A Conversation with Ruth Vanita
By Mary Ann Chacko
I met Prof. Ruth Vanita, the noted Indian academic and activist, in Tel Aviv in May 2016. I am currently in Tel Aviv on a month-long doctoral fellowship in the Department of East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Ruth had come to present in the “Endangered Bodies: Asian Formations” conference organized by the same department. Her room was opposite mine in the Broshim guest apartments and that is how I got the opportunity to spend considerable time with her during her brief stay in Tel Aviv. We went on a walking tour of Jaffa and, while I usually feel awkward and tongue tied in the presence of ‘people I have only read/read about’ (!), her warm friendliness and quick laughter immediately put me at ease. While returning from Jaffa, I asked her if she would talk to me about her experiences with Manushi, a pioneering journal on women’s issues in India, which Ruth co-founded with Madhu Kishwar in 1978. She agreed immediately, despite the fact that she had just flown in from Cambridge, UK, on the previous night and we had just come back from a 2-hour walking tour through sunny Jaffa.
Ruth Vanita, currently Professor at the University of Montana, former Reader in English at Miranda House and the English Department, Delhi University, is a literary historian, poet and translator. Educated entirely in India, she was founding co-editor of Manushi, India’s first nationwide feminist magazine, and an activist in the women’s and civil liberties movements from 1978 to 1990. She is co-editor of the path-breaking, Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History (2000; updated edition Penguin India 2008) and editor of Queering India (Routledge 2002). She is the author of several books, including Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination (Columbia UP 1996), Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (Penguin India & Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005), and Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Culture and Sexuality (Yoda, 2005). Her most recent book, Gender, Sex and the City: Urdu Rekhti Poetry 1780-1870, appeared in 2012. Her first collection of poems, A Play of Light, appeared from Penguin India in 1994, and since then she has published poems in many anthologies and journals. She has translated several works of fiction and poetry from Hindi and Urdu to English, including Pandey Bechan Sharma Ugra’s Chocolate: Stories about Male-Male Desire (Oxford UP, Delhi & Duke UP), which was published in Hindi in the 1920s, and his autobiography, About Me (Apni Khabar, Penguin India), The Co-Wife and Other Stories by Munshi Premchand (Penguin India, 2008), Strangers on the Roof by Rajendra Yadav (Penguin India, 1994), and Alone Together: Stories by Three Hindi Women Writers (Women Unlimited, 2013). She is the author of about 50 scholarly essays in journals and chapters in books, many of them related to gender and sexuality. She has published articles on Shakespeare in several major journals, including Shakespeare Survey, Comparative Drama and Studies in English Literature. She is currently on sabbatical at Cambridge University, where she is completing a book on courtesans in Bombay cinema, based on an examination of 200 films. In 2016, she received the Kashish Rainbow Warrior Award, along with Saleem Kidwai.
What follows is my conversation with Prof. Ruth Vanita.
Mary Ann Chacko: Thank you for talking to Café Dissensus! Among your numerous achievements as an academic, activist and author is the founding of Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society. As a Founding-Editor of Café Dissensus, I am interested in learning more about your decision to establish such a magazine in 1978, the commitments that informed it, the ways in which it influenced your work and life, and your current role vis-à-vis the magazine. First, what was it about 1978 that inspired you to launch this magazine?
Ruth Vanita: This was the post-Emergency period. I was a student during the Emergency; after the Emergency, a lot of small magazines cropped up all over India and this was one of them. I had started teaching in 1976, when I was only 20 and had just finished the MA. I accidentally happened to run into Madhu Kishwar. Apart from teaching, I wanted to do some social activism and I was almost on the verge of giving up my job and going to work for a trade union in Kanpur, which thankfully I didn’t do! Then Madhu suggested that we start a woman’s group.
That time I was living in Miranda House hostel and so we started meeting in my hostel room. It was an eclectic ever-changing group of faculty, students etc. And we did a few things before Manushi. We had a reading group, we invited some feminist writers to come speak to us, and we conducted a survey of women’s and men’s hostels on campus to see the differences in the rules. Then we had the idea of starting a magazine and I had no idea what it took to run a magazine. I thought it was just something I could do on the side. I had no idea it would swallow up my whole life!
When we started, we had no money, no office, nothing. We printed out little receipt books and started collecting Rs.7.50 from everyone who wanted to subscribe to it. I don’t know how we came up with this sum, which of course didn’t cover the subscription for a year at all. But we started collecting the money and we brought out the first issue. We had to learn everything from scratch: how to proof-read and edit, how to find a press, how to do page layout, and in those days it was letter-press and block printing. So it took a long time. We started work in 1978 and after nine months the first issue came out in January 1979.
