Zubaan: The Tongue of Kali

Keywords: feminist publisher, Indian publishing, Indian languages, non-fiction, women’s empowerment, Zubaan

(This is a conversation between Urvashi Bhutalia and Rizio Yohannan Raj)

RYR: As an activist who ventured into publishing in English, did you ever feel torn between the world of the ‘subjects’ of your publishing and that of your target audience?

UB: Well, yes and no. I felt torn first of all about the politics of the street and the politics of the office – in a sense, although I moved into publishing very much as part of the women’s movement, I also knew that it is much easier to function in an office than it is to be out on the streets protesting and trying to get things to change through direct action. And sometimes, I missed the euphoria of the street, the sense of a protest well organised, a point strongly made. And sometimes I questioned myself and wondered whether I was fooling myself by seeing the publishing work as part of the movement, whether I was just taking the easy way out. But I knew also that I was convinced of the importance and centrality of the project of building a knowledge base about women, of ensuring that women have a voice in multiple platforms, but it was a constant battle with myself and my dilemmas.

I did not feel so torn about the division you mention – between the ‘subjects’ of our publishing and the audience, because even though I quite realistically understood and knew and still do, that the world of books is limited to those who can read, who can afford to buy, and therefore it is essentially middle class, urban, often elite, but I also believe the influence of books extends far beyond the reach of those who can purchase them. Plus, we made it a conscious policy, first in Kali and then in Zubaan, to attempt to bring to public attention the voices and concerns of the marginalised, but also to not pretend that middle class women had no issues or problems, so the subjects of our books were not only ‘women out there but all women, everywhere, from all classes, castes, races, religions, geographical locations, and equally the writers of our books were likewise from these categories and places. So we went out of our way to publish a book like Shareer ki Jaankari, made by 75 rural women from Rajasthan, and which has never sold a single copy through a bookshop, and which has always been priced at cost or less than cost, and we published a Baby Halder’s book, and Salma’s book and Anjum Zamarud Habib’s book and many more. These women are not the usual kind of writers, and their writing, and their presence, collapses the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and it is very important to us to ensure that their voices are heard.

The language issue did make me feel very torn, and has remained a constant dilemma and an unfulfilled desire. I am quite bilingual, or even trilingual. I speak and read in Hindi and Punjabi, although I read much less in Punjabi (Gurmukhi) than in Hindi and much less in Hindi than in English. But there is no denying that my education was in English and I write in English and so, even though I so wanted to be publishing in Hindi as well, we did very little of it. We could have increased it – in Kali – but we became aware quite early on that we were not competent to do this, not because of language skills which can be acquired (and quite easily if you have the spoken and read) but because we did not know the Hindi market at all, nor how to reach it. So we gave up on the Hindi publishing. Interestingly, in recent years we have begun to go back to it, gradually, except that now all the big guns are in it and we’re not sure we stand a chance!!

But what we did do was to work actively to get our books translated into Indian languages and to work actively to seek out books from the Indian languages to translate and publish. It was not easy, but I think we have made considerable headway with it, and now many of our books go into languages such as Tamil, Assamese, Manipuri, Malayalam, Marathi. I’m really pleased about this.

RYR: It is curious that Kali was born even before the advent of
multinational trade publishing in India. Do you think the feminist
label had limited Kali’s potential as a publishing house at any point?

UB: Not curious at all. The innovation and experimentation always
comes from the independents, the small innovators, the big guns then move in, onto a terrain that has been opened up by those who are not scared to experiment. I find it really odd that even today when people talk of how English publishing in India has begun to grow, general publishing I mean, as opposed to textbooks which were very strong anyway, they put the starting point at the entry of Penguin India, in 1987. Yet, by 1987 Kali had been around for three years, Ravi Dayal had just been set up, Orient Longman was doing some general books, Tara Publishers I think had been set up, Thema existed in Calcutta… I mean, what are they talking about? These are the people who opened up the terrain, and yes, then Penguin showed that it could be scaled up and there has been no stopping it since then.

Was the feminist label a disadvantage? Never in my mind, to me labels are things that you own if they mean something to you and if not, they are redundant. I have no quarrel with women who say they are not feminist because it does not matter to me what you call yourself. But I have always called myself a feminist because I find the label empowering, enabling and it describes what I do in my life and in my work. So I did not see it as a disadvantage, I saw it as an asset and something that also governed not only the content of what we published, but the workspace we inhabited, the style of functioning, the way we worked with our employees and the putting in place of fair practices in our professional engagement. So for example, we are one of the few publishers whose contract with authors says that if the author is unhappy with our account statements to her, she has the right to appoint independent auditors to look into our accounts.

