Backstories: Masterclass with Urvashi Butalia

What do bicycle stores have to do with editorial competence and what have swimming and surfing got to do with a Fulbright scholarship?

A simple Google search will tell you that Urvashi Butalia started out on her publishing career as an editor at the Oxford University Press, Delhi; that she taught a course in book publishing at Delhi University; that she joined Zed Books, London, in 1982, and that she returned to India, in 1984, to co-found Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. What these web searches lack are the generous, hope-instilling backstories. The unbelievable—unthinkable even—remarkably funny events that resulted in something unforeseeably wonderful. In a way, that’s what our Masterclass with Urvashi was about—the unheard incidents that go into making great stories. Imagine children clustered around a storyteller, listening with awe to tales of wonder and adventure and bravery, of overcoming odds and learning lessons, with generous dollops of wisdom that only experience can bestow. ‘I’ve been in publishing longer than most of you’ve spent living,’ she began! Sitting around the table, with coffee, biscuits, and few interjections, Urvashi told us stories, and it was one of those rare occasions when the true story is even more strange and exciting than the wild rumours.

Urvashi had joined publishing as an editor—‘a glorified paster-upper’—at Oxford University Press. At a time when the British publishing houses in India were trying to Indianize English textbooks and little boys and girls with blonde hair and blue eyes on paper were being turned into boys and girls with black hair and brown eyes, Urvashi’s job was to rechristen, with precisely measured paper strips and movable glue, these newly transformed Johns and Marys to the equally imaginative Rams and Sitas for a textbook series called Active English. Where did she get this movable glue—the rubber solution found in bicycle stores.

Our jaws dropped and we could only exchange looks of incredulity when she said that, during a stopover at London, she had decided to give up her Fulbright PhD scholarship to Hawaii for a ‘ratpataa old office’ and ‘sunbathing loony editors’ she’d always admired. They had convinced her that Hawaii was pointless if one didn’t know how to swim or surf! It was at the ratpataa old office, working on the Women and Gender list of Zed Books, that Urvashi worked out her plans to set up her own Indian feminist publishing house—Kali.

Urvashi spoke to us about what it means to be a niche publisher and the multitude of challenges that shadow independent publishing. When she and Ritu Menon co-founded Kali, they worked out of an empty garage and with no pay. Day jobs and ‘jugaad’ were necessary to keep Kali afloat. While money was a huge problem, there were two greater problems—prejudice and scepticism. And so, the task of building a list and finding authors to write for them was compounded by having to instill confidence in their potential authors and convincing them that what they had to say mattered and was worth being published and read; that the existing market did not, in any way, render their stories less ‘serious’; that there didn’t need to be just one ‘acceptable’ variety of writing; and, there would be a market for their writing, if not then, eventually.

Hardship does not only build character; it also adds up to a lifetime supply of stories to pick and tell from. Being an Indian publisher is its own reward too. It may mean going to the author’s house to wake her up with a mug of black coffee, and hounding her to write. And it may mean doing this for nine years. But it’s worth when what’s yielded is The History of Doing. It entails doing a title like Sharir ki Jaankaari, which can attract a readership beyond the elite, a project that can lead to a search for women binders in Daryaganj—as it will have never seen the light of day in the hands of young male book binders. It’s almost like charting your baby’s progress, marking notches on the wall for every centimetre of growth. It means nudging your book along by buying it at full price when seen for the first time at an airport bookshelf, and ensuring that you talk up the author and the publisher to the man at the counter! And it means taking heart in the fact that there is a support group out there rooting for you. All this besides editing, of course.

She gave some fantastic advice on things to watch out for while editing fiction and generously shared instances and anecdotes from experience. She spoke of becoming a Partition-story-tracker, of old havelis in Lahore and khaas paanwalas, of anger that wins the tug of war forty years later, of needing a friend to lighten the weight in the throat from listening to Partition stories, of the story of R, whose truth she’s spent years tracking but not written yet.

Urvashi spoke openly of the fear that independent publishers have of trying to reconcile themselves to the purpose of their existence once their work becomes mainstream, once their authors go to bigger houses, of their own sustainability. She also spoke of the conundrum of marginalization and integration—being alternative and struggling to be mainstream, and once mainstream, struggling to remain alternative—a struggle that never lets up.

Over the years though, seeing big houses move from scepticism to realizing the potential for a market, Urvashi says, therein lies the independent publisher’s purpose of existence—in having changed the playing field. The independent, she says, might be bought by a big house. Or might continue to be independent, perhaps dying a slow death, but dying in a blaze of glory. It is precisely (the possibility of) this death that reaffirms and justifies their work, lends meaning to their being alive in the first place.

————————————————————————————————————————-Here’s one of the best things I’ve heard on resolve and steely determination, from Urvashi Butalia: ‘When I have to do something, I have to talk myself into it. I talk and talk and talk and talk until it becomes embarrassing not to do it.’

Purnima Mahesh


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