We formed a Manushi Trust with a few people on it. We put a few names on it, of people who happened to be present at a particular meeting. So it was very random. We called it the Manushi Collective. When we published the first issue, it sold out like wildfire, within weeks. And the money that we had collected for the whole year was used up. But it got much more attention than we had expected; all the newspapers reviewed it and all. Then some of those Collective members, who had not done any work but who belonged to certain kinds of Marxist groups, tried to launch a take-over because we were not necessarily following their line. We somehow managed to resist. So that was the first split and those people left and the four or five people who had actually done the work stayed on. And then we went on to bring out more issues.
Mary Ann: Why Manushi?
Ruth: At that time women’s issues were not taken seriously as political issues. For instance, the political parties barely mentioned women’s issues in one paragraph and newspapers or magazines would have a ladies’ page. There were magazines like Femina and Eve’s Weekly but they were mostly about, you know, home-making, some about working women, too, but mostly romantic fiction, fashion and things like that. So in India, women’s issues were not taken seriously at that time. And we wanted it to be a forum where all the dimensions of women’s lives should be written about in a serious manner. But in a way that would be accessible to ordinary people, not a totally academic way. So that is why we started and then it evolved and changed over time.
Mary Ann: And I guess the popularity of the first issue underscores how pertinent the objective of the magazine was?
Ruth: There was a big demand for it from all kinds of people all over the place, women and men, in towns and villages. It passed hand to hand, you know, and people from varied political persuasions across the board, including social workers, activists, housewives, school teachers, read it. Even now I often meet Indian women all over the world who tell me that their parents subscribed or that Manushi changed their life when they were young. And we got an outpouring of letters. If one goes through the files of Manushi, the actual hand-written letters that we received over the years, it’s a great archive I think. From people all over just telling their stories, saying why they are interested in it.
Mary Ann: Was the magazine published solely in English?
Ruth: No, we published in both Hindi and English for the first 8 years and I worked on both. I organized a band of translators who were also all over the country and we translated mostly from English to Hindi but some also from Hindi to English. So the Hindi and English pieces were more or less the same.
Mary Ann: How did you organize or structure your first issue? Was it based on a theme?
Ruth: In the first issue, we wrote an editorial on why the magazine and then we had different sections. We had a section called legal rights, and it was called Our Rights and Wrongs, acquainting readers with the laws relating to women. We had a section on films. That is when I first started watching and reviewing Hindi films. We always had a short story, we usually had some poems. Then we asked people all over the country to send in reports of anything that was happening locally, that was important to women; this formed a section called Reports. Then Letters from the readers was a big section. So these were the regular columns and while they dealt with women’s issues and were written by mostly women, men wrote too.
Mary Ann: So you mentioned that you intended the magazine to reach a popular audience, not just academics.
Ruth: Not only academics. But a lot of academics read it and many who became famous feminist scholars later, some of their first writings were published in Manushi.
Mary Ann: Oh that’s fascinating!
Ruth: We solicited these articles. You know, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Uma Chakravarti were colleagues of mine in Miranda House. We suggested topics and asked them to write and then, in some cases, re-wrote some of what they wrote.
Mary Ann: So that was another question. How would you solicit pieces? Now we have email, Facebook, etc. So it’s easier to reach out to people.
Ruth: We started with the people we happened to know, who were mostly academics. Once the first issue came out, then we asked readers to send in their writings. So it travelled. Over time Manushi helped me to meet a very wide range of people, and meeting them gave us a lot of different ideas regarding what could be written about. Anything which seemed interesting which they said or wrote in a letter, we asked them to expand and write about it. Many were first time writers, so I had to do a lot of re-writing; what we call editing was actually not editing. It was a lot of re-writing. Some people could barely write or they wrote in Hindi and we translated. And then some academic writings I re-wrote. They wrote in an academic style. I then re-wrote it and showed it to them. They would okay it and then it would be published.
Mary Ann: It was fascinating for me to learn that you were a faculty member at Delhi University as well as a doctoral student at the time Manushi was launched. Moreover, I happened to read that you discontinued your Ph.D. to work on Manushi. What drove you to make the commitment on behalf of Manushi rather than in favor of your Ph.D.?
