The walls were lined with spindly stacks of books, precariously huddling against the posters and paintings. Novels, biographies, essay anthologies and children’s titles jostle for attention, each bound in beautiful covers, each an effort at expanding the space for feminist thought in India just a little more.
After a few minutes I was introduced to Urvashi Butalia, the founder of Zubaan and the writer of The Other Side of Silence and a few minutes later to her colleague Anita Roy, who was then the director, senior editor and publisher of Young Zubaan. We had a long, meandering conversation on many things, some bits with both Urvashi and Anita, and some with one of them at a time: in spite of the apparent effortlessness and ease, it was a very busy afternoon and our conversation was happening alongside many other things:
Urvashi, I will start with something you said in a Granta interview. You said that your first awareness of feminism came from your mother who always taught you not to tolerate discrimination. Do you think someone raised in an environment where the discourse was totally absent would find it a lot harder to become aware?
Urvashi Butalia (UB): Let me answer it a little differently: it is great if you have a supportive family but equally if you have an indifferent family, it may be easier than if you have to face actual opposition.
I think many women have overcome this obstacle because their aspiration to change their lives is so deep…I have seen many women achieve it against what seemed like insurmountable odds. I have seen it among my authors here at Zubaan.
What was the scene for independent publishing like when you started Kali in 1984 with Ritu Menon? Were people supportive or did it take time to convince them that feminist publishing had an audience in India?
UB: People were not particularly against what we were doing, but they just didn’t know… they didn’t understand. The English publishing world was not very hospitable to independent publishing. But because we had a track record in publishing, people were neither particularly hostile nor supportive. However, we had a huge amount of support from activists in the women’s movement who saw us as something that had grown out of it.
But in the publishing world itself no one exactly knew what kind of strange animal we were. It was dominated by educational textbooks, so there was bewilderment at the prospect of general interest books, that too about women. There was also a lot of scepticism which was quite insidious, but again, not actual hostility.
Are things different now with Zubaan, or have the adversities (if any) remained equally daunting?
UB: There are adversities, because you are always developing; things are never static. But the English publishing world has changed radically. For one thing, general books have become quite big – the balance of educational books and general books is much better. But also, there are many big multinational publishing companies that provide a strange kind of competition, but also a strange companionship, because almost all of them publish Indian writers, so we are all engaged in a similar activity, even if the scales and resources are very different.
What I think is most important is that there is a community of independent publishers, doing really interesting things and working with a sense of solidarity. We do not hate each other: we are friends; we help each other, which I think is quite amazing – you don’t get that in many places.
Anita, When did you join the team? What was it that made you choose to become a part of Zubaan?
Anita Roy (AR): I joined a year after Zubaan was set up, early 2005 I think. I had always been in publishing. Initially I was working in Manchester University Press, and I had already known about Kali Publishing because in academic publishing, anyone who had anything to do with the social sciences, women’s studies and human rights knew about Kali Publishing. I had known of Kali and Urvashi herself for a while. Then we met and became friends.
When Kali stopped and I heard Urvashi was setting up Zubaan, I was at that part of my life where I did not want a full-time job – I had just had a baby, so I needed a job in publishing, close to my house, flexible. And Urvashi said why don’t you come work with me. She gave me this fantastic offer which does not often come in life, where someone lets you tailor your work at a great organisation.
Tell us about your work at Zubaan.
AR: What I really wanted to do at that point was children’s books, because I had looked around at what was there in this incredibly young and book-hungry country and there weren’t many good books for children, and by children I mean everyone from very small to young adults. I also wanted to do a list that would give an alternative perspective; most of the books were quite conservative at that point – often reinforcing terrible stereotypes about families and gender.
So I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a quirky list of fun books for children in India. But when I started out, people asked me if I was going to publish feminist books for children (and not in a nice tone). I had no intention of doing Kristeva for under-5-year-olds…(laughter)…or you know, a pop-up book of demolishing patriarchy! I just wanted to have more interesting ways for children to look at the world. Anyway, that is how Zubaan started.
As writers, did you ever find it hard to navigate the online space? Do you think the anonymity that trolls and now, as it appears, hackers, enjoy makes women even more vulnerable online than in real lives?
AR: You know, I don’t really know. I find it very hard to respond to that because I have never had to write online – only recently put up my own website. I have actually never had any experience with trolls or hackers.
I also wonder if it is because I am not very opinioned on the online space. I’d rather have an interesting conversation with someone about their beliefs, rather than simply having strong opinions and voicing them, just for the sake of it. I am also off Twitter and quite non-confrontational online. I think if you have that kind of approach in life, trolls are not that much of an issue, although I am sure Urvashi would have a very different opinion on that.
