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Writers and Readers of Feminist Books in India: A Brief Overview―Urvashi Butalia

Report / Asian Literature Project "YOMU" (India)

In the decades of the 1970s and 1980s the women's movement in India was dynamic and vibrant. Across the country, different groups were taking up different issues – inequality, discrimination in legislation, rights in marriage, violence against women, health issues, the right to work, poverty and so much more. The media was filled with stories of women's protests, civil servants and state functionaries knew that every other day they would be presented with lists of demands, and the streets rang with slogans, posters, songs.

It was in those heady days that women of my generation came to feminism. When I went to university in the late sixties and early seventies, talk of women's rights was all around us and all of us were caught up in the protests and demonstrations. As we left university, we almost organically moved into being full time or part time activists, with the movement central to our lives, and our jobs and homes playing a secondary role.

It was at that time that I, as someone deeply involved in the movement, became aware of how little we knew about the issues we were dealing with and protesting about. We knew instinctively that things were very wrong, but how had they become so wrong, what were the conditions that had given rise to the kinds of situations we were seeing, what would be a good way to address them, we knew nothing of this.

At the time, along with my activism, I had just begun work in my first job after finishing at university. The job was in a publishing house and every day I was in the presence of books. Very soon, I realized that virtually every single book I saw around me had been written by a man and by and large, most of the books were also about men. Women did not feature in any of them. This came as a shock to me and I realized that the reason we were so ignorant about the issues we were dealing with in the movement was because there was no knowledge available on them, we had no books that spoke to us about violence against women, about women's rights. So how were we to understand why women were facing these situations?

Slowly, an idea began to form in my mind: of creating and publishing books about women, by women, books that focused on issues women were confronting. But how to do this? My employers – all fairly decent men – had no interest in the subject when I suggested it to them, so finally I decided I needed to do this myself.

It was out of this impulse that the first feminist publishing house in India, Kali for Women, was born. As the idea grew in my mind and took shape, a colleague from within publishing wrote to ask if she could join up with me, and soon after we were able to establish our publishing house.

At the time, people knew little about women's writing or about feminist literature. Slowly, as we began to publish, and the books began to find a market, the idea caught on, and people started to show interest. It was not easy, much of the time, people would just say, "oh this is feminist literature, it's not for us, it's only for women". But the market has a way of overcoming people's resistance to things, and the moment it became clear to the big publishers that we had hit upon a possible new market, they all moved in, and began to publish books by women.

Today the publishing and reading scenario, at least in the English language world in India (and English is only one of the languages in which we publish in India, there are many, many others, each with a different market and a different history), is very different. All publishers are interested in bringing out books by women, and women writers have a much wider choice than they used to have previously. In terms of numbers too, things have changed, and more books by women get published.

But who is reading these books? That is a question that does not have a simple answer. There's no doubt that, compared to what things were like in the 1980s when we set up Kali, there are many more books around. And if publishers continue to publish them, that means people must be reading them. However, markets are never that simple and there are a range of other developments that have taken place that have influenced readership patterns.

One of them is the up-and-down fortunes of bookshops. From the late nineties on, we began to see a number of bookshop chains coming up in metros in India, especially in shopping malls, and the footfall here was expected to grow exponentially. It did not do that, and as real estate prices skyrocketed, some of the chains had to close down. But others survived and books became more visible.

Then there was the entry of online selling. Flipkart, one of the biggest online sellers in India, began their operations mainly by selling books. This opened up the possibility of book purchase for people who could not get to bookshops or who had no bookshops near them, and for those who did not want to spend hours negotiating traffic to get to a bookshop. Flipkart was joined by other, smaller, online platforms and then of course, as has happened in most countries, Amazon stepped in.

A third development was the growth of the internet and its expanding reach in India. Currently only about 13-15% of Indians have access to the internet, but although that may be a small figure in terms of percentages, it is actually quite large in terms of numbers. The internet did not necessarily contribute to the selling of books (in fact often it facilitated the pirating and free distribution of books, adding to the woes of publishers) but it certainly facilitated the dissemination and distribution of books, with conversations, discussions on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter adding new possibilities of book promotion.

One of the things the feminist movement also managed to achieve in India was the bringing in of feminism and women's studies into academic institutions. From its modest beginnings as a research discipline, women's studies (sometimes now also called gender studies) has come a long way and become an integral part of many courses. This meant that students – of all genders – were interested in the histories of feminism and in feminist perspectives and that led to a growing interest in reading feminist literature.

Does this mean that the battle has been won and women's books have become mainstream? Not so. There is still a huge amount of work to be done. Over the years, while the numbers of books written by women, and those we might define as feminist books, have increased, they are still not representative of the diversity and multiple realities of Indian women. The first books to be published were, by and large, written by urban, well educated, literate women. In the early days, it was difficult to find, for example, the voices of women from the margins, from marginalized regions (such as the Northeastern region of India, or Kashmir), marginalized languages, and most importantly, marginalized people, those who belonged to the lower castes, to minority religions, to tribal and ethnic groups – basically those who were not mainstream.

The opening up of women's voices from these areas and identities, came from young, independent publishers who have chosen this as their focus even though they know they are not likely to make too much money from here. But for independent, politically committed publishers, it is not profit that is the main motive. Their focus is on building a truly diverse publishing and reading culture, on creating what is today defined as biblio-diversity.

This has, in recent years, received a great deal of support from young, urban readers in particular, as they grow into a culture where the large political issues such as identity politics, climate change, the environment, political participation, human rights are difficult to ignore. Within these broader, larger realities, the small voices, those that have hitherto been unheard, are now acquiring valence.

The irony is that this interesting development comes at a time when nearly two years of the pandemic and the harsh lockdowns, have resulted in exacerbating inequalities in our society, in creating more economic distress and joblessness, and rising prices of essential and daily goods have further pushed people into poverty. Will the culture of writing and reading and disseminating books by women, and feminist books, survive this latest onslaught? That is the real question for us as we move into the future. Will sluggish markets recover? Will people, who may have lost the habit of reading, recover and become interested in books again? These are now our challenges.

Urvashi Butalia
Urvashi Butalia is an independent publisher and writer. Co-founder of India's first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, she now heads Zubaan, also a feminist house, that was set up when Kali closed down in 2003. She has nearly four decades of involvement in the Indian women's movement and writes and publishes widely on a range of issues to do with gender and women. Among her best-known publications are The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, which won the Oral History Book Association Award 2001 and the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture 2003. Apart from these she has won other awards such as the French Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres, the German Goethe Medaille and the Indian Padmashree. She lives and works in Delhi.