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The Idea of Culture (2018): Opening Address- Naveen Kishore


Updated: Feb 19, 2022

I begin with a small paragraph from a letter I wrote to Romila Thapar, who is here.

I removed the mirror from the wall,

Tested the hook, checked if it would take the weight,

Replaced it with my shadow, hung it on the hook.

Having done this exchange, what else would I call it?

I looked into the shadow and found the mirror looking back at me.

Turning away in surprise, I found myself looking into the eyes of my shadow, only it

wasn’t looking at me.

Over my shoulder, yes, at the mirror, which no longer reflected the face of my

shadow, for it wasn’t there to reflect.

Having myself removed it a moment ago,

I found it hard to understand or explain.

So I started all over again, this time making sure to get it right,

I removed the mirror from the wall, checked the hook, tested it, making sure it would

take the weight, before taking off my shadow, hanging it on the hook, replacing one with the other, the shadow in place of the mirror.

Having done this exchange, this barter, this trade, this swap, this bold even clever

negotiation, this striking a deal, what else would I call it?

I looked up at the mirror and found a shadow, whispering my name.

What is a shadow? Is it but part of oneself?

Yes, up to a point.

Or is it outside oneself?

Yes, up to a point.

Is it that which is part of oneself but keeps on changing its form as the light changes?

So what is it reflecting? and can these reflections have meaning?

Or are they completely at variance with oneself as with the changing light?

Is one’s shadow, one’s other beings sometimes visible, and sometimes completely

invisible if not absent?

Does one’s shadow helps one to see oneself?

Yes, up to a point.

But does it help one to understand oneself?

‘This is worth thinking about’, this was Romila’s response.

This negotiation between the shadow self and the self as reflected being in the mirror,

This to me is one possible idea of culture. There are others.

I wish I could tell you there was only one truth, a single solitary truth.

The one we conjure up, magicians that we are of dailiness.

Morning, noon, evening, night, day after day, starting life as a figment, tiny seedling, our only truth, this one truth.

It isn’t.

People are born into their versions of truth. They live them, every day, in the confinement of their solitude. Single, even troubled truth. Some do it with a degree of magnanimity about other truths, existing, breathing, living what we call our lives, not in a singular manner, plural, regardless of our unpalatable lives. These breaths, these existences may be, others are distressed, agitated, angered by the presence of parallel truths in their lives and in the lives of others.

Other, always the other, hinting, condoning, pointing at exclusion. There is the truth of us. Therefore, there is the lie of the other. Because, this will not match their own frames or ours for that matter, you must arrive, arrive I say at an understanding of what works best for you, and like Leah learn to live with difference.

Remember, none of this is anything but an acquired skill. This learning too is a culture. Viraasat, inheritance, an entire system of learning that makes mockery of a scientific way of imbibing things cultural, one that depends on memory and the circumstances of sensed impressions, customs, facts, oral bits that are handed down. And the stories we enact as rituals and pass on. A sharing across times and generations, we all do it in some form or another. There is also the constant state of sharing that happens within us as individuals, like conversations with oneself.

But then, this act of conversing within the evolved self, in our heads and hearts is not just confined to a monologue, there are multiple selves in an amalgamation of inherited memories within beings like a dead souls’ archives—relatives, families, friends and what of the many literary experiences that form layer after layer of passionately imbibed culture in the form of our reading lives, thus inheriting others and their cultures. This is of particular interest to me as a publisher.

There are many ways a child will come to learn his mother’s tongue, the language of birth, spoken from a far off place, while the protective cocoon of the womb holds it secure, but allows it to listen every murmur. Every whisper finds its way to the child’s heart through its yet to be formed ears, later it will hear before it can begin to speak.

