G.S. Jayasree

Women’s Studies Narrative Travails and Triumphs edited by Rekha Pande

What made you step into publishing? When did you realise you wanted to step into publishing?

            I always had this wish to be an editor ever since my college days as a student. That, combined with my dream of building a non-hierarchical organisational structure, led to the founding of Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies in 2001.

College days? That is indeed an early start. Could you please take us through that journey?

I organised the first party-based elections in the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, in 1978. Those were the days after the National Emergency and the entire campus was throbbing with the spirit of democracy. I contested for the post of the editor of the college magazine, prompted by my unwavering conviction in the power of the written word, and won with a thumping majority. The next one year was most exciting with meetings with students, editorial discussions and negotiations with printers.

That sounds like an exciting beginning. How did you find the role moving forward? Was it equally rewarding?

As a student editor, I learned the first lessons in editing, planning and coordinating with the young writers who thought every word they wrote was of the highest literary merit, sourcing art materials, editing them, maintaining schedules and reviewing stories, copy and pages. Working with so many young hands was fun. But as none of us had any training in editing, there were a lot of arguments and often we overshot the schedule. I also understood from first hand experience that in editing, the editor’s word is final.

So you learned to handle the ropes quiet young. What came next?

After my studies, I joined government college service as lecturer in 1983.   The next eight years were really hectic, personally and academically. I got married during this period, became a mother and set up a house. There were frequent transfers from college to college, taking me to unfamiliar places and new people. I also joined for my doctoral research during this period. Those were testing times and the activist in me suffered due to shortage of time. However, in 1991, I joined as lecturer at the Institute of English, University of Kerala. That marked the beginning of the second phase of academic activism in my life, largely because of the freedom afforded by a university department.

You mentioned academic activism. What was the atmosphere of the times?

 As all know, the early 1990s was a crucial period in the transformation of Indian society. The economy was opening up, the anti-globalisation movement was gaining momentum, especially  among women. The feminisation of labour, the representation of women as sex symbols in the media, the homogenisation of culture, the use of genetically modified crops, environment protection, GATT and Dunkel Draft were some of the major issues. This was a moment when the question of choice became paramount and marked a crucial change in the social psyche as far as the feminists were concerned, because it could mean choice in matters ranging from the nature of work outside the family to preferences in sex.

How did you engage with the issues you mentioned above?

Some of us (Women faculty members) initially responded by starting an informal discussion group, the Kerala University Women’s Forum or KUWF, in 1992. Soon after, I volunteered to bring out a newsletter for the KUWF as a forum for discussion.

How did that work out? Was it received well?

The Newsletter gave me an opportunity to sharpen my editorial skills. And what began as a slim 12-page news bulletin grew into a solid 32-page (A4 size) information-packed newsletter. It was an enriching experience, like with the college magazine, and it fostered my conviction to begin a journal of Women’s Studies.

What was the best takeaway from this experience?

The first lesson I learnt, of many to come, was that big names need not necessarily mean the best. Another practical lesson I learnt was the art of saying “No” with composure. This helped me in not compromising on the standard of the work published and to carry along with people whom I differed with. And one of the most significant lesson was recognising that people with different perspectives and inclinations would strengthen any publication, and this went a long way in soliciting cooperation of academics and scholars whose work had genuine merit.

What were the practical lessons you learned about/by the running of such an enterprise?

I recognised the importance of having the reader in mind always and this demanded consistency of ideas, and clarity of expression. A classical idea, but something many publishers lose in practice. So, I was very particular of not losing sight of this, and it helped as vouched by many of our readers.

I also mastered the art of designing the newsletter, realised how even minor matters like the quality of the paper used would contribute to the impression the final product created. On the financial side, I internalised the principles of costing and marketing. In short, I got training in all aspects of publication, and the disciplinarian in me was made more aware of the significance of keeping to deadlines, which is an inevitable attribute in maintaining credibility.

What was the next step? How did a journal evolve out of the newsletter?

