Giving India’s Women a Voice
By Sven Hansen
“As a rule publishers only print books by middle class authors and they don’t even know that there’s a completely different world out there, too,” says Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, and, in 2003, founder of Zubaan, the publisher that scored a bestseller with the autobiography of Baby Halder, a former housemaid.
The Bengali version of the story of her life and sufferings, A Life Less Ordinary, came out in 2004 and was published in English in 2006. By now, it has been translated into 23 languages. In it the author uncomplainingly describes how, when she was twelve, she had to marry a man almost twice her age; how she became first pregnant at age 14; and how, when she was 25, she left her wife-beating husband for New Delhi. There she was exploited as a housemaid, until finally she met a retired professor who noticed her interest in literature and encouraged her – she had had hardly any schooling – to write. At night, after work, and with his help she put down the story of her life and got it published.
Feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia translated her work into English, and it became a success all over India and internationally, too. “Books such as these give meaning to our life,” says Butalia, who does not make a secret out of the fact that Zubaan has made quite a profit with the book. This enables the publisher that sees itself as more of a non-profit organisation to promote women’s literature and science to financially back other activities such as workshops for future authors. There is also a book, presently in its ninth print run, about the history of India’s women’s movement, The History of Doing, and an accompanying collection of posters by women’s organisations from all parts of India, Poster Women. “We collected 1,500 posters from 161 groups – and more are still coming in,” says Butalia. “No one’s ever done anything like it before.” The effort has spawned an exhibition, a CD, and a series of postcards.
The wish to make women’s voices heard is the driving factor behind many of the books. Butalia mentions the sex education book Know Your Body, edited by a women’s organisation from Rajasthan. In it, a woman can be seen wearing traditional costume, but her skirts can be opened up so that one can look into her womb and the cycle of menstruation is being explained. Butalia made it possible for the organisation to publish the book, and when it came out it developed into a fast-selling item. At a guaranteed low price, the organisation distributed the book among villagers. “Up until now the book’s sold 70.000 copies and has been translated into many Indian languages,” says Butalia.
Butalia, who is 57 and has studied literature in New Delhi and South-East Asian Studies in London, has been in publishing for quite some time. While working for the Indian branch of Oxford University Press in New Delhi the following struck her: “For a long time India’s had a strong women’s movement – only this was not reflected in literature. Already in the 1970s, we introduced women’s studies to India, yet there were no books. The few books available on women issues were all by Western authors.” Butalia discussed this with editors at her firm but they did not think India had a market for feminist books and women’s literature.
Therefore, in 1984, with no capital of their own, Butalia and Ritu Menon founded just such a publisher, Kali for Women. “Kali is the Hindu goddess of power,” explains Butalia. “Often she is seen as a negative force, destroying the world in order to re-create it. In a literary translation, Kali means ‘the black one’.” Initially Butalia and Menon worked without pay and put each rupee they earned back into the business. Kali became India’s, if not Asia’s, first feminist publisher, printing works by female authors such as eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, who’s well-known in the West, too.
”At first, we published in Hindi and English but soon dropped Hindi as we were loosing money. Just recently we’ve taken up Hindi once again,” says Butalia. She thinks that India has great potential as a market for books, yet it needs much developing. Illiteracy is still widespread, spending power low, and infrastructure underdeveloped. In addition, there are publications in 22 regional languages.
According to Butalia, in India there are 7.7 books for 100,000 inhabitants. However, things are moving along. “20 years ago New Delhi had only 15 bookshops. Today there are 50 and they are being overrun.” India is changing and people are hungry for knowledge as this is the road to change. In India, a very successful English language book will sell 100,000 copies, Butalia points out. “There are 15 to 20 books that will sell in excess of 150,000 copies – for Hindi and Mayalam the figures are somewhat higher.”
In 2003, Butalia and Menon went separate ways, each opening her own publishing house. Butalia founded Zubaan, meaning “tongue” but also, in a more literary context, “voice,” “language,” “speech,” or “dialect.” Meanwhile there is not only the two publishers run by the founders of Kali, but their example has motivated other publishers to print books by women, too.
”Today, Zubaan publishes about 30 books a year,” says Butalia. “There are scientific books on women’s issues, women’s literature, and youth and children’s books.” In co-operation with Penguin Books, whose fame and sales network is the dream of most publishers, Butalia manages four book projects each year. Today, Zubaan has eight employees, including two men. Butalia is a frequent visitor of the Frankfurt Book Fair and last year took Baby Holder along with her.
Butalia is also a renowned author and intellectual. She was the first to study how the traumatic 1947 partition of India into majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan has affected women. At the time, twelve million people had to flee overnight, half a million died, and 75,000 women were raped by members of other religions. In 1987 Butalia, whose family is originally from Lahore, now part of Pakistani Punjab, first visited her ancestral home. Later she conducted interviews with over 70 women in India and Pakistan, recording their memories of what had happened as oral history. Thus, over ten years, was created what has become a reference work, The Other Side of Silence, in which she traces how what occurred then is still shaping the present. All over the subcontinent, the book made Butalia’s reputation.
Today, with works from India’s turbulent northeast, a quilt of ethnic and social tensions, Zubaan focuses on a conflict region often ignored by many in Delhi and Mumbai. “Women actively work for peace,” says Butalia. Women in today’s India, a country that according to Butalia has not one but numerous women’s movements, have to struggle against two main threats, violence against women and the selective abortion of female foetuses. Sati, the ritual burning of windows, on the other hand, a practice that often makes lurid headlines in the West, is a comparatively rare occurrence. For her, one of the greatest strides forward in recent history are the women’s quotas introduced in 1992 upon the initiative of Rajiv Gandhi who had been killed a year earlier. From then on, in local political bodies, one third of seats have been reserved for women. On higher levels, though, such a quota has not been forthcoming, as too many men are afraid of losing out. “Nobody could have foreseen how successful the quotas would become,” says Butalia. “Even the women’s movement was lukewarm in its support, as many were afraid women would just be used as proxies by their husbands.”
According to Butalia the women’s quota has bolstered the women’s movement, however, she thinks, that it has not raised an interest in women’s issues in Indian politics. The only exceptions are the leader of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, and Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, a member of the same party. “And this in spite of the fact that there are more woman voters today,” says Butalia. One thing though, she thinks, has definitely changed: “Woman authors and those writing about women’s issues are no longer being regarded as insignificant.” Butalia has done her part to make this happen.
Sven Hansen is head of the Asia desk at Berlin’s die tageszeitung newspaper.
Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.
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