Urvashi Butalia has just finished her morning yoga class in New Delhi when I speak with her over video call. I’m sitting in my living room in Melbourne, and as her face appears on my screen, any pre-interview nerves are instantly eased by a warm, sincere smile. We chat about COVID-19 life, and my eyes are drawn to the piles of books behind her—not a curated background at all, but rather the organic habitat of a perennial reader.
Butalia’s life is indeed a life of books. A feminist, historian, writer, and publisher, she co-founded India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, with Ritu Menon during the women’s movement in 1984. Together, the two women published books on feminism, gender, activism, culture, history, and media—powerfully adding women’s voices where they’d been missing to the Indian literature stacks. For two decades, Kali for Women’s work helped educate and create conversations around the struggles faced by women in the country. After parting ways with Menon in 2003, Butalia set up her Zubaan imprint, which continues to this day to publish vital tomes on women studies, alongside titles for children and young adults.
Butalia has been fighting for women’s rights with publishing for over 35 years. I first discovered Butalia’s work while researching Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society, India’s first feminist journal. While Butalia was only involved as part of the editorial collective in its early days, the journal went on to publish 157 issues, closing its door in 2006. As we sit together in our mutual living rooms, I’m curious to hear more about how Butalia fought, and continues to fight, for women’s rights through books. Her publishing has undoubtedly changed the lives of many readers.
Zenobia Ahmed: How did your interest in feminist publishing begin?
Urvashi Butalia: It began in the early 70s, when I joined a mainstream publishing house in Delhi—the Oxford University Press. Simultaneously, I was campaigning on feminist issues, like dowry and rape. It became very clear to me at some point during our campaigning that [us activists] knew very little about the issues that we were addressing. There was no knowledge, no information, nothing that actually would give us background on the social, political, and economic context around, say, an issue like dowry.
So I started looking around for books. I found that there really was nothing, and so my interest in feminist publishing of the kind that I am now involved in started to come about then. We were floundering around in the women’s movement, trying to make sense of the realities we saw around us and only finding, for example, material written and created by a lot of Western scholars.
That’s when I started to think about publishing. I tried to convince my bosses at Oxford University Press that we should publish books about women, but it wasn’t even a consideration for them. They didn’t think that women had anything to say. They didn’t even think that women were readers. And I was too junior [to be taken seriously]. In 1975, I then became involved in the founding collective of [the feminist magazine] Manushi. It was started by a group of 18 women, and I was one of those 18.
The need for publishing was pretty apparent and quite serious, and pretty soon, I knew I wanted to set up a feminist publishing house. At Oxford University Press, I had been working as a production person and handling the printing. So I’d learned a lot about that. And I had asked if I could do editorial work and they were kind enough to agree. But publishing is a lot more than printing and editorial, right? If you want to publish successfully, you need to actually know all aspects of the market. And I was pretty aware at the time that I didn't. So even though I was talking about setting up a feminist publishing house, I also knew that I didn't have the qualifications to do so.
At that time, an opportunity arose to work with Zed Books in London. Zed wanted to publish books about women, and they focused a lot on the South. So for them to get somebody who was from the South, and who was a feminist, and knew a little bit about women authors in the field was imperative. They asked me if I would help them set up a list. I did that for two years. That kind of pushed me into another experience of publishing: learning about promotion and marketing. By the end of it, I felt equipped. I felt like, okay, I think I can do this now.
Were there certain topics you especially hoped to write about and publish when you started Kali for Women in 1984?
There always are. First of all, when we started Kali, it wasn’t me alone. It was [me and Ritu Menon]. Between us, we had a number of ideas of the kind of things we wanted to start with. One of them was a history of the women’s movement in India, because we felt it was a history that needed to be written down. But it wasn’t. That eventually became Radha Kumar’s illustrated book, The History of Doing, which today is still in print and still sells. We were also very clear that we wanted to focus on non-English writers. One of our first books was a collection of stories, translated from six Indian languages.
“Our philosophy was to keep track of what’s going on in the movement, and to try to publish on its issues and concerns.”
Of course, people came up with books and took them to us. Our philosophy was to keep track of what’s going on in the movement, and to try to publish on its issues and concerns. So for example, quite early on we did a book on the rise of the Hindu right-wing. It was before we had the kind of rise we have today, and it was very clear that women were placed at very complex intersections of that particular movement. And so in the 90s, we did a book called Women and the Hindu Right.
Have there been any particularly memorable projects that you’ve worked on?
