Ruby Hembrom: ‘We never needed to write because we were living documents’

Ipshita Mitra | Updated on September 06, 2019

Lines and letters: Adivasi literature is oral, written, graphic, animated, sung and performed. Photo: Subir Roy

Kolkata-based adivaani, India’s first Santhal publishing house, has been recording the authentic indigenous voice of the Santhals since 2012

Ruby Hembrom’s unconditional love for the Santhal language prompted her to quit a well-paying job in the IT sector and start her own publishing outfit of, for and by Adivasi people. Since its inception in 2012, adivaani, based in Kolkata, has published 19 volumes — including the award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the 1855 Santhal Rebellion and Sylvan Tales: Stories from the Munda Country. Hembrom’s family moved from Benagaria village in Jharkhand to Shillong and, finally, in the mid-’70s, to Kolkata, where she was born and raised. An alumna of La Martiniere School for Girls, she studied law in Calcutta University.

One love: Ruby Hembrom quit a well-paying job in the IT sector and start her own publishing outfit of, for and by Adivasi people


In a conversation with BLink, 41-year-old Hembrom — the first, and so far only, Santhal woman publisher — speaks about biases in the industry, and the need to preserve the oral tradition of storytelling. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” adivaani’s founder-director says. Excerpts:

How did the name ‘adivaani’ come about?

The idea of adivaani and what it would do was born before the name, at a publishing course in Kolkata that I attended in 2012, because of the exclusion of Adivasi voices among the experts from the industry we were to hear and learn from. When it came to finding a name, I knew it had to capture the ethos of who we were as indigenous people and our goal of becoming visible through this platform of expression. I played around with the letters of the words tribal and Adivasi — and voilá — the name appeared as if by magic. We also chose to use the lower case for adivaani, because we are small, ordinary people who are trying to find the most relevant ways to exist and survive.

What are your childhood memories of growing up on stories specific to the socio-cultural fabric of the Santhals?

As a first-generation city-bred Santhal, speaking Santhali at home meant not just practical conversations but also an exchange in a language rich in riddles, metaphors, allegories, jokes, etc. We also automatically learnt to sing traditional songs, accompanied by traditional musical instruments — a cultural practice that my parents carried along with them from the village. The stories my parents told us informally always were funny and made my sisters and me double up in laughter, and we heard a lot of family stories. Our frequent travels back home to Jharkhand and visits from relatives and friends meant there was a constant stream of stories, food, clothes — that shaped our identity and belonging to a collective history and memory of and from home.

Ours though wasn’t a family that read. So, there were no story-reading sessions. Our relationship with books was through studies: course material, textbooks, and it again was something we struggled with. For those who think I publish because I love books and grew up reading, it’s quite the contrary. I publish because a gap had to be filled.

How did you fund adivaani?

We set up adivaani with Joy Tudu, a graduate of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and an Adivasi himself, Luis A Gomes, a Mexican journalist and illustrator, and tribal art enthusiast Boski Jain, who designed adivaani’s logo of two geese. The Santhals are believed to have descended from the geese Has and Hasil, and to honour our ancestors, from whom the first Santhal humans Pilchu Budhi and Pilchu Haram evolved, we chose the geese as adivaani’s logo. One of the geese looks to the past and the other to the future, and that’s what adivaani stands for.

Since it is a niche publishing outfit, we came together and invested our savings and took loans from friends, family and well-wishers. During the initial days, Kolkata-based CDC Printers Private Limited offered to print our books free of cost. There are small, infrequent donations from organisations outside India that earmark funding for Adivasi scholars, researchers and cultural practitioners. I use the money earned from my freelance work as an editor, facilitator on Adivasi issues, speaking assignments, and personal fellowships to run the venture.

In words and pictures: Since its inception in 2012, adivaani has published 19 volumes — including the award-winning picture book Disaibon Hul on the 1855 Santhal Rebellion and Sylvan Tales: Stories from the Munda Country   -  IMAGES COURTESY: ADIVAANI


How do you see the journey of Adivasi literature from the oral to the written?

Adivasi literature is oral, written, graphic, animated, sung and performed. We have a shorter written tradition, but with our entry into textual worlds, we haven’t given up on orality. We’ve supplemented and added to our traditional ways by incorporating writing.

The earliest research and recordings by non-Adivasi scholars, anthropologists and researchers, possibly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lie in places we don’t even know of. There’s very little circulation of what’s already there. Adivasi publishing has mostly been self-publishing and that’s also difficult to keep track of. All these lie as hidden treasures to be discovered. We don’t know what we don’t know. Whatever we do will never be enough, because documenting in terms of fixing it, in a tangible form such as books or audio or video recordings, has just started. That means a lot of traditional wisdom and knowledge has been lost due to ancestors passing on, displacement, and dominant cultures and languages taking over.

Only two indigenous languages are included in the 8th Schedule as India’s official languages, so there’s very little official support to initiate and sustain the documentation and movement of Adivasi literature in other regional languages.

How old is the history of Adivasi writing?

Every tribe (the current officially recorded Scheduled Tribe list is 705) has its own language, rich in vocabulary and grammar. We’ve mostly had to adopt the dominant language scripts to write in. The Santhals, spread in five states — Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam — use five official scripts to write in.

We never needed to write because we were living documents ourselves. But now, armed with literacy, we need to record, document, express and challenge what has incorrectly gone down as history, set records straight and even defend ourselves.

All adivaani authors are Adivasis. But for two books — one in Santhali (Roman) and another in Hindi — all our books are published in English and our bilinguals carry an English translation. Adivaani has an imprint called ‘One of Us’, where non-Adivasi authors writing on Adivasi themes are published.

As a woman and a Santhal, what were the challenges you had to overcome?

One of the recurring challenges for adivaani has been fighting the stereotypes and prejudices about Adivasi. Our first book was in Roman Santhali about the Santhals as a people, their history and entity. The base of the cover is black. One of the printers we took the book to strongly recommended we change the black to a “cheery” yellow or maroon as “black is too sophisticated a colour for the very backward Santhals”. We stuck to black. The distributors of an online book portal said Adivasi books were “not good” — without even looking at them. The prejudices and biases continue to influence peoples’ opinion of us and response to our work. We are not supposed to be intellectual, creative people who can engage in writing work, and what we do is looked at as a one-time spark of genius or accidental. And most certainly, no one believes that an Adivasi woman could ideate and execute this initiative.

Has the socio-economic situation changed for Adivasis today?

I cannot speak for the 7 million Santhals or the 104 million indigenous people of India, but the latest census shows that Scheduled Tribes have the lowest literacy and employment rates and thus the lowest income.

How visible is adivaani in the literary scene?

Adivaani exists at the periphery of the publishing industry. We are the alternative, the niche, and I mostly have been invited on panels at some literature fests that feature marginalised voices.

Adivaani is a very small operation, with a distribution network in three bookstores — Earthcare Books, Kolkata, People Tree, Delhi, and Walking BookFairs, Bhubaneswar — and four online platforms. We’re doing the best we can with limited resources and no social capital.

Have you faced any criticism for publishing Adivasi writing in English?

There hasn’t been resentment towards me for my choosing to publish in English, but it has been critiqued mainly by the mainstream as being elitist. Choosing English was a strategic move to ensure we were paid attention to. Choosing English is not about whether our people can read or write in it; it’s about existing, nudging our way onto bookshelves and libraries, as some day, this will be the database and collective memory of the authentic Adivasi voice.

Ipshita Mitra is an independent writer based in Delhi

Published on September 06, 2019

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