But yes, it was a problem for many of our authors. Even the best, the most intelligent academics, those who would have no hesitation calling themselves feminist, even the best writers, all of them felt the feminist label was a bit ‘political’ (haha, I thought, what did they expect??) and that very often they felt it would be important for their credibility to be with a more ‘neutral’ publisher – as if the liberal ones are neutral. It’s that old mistake, you state your politics and you are seen as biased, you hide the bias and you are seen as neutral. So we often found ourselves battling this, losing authors to other publishers (I mean how is OUP or Penguin more neutral than Zubaan? Don’t they have a politics? Isn’t liberalism as political as feminism?) – although of course we lost them for other reasons as well – such as money, better distribution, and I did not grudge that. I just felt there was a dishonesty in the way writers articulated their political choices. So yes, there was an issue here.

RYR: Zubaan is a beautiful name. Is there a story behind the choice of this name? Could you tell me about the birth of Zubaan?

UB: Yes, there’s a story, there’s always a story, and in my mind it is as beautiful as the name!! Actually after Kali broke, and we set up our new publishing venture, the first thing to do was to find a name. I wanted something that had the same magic as Kali but that was not – as Kali was – a religious name. We’d had much discussion by that time in the women’s movement about how the movement was so majoritarian, how its symbols of empowerment were almost always Hindu, and also, Hindu-Muslim politics had made their ugly presence felt and it seemed prudent to distance oneself from that. So I was thinking, thinking, and you know, I’d heard this story about those reading dolls which came out of the total literacy campaign in Jharkhand/Chattisgarhf Orissa. The story there was that when the literacy volunteers went to the villages to get people to come out and study, the most enthusiastic were the women. And the sculptors there, who made the dhokra sculptures of animals most of the time, suddenly started making sculptures of women reading, sitting, lying down, lying on their backs, standing, sitting on charpoys, breastfeeding – and reading. I was in love with these dolls and knew that I wanted to base our logo on them. And then it happened one day that I was discussing names with a good friend and one of my authors, Rita Kothari, and we tossed some names around, and one of them was zubaan. I’m not sure who came up with it, I think it was Rita, and somehow it stayed in my head. I went home that night, thought about it, slept on it, and woke up in the middle of the night, thinking yes, that is it. And voila, we had the name. We then wanted to base our logo on those dolls but I felt we should ask the doll makers for permission and so we began to seek them out But as you know, so much of this art in India is anonymous, so although we found a group of craftspersons, no one had any clue about who owned the ‘copyright’ for the doll image. So we did a deal, we just bought hundreds of dolls (and have done so regularly since) from every group that made them, and we used the doll as a base, but stylised it (this was done by our wonderful and talented designer, Uzma Mohsin) and voila, we had our logo, which we totally love today.

RYR: Which are the major areas that Zubaan is focussing on? Do you have separate imprints for different categories of books?

UB: In Zubaan we often say we publish very few books on very many
subjects – we do everything from history to economics, to sociology, to health, and then novels, and general non-fiction and then some illustrated books and books for young adults and kids and so on and so on. But basically, we have three areas of publishing: academic, research based books meant for scholars and libraries and sometimes also the general reader; fiction and general non-fiction meant for the general reader, and books for young adults and children. We don’t have separate imprints, except for the Young Zubaan imprint, but we’ve been thinking about whether we should and we may do so

RYR: How do you balance different genres in your list? Is there a scheme that you follow while making publishing plans?

UB: Yes, we have a rough division in our heads – a sort of percentage. We don’t stick to it rigidly, but we try to keep it in mind. It’s about 50 per cent academic, 40 per cent fiction and general non fiction and about 10 of the young adult and kids’ books.

RYR: Which genres do you think are going to rule the world of publishing in the coming days? It is so paradoxical that a genre like poetry which is appreciated very much on the ground has no takers when it comes to publishing? What is Zubaan’s take on this?

