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

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By Urvashi Butalia

Ladies and gentleman, I’m honoured to be asked to deliver the M.K. Binodini lecture here in Manipur and at the invitation of the IMASI foundation set up in her name and her memory. It’s not every day that a feminist publisher is asked to speak in memory of a woman, a writer who, in her lifetime, redefined so many boundaries, who remained, through her life, her own woman, who was both talented and versatile, and earned such enormous respect as Binodini Devi did. I was moved to read about her plays, the screenplays and essays she wrote, the novels and stories that were part of her repertoire, the songs that touched so many hearts, but more, I was moved to read about the political stances she took, particularly her returning of the Padmashri in protest at the rape and killing of Thangam Manorama here in Manipur. My talk today is entitled Dismantling the Master’s House. I take this phrase from the work of black feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde who urged women to fight their battles using other tools for, as she said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Lorde was addressing the issue of racism, particularly within the context of the feminist movement then in the United States that she saw as being predominantly white. But what she said may well be true of other parts of the world and in other contexts.

Thirty years ago, when we started Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, this is what we set out to do: dismantle the master’s house. Made up almost entirely of the writings of men, focusing almost entirely on the lives of men, drawing almost entirely on research done by men, or traditions of writing built by men, the literary master’s house in India, inhabited by multiple languages and literatures, was a largely masculine space. Entry into it was not easy: why, we were asked, do you want to publish books ‘only’ about women or by women? Does that not limit you to a niche? Further, we were asked, do women actually read? Is there that much to say about women? Surely when we say men we include women in that word? We countered these with some questions of our own: Women are half the world, how can you see them as a niche? Books have so far mainly been about men, is it not time to right the balance? We realized soon enough though, that we were, so to speak, knocking at the wrong door. Our first mistake had been to think we could be allowed entry into the master’s house. Instead, what we should be doing, was to build a house of our own: a house that celebrated difference, that was inclusive, and in which a different politics obtained. Inhabited, as it was, largely by men the world of writing, the master’s house was one in which the master’s presence was so naturalized and so normalized that the absence of other voices, other presences, was barely noticed.

Thus began the project of setting up a truly feminist publishing house: one in which the market would not dominate or dictate, but our political choices would, one in which we would work in a non hierarchical, collaborative way, one in which we would recognize the priorities of the lives of men and women and make room for them. It was not easy, but it was not impossible.

The problems, when they came, were of a different order from what we had imagined. It is easy enough to imagine dismantling the master’s house, easy even to build a sense of excitement and power about doing so. You can walk away and leave the debris behind. But it’s when you start to put something in its place that things become more difficult. For us, to resolve to create a world in which women’s voices would predominate was easy, the more difficult thing was to persuade women that they had something worthwhile to say. Accustomed, for centuries to silence, women found it difficult, sometimes impossible to articulate what they wanted to say. Often they did not even have the language, sometimes they did not have the opportunity, sometimes they had no space. Working with women’s writing then became a double edged activity: one, of instilling in women the confidence that they had something to say, and two, of working towards creating a hospitable environment in which women’s writing could be received, and read.

And then, there was a third thing: if women did indeed feel they had something to say, they had to find the space and time in their lives to say it. There is a beautiful story by Malayalam writer Chandrika which describes this situation. It’s called the Story of a Poem. In this story, the protagonist, a housewife with a husband and a young son, has a poem bursting in her head. Lines come to her as she cuts vegetables, as she cooks. On a piece of paper kept nearby she scribbles a line at a time. After her husband and son leave for the day, the poem begins to take shape in fits and starts. At one point, her day’s tasks completed,  but the poem still incomplete, she goes in for a shower, as she bathes, the concluding lines come to her. Naked and dripping, she runs out to find the piece of paper, and adds her lines. Shortly after, dressed and ready, she comes out and sees that her husband and son are returning. Quickly, she tears up the poem, shredding it into little bits, and throws the pieces of paper into the dustbin for she knows that if they see it, they will ask her what she is doing wasting her time writing when there is so much housework to be done. The author then tells the reader, dear reader, if you want to read the poem you will now have to piece it together from those pieces of paper. As the story shows, not only do women not have the time to write, they often do not even have the permission to do so.

(To be Contd.)

(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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