns 40, Naveen Kishore explains the world it encompasses
Breakfast With Naveen Kishore, Founder, Seagull Books
In the sweltering heat of peak April, I have a breakfast meeting with publisher-poet-photographer Naveen Kishore. It is a morning to be remembered for the man’s warmth, generosity and sense of humour. We are in the Sea Lounge of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Apollo Bandar, Colaba. It is a gorgeous heritage structure that still reminds me of the horrible terror attack in 2008 that shook Mumbai, the city that I have lived in for most of my life.
Kishore is visiting from Kolkata, which is home to his labour of love — Seagull Books — the publishing house that also has offices in London and New York. It was founded in 1982. This year, it is celebrating four decades of being around.
I want to hear all about it but before that I take in the magnificent view — the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea so close at hand, almost as if we could reach out and touch it. I wonder about the kind of view that the birds get to take in each morning as they fly above the Gateway of India buzzing with tourists.
Kishore and I walk towards the buffet. He gets himself a croissant, and orders an omelette. I get myself a couple of miniature samosas, a slice of bread with a chocolate spread, and order a crisp masala dosa. He asks for coffee; I get some fruit juice. Kishore puts away the book that he was reading when I entered — Teju Cole’s Black Paper: Writing in A Dark Time.
We busy ourselves with eating, sipping, and talking. The sea becomes our silent companion.
Kishore, 69, is in Mumbai for the opening of his photography exhibition — The Epic and The Elusive — curated by poet-critic Ranjit Hoskote for Cymroza Art Gallery in the Breach Candy neighbourhood. These are photographs of theatre performances in Manipur. They originally appeared in Issue 14-15 of the Seagull Theatre Quarterly (June-September 1997) set up in 1994 as an initiative of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts with Anjum Katyal as editor.
He tells me, “We discovered that theatre persons in India prefer to be interviewed, unlike in the US where many of them hold academic jobs and their tenure depends on writing and publishing their work. Through the interviews, we ended up with a lot of primary material in the voices of the performers.” These interviews were transcribed and edited for the journal. The Manipur-focused issue grew out of his visit to the state, along with Katyal. They met playwrights, directors, actors, and a variety of technicians working behind the scenes.
“They shared so much with us — honestly and hesitatingly, openly and diplomatically. We had to cast aside our assumptions, and listen,” he says. “With the photographs, I was clicking in slow shutter speed. It gave me what I call stills in motion with a play of light and dark.” At that point of time, there was absolutely no plan to show the photographs in an art gallery.
Kishore recalls how the quarterly was sustained by the enthusiasm and interest of a community of theatre practitioners, readers and academics that grew around it. Before it folded up in 2003, there were serious efforts to keep it alive. “We invited criticism, and we listened. Some of it was valid, some hurtful,” he says. “We even had a grant to produce more issues but things were not coming together. We returned the money since we were not able to deliver. Sometimes, you have to face the fact that something is over.” There were conversations to collaborate with university departments but eventually nothing took off.
Theatre is Kishore’s first love. The publishing journey was preceded by his work in theatre lighting design, which was not enough to pay bills, so he became an impresario or event manager. Later, when the publishing house was born, the first set of books was called the New Playwrights Series.
Seagull Books now has a number of lists across subjects, geographies and languages. Some of these are: Manifestos for the 21st Century, The Africa List, The Arab List, The Pride List, The Library of Bangladesh, The French List, and The German List.
The work is deeply cherished in publishing circles across the globe. Last year, Kishore was awarded the Words Without Borders Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature, recognising his “extraordinary steps to advance international literature in English translation” and his efforts “to build cultural understanding by advancing popular awareness of international writers and literatures”.
Seagull Books sees itself as an international publisher. “We don’t really call ourselves a decolonisation initiative but we like to assert that our money is as good as anyone else’s, so we buy foreign language rights for the whole world when we choose to publish English transla-tions of books that were first published in other languages,” he says. Publishing internationally also makes their books eligible for prizes that are for books published in the US or Europe. In India, their books are distributed by Pan Macmillan and Atlantic Publishers. Outside India, the distribution is taken care of by Chicago University Press. Kishore is proud of the work Seagull Books does but refrains from projecting his publishing model as superior to others in India.
“Relationships are at the core of our journey, not only with writers and translators but also fellow publishers. We respect corporate entities and independents. The only one-upmanship that I am interested in is with myself. I want to keep doing things better,” says Kishore as we segue into talking about the Seagull School of Publishing. “When we train young people to work in publishing, we often have masterclasses by people from corporate publishers. It would be foolish to turn our noses up at them. We are all part of the same ecosystem.”
He is also keenly involved with PeaceWorks, an initiative of the Seagull Foundation for the Arts led by Meena Megha Malhotra, that works with educators, artists, historians and civil society networks “to strengthen values of mutual coexistence and respect for all communities”. It came up in 2003 in response to the communal violence in Gujarat, and the desire to make sure that children’s minds were not poisoned with seeds of hatred. PeaceWorks has been hosting “History for Peace” conferences to promote India-Pakistan dialogue, and to counter bigotry within India itself.
Kishore requests another cup of coffee. I have had my fill. He has more projects up his sleeve, and he’ll talk about them when the time is right. For now, he is pleased with having his first book of poetry published by Speaking Tiger. Titled Knotted Grief, much of it is set in Kashmir — a landscape as beautiful and beleaguered as Manipur. “It is a peace offering and a cry of pain. It is a song dedicated to all of humanity,” he says. I am moved and speechless.