The legend of Urvashi Butalia had preceded her. Most of us were familiar with her either as the publisher or the author of the ‘seminal’ (S. Anand was to point out the linguistic bias later, asking why not vaginal over seminal?) work on Partition, The Other Side of Silence. Therefore, there was a buzz of anticipation even before the impressive figure walked through the doors of our school on 4 April 2012. What we had not anticipated, however, was how at the end of our one and a half days with her, we would be granted such an intimate insight into the person behind the legend. I know I don’t speak only for myself when I say that we were left with the sense that we knew her well by the time she took her leave.
Whether it was in the revelation of her early engagement with the women’s movement in Delhi University, or of her first job in publishing as the unglamorous paster-upper at Oxford University Press; of her first stumbling steps into a career, or of the discovery of her own voice through the voices she awoke from the stunned silence of Partition horror, Urvashi Butalia, the unwilling but brilliant teacher, taught us the only way in which one can be taught—by taking us on a journey through the human landscape of emotions, ambitions, disappointments and apprehensions.
It is no wonder too, that she should have an instinct for teaching, given the fact that she herself had been taught by some extraordinary teachers. Whether it was her superior at Oxford University Press who taught her that ‘the buck stops with the boss’ by taking on the responsibility of a mistake she had made in his absence, or the professor at Delhi University who made her write her term paper over and over again until she wrote it the way she felt it, the seeds to the several facets of the legend had been sown, in her own words, serendipitously.
However, there were other elements without which all the enculturation could not have borne fruit—her incredible vision and indomitable determination. When she realized what she wanted to do, Butalia forfeited a Fulbright scholarship and chose instead to work on a women’s list at Zed Books, UK. And then came back to the country a few years later to give form and shape to her dreams by founding Kali for Women with Ritu Menon. As she said in jest, she often fought for a dream even though it existed nowhere except in her head.
One of her books in particular impressed us a great deal. Designed and created by 75 women from various villages in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan, its seeds lay in a health awareness project by the Women’s Development Programme of the Ajmer chapter. In two years’ time it had grown into a beautifully illustrated information booklet about bodies.
As Butalia told us about the making of this book—though it makes no money for Zubaan, it was one of the most essential things they had ever done—one was hit by the true significance of feminist publishing in India. However, Butalia went on to explain, feminist publishing had run its course across the world. The mainstream had subsumed women’s writings and books on feminist issues and thus publishing houses with feminist agendas had receded. However, in her opinion, this only made the necessity of a feminist house even more obvious, as it was they who could stay ahead of the mainstream and push its boundaries further. Or else, she said, ‘Your success is your very failure.’
Therefore, the struggle for sustenance faced by a small, independent and, more importantly, ideological, publishing house was brought to us with much sensitivity by a woman who confessed to being plagued with worry about the future of an enterprise built on the vision of one person. She confided in us about the dilemmas of wanting to retain things as they are versus the prudence of allowing them to change, of making certain measured compromises in order to ensure the life of the institution and its dedication to the central cause.
Through the course of the talk we could see Butalia’s evolution from a young, politically charged, determined entrepreneur to a sensitive, prudent, dedicated feminist. Dispelling the popular stereotypes of feminism, she also spoke about being a ‘one-person campaign’ to look at the brighter side of the women’s movement—at the improvements in the condition of women over time.
The second session with Butalia revealed even further how the practice of what she preached nuanced her politics. She explained the challenges of being a feminist boss, whose central goal was to accrue an economic value to the domestic work her employees also had to accomplish alongside their official work. But, more than anything else, the connecting line between politics and praxis was brought out in the dilemmas of writing. For Urvashi Butalia is also a writer who, as we came to know, has struggled to find her own voice.
As she spoke of the challenges of writing a work of non-fiction based on oral histories, she discussed how it was possible only when we realized that the changeability of memory was not pitted against fact—that they worked together to create a more nuanced understanding of events. However, as the writer to whom people confided their memories, there were difficult choices of inclusion and omission coupled with the understanding that breaking a silence had its consequences.
It was through this wholesome journey through the terrain of Urvashi Butalia’s life that we came face to face with the tests that our own ambitions will have to pass and, in so doing, create a dialogue with all those who have preceded us. In my mind, at least, it helped me locate myself and my enterprise better. And that to me was an invaluable gift from her.