You know, that’s not quite the right question to ask a feminist publisher because every book we do is political. Every book we do is special. Every book we do is to be celebrated. And if someone asked me: “Which is your most important book? Which is your best book?” I would be very reluctant to say because that’s not the model of publishing. Generally in mainstream publishing what happens is you pick the best selling authors, and they are the ones you promote. Everything else is just chaff. That’s not what we do. Everything is important. Having said that, there are a few books that are very special for particular reasons.
One book that was very important was published by Zubaan, not Kali. It’s a domestic worker’s autobiography called A Life Less Ordinary in English, and published in 2002. Hindi and Bengali were its two original languages. And it's by a woman called Baby Halder. Baby was a poor, badly paid domestic worker who had had a very violent youth and a violent marriage and three children. She lived in poverty. She left her husband, walked away with her three children, came to Delhi, and eventually after much difficulty found a job in the house of a retired professor who happened to be the grandson of one of India's most famous Hindi writers called Prem Chand. And then he helped her. He noticed that she paid a lot of attention to his library, and he began to talk to her and discovered how much she had wanted to study and how she had been pulled out of her studies and married off by her father, because he wanted to get rid of the girls. And so he taught her to read, and then he gave her a notebook and a pen and suggested she write her life. When she wrote this book, which we then published in English, it became an international bestseller. Today it's translated into 23 or 24 languages, and it has changed Baby’s life.
Another important book is called Shareer ki Jankaari (Knowledge About the Body), which was in Hindi when we first published it in 1989. It came to us one afternoon, when we were sitting in our office working. A group of seven or eight women dropped in, and four of them were village women from the Rajasthan state; they were dressed as women dress in the village, with long skirts, a dupatta covering their heads, and a choli covering their breasts. The others were urban activists from Delhi, who we knew. They came to us with a book that they’d created.
The book had been made through a series of health workshops as a part of a project called the Women’s Development Project. The project leads were a bit scared to publish the book because it was about women’s bodies, detailing the moment a girl child is born until old age, and all the changes her body undergoes. It included menstruation, pregnancy, etc. They project leads felt they couldn’t publish it as they felt it was pornographic. It wasn’t. It was just that they were not willing to accept that village women could talk openly about their bodies.
What form did the book end up taking?
The women behind the book trialled a lot of ideas, and then came up with a very ingenious solution [to depicting bodies in a way that felt realistic], which is the book they brought to us. The book shows a village woman fully dressed from head to toe, and then you can lift up her skirt and see how she’s made from the inside, or open up a window on her breasts. It shows a village man fully dressed, and you can lift up the dhoti and see how he’s made. From that system, they also created things like a little menstrual chart.
We agreed to publish the book immediately, and then the group of women said, we have two conditions. The first was that we would never sell a single copy of the book at a profit to village women. The second was that 75 people wrote the book, so we needed to include 75 names on the cover. We ended up putting all names on the back, with no names on the cover. And to this day, that book continues to sell. It’s been translated legally and illegally. And it’s used by village women. We have never made any money on it, but never lost any money on it. This was my dream as a publisher: To reach beyond the borders of the city and the limitations of the language in which we were working.
There must have been a lot of changes in feminist publishing since you started. Has it got easier or is it more difficult?
One of the doubts in our heads when Kali split in 2003, and we created two publishing houses from one, is whether the market was big enough to take two publishing houses. At Kali, we had been doing 12-15 books a year. As it happened, the market was big enough to take two, and more. Then mainstream publishers also started to do books by women. And many of the academic publishers started to set up strong feminist lists. We have seen an expanding of this space, which is actually very important.
“Our job is to constantly look for the more marginalized voices. So that’s what we do.”
But for us as publishers, it’s also a big challenge. We spend a lot of effort, and a lot of money, locating new voices. And then the moment they come to public attention, the big guns swoop in, make lots of money, and they go. So you find yourself in a very strange situation where you’re grateful and glad that feminist voices are coming out. But you also realise that you, as an ill-resourced, poor independent are actually doing the groundwork for the big guns to profit from. That is the way of the world, but that is there. Our job is to constantly look for the more marginalized voices. So that’s what we do.
Zenobia Ahmed is a graphic designer based in Melbourne, Australia. Her practice focuses on research, design and social change through publishing, book design and occasional writing. Working collaboratively within arts, culture and education spaces, she has designed artist books, exhibition publications, journals, academic papers, and non-fiction.