UB: It’s very difficult to say what will rule, that changes from time to time, and is different in each country. See, I think all the questions that are asked about poetry are wrong. Poetry does not sell much, that’s true and that is a product of the size of poetry books – very slim usually, and the fact that a customer standing in a bookshop will flip through a poetry book, read five poems and decide ‘okay that’s it, I’ve read it, no need to buy’. I have never understood why publishers are castigated for this – if customers don’t buy, it’s not our fault and we are in any case in a business which is considered a fool’s business because the margins are so low, why should we publish books that don’t get bought? But let me come back to the point I was making, which is that the questions are wrong: books are not only about being bought, they are mainly about being read. If poetry works in reading, if it works by word of mouth, if it works as it does today on the internet, why should poets not be happy at that? Do they want to be read? To communicate? Or to make money? There’s more than one way to communicate. Also, EVERYONE feels they can write poetry, but there are very few good poets, very few accomplished poets, very few who can reach nuance and depth, and yet, because poetry is so subjective it’s difficult for publishers to get back to poets and say what is wrong with bad poetry, what works and what does not. If I read a novel, I can get back to the author and say, well, the plot is okay, character development not so good, story ordinary, language great and so on. What can I say about a poem? That it does not speak to me? And yet, that is the ultimate criterion… so it’s a complicated thing, but we publishers get hit on the head with it, because we’re just good targets. We make good target practice. I guess that’s our role.

RYR: You have introduced many writers from the Indian bhashas to the English-speaking world. You have also interacted closely with writers, translators and publishers from across the world. How does Zubaan look at the question of translation in India? Is there a greater challenge that we face here in terms of translation into English and between the bhashas? Does translation work in India the way it works in the West?

UB: For us, translation has always been very important. I am terribly aware of our limitations – we publish mainly in English, that means that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, reach out very far and as feminist publishers it is absolutely crucial and essential for us to be able to reach beyond the middle class urban reader. How do we do this in a country where English is spoken only by 3 or 5 per cent of the population? Or where literacy is still so low – despite dramatic improvements in it in the past years. So we face the limitation of language, and of working with words, printed words, in a largely non-literate, largely poor culture where books are not a priority at all. We would like to be able to produce books that can feed into the literacy campaigns and we have done a bit of this, but honestly, we just do not have the reach or the connections you need to have with government, to do this. But at least with translation, we can begin to do more. Right from the time we began as Kali, our focus was on translations, we had decided, at the time, that with fiction, we would publish only translations and not fiction written originally in English. We felt that English writers could access other opportunities. But the focus at that time was mainly on translations into English from Indian languages, so we were making books in the Indian languages available in English. But we knew we also needed to work in the other direction – to have books translated into Indian languages, so with Zubaan, we decided to focus equally on that, and over the years, we have been working very closely with publishers in the Indian languages to bring some of Zubaan’s work to Indian languages. We’ve had books translated into Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati, Manipuri, Marathi, Assamese, Telugu, and more. And we have translated from Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Assamese, Bengali, Gurmukhi, Urdu, and more. Translation to us, is one of the most wonderful and most creative ways in which we can negotiate between the many cultures and languages of India – you know, in real life translational transactions happen all the time, between languages, between regions, between trades, between people… they’re a normal part of life. The Rajasthani merchant sells to the Gujarati dealer, someone makes a folk song about such exchanges, the song travels to other parts, stories come alive… what is all this if not translation? So what we’re doing is really only a small and limited part of the whole business of translation in a country where translation should be its very lifeblood. But we believe it’s an important part.

I’m not sure I have an answer to your question about whether translation here works differently from the west – I don’t quite know if one can characterise the way it works in the west as one single way.

RYR: Do you think Indian Publishing in English today in some way creates an Anglophilic urban narrative that consumes the multi­cultural voices of India?

UB: I think the answer to that question has to be both yes and no. I don’t think Indian voices, or multi-cultural voices are so weak that they can be easily consumed or made invisible by the strength of English. Take a writer like Shankar or Mahasweta Devi, how can their voices ever be consumed by English? In Bengal, they’re like gods, their books are read and re-read, they’re consulted on so many things. But yes, in the English mainstream culture, in the way in which our colonial heritage ensures that English has become the language or privilege and of social mobility and it is the one language that has a pan-Indian character and that can ‘convey’ India to the West, there is a way in which English is privileged. I find that in our publishing, we receive manuscripts every day from people for whom English is clearly not a first language and yet they want to write in English, because they feel this is what will get them the visibility they desire. It’s a real pity this, both at an individual level and at a collective level. By not ‘seeing’ the wealth our languages have to offer, we – the English speaking world – are losing out on so much. And because so many want to write in English, when clearly the language is not one they are comfortable with, there’s a flattening out of writing which is quite evident and I think this is unfortunate. But I am a firm believer that in the end, the Indian languages will be able to establish themselves – it’s only a matter of time because inevitably as the paucity of much writing in English becomes evident, publishers will look where they should have been looking, to Indian languages and they will begin to see what they should have seen long ago. You know that urdu phrase, dair aye durust aye!

