Of Mothers, Wailing Children and the Seagull Experience

All my life (if thirty-seven qualifies to be long enough) I have loved, lusted, loathed, bought, stolen, hidden and hoarded books. Also tried to (as I now realise) write one or two terrible ones.

Well, I was pushing in peroxide goo into white hair and cutting leathery bumpy faces into sharp angular ones for nine years. But there were no more levels or layers to it. My passion for writing wailed as I managed half a day from work or came in early to write in the salon. One of those days I did manage to flesh out a story worth being told. I began looking for training for my skills, my imagination needed grammar. If there would be just one story to tell this would be the one. The universe conspired. It pushed all my wish elements into a giant cauldron and manifested that diabolical love into The Seagull School of Publishing.

On the first day we sat in a ring. Half of it comprised stalwarts in their individual fields, the other half minds full of exclamation marks, question marks, hashes, stars, dots. On a common note, we were a ring of book maniacs. We heard about the evolution of Seagull Books from none other than Mr Naveen Kishore. And then how Sunandini, the sweet Sohinis, Bishan and Ayesha rolled under Seagull’s brilliant white wings by luck, providence, astrological stones, divine intervention. What caught my eye was the terrible terrible excitement of this team that was also going to teach us.

Schedules were handed out, catalogue, stationery—all tools of the trade. Fear of the Assignments! I grabbed my yellow bag. I seemed tiny, insignificant in comparison to the other eight book eaters arrived from Chennai, Mumbai, Switzerland and Kolkata too. It was going to be a journey.

On our first class, within the first ten seconds, my entire journey of a decade of writing and sending over book proposals to romantically await a response was erased. Aided by the knowledge I was able to conjure a scene of the unsolicited manuscript reaching the desk of a novice, poorly paid (probably anorexic) trainee to be flushed into the bin. Many other concepts became clear. Questions followed, discussions flared. Other classes followed helping us develop a grip over the red ink. More of grammar, house style and translation procedures, proofreading, copy editing—the whole difference between slashing a writer’s voice and caressing it.

The school is a mother with her arms (in this case imagine more than two) spread into the Design Room, the reading areas and the Editing Room. The wooden floor is warm and smooth. I walk on them in bare feet. Squat before the rows of books and whisper to myself what’s written on their blurb. Each book here is a handcrafted Seagull work of art.

My lopsided head screams and questions: Did you ever think as a Publisher, letting designs, art spread over your favourite pieces from literature or making something like a one and a half pages of Victor Halfwit turn into an epic saga? Did you (you whatever)?

We moved around the Press one day, smeared ink on each other’s palms. We watched books printed, bound and emerging like newborns. The classes have each been more of discussions, sharing ideas. Coffee smoke snakes through for a short break but then you are also allowed coffee questions. I haven’t asked about a sleeping arrangement there but as soon as I locate a kind of Hogwarts to bless my children into, I will.

Every morning my mother awaits my footsteps I know. Her and my appearances are different, our constitution, DNA, hair colour. But she is the mother nonetheless. She knows I needed to arrive. Well, here’s what the Seagull School of Publishing told me on the first day with sandwiches and lime (heavenly) juice and still does with chocolate biscuits and black coffee every time—Come, Learn, Be.

Haven’t I walked long enough with a really good story in my womb and wailed in all possible rubbish (UK), garbage (USA), brutally damaging (Suhrita Sengupta) places to be able to tell a really good one? Here are the rules, here’s the platform to begin with a thought. So I am going to gulp, gurgle, gobble every single class and find out what I can give my mother—the open theatre of world literature that she is.

Suhrita Sengupta 

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Preparing to Fly

Imagine yourself mounted on a weed, taking in the magnitude and abundance around you with all your senses . . . that’s what we are for the initial days at the Seagull School of Publishing, a seagull, set against the backdrop of the Kodakcolour blue sky that adds hue to the seascape, framed as if in a postcard.

Day one at the School brought with it nervous introductions, reassuring words by a group of amiable mentors, a bagful of goodies, and the unexpected yet much appreciated sandwiches and lemonade. The batch this time consists of a handful of nine students from Switzerland, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta. And as we took turns with our ‘blurbs’ (not a cover blurb I guarantee but one closer to the oral tradition) to introduce ourselves, to convey to each other the story of reaching Seagull, and then went on to hear similar stories from our mentors, we realised that we were a roomful of professional and aspiring publishers and editors who had all come across this phase of their lives by ‘accident’. Believe me, I am glad to have met with such an accident, an accident that has already begun to change the way I look at books with the realisation, as Sunandini puts it, ‘that they don’t just happen’.

I often dream of a room which has bookshelves for walls. The Seagull School of Publishing space is an extension of this dream. The space in itself inpires creativity, becomes your ‘muse’. To be truthful, finding oneself surrounded by such visual delicacies in a classroom (which neither looks nor feels like one) was of much distraction initially. It took me some time to overcome the mesmerising effect and the overpowering presence of the space that surrounded us, as if each of the inanimate object had come to life waiting expectantly for you to listen to the fables they had in store for us.

Subsequently, over the three weeks what surfaced recurrently like a refrain was that publishing is more than a business endeavour; it is about how you build relationships with people you interact in the process of putting together a book. This is the spirit that is extended towards the students here as well. The warmth with which we were welcomed at Seagull is commendable: ensuring outstation students find proper accomodation, enquiring after their comfortable stay, the refreshing coffee breaks between sessions, the little surprises in the form of books compiled exclusively for the students and handed to us as we sit with closed eyes and outstreched palms like eager kindergarten kids, an exciting field trip to the printing press, a cake for the birthday girl. Need we ask for more? A disarming smile, a heartfelt greeting every morning, a patient ear to our insatiable queries, a deliberate erroneous typing out of assignments (mind you, by editors) to facilitate our learning, characterise our faculty. Need we anything better? And this is just the beginning of a journey, a journey towards our individual dreams that fulfills the dream of another, an author, to present the world with what we call a book, that which one can hold, smell, read, comprehend . . .

Hopefully at the end of this journey the seagull within us, which now sits in awe, will be ready for its flight towards new horizons.

Upama Biswas