January 27, 2022

KITAAB

Connecting Asian writers with global readers

“We had no revolutionary idea of changing the world as we founded Hawakal back in 2009.” – Bitan Chakraborty (Publisher- Hawakal and Writer)

9 min read

Team Kitaab is in conversation with Bitan Chakraborty, the Founder of Hawakal Publishers, also known as ‘the flag bearers of verse in the Indian subcontinent‘.

In 2009, Hawakal made their foray into publishing. Founded by Bitan Chakraborty in Calcutta, Hawakal works with writers and poets across the globe. Since then it has established itself as one of the foremost independent presses in India today, to publish in both English and Bengali.

With award winning authors and titles to their credit, Hawakal is a name in itself.

Bitan Chakraborty (b 1984) spent eight long years learning and actively participating in Theater. Apart from being the founder of Hawakal Publishers, he is essentially a story-teller and has authored eight books: Avinetar Journal (prose), Santiram-er Cha (shorty story), Sharanarthi (Bengali rendering of Kiriti Sengupta’s Reflections on Salvation), Chinha (shorty story), Haat Kata (novelette), Dhasa (novelette), Landmark (short story), Brishti Sahay (Bengali translation of Sanjeev Sethi’s selected poems).

Bitan has received much critical acclaim both in India and the United States. Bougainvillea and Other Stories and The Mark are two full-length collections of his short fiction, translated into English. More at www.bitanchakraborty.com

Team Kitaab recently had the opportunity to chat with him about writing and publishing. His journey is inspiring and his publishing choices as a publisher are a dream come true for every writer and poet. Let us know more about their journey till now and also what makes Hawakal pick a title for publication.


Team Kitaab: The journey of Hawakal from a Bengali little magazine, Baundule, to a flourishing publishing house with a pan-India presence has been brilliant. Can you talk a bit about the milestones in this journey and how the whole idea was conceived?

Bitan Chakraborty: Thank you for asking me this, Namrata. Baundule is a typical Bengali word that hints at ungroomed young people with no specific aim in life. In English, we call them gypsies or vagabonds. So, as the name suggests, we had no revolutionary idea of changing the world as we founded Hawakal back in 2009. A few self-publishing concerns predominantly controlled the publishing scene in and around Calcutta in those days.

However, there was an acute dearth of professionalism. Even now, only a handful of publishers, especially in poetry, execute a formal contract with the authors. Although we are better known for our punctuality, we have learned to deal with our authors with utmost sincerity and transparency over the years.

Coming to the milestones—there have been a few. At the risk of sounding esoteric, I must say all the three hundred and twenty-six books we published are our achievements. Of course, the list is extended; however, I should mention only the significant ones.

First, the release of our first book that was also Kishore Ghosh’s debut poetry collection, Ut Palaker Diary (2009), which enjoyed three successive editions. Second, publication of our first English title: Rhapsodies and Musings: poets in the mirrors of other eyes (2015) by Ketaki Datta and Tania Chakravertty. It’s a book of literary criticism wherein the authors wrote at length about the works of Sharmila Ray and Kiriti Sengupta.

At Hawakal, we wish to reach out to more readers—as many people as we can think of.

Bitan Chakraborty

Third, introducing Ethos Literary Festival (ELF), a two-day, bilingual lit fest in Calcutta in 2018, in association with Ethos Literary Journal (ELJ), headed by Kiriti Sengupta. Gautam Benegal and Sanjukta Dasgupta inaugurated the fest. Fourth, we established our first studio (Descent of Muse) in Calcutta in 2019. Fifth, launching our new imprint CLASSIX and releasing Sudeep Sen: Selected Conversations and Interviews (2020). Sixth, establishing our Delhi atelier (Grains).

Seventh, collaborating with the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS, Shimla) for publishing K. Satchidanandan’s new volume of travel poems, No Borders for  Me. Eighth, producing Illumination, an award-winning short documentary film on the works of Kiriti Sengupta. The film was released on our YouTube channel in October ’21. Ninth, formation of Hawakal Publishers Private Limited (2021). Tenth, publishing The Moonsmith Gulzar: orbiting the celebrated words by Shailja Chandra. The book impresses on Gulzar’s poetry. We received applause from many corners, but most importantly, it was Gulzar who called up to appreciate our job.

And most recently, Gourob Chakraborty’s Sriman Sonnet, a Bangla poetry book we published, won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2021. Although we have several milestones to reach, it is satisfying to realize that publishing is an important career option that is not limited to one’s passion.

Bitan Chakraborty – Founder, Hawakal Publishers & Writer.

Team Kitaab: From poetry to publishing fiction, non-fiction, and coffee-table books, Hawakal publishers is a traditional publishing house that does it all. So what pushed you to become a multi-genre publisher?