RYR: How much of an editor should the publisher be? How do you view the question of editing as a publisher, and what are your editorial concerns?

UB: I don’t think in Indian publishing as yet, we make a clear distinction between editors and publishers. All the publishers I know, are also editors and very good ones. Karthika, David Davidar, Chiki Sarkar, Meru Gokhale, S. Anand, Indira Chandrasekhar, Arpita Das, Padmini Mirchandani… they’re all excellent editors and excellent publishers. I think the editorial function is an absolutely essential one, and is often a thankless one, as although editors can and often do play a crucial role in the shaping of a manuscript, both in detail and in its overall frame, once the job is done, authors do not really wish to acknowledge how much of the input came from ‘elsewhere’ so to speak. It’s the nature of the game, the editor is normally invisible. But there is a deep satisfaction in being able to work on a manuscript and I think that is what gives so many of us the high that publishing is – to be in the presence of new ideas and new articulations all the time. Despite the fact that I have many administrative and management duties in my job, I still edit quite a lot. I commission books and discuss their shape with authors, but also I work on the books and do the detailed editing and this is something that gives me the oxygen I need to survive the other tasks. Of course editing means you have to strike a fine balance between what the author wants and what you think will get her message across better, and that means valuing the author first and foremost. Not thinking that because you have the ability to clean up a manuscript, you are somehow superior. For example, I edit a lot of fiction, and I am constantly wonderstruck by how authors can create plot and character, how they can spin a tale. I could never do that, and it is salutary to understand and know that.

My editorial concerns are that every manuscript we take on must be of a certain standard, and we must edit it to the best of our ability so that it is able to take its place in the world alongside the best books of its kind. I have to say though that despite our best efforts, we are not always able to do this, and every time we do something that we realise is not up to the mark, all of us, my colleagues and I, have sleepless nights!!

RYR: Does Zubaan aspire to publish in languages other than English?

UB: Yes, very much, but we also know we can’t, so we have evolved a policy of working closely with publishers in other languages and I think that is the way we will stay.

RYR: In the highly competitive industry of publishing in India, how does an independent publisher like Zubaan sustain itself? How do you attract good authors, despite the multinational brands that seek them out with big offers?

UB: We survive with difficulty. We have a dedicated, committed team that works with us – without them, Zubaan would be nowhere. Books do not make much money as you know, and books of the kind we publish make very little money. Sometimes, after we have paid everything, we will make as little as 10,000 on a book. It is not enough even to pay our rent. So we have to do a combination of things – jugaad it’s called. We do a project or two that helps us to keep afloat, but this is also becoming increasingly difficult with the Indian government coming down very hard on NGOs and non-profits (we’re set up as a trust),and I think very soon, this option will not be available to us. Not only do we not make much money but also we very often find ourselves in a situation of finding new authors, locating voices that would otherwise not be heard, bringing them to public attention, only to have them move to the bigger publishers. In the early days, this used to make me furious and I saw it as a betrayal on the part of our authors, many of whom are friends, so it was quite difficult. But now we all understand that this is the nature of the game, that of course people will move to where they get better distribution, more money… so that makes it all the more difficult for us. Plus my colleagues work for very little money, market wages for all of them would be at least three times what they earn in Zubaan, and as a feminist publisher, I feel it is wrong of us not to be paying women the salaries they deserve… I am very aware of this, I don’t want to be in a position of exploiting them. So really, it’s very very difficult for independent publishers to survive in this current atmosphere, but it is also very challenging, and I’m quite optimistic about it. We’ve been frying very hard to become a company, and to get in investors but to preserve our independence and that is the next stage, let’s see where it takes us.

RRY: Have you ever felt the need to get rid of the feminist tag? Is your publishing open to all types of projects today, or do you have an ideological policy of exclusion in place?

