I still get a high when I smell printing ink: Urvashi Butalia

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I am sitting across Urvashi Butalia’s desk in a cosy corner of the ample and informal first-floor office of Zubaan Books in Shahpur Jat-an urban village in the heart of Delhi that is a tangle of old tenements, boutiques, art decor stores and cafes.

Zubaan’s office, lined with bookshelves and crowded with racks stacked with old and new titles, oddly blends in with its environs. It is testimony to Butalia’s all-consuming work over the last 33 years, which began when she co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house in 1984.

Today, the writer, publisher and feminist runs Zubaan, an independent publishing house set up in 2003 that produces cutting-edge feminist titles, fiction, academic studies, and children’s books, all works that give voice to the marginalised and help break social taboos and gender stereotypes.

The latest in a string of awards Butalia has won is the prestigious Goethe Medal, an official distinction from the German Federal Republic for her contribution to publishing and her engagement with feminist issues and marginalised groups. The award also recognises her own writing over the years, particularly The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, which the Goethe Institut Newsletter describes as “one of the most influential books in South Asian studies to be published in recent decades.”

I ask the 65-year-old Butalia about how she evolved as a feminist first and then a publisher of women-focused books.

Mobilising ordinary women

Feminism, she says, came during her politically charged years in Delhi University in the late 60s and early 70s. “We were reading about what was going on in other parts of the world. We were talking about women’s issues. Many of our friends were taking off to Naxalbari and other places. You could not but be involved with what was going on and I think many of us began to be linked to what became the women’s movement simply because of the demands we were making at that time-separate buses for women, safer transport, cleaner hostels and so on.”

All this was happening at the level of college politics. Things changed in 1975 when the government study Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India found its way into the media. The findings and statistics shocked many women and became the topic of fervent discussion. “Scattered feminist groups started a dialogue, which was not easy because there was no Internet. Even phone calls were difficult but somehow some sort of networking among various groups across the country got started.

It was not just educated middle-class women who were involved, but ordinary folk. What still amazes me is how we managed to mobilise ordinary women on issues like the Rameeza Bee and Mathura rape cases with the limited communication facilities we had,” recalls Butalia.

The need to communicate was what made a group of 18 women in Delhi consider launching a magazine devoted to women’s issues. It took almost three years on the drawing board till the first issue of Manushi came out in January 1978. Butalia was part of the editorial team, but quit after the launch citing “personal differences” and internal contradictions.

Much before Manushi, Butalia had worked with Oxford University Press in 1973. However, landing a job did not mean giving up her street-level activism. “I loved my job because it took me to a world where I thought I belonged. But there was a huge mismatch between my political and professional life,” she says. “Nothing I believed in was reflected in the books we were publishing. It was then really that I started to think that perhaps I should do it myself. It was just a pipe dream then.”

There were several pipe dreams the young Butalia nurtured. One of them was to acquire a small press and print political pamphlets for her friends. She even went looking around for a little press. “I always wanted to be a printer and typographer. I still get a high when I smell printing ink. I finally found a press in London-a beautiful little machine-but it cost £80, which was a lot of money in those days. So, I had to abandon my grand plans.”

However, in 1984, her publishing dream came true when she teamed up with Ritu Menon to launch Kali for Women. “The folks in publishing wondered what we were up to. ‘Do women write enough to sustain the business?’ they asked. But nobody opposed it because nobody gave it a chance, or thought it would acquire the weight it later did,” she says.

The great challenge then was to get women to write and convince them that the everydayness of their lives needed to be articulated. Getting rural women to express themselves was also important. That happened when 75 village women from Rajasthan came and offered a book called Shareer Ki Jankari (About Our Bodies), which dealt with a host of issues from sex to menstrual taboos. It went on to become a feminist classic.

It was during the Kali for Women years that Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India was published, also a hugely celebrated book. I ask her about the experience of recording the stories of those who went through the pains of Partition.

“It was a harrowing experience, but listening to people’s stories is educative. It makes you wonder why you weren’t taught all this in history.”

‘Our feminism is incomplete’

“Can we understand 1947 without the stories of the people who went through it? I learnt a huge amount in doing those interviews-things, I am ashamed to say that I had never thought of-even about women’s experiences. As a feminist I should have known, but the fact that I didn’t goes to show how incomplete our feminism was.”

About Zubaan, Butalia says that it is tough going in a world where big publishers have moved in and lure writers from smaller publishers with higher royalties and the promise of better distribution.

So, new business models have been planned, which include tie-ups with regional language publishers and better marketing. There is also a push to publish writing from parts of the country that are untapped, such as the Northeast. Her new list, for instance, includes women writers from Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Assam, and Bhutan as well.

Though Zubaan cannot compete with the big players, there are enough reasons to be optimistic. More women have begun to write, and manuscripts and proposals keep pouring in.

The younger generation also seems to be interested. Says Butalia: “I am quite surprised when I see a lot of young people at our annual sale. In fact, one year some of our financial consultants who happened to be present told me that in the three to four days they had noticed only three people with grey hair and one of them was me! I was simply delighted.”

The writer is a senior journalist and author of Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary and the novel Junkland Journeys.