The Elections to the Senate of the University of Kerala in 1999 brought an abrupt end to my involvement with the KUWF Newsletter. KUWF members were in favor of contesting the elections to ensure equal participation in decision making bodies, to which I recorded my dissent, as in my view KUWF was a nonpolitical entity and needed to remain so. I was asked to resign as editor for taking a stand against leadership. My strong sense of identity and a feeling of having been wronged prompted me to resign from the primary membership of the organisation as well and I bid goodbye to KUWF.

That must have been a very painful breakaway, considering you had invested yourself so much in it?

This was the most trying period in my life, as having severed all ties with the organisation I had helped to build made me anxious as to the future of the organisation. I was also hurt by the thought that my friends in KUWF had moved away and I kept asking myself where I had gone wrong.

The high hopes I had as to the interventionist role KUWF could play in feminist politics stood shattered, and I had no idea what direction to take moving forward. Sleepless nights ensued, but finally, my commitment to issues concerning women prompted me to form an organisation that would focus on studies and research issues pertaining to women. Thus, Women’s Initiatives, a collective of Women’s Studies scholars, was formed in the year 2000.

Truly inspiring that you could find the conviction to begin anew. Can you tell us more about Women’s Initiatives?

There were seven founding members including myself, and the collective was founded with a contribution of Rs. 1000/- from each of us as seed money. Our aim was establishing a forum for studies and research on women’s issues with reference to India in the context of globalisation. Our early meetings were held in the houses of the members, and heated discussions on women’s issues and related topics happened over steaming cups of tea and home-made samosas and vadas.


What were the plans of the Initiative? How were you planning to highlight Women’s scholarship and concerns?

The idea of Samyukta- A Journal for Women’s Studies was concretised through our ‘tea-talks’ but the real spirit behind it was Dr. Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair. Dr. Nair was my classmate from schooldays and our friendship was based on healthy competition. She always had an edge over me in Malayalam, being the granddaughter of the distinguished scholar and critic Sri. Suranad Kunjan Pillai and she was equally good in English. She had just finished her doctoral dissertation under Dr. Ayyappa Paniker when we started conceiving this plan. All through our friendship, it had never crossed my mind that at some point in my life she would become a warm support in realising my dreams. We carried detailed discussions on every aspect of bringing out the journal and the framework was finalised during these talks.

A friendship that molded into a publishing collaboration, how interesting! Could you elaborate more on how it worked moving forward?

 The name ‘Samyukta,’ signifying unity and collective effort, was fixed in one such discussion between Dr. Nair and me. From the design and the topics that could be covered in the next few numbers to the preparation of a list of eminent scholars who could be contacted for papers, everything was a byproduct of our frequent passionate conversations. Since both of us shared a common interest in women’s autobiographies, we decided to focus the first number on that topic. Significantly, we were able to obtain the manuscript of the autobiography of a Brahmin lady who had converted to Christianity and this proved to be the high point of the first number.

How was the initial period? Did everything go smooth?

Deciding on the format of the journal was much easier than deciding on an editorial policy and content mix. Often long discussions ensued, and we decided that we would have a policy for five years from 2001-2006. It was in early 2006 that we conducted a review and decided to make some modifications. We decided to focus on two areas: (1) Censorship against women and (2) Translations into English from the regional languages of India.

How did you intend to address “Censorship Against Women”?

The expressed policy of the journal was to contest censorship against women at all levels – socio-politico-economic and domestic. Forces that were at work to silence women included right-wing governments, conservative religious establishments, poverty and illiteracy, systemic mechanisms of social control, customs and prejudices, family pressures, discriminatory publishers and lopsided systems of global media distribution. As an advocacy group trying to help women have a stronger public presence, we were against all kinds of censorship, even the very subtle forms of control within the family and wanted to find ways to fight it.

And the choice to focus on Translation from regional languages, what was the impetus for that?

