In the early days of the pandemic in India, a group of women activists from Delhi sent a letter to the Chief Minister. They shared their concerns about how the pandemic and lockdown could impact women, suggested what the State needed to do to ensure women’s rights were not abrogated, and asked that the State take note of their experiences in previous disasters and draw on these to put in place a concrete and actionable policy, budget, and other steps.

The rise in cases of domestic violence was evident even at this early stage of the lockdown – since then, the situation has become far worse. As time went by, it became clear that being locked into an often smallspace 24/7 with one’s family created its owntensions. When compounded with the loss of jobs and incomes and the absence of a public space, this resulted in violence against the most vulnerable, usually women, children, the elderly, and those with disabilities. Child abuse too went up exponentially as did the trafficon porn sites

Women facing domestic violence had nowhere to turn to: response services and helplines were not functioning; community interactions, where concerns could perhaps be shared with other women, no longer existed; cellphones were in short supply (only 38% of women in India own cellphones) and privacy was non-existent.

That wasn’t all: with the shops closed, where would women buy menstrual products such as pads? For those who lived in villages, it was no longer possible to go to the fields. How would they dispose of used menstrual waste, what would they do if their homes had no toilets?

Research during previous pandemics across the world has shown that at such times sexual activity goes up because there are no other forms of “recreation”. But since supplies of contraceptives had declined as manufacturers closed down,the long-term impact could well be more cases of STDs, more unwanted pregnancies, and, of course, more marital rape.

Reproductive and sexual health services did not come within the ambit of essential services, so women had no access to abortions (a right Indian women have had since 1971). Those ready to give birth often had to go from hospital to hospital seeking a bed and medical attention. SAMA, a Delhi-based women’s organisation, was forced to file a petition in the courts demanding that pregnant women be given the right to have an ambulance carry them to the hospital.

And then there was care work. Nurses, homemakers, anganwadi and ASHA (accredited social health activists) workers together make up 75 per cent of health workers in India. ASHA workers were pulled into conducting house to house surveys, often without masks for protection; nurses were exposed to infected patients without proper protective equipment. Their work hours rose exponentially, their vulnerability increased: but tragically, alongside poor or non-existent pay packages, they were given second-rate accommodation and not enough appreciation.

There were a million others who remained invisible to the media: construction workers, sanitation workers, market vendors, sex workers, those who work in beauty parlours and the hospitality industry. Often the sole breadwinners for their families, these women suddenly found themselves out of work, with nothing to fall back upon. If male labourers were not paid, the plight of women labourers was even worse. And if they were doubly disadvantaged by being, for instance, disabled, then the situation had nothing to offer them.

Clearly, COVID-19 has had a gendered impact. But the State – perhaps struggling with many other “more urgent” issues – had little time to think about women.

How relevant is what we do?

What happened to the women in the world of Indian publishing? With ever greater numbers of women now joining publishing, there is little doubt that the profession, once known as the “gentlemen’s profession” (referring both to gender and class) has been well and truly feminised. Many women now run their own establishments; others occupy senior positions (usually editorial but sometimes also managerial) in larger publishing houses across languages; and much of the promotion, marketing and outreach work is done by bright, young intelligent women.

I decided to ask my colleagues what they felt about the situations, issues and questions COVID-19 had raised.

“It’s especially hard on women”, said Meghna, our marketing head, “as there’s no separation between the domestic space and the professional one any longer. Further, the lockdown has highlighted just how much our work, as white collar professionals, depends on domestic labourers who take on the tasks of cleaning and cooking so that we can dedicate our labour to other spaces.”

Ishani, my editorial colleague added, “For independent presses with politics, this is especially fraught. We know how powerful books are – that’s why we are in this whole thing – but advertising books when people are walking home with their children and belongings on their backs…feels a little absurd. We continue to work with new authors on their manuscripts despite there being no assurances we can be certain of.”

These concerns found wide resonance with other women in publishing. Indeed, it wouldn’t be untrue to say that for all of us in publishing (and I’m talking here about the women) who are passionate about what we do, the abrupt standstill in our activities caused by the lockdown and the devastating impact it has had on the poor in this country has forced us to confront the question: how relevant is what we do?

I think in many ways, we know that it is deeply, truly relevant. But for those of us who belong to privilege and are in a profession so dominated by class and caste privilege, while the lockdown has created some problems, in no way are they as severe as losing one’s home, job, livelihood and indeed one’s dignity.

I was reminded of a conversation with an Italian friend just as Italy was beginning to open up. He was angry that among the first to open were bookshops. “How important is it to read at this time? he remarked, “if the government thinks books are important, then how come shoes are not as important? What if I need a pair of shoes?”

