Master Class by Jeet Thayil, (Un)forgotten Poet

In the middle of a week filled with dissecting the virtues of the comma and hyphens, we finally had our first master class. Before applying to the editing course at Seagull, I religiously read through all the blog posts by past students describing the many master classes conducted over the years. It was all so exciting! That was one of the many reasons that prompted me to apply and after my own master class experience, I am truly glad I did. And if I’d known I had to write this, I would’ve taken notes!

Jeet Thayil is not your usual run-of-the-mill author. Not only has he written two novels, he is also a well-known performance poet and an accomplished musician. His new book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, is a wonderfully rich novel about the forgotten poets of Bombay, which seems to be a point of contention for him. While reading up on him, I realized that Jeet is a fierce believer in bringing ‘undeservedly little-known literature’ to light, which I found very interesting. His new novel does exactly that—it blends fact with fiction and introduces the reader to a previously overlooked world.

The session itself was quite enlightening. Jeet was incredibly friendly and made an effort to answer all of our questions until he was ‘all talked out’ at the end. He spoke to us about his thought processes while writing, which was fascinating to hear. For instance, I would never have guessed it takes 15 drafts before he’s satisfied with a poem. He told us about how he carved out two whole novels from his initial draft of Narcopolis, his first novel. He apparently still has some of that original material left, which he unfortunately doesn’t plan on making into a new book.

Like all authors, Jeet is an ardent reader. He spoke passionately about his favorite poems, books and his least favourite word—discourse. Poetry, of course, holds a special place in his heart. There’s a chapter in Chocolate Saints titled ‘Of What Use Is a Poem That Cannot Pick Up a Gun?’, a line I simply cannot get out of my head. We discussed all aspects of poetry, and he gave us a few examples of great poems that he loves, including the nine-line poem by A. K. Ramanujan titled ‘Self-Portrait’. He knows that poems cannot always bring about tangible change in the world, but that doesn’t stop him from writing.

One interesting point raised was his relationship with his editor David Davidar, who helped shape Chocolate Saints into its current form. As an aspiring editor, this was invaluable insight into the process of enhancing the value of an already good book. He believes that a writer who refuses the advice of their editor is just plain stupid (his words!). Davidar’s suggestion of including more background on the novel’s main character led to Jeet introducing an ‘oral history’ section that derived its style from his 23 years of experience as a journalist. He was surprised by the fact that Davidar approved two controversial bits in Chocolate Saints, which he was sure was going to be cut or at least modified in some way, which I personally thought were the most interesting parts of the book. He also mentioned how lucky he was to find editors as crazy as he was. In fact, the prologue of Narcopolis is just one continuous sentence lasting almost six pages. A beautifully poetic sentence, but one which most editors would’ve rejected outright just for the sheer unconventionality of it.

Talking about designing his book covers, he told us about how no one noticed the mistake on the original hardcover edition of Narcopolis until after it was published—the designer had clearly never smoked a pipe before and the smoke was coming out of the wrong place!

Jeet’s advice to all of us was simple: Read. A lot. He stressed on the importance of understanding the author’s themes and the style, which is something he hopes that all the reviewers in this country, regardless of tight deadlines, would do.

Although we missed the opportunity to see him perform his poems (I regret not asking), my consolation was he signed our books with the coolest signature ever.

03 Jeet Thayil Autograph

My first master class was better than I’d imagined. Looking forward to the ones to come!

Deepti Ganesh


The Business of Books: Master Class with Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal

Here I was hoping to become an editor—pursuing a course in publishing, trying to run as far as possible from marketing (which I had studied as an undergrad). Here I was making conscious efforts to remove myself from what seemed like an oil spill in the ocean—detrimental, polluted and superficial—and Aditi speaks to us about the efforts that went into creating an integrated marketing scheme for Vani Prakashan. Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal is the director of the Copyrights and Translation Department at Vani Prakashan, one of the leading publishers of Hindi literature that has metamorphosed as a platform where cultures and languages unite.

