Tell us a little bit about yourself and your own background – academic or otherwise. I hail from Parkala, a small town in Udupi district, Karnataka. Currently, settled in Calicut, Kerala. Well, my studies are like a roller coaster ride. My role as wife/mother and my education went hand-in-hand. After 10th standard, I was married off. Then, I completed my pre-university course; my bachelors and post-graduation in History through distance education. Later, while I was 34 years old, I stepped into college to do my Bachelors in Education, followed by my Masters in the subject. My dream to do a PhD came to a halt because I happened to assist team Other Books. I use the word halt here because somewhere deep in my mind, I may still do a PhD, of course, not as a full-timer. Two years ago, I did a course in publishing from Seagull School of Publishing, Kolkata.
What is the vision behind Other Books? I’ve seen that the bio for it says, ‘alternative’ publishing house; what sets it apart from other mainstream publishers? The dearth in titles related to Muslim history, gender, and caste issues was the motive for starting a bookstore in Calicut. Initially, a few like-minded young men (mind you, there was no woman in the group) joined hands. The first step was to collect titles from noteworthy alternative publishers like Stree Samya, Three Essays, Kali for Women and so forth. Co-incidentally, a publisher from Malaysia (Islamic Book Trust) requested Other Books to become their sole distributor in India. The director himself, Mr Haji Koya generously gave a good discount and also shipped the books. Thus, Other Books established itself in 2003. For a couple of years, Other Books had focused only on collecting and selling titles that mainstream sellers don’t cater to. It was only in 2007 that it ventured into publishing. The first title was Tuhfat al-Mujahidin – translation of an Arabic work written in the late 16th century. Tuhfat al- Mujahidin is a pioneering historical work dealing with Malabar Muslims’ struggles against the Portuguese colonisers’ encroachment in India and the rise of Malabar as a medieval naval force during the reign of the Zamorin of Calicut. The re-publication of this anti-colonial manifesto could not have been timelier, when Muslims continue to be the major obstacle to the Western imperialistic ambitions. It is a compulsory read for anybody trying to learn about post-Cordova episodes in Muslim History.
What are the things you have learnt over the years, Managing Other Books? Were there quite a few challenges, including the current pandemic?
My husband is one of the founding members of Other Books. His role was mainly in the editorial section. One of my uncles was managing the distribution, sales and marketing area. Unfortunately, my uncle had to quit as he had a financial crisis, and one of the staff members handled the position for a year or two. My husband requested me to spend a couple of hours at Other Books – only to check emails and see if all the orders are processed smoothly. Gradually, I realised I had fallen into a labyrinth of numbers and business terms – jargons, which I needed some time to comprehend fully. Another major issue was handling the finance along with an accountant. First thing I set upon was to stop purchasing books, and the next thing I did was talking to all the distributors and requesting some time for settling dues. Thirdly, I made a list of the receivables. Gradually, I settled down doing business in publishing and selling, of course, with a couple of staff members who do a commendable job. However, since Other Books sells serious stuff, it isn’t easy. We need to reach out to those who need our kind of books.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Kerala suffered heavy economic losses due to the Nipah virus outbreak, followed by two floods consecutively. The pandemic added to the woes. The business suffered heavily, and we reached a point where we couldn’t pay the rent and salary for three months. We had to borrow money to run the store. Nevertheless, we turned to aggressive online marketing, and we did survive. Social media helped us reach out to many young minds. We also noted that since our titles are mostly non-fictional and are dealing with serious topics, we should market among people who are not active on social media. And that was possible only by selling our titles in well-known bookstores, libraries and other institutions. Now that people have accepted what you call the ‘new normal’, our marketