Scholar and publisher Ritu Menon on loving food, hating cooking and the dearth of good regional food in the Capital
"What does a feminist biography look like? What does a feminist memoir look like?”
These are some of the questions that Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited, a feminist publishing house, and 2011 Padma Shri awardee, has been trying to answer lately. In the same spirit of enquiry, one might ask “what does a feminist lunch look like?” At Eros Hotel’s Empress of China (Managed by Hilton), Nehru Place, the answer proves to be a lunch infused with the whiff of emancipatory talk and the anticipation of change.
After studying the menu fastidiously, Ritu is tempted by the handmade crispy vegetable spring rolls. “Very good spring rolls are very hard to get outside China, achche hain?” she asks the attendant and a reassuring “yes ma’am” is enough to get things going. Further orders are deliberated, the jasmine rice is dropped, the steamed basa fillet added and, after a little coaxing on her part, the mushroom dumplings too. The process of building an order must have a few parallels with building a publishing list, one thinks.
Ritu co-founded Kali for Women in 1984 with Urvashi Butalia, when the idea of women’s studies was still nascent. She recalls it being a “very exciting” time. “It was so because there was a very lively women’s movement then; the whole idea of women’s studies was in the making. And it was a huge challenge to find readers and writers.”
Publishing as activism
“Authors had to be developed. In the beginning about 50 percent or more of what we published was commissioned. We commissioned Vandana Shiva to write a book and she said ‘I’m not a writer. I’m an activist.’ So we said writing is a subversive activity. If you write, it complements your activism. We always thought of our publishing as activism,” she says.
Women Unlimited has just published Attia Hosain’s Distant Traveller, comprising previously unpublished stories and excerpts from an unfinished novel. In the offing are The Pakistan Project, a feminist perspective on nation and identity, Vandana Shiva’s Making Peace with the Earth, a translation of Ismat Chughtai’s stories and another book which looks at the effects of partition on South Asia through the arts. Also forthcoming is a biography of Nayantara Sahgal, the 1986 Sahitya Akademi awardee.
The food arrives, and is much to her liking. “Everything is slightly different; it’s not the usual flavouring so it’s good.” She loves eating out, at peoples’ homes more than restaurants. “I wish there were places where you could get really good regional cuisine, I am dying for a good Gujarati restaurant, a really good Bengali restaurant.” She singles out Gunpowder, Hauz Khas Village, for praise. “The best thing about it is that it’s run by academics.”
Books and food converge in the space of the cookbook and Ritu had the privilege of working on one. “I once did a series for a publisher on 100 easy to make dishes from different cuisines. The whole idea was to cater to a generation that was not tied to the kitchen. One of the conditions was that I had to sample the food before the author was commissioned. I have never had such a wonderful time,” she remembers.
“I think good food is like a good book – totally satisfying,” says the experienced publisher. Not for her the travails of cooking, though. “I am not one who says ‘oh cooking is so therapeutic, it’s so relaxing.’ I’d rather read a book, frankly, or play scrabble.”
Ritu decides to wash her meal down with a glass of cappuccino. In the process, she is reminded of Pho, a noodle soup, that she had in Vietnam. She concludes with a history lesson of sorts. “Nothing beats the Thais and the Vietnamese for how they present food. In Thailand, historically, there were no kitchens in homes. All the cooking used to happen on streets, which is why Thai street food is the best. The only place where there were kitchens was the royal court. And that’s where the art of food presentation was evolved to a fine art. What’s called ‘plating’ these days – oh God, such a terrible word.”