Bitan Chakraborty: At Hawakal, we wish to reach out to more readers—as many people as we can think of. Our contribution to Indian anglophone poetry is well-known. We have published a few American poets as well. However, poetry enjoys a niche audience. With other genres, we want to publish books we believe—books that need to be perused by readers who may not get a chance to read them otherwise.

Team Kitaab: What makes you pick a book from all the submissions you receive every day?

Bitan Chakraborty: We have two significant markers: A submission query should essentially be accompanied by a decent cover letter. An aspiring author must learn to be courteous. This is even more crucial in follow-up queries. We tend to lose interest in someone who isn’t enough convinced about why s/he approached Hawakal for publishing the proposed book. We often hear—”it’s a friend who recommended you” or “I’ve been following your works on social media lately.”

Honesty pays—one isn’t considered dated when the author genuinely addresses our concerns. Smart (or too bright, for that matter) emails tire us to no limits. Two, the subject matter. Not all manuscripts that we accept to publish arrive in a print-ready syntax. We help authors develop it further if we find the theme worth our sweat and time. We don’t expect all books to perform well in the market; not all can be bestsellers. However, as a publisher, we must be proud of the titles even if they fail to generate revenues.

Team Kitaab: It has been a constant debate if the qualifications of a writer, their social media following, and other details play a role in getting their manuscript accepted by publishing houses. Can you share your thoughts on this?

Bitan Chakraborty: We are not into academic books, Namrata. So, we can’t comment on qualifications or whether degrees help authors find a suitable publisher. However, institutional affiliations influence initial sales. Honestly, neither qualification nor collaboration ensures quality writing. We deal with creative writers who must practice arduously. Private mentors are better at honing skills than an academic course designed to produce writers. This is what we think, and we won’t mind if you go about it the other way round.

Social media is indeed a powerful medium these days. It’s easier to have followers, air your ideas about the issues you care about, motivate others, and so on.

Bitan Chakraborty

However, we do not understand if virtual media can guide people into action. No doubt, authors use their social media handles to their maximum benefit. However, it is debatable whether these handles work equally for all writers.

For example, Laxmi Unbound by Sanjukta Dasgupta, and Hesitancies by Sanjeev Sethi have done reasonably well. However, both Dasgupta and Sethi have zero to negligible social media presence. Having said this, we necessarily encourage our authors to promote their books on social media. 

Team Kitaab: Indian publishing has undergone a lot of changes in the last decade. And if that was not enough, the pandemic has pushed the publishing houses to make more strategic changes. Having witnessed it all at close quarters, what do you foresee as the future trends in publishing in India?

Bitan Chakraborty: Indian publishers will continue publishing printed books. The pandemic situation compelled many people to switch to e-books, but e-books aren’t the right instrument when it comes to comfort. Nothing can match up to holding a book in hands—the texture of paper, the aroma of fresh prints, placing the book under the pillow, or on the bedside table, marking a line or two to be used as a quote somewhere, signing the last page with a date add to the rituals of reading. In India, book reading is a significant daily practice and not necessarily a pastime measure even when one reads a run-of-the-mill romance or science fiction.

Many bookstores have shut down during the pandemic. The average footfall in bookshops without a cafeteria has miserably gone down. Readers are using online portals more frequently than before. Online shopping has remarkably evolved in the past two years, especially for books. Unfortunately, books aren’t counted among essential commodities. The pandemic has taught us not to mess around with our mental health, which is equally important or even more critical for our overall wellbeing. During the lockdown phases, the delivery of books was seriously interrupted. We can’t foresee future challenges; it’s high time the government marked books as inseparable lifestyle equipment.  

Team Kitaab: Today, a writer has a lot of publishing options available. From a time when only traditional publishing was their option, today they have vanity publishing and self-publishing also available at the click of a button. What do you think about these publishing options? Would you recommend an author to opt for them?

Bitan Chakraborty: Why not? If writers can afford the fee, why should they wait that long to get published by a traditional publisher? It lies with them to assess the pros and cons of self-publishing. To check the credibility of a publishing concern is not a heavy-duty task—it’s available nowadays at the click of a button! (smiles) 

Team Kitaab: What would be your advice for a debut writer aspiring to be published in India? Like some dos and don’ts, which would be helpful for them in their journey.

Bitan Chakraborty: The dos and don’ts are plenty, but I’ll highlight the important ones. Regardless of the language one chooses to write, the writer needs to remember that literature in the selected language enjoys a rich tradition with its share of stalwarts. So, before submitting a manuscript, one must be sure of the worth of their writing.

The writer should introspect: will my work add to the legacy?

Bitan Chakraborty

There are millions of readers beyond our social media contacts. So writers must figure out ways to reach out. This isn’t easy, but patience helps them reach the goal—all measures to be carried out to submit a flawless manuscript. There is no point in sending a faulty draft while expecting your publisher will do the needful. And for God’s sake, please don’t expect to be an overnight success.

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