Dismantling the Master`s House: Maharajkumari Binodini Devi memorial lecture, 2014


By Urvashi Butalia


In India, feminist publishing, attention to women’s writing, grew out of the women’s movement – with women activists across the country raising issues that needed to be addressed, that needed to be understood, it was necessary to have a forum where such issues could be articulated, where materials that could help understand such issues could be provided. Once such a process began, it was the women’s movement too that provided the initial audience and the initial support.  But gradually, audiences grew and as they did, as the hospitable environment expanded, so did the range of women’s writing: fiction, history, economics, geography, architecture, aeronautics, and so much more came under this ambit. Autobiography and biography made their appearance, women in the world of business, in films, in banking and so on, each of these subjects appeared on the scene. With each form, women broke new ground: in the field of history women bought in the voices of ordinary people, in autobiography they turned the reader’s attention to the detail of daily life,A s always happens when a hitherto unexplored market is created and nurtured, the big players, with greater resources, begin to step in and expand the market. This is as it should be, and it was only when this started to happen in India that we saw the growing of the market for women’s writing.

But having begun the process of building a new house, it is only to easy to stick to the tried and tested materials. This may not be a very good metaphor but for publisher, who deal with books, while it may be difficult initially to introduce new subjects and new areas of writing, once that initial hurdle is over it is easy enough to continue to build on their strengths. Let me put this another way: books and publishing are about writing, writing is an activity which by and large belongs to the privileged, those with access to education, and possibly time. This is why most women have remained outside its boundaries, but it is easy enough for publishers to concentrate on those who do have this access and privilege. That way, you can comfort yourself that you are bringing unheard voices to public attention, and perhaps not ask the question: who or what do these voices represent.

So, it becomes imperative then to look elsewhere, look beyond the obvious and begin to explore, to lay yourself open. For us, as feminist publishers, it became important to go beyond those women who could read, or those who could write and seek out women from the margins. In 1986 a group of four women, representing sixty six others, came to us with a book they had created about women’s bodies – a book of illustrations, with minimal text, a book that village women could understand and relate to. They set their conditions for its publication: all seventy names would appear on the cover of the book, no single book would be sold above cost. Engaged in the project of dismantling the master’s house, we realized the value of the accidental, exciting discovery that enables you to go beyond the tried and tested routes. This became the first of many such experiments. More recently, a poor domestic worker’s autobiography, written after she had painstakingly taught herself to read, and hesitatingly to write, opened the way not only for us, but for others in the field of publishing, to take seriously these marginalized voices which are otherwise ignored. Not only do we, as publishers, carry the responsibility of bringing these voices to public attention but of carrying forward their messages of subversion, the content of their writing, the forms they choose, which are so different and which question the accepted definitions of how canons are made. In August or September of last year, we received a unique invitation: a group of young women from Kashmir wanted to discuss ways of putting a book together. All in their twenties, the six women who contacted us were among a larger group of 50 who had together filed a petition in the courts for the reopening of a case of mass rape by the army in two villages, Kunan and Poshpora in Kupwara district over twenty years ago. Hushed up as a fiction because of two official reports that claimed that the rape had never happened, and illegally ‘closed’ by the army, the case disappeared from public attention, but for the women who had lived through that night, the rape remained a reality. Many were never able to marry because they carried the stigma of rape. Twenty one years later, these young women, themselves in their twenties, and inspired by massive anti rape demonstrations in the city of Delhi, decided to take up the case. Their motivation was to seek justice and to not allow this shameful history to disappear. They came to us with a unique request: they had the materials, they had the trust of the women, but they did not have the writing skills. Could we, as purveyors of feminist knowledge, work with them to help in the writing of this book, in the recording of this history. As feminist publishers, we have, over the years, learnt that women writers often do not know themselves and undervalue their skills. Every single one of these young woman had a writer in her, and so we worked together to create the book that will record the history of the women of Kunan and Poshpora. Another unusual brick that could be used to build a somewhat different structure than that envisaged by the master in the master’s house. Margins do not only relate to class and caste. In India, the way the hierarchy of language functions, English remains the dominant language, with other Indian languages being seen as somehow secondary. For publishers working in English, the language provides a comfort zone but if we are to work towards a new house, this too must be questioned. For us, it became necessary to move to other languages but, lacking competence and knowledge, we had to work through translations, a process that brought many, many rewards.

