CHAT Scholar and publisher Ritu Menon talks about women’s movement and the challenges of turning activists into authors
“What does a feminist memoir look like?”
This is one 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. 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 per cent 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 was 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Women Unlimited has just published Attia Hosain’s Distant Traveller , comprising previously unpublished stories and excerpts from an unfinished novel.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 that 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 conversation veers towards books and food, and the inevitable comes up — cookbook! Ritu apparently 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.”
And, the meeting ends with a history lesson of sorts. “Nothing beats the Thais and the Vietnamese’s food presentation. 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 food presentation evolved as a fine art.”
I think good food is like a good book – totally satisfying… 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