I first learned the language my mother spoke on her lap in Kashmir while I slept. In fact, the first words that reached me were not spoken but sung, I heard songs, as murmurs, as whispers, as lullabies, as language that soothes, as night sounds that lulled me to sleep. The morning song was different, it had a baser timber to it, a fine deep throated song that flowed effortlessly through my father’s throat. He sang while he dressed for work, the popular music of the time, songs that the heroes and heroines in the black and white era sang to each other expressing love and anger and happiness and sorrow, despair, heartache, joy, devotion, war, famine, birth, death, just about every emotion known to mankind. He seemed to know them all and sing them well.

Later the film folk from Bombay discovered Kashmir. My father, as assistant manager at the Oberoi Palace, would invite the Kishore Kumars, the Lalits, the Nargises, the Sunil Dutts, the Padmini and Ragini sisters, the Raj Kapoors, the Sameers to his humble quarters at the foot of the hill, just above the hotel rooms and vast lawns. My mother’s tomato pulao, kheer and gajar ka halwa had been discovered by the visiting stars, who would be relaxed after a hard day’s shoot, and happy to unwind and make themselves at home, sitting on our mats and eating from our thalis, the evening would begin and end in song. Singing soirees at home, sleeping in a lap, comfortable, secure, drifting back to memories of a time before I was born. I would listen from afar even as I fell into deep sleep.

Years later I would remember the ghazals and the songs, more importantly I would hum the tunes, later, much later I would begin to speak Hindi and Punjabi and bits of Urdu. Even later, the nuns of St. Presentation Convent would take me into their charge and teach me a whole new language, English.

I am a publisher, one who has learned to disrespect the notions of boundaries as we know them, not out of the sense of arrogance or ‘I know better’, no, out of reasons that are political. As most things these days need to be and yes cultural, always cultural, our baggage, boundaries, man-created, nation-made. To me the idea of cultural travels, translates, turns the reality of its own self, the one it began with, into the reality of the one defined by the idea of culture as the other. Instead of opening up possibilities, we set up nations, states that ghettoize the book, make it a commodity to be hounded, chased to the ground, bought and sold across territories, across languages, like literary slaves.

I guess what I am attempting to express is that in this, our world of publishing, too much time, energy, money is spent on creating structures, that ultimately box us in, and yet these boundaries do melt and blur, when so many emotions springing from what you do and what we do, the way you do them, the way we do them, the tingle and the excitement of the words we find, translate, secure, bind in the nicest possible manner for a community of interested readers, who don’t really know, or if they did know, don’t always give a damn about labels and territories and conveniences, both public and private—knowing very little about how a book makes its way into their hands, as long as it continues to do so, with regularity that can only be described as unrelenting and reliable and timely.

Here this morning, we have gathered to discuss, debate, even explore the idea of culture, and all I have done is offer you tangential distractions in the form of poetry and suggestion and favour. Make what you will of it, this idea of culture.

Kozo Yamamura, friend, author, patron of PeaceWorks, a good human, died on 15th February 2017 of cancer. Professor Yamamura, was a world class scholar, writing or editing more than 20 books on the Japanese economy and its history and on the nature of, capitalism. Legendary teacher, Yamamura challenged generations of Washington University students with courses on Post-war Japanese economy and the Economic History of Japan. He was a generous academic, mentor, colleague.

One day Kozo found his way to the work that we do under our PeaceWorks programme. Out of the blue he sent us a generous donation in support of the program. An unsolicited act of goodness, with a courteous letter of quiet praise. This was six years ago. Each year, since then, he had been donating $30,000. We never met him, nor did he ever visit Calcutta to see what we were doing with his generous support. But he followed every bit of our work online and showed complete trust and affection and often told us how important it was in these times to keep doing what we did.

It is with immense pleasure and pride that we dedicate this conference to the memory of our friend Kozo.

And finally, one last but vital thank you to dear Anil Mukherjee, friend and secretary of the Tollygunge Club, who has once again gone out of his way to be hugely generous and courteous, and his entire team for their continued support and hospitality.

Thank You.


Naveen Kishore is publisher, Seagull Books and Managing Trustee of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts.

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