Meeting Urvashi Butalia
Where there is a will, there is a way. After hearing about Urvashi Bhutalia’s life thus far, these were the words that first popped in my mind. A dedicated women’s rights activist, having the vision and the zeal to work towards it. In the 1980s, she saw a huge gap in the publishing world—books by women, about women’s rights and the like were not published. It was very interesting and inspiring to hear about how she came up with the idea of Kali for Women and convinced academics and authors to write about the women’s movement. One of their earliest books, which took years to be written and compiled, is now one of the most used texts about the women’s movement.
Running a publishing house with such strong political views is not always easy, she says. But she rose above the hardships and managed to build a successful publishing house which brings out around 30 titles every year. There were many decisions that had to be taken, some went wrong, some really worked out well. The way she spoke made it all seem so simple, but when you start analysing the hardships and struggles she has had to face, it makes you realise that nothing is simple.
Hearing about her experience made it seem that the publishing world in India is somewhat like a close-knit family. Yes there is competition between them but they are also looking out for each other.
She spoke about how she is working towards making the books published by them travel to other countries and the challenges faced while doing that. Her first trip to the Frankfurt Bookfair had been with just two books in tow. But still she went and this enthusiasm and drive got her to where she is today.
She has accomplished so much and yet she comes across as a simple and modest lady. She not only runs the publishing house but also writes and edits. Urvashi gives a lot of credit to her team of people working in the organisation. The publishing house runs because they all believe in the cause and are all working towards achieving the same goal.
Urvashi herself seems ageless. Spending the morning listening to her talk about her journey thus far inspired all of us. Her energy and passion was evident in everything she said. It was overall a great and very informative session.
A Week with Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy
Last week at Seagull School of Publishing we welcomed sessions with Ms. Urvashi Butalia (author, publisher, editor.) and Anita Roy (editor, Young Zubaan). Ms Butalia took us through the ins and outs of the publishing world and gave us a front-line view of what she has done and seen as part of Kali for women and with Zubaan.
She discussed the editing of non-fiction works and the challenges that lie therein. Today the impression, among readers, remains that the style, where non-fiction is concerned is dry—this is simply not the case. There is a blurred edge between fiction and non-fiction . . . a grey area where resides well-researched books without references and fast-paced narratives with footnotes. Deciding which category to place a book in (fiction/non-fiction), can be a difficult task. A publisher/editor must learn to look at all the components the book is built on; and when required, must guide the author in the necessary direction. Using an example from her own experience, Ms Butalia explained how and why she assisted an author in adapting a work of fiction into non-fiction. Such a change in style demands considerable time and effort from the author and the editor; it’s not taken lightly. However after considering all the documentary support that the author had gathered, Ms Butalia saw the potential of it as a work of non-fiction and helped the author move in that direction.
We found invaluable insight into an author’s mind and motivations as Ms.Butalia described her own experience writing The Other Side of Silence—what led her to write it and how it came about.
Throughout the week we looked at various excerpts from books, manuscripts—discussing the various editorial conflicts we came across and how to troubleshoot such issues. We also discussed the considerable analysis that goes into the publishing of a book. No matter how great the content, the publisher must look at a variety of factors like finances, the state of the market, etc. We examined all those factors in detail and the roles of all those involved in the publishing process.
The topic of the day, during Ms Butalia and Anita Roy’s joint session was, editing works of fiction. They shared with us thoughts on what makes a work of fiction work and a few tips every fiction editor should ‘be in the know of’. The readers come to expect a certain narrative and structure from fiction and one of the duties the editor is entrusted with is to ensure that the readers aren’t disappointed. If the reader doesn’t return, the books will remain on the shelves; and if they remain there long enough they get pulped!
The last class, led by Anita Roy, was on editing books for children. She presented us with, what was stylistically, content-wise, and lengthwise suitable for different age groups. We also discussed how a variety of factors, ideological, spiritual, political can affect an editor while working on a children’s book. Keeping in mind a variety of these considerations as well as ensuring authenticity in the content seems to require much forethought and insight, on the part of the editor. For example, when choosing illustrations we must maintain equal representation when considering issues of gender, caste, colour, creed, etc, while ensuring the absence of stereotypes—a tall order.
The talk then turned to the literature that shaped our childhood—the British influence on our reading material is apparent. British literature has worked itself into all our lives. However, we inhabit a world where we cannot be represented only by the cultural past of a bygone era. We must move forward and look to Indian authors constructing in our contemporary context. Also, our diverse, cross-cultural, multilingual society needs fairer representation in our children’s books which is difficult because Indians don’t buy locally when it comes to children’s literature, believing that Indian writing is inferior to the Enid Blytons’ and the Ruskin Bonds’ of the world—a concept we must help eradicate.
One thing that I have taken away from my time among these wonderful minds is that there comes a tremendous satisfaction from what they do. Ratification does not always come in the form of sales but in the form of a well-produced book—a laborious, demanding task, but it comes with its own reward—pride and satisfaction in creation.