Flight of the Seagull

How an Indian publisher brought Europe home

courtesy Seagul Books
01 July, 2015

THIS APRIL, the New York Times ran a report on the biggest publishers of translated literature in the United States over the past five years. Amazon Crossing, which mostly does genre fiction, was in the lead, followed by Dalkey Archive Press. Third place was occupied by Seagull Books, a Kolkata-based publisher, which began in the early 1980s with a handful of books on the arts. Seagull has become highly regarded for putting out a broad range of European titles in translation, drawing international attention to literature never before published in English.

The best way into Seagull’s unique list and highly cultivated aesthetic is through its catalogues. If you were born in the 1970s or after, and reared on Anglo-American literature and the resultant disregard for the rest of the world, there is both discovery and embarrassment in browsing through these weighty and showily beautiful volumes. They come with covers of suede, leather, khadi or velvet and zari, are printed on luxuriously thick paper, and apart from information about the books, offer snippets of free-floating, imaginative text by Seagull authors and translators, interspersed with and overlaid by the editor and designer Sunandini Banerjee’s brilliantly hybrid art—inspired collages which draw on scrapbooks, handwriting, typography, sketches, advertising, family albums, photography, and art from across the ages. The books’ list is no afterthought either. Every title gets a page of crisp, intelligent description, free of overstatement, yet very clear about the author’s usually exalted position in European letters. Some of the names may appear vaguely familiar, yet most will not, even if the reputations of these writers have long been sealed in their own countries and languages.

Tributes such as “greatest,” “celebrated,” and “foremost” litter the catalogues. They suggest both a distinctive personality acquired and a certain responsibility shouldered—the old Shelleyian hope of poets being the legislators of the world. In English-language literature, now dominated by the novel, this hope seems to have been comprehensively betrayed, as some lonely voices have been noting. Quoting the novelist Ford Madox Ford, the literary critic James Wood rued last year the demise of the kind of work that undertakes “profoundly serious investigation into the human case,” and the rise in its place of fiction powered by ceaselessly inventive, ever-entertaining storytelling. The apparent moral emptiness and artistic decline of the literature coming out of England and the US has been explored by Gabriel Josipovici in his recent book What Ever Happened to Modernism? Pankaj Mishra has written more specifically about the American case.

courtesy Seagul Books

Once-influential critics such as Edmund Wilson, whose imagination was in turn powered by the masterly European novelists, no longer hold sway; literature is a much less creditable domain now, one that belongs to writers who “appear to be cultivating their own gardens, on expansive plots given them by their powerful and affluent cultures.” The novelist Tim Parks has consistently been warning us that, with the global dominance of English, and the tendency, especially of younger writers in other languages, to make sure their work can be smoothly rendered into that tongue, we are losing “the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture.” The juggernaut of English and the marketability of a certain species of realist English fiction have conspired to make anything “foreign” and unfamiliar appear beyond the pale.

Seagull’s books enable us to turn away from this narrow, saturated field and towards Europe, to ask if that continent, once the nursery of literary greatness, is now one of its last bastions. Their exceptional catalogues show us how this greatness might be imagined. Each is organised around a theme—the myth of Sisyphus in the 2014-15 catalogue; the writer’s notebook in the one from the year before—to which Seagull writers and translators are invited to respond. Their short pieces, sometimes extracted from published books, are often poetic—in the sense of being non-utilitarian, open-ended—which in itself, in a literary atmosphere crowded with comment, opinion and hype, is encouraging. And what subtly brings these writings together, across the catalogues, is how much their authors draw on a common and long-enshrined European cultural past.

