The fourth edition of the annual ‘LILA PRISM’ talk series began with a conversation between Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, founders of India’s first feminist publishing house.
In Mahasweta Devi’s short story, The Wet Nurse, the protagonist Jashoda takes up “professional motherhood” when her Brahmin husband loses his feet. For 25 years, she is the nourisher of a patriarchal society, and finally passes away after battling breast cancer. Truth Tales (Kali for Women, Rs 2,262) was one of the first to carry Devi’s translated story, which strung together the vacuous demands of a male-dominated society, the obvious martyrdom of a woman who is the wet nurse for a generation, and the inherent truth of how all men have feet of clay.
Writers Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, founders of India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, inaugurated the fourth edition of “LILA PRISM” series on Thursday at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi. Organised by the LILA Foundation for Translocal Initiatives, this annual series will have 13 practitioners of alternative institution building speak about their work — ranging from art and design to craft and literature festivals.
If 1984 sits in popular memory as a time of violence, triggered by the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, it was also the time of optimism, when several movements, both feminist and nationalist were finding their feet. This is when “Kali’s Women” entered the publishing world with a vision to put women’s writing on centrestage. “It was the power of gyarah. Ek aur ek was two, but it could also be gyarah,” says Menon, 66. “We were part of that thinking, that we could effect change,” she adds. Butalia concurs, “We were a kind of bridge between women’s movements, and women’s studies movement, which no other publishing house would have allowed or enabled.”
Though Butalia and Menon moved on after two decades in 2003 to begin Zubaan and Women Unlimited respectively, their time at Kali saw them publish everything from pamphlets to Phd theses. Rizio Yohannan Raj, Founder and Executive Director of the organisation, spoke about how “organic political narrative” gave their practice a sensitive, non-homogenised form, which was not rigid but meditative in a renewable format.
“Ours was a test of how can feminism be lived with the realities around you, how do you create a feminist workspace, how do you create an egalitarian system, create a different institution,” says 64-year-old Butalia. Their need to experiment with a multiplicity of voices led to various publications, from a Hindi title Sharir ki Jaankaari (The Knowledge of the Body), authored by 75 rural women from Rajasthan, to eco-feminist Vandana Shiva’s book Staying Alive, which she calls the “Kali book” to No Woman’s Land, stories by women from three countries — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — on the horrors of Partition. Not only did they ensure that “half the human race had a voice”, which until then was silenced in history, but also prompted many young writers, especially in rural India to tell their stories. It is that quest for the unknown that made Kali for Women an inspiration.
The talk on Kali’s Women: Thirty Years of Feminist Publishing and Counting by Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia will be held on August 23 at 6:30 pm at the India International Centre (IIC).