There isn’t an easy answer to this question, for all of us in this profession know that while books are essential to life, and knowledge is the very lifeblood of people, one of the things our industry has not managed to achieve is to separate knowledge from profit, and to make it widely if not freely available. Had we done that, corporate houses would be funding publishers as an investment in knowledge. If books could be reasonably produced and priced, if they could be in everyone’s hands, and if everyone could read because of such freely available books, our world would be such a different place.

What’s changed for women in publishing

I took my questions about women and publishing to others on a Whatsapp group named Women in Indian Publishing, where many of us meet and “talk” about issues that concern us. I asked my colleagues to share what had changed for them due to the lockdown. Esha Beteille of the Delhi-based academic publisher, Social Science Press, described her experience as an older woman. The lockdown, she said, had been “particularly hard for older women…harder for [those] who have even older husbands to pick up all the housework and keep working….What happens if your older husband needs to be taken to hospital and there is no one around to help lift him?...What happens if I should fall ill? All through the day I am agitated as I am not at my desk when I should be.”

Aloneness and bewilderment are not feelings women are unfamiliar with. The lockdown has exacerbated these feelings.The impossibility of being able to step out, meet, talk and interact with friends and colleagues has hit them hard. Bijal Vachharajani, Senior Editor at Pratham Books, lost her partner some months before the lockdown. Since then she has been on her own.

“The lockdown,” she says, “has been a strange time for me – my working week is intensely busy as we put in more time to meet deadlines remotely, but my weekends and evenings are mine in a different way…they are hard, not because I was particularly social before the lockdown but because I don’t get to talk, share, fight, binge-watch, cook with Abhiyan.”

Dealing with grief in our societies is both a deeply collective and an intensely personal act. Perhaps it’s the collective that makes the aloneness of coping possible, sometimes even desirable. But when aloneness is all you have, with no human contact, the loss is that much more intense.

In more practical terms, I asked the community of women in publishing: were there layoffs? Were salaries reduced? Was the impact different for smaller, independent publishers? Arpita Das was heartbroken at having to give up the Yoda Press office in Shahpurjat. For many of us, our offices become extensions of ourselves – they’re not antiseptic and “professional” but often, as Arpita’s was, full of joy and light. Giving up such spaces is a wrench and it made me wonder if the relationship women have with space is different. Do we carry a bit of our home with us into our workspace?

What happens when the home becomes the workspace? For years, women have fought hard to be allowed to work, and several studies have shown the importance of being able to step out of the home and claim a space in the public sphere. It isn’t easy, but it is precious. The pandemic has taken that away and for many women, within publishing and outside it, the burden of work has doubled, as they now have to do housework as well as meet the demands of deadlines from their offices.

Being confined to the home has also thrown up other inequalities: how many homes, for example, have multiple spaces for office work? “If there are worktables at home, they’re usually reserved for men. I have to move from place to place and use what is available. Sometimes it’s the bed, sometimes the dining table,” a publishing colleague told me. It was therefore doubly difficult to create a sense of a workplace inside the home, she added.

Information about possible layoffs was hard to come by as most publishing professionals were unwilling to admit to this, although all spoke of the economic stress the pandemic and lockdown had caused. When people did begin to go back to work once the lockdown opened a fresh set of issues came up.

Atiya Zaidi of the educational publishing house Ratna Sagar said, “Many women who work with us are young, and they live far away, often outside the main city. With no metro, how will they come to work? And even if they manage to, how will they return? Their parents will not allow them to be out alone with barely any public transport.” She went on to add, “Three of our senior managers are women, they live across the border, so negotiating the closure of state borders is another problem.”

The pandemic has highlighted these inequalities even more sharply: a lack of public transport impacts everyone, but women are more vulnerable, especially because of safety issues.In families where transport – motorbikes, cars – is available, it is often men’s needs that are prioritised. So a male employee in Gurgaon may still be able to bike it to work but most women can’t. Their non-appearance at work when offices open up then reflects badly on them, not on the transport system. “We had some colleagues living in hostels,” a friend in publishing told me, “After the hostels shut down, they had nowhere to go, and they could not go home as there were no flights or trains. Jobless, homeless and female is not a good place to be.”

There were other stories, all tinged with a kind of loneliness, guilt, doubt and sometimes surprise. Aparna Kumar, who works at Penguin Random House said, “I found myself oscillating between guilt at trying to find pleasure in this time, which was so obviously painful for so many, to feeling overburdened by the sudden barrage of chores…how can a pandemic that has wreaked havoc in the lives of millions be anything but a ride straight to hell?”

As always there were the positive stories. For Anjana Saproo, a publishing professional who offers business development services to publishers, business suddenly came to a standstill. “It was a lonely and scary time as clients were hard pressed for revenue as the print publishing market took a major hit.” She decided to turn to the “secondary part of the business”, content creation, and became involved in an audio app project for children’s stories. The project, she says, “allowed me to let my imagination run wild” and, although she was not new to working from home, to be more “physically present” for her children.

