Paper Dreams

Keywords: women in publishing, oral history, visual history project, different biographical work, women scientists

SPARROW’s foray into publishing began as a tentative venture in 1997. Before that we had brought out only a report of a workshop with college students on communal harmony which was more of a DTP attempt. From 1997 to 1998, SPARROW organised 6 oral history and 6 visual history workshops and two film-viewing workshops. Oral history and visual history projects are an integral part of SPARROW projects. For the oral history workshops SPARROW invited women, whose lives, however interesting, have remained hidden, and whose experiences, however relevant, have remained unheeded. The attempt was to give voice and language to experiences that have hitherto remained muted and marginalised. The visual history workshops, on the other hand, were an attempt to understand how women create space for their expressions and the way they retain that space, sometimes by manipulating a given space and sometimes by transforming a given space to make way for new expressions. SPARROW’s initial attempts to publish were in the form of booklets which were brought out after each workshop, based on the proceedings of the workshop and also on the video recordings done at the residence and workplace in the case of artists. Inland Printers Ltd. came forward to support this publishing venture at minimum cost. Once we had found the joy of designing, laying out pages and putting the book together, other books followed.

All the books that we published from 1997 to 2006 were made possible with funding from HIVOS which supported our publication projects which were very different in form and content. We began with a biography of a mother by a daughter in 1997 entitled Allan: Her Infinite Variety written by Roshan G Shahani, which was followed by a study of three generations of women in Coorg based on family photographs, letters and conversations entitled From the Land of a Thousand Hills written by Veena Poonacha. After the booklets, New Age Printing Press came forward to put our ideas into print. Soon after, what began as a tentative venture became an adventure and Mouj Printing Bureau became our partners in this. The first two books were followed by translations of the booklets into seven languages, two volumes in each language. With this began the new experience of delving into languages like Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali and visualising our publications in a totally different manner. After this almost heady experience, we moved on to a very different biographical work in Marathi on the life and work of Mrinal Gore entitled Paniwali Bai by Rohini Gawankar. The next publication was an even greater adventure, a roller-coaster ride almost, of bringing out a book of Maya Kamath’s cartoons. With more than a thousand cartoons with a beautifully written intimate introduction by her daughter Deepa Kamath, The World of Maya was the most difficult to design and publish. Feminism as Experience by Dr. Neera Desai which was published in 2006, was the last of the books supported by HIVOS. Considering the amount of difficulties we had faced in terms of producing books and distributing them, one would imagine organisations like ours would quietly exit from the publishing scene. But publishing is an addiction that is hard to quit.

In the next two years SPARROW was on to bringing out five volumes of poems and short stories with long excerpts from interviews, of 87 writers from 23 languages, funded by Prince Claus Fund. As always, when SPARROW takes up something it looks like a gentle river but by the time it takes shape it starts looking like a river in spate! So what initially began as five slim volumes has now become a big project and the first two volumes of the five, entitled Hot is the Moon and Being Carried Far Away have been published in 2008 and 2009 edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam and Shoba Venkatesh Ghosh respectively. The first includes works of writers from Tamil, Kannada, Konkani and Tulu and the second one is a literary journey into Assam, Bengal, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. Each poem and story has been illustrated by Bharati Kapadia, the well-known painter. The other three volumes are on the anvil.

The real problem of small NGOs with big ambitions taking up publishing is one of distribution. Without an infrastructure for distribution, it becomes very difficult to sell these books even at highly subsidised contribution prices. The commercial distributors work differently and it has been difficult for NGOs to take up publishing in a sustained manner because unsold books occupy space and seeing them piled up in corners can be very frustrating. There are more than 300 Women’s Studies Centres and many colleges in India but SPARROW still finds it difficult to sell its books. Alternative distribution efforts like Scholars without Borders are encouraging but there should be more of them. SPARROW’s recent publications have all been limited editions. In fact, two very interesting books we are planning will be designed differently in a digital format and put up on the SPARROW website or on a new blog we are planning.

Currently SPARROW is busy working on a book supported by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, on women scientists, meant for young girls to inspire them to take up science and pursue science. This book has transported us to a different world of science and women and it has been exciting visiting science institutions, being in labs, learning scientific terms and being with scientists and having a dialogue with them. Unlike other books, this book will be distributed by the DST and that, in a way, is a relief.

One does not know what the future holds in terms of publishing for small organisations like SPARROW. But we are happy we published what we did. The book on women scientists and the three volumes of translated stories and poems with interviews have kept us involved for a couple of years. It means many trips to the printer and designer and waiting eagerly and anxiously with bated breath for the first printed pages, wondering if the pages would look like what we dreamed. But we are prepared.

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