I landed in Kolkata on the 28th of May, and started to set myself up for the course starting on the 1st of June at the Seagull School of Publishing. Moving to the city was a decision made with a lot of things going on in my mind. Staying away from home and office for three months to study editing kind of raised many questions.
Swapan da, helper at the Seagull School of Publishing, was setting up chairs at the gallery on the ground floor. I looked through the transparent glass door as I walked inside the building and took the stairs to the first floor. Swapan da rushed out and said, ‘Your session is downstairs today.’
The glass door opened, and the graceful staff member at Seagull, Nandini, who for some reason I thought was Chandni all this while, walked in. [She is, in fact, Chandni.] She said in a soft voice, ‘We are going to have a brief session here with Ronnie Gupta and then go out for a field trip to a printing press. And if you guys are wondering why we are sitting here, that is because Ronnie Gupta, our production manager, had an accident and it will be difficult for him to climb up the stairs.’
Ronnie Gupta walked into the gallery, or I must say hopped down the stairs on crutches. He hopped in a fashion which showed that he’d been using the crutches for some time now. He was to have the bandage on for six more months, he informed us, and told us about the freak accident that was responsible for his state.
We had a brief session with him on various facets of printing, binding and cutting. He explained the basics and answered our questions modestly, without romanticizing the book business.
On our drive to the printing press, we chatted about George Orwell and Roald Dahl and what they meant to us. It was a joyful ride because I was not only making new friends, but also going down the memory lane. The ride took me back to the good old school days, when on the rickshaw ride back home with friends, I would shoot at pedestrians, bikers and car drivers with my two-finger-and-a-thumb gun. The game would get serious when another rickshaw like ours with school students would pass by. Then we would all start shooting at each other, making firing noises: thaii-thaii, thou-thou. I sat with four others in the back of the rickshaw then. This time there were three of us, and we were all much older.
The printing press was an impressive large four-storey building. It was a well-oiled place, with various stages and kinds of printing jobs happening simultaneously. The printing press, I noticed, not only printed books but also various other things. There was the Hanuman Chalisa, catalogues for luxurious apartments, local magazines, etc. It was not a surprise to see that the printing press did all sorts of jobs—of course, they have be commercially viable to survive.
Ronnie had saved the best for the last—the huge printing presses.
Not long ago, I was in Hannibal, Missouri. The place where Mark Twain lived and got ideas for two of his famous characters, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I also saw his house and the museum next to the Mississippi river. The museum showed how Mark Twain, after making loads of money with a successful writing career, invested heavily in the printing-machinery business. Though he didn’t do well with the business, a thought crossed my mind about what he would have thought about this modern equipment standing here.
The important thing about the printing press was that it was completely dedicated to printing, binding and cutting. And what came out of the place was the final material, completely packed and ready to be delivered to the publishers or other clients.
The trip to the printing press provided far too much technical information for me. I was never very good at taking too much in at once. And so, at the end of the trip I left for my apartment, tired.
The next day was Saturday. I decided I would stay back at the apartment. And in the afternoon while I was working, I suddenly realized that I had finished my first week with Seagull. I walked up to the balcony. The humid weather has a major influence on how people go about their lives in the city of Calcutta. The streets get empty in the hot afternoons. There was complete silence. And I stood there and thought about the previous day’s visit to the printing press and my decision to join the Seagull publishing course.
On the balcony, looking into the distance where the scorching heat glinted on the coal-studded path, I could see something like an oasis form right in the centre of the street. And in some strange way it became clear to me, like the oasis in the middle of that heat, that Seagull was my oasis for the next three months.