Alongside Anjana’s bittersweet experience was that of Aishvarya’s, who had just resigned after a three year stint with Dorling Kindersley Publishers. “What I expected to be the most stressful period of my life, to be unemployed for the next six months or more, actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A couple of other companies I had been speaking to earlier came through, but what surprised me most was how supportive my former workplace was – they extended my notice period twice amidst the uncertainty of when the lockdown would be lifted, and finally offered to cancel my resignation altogether.”

The Zubaan experience

At Zubaan, we shut down our offices a week before the lockdown was announced. The infection had been spreading and given that we were operating out of a place that was crowded at all times of the day, we did not want to expose any of our staff to the disease. So our editors and marketing people began to work from home.

This wasn’t possible for our admin staff, since much of their work required their presence in the office, so they have spent a frustrating four months stuck in their homes. The uncertainty hit them hard – would they still have jobs when, and if, all this was over? As feminist publishers how could we provide the assurances they needed? This too was a task we needed to address ourselves to.

In the beginning, like most people, we thought we would be able to return to work in some time. But as time stretched indefinitely, the anxiety grew. Like most small independents, we had very little money in the bank and there were dues to clear. The annual royalty payments to authors would soon be due. There were books to publish. What were we going to do? We confronted the very real possibility of closure. It wasn’t pleasant.

We “met” virtually every morning. We talked. It was hard to stay enthusiastic. All of us were in despair at what was happening to informal workers, as we watched them walk those painful miles, feeling helpless and angry. How could we think of publishing books at this time?

Then slowly our feminist antennae reasserted themselves.

Alongside our publishing house Zubaan Publishers, we run an NGO, Zubaan. Together, our aim is to build a body of knowledge on, about and by women. Among the millions who were out on the roads without food or money, surely there must be hundreds of thousands of women? But where were they? Why did we not “see” them? Or, more accurately, why were so few people talking about them?

The only time we heard such conversations was in feminist spaces which we occupy with our partners. We realised that the old beast, patriarchy, was at work again. The media, through whom we were receiving stories of the workers, simply did not see women. And since they did not see them, their stories too remained invisible.

This then was what we would work towards: keeping women’s voices alive and making sure their stories were told. We started a series of webinars that focused on women, the violence they faced, their economic precarity, their stories of survival, of comradeship, how the many vulnerabilities of gender, caste, religion, sexuality and disability played out in their lives in this time of crisis. Suddenly, we were not despairing any more. There was so much to do.

Telling the stories of women in the pandemic

Over the years, my colleagues in Zubaan have worked hard to build a strong social media presence for our books and our work. But consistently organising webinars made us clearly see the full potential of the internet.

We asked ourselves: how will people read if they wanted to at this time? And did we, as publishers, have a responsibility to facilitate this? We realised that, like many print publishers, while we’d produced e-books, we had not really looked at the huge possibilities of digital media. Were there other ways we could put our content out? What were the opportunities the digital media offered, what were its limitations?

Our webinar series had been very well attended but we were painfully aware that it had reached only those who were English speaking and had easy access to the internet. This then became a moment for us to engage more deeply in these discussions and to build plans around them.

As Zubaan, we have long wanted to create an archive of the women’s movement in India. Our website already houses a range of materials we have collected over time, including over 1600 posters which are freely downloadable for non-commercial use. We thought this was the right moment to take this initiative further.

Our NGO worked hard with our partner groups on the ground in Assam, Manipur, Gujarat, Karnataka, Delhi, Bengal and other places to provide relief to women. In return, the women trusted us with their stories, poems, photographs. This collection of the voices of women, trans and queer people provides us a necessary, alternative history to how the pandemic has played out. They will soon find their way into our archive, which we hope to build into a collectively-owned space that belongs to, and is created by, women. And, who knows, one day they may even turn into one, or several books.

At Zubaan, one of the things we have been deeply aware of is the upper caste, upper class monopoly of publishing. The epithet gentlemen’s profession does not only refer to gender, but also, in the West, where it originated, to class and, very likely, race. A diverse and inclusive workforce in publishing has hardly ever been taken seriously in India.

We realised in an odd kind of way that the lockdown, which had so sharply underlined the inequalities of our society, and which had shown how the State, the corporate world and indeed people of our class, were complicit in perpetuating and strengthening these inequalities, had also given us an opportunity to rethink, to question how we could address this, even if in a small way and reimagine our publishing.

For us then this became a moment to think more deeply about something we had always wanted to do – to make our hiring practices more inclusive, more sensitive to the historical biases that exist in terms of access, and to bring into our workplace the same diversity we have tried so hard to bring into our publishing.

Some days back, the papers carried a poignant photo of two ASHA workers crossing a swollen river in a rickety raft to reach the people who were awaiting their help. It is their story, and that of countless women like them, that we should be telling. Will we rise to this challenge?

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.