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November 8, 2012

A feminist writer/publisher sought out stories of the partition of India: atrocity and hardship, looting, rape and murder committed by and upon Hindu, Muslim and Sikh.


In the course of conversation with Urvashi Butalia, author of The Other Side of Silence, on a Saturday afternoon last July, and for some weeks following, I felt or sensed, like an occasional distant rumble, the movement of History, or perhaps the undead hand of Empire, reaching from deep in the past into the present moment, a slightly absurd sensation, disconcerting, discombobulating at times, easily muted by the routines of daily life, but never silenced.

Urvashi Butalia is a well-known writer, historian, feminist and publisher; she had travelled from Delhi to Vancouver as a guest of the Indian Summer Festival, where she was to speak about the making of The Other Side of Silence, a major work of oral history, analysis and commentary, subtitled Voices from the Partition of India, which I had not yet read.

I knew Urvashi Butalia slightly, at least in a manner of speaking: we had been introduced twenty-four years earlier in 1988 in Vancouver at a conference of Pacific Rim book publishers paid for by the Canadian government. Urvashi Butalia was the founder of Kali for Women, the first feminist book publishing house in India, operating from a friend’s garage in Delhi, and much too tiny a firm, she said at the time, to be invited to an international conference; nevertheless she had managed to hitch rides with a “legitimate” firm for herself and her publishing partner Ritu Menon, and they had been assigned rooms in the Four Seasons Hotel along with the big publishers from Australia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. I represented the tiniest Canadian house present, a press on the literary fringe, which I had been running for seventeen years in a series of decaying warehouses.

Kali for Women was at the stage in fringe publishing when survival itself is the primary goal; not only were these women inventing a milieu, they were inventing the writers and the writing that the milieu called for. Such had been the condition of cultural publishing in Canada in the ’70s, a decade that had extended well into the ’80s and was perhaps only ending then, in 1988.

I recall wishing to explain to the women of Kali for Women, and perhaps I tried to, that publishing in Canada at that time had entered a period of relative calm; politicians had ceased imputing to publishers, and their writers, crimes of immorality, obscenity, terrorism and sedition; gay, lesbian, feminist and Aboriginal voices were finding places on the fringe among the literary and social issues publishers; book and magazine distributors were (briefly, as I recall) not going bankrupt; the world of bookselling was not yet hollowed out (I say now, in hindsight): there were plenty of independent bookstores in the country.

It was precisely this optimism (short-lived, as it turned out) that encouraged the sponsoring publishers in Toronto and Vancouver and their allies in the federal government to undertake a gathering of this scale, the aim of which was to jump-start a new trade fair for the Pacific Rim along the lines of the Frankfurt Book Fair (the biggest in the world), and, by a kind of coup de main, break the hegemony of Frankfurt.

The opening session, which neither the women of Kali for Women nor I attended, was addressed by the Lieutenant-Governor, the local representative of the Crown and vestigially of the Empire that had once joined Canada to India and the other pink parts of the globe.


In fact, I had only a cynical interest in the Pacific Rim conference, and my attention was easily diverted to the women of Kali for Women, who manifested new publishing energy and a readiness for the challenge that they had taken up, which stood as a rebuke to my own world-weariness—and by whom, I confess, I was somewhat dazzled. When I asked them to explain Kali to me, they said, be careful with Kali.

Later I discovered that Kali, the fierce Tantric goddess, is known as the black one, a figure of time, change, annihilation and death, and as the mother and protector of the universe. You don’t want to get too close to Kali, is what I remember Urvashi Butalia or Ritu Menon saying to me at the Pacific Rim conference, with the result that I wished to go to India immediately to join forces with the feminist publishing fringe.

When I left the final reception at the Four Seasons Hotel, late at night and full of wine, I carried a familiar dream of India as given by the movie Gandhi, the poem “Gunga Din” and a few lines from the Bhagavad Gita, to which the goddess Kali had been added as demiurge to the feminists of India.


Now Urvashi Bu­­talia had returned to Vancouver as the guest of the Indian Summer Festival, and after twenty-four years I had not yet been to India. Did we recognize each other? I couldn’t say: within moments Urvashi Butalia seemed completely familiar to me, and we seemed to be quite at home with each other. Her connecting flight from Seattle to Vancouver had been inexplicably (but not, for some of us, surprisingly) cancelled by Air Canada, leaving her stranded at the Air Canada “information” counter, at the mercy of stony-eyed clerks who dispensed a “number to call” and no other assistance; she waited on hold on her cell phone for forty minutes, she said, surrounded by her fellow strandees, some forty or fifty in number, all on their cell phones, all waiting to get through to the same number.

Finally she broke away from the embrace of our national airline and found a shuttle bus to carry her over the border to Vancouver; five hours later she was ensconced in the Pan Pacific Hotel. Before meeting with me, she had gone across the city to visit a family whose relatives in India had not been in touch since 1947, when Partition divided India into two nations. In the course of her research, Urvashi Butalia said, she had often acted in this way as an instrument of reunion and reconnection amongst survivors of Partition, which was a catastrophe of immense proportions, as you probably know, she said.

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November 8, 2012