So free am I, so gloriously free
Free from three petty things:
From mortar, from pestle, and from my twisted lord
Freed from rebirth and death I am
And all that has held me down
Is hurled away.
These words were written by a woman called Mutta who lived 2600 years ago, in Northern India. They appear in a book that changed my life. The book is Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, edited by Tharu and Lalitha. The translation of this particular poem is by Uma Chakravarti and Kumkum Roy.
When I first came across this anthology some fifteen years ago, it was a revelation. I knew that there was a history of women writing in India, that women had written some of the verses of the Vedas, among Hinduismâ€™s oldest scriptures (first written down from an even older oral tradition about 3500 years ago). But the depth, the richness and the immediacy of the voices in the anthology took my breath away. At that time I had no future visions of being a writer but over the years the words of these women has enabled me to feel part of a continuity of voices through the centuries.
Who was Mutta, and what caused her to pen the lines above? It turns out that when the Buddha lived, back in the 6th century B.C., women were not allowed to join the sacred order, even though Buddhism admitted that Nirvana could be attained by anyone, man or woman. In what might have been the worldâ€™s first agitation for womenâ€™s rights, women repeatedly appealed to the Buddha to let them join the order, and finally he was persuaded. These Buddhist nuns wrote of their new-found freedom in these celebratory verses.
Growing up we learned the songs of the rebel poet-saint Mira, who lived in the early 1500â€™s. I read about women who had participated in Indiaâ€™s freedom struggle. But I was quite unconscious of a whole body of literature that spoke to womenâ€™s concerns and struggles until much later.
Somewhere during my late teens and early twenties, the name of a publishing house called Kali for Women impinged upon my consciousness. My own introduction to the possibilities of an indigenous feminism had occurred during my Himalayan trek to study the Chipko movement, but my consciousness of it was fragmentary, incomplete. Around the time I first laid my hands on the anthology of womenâ€™s writings, I came across another book: A History of Doing, by Radha Kumar. Published by Kali for Women, it was a pictorial and verbal history of womenâ€™s struggles in India. Reading it I realized that there were some interesting things about womenâ€™s rights movements in India that were different from those Iâ€™d read about in the West: they were dominated by rural women, and they concerned collective rather than individual rights. I also discovered that Indian womenâ€™s rights movements were among the most active and vigorous in the world. But also, like the anthology, this book allowed me to find a certain sense of perspective and belonging in historyâ€™s long stream.
Kali for Women was founded by Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia and was Indiaâ€™s first feminist press. Later on, in an age where other feminist or women-friendly presses came to be, Urvashi founded Zubaan. The word means â€œtongueâ€ in the sense of voice, or language. Today Zubaan publishes fiction for children and adults, and non-fiction, including academic tones, bringing to the forefront some interesting and unusual voices that might otherwise be lost. They include collections of fiction by Indian women, including translations from many Indian languages. Zubaan also published my childrenâ€™s books in the Younguncle series — I count myself unbelievably lucky to have been â€œdiscoveredâ€ by Zubaan editor Anita Roy. Zubaan is also the publisher of my first short story collection, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories.
So I asked Urvashi and Anita to tell us a little about the world of feminist publishing in India and how they see the world from their office up in a flat in Hauz Khas, a suburb of New Delhi. They took time between traveling and editing to answer a few questions.
I’m really honoured to be asking questions of you, Urvashi and Anita. When Anita first discovered my writing through my Younguncle book, I learned that Urvashi was the one who had started Zubaan. As I had admired you from afar for a long time as one of India’s foremost feminists, I felt very special to be published by Zubaan, to the point of being very nearly tongue-tied when we first met. So, can you tell me, Urvashi, how Zubaan came to be?
