Meet the Publishers

Independent voices: The women behind Zubaan, in their own words

An interview with Urvashi Butalia, founder, Zubaan Books, and her colleague Anita Roy.

One sweltering summer afternoon, I made my way through the beautiful labyrinth that is Shahpur Jat to the office of Zubaan, the feminist publishing house founded by Urvashi Butalia. I heard the cheerful sounds as I was climbing the stairs, and indeed, I stepped into a large room full of laughing, chatting and happy women. Above all, it was the ease and the friendliness that was arresting: this was more a group of friends working together than a "serious" office.
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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

We’ve done the hard work so you can get right to what you want amongst the 40,000+ offers across 4 days.

The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

Make use of the Amazon trio – Amazon Prime, Amazon Pay and Amazon app

Though the festival officially starts on 21st, Amazon Prime members will have early access starting at 12 noon on 20th September itself, enabling them to grab the best deals first. Sign up for an Amazon Prime account to not miss out on exclusive deals and products. Throughout the festival, Prime members will 30-minute early access to top deals before non-Prime members. At Rs 499/- a year, the Prime membership also brings unlimited Amazon Prime video streaming and quick delivery benefits.

Load your Amazon pay wallet; there’s assured 10% cashback (up to Rs 500). Amazon will also offer incremental cashbacks over and above bank cashbacks on select brands as a part of its Amazon Pay Offers. Shopping from the app would bring to you a whole world of benefits not available to non-app shoppers. App-only deals include flat Rs 1,250 off on hotels on shopping for more than Rs 500, and flat Rs 1,000 off on flights on a roundtrip booking of Rs 5,000 booking from Yatra. Ten lucky shoppers can also win one year of free travel worth Rs 1.5 lakhs.

Plan your shopping

The Great Indian Sale has a wide range of products, offers, flash sales and lightning deals. To make sure you don’t miss out on the best deals, or lose your mind, plan first. Make a list of things you really need or have been putting off buying. If you plan to buy electronics or appliances, do your research on the specs and shortlist the models or features you prefer. Even better, add them to your wishlist so you’re better able to track your preferred products.

Track the deals

There will be lightning deals and golden hour deals throughout the festival period. Keep track to avail the best of them. Golden-hour deals will be active on the Amazon app from 9.00pm-12.00am, while Prime users will have access to exclusive lightning deals. For example, Prime-only flash sales for Redmi 4 will start at 2.00pm and Redmi 4A at 6.00pm on 20th, while Nokia 6 will be available at Rs 1,000 off. There will be BOGO Offers (Buy One Get One free) and Bundle Offers (helping customers convert their TVs to Smart TVs at a fraction of the cost by using Fire TV Stick). Expect exclusive product launches from brands like Xiaomi (Mi Band 2 HRX 32 GB), HP (HP Sprocket Printer) and other launches from Samsung and Apple. The Half-Price Electronics Store (minimum 50% off) and stores offering minimum Rs 15,000 off will allow deal seekers to discover the top discounts.

Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and Logitech X300 Bluetooth Speaker at 58% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

For home medical supplies and equipment, keep an eye on the grooming and personal care section. Weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, glucometers, body fat monitors etc. will be available at a cheaper price.

The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.