The feeling you come away with from reading these fragments is that European literature is in some ways about European literature, that the only way one can profess to be creating anything worthwhile is by engaging with what has already been written. Seagull’s books serve to emphasise how tangible this sense of tradition still is. The publisher’s list began to gather force in 2006; since that year it has put out, in lovingly-designed editions that are available worldwide, some of the—the word is inescapable—greatest writers from Europe.

courtesy Seagul Books

SO HOW DID AN INDIAN PUBLISHER get here, I asked Naveen Kishore, the founder and director of Seagull Books, and the driving force behind it. We met last December in the company’s office and bookstore on Kolkata’s SP Mukherjee Road—a wonderland workplace, with eye-catching books, framed prints of Kishore’s black-and-white photographs, and vividly colourful art, much of it by the painter KG Subramanyan, covering every available surface. Kishore bristled at the “Indian,” and said that many of his colleagues in publishing too misunderstand, and routinely say, “Oh so Chicago”—the University of Chicago Press—“is co-publishing you.”

To piece together how Seagull became a global publisher with the tagline “London New York Calcutta,” distributing its titles through—not co-publishing with—the University of Chicago Press, one must rewind. But the story is linear only in hindsight; it did not follow a corporate vision or even some personal, vaunted ambition. “As I keep saying to people, retrospectively it looks like a plan or an idea or a vision,” Kishore said. He found it amusing that Seagull had become an independent multinational, because while its books are on sale in Western bookshops and reviewed in journals such as the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, Kishore has dispensed with the elaborate infrastructure usually required for such a business. “You’re in three countries and you’re not anywhere in a certain kind of way,” he said.

courtesy Seagul Books

Seagull’s only office is the one we were sitting in. Kishore’s colleagues worked at desks around us with the concentration of those well-used to zoning out in the midst of bustle. Kishore travels to Europe regularly, but this Kolkata address is where he guides operations from. Contrary to received wisdom about the economics of publishing, he finds it both cheaper and faster to print text-heavy books in the United States and have them shipped out from there, and do the illustration-rich books, which need more supervision, in India. Acquiring an American printer while based here was not straightforward, however. The tale of how this printer, Maple Press, came on board was, like many of the stories Kishore told me, dramatic and heart-warming. It involved rushing the latest book of a just-announced Nobel Prize-winner to press, a legendary bookseller in Seattle, a rich and benevolent benefactor, and just plain good luck.

Seagull has come a long way, but its books have always been arty, unconventional, and produced with great attention to detail. When the publisher started, in 1982, it was with three titles entirely representative of this sensibility: Badal Sircar’s Three Plays: Procession, Bhoma, Stale News, Ashit Paul’s Woodcut Prints in 19th Century Calcutta, and Richard Schechner’s Performative Circumstances from the Avant-garde to the Ramlila. These were the kind of works that, unsurprisingly for the fledging publishing scene, no one was taking on, but which in today’s more developed market, other publishers have begun dipping their toes into—perhaps one reason for Seagull now extending itself into new and foreign territory.

courtesy Seagul Books

The publishing house’s style grew out of Kishore’s personality. In the 1970s, he was a self-taught theatre lighting designer in Kolkata, doing corporate shows on the side to pay the bills. These were improvised affairs, to which he brought his maverick performance sensibilities—fashion shows for Gwalior Suitings, or promotional events for the Wills cigarettes’ Made for Each Other campaign. When Lipton was to launch a tea called Top Star in south India, they hired Kishore to present the product “to 300 salesmen at Taj Coromandel or Connemara or Cochin or wherever,” which he did with “smoke and razzmatazz.”

He recalled: “I took the entire three-hour presentation over, and, say, marketing manager comes into this spotlight, Pam Crain sings the jingle live and then there’s a spotfilm on that. Or there would be shadow play and I would be the shadow to save 500 bucks on an actor. So you brought in theatre for which you were paid fabulous sums of money, put up at the Taj Hotel, given 300 rupees a day as stipend.”