Urvashi: And we have loved publishing you, Vandana, and hope to continue doing so. Zubaan is, in many ways, a child of Kali. As you know, Kali was founded in 1984 by two of us, Ritu Menon and myself. We worked together for 19 years, publishing books we loved and then, we decided to split up. We split for all the reasons people do, theyâ€™re never good, but sometimes the only â€œsolutionâ€ seems to be to separate. So we shut down Kali and went our separate ways. I set up Zubaan at the time, in 2003. The choice before me was to give up publishing altogether, which I wasnâ€™t willing to do, I love the work, or to join another publishing house. But I felt very strongly that I had an obligation and a responsibility; to the authors who had invested trust in us and given us their books, and to my colleagues who would have been out of a job had we just shut down. So Zubaan came up. Basically its mandate was to do what Kali was doing but also to expand and take account of the changes in the womenâ€™s movement and try to build those in. So while the spine of our work remains the straightforward academic research based books, we are also doing a lot more fiction, and general books and we went into doing books for children and young adults. This is the list that Anita developed and continues to develop for us. At the time we took this on, no one was paying much attention to young adults. Iâ€™m glad to say this is changing.
Zubaanâ€™s birth as a child of Kali happened also because of other reasons. The issue about feminist publishing is that it is believed that it is a temporary phenomenon, that in some ways its success is its very failure. Let me explain; in Kali we set out to fill a gap, to answer a need, to be part of a political process of mainstreaming the voices and concerns of women. In many ways this has begun to happen in the world of writing and publishing. Women are no longer discriminated against in the same way, their voices have in many ways become mainstream. From the early days when we did not have any difficulty finding authors to today when we have difficulty holding on to them is a very different story. Does that mean there is no place for us any more? That we should give up the focus on women and move into mainstream publishing? When Kali was going through its break up this was the question put to us by many — why continue to publish on women, there is really no need for that any more. But I strongly believe otherwise. I believe we continue to have a role, that the world of womenâ€™s writing is not finite, that as long as there is a movement and a politics, writing will be born out of that, and it is our responsibility and our commitment to reflect this, to publish it, even if — as increasingly happens — we end up publishing writers who then move on to more mainstream publishers. But that is our role and function. So all the reasons that were releveant when Kali was born, still remain: to centre-stage womenâ€™s writing, to reflect what is going on in the movement, to reverse the flow of information which had traditionally been from North to South, West to East.
Anita, I know you grew up in the U.K. and later moved to India . How did Zubaan find you? How did you find Zubaan? What is the most exciting thing about working there?
Anita: When I was working in the UK as an academic commissioning editor (for Routledge and then Manchester University Press), I got to know about Kali for Women. At that point (in the 1990s), Kali was THE name that everyone associated with Indian women’s publishing and gender studies, and Urvashi was already very much a ‘leading light’. Internationally, there was a lot of interest in new academic areas like postcolonial studies, and especially in women’s studies and gender, so these were ‘boom’ areas for us from the West. I met Urvashi and Ritu at one of the regular events put on by Women in Publishing (UK), and immediately started chatting with her. Her ability to connect with any- and everyone, automatically put me at ease: though I have to confess that I was more than a little in awe of her at the time (she will laugh long and hard at this, but hey, it’s true!!).
Over the next ten years, I found myself living and working in Delhi – first for Oxford University Press and then with the Indian office of Dorling Kindersley. Delhi’s the publishing hub of India, and everyone seems to know everyone. We’d meet up very often at booklaunches and publishing events, and soon became firm friends. I was thrilled, therefore, when she asked if I would join the new company that she had set up in 2002, Zubaan. As the mother of a young kid, I was really looking for a part-time job, and the opportunity to work in a small, women’s press was too good to pass up. It had been a dream of mine to publish high-quality, imaginative and progressive children’s books for Indian kids – and the market seemed ripe to do so – so we dreamt up “Young Zubaan” and started this as an imprint within Zubaan to be able to do this.