She emphasized on the need to create value, to create a readership for the books, without being gimmicky. She shared many fascinating experiences with us. One of them was how she had attempted to directly sell copies of a book she knew was beautifully written and produced, and yet was ridiculously difficult to get bookstores to commit to it. In another, she spoke of their successful collaboration with Oxford Bookstore to promote Hindi literature and organize literary discussions and seminars. Aditi gave us an insider’s perspective on the Indian publishing milieu and helped us understand how difficult and disorganized distribution networks can be, the near monopoly of those English-language publishers and the vagaries of language politics. In the same breath, she explains the importance of maintaining great relationships within the book publishing community and how it helps to grow together as an industry.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said the session was an epiphany of sorts—to note the importance of relevant content in terms of marketing especially for a book to get the attention it deserves; and how, more often than not, vernacular publishers grow horizontally—I believe I have come full circle and now, ironically, embrace marketing. The class helped me understand how publishing in vernacular can give voice to people from diverse social, economic and educational backgrounds; how it makes literature more accessible, not only by articulating their stories but also to make it known, inform the world of readers—so that good literature may not only survive but, rather, thrive. I would like to read in Hindi and Bengali too—I can ‘read’—but I am so overwhelmed by all the books around that I feel I must read in English first (I was indeed ignorant of the language I speak at home).

As the session ended, I was left to reflect on Aditi’s words and question: Why isn’t there an Indian Book Office, a cultural institute that promotes indigenous literature and publishing like the French or the German? Why am I so anglicized? Even though I am interested in literature, I am not half as informed about translations from and writings in vernacular, as I’d like to be—why?

I have now realized that I must engage with literature more deeply and not just escape into it.

Udisha Agarwal

Minor Matters: Master Classes with Michelle Dunn Marsh

When asked to write about the sessions with Michelle Dunn Marsh, I got excited! (And very, very nervous.) Michelle is founder of Minor Matters Books (, an independent publishing house based in Seattle, that produces beautiful visual books. The books she carried with her were a visual treat, but the sessions with Michelle were even more so. Her warm smile and the enthusiasm were infectious. In no time, she made us all very comfortable. She shared with us her experience and wisdom working in a magazine, Aperture, and the publishing house, Chronicle Books. In her 20 years of experience, she has commissioned many artists and photographers.

What I loved about her sessions was that she discussed many facets of working in the publishing industry. And how one can go about creating a network, how predictable the industry is, and what are the ways one can start their own company. Interestingly, one of the most significant factors in this industry is time—time to conceptualize a book, time required to spend on each detail of the publication process while balancing the deadline and time invested to create and maintain relationships.

Now that struck a chord with me. In the day and age of apps and 4G, one forgets to pick up the phone and call. There is nothing better than a quick call to clarify the doubts and misunderstandings. Having the experience of working in the publishing industry, I know that these things make sense and are indeed very important.

Michelle also emphasized on how important it is to just ask: for help, for opinions, for guidance, for more options—or anything at all. Drawing from her personal experience at college and at work, she pointed out the incidents when she found many answers just by enquiring.

In order to summarize what I have learnt from her classes, I wondered about how I could really do justice. The thought made me lose my sleep, increased my appetite and haunted me through the day. Then I remembered my last chat with Michelle—regarding the publishing industry in India, graphic novels, zines—and I had my eureka moment! Thus, I made a zine on it (for all the uninitiated, ‘zine’ is short for fanzine—an independent magazine for self or small circulation)—my first ever zine! Read on . . .

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Shreya Mukherjee

For the Love of Books and Bookstores: A Session with Rick Simonson

As a kid growing up amid the Crosswords and Landmarks of our time, I often marvelled at the beauty and structure of bookstores abroad each time I saw one in the movies. There was a certain sense of elegant quietness to them that beckoned me, and once home from the cinema, I’d look up photographs of the world’s most beautiful bookstores.

I reminisced my childhood amazement during the masterclass with the legendary bookseller Rick Simonson from the Elliott Bay Book Company, the iconic bookstore in Seattle. For Rick, the customer is a key element while dealing with the literary world. Which was all too present as he sat behind us in the session prior to his, taken by Kerstin Schuster and Philipp Theisohn. As the lecture progressed, I felt as if he was assessing the questions we asked them, in order to get a better picture of how he should in turn interact with us later. It was as if he wasn’t leaving a stone untouched, in the way he was going about things.

