A ZUBAAN for unheard voices!


Urvashi Butalia needs no introduction to most of our readers; we all admire her zestful endeavours for promoting feminist and independent publishing in India. With over 35 years of experience, she has a formidable reputation in the industry in India and abroad. She has received many awards, among which are the Pandora award for women’s publishing, the French Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres and the Padma Shree, the highest civilian honour awarded by the Indian government. And recent addition to her ever increasing list of awards is the Goethe Medal, an official honour from the government of Germany. Smita Dwivedi, in conversation with her discovers little more.

Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of Kali for Women and now director of Zubaan, 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.


The Goethe-Institute awards the Goethe Medal, an official distinction from the German Federal Republic. This medal honors individuals who have displayed exceptional competence of the German language as well as in international cultural exchange. This year, three women are being distinguished with the award: Lebanese author, Emily Nasrallah; Russian journalist, translator and historian, Dr. Irina Lasarewna Scherbakowa; and Urvashi Butalia. The Goethe Medal will be awarded to her on August 28th, 2017 in Weimar, Germany.

To start with, AABP warm-heartedly congratulated her for this well-earned distinction. So, how it feels to get rewarded? “Getting any reward or award is always a great feeling. I’m delighted to have been honoured with the Goethe Medal. But I feel this is not all about a single individual. It’s always that of a larger group. I know that any “achievements” that are being recognised are not mine alone, but are because of the work of all my colleagues, past and present, who’ve been part of this enterprise and without whom we would have been nowhere,” she shared.

Zubaan: it’s a serious business!

Zubaan’ is a Hindustani word meaning tongue, voice or language. It is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to ‘women’s talk’, or ‘gossip’ – generally for women who talk too much! We are proud to reclaim the term on behalf of all those whose voices are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream, and will continue to be heard no matter others say.”

Since 1997, she regularly publishes articles in Lettre International on the state of women, on the socio-political developments in India and on the culture of remembrance on the Subcontinent after the partition of India in 1947. Urvashi Butalia has also participated in both the Indian and global women’s movement, including with the organization Samta, which advocates changing Indian law regarding violence against women, dowries and rape. She’s engaged as an advisor for various national and international organizations.

On asking about the inception of Zubaan, she replied, “Zubaan is a child of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. It came about when Kali split into two in 2003 and now it has stuck out on its own. We publish the same kinds of things Kali did and much more; we do children’s books, fiction, books in translation, academic books and picture/graphic books. We are still strongly feminist and we always will be, we try to reflect what is going on in the women’s movement in India, and to focus on the voices of women on the margins.”

Zubaan was originally set up as a non-profit Trust. Alongside the Trust, Zubaan now operates as a private company, Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd. In a rapidly changing marketplace, Zubaan separated its 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. So, why you call it Zubaan, and the answer was, “Zubaan’ is a Hindustani word meaning tongue, voice or language. It is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to ‘women’s talk’, or ‘gossip’ – generally for women who talk too much! We are proud to reclaim the term on behalf of all those whose voices are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream, and will continue to be heard no matter others say.”

About books

So, being in a book business for long is indeed a great success. But initially when and how this love for literature actually started? To which she replied, “I can’t remember, but many many years ago. I come from a family of journalists and teachers and as far back as I can remember, we always read books. So I developed a love of literature quite early.”

And on becoming author, “There’s no story of becoming an author, but I started writing when I was still in school, mostly articles for the school magazine and then in college also wrote small pieces for newspapers and magazines. I have never written fiction, I think of myself as a non fiction writer,” she added.

On asking about favorite author, she gave publisher’s reply, “You should never ask this question to a publisher. My favourites are all the authors we have published, that’s all.”

Change is the only constant

Being a veteran, she has witnessed many changes in Indian publishing industry, on asking her views on that she elaborated, “The industry has developed in interesting ways, it has become much more professional, and less of a family business, so newer and younger people are entering it. Different kinds of books are being published. Also more and more large international publishers have entered the picture; when I began working, there were just about four or five of them and those also had majority Indian shareholdings. Improvements in technology have meant that all the processes you needed for book production can now be found under one roof so you don’t have to go out searching for different services. Online selling has entered the picture. But also the kinds of books that are now selling are very much the mass market stuff, the space for literature is shrinking I think. The most important development, as far as I am concerned, is the entry of more and more women into the world of publishing. So much of the content today is generated by clever and intelligent women editors.”

Commenting on emerging trends in the publishing industry, she added, “It’s difficult to share as we have no real statistical information. It seems to be that people are reading fewer printed books, but they don’t seem to be reading ebooks either, but they read on the net all the time.”

On a concluding note

“I’m only an occasional author, I have written one book, edited several, and written essays. I love writing, wish I could do more of it, but I don’t have the time. Being an author also carries a huge responsibility of truth telling, of being honest and ethical. I’ve chosen to be a publisher and that means my responsibility is to books others write,” concluded Urvashi.

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