Lots of people raised their eyebrows sceptically and said “Feminist books for kids?” – but for us, YZ is not about pushing a particular political agenda, it’s about publishing books which open up alternatives. At a most basic level, it’s challenging the stereotypes – which are rife – about what girls and female characters can/should/are allowed to DO. But beyond that, it’s saying that there are multiplicities of experience out there, there are imaginative leaps to be made, and children in India – of both genders – need the tools to make those imaginative leaps so that our society in the future can, perhaps, be less sexist, less classist, more inclusive and more tolerant.
Give us an idea of some of the books Zubaan publishes that makes it stand apart from other publishers, especially in an age where there are plenty of major Indian women writers being published by big name houses.
Urvashi: Here are some examples. When we were in Kali, we published a book that, till today, remains to me the most important book we have ever done. It is a book called Shareer ki Jaankari (Know your Body) that grew out of a Government Development programme, a very radical one, called the Womenâ€™s Development Programme. It was developed by a group of women working on health within that programme — they had a series of workshops and the book grew out of that. It was entirely written, conceptualized, illustrated by rural women from Rajasthanâ€™s villages, 75 of them, all of whose names appear as authors on the book. Having produced two copies by hand (and having sealed each page in plastic using clear plastic bags from the village shop to keep the books safe from peeing children, they brought the book to us in Delhi asking if we would like to publish it. They struck a deal with us whereby we would price the book at cost or less for the village women and could sell it in the market at a different price. We were delighted to publish it, a book that comes from rural women, that goes to them, this is every feminist publisherâ€™s dream! We printed 2000 copies; before the printing was over they had pre-sold the book in their areas so we redid it and till today, it continues to be reprinted; we must have done over 50,000 copies and we have never sold one copy through a bookshop, it only goes directly to village women. The fascinating thing about this book was because it as about womenâ€™s bodies the village women had to find a way of depicting this, they drew pictures and then tested these in the village and everyone laughed, saying you never see a naked woman in a village, how could these pictures be realistic. But of course their problem was, how to show the female body in a book about the body without showing the naked body? So they went back to the drawing board and came up with an ingenious plan. Theyâ€™d show a woman fully dressed, covered from head to toe, but then you would have a small flap you could lift up and youâ€™d see the vagina, the breasts and so on! Youâ€™ll have to see the book to see what I mean, but it was a wonderful solution. Of course it drove out printers crazy â€“ at the time books were bound by hand and most of the workers were young boys so they had a field day!
The thing about this kind of thing, Vandana, is that no mainstream publisher would bother with such publishing, but for us, this is the oxygen that keeps us going.
Another book that we did that was different was Baby Halderâ€™s autobiography, â€œA Life Less Ordinary.â€ Baby is a domestic worker, a maid servant working in a home near Delhi. She had a difficult and violent life, was married at the age of 13, a mother by 14, faced much violence in her marriage, and one day, took her three children with her and left her husband. In Delhi, where she came, she searched for a job and in the end found work in a house where the employer was a retired professor and happened to be the grandson of Premchand, the Hindi writer. He noticed that she paid much attention to books in his home and asked her if she could read, and she confessed that she had always wanted to study but that sheâ€™d been pulled out of school to be married. He then loaned her books, encouraged and coaxed her to read, and one day, gave her a pen and a notebook and she wrote her life. That book became an international success but for us the important thing about it was that it represented the voice of someone on the margins of society and the kind of thing that would never see the light of day.
