Ritu Menon describes the highs of independent publishing to ANJANA RAJAN
Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
Fruits of autonomyRitu Menon at her office
Not long ago Ismat Chughtai's novel “Masooma” appeared in bookstores in an English translation by Tahira Naqvi. Whereas book launches are increasingly glamorous, newsmaking events, “Masooma”, brought out by Women Unlimited, was released without a formal launch. The reason, says Ritu Menon, founder of the publishing house, is simply that the author is no longer alive and the translator is out of the country. Also, she notes, for a Pakistani author to get a visa to visit India is never easy, and this is just one of those “sad facts of life in the subcontinent.” But there is something else as well.
Women Unlimited has a low-key, no-nonsense image, with a policy, it seems, to let its work speak for itself. And while it speaks volumes, the main reason for this approach, says Ritu, is that she feels where there is a lot of noise there is a tendency to fizzle out. “We're in it for the long term.”
Issues like how long a book will have a readership, and allowing it enough marketing space and time to be noticed by readers, interest her more than immediate publicity. An author shouldn't be displaced by the next book, she says, adding, “Books don't tend to fly off the shelves, much as we would like to imagine so.” Having brought out several titles of Chughtai, she points out, “every single title is still in print.” Therefore, every book getting its “due share in terms of being available and being available over a long period of time” is of great significance for her.
Another reason the publishing house doesn't have too much space on the map is precisely that: “We don't bring out too many books,” she notes. The company is known for its translations, largely from Urdu and more recently from Arabic, and, says Ritu, “The quality of translations is very important. That takes a long time.”
As a pioneering publisher of literature by women — the company is an associate of Kali for Women, which Ritu founded with fellow publisher Urvashi Butalia over 25 years ago — Ritu takes understandable pride in contributing to the field in ways not always recognised.
Take translation. Describing it as capital-and-labour-intensive work that is a challenge for private publishers, she points out, “Translations have improved significantly, and I may be biased but I think it's because of the kind of time and effort private publishers have put into making translations viable.”
On the range of writers and genres on WU's booklist, Ritu says, “One of the things we decided was we wouldn't limit ourselves to one category, we would do everything that encompasses women's experience.”
Small wonder then, that workshops have been a major thrust. “That's another programme we started 10 years ago, but on a very specific topic — censorship.” The term refers, she explains, to censorship exercised by the family, society, political parties, and the constraints of time and space experienced by women. Two books of interviews and an anthology of poetry emerged from a decade of workshops.
“There are certain forms of censorship specifically faced by women,” she explains. Those faced by all women include biases in the literary establishment, the critical community, etc., but some are community- or language-based. One Tamil writer had her wrists broken by her ex-husband when she wrote about her marriage. Across languages, the workshops revealed, such experiences lead to “self-censorship,” a powerful discouragement to women's writing.
Even the choice of genres is influenced by non-art considerations. “So many women write short stories because they don't have the time for novels. So many women write poetry, because poetry, as (poet) Anamika said, is a form of concealment.” Such issues may remain the pervading reality of a large number of women writers. What has changed is that today they are recognised in the literary world. The path less taken, chosen by Ritu and Urvashi over 25 years ago, when people asked them “where are the writers?” is today a well trodden one.
Some years ago, Ritu and seven other independent publishers joined hands to set up Independent Publishers' Distribution Alternatives, since they felt “the marketing for our kinds of titles was best done by a distributor that knows the lists”. Today IPDA distributes for 30 independent publishers, with close to 2000 titles combined, including children's, Dalit and Leftist literature.
“Autonomy is a wonderful freedom,” says Ritu, who received a Padma Shri this year. “It's very difficult to reconcile to not having it.”
HOT OFF THE PRESS
Translated by Tahira Naqvi
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Memoirs from the Women's Movement in India
Edited by Ritu Menon
Translated by Shashi Deshpande
ON THE ANVIL
UNMAKING WAR, REMAKING MEN
A DISTANT TRAVELLER
An Attia Hossain miscellany
Selected and edited by Aamer Hussein
THE TILLER OF WATERS
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