Ruth: I started teaching at the age of 20 and I registered for Ph.D. right away. Normally they don’t register you so young but they were my teachers at Delhi University who thought I could do it and they registered me. I was working on Keats as a critic. And then Manushi just swallowed up my life, all the time when I wasn’t teaching. It was much more than a full-time job. (Laughs)
I was just overwhelmed, because the work was not just running a magazine. Any number of women started coming in for help. They would come and say my husband is beating me, he is doing this, he is doing that. We were not set up to give them help so we had to start equipping ourselves to help them – from organizing protests and demonstrations outside their husband’s houses or negotiating with their in-laws or providing legal help. Women lawyers offered to provide legal help and they used to come and sit in our house which was also our office. I spent huge amounts of time doing tasks like sticking stamps on envelopes, addressing them by hand, not just the magazine but receipts for subscriptions, reminders to renew subscriptions, replies to readers’ letters. A lot of time was spent on what Madhu used to call “Donkey Work.” It wasn’t intellectual work necessarily. Also sitting in the office and keeping it open, dealing with everyone who dropped in with questions or to buy copies.
So we had to do endless number of things and I had no time. So I dropped out of my Ph.D. for that reason. My career would have been very different, if I had not made that choice.
Mary Ann: Were your students involved in Manushi?
Ruth: Yes, a lot of my students were involved. Many of them, from very different social strata. I remember Fatima from Old Delhi. We did a street play called Roshni. I wrote the script based on our group improvisations, guided by Feisal Alkazi. And we acted it in many parts of the city, on streets and also in colleges. So Fatima also acted in it and her father threatened to have a heart-attack (Laughs). Then we went and met her family. So we had to do things like this, you know. To allow volunteers to come and work for us, we often had to meet their families. I am still in touch with some of those students, who are now doing other things.
Mary Ann: So would you say that Manushi also launched you as an activist?
Ruth: Yes, it started with Manushi. I was an activist then in the women’s movement but also in so many other things, for instance we worked during communal riots, such as Meerut in 1987. Often these are now forgotten, as if nothing happened before Gujarat 2002. But there were many major riots before that. In Manushi we published reports on riots in Gujarat every couple of years as well as in many other places. We went to Meerut in 1987 while the city was under curfew and did a survey door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood. We were an all-women team; on one occasion we were almost attacked and were rescued by police. We counted every house and shop that was burned or attacked in the city to see how many were Hindus and how many were Muslims. We talked to people who were victims on both sides, there were many more Muslims than Hindus.
Then 1984, which happened right in the place we were living and working. Lajpat Nagar where Manushi office was, was one of the affected areas as it was half-Sikh, half-Hindu; so we were active along with other groups and were among the founders of Nagarik Ekta Manch. Then with other groups we worked on civil liberties of various kinds across the board. But in those also we focused on women. Like in 1984, the anti-Sikh riots or massacre, we interviewed women and they talked about being raped which many other surveys did not talk so much about but we focused on the women and how they experienced it. We had a special issue on the 1984 Sikh riots. That issue had a black cover with a picture of a woman victim on it.
Mary Ann: So Manushi had special issues?
Ruth: Yes, from early on. We had a special issue on dowry, for example, where we wrote that controversial editorial on dowry. We started off by asking people to pledge that they would not go to any weddings where dowry was given. Very few people signed that pledge and it ended up that for many years we couldn’t go to almost any wedding because the way we had defined dowry, anything being given was dowry (Laughs). Thus we couldn’t go to most weddings and most people we knew were going to these weddings even though they were supposedly anti-dowry (Laughs). I realized the complexity of the issue after talking to many more people. I asked the girls I taught in Miranda House to write an essay on: would you take dowry or not when you get married? And many of them wrote and said why shouldn’t I take when I am not going to get any property, my brothers are going to get all the property. The only thing I will get from my parents is this money, jewellery, whatever they give so why shouldn’t I take it? And then we realized that, yes, unless you are actually going to give daughters an equal inheritance in the property, there is no point saying, don’t take dowry; such a position results in girls losing the little that they get (Laughs).
Then we had a special issue on rape, when the Mathura rape case happened. We were also involved in the protests and all that. So some of the special issues were responses to events and some of them were on issues that we felt were not written about very much at that time and we thought they were important and interesting issues.
Mary Ann: Did at any point the government try to reach out to you or did you work together with the government on something?
Ruth: We had a policy not to publish ads, not to take any institutional donations, only individual donations. No institutional donations from government or any other source, no foreign or Indian funding agencies. So this made it quite a struggle. For instance, in the first few years, a lot of my salary just went into the expenses of running it, you know, on transport, on things like that. No, government did not interfere with us and nor they did try to censor us.