We were also the first to publish Vandana Shiva. In fact, we had to persuade her that she had something to say, and that she should write a book to say this. Eventually she did, with much coaxing, bullying and we had a classic on our hands. Similarly with Radha Kumar’s book The History of Doing. At the time histories of the women’s movement were virtually unknown, a few books existed, but almost nothing published locally. When we asked Radha to write the book, she was a bit skeptical, but we persisted, and I had to turn up at her place every morning, wake her up, sit her down and tell her write! She hated me for it, as did the many young men and women who hung around her home in various states of dress and undress. Every time I walked in with my writing pad and pen, I felt a bit like a criminal. It took YEARS and we almost gave up, but in the end the persistence paid off and the book became a reality and later also became a classic. The thing was that in Kali – and this has not changed after we morphed into Zubaan – each book was a political project, it was something we believed in, it was something we felt should be published and we were willing to put everything into making sure that it did get published. This is not how most publishers operate, but then most publishers do not wear their politics on their sleeves. For us, every book we did was a project that fed into the women’s movement, and every writer had to be nurtured and coaxed and encouraged to write. Remember that we were not only battling an indifference to women’s writing, but also a feeling among women that they had nothing important to say, and who would be interested in it anyway.
Anita: There’s one book that has been in the pipeline for many years, and is still in the pipeline, but which, once it is published, I think will be a wonderful eye-opener. This is called GirlPower by an activist and documentary filmmaker called Vani Subramaniam. Vani’s idea is to write a book that answers the question on the lips of many young Indian girls and women: What’s feminism got to do with me? She challenges the idea that feminism is a western concept that has simply been ‘imported’ – and gives a fantastic overview and insight into the genesis and development of the Indian women’s movement from its early beginnings to the present day. What’s unique, I think, is that she sees it in a truly global context, so she talks about feminist icons from Ancient Greece to modern Egypt, from Africa to China. AND, what’s more, manages to be fun, and irreverant and challenging while doing it. This is one of the books that I’m really looking forward to publishing, and see, in many ways, as a kind of ‘flagship’ for the Young Zubaan list.
Another project that Zubaan has done, which has been groundbreaking in its own way is “Poster Women”. We collected posters from women’s campaigns from across the country – individuals and organizations leant us thousands of their posters and this resulted in a major exhibition that travelled around the country and internationally. We’re now in the process of archiving and documenting these ‘ephemera’ to built up a really useful, unique, historical visual archive of the movement, through its campain posters. This, again, is the kind of project that a mainstream publisher would simply not have been able to do, but it perfectly gelled with the Zubaan funda which is not only to publish feminist works, but to contribute in whatever other ways we can to the movement itself.
It took me until my teen years to discover that one could have indigenous forms of feminism, that is, feminisms that were not influenced by or inspired by the West. The Chipko movement was my particular eye-opener. What was your experience?
Urvashi: To me, Indian feminism, or feminisms is/are very much home grown products. The current wave grew out of political movements within India, although as you know, middle class Indians – and many of the early feminists came from this class – are often very well read so we – and I count myself among the women who came into the movement then – were very aware of the thinking and trends in western feminism. Nonetheless the political cauldron in which our thoughts hubbled and bubbled was here, it was the post independence hope and disappointment, it was the Naxalite movement, the Jayaprakash Narain-led Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini movement, the Telangana movement and many others, These were mostly people’s movements, fighting upper class oppression, fighting unjust laws and so on. They had many men and many women within them, and women in these movements were slowly coming to the realization that they faced a considerable amount of patriarchy within the movements. These were the first stirrings of what one might call ‘feminist’ consciousness in India. And the early women’s groups grew out of this. Also very very influential was the report of the committee on the status of women, a document called Towards Equality, which was published in 1974-75 and which showed for the first time with documentary evidence that the position of women had been worsening since independence in many fields.
Alongside this, there were movements like Chipko which you have mentioned, which grew in rural areas and then spread across India, though in different variations. So there was one kind of activism happening in the cities, inside of movements and then there were things like Chipko, not necessarily feminist but which hold an important place in the history of the women’s movement and in the politicisation of women.
A possibly related question: in the West, feminism arose as a challenge to tradition. In India this is also true but it is perhaps equally true that in India tradition has a thousand streams. In some of these streams women are not an underclass. To what extent have women appropriated or brought to the forefront, or changed tradition to forge a feminist movement? And what part has women’s literature played in this?