Kishore’s wide interests were of a piece with the Kolkata of that era, a city associated with Western music, popular Park Street restaurants with live bands such as Trincas, a slew of advertising companies, and an active theatre scene. There was a fair amount of serious Western literature going around. He told me about reading, as a young man, black American feminists such as Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde, as well as European ones such as Christa Wolf, along with the male European writers and critics of the moment: Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Theodor Adorno, Antonin Artuad, Max Frisch, George Steiner. Their work was not hard to find. Rupa, the perennial Indian publisher, distributed for English and American imprints, and bookstores such as the Park might have specialised in textbooks but would still have one wall crammed with real literature. “You went down Park Street and even the hawkers had Camus and Sartre,” Kishore said. “Oxford Bookstore in the old days had a library, and it was a very well stocked library which you could borrow and steal from.”

courtesy Seagul Books

The name of the publishing company came from “Seagull Empire,” a rock concert organised by Kishore and a friend in 1972. Kishore went on to present other rock concerts and then ventured into visual art by exhibiting the work of the artist Chittrovanu Mazumdar. From there, he branched into publishing. Art and literature went hand in hand. Of the other artists whose work they would go on to show, Kishore says that the connection, “grew out of publishing relationships. KG Subramanyan was first approached for his book of essays on art; Somnath Hore for his diary on Tebhaga and later Meera Mukherjee for children’s books. So already there was more than publishing from day one.”

As the publishing developed alongside the art-related activity, the not-for-profit Seagull Foundation for the Arts was registered in 1987. The foundation has undertaken a range of projects over the decades, perhaps the most significant being the Seagull Theatre Quarterly, which it published 1994 to 2003. This was a large-format, generously thick journal, crammed with analysis, conversations, reports and photographs on contemporary theatre from across the country. It remains the most serious and engaging journal on Indian theatre, and its back issues form an invaluable archive.

SEAGULL’S FIRST FORAYS into translating and publishing foreign literature—books on Russian cinema—were also the result of a characteristic blend of happenstance, intuition and quick thinking. It took off when the company sent a complimentary copy of one of their early titles, the film-script of Mrinal Sen’s In Search of Famine, to, at Sen’s behest, Jay Leyda, a film-maker and a former student of Sergei Eisenstein. Leyda was then in his seventies, and living in New York. He sent back a short text of the legendary Soviet filmmaker Eisenstein’s called Short Fiction Scenario. This was a lecture the pioneering Russian director delivered to his students during the Second World War, on how to write filmscripts based on short stories.

Kishore recalled, “In three months we turned it into a beautiful book, printed in letterpress, and sent it back to him.” This was in 1985. Some years later, “he sent us a second book, because it was going to be Eisenstein’s centenary.” After which he had a third book of Eisenstein’s for them, and then a fourth. Leyda was the custodian of Eisenstein’s archive, and overseeing the translation and publication of it in collaboration with the British Film Institute. The BFI handled the main books in this series, but the slim texts Leyda sent Seagull were not part of that larger project. As Seagull’s confidence expanded, it commissioned, at Leyda’s suggestion, a new translation of Eisenstein’s memoirs. (The translation then in existence was a compressed version of the 1,100-page original.) From there, it went on to publish more still by the greats of Russian cinema: Andrey Tarkovsky’s diaries and the essays of Vsevolod Pudovkin.

It acquired world rights for the English translations of these works, but marketing them internationally was difficult at this point. Kishore explained that in India, until the late 1990s, regulations did not permit publishers to export on a consignment basis, unlike in the rest of the English-speaking world. Distributors were denied the option of returning unsold stock. Indian houses were only allowed firm sales, making it hard to interest global distributors in their lists. In 1999, the RBI changed this regulation, giving Indian publishers a chance to compete on an equal basis in the book world. In 2006, when Seagull Books was incorporated in the United Kingdom and teamed up with the University of Chicago Press as its international distributor, the very notion of being associated with one country exclusively went out of the window.

courtesy Seagul Books

According to Kishore, being a world publisher is the only way that the expense of translations is justified. To translate, say, a German novel, and then be able to sell it only in India, makes little sense given the limited market. With Seagull’s new avatar, its translations were now available on practically every continent—in the same editions but at different prices, usually with one of Sunandini Banerjee’s arresting covers.

