Urvashi Butalia and The Other Side of Silence

On July 14, feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia sat down for a conversation with the Georgia Straight‘s Charlie Smith as part of the Indian Summer festival. They discussed her influential, award-winning book, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, as well as her illustrious publishing career. Butalia had co-founded India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women, and today heads Zubaan Books, an imprint of Kali.

Introducing her was Rowland Lorimer, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing, which was one of the event’s sponsors. Lorimer described how he and Butalia met a couple of decades ago, swapping stories about the publishing industries in Canada and India. Lorimer was fascinated to see the “trajectory of colonialism manifesting itself in two very different countries.” Butalia, he told us, is not only a feminist publisher but also a social historian and a social activist, and for her enormous contributions to the arts and humanities she was presented with the Padma Shree award—the closest Canadian analogue of which, according to Lorimer, is the prestigious Killam Prize.

Charlie Smith then set the stage for their conversation, which centred on the 1947 partition of British India that created the Dominion of Pakistan (later Pakistan and Bangladesh) and what became the Republic of India. Partition was hugely disruptive, displacing over 12 million people along religious lines and killing roughly a million as a result of violence or illness, yet for decades, nobody talked about it, and the stories of ordinary people who had experienced it were never told. The Other Side of Silence, Smith said, “shattered the taboo and started a conversation.”

Butalia’s family was from Lahore, and they were partition refugees. In school she studied only what she called partition’s “grand narrative of politics,” and although people listened to stories about partition within their own families, the discourse found no articulation in the outside world. She admitted to paying those family stories no attention (“I thought they were rubbish”) until two events changed her perspective.

First, in 1984, Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, after which there was a violent backlash against Sikhs. “Delhi was no longer a safe place,” Butalia said. For her it was a major shift from growing up in what she called “a position of middle-class privilege,” to living in fear as a member of a Sikh family, and at that point she felt as though she could begin to understand the turmoil and religious strife that her family and others had experienced during partition.

Second, she was hired on to work on a film about partition and conduct background research by interviewing people who had been through it. “I heard stories in a way I had never heard them before,” she said. They motivated her to look into an unfinished chapter in her own family’s partition story, and she set out to find her mother’s brother, who, along with his mother, had stayed behind in Lahore following partition. For forty years, between 1947 and 1987, nobody in her family had had any contact with him. The trip from Delhi to Lahore was only half an hour by air, said Butalia, but “the distance created by history was so great.”

She managed to track down her uncle, who had converted to Islam “out of convenience, not conviction,” Butalia said. In fact, although he had chosen to stay behind, he identified with his Indian roots and “had a deep notion of the loss of home,” choosing, for example, not to learn Urdu, which became Pakistan’s official language. Her uncle’s decision to stay in Lahore with his mother led to tremendous bitterness among other members of the family: refugees could seek compensation for the property that they lost when they were uprooted, but because Butalia’s uncle remained in Pakistan and kept the family home, the rest of the family wasn’t entitled to any compensation. What Butalia’s mother took the hardest, however, was not knowing when her own mother had died.

As it turned out, Butalia’s grandmother lived for nine years after partition. As Butalia prepared to go see her uncle, her mother said, “Ask him if he buried my mother or cremated her”—a question that surprised Urvashi, because her mother was a strong secular feminist. Later on her mother would join her on a trip to Pakistan and, despite the residual tension and resentment, was extremely pleased to be reunited with her brother after forty years of separation.

As Butalia began interviewing more and more people to discover how they experienced partition, she unearthed horrific tales of mass rape and honour killings. She chided herself for finding these a revelation: “They should not have come as a surprise,” she said, as violence against women has always happened in times of turmoil and disruption. Some women were abducted, raped, and forced to convert, while others committed suicide or were killed by family members to avoid the same fate.

One woman she interviewed was involved with rescuing abducted women and returning them to their “natural” homes, as identified by religion. Often their families didn’t take them back, as they were “polluted,” and there was no place for them. Many women—despite what they had been through—refused to be rescued, instead choosing to remain with their abductors, with whom some of them had had children. The family of Butalia’s interview subject never took her stories seriously; only after The Other Side of Silence came out did they realize the impact of her accomplishments. There is a “strange way in which families wipe out history,” Butalia remarked.