Urvashi: Well, tradition has always been a strong presence and shadow in the women’s movement. Sometimes its influence has been negative. For example in the deifying of women, turning them into goddesses, which then robs them of the right to be human. It’s a convenient way of channelling women’s energy into something that while seemingly empowering them, can often be quite disempowering.
But Indian women have also fought this and broken away from tradition in very radical ways. You know the story of the anti alcohol movement in Andhra? It began because of the nationwide thrust on literacy. In many states, and Andhra was one of them, women came out in great numbers to study, flouting the received wisdom that they should stay at home. One such woman, called Rojamma, read in her literacy class a story about a woman whose husband frittered away all his earnings on drink, was always drunk and therefore violent, and of course brought no money home, so the family was hungry. As she read the story she recognized with a shock that it was her own story. She shared it with a friend who shared it with a friend and suddenly the women in her neighbourhood realised that they were not alone in facing violence and dealing with drunken husbands. And in dealing with poverty. So they decided to get together and support each other and it was out of this that the anti alcohol movement was born, one of the most powerful in India, which succeeded in toppling the state government. ‘Traditionally’ quiet, these women evolved an ingenious system to alert each other when one of them was being beaten. They would start banging their rolling pins, or other kitchen implements against tins, and this bush telegraph would fly across homes and fields and they’d all collect in a jiffy to protect the woman who was being beaten… look at the lessons here, strength, innovation, courage, sophistication, a political understanding… it is quite amazing. There are hundreds of such examples that make this movement both unique and different, and rooted in its own political history. (Vandanaâ€™s note: here is a link to the site of a famous movie, a docu-drama, about this movement ).
Literature has played a role here too – although one needs to expand and stretch the definition of literature. But for example Baby Halder’s story has been an inspiration to so many women across the country, and in the case of the anti alcohol movement, it was a book, albeit not literature, that started the movement off. Writers often intervene or play a leading role in such movements, as for example Mahashveta Devi has done in the tribal movement in India, or Dalit writers have done in the Dalit movement. This is true also of many other writers/// but of course the reach of literature is limited by both class and language.
There is a popular misconception in the West that because Indian women suffer so much they must be meek and take their suffering lying down. People have commented as such to my husband, that he’s lucky because he has an Indian wife who will agree with anything he says (upon which he starts to laugh hysterically). I was once told by my hairdresser that I was lucky to live in a country like the U.S. where I didn’t have to be mistreated. I’ve come across this attitude many times. Any comments?
Anita: When I was working in Dorling Kindersley, many of my British colleagues would be shocked at the sheer volubility and outspokenness of my Indian female colleagues! It was a real eye-opener for them who, I think often, expected Indian women to be meek and quiet. Not a chance! I was lucky enough to work with some of the most articulate, funny, irrepressible and talented women in the industry. Of course, this is a lot to do with CLASS. And I think unless you inflect your understanding of gender with an understanding of the class (and caste) divisions that operate in the country (both in rural and urban settings), it’s not possible to really understand the challenges that Indian women as a whole face.
Urvashi: I can’t tell you how many times I have had to face this. In a variety of ways. Often when I say I’m a feminist publisher people look at me in shock, horror and a kind of admiration. Feminist publishing? In India? That must be so difficult they say, you are so brave. But there’s nothing of that here, I’m not brave. And even though women in India face the worst kind of oppression, they also have the best kind of opportunities. Every type of reality exists here, as the cliche goes, and there are thousands of women like me who are quite ordinary, who do things because they believe in them, and to whom this country provides the space and opportunity to do so. The fact that India is a democracy is often underestimated by so many people outside. The women’s movement in this country is one of the strongest and most dynamic in the world – where else do you have 1.2 million rural women in positions of elected power at the village and municipal level! But of course India is also a place where women are deeply oppressed, where tradition works against them and where they themselves are often complicit in upholding patriarchy. But as Anita says, you turn a corner and you meet a strong woman. That’s got to be good news!
Thank you, Urvashi and Anita!