Prior to his class, we were shown a presentation that made us better understand the Elliot Bay and the space it has created for its customers. The bookstore looks quite rich in taste and yet has the tag of simplicity attached to it. One little feature that caught my attention—and everyone else’s, I am sure—was what Rick later said made the customers particularly glad: there exists a Recommended Books shelf whereupon each book has a pleasant yellow sticky-note with comments, quirks, approvals and witty synopses written by members of the staff who have read the book and want others to experience the magic too. How charming an idea! And as he remarked later, customer interaction with the staff proved to be a very important technique in generating more sales.

Rick has worked at the Elliott Bay since 1976; he had joined when he was only a student. The senior book buyer now, he had founded the ‘Author Reading Programme’ in 1984—which chiefly presents writers from around the world to their readers.

The session began with Rick commenting on the initial stages that the bookstore had undergone. He mentioned how Elliot Bay emerged at a time when the US was experiencing several political upheavals. The Vietnam War was winding down, Richard Nixon was being re-elected. At the same time, he remarked how there was a sort of trial-and-error phase in-between, when they tried out a multitude of books—the sales figures of course depended on the books’ popularity. Soon enough, the kind of titles they displayed expanded as the readers increased and began to visit more. The bookstore began taking on a more organic shape, so to speak.

My interest in the master class peaked when he mentioned T2F. A community space for open dialogue, T2F (also known as The Second Floor) is a brave platform in the inner streets of Karachi, Pakistan, featuring rich cultural activities in the form of poetry readings, film screenings and art exhibitions, among other events. The reason T2F struck a nerve was because of my previous job at a similar creative arts space, the Gyaan Adab Centre—the founder who had set it up in Pune was also from Karachi and had been immensely inspired by T2F’s work!

Talking about the magic of author readings, Rick gave us several examples when things had gone as they had planned, but sometimes, the other way around as well. Like Senator Barack Obama’s visit to the bookstore drew a crowd upward of 22,000 in 2006, whereas an afternoon session with the South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin was an unexpected hit—a staggering number of fans made it to the event.

As Rick went on to talk about the localization of talent, I couldn’t help but think about my previous workplace where I had the exact same experience. It was a delightful mix of the past and the future as my walk in memory lane was interspersed with Rick’s talks about the future of bookstores. With this class and many others, I have come to realize that the ‘soldiers’ in a publishing industry not only perform a myriad of tasks but also are on different sides of the finished book. They arrive with their own sets of skills but from different facets of the literary world. The publishers interact with the authors. The authors converse with their inner monsters. The distributors deal with the bookstores–but it the bookstore that finally makes sure that we, the customer, grab the book we so deserve to read!

Ushnav Shroff

On Translation: Traversing the Path of Owning and Unowning with Tess Lewis

Translation has always been an indispensable medium of cultural intercourse, but at Seagull School I realized the depth of this domain. I admit, unabashedly, that I had never paid attention to the ‘Translator’s Note’ of a book and that I would have remained oblivious of its significance had not Tess Lewis taken us through a transformative experience of being a translator. Tess is a writer and translator of French and German, who was ‘endlessly fascinated by the plasticity of the German language’ even before it went on to shape her profession.

Being a translator is more than just perceiving and internalizing the emotional and intellectual dimension of an authorial voice. You undertake the colossal task of becoming a cultural bridge; like an opera director, you become absorbed in the consciousness of its composer, while being dissolved in the composition, you strive to preserve its essence. You have to live in a world conditioned by an author’s imagination. Translation, thus, is a task which calls for an author-translator-editor harmony. But then, reality does not always adhere to ‘what-should-be’: Tess candidly shared an instance when an author refused to approve her translation of his work because he could ‘recognize’ his voice in the translated manuscript. She also added that besides the cultural-intellectual dimension of this profession, the financial uncertainty can never be ruled out. You might be at your desk working on your translation for twenty-four hours a day, while you might have go over a year without a project at hand. Hence, securing one’s financial resources in this vocation is of pivotal importance.

