Ritu Menon has been in publishing for over 35 years, the last 25 as a feminist publisher, having co-founded Kali for Women in 1984. Her personal, professional and political involvement with the women’s movement in India and South Asia introduced her to activism for social change and opened up new vistas of research, writing and publishing. She has written and published widely on women, and is co-author among others, of Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition; and Unequal Citizens: A Study of Muslim Women in India. She has also edited several anthologies of women’s fiction; of interviews; and of poetry. This is an excerpt from Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India.
Looking back, I can say that there have been two turning points in my life: the 1960s, a decade of exhilarating political awareness and activism across the world with far-reaching consequences for students and other progressive movements; and the 1980s in India, where social, environmental and women’s movements were waging major change.
1984 changed my life. Urvashi Butalia and I set up Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, and Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The two events were not connected in any way – that both happened in the same year is sheer coincidence, but the fact remains that, as a consequence, my life would never be the same again.
For some years before Kali was founded, I had been developing a women’s studies list called Shakti at Vikas, the publishing house where I then worked. It was growing slowly but steadily and I was enjoying it, but I doubt that I would ever have thought of starting something on my own. That was Urvashi’s idea, and a happy accident led to our joining up to get Kali going. With the active support of our four wonderful trustees – Devaki Jain, Subhadra Butalia, Dharma Kumar and Kamla Bhasin – who believed in us and in the enterprise, and with a queenly capital sum of Rs 1,000, we began operating from the garage in my house. (How many stories there must be in India of women who started out in garages and then made their mark far beyond the front gate!) Kamla helped us get our first small grant (for Radha Kumar’s evergreen The History of Doing and Devaki Jain and Diana L. Eck’s Speaking of Faith: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Women, Religion and Social Change); Devaki initiated us into DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), where we met Fatima Mernissi, Gita Sen, Peggy Antrobus, Marie-Angelique Savanne, and many others for the first time; and Dharma and Subhadra put their considerable weight behind us. The first meeting of DAWN in Bangalore in 1984 was a prelude to the UN End of Decade Conference on Women in Nairobi, in 1985, and I still think it was one of the most wonderful international gatherings of women because everyone was so full of hope. So sure we could change things.
Beginnings are always the most exciting part of any new adventure, and Kali was excitement plus exhilaration. Research on women from a feminist perspective was new, the creative writing was new, the issues were staring you in the face, the energy of the women’s movement was phenomenal, and we were at the heart of the generation of ideas and analyses. And of resistance.
Never before had the personal, the political and the professional come together in such an extraordinary way for me. The political climate of the 1960s had been hugely important, but it didn’t have an impact on either my personal or professional life. And back in India, my professional life had so far only tangentially connected to the political. This confluence was something else altogether, and it made me realise just how critical and personal is in any feminist endeavour.
I believe one of the biggest challenges for most men today is to remain married to a feminist, because if anyone is called upon to live their feminism, it’s them. I’m not saying it’s easy for women, just that it’s so much more difficult for men to voluntarily relinquish privilege. Not too many men of my acquaintance have been able to do this, but, without a doubt, my husband is one of them. Fundamentally egalitarian – as Gertrude Stein says, “…you must have deep down, as the deepest thing in you, a sense of equality” – and completely secure himself, his feminism is probably more genuine than mine in many ways, and is put to test more often. Thank goodness for him, because I’ve lost friends and I’ve lost family. I’ve had to come to terms with both these painful consequences and offset them against a whole new world of amazing friendships with women whom I wouldn’t otherwise have ever met or known. Friends have become my authors, authors have become friends, and it’s difficult now to tell one apart from the other.
So – a garage, two women (and later, one young man who, with great forbearance, stayed with us for more than ten years) and more ideas than we could find time for in those first few years. Thinking up subjects, commissioning writers, anticipating issues, debates and discussions, demos, meetings, protests, celebrations…discoveries.
I will never forget the sheer ebullience of the First International Feminist Book Fair in London in 1984. Feminist writers and publishers from all over the world gathered to celebrate not only the power of the word, but also the solidarity of women in print. Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara and Alifa Rifat, Barbara Smith, Ellen Kuzwayo, Gert Brandenberg, Suniti Namjoshi and Madhu Kishwar – the whole surge and potential of the international women’s movement, it seemed, was there for all to see at Covent Garden, producing the knowledge and providing the perspective that would transform the world. Kali had no books, no authors, nothing to sell – but we covered our trestle table with our flyer, and the striking logo that Chandralekha had designed for us caught the attention of almost everyone who passed by: How Covent Garden buzzed with the excitement of hearing these amazing women speaking of things in a way that had never been heard before. Call Me Woman, by Ellen Kuzwayo from Soweto, became a kind of cult classic just as Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, Nervous Conditions, became the byline for post-colonial Africa. Nawal’s Woman at Point Zero, Suniti’s Blue Donkey Fables, Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence…books that presented not just one woman’s experience, not one particular society’s foibles, not exceptional situations, but a whole new perspective based on a shared history of inequality. I realised then what it meant to be at the centre of opinion-making, of originating and, as the years went by, of the challenges that working on the periphery and at the margins entailed. Yet, without the kind of solidarity and support we got from feminist presses across the world – Virago, The Women’s Press, des Femmes, Orlanda, Frauenoffensive, The Feminist Press, Spinifex, Horas y Horas – our own international visibility would have been much, much longer in the making.
(Excerpted from Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by: Women Unlimited, Pp: 386 pages Price: (Softback) Rs 350)