We wanted to do justice to the writings in regional languages which were pushed to the margins, because of the dominance of the English language. That is why we decided to give due weightage to writings in translation from regional languages. Writers in ‘regional’ languages or the bhashas do not get a countrywide readership unless they are translated into English or Hindi. Moreover women writers in regional languages are doubly disadvantaged. They are placed low in the pecking order of literature in their own language on account of gender. They find themselves at the bottom of the heap in the context of ‘national’ literature on account of language. It was our aim to correct the asymmetries of gender and language to the extent possible.

Okay, so both the focus areas converged, and you did address that too? What was the strategy?

To achieve these ends, we charted out a multi-pronged strategy. This included organising conferences highlighting the issues of censorship, publishing material not readily accepted by mainstream publications, carrying translations from regional languages in every number, having special issues on translations and holding workshops for translators.

So the aim and focus was clear from the outset. How was it materialised? What was the path ahead?

We obtained registration for the journal from the Registrar of Societies, the Registrar of Newspapers and the Inspector General of Publications. Clearance was obtained from the government and the University of Kerala. Clearance was also obtained from the police (Undertaking as per the Anti-Terrorist Act), the Reserve Bank of India and the Income Tax Department. Funding was promised from the Kerala State Women’s Development Corporation. After completing the official formalities for starting the journal, our next set of concerns were centered on the actual production of the journal.

How was that process? Where there many hurdles?

We wrote to our friends and established contacts. We decided the format, designed the title and finalised the fonts to be used in different sections. The style of documentation was settled. We also decided that proofreading should be a joint venture, in which all members should take part. Even in packing and posting the journal we had little help, but it was fun, and we enjoyed it.

So its was an enjoyable and truly collaborative labour too. Was it satisfying? Did it alleviate the disappointment you faced during resigning from KUWF?        

During these formative days of the journal, the lessons I had learnt from my association with KUWF stood me in good stead. I was careful not to repeat any of the earlier mistakes, personal as well as academic. The organisational structure of KUWF had replicated the mainstream patriarchal form. My rift with the organisation was largely on account of what I saw as an authoritarian way of running the organisation, giving little space to people who differed from the leadership. Moreover, in KUWF there was the tendency to personalise issues, stressing who said what rather than what was being said. So, I thought it better to do away with a centralised command structure in Women’s Initiatives. I also recognised that it was a failure on my part to appreciate the democratic process when differences arose with KUWF. I should have been less adamant and more accommodating. I realise now that I was also falling into the trap of personal prejudices. The organisation was too close to my heart for me to be able to distance myself and judge matters objectively.

These lessons and self-reflections would have helped you become better at this new venture for sure. Where do you stand now? Do you feel you have achieved what you aimed for in the beginning?

I believe what I learned from my earlier experiences has influenced my decisions regarding how Samyukta should or should not be functioning. Samyukta, that we built up so assiduously, is now a peer-reviewed journal. It is reviewed, indexed and cited widely. It has earned high respectability in academic circles. But, till the year 2005, we did not have an office. We still have no regular staff. We make no payment to contributors. We do not take any remuneration ourselves. We do all the work – from selecting the material to editing, proofing and even the final posting of the journal – by ourselves. There is a sense of collective responsibility among the members of Women’s Initiatives who take turns to run the journal.

You mean to say it’s the camaraderie that is the driving force?

I can say that it is the spirit of equality and desire for critical thinking that motivates Samyukta. There is no hierarchy, with the responsibility for the journal shifting from one editor to another. The journal is in fact a search for an alternative organisational model which is different from the mainstream, patriarchal model. We have no centralised authority and the power to veto any suggestion is vested with each member. A single veto results in the dropping of a suggestion. I believe it is this spirit of oneness that we cherish and it has created a strong bond between us. Over the last nine years, Samyukta has become our home and we are the members of the Samyukta family.

How is Samyukta keeping up with its stated aims of featuring women’s voices and concerns?        