A translator’s work should not be confused with transliteration. The act of translation is rooted way deep into socio-cultural folds—a translator must step in for the author, at times, when an expression is wanting for words in the target language (in other words, the language of the translation). The readers of the translation must pulsate with the same quiver of joy, pangs of pain, peals of laughter as have been infused into the original utterances of the source language. The translator must weave the bridge of words across the ‘shadow line’ of geographical borders and become the author’s medium for their new readers.

Tess further explained how translating poetry is even more challenging—the possibilities of translating a particular word or expression in poetry are narrower; moreover, much of the emotional and rhythmic quality of the original language is either lost or diluted as it filters through the translator’s consciousness. Tess also pointed out that the time invested in the work of translation depends entirely upon the nature and density of the original work, which can take from six months to two years or more! And in the end, you let go of the translated manuscript—that which you have been nurturing in your mind, like a nascent idea, now fully grown. You wait in as much anticipation to find critical appreciation and acceptance of a voice which is not yours, a gallery of characters you don’t own, an array of ideas you did not originate. And yet the translator’s task does not get any easier. It is a labour of love like that of an author or an editor. But, then again, that’s what the creative art of bookmaking is all about!

Suchandra Roy

A Writer’s Mind: Masterclass with Author Brit Bildøen

It was mid-January and we had our first master class at the Seagull Books store. The guest was Norwegian author, poet, translator, literary critic and librarian Brit Bildøen (and yet I think I have left out a couple of feathers in her cap).

The session with Brit was fascinating primarily because she is, so far, the only author we’ve met who doesn’t write in English. To hear about the processes of writing and translation, from a person who does both, was intriguing. The focus of the conversation that took place was Brit’s novel Seven Days in August (2016), published by Seagull Books.

Brit covered a whole range of areas, including the writing process of an author and insight into her work of translation into Norwegian. Seven Days in August came out of a desire to write about the 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo. It is a particularly sore subject for the country because, unlike India and other countries that have more or less gotten used to the idea, if not the actual horror of terrorist attacks, Norway had never experienced anything like it since the Second World War.

Despite wanting to write about the way the 2011 attacks affected their lives and psyche, Brit wanted to do it differently. She didn’t just want to write about the time immediately after the bombings but, rather, write about the future—about people’s lives, years after the tragedy. She sought to explore how, years later, the incident continues to infect the lives and relationship of a couple, Otto and Sofie, over a period of seven days.

As writers, we often start-off with an idea which gains a life of its own and, at times, resembles nothing of the original perhaps because the story progressed differently than we had imagined, or that other ideas and emotions seeped in and demanded a complete transformation of thought process. As an author hoping to publish a novel, how far do you think you can be in the writing process when the original idea has drastically evolved?—Brit was halfway through her novel when she revised it!

She began the novel with a specific narrative in mind, but the principal theme changed when a particular train of thought fused with the story. The politics surrounding the terror attacks as well certain creative tropes and emotions thrust the story in a new direction. This was a major point of interest for all of us because it’s so hard to imagine going back and reworking something from scratch, for inspiration demands it!

Another topic addressed, which writers might feel insecure or doubtful about—I know I have—was how to write about something you haven’t experienced yourself, especially, in the voices of different characters. I loved what Brit said regarding the process. To begin with, there’s the ‘well-known’ but can’t-be-stated-enough-times thumb rule: Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.

A couple of lines from Dr Seuss’ I Can Read with My Eyes Shut aptly sum up the current issue:

The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

It goes without saying, but helps to constantly remember, that the more stories and information we absorb, the more we learn. The more books and novels we read—the more characters, voices, opinions, perspectives, and psyches we know of and understand. After that, we should let our imagination run wild!

As Brit said, a writer essentially takes on different personas in the course of a novel. Each comes with its own background, personality, experiences and tastes. As a writer, one should try to immerse into the skin of characters, pretend to be different people, and then write.

As to the dilemma of writing about things we haven’t experienced—how strong is your desire to share the story of something in the way you’ve thought about it? One of the key moments of the master class was when Brit spoke about how the tragedy caused massive ripples in the lives of the people, especially because Norway was known to be one of the most peaceful countries in the world. The terror attacks led to a loss of innocence.

