The Story of Kali for Women : India’s First Feminist Publishing House

Via Business Standard

In early 1984, when Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia were on the verge of starting Kali for Women, their friend and fellow publisher, the late Tejeshwar Singh told them, ‘Well, rather you than me to have taken such a risk.’ However, these two determined young women went on to start a press which rapidly became a phenomenon not only in Indian publishing but in the largely untapped field of feminist writing in South Asia. It is surprising, therefore, to hear them both say that they came to publishing ‘by accident’

In April 1984 the two finally met to formalise matters and Kali for Women was born. Menon says, “We wanted to cover the entire spectrum and publish not just academic writing but activist texts as well as fiction — this was something completely new in the trade here and there were many who told us to be more ‘defined’. But I do believe that was the best decision we ever made at Kali.” Indeed with its first few commissioned works itself — a contributed volume on Women in Media, a collection of stories by women writers of India called Truth Tales, Radha Kumar’s The History of Doing and Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive, Kali straddled the entire gamut of women’s writing in the subcontinent — academic with a focus on development, creative writing as well as activism.

Another important work published by Kali in the early years was Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, edited by Sudesh Vaid and Kumkum Sangari, (Kali for Women, 1989) which continues to be part of every reading list even today within the country and outside on gender and colonialism in South Asia. Butalia remembers ‘trapping’ the two editors in her flat and babysitting Sangari’s young child while they finally wrote up the introduction to the book which had been delayed for long. Another early book which established Kali’s reputation as a cutting-edge feminist press was a Hindi title called Sharir ki Jaankaari (The Knowledge of the Body) which was authored by 75 village women, and on their insistence, sold at a special price below cost to women from villages. Almost 70,000 copies of the book have been sold to date.

After running Kali for Women together for a little short of two decades and creating an enviable corpus of feminist titles spanning creative writing, activist tracts and scholarly texts, Butalia and Menon decided to go their separate ways in 2003. There has been much speculation about their decision in the book trade and outside; however, the lists that they subsequently developed at Zubaan and Women Unlimited put to rest any whispers about the ‘death of the feminist press’ in India. Both presses have grown beyond Kali for Women while keeping the original commitment to self-aware women’s writing intact.

With Women Unlimited and Zubaan, and their own writing , they continue to address such changes in the way women and their lives are perceived in South Asia with the same feisty determination that distinguished Kali for Women.

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