Mary Ann: You already touched on this, but what would you say were the biggest challenges of running Manushi? Is there anything more you would like to add?
Ruth: The challenges were financial and the exhausting nature of the work, the time and energy consumed. I learnt a lot, though. I learnt many skills that I would not have learnt otherwise. Like meeting a range of people, visiting a range of places, like parts of Delhi I would never have gone into, like East Delhi. Our printer was cheap; he happened to be in a slum in East Delhi. I spent whole nights alone there, surrounded by men working on the press. I read and corrected the proofs as they came off the press. It was a letter press, every letter was placed by hand and this was largely being done by semi-literate people who did not know English. So there would be a lot of mistakes. So I visited a lot of places in Delhi and also outside Delhi. Then I learnt skills like editing, typing very fast. I started typing on my grandfather’s manual typewriter and then moved to an electric one, proof-reading, page layout, translating, interviewing. We learnt from friends and we also taught ourselves. I also met a range of artists, writers, film stars, social workers; we interviewed Smita Patil and Amrita Pritam. So I met people from every strata and just learnt a lot about Indian life.
Mary Ann: As you went about running this magazine, did you feel supported by friends and colleagues?
Ruth: We felt supported by friends both in and outside the academy. We got a lot of support. Without the support, we could not have done it. I remember one of my teachers, Mrs Krishna, who had studied at Oxford. We were sitting outside Miranda House back-gate collecting subscriptions. We had set up a make-shift table and she came in and she paid and said, “We were feminists before you were born.” (Laughs). So we came from a background, where there were a lot of women who had lived extraordinary lives before we had started this. So we didn’t have the illusion that we were the first.
But in Miranda House, personally I did face opposition from a bunch of people which was very funny because at that time I was a Marxist and did not fit in socially. Later, when I had stopped being a Marxist, they became Marxist and involved in theory, so again I did not fit in.
In the early years, I would go to teach in rubber chappals and jeans at a time when everyone else was wearing saris, because I didn’t have time and I was rushing around. At one point, some of my colleagues made a concerted attempt to throw me out of my job but, fortunately, an old teacher warned me so I managed to deal with that. But many people supported Manushi, wrote for Manushi from Miranda House and other colleges. So it was a mixed reaction, I would say. But later they all came around to being very supportive.
Mary Ann: What made you move away from Marxism?
Ruth: Reading, I think. I just read a lot. I read about the Soviet Union, I read about China’s Cultural Revolution, what happened to the people of China, Tibet, and the Soviet Union. The God That Failed was just one book but there were so many others like Solzhenitsyn. I read a lot and, after that, you can’t seriously think that is the kind of direction you want to go (Laughs). I felt that Marx had analyzed society correctly in some ways, but his solutions and what he proposed to bring about would be worse than what existed.
Mary Ann: After your disillusionment with Marxism, what became your commitments?
Ruth: I do not subscribe to any one ‘ism’. I don’t belong to any one ideology but rather react to each issue and each situation on the merits of that particular issue and situation. But, overall, of course, a commitment to people’s basic civil rights and human rights. Everybody should have their basic needs met, including good school education and skills that provide a foundation for equal opportunity. Also I have a commitment to freedom of expression, of religion, of association, you know, much that the Constitution says. Also, I have a deep commitment to the protection of non-human animals from the unremitting torture that millions of them routinely undergo every day.
Mary Ann: Did Manushi influence your academic projects and commitments?
Ruth: Yes, I would say I learnt a lot from it. I learnt how to write. This was not necessarily good for my academic career but I learnt to write in an accessible style, accessible to any educated person who reads but who is not necessarily an academic. This is one reason I never took to critical theory.
Manushi also helped me realize the complexity of things. We used to do very long, in-depth interviews with people, one cassette tape after another. We interviewed a range of people, like Sant Longowal, one of the leaders of the Sikhs in Punjab. From that kind of person to a slum-dwelling woman, you know, and the complexities of everyone’s life are very interesting. For instance, we took up the issue of a woman who had been harassed by her husband and we went and demonstrated in front of his house. Then he came out and he spoke. We had never bothered to interview him (Laughs). She had said that he had married three times and we believed her. When he came and spoke, it turned out she had also been married twice which she never told us (Laughs). Then I learnt that one should always ask everybody concerned before taking a stand, you know, just the basic skills of journalism. The idea that you should only believe the victim and not anybody else and that there is only one victim of a situation is simplistic.