She shared her fears and doubts on writing a story based on the tragic events of 2011 because she hadn’t personally experienced the loss. However, like most Norwegians, she felt so deeply about the incident and wanted to explore the long-lasting repercussions in ordinary people’s lives that she didn’t want to leave it unwritten.

Speaking about the quandary translators face between translating and transliterating a text, Brit mentioned a crucial aspect—that of retaining the essence, good language and fluency of the original work. These are more important than getting the exact wording right. The same point came up in another master class later with Tess Lewis, an American translator of French and German. Tess also spoke about the issues of finding the right words that not only convey the meaning of the text but also the flavour of the language and the story/idea/theme.

The session with Brit Bildøen encapsulated the groundwork of writing a novel. From the genesis of an idea, its development and transformation, to dealing with social and personal experiences and expectations—all these are the basic stages writers struggle with and overcome. She inspired a sense of confidence as a writer when she shared her own stories and experiences.

Not to forget, she also read an excerpt from the first chapter of Seven Days in August. I was already interested in the book, but as she read the passage, my desire to read it increased. I loved the lyrical, dreamy and penetrating narrative. So, of course, I did the only thing that was possible for me to do after the session. I bought a copy of the book! Moreover, it’s always fun and exciting to have a book signed by the author for you!

A. Apoorva


Birth, Reincarnation, Survival: With Urvashi Butalia

As I settled in to attend one of the last masterclasses at Seagull, I glanced around and took a mental picture of the people and place I have grown attached to, thinking to myself: Why does this have to be over so soon? A few seconds later, our master for the day made an appearance.

The page-turner and pioneer of feminist publishing in India, Urvashi Butalia stood before us with an inviting smile. After a brief introduction from each of us, she dived straight into her life story.

Ram and Mary Sita take centrestage

She began by recounting the early days of post-Independence women’s movement and the changing face of Indian publishing which was mostly academic at the time. Her own entry into publishing happened as a result of systematically ridding Indian readers of the colonial impositions in text. John took on the avatar of Ram and Mary became Sita for our textbooks. She loved the exercise and found her calling as an editor.

I paused to think how small things can change the whole course of your life. More often than not, inspiration makes an appearance in your daily grind and refuses to reveal itself in the grandiosity of things.

Kali makes an appearance

I snapped out of my reverie to learn about the beginnings of her brainchild, Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in India. Lack of any literary records of the feminist movement in India and a personal curiosity made Kali happen. (Google wasn’t around, you know, you had to find your own answers.)

It wasn’t a smooth sail from the get go. To begin with, it was tough to find women’s voices in order to shape women’s literature out of the vast body of Indian literature. When they finally did find the voices, it took them quite some time to publish the first issue, thanks to the tripping interventions of the 1970s.

Capital was another problem. Unlike present times in which venture capitalists are lined up to pump millions into the next big world-changing idea, in earlier times what sponsored your unprecedented undertaking was either old family money or your determination. And so it did—the lack of the former and an abundance of the latter, plus some clever thinking helped Urvashi and co-founder Ritu Menon keep their dream alive.

The result was a pool of empowering writings by women for women, the literature that didn’t echo a voice just from certain women across certain parts of society, but built a collective sentiment that crossed internal borders and social classes.

That voice continues to be heard even as Kali dissolved to form two independent publishing houses.

Survival of the Indie—not business as usual

By this time, I had changed gears from being a giddy little kid listening to a story to a more adult-ish entity understanding how Zubaan (which Urvashi heads) functions. The philosophy was simple: practise your beliefs in personal life, in the workplace too. For Zubaan, it meant giving as much support to the employees as it gave to the voices it was putting out in the world; having a democratic setup where different opinions are important; being transparent about their business. Simple as it may sound, it is the very essence of anyone trying to weather the storm in publishing. Good advice for someone setting sail there.

As the class concluded, we moved into another room to put to use our new set of editor’s eyes. Urvashi showed us her edits of an essay. What started out as a serious exercise turned into a complete laugh riot as we looked at Urvashi’s comments displaying varying degrees of frustration over the text. I thought to myself: I should learn to laugh at my misery.

Ritika Sherry