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For years, people have been asking Naveen Kishore, publisher and proprietor of Seagull Books how he does it. “No, there's no irritation when someone asks me that,” Kishore says. “Just, now and then, the need for a bit of a sigh.”

It isn’t just that he runs a small publishing firm in Kolkata, which seems like a quixotic thing to do to some people in other metros. It’s that this firm is also one of the world’s major presses for literature in translation. Its list includes works on world philosophy, theatre and art. Its authors include Nobel Laureates, some of the greatest European modernists of the last century, and writers who’ve had the dubious but glittery fortune of becoming the toast of literary London and New York. (Hello, László Krasznahorkai.)

And then there are Seagull’s books, designed and produced in-house, which are never less than eye-wateringly beautiful. Their big annual splurge is a fat collector’s item of a catalogue, packed with richly detailed art and excerpts from forthcoming books. This year’s runs to 400 pages; some of the world’s biggest publishers would probably flinch at the printers’ bills. And yet every Seagull project is uncompromisingly highbrow, released into the world with an air of quiet confidence, and — on top of everything else — affordably priced for Indian readers.

“Of course you fall flat on your face from time to time,” Kishore says. “Of course you pay the price for passion. Everyone pays for their daily necessities. My daily necessity is to produce a book.”

We meet Kishore in Mumbai, a city he doesn’t visit all that often, for a talk organised by Junoon, Sanjna Kapoor’s theatre company. Years before he was a publisher, Kishore was a theatre lighting designer — in fact, watch out for his work at a performance of Peter Handke’s ‘Storm Still’ next month if you’re around Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. (Handke is also a Seagull author, of course.)

“I’m still a theatre person,” he says, “and I still go around bracketing folks as ‘theatre’ and ‘non-theatre’ people.” What’s the difference? “Theatre teaches you to improvise in the nicest possible way — which is not to say it makes you a con artist.” 

If Seagull were only an eccentric passion project, coasting on a couple of famous names, it wouldn’t be half as good at what it does.

It’s difficult to describe everything that goes into a project like Seagull, where art, literature, performance — and yes, money stuff — tend to be the business of everyone on their tiny team. For example, Kishore and Seagull had a profound connection with the artist KG Subramanyan, hundreds of whose works they’ve been caring for and helping display at exhibitions around the country this year, following Subramanyan’s death.  Personal relationships matter deeply to them: they worked intimately, in her lifetime, with Mahashweta Devi, whose translated work Kishore publishes.

Yet if Seagull were only an eccentric passion project, coasting on a couple of famous names, it wouldn’t be half as good at what it does. There’s a shapeliness and discipline to its list, every title a work that will matter, even if not to a million readers at a go. “And of course there’s mental math involved,” Kishore says. “Pros and cons must be weighed — but we do it quickly, and not so much as a strategy as on a kind of survival plan."

An inexhaustive list of things he does on a daily basis includes meeting translators and writers around the world; getting them to open up about the books they’ve been dreaming of working on so he can commission them; making sure they aren’t going off the deep end, politically speaking, because Seagull’s political principles are as firmly embedded as their aesthetic sense, and in some ways indistinguishable from it. (No kidding; Kishore tells us a story about once having to “give away” the translation of a French hotshot whose Islamophobia only became apparent after Seagull commissioned his work.)

He’s also a photographer, whose knowing, searching pictures of street life in Calcutta and elsewhere hang on the walls of the Seagull shop on SP Mukherjee Road. Like his company, Kishore was born and raised in Calcutta. So was Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull’s genius designer. They found their first printer, PK Ghosh of Eastern Printers, there. “It’s still an unconditionally hospitable place,” Kishore says, thoughtfully, when we ask how much of Seagull’s character comes from its home city. “It still has time for” — he waves his hand across the table — “like-minded engagement.”

But Seagull very much belongs in the wide world. Indeed, we’ve heard it described more than once as a first-world publisher operating on third-world finances. Look at what they have coming up: their commemoration of the centennial of the October Revolution will include an exhibition of Sergei Eisenstein’s drawings in Kochi. Their annual history conference in August will open with a conversation between Romila Thapar and Gayatri Chakravarty-Spivak. They’ve just published Christa Wolf and Elsa Morante, and are about to publish Giorgio Agamben and Carlo Ginzburg. How do they do it?

“Like blotting paper,” Kishore says. “You absorb someone’s creativity, and then help it gain shape.”

bpb recommends 5 Seagull books for this weekend:

Brussels, The Gentle Monster: One of Germany’s greatest living poets, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, turns to non-fiction in an incisive, analytical long essay about the life and future of “this modern monster,” the European Union. 

Pow!: A slim, uproarious novel by Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, Pow! is the story of “the world’s most gluttonous boy” as he eats his way through feasts of meat -- and also a look at a town consuming itself in its own greed. 

The Suspended Passion: Marguerite Duras, author of modern classic ‘The Lover,’ was once interviewed by an Italian journalist, but the text was never even published for decades, let alone translated. Duras’ confessional includes stories of her writing life, her relationship with François Mitterand, Sartre, God, her childhood in pre-war Vietnam and more.

Breast Stories: Seagull is the world publisher for Mahasweta Devi in translation, but in some ways, this is the big hitter, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak, and opening with the unforgettable ‘Draupadi.’

Adorno’s Night Music - Essays On Music, 1928-1962: Because it still gives us a little thrill that one of the great theoreticians of the twentieth century has an Indian publisher and a book so good-looking it might as well be made of moonlight. Trash his jazz criticism, read everything else.

Black Diamond: Zakes Mda's thorny, funny novel about modern life in South Africa, read this for some great sequences on what it’s like to be part of a rising upper class in a deeply divided country. Not that we'd know anything about that. 

Getting there: Naveen Kishore will be speaking today at Kitab Khana, Somaiya Bhavan, Fort, Mumbai at 5.30 pm. On July 13 and 14, Seagull will host a performance of Peter Handke’s ‘Storm Still’ at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. Visit Seagull Books at 31A, SP Mukherjee Road, Kolkata, and follow their Facebook page here


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