Part of the appeal for Kishore is clearly the thrill of approaching venerable European publishing houses, seeking to do business with them. “In the first instance, you’re going to face resistance,” he said. “There’s curiosity at somebody walking into Gallimard or Suhrkamp, the two great publishing houses that we grew up reading translations from, and saying I want this, this, this.” These publishers tend to be surprised at Kishore’s familiarity with their archives and many have similar questions. “Are you able to pay? You’re in a rupee country. One had to explain, make many trips, go to many Frankfurts. Once you broke that initial resistance, and got your first two or three books out, then they were confident because they came out looking beautiful.”

Independent publishers’ lists often reflect their own tastes and affinities. With Seagull Books, Kishore’s reading from an earlier era has decisively shaped the profile of the house. He is not just reintroducing writers he once admired, but also looking for gaps in their translated backlist to fill. The most prominent example of this is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Situations. Between 1947 and 1976, Sartre published several volumes of writing on art, philosophy and literature, as well as portraits of writers, philosophers and painters. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls them “the most weighty and … original body of essay writing of the middle of the 20th century.” Kishore recalled coming across a translation of one of these volumes, Situations IV, published in English in 1965. It contained only ten of the 15 essays in Sartre’s corresponding original, however. Kishore commissioned the translator of Jean Baudrillard and Pierre Bourdieu, Chris Turner, to redo the volume in its entirely, and it appeared as Portraits in 2009. (Seagull has released two other Situations volumes, also translated by Turner.)

Last September, Seagull published the first of a three-volume set of Jorge Luis Borges’s Conversations—exchanges with Osvaldo Ferrari, conducted when Borges was 84 year old and blind, neither of which factors impedes the liveliness of the discussion. It has brought out Guillaume Apollinaire’s letters to his fiancée, Madeleine; the correspondence between Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein; and the diaries of Max Frisch. “What changed all our lives” in younger years, Kishore said, were “two volumes of Frisch’s  diaries … the third one wasn’t translated, we’ve published it now.”

It’s possible to imagine once encountering all these writers on pavements, in bookstores, libraries and homes in Kolkata, or Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai for that matter. But between the time a young Kishore was enthralled by them and the present, when the walls of his office are lined with handsome editions of their work—also on sale in the Seagull Bookshop on the building’s ground floor, at subsidised Indian rates—there was a hiatus of a couple of decades when, except for the occasional Rupa distributing the occasional Milan Kundera, or the latest Nobel winner, European literature disappeared from Indian shops. This drying up possibly had its source in the United States and the United Kingdom, where publishers, especially the university presses, gradually started doing fewer translations. This is one reason why Seagull’s list can seem so bewildering today, but also why it fills a gap. “It’s about building a fresh backlist, building a fresh mindset for this country, because the old has gone, you no longer get this literature in the last 20 years,” Kishore said.

The canonical European writers, which a particular generation of Indians read, and bits of whose oeuvre today’s readers will perhaps discover via Seagull’s list, are a significant part of this project. But so, equally, are younger European writers whom Seagull is introducing to an English readership. Alongside, there is a scattering of Latin American and Chinese names, a fledging African list, which especially highlights the work of French-language African writers, and an Arab list in the works, to be launched next year with work by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Zaqtan, who has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Kishore repeatedly emphasised that Seagull’s publishing could extend in any direction that interests him. He is impatient with questions, which he is often asked, about why Seagull is no longer publishing as many Indian writers as it used to. He’s been accused of not being interested in Indian writing. “It’s not true,” he said. “I need to find something that excites me. And in fact we have over four hundred Indian titles on our back list.” At another point in the conversation, he told me that Seagull publishes authors rather than books, and this is certainly true of  some of the Indian names on its list, such as KG Subramanyan, whose writings and art feature liberally, and Mahasweta Devi, much of whose fiction in translation—more than 20 books so far—the company has put out.

