ZUBAAN for women


It is always an enthralling experience to meet someone, who is living for a cause. And it’s even better to know that they have partnered with books in their mission. One such well-known amalgamation of feminist issues and books is Urvashi Butalia, co-founder, Kali for Women (1984) and founder Zubaan (2003). With over 40 years of experience in feminist and independent publishing, she has a formidable reputation in the industry in India and abroad. Here, Smita Dwivedi in conversation with her at Zubaan’s office, nestled in the narrow lanes of Shahpur Jat, New Delhi gets her views and opinions on books…that matters. Urvashi needs no introduction to the Indian publishing fraternity, but still here’s a brief about this enthusiastic lady. She has a long involvement in the women’s movement in India, and is a well-known writer, both in academia and in the literary world. She has several works to her credit, key among which is her Path-Breaking Study of Partition, The Other Side of Silence, Voices from the Partition of India which won the Oral History Book Association Award and the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture. She has also taught publishing for over 20 years and is on the advisory boards of a number of national and international organisations. She has received many awards, among which are the Pandora Award for Women’s Publishing, the French Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres, the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture and the Padma Shree, the fourth highest civilian honour awarded by the Government of India.

Down the memory lane!

Urvashi ButaliaHaving a long association to book world, she still remembers that she got into this industry purely by an accident. “I was looking for a job other than teaching….was not at all keen to teach literature, after studying it for years…just wanted to do anything other than that. And one of my friends offered me a job in Oxford University Press, Darya Ganj and started taking care of production. Later, I switched to another publishing house in marketing division, before finally moving to editorial. I wanted to know more about women and their issues and it was a big surprise that there were no books available on women and their issues. So, I asked publishers to bring out such books but they gave no response. Latter, I decided to do it myself and this was how it all started. Me and Ritu started Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house,” shared Urvashi.

Genesis of Zubaan

After nearly two decades of publishing and being trailblazers in creating a market for women, the two founders of Kali decided to set up their independent imprints. In 2004, Zubaan was formed, headed by Urvashi. “Zubaan’s name is associated strongly with high quality fiction by women in South Asia, both in translation and written in English. Our trade non-fiction includes memoirs, popular history and books on the women’s movement for a general audience. Under the Young Zubaan imprint, we also publish a range of fiction and non-fiction titles for younger adults and children. Alongside our publishing activities, Zubaan functions as a not-for-profit trust handling a variety of research and outreach projects in the areas of gender, feminism and the women’s movement. Although Zubaan carried forward Kali’s legacy of publishing feminist books of quality, it expanded its list to include more fiction and general interest books that straddle academic and non-academic non-fiction, and children’s titles. Our academic list covers a range of subjects in the humanities and social sciences from research monographs to textbook and supplementary material for students. Special areas of interest include conflict studies, health, human rights and gender justice, history, cultural studies, and feminist and queer theory,” she added.

“Apart from publishing many books every year, Zubaan also handles a few research and outreach projects. “We’re currently working on the SVI Project that documents Sexual Violence and Impunity across South Asia funded by the IDRC, and a museum feasibility study that explores women’s museums across the world funded by Ford Foundation – IEEE.”

On asking how her publishing project and feminist ideology have evolved in these 10 years, she shared, “In a rapidly changing marketplace, Zubaan had two choices before it: one, to continue functioning as a Trust and two, to turn itself into a company, owned by its staff (key staff who would become shareholders of the company). Zubaan has taken the unusual step of doing both: separating Zubaan’s activities into two: the income generating activities like publishing books, and the more ‘social’ activities that have a wider goal of improving women’s lives. The Trust, therefore, will be retained, but only for projects and other social activities such as organising workshops, while the company will publish books, organise events related to books, work with authors, etc.”

Taking over challenges…

“We faced the usual problems small publishers do—building up authors, publishing them, and then losing them to the bigger publishers. But the challenges, when they came, were of a different order: excessive competition with the internationalising of publishing; the kind of advances big publishers were paying; rising price of materials; heavy costs of distribution; and the need to raise salaries to maintain quality,” she explained.

On explaining further about the same, she said, “The major issue today is survival. In my 42 years in publishing, things have never felt as exciting as they are now. It truly seems there are infinite possibilities. But there is also a real fear as to whether small publishing is going to be eaten up by the biggies. It’s always been my dream to prove that feminist publishing can survive, I hope to continue with same belief and faith.”

Representing marginalised voices of India

“As Zubaan is mainly publishing in English, from Delhi, we felt that there’s a chance to get constrained by class, language, location, and so on. So, we have made a conscious effort to bring in the voices of marginalised women. We work closely with authors, writers, and publishers of other languages, especially in the states of North East India, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat. In 1989, we did a book called Shareer ki Jankari (About the Body), written by 75 women from the villages of Rajasthan who did not have the wherewithal to print it—the kind of project that feminist publishers dream of. Over the years, we have sold some 70,000 odd copies. I am happy to see young women joining us,” shared Urvashi.

Minting bytes!

According to Urvashi, publishing books, especially the one they print is not commercial aspect, still they manage to bring out many books which are in demand. On asking about print run and printing cost she added, “Sometimes, we do not earn anything from a book. We print in small quantities ranging from 500 to 2,000 copies and as per demand we keep on reprinting. There’s no support from any Government agency. So, we are totally on our own.”

Future Perfect!

On a concluding note, we asked about her future plans and message and she affirmed, “We will work more and bring more books. I believe in woman power and will work to strengthen it further.”

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