As a matter of policy, the journal promotes substantial writing by women in the regional languages of India by publishing translations of women’s work that often goes unnoticed. This helps in defining new contours for research, making students aware of socially and linguistically marginalised women. Over the years, our efforts have led to the opening of academic trends in universities with emphasis shifting from mainstream writers and concerns in favour of the marginalised. In keeping with our policy, Samyukta published a special number on short stories by women from thirteen regional languages of India in the year 2003. It brought to the national scene many women writers who have since won wide recognition. “Sleepless in Wyanad” by P. Vatsala, “The Vein of Memory” by K. R. Meera, “A Woman is Born” by Mridula Garg and “The Bird in the Snow” by Manasi are some of the stories that found a place in Samyukta.

Who does Samyukta cater to? Seeing that there is also fiction in translation?

The content mix in Samyukta is chosen so as to appeal to the academic audience as well as the ordinary reader. In addition to articles, we carry creative pieces and book-reviews. And every issue of the journal carries an interview with a person who has done interesting work. We also add an autobiographical account, or excerpts from a longer autobiography, do a profile of a feminist , or might add the re-reading of the contributions of a major thinker from a feminist angle.

Speaking of the Feminist angle, how did you take up the censorship issue? Especially with the changing political trends? Is it only Women’s censorship you were bothered about?

The contemporary times demand a wider definition of censorship. It cannot be confined to the act of removing objectionable portions of a work. It also involves the gagging of voices of the marginalised, where the weaker sections are not provided with a venue to voice their concerns. There is also the privileged in society censoring the contributions from or about the underprivileged. We believe, as long as a section is rendered voiceless, it will continue to remain invisible. We at Samyukta recognise that it takes real fortitude from those at the periphery, like tribals, dalits, minorities and women, to struggle against this discourse of censorship. And our decision to publish them makes us more relevant to the times. We negotiate the issue of gendered censorship by providing a space for women.

Since its inception in 2001, under the auspices of Women’s Initiatives, Samyukta has been at the forefront of academic deliberations related to women’s issues. As a journal that systematically addresses issues of silencing that women have endured through the ages, Samyukta answered a long-felt need for an exclusive forum of publication for women in India, where the only other journal devoted to Women’s Studies is the Indian Journal of Gender Studies brought out by Sage. The thematic concerns were chosen by us in such a way that the journal acted as a site for identifying the direction the discipline of  Women’s Studies should take  in the university system. All of us shared the opinion that the system has to become more inclusive, catering to both an academic as well as non-academic audience. Comprehensive research articles in Women’s Studies, autobiographical narratives, in-depth interviews, detailed profiles of eminent feminists, the best in creative writing and translation, book reviews – all find a place in Samyukta.

Interdisciplinary by nature, each issue of Samyukta has a specific topic as the primary focus. The inaugural issue of Samyukta carried articles on an important mode of women’s expression — autobiography. Autobiographical narratives have always been a part of Samyukta and we have offered an eclectic selection, with narratives from women of varied backgrounds and different perspectives. They are tracts showing women’s courage and their efforts to gain visibility, inspiring and true tales that are records of the times. The lives of K. R. Gouriamma, the veteran political leader; C. K. Janu, the best heard Adivasi voice; Devaki Nilayangode, the Namboothiri writer and social activist; and P. Vatsala, the well-known writer are attempts to map the regional history, documenting life of the past century.

The interview too, as a mode of enquiry, teases out details of the lives of individuals that might otherwise go unrecorded. The free-ranging nature of the interview allows the speaker to recapture the mood of the event and the first-person voice lends it authenticity and makes it a valuable source in feminist historiography. Samyukta has since its inception carried interviews with leading political and literary figures, including Lakshmi Sahgal, Kamala Das and Sarah Joseph.

