Ruby Hembrom on Adivaani and the challenges of publishing Adivasi writing in English

On August 8 this year, the eve of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Ruby Hembrom decided to institute Adivasi Pickle, a “prize for indigenous ideology, thought and knowledge”. In the announcement, she called on Adivasis to share unpublished stories of their lives, struggles and triumphs. From the submissions, a jury will select “the most relevant entry”. This will be published in August, 2014, by Adivaani, a publishing house “by and for” Adivasis, started last year by Ruby.

A lawyer by training, Ruby was born and brought up in Kolkata. While attending a publishing course, which introduced her to the whole spectrum of the Indian publishing business, Ruby noticed that Adivasis were conspicuous by their absence. Along with Joy Tudu and Luis A Gomes, who are now handling Adivaani’s marketing and design aspects respectively, she set out to redress this lack.

Since Adivaani’s inception last year, they have published two books illustrating Santhal creation stories (We come from the Geese and Earth rests on a Tortoise), Whose Country is it Anyway? on displacement of Adivasis by Gladson Dungdung, and a calendar to commemorate the Santal Rebellion of 1855-57, among others.

With this prize, they hope to reach out to other tribes. “India is vast and has so many tribes, known and unknown. We want to reach out to everyone, and to do that, this is the only way,” says Ruby. Adivaani’s insistence on submissions in English might be an impediment, however, for prospective writers, and they have already received a few worried calls.

“The reason we want to publish in English because we want other people to read us and know about us. Even though Adivasi writing has been published in indigenous languages, the reach is very limited. We think, out of all the languages that are not our own, we would rather go with English,” she replies. “Having said that, I understand the limitations of our people in communicating in English… All we are saying is ‘Come as you are, we will help you’.” Fluency in English is not the determinant for selection, the content and impact of writing are.

Ruby explains this further by referring to Gladson Dungdung’s book. “He has a blog and most of his writings go viral…He is fantastic in Hindi but he know it was important for him to write in English,” she says. After receiving his manuscript, Ruby realised that to overhaul it completely would be doing disservice to the writing.

Predictably, after the book’s launch, an online bookseller refused to stock the book on the grounds that it was “not good”. It is a view she is likely to encounter more often in the coming years, but Ruby is defiant. “Why should we fall into the trap of what is literature and what is not?”

Like most other niche publishers, distribution is Adivaani’s biggest obstacle, but Ruby is happy to report that she has been able to sell most of her books and, more importantly, that they have been received well by the Adivasi community.

Meanwhile, Ruby and company are enjoying the freedom that working in an area with little or no precedent brings with it. Recalling the publication of the illustrated Santhal creation stories, Ruby talks about how the characterisation of supernatural beings had been hitherto influenced by Bollywood conventions. “A supernatural being would always be in a flowing white gown…We decided to just have eyes. Every time he would talk, the eyes would look in a particular direction,” she says.

Adivaani is bringing out The Santal and the Biblical Creation Traditions: Anthropological & Theological Reflections by Timotheas Hembrom and a book on the Red Corridor later this year.