In the course of her research Butalia noted the inadequacy of the word “partition” to describe what people had lived through. It perhaps invokes the idea of a mechanical separation, but unlike the word “holocaust,” for example, it really fails to describe the violation that people experienced.

When Butalia set out to write her book, she believed that by telling these women’s stories, she could “liberate their voices.” Yet, “it was only when I began talking to women that I discovered how wrong I was,” she said. She encountered a number of women who didn’t want to be identified or who didn’t want their stories told. Some of them had never told their own children about their past. “When you tell other people’s stories, you have to ask yourself: to whom are you responsible? Some abstract notion of history? To the people you interview?”

“As a storyteller you’re in a position of power,” she cautioned, and as much as possible, you should try to show the your interview subject what you will write. Many people will agree to tell their story, but when they see it in print, it has a much different impact. Butalia learned that “breaking a silence doesn’t necessarily lead to the liberation of a voice.”

Charlie Smith invited questions from the audience. One attendee asked whether Butalia looked at the effect of differences in class on the experiences of partition. Butalia replied that she wanted to capture a range of women across class and caste and that these factors were central to her analysis. She noted that the rich largely travelled by air and the poor travelled by foot, and hence the poor were most vulnerable, but abductors often targeted rich women as prizes. Butalia also wanted to document the experiences of minority groups; for instance, in The Other Side of Silence, she introduces a Dalit story in the master narrative of the Hindu and Muslim story.

Another audience member asked about her publishing vision. Butalia started Kali for Women twenty-eight years ago and continues now with Zubaan to publish English books about women in the margins, “constantly balancing politics with survival and sustainability,” she said. She told the audience about the autobiography of Baby Halder, a woman who was forced into marriage at twelve and had her first child at fourteen, followed by two other children in quick succession. At her breaking point, she fled her abusive husband and found work as a domestic. Her employer noticed that she spent considerable time in his library and encouraged her to read, then gave her a pen and notebook to write her own story. Her book, originally published in Hindi, did well, but it found a huge audience when Butalia published it in English. “In the Indian market,” Butalia explained, “English is the language of privilege.” Halder’s success allowed her to bring her children to live with her, yet she remains with her employer out of a sense of gratitude and loyalty. And Butalia pointed out the irony that an impoverished woman could so enrich a book publishing house.

Prompted by another question, Butalia reflected on the story of partition as it is now being told in North America, where there is a renewed interest in the event among the diaspora. People are uncovering family archives, recording oral histories, and putting partition stories up on the Internet, and she finds that as people get older, they are more willing to talk about it. Although in India and Pakistan there is a desire to demystify one another and to hear one another’s stories, there are still barriers to interaction, whereas there are no such barriers in the diaspora, allowing for a freer flow of information and ideas.

When asked whether she felt that there was a sense of urgency to finish the story of partition as people who lived through it are now at the end of their lives, Butalia says that there does seem to be a feeling of urgency but that “the selection of voices cannot even begin to map the history of 1.2 million people. The bulk of that history will be lost.”


Urvashi Butalia is an astonishing confluence of passion and principled action, and there is no doubt about the immensity of her contributions to history and culture. She is so brilliantly articulate—her ideas and responses clearly thoughtfully conceived and considered. Her long list of accomplishments makes me feel as though I’ve done nothing with my life (but in an inspiring—rather than guilt-inducing—way). Her fervent concern for the plight (“There is a strong hold of patriarchy in societies around the world. The difference is in the form that violence against women takes.”) and belief in the power (“Women [in India] are the ones putting in the seeds to end poverty, such as schools and sanitation. Economists aren’t taking this movement into account.”) of women makes me wonder if dialing back my cynicism a bit might actually allow me to be more effective. I learned a tremendous amount from her talk, and I feel privileged to have heard her speak.

3 thoughts on “Urvashi Butalia and The Other Side of Silence

  1. Great post, Iva! Butalia does sound amazing.

    One tiny little typo in the third para.:

    > displacing over 12 million people along religions lines

    Thanks for the account!

  2. Hi Iva,

    I never saw this last summer, but stumbled across your post today as I was doing an Internet search on Urvashi Butalia.

    You wrote a terrific account of the evening, hitting all the major points.

    You might be interested to learn that the Indian Summer Festival Society has posted audiotape of the discussion on YouTube. You can find it here, along with a link to your article.


    Charlie Smith

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