And, yes, some of my academic interests shifted and changed. Like we did a 10th anniversary issue on Bhakti and for that I worked with a lot of scholars and ordinary people, did many translations and read a lot. It deepened my interest in Hindu thought and literature. It started me on a whole new reading trajectory and a different path. I developed a deep interest in Hindu philosophy and now I teach a course on the Bhagavad Gita. This process began while I was at Manushi. We also did an issue on Goddesses. Before that, I knew little, but that is when I began to read, and I have now written several essays on Hindu texts such as the Adbhut Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I have also worked on the influence of pre-modern Christian icons on modern English literature.
Similarly, reviewing Bombay movies I developed an appreciation for their remarkable range and depth. I teach a course on Bombay cinema, and have continued to work on it.
Mary Ann: Would you say that the running of this magazine influenced your idea of womanhood and being a woman in India?
Ruth: Yes, absolutely! For one thing, working on it shattered the stereotype, which is so widespread in the West and even in India to some extent, that Indian women are submissive. I have never met that kind of a woman, that totally submissive, stereotypical woman. When you actually meet individual women, they are much more complicated than that (Laughs). So whether it’s my family or all the women I met in the course of Manushi work, or my colleagues and students, I have never met somebody who corresponds to that stereotype. Of course, many women don’t have power and, as a result, they are beaten, harassed or even killed. But it is not because they submit to it, right from Sita (and her resistance is built into literature) to your next-door neighbour. I don’t think anyone is really a submissive victim. They always protest and resist in their own varied ways.
Mary Ann: What is your current role in Manushi?
Ruth: I left in 1991 and then I finished my Ph.D. on a different topic, Virginia Woolf (Laughs). After that, I have occasionally written a review or an article but I am not involved with it anymore.
Mary Ann: So after being so actively and intensely involved with Manushi for so long, what led you or enabled you to take yourself away from it?
Ruth: A variety of things but mainly I think I had begun to feel stifled. There were many things I couldn’t write about. The first 6 or 8 years were great. After that I started feeling that I always had to stop myself from saying certain things. For example, sexuality could not be discussed in the women’s movement at that time, except as rape and sexual molestation. Now it has changed. In those days, in the 80s, anything else, any discussion of sexuality, which was not all about pain and suffering, was considered to be a Western bourgeois self-indulgence. And certainly homosexuality could not be discussed because, as it is, most feminists were worried about being labeled as man-haters and this would add to it.
After coming out of the women’s movement, I felt that I could write about what I wanted. So it was not only Manushi, it was the women’s movement as a whole. And I felt both in the Left and the Right, certain views are accepted and, if you go against that view, you are immediately labeled negatively (which is still largely the case). So when we took positions, and Madhu and I didn’t always agree on these positions, but sometimes when we took a position, like the position on dowry that saying no to dowry is not going to help, then we got a lot of criticism from other members of the women’s movement. So it became acrimonious and not very pleasant.
Also I felt that we were always talking about other women’s issues, like the issues of married women, issues of poor women. We were always expected to foreground issues of those who were supposed to be the suffering majority and were not supposed to care about pleasure, sex, friendship or creativity. They supposedly would only care about fuel and water. This was fine up to a point. After that, I felt that I was being intellectually stifled. I would write my own diary, in which I would discuss these issues with myself but I could not discuss it with an intellectual equal. I just felt like we were talking down all the time and was not growing intellectually (Laughs).
Mary Ann: Coming to my last question, what suggestions or advice would you have for academics like us, who are running magazines that aspire to cater to a popular audience?
Ruth: (Laughs) What advice would I give you? You know best. Now the situation is so different with the internet, and the whole way of communication is so different and faster. Though I do find internet sites such as Facebook somewhat scary. If you express a political opinion or any opinion even mildly, not only do you get labeled with much greater speed but people feel free to be really rude and nasty in a way they would not face to face. They would say things behind your back in the past. But now they have no problem saying those things to you online; even somebody much younger than you or somebody who has no experience will tell you off rudely. So I just feel a little weary of the online media and I try not to express my views much there.
Mary Ann: Thank you so much!
Cover Photo: From the Project Bolo video, for which Ruth Vanita was interviewed by Sridhar Rangayan.
Picture in the text: Ruth typing on a manual typewriter on the terrace of Manushi office in Lajpat Nagar in the 1980s. The picture was taken by Patty Rupert, an American volunteer at Manushi at the time.
Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.
Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, edited by Rashida Murphy, Author, Perth, Australia.
Leave a Reply