Naveen Kishore is the founder and director of Seagull Books, a pioneering global publisher with a growing list of titles from Europe and elsewhere. courtesy Sunandini Banerje

While literary work has come to dominate the list, Seagull’s abiding interest in other arts, and in culture in general, is amply evident. The performance studies scholar Richard Schechner edits the company’s “Enactments” series, which includes theoretical writing on theatre, dance and music from around the world. (This is distinct from the playscripts published under their “In Performance” series.) “Manifestos for the 21st Century” is an impressive series on censorship, freedom of expression, liberty and multiculturalism. “What Was Communism,” edited by the journalist and writer Tariq Ali, features fiction and non-fiction on the life of the Left, as well as the experience of living under Communist rule.

When I wondered about the difficulties of negotiating literature this intimidatingly diverse and unfamiliar, Kishore suggested that diversity is the point. “We’ve got a William Kentridge,” he said, referring to the celebrated South African artist, “rubbing shoulders with Enzensberger”—Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the German writer and poet—“to some filmmaker to a young 26-year-old woman who writes beautifully. It’s perfectly all right. It goes across.” Also adding to this eclecticism is the fact that many of Seagull’s writers work against established genres rather than within them—yet another way it defies the more rigidly generic Anglo-American literature we are used to. Alongside the fiction, poetry and criticism are diaries, notebooks, essays, sketches, reflections, memoirs, conversations. Many writers, especially older ones, create in multiple forms as a matter of course. Also, the visual and the written often come together, with one artist responding to the work of the other.

Just published is the French poet Yves Bonnefoy’s Rue Traversière, a collection of prose works that could be poetry, whose length according to the catalogue, “ranges from brief notations to long, intense, self-questioning pages.” The Austrian playwright and novelist Peter Handke’s Till Day You Do Part Or A Question of Light takes the form of a monologue delivered by an unnamed female character in a Samuel Beckett play. The Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach once wrote a lyric novella, now translated and published as Lyric Novella. The Norwegian writer Tomas Espedal’s novel Against Art is subtitled “The Notebooks,” and is as much autobiography as fiction. The French writer Diane Meur’s In Dreams is an illustrated dream diary. The South African novelist Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and other Unfinished Stories is described as “a blend of essay, fiction and literary genealogy.” In-betweenness and incompleteness seem to be of as much interest as the finished, categorisable thing. Banerjee’s magpie art starts stirring to life yet again when read against Enzensberger’s manifesto in his book The Album: “What you have before you is not a diary, but a capriccio, a quodlibet, a potpourri, or rather a mixtum compositum, a commonplace book, or plain and simple a general brouillon. Do I make myself clear? I mean a hodgepodge, a maremagno, a salmagundi.” And the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in a short piece called ‘Before and After the Work,’ says—invoking that old lineage again—“Michelangelo left intentionally unfinished the sculptures of the Sagrestia Nuova, Kafka’s diaries are full of the beginnings of stories never told, Schlegel and Novalis wrote of the theoretical superiority of the fragment over the whole.”

SEAGULL’S EXPANSION INTO international publishing began at a time when the global economy was tottering, which inevitably affected the buying and selling of books. Established writers began to be dropped by what Kishore calls “the Penguins of the world” if they weren’t selling to marketing departments’ satisfaction. And those whose work once regularly appeared in translation started to come out piecemeal. “They may have published six of your books, or 16, and you may be Handke or Enzensberger, but your German publisher still has to wait each time for that option to be exercised.” With Seagull’s arrival on the scene, and its interest in more than single titles, several such writers suddenly had an alternative to the commercial publishers and university presses.

A word that recurs in this, on the face of it, unlikely story of a Kolkata-based publisher rescuing foreign writers in distress, is “resistance.” Kishore appears to be keeping the business afloat, and yet the choices he makes are not profit-driven alone. The lavish catalogues, for instance, are cocking a snook at a publishing world intent on cutting corners and increasing margins. “They’re a showcase for a certain freedom,” he said. “People have different ways of resisting the terms and this is our way of resistance. That in a depleted market you do these glorious-looking things.” Also being resisted is the assumption that a publisher from India is unlikely to have the means to compete in the international publishing economy. To that, Kishore is saying, or demonstrating through the books: We can beat you at your own game.

