The Personal is Political

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

It’s a strange thing to be 10 years old and 30 years old at the same time. This year, Zubaan turns 10, and very soon, Zubaan’s ‘parent’ Kali for Women, will turn 30. Although Kali isn’t around anymore — in 2003, it split into two independent publishing houses — its three-decade history is here to stay. Feminist publishing, women’s publishing, isn’t going away anytime soon. If we’re talking years, my own sojourn in publishing will touch the four-decade mark next year, and if we add up the years of all those who currently work in Zubaan, we are looking at a cumulative experience of 125 years or so — this is serious stuff.

What have the past 10 years — indeed the past four decades — been like? When we began, in 1984, the market for general books was still relatively unexplored, that mysterious entity called ‘the general reader’ not a significant actor, at least in the world of English publishing that we inhabit. Twenty years later, when Kali broke up, the sense of loss was deep; confidence levels were low. Would we survive? Did the market have enough space to accommodate two feminist imprints? Was this the end of the line for feminist publishing?

The answer to that, of course, was a firm NO. Shutting shop wasn’t really an option. Nor was mere survival. Instead, we embarked on a roller coaster ride as we discovered, time and again, how exciting feminist publishing could be.

Feminist publishing is a strange sort of animal. You’re never just a publisher; it’s never just about books. Instead, it’s about being part of a community, about being politically engaged, about being responsible to the movement that’s given you birth and nurtured you. And it’s about survival — political survival and commercial survival and the precarious line between the two.

At Zubaan that’s what we’ve tried to do over the last 10 years: publish books that commercial publishers will not, books that will never make us rich, books that cover — and some might think this foolhardy for a publisher of our size — a wide, eclectic range. They include an autobiography of a domestic worker (a book that changed our lives and hers); a profile of a water activist killed by terrorists in Pakistan; a prison memoir by a Kashmiri prisoner; a book of photos by Magnum agency photographers; a children’s book on incest; a book of drawings on the women’s movement by a poor Dalit woman in Gujarat; a whole series of books by writers from the Northeast.

We’ve also worked much more closely with publishers from around India, our friends who publish in other Indian languages. The exchange of translations, the growing awareness of the wealth of our literatures in Indian languages, has been one of the most rewarding engagements of the decade gone by.

And we haven’t stopped at books. We’re currently engaged in building an archive of women’s history, a research project on sexual violence across South Asia that will generate cutting-edge work. We recently put together an amazing collection of posters from the women’s movement in India, which toured the country as an exhibition called Poster Women.

We aren’t unusual in this. In a book market that is so rapidly transforming, where the force of the mass market book and large conglomerates is squeezing the space that was once available to smaller actors, it’s often the smaller actors, the independents, those who are politically engaged, who keep the debate alive.

We’ve thought a lot about how to mark our tenth anniversary, and have decided to reissue 10 of our ‘classics’. As we started to put a list together, we became aware of something that in many ways we already knew: in its short history, feminist scholarship has resulted in so many classics that it is impossible to narrow the list down to 10. So much has changed in Indian publishing — the electronic world is knocking at our doors, seeping in through the cracks, the costs of distribution are escalating, and yet, there is a tremendous sense of possibility, of excitement at the potential India holds. I have no doubt that in the next decade, despite the dominance of ‘bestsellerism’, the independents will put their hearts and souls into ensuring a healthy bibliodiversity.

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