UB: I am not actually a very online person, although I have the intention of changing that. I should be, and I have the desire to be, but I never quite manage it. But I am aware of what goes on, and I think that yes, the online lives of women have become very vulnerable and I am also shocked sometimes at the level of abuse that women have to deal with, as well as the consistency of it.
If you live in a violent situation, then yes, you have to face it every day, but equally you know your enemy. But the anonymity that being online offers can allow anyone to say anything – deeply, terribly hurtful things. Even though the online space creates communities across the borders, it is also an isolating space because you are negotiating and dealing with such things on your own.
It also complicates the matter of choice. You choose to go online, and then you face these things, and then when you speak to friends, they will often say ‘why do you choose to go online?’.
So in ways it is more complicated than real life.
And speaking of harassment in public spaces, what are your thoughts on street harassment? Given that it is a widespread problem, do you think the response should be rooted in the specificities of each culture or do you think there is a possibility for an international campaign?
AR: When I was growing up in the UK in early 1980s, I was very much part of the Take Back the Night campaign and it is interesting for me to see the same happening in Delhi 30 years later, so for me the global response has happened. There is a sense that we are all part of the same conversation and I think shared experiences do work. I also think people take campaigns they have seen in their own countries to other places. It was also amazing to see the response to the 2012 Delhi Rape, it was completely global.
And I think attitudes to women in public spaces have changed radically in the last few decades. There are few places now that would be isolated from that global shift in perspective now. But on the other hand, I am probably not the best person to talk to about this, because I am a cultural hybrid. I was brought up in the UK and although I have lived in Delhi for 20 years, my Hindi is really crap.
So in my 20 years in Delhi, I can count the number of times where I felt sexually harassed on, well, probably both hands but not more than that. However I know, for a fact, that a guy sings a lewd song or something, it passes straight by my ear. I know most of this just passes me by because I don’t have the right receptors, which works in my favour a lot. But then, you know, on those occasions, where, say, on a crowded bus a guy has been rubbing up my shoulder and I have been trying to move away, I was paralyzed by shame and all of that but I have seen the women around me swear and scream and hit him with a slipper.
I actually much less safe wandering around in London than in Delhi, because the likelihood of my being mugged and robbed there are quite high whereas the possibility of my being mugged in Delhi is actually low, because of the class factor. My privilege in Delhi is that in a bad situation I would be the one who would be protected, not the working class person, whereas if I were a domestic worker dressed in a cheap sari, my experience would be completely different. Totally opposite, in fact.
UB: When I was your age, Delhi was a different city; nevertheless it was not safe from sexual harassment. I spent a lot of time on buses, and Delhi buses were much worse than now. You cannot even imagine… you could not even get on a bus without squeezing past people. We had these mini-buses and sometimes the conductor would jump over the seats because he could not reach the front or back of the bus.
All of us have been pawed and felt up on those buses, and really everywhere, and I have tried different strategies.
I used to fight back. I have beaten up a couple of guys once or twice. At one point I was beaten by somebody: it was scary. So I stopped fighting back because I thought, sensibly, that I did not want to expose myself to this. I remember I used to have a handbag with a chain, and a scary looking clasp. I also tried looking people in the face, staring back at them and talking in an attempt to preempt. It took the wind out of their sails a little bit. I also tried ignoring it.
There is no one thing to do, because it is widespread, so different…you have to deal with each situation as it comes.
As someone who did not know much about feminism while growing up, I always feel like I do not know even nearly enough to contribute to debates. There are always important theorists I have not read, dates I cannot recall and histories I am unaware of. This is an anxiety many of my friends share. What is your advice, then, to the novice?
AR: Speaking as a nearly 50-year-old novice, I would say doesn’t let that get in the way of your critical thinking about yourself, about feminism, about the issues you see around yourself. I think one of the things that stops women from speaking in any public space is the feeling that actually nobody is really interested. I mean, one of the reasons we call Zubaan (Urdu for tongue; speech) that is because it is one of the spaces where women’s voices are heard and given validity by being out there, in public. I share every single one of those anxieties that you just mentioned.
The key thing, I think, is to listen to other people’s viewpoints, and to think critically about your own, and read widely. I personally do not see any value in being opinionated if you haven’t got solid grounds to stand on. I am concerned that young women feel that they don’t have the permission to have an opinion.
UB: I think, just because you have been part of a history does not mean that you can’t claim that history; after all, all of us come from places where we did not know what came before us and were novices at that. So in a sense that is our history to claim and I think every generation that comes along claims its own history.