UB: No never, and we never will. It’s not a tag, it’s a deep belief and conviction, as real and as important as breathing. Our publishing is open to all types of projects as long as they are feminist, and we don’t believe that is exclusionist. Let me turn this question around to you: in my view all publishing so far has been largely exclusionist, the last twenty years apart, women have been absent in the writing and publishing of books. Would you call, say, OUP, or Macmillan exclusionist? Look at how many female authors they had in the seventies and eighties. But no one would call them exclusionist because they did not have a stated policy in place, and yet, that was the principle they functioned on. We wear our politics on our sleeves, we’re just more honest about what we will do and what we won’t do. And I’m proud of that, fiercely, and believe in it, deeply. The day men become feminist, and start writing from a feminist perspective, as if women mattered, we will publish them – but I fear that will not happen in my lifetime!! If you look at our list closely, it is not that we do not publish men, we do, but they have to be writing within the broad parameters of the feminism that is our guiding principle.

RYR: Distribution and reaching out seem the perennial problems haunting independent publishers. Have you devised some business models to negotiate these?

UB: We’ve struggled a lot with this question, and none of the answers is satisfactory. In the old days we used to sell our books through different wholesalers, trying to ensure that we reached the market of activists and civil rights people that we wanted to, but we found many booksellers (even those who claimed to be activist themselves!) not paying us and it was just impossible to keep going. Then, many of us discussed the possibility of setting up an alternative distribution channel, but for a variety of reasons it did not work out. In the end we decided to go with two mainstream distributors, Penguin and Cambridge and although they charge us an arm and a leg for distribution, at least our books get out somewhere. Although not everywhere and we know that they are not reaching the places they should reach, but it’s very difficult. The advantage of having these two distributors is that payments are regular and it is not our headache. Meanwhile, as you know, some independent publishers did get together and set up a distribution company but we’re not part of that because by the time they set it up we were already with Cambridge and it did not seem right to change. However, one of the things that we are finding is that promoting our books on social media, doing a blog, keeping up with events on the internet, and ensuring our books are on online sites does help a lot, but it’s a lot of hard work to keep these sites updated with our list and what is happening. We also have a good mailing list but all in all, this is the most difficult part of our publishing, if we could crack it, I think we would be okay.

RYR: As a cause-driven publisher, how does Zubaan find a balance between the need to ensure financial viability/popular appeal and your fundamental commitment to the marginalised?

UB: With difficulty!! What sustains us is the support we have everywhere – not only in the mainstream publishing industry, but among writers, activists, groups, – even if they don’t publish with us, they are supportive of what we do, and they respect it, and that’s something. But yes, it’s a tough call and much of my time is spent in trying to keep zubaan’s body and soul together and not compromise on our ideals. Also, our experience is that mainstream publishers are reluctant to experiment with new things because they believe they will not work… but actually, some of our best books have been books that bring out marginalised voices. Baby Halder’s book, A Life Less Ordinary, the story of a domestic worker, has become a bestseller in so many parts of the world and has done so well economically for Zubaan. You might ask, why didn’t a mainstream publisher do this book? Similarly Salma’s book, The flour Past Midnight, Anjum Zamarud Habib’s Prisoner No 100 – all of these books have done very well for us, so somewhere taking unusual risks does pay off!

RYR: What are your main concerns as a publisher today? What is the change that you would want to see in the Indian publishing scene?

UB: Our main concern as publishers today is survival. I believe we still have a great deal to do, that we have only begun to scratch the surface and I would like Zubaan to survive, to be there for the long term, to be able to continue to do the task we set ourselves as Kali, and then as Zubaan, nearly three decades ago. I also believe that it is nearly time for me, as the founder, to make an exit and for the organisation to take a life of its own – that will inevitably mean some changes, but then, life is all about change. It would be wonderful if the Indian publishing scene could become more genuinely multi-cultural, if we could be proudly and vibrantly publishing in many different languages and showcasing all of those, and equally, if our publishing became more inclusive of marginalised voices and languages. Just imagine, if we had that kind of scenario, there’s no other country in the world that can match us – after all, where do you get 22 languages, millions of readers… It would be wonderful if the numbers we publish became so large that we could do books really cheaply, and when the digital revolution comes to Indian publishing, it would be wonderful if we were ready with enough content, enough diverse content, to be able to fill all those tablets and devices. All dreams, but well, what’s life if you can’t dream?

RYR: What are your hopes and plans for Zubaan in the coming years?

UB: That we continue to be around, continue to do what we are doing, only better, that we keep track of changes in society and publish to take account of those, that we survive in a commercial marketplace and show the world that it is possible to do so as a feminist publisher – and really, I’m quite realistic, if we don’t survive, at least we know that we did our best, and that for the years we were around, we published with commitment and passion. For me, that’s enough!!

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