Birth, Reincarnation, Survival: With Urvashi Butalia

As I settled in to attend one of the last masterclasses at Seagull, I glanced around and took a mental picture of the people and place I have grown attached to, thinking to myself: Why does this have to be over so soon? A few seconds later, our master for the day made an appearance.

The page-turner and pioneer of feminist publishing in India, Urvashi Butalia stood before us with an inviting smile. After a brief introduction from each of us, she dived straight into her life story.

Ram and Mary Sita take centrestage

She began by recounting the early days of post-Independence women’s movement and the changing face of Indian publishing which was mostly academic at the time. Her own entry into publishing happened as a result of systematically ridding Indian readers of the colonial impositions in text. John took on the avatar of Ram and Mary became Sita for our textbooks. She loved the exercise and found her calling as an editor.

I paused to think how small things can change the whole course of your life. More often than not, inspiration makes an appearance in your daily grind and refuses to reveal itself in the grandiosity of things.

Kali makes an appearance

I snapped out of my reverie to learn about the beginnings of her brainchild, Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in India. Lack of any literary records of the feminist movement in India and a personal curiosity made Kali happen. (Google wasn’t around, you know, you had to find your own answers.)

It wasn’t a smooth sail from the get go. To begin with, it was tough to find women’s voices in order to shape women’s literature out of the vast body of Indian literature. When they finally did find the voices, it took them quite some time to publish the first issue, thanks to the tripping interventions of the 1970s.

Capital was another problem. Unlike present times in which venture capitalists are lined up to pump millions into the next big world-changing idea, in earlier times what sponsored your unprecedented undertaking was either old family money or your determination. And so it did—the lack of the former and an abundance of the latter, plus some clever thinking helped Urvashi and co-founder Ritu Menon keep their dream alive.

The result was a pool of empowering writings by women for women, the literature that didn’t echo a voice just from certain women across certain parts of society, but built a collective sentiment that crossed internal borders and social classes.

That voice continues to be heard even as Kali dissolved to form two independent publishing houses.

Survival of the Indie—not business as usual

By this time, I had changed gears from being a giddy little kid listening to a story to a more adult-ish entity understanding how Zubaan (which Urvashi heads) functions. The philosophy was simple: practise your beliefs in personal life, in the workplace too. For Zubaan, it meant giving as much support to the employees as it gave to the voices it was putting out in the world; having a democratic setup where different opinions are important; being transparent about their business. Simple as it may sound, it is the very essence of anyone trying to weather the storm in publishing. Good advice for someone setting sail there.

As the class concluded, we moved into another room to put to use our new set of editor’s eyes. Urvashi showed us her edits of an essay. What started out as a serious exercise turned into a complete laugh riot as we looked at Urvashi’s comments displaying varying degrees of frustration over the text. I thought to myself: I should learn to laugh at my misery.

Ritika Sherry


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