The different dimensions of ‘Women and Power’ have been examined in detail in Samyukta with articles on women negotiating power in the Namboothiri community, male hegemony in the unique matrilineal system of Kerala effected through the karanavar, the eldest male, and the depiction of power relations in contemporary Malayalam fiction. Samyukta has also dealt with a significant topic yet to receive the attention it deserves—problems confronted by women in healthcare. A history of women’s involvement in health from the 1850s to the present in India, published in Samyukta, has won wide appreciation. Significantly, it brought to light issues like reproductive and child health, legal and social implications of the right to abortion, women’s perspectives on HIV/AIDS, a health agenda for sex workers and discriminatory acts against women in mental health care. The articles in this number have been extensively reproduced and are widely used in classrooms and gender training programmes.

In short, Samyukta has been tirelessly doing what it aimed to do. How has been the reception?

Today Samyukta is well ahead in the field, widely cited, with a place in the curriculum of more than 12 universities in India and abroad. The ‘New Venture’ award in 2004 from ‘Women in Publishing’, a U.K based women’s group that works to promote the status of women working in the publishing field, has been a much-valued recognition to the initiative. Samyukta has to date discussed major topics such as ‘Women and Education,’ ‘Women and Development,’ ‘Women’s Movements in India,’ and ‘Women and the Bhakti Movement.’ The January 2006 issue focused on the history of education of women in Kerala from 1819 to 1947. Apart from an article on the subject by Hepsi Gladston, this issue of Samyukta also carried the complete text of the historical narrative entitled The Land of the Conch Shell, first published more than a century ago by Augusta Blandford, a woman missionary belonging to the Church of England Zenana Mission Society.

Reproducing texts of historical importance, not easily available at present, has been a policy with Samyukta. The journal took the initiative to translate and publish Parangodi Parinayam, a burlesque on Indulekha, which can be read as a critique of the colonial stand on the English language and marriage practices. The journal has also contributed towards popularising the literary oeuvre of major writers who are no more. Accordingly, the January 2007 issue of the journal focused on the works of the noted Malayalam poet Ayyappa Paniker, carrying translations of some of his works along with critical appraisals of the writer’s place in the literary world.  Similarly, the July 2008 issue of the journal chose to dwell on the writings of Rajalakshmi, a Malayalam short story writer and novelist, who committed suicide in 1965 at the age of 35 under mysterious circumstances. 

It is evident it has been a fete you and your colleagues would be proud of. What were the highlights of this journey? Anything you would want to mention specifically?

Some of the most eminent figures of the literary and academic world have cared to send their notes of appreciation for our efforts along with their willingness to help in the making of the journal. I still remember the words of Kamala Das who expressed her approval of the journal by saying that “It is a privilege to be published in Samyukta”. Keeping up her promise that “I’ll do whatever I can,” Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta guest edited a section of the July 2004 number. Vasanthy Shankaranarayan, the noted translator, took the book with her wherever she went and won us scores of subscribers.

In 2006, Women Unlimited, an imprint of Kali for Women, the first feminist press in India, published Onion Curry and the Table of Nine: The Samyukta Anthology of Malayalam Short Stories, a selection of twelve stories that we had carried. In recognition of our pioneering work, the University Grants Commission has sanctioned support for the journal for five years from 2007 to 2012.

Were there other ventures that Samyukta took up?

An international seminar on “Many Modernities” was organised jointly by Samyukta, the Centre for Women’s Studies (University of Kerala) and Thesis Eleven, La Trobe University in the Samyukta Lecture Theatre in 2008. “With No Sense of Loss” an autobiography that we published in Samyukta, will be brought out as a book by OUP in 2010. In December 2009 Samyukta is organising, with the Forum on Contemporary Theory, Baroda, an international conference on the theme, “The Political Economy of Social Division: Race, Gender, Class, and Caste as Fetishized/Fetishizing Borders.”

What more? How do you intend to extend Samyukta?

Democratising access to the episteme of knowledge has been the unspoken motto of Samyukta since the day of its inception. The nexus between knowledge and power results in the formation of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ when it comes to the field of knowledge. Diffusion of knowledge, which leads towards the identification and critiquing of injustice, instills a sense of empowerment in the psyche of all, thereby doing away with intellectual hierarchy. This is particularly true in the case of women because they constitute a section of society which was always pushed to the periphery. Women were kept out of the intellectual scene by denying them access to knowledge. Samyukta has become alert to the fact that the greatest discrimination is discrimination in terms of knowledge.

You did mention you want to foster research on the above lines? Could you elaborate more?

 In the twenty-first century, the situation has changed for the worse. Now the majority of women gain accesses to knowledge but here, patriarchal systems decide the type of knowledge to be acquired by women and even the manner in which they are supposed to use it. Besides, it is most demeaning to note that the critical faculties of women have been numbed by the gendered consciousness of the society. Our attempt is to awaken the spirit of analysis and questioning in women, leading towards an inclination on their part to take up research in new vistas of knowledge related to Women’s Studies. We strive to recompense for the historical prejudice against women which has been carried on to the twenty-first century. Hence, the journal stresses on two fundamental ideas: (1) Those who have access to knowledge have the responsibility to share it. (2) The unequal distribution of power between men and women is to be corrected through the ‘unconditional’ dissemination of knowledge and the freedom to use it.

Is there a clear cut plan in facilitating this, other than through publishing?

From the purely conventional lines of study, we have dared to venture into new areas of enquiry.  The primary agenda of the journal is to assist the universities to bridge the gap between the academic and non-academic realms by offering courses in Women’s Studies. It is our confidence that the discipline will help to see through the centuries’ old subjugation of women. To make this possible, we choose topics aimed at tracing the historical trajectory of women’s status in society followed by the analysis of reasons for their subordination even in the twenty first century.  This, we have found, eventually lead towards the identification of strategies for empowerment. The articles are selected with care so that they help to sharpen the critical faculties of women which have been rendered dormant through generations of patriarchal ideology.

Empowerment of women in letter and spirit is our major concern. When I say this, I am aware of the fact that empowerment is a word that has lost its critical edge through repeated use. The journal acts as a platform to explore the reasons for the subordinate status of women. Attention is particularly focused on reevaluating writers who have been ignored/misunderstood. A space to voice one’s concerns is highly consequential for anyone endeavoring to scuttle the power structure. Silencing the ‘other’ has always been one of the priorities of those in power since time immemorial. It is in this discursive pattern of society that Samyukta seeks to create a niche for itself for dismantling the ideology of patriarchy writ into the socio-politico-cultural sensibility. The journal seeks to compensate for the major lacunae in the opportunities for publication accessible to women. It thus becomes instrumental in creating venues of expression for women, leading towards a better understanding of the literary modes, themes and ways of expression preferred by them.

It is the philosophy of breaking the binaries opening systems that would help us in our journey into the future. Our attempt is to strive towards an opening up of a range of topics in research and publication. This requires the deconstruction of all forms of binaries, academic and non-academic. We aim to identify and popularise new areas for the accomplishment of women’s empowerment. This necessitates the determination to overcome conventional modes of thinking so as to incorporate the new realities. Naturally, it calls for the inclusion of those topics which were till recently taboos even to be mentioned, for instance same-sex love and pornography. As has already been mentioned, we aim to throw light on untrodden paths and approaches for the universities and upcoming researchers to take up in future. The ultimate aim is to create outreach opportunities beyond the university classroom in order to make a difference in one’s community, whether at the local level or on the world stage.

To conclude, how do you assess this journey of yours as the founder and editor of Samyukta ?

My activities during the last seventeen years can be summarised as efforts towards autonomy and freedom from patriarchal control within the family and society. My success or failure can be measured by the extent to which I have been able to act without restrictions imposed by structures, institutions and ideologies of domination. And this is what I have learnt:

  • There can be no such thing as a definitive set of principles in feminist
  • Power relationships are real.
  • Values enter into feminist analysis at different levels.
  • Non-market activities are important to the society.
  • Human beings are complex, and they are influenced by more than just material factors.
  • People compete, cooperate and care.