Resisting both the terms of corporate publishing and its prejudices by producing handsome books that sell is one part of the story. Accompanying this quantitative success has also been the slow acceptance, and then eventual honouring, of Seagull’s work. In 2013, Kishore received the Goethe Medal from the Federal Republic of Germany, for a publishing practice that “undermines ideological dominance and counteracts intolerance and chauvinism.” So the other word Kishore tends to bandy about is “relationship.” Building bonds is partly a practical requirement. Knowing few of the languages from which they commission translations, Kishore and his colleagues rely on translators vouching for the work. Increasingly, these translators are not just vetting the 150-word advance information texts that the original publishers send out, but recommending the writers they would like to translate, suggestions that Seagull’s editors respond to with alacrity and often favourably. This responsiveness to translators is rare, and certainly unusual in an attenuated European publishing scene


But the relationships run deeper still. Seagull’s identity hinges on Kishore’s personal encounters with writers and translators he meets, signs on, gets to know and not just like but lavish affection on. His passion for a certain kind of publishing expresses itself as a romantic yearning, the professed need to be close to the great, to return to that word, in literature and art. This unquestioning attachment to high culture finds its best expression in the catalogues, which also feature short texts, poems and letters by Kishore himself. Contrasting startlingly with his witty and no-nonsense spoken manner, his written style is deeply earnest, bordering on corny. He often describes his requirement of his authors’ writing as “greed.” He talks about the loss of his parents, recalls his childhood, or recounts meetings with friends. Unlike the writers themselves, Kishore does not ever specifically discuss literature in these texts, but the literary as an ideal is always present. It takes on the nature of a possibility—that of talking about things in the abstract, discussing random thoughts, sharing the deeply private, a freedom, in other words, from the pressures of the utilitarian. And inflecting all of this is an unmistakable sense of nostalgia.

There is, in the catalogues, a tangible nostalgia in the recreation of a sepia tone for a page, or in the glimpse of an old photograph. But the deeper loss implicit in Seagull’s project, and in the work of those it publishes, is the loss of the European modernism these writers so deeply draw on. For however much one admires that tradition, the question of whether it can continue to provide direction in today’s Europe is hard to ignore. This is a continent obviously very different from that which Sartre and Albert Camus worked in—one facing challenges that Charlie Hebdo (which seems more and more to name a conflict rather than a magazine) has dramatised as nothing else in recent times. As the French philosopher Étienne Balibar is quoted saying in one catalogue, “the fault line of the new global struggle [runs] not between countries but through them.”

Seagull’s rise owes in some ways to the decline of European publishing, as well as the withering of that once extraordinarily relevant literary life, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the publishing house celebrates an older Europe. What remains to be seen is whether these books will find a readership in India, especially one significant enough to render European literature a part of the culture here in the way it once was. (Interestingly, though Seagull’s local sales are limited overall, it has found more readers in small towns than in the metros.)

Meanwhile, it is going strong. “Seagull Empire” may have been ironic when that two-man band started out with a rock concert more than 40 years ago. Today, there is indeed something empire-like about Seagull’s energetic expansion. Alongside putting out a respectable average of four dozen books a year, it has been training young aspirants at the Seagull School of Publishing, now in its sixth year. Eight of the 14 students from this spring’s batch have found employment in Delhi publishing houses, and two are starting a small imprint for fiction translated from Indian languages for young adults, which Seagull is mentoring. There are new empire-building plans afoot, to do with creating space for queer literature and foraying into e-publishing. And last year, the Seagull Foundation for the Arts curated a major travelling exhibition of KG Subramanyan’s works to coincide with the artist’s ninetieth birthday.

In spring two of Seagull’s authors—Maryse Condé, a French Caribbean writer and activist, and the Hungarian “giant” László Krasznahorkai—were shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, given for a lifetime’s contribution to fiction. Krasznahorkai went on to win it, for being a “visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present day existence.” Naveen Kishore was at the prize ceremony in London, on 19 May, to give him a “big and promised” hug.

Anjum Hasan is the author of several works of fiction. Her latest book is the collection of stories A Day in the Life. See more at www.anjumhasan.com.