Translating from India’s languages, and translating the work of women, further looking at the work of women from the margins, focusing on caste, on tribe, on minorities, on marginalized geographies, these enabled us to ‘see’ other forms of writing in which, for example, fact and fiction meld and become one, the individual story becomes the collective experience, sentences begin to look different, the perspective shifts, conventions are flouted and altered. It was this route that led us to the region in which I stand today giving this talk. The generic term, the northeast of India, is not very satisfactory to describe a region so diverse, so varied, and with such a rich and complex history. And yet, as a place, northeast India has been lumped together as a category that describes so much more than just its physical location.

Rather, it describes the distance from the centre, and therefore its perception as the periphery, the ways in which it has been marginalized, its somewhat stepsisterly treatment by the Indian State and indeed the ways in which Indians from what has come to be known as the ‘mainland’ of India practice discrimination towards to many of the inhabitants of this land who are termed ‘foreigners’ – as the recent tragic incidents of molestation and violence in Delhi demonstrated. For us as feminist publishers, just as it was important to record the voices of women on the margins in terms of caste, class, ethnicity etc so also it was important to record the voices of those at the periphery of India – although even the definition of periphery is something that is open to question. As work after work, from Assam, from Tripura, from Mizoram, from Manipur, from Nagaland, from Meghalaya, from Arunachal, found its way to us, we began to learn of new forms of writing, of new subjects, we began to see how prolonged and protracted conflict seeps into the psyche of the creative writer, and how literature speaks to the world outside. The voice of Binodini Devi, in the shape of her essays that go to make up the chronicle entitled The Maharja’s Household, was one such. An oblique, yet insider, but nonetheless subversive, view of royalty, through the eyes of a woman who had lived that life, and who had with equal ease embraced ‘normal’ life, had value not only in terms of the perspective it provided but also as a wonderful, rich archive of the time. Works like these, rare as they are, make you realize how much still lies hidden, and what unique insights this hidden material contains. For us, as publishers, the choice of publishing such works is dictated not so much by market considerations – although those do enter the picture – but by what they contribute to the ever growing body of knowledge by and about women.  

The project of focusing on women’s writing therefore, and choosing to do so through the medium of print, is not only one of bringing such works to public attention, but also of building up a systematic archive of such knowledge in order both to provide a resource and to demonstrate the wealth of such work, and in doing so, to alter the very nature of the archive. Thus far, comprising mainly works by men, existing archives, even of literature, have focused on the grand narratives, the political stories, and have had little time to record the voices and contributions of the small actors, of those on the margins, of those with a different perspective. Women’s writing does this – it offers a different, indeed many different, perspectives.  It offers an alternative and a mirror to the mainstream, highlighting the things that the mainstream cannot see. Putting these in some kind of permanent form – whether in print or in electronic forms – means giving them a life and a weight, and making them available to others.
That is why the project to create an archive of the work dos Binodini Devi is so important. In many ways, as feminist publishers, this is what we too are attempting to do through the publishing of the works of women writers. In time, we hope to expand this archive into something wider and larger – an archive of women’s history and writings, a physical and virtual space that attempts to showcase women’s contribution to society. We are aware, in doingso, that just as it has been difficult to convince women about their writing, so also it will be difficult to convince them that their works, their lives, indeed the minutiae of their lives are worthy of note. But if the master’s house is to be well and truly rebuilt, this is something that will have to be done.

I began by saying that one of the most difficult things to do when attempting to implement the decision to publish the works of women was to make them feel confident about their writing. At the time, we did not even consider the works of men, and neither did men consider their works as being of any value. Indeed much of the time they wished to keep as far away as possible from the subject of women. Today, men are keen to write about women, to understand the other half and to be part of the dismantling of old patriarchal structures and the rebuilding of new ones. If this can happen, perhaps the new houses we make will have no masters and servants, but will instead have an egalitarian and gender inclusive space.

(Urvashi Butalia is the Director and co-founder of Kali for Women, India`s first feminist publishing house and Director of Zubaan, an imprint of Kali. The Maharajkumari Binodini Devi memorial lecture was delivered on the 92nd birth anniversary of MK Binodini Devi on February 6, 2014)


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