Feminist publisher and writer Urvashi Butalia tells BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA about foregrounding women’s writing

It is a warm afternoon in Delhi and Urvashi Butalia and her colleagues at Zubaan’s office in Delhi are finishing lunch. The office is distinctly unofficial, perhaps both by chance and design, and in possession of that ineffable quality that puts a visitor instantly at ease. It is a world made of books, and the belief that the world can be changed by books. Urvashi entered this world over three decades ago, and has seen it change rapidly since. “Earlier most of the publishing activity was concentrated on Ansari Road. You had most of the publishers and some of the distributors there. There were very few bookshops in the city, and all the ancillary activities for publishing, with the exception of printing presses which were in Mayapuri, were around that area.” Now, publishing activity is much more widespread, and Shahpur Jat is one of its many hubs in the city. Her first job in the industry was that of a freelance ‘paster upper’ at Oxford University Press on Ansari Road. It was an inglorious job, “which involved pasting names like Ram and Sita on top of John and Mary” in textbooks. The effort to Indianise did not end there; there was an artist, Urvashi recounts, who would colour blond hair black, and chop off the upper tier of double decker buses. Soon after, she got offered a job in book production, for which she is very grateful. “Typesetting used to be an art – to get the words closer together, to make the rivers of white on the page disappear, all that is gone. It’s become very mechanical now,” she sighs.

She also learnt the editing and marketing ropes, but with the grim awareness that she “would not have made it to the top in the same way that my male colleagues did.”

All this while, she had also been actively involved with the women’s movement in the country. “We were working on dowry at the time, but we were completely mystified by how or why dowry had taken the form it had: where did the violence come from, where did the avarice for huge, instant money come from, did it have something to do with migration, did it have something to do with Hinduism? There was nothing that could help us understand, no literature, no research. Equally, there was a lot of discussion, thinking, questioning going around and it had to be reflected somewhere,” she remembers.Along with Ritu Menon, Urvashi started Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in India and possibly Asia, as an extension of their activism.

Kali split into Zubaan Books and Women Unlimited in 2003, and both of them have consolidated Kali’s strengths of focusing on academic books and translations, remaining fiercely independent, and expanded in the areas of fiction, books for young adults, picture books and activist books. To mark its tenth anniversary, Zubaan will reissue ten of its classic titles later this year.

A small team of eight, Zubaan brings out 30 books a year. About four of these are brought out in partnership with Penguin, under what is called the Penguin Zubaan list (Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like A Feminist and Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen were part of this list). “It helps both; it gives our authors a better exposure, and it helps them to get a niche profile within their list. Of course it creates some confusion, because people think we’ve sold out to Penguin, but there is nothing of the sort. They don’t have any editorial control over us,” she says.

Kali was also birthed by a lack of any conception of women’s writing, and the challenges in those heady, early days lay in developing both readers and writers. With the evolution of feminism, the challenges have also evolved, Urvashi believes. “The challenge now for feminist publishing is to stay ahead of the game, and not lose its political edge. I think it’s also important not to get bitter. In the early days, when we would lose authors to bigger publishers we would be infuriated. But then I realised that that is the whole purpose — that you create the ground, you open it up, and then people will move on. The challenge is to understand the role you are playing —it is one of experimenting, excavating, finding new people, and being willing to let go.”

Around the time Kali for Women came to be, there were very many feminist presses globally, with Virago being the most prominent. There are now only a handful; most of them have either scaled back or shut shop, and part of the reason has to do with feminism going ‘mainstream’.

In India, this will not happen very easily, she suggests. “From the beginning itself, everybody publishes in all the areas. Not all of them will become mainstream. This combination of different books will keep people going. There is a lot of opportunity in other languages, where feminist publishing has not really begun the way it has in English, with the exception of Malayalam. The death will not come that soon, and if it does come it’ll be a mark of its success. It’ll be a happy death.”

Picturing Feminism

Early into the history of Kali for Women, the publishers were approached by a group of village women. They had created a book called Shareer ki Jaankari, which took the reader through the woman’s life and bodily changes from infancy to old age. “They had showed it around in the village and everybody laughed at them saying ‘this can’t be a realistic because you don’t see naked women in a village.’” The women went back to the drawing board and produced pictures of women fully dressed, and introduced little flaps that you lifted up to see the body. And even though the book was sold at cost, the satisfaction Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon derived would have been immense.

Picture books remain an area that feminist publishers are yet to explore fully, Urvashi opines. “There is so much visual talent among poorer women who don’t have the words to say it but they have the images to express themselves. It’s a task to reach out there, and we have to do it.”

One of Zubaan’s upcoming books is Flying with the Crane. “There’s a large group called Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan…Radha Ben, one of them, has for twenty years been painting the women’s movement as she sees it, paintings of violence against women, discussions amongst women…” The book will bring these paintings together. “This kind of thing is really important for us, and the kind of thing mainstream publishers will not do, it has no meaning for them.”

Apart from these publications, Zubaan has also over the years built up a collection of posters by different women’s organisations, which emerges as an archive of the women’s movement.

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