When I began looking for a photo of Urvashi Butalia, I don’t know what I expected — certainly not my reaction to her presence. She looks angry, I thought. Intimidating. She wouldn’t like me.
Indeed, my search for who she is yielded as much reflection and self-examination as it did data. Perhaps it was the lack of data regarding what are usually the obvious particulars on religion, caste, and relationships that encouraged me to continue in this vein, transforming an intent to create a straightforward portrait of a dynamic Indian woman into a resistance to categorize her, but rather to let Urvashi Butalia be a voice and catalyst for seeing the things we don’t always want to see.
I find her passion and voice compelling. Despite the conflict that arises in me out of some of her progressive politics and causes — the same ones I often resist in my own world — I can’t help but notice the frustrating remnants of a vividly ugly patriarchy in portions of my life and the self-effacement required to keep the peace as I “choose my battles,” catering to the whims and preferences of a man who sometimes uses the seething anger of words and tone to keep me in my place, despite my education. I have to notice that although my spiritual side holds to a faith anchored in a God who can change people from the inside out, my human side might have chosen as Urvashi did — to remain single — had I known myself and the nature of marriage better at the time.
Because while I see I have more opportunity and agency for choice than many Indian women have had, especially in the past, more family and spousal encouragement to achieve, our male-dominated, authoritarian dynamic in home life, complete with a mother-in-law to care for, more closely parallel a traditional Indian scenario than they do the public face of the American scene. In that light, I must acknowledge the relevance of Urvashi’s questioning about gender issues and the validity of her anger, even as I refrain from pointing fingers at those men who, though far from perfect, are beginning to change and to see the women in their lives as independent people of worth and to bend for their sakes.
Really, it all comes down to that one thing: seeing the worth and value of the people around us, whatever the differences. Seeing that we can’t let our fears of what “they” might do or say rule us, whether we’re male or female, liberal or conservative, of different faiths or of no faith. What would these intimate relationships be if we could temper our desire to get our way with a desire to serve one another selflessly, out of a God-given love for the other and a sense of their worth and value? For each to yield and bend, to give, even if one leads … to reject the “us” and “them” of divided hearts? I wonder this in the good moments when, side by side, my husband and I cook a meal or take pride in our child or laugh together at a joke that no one else noticed had been told — moments of light to brighten the darkness of the domination I sense.
What would Partition have been if people could have risen above their fears and anger to treat their neighbors with dignity, regardless of category? Would there have been more moments of light in place of these chaotic shades of death and destruction? We can’t know, because it didn’t happen that way. It happens far too rarely in this world. What we have instead is the voice Urvashi Butalia gave their experience and, on some level, gave to all human relationships tainted by conflict and the fear of being powerless — a haunting voice that sits on my bookshelf years after The Other Side of Silence was required reading in college. That is, ultimately, how I’ll see her … a strong voice of the many who were silenced by violence and hatred and the dehumanizing aspect of categories.
Urvashi Butalia was born in 1952 in Ambala, Harayana, a place in northwestern India close to the Punjab. She was the third child (out of four) born to Joginder Singh Butalia and Subadhra Butalia, who were Sikhs.
She received a Bachelor’s (1971) and Master’s Degree (1973) in Literature from Delhi University. Four years later, she earned her Master’s in South Asian Studies from London University before transitioning into an editing job with Oxford University Press, first in Delhi and later at its headquarters.
However, her passion lay in speaking for victims of injustice, for those rendered silent by circumstances — “to make a dent in the way the world sees women.” In 1984, the same year as she worked with a civilian group to provide relief supplies to communities reeling from the rash of sectarian violence, she cofounded Kali for Women with Ritu Menon. Kali for Women was a feminist publishing house, dedicated to increasing the body of knowledge regarding third-world women, particularly those in India, and providing a forum for communicating women’s stories. One of their first projects was a nonprofit book on women’s bodies designed and distributed by rural women to educate the women and girls of their own communities. Kali for Women now operates under the imprint Zubaan, retaining its focus as a channel for women’s voices in India.
Urvashi Butalia has also worked to capture the wealth of pain and human experience as communicated through the personal stories of Partition survivors in her book The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. As it states on the cover copy: “Within the space of two months in 1947 more than twelve million people were displaced. A million died. More than seventy-five thousand were abducted and raped. Countless children disappeared.” This award-winning book chronicles a breadth of suffering most of us can’t fathom. Yet the legacy of Partition lives on not only in memory, but also in sectarian interactions today, unconsciously defining boundaries and the trust (or mistrust) vested in people simply by virtue of their category.
Urvashi Butalia has also written a number of other books, including Women and Right Wing Movements: Indian Experiences and Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir, among others. She also seeks to bring understanding to the largely silent hijra community.
She speaks six languages — Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, French, Italian, and English — and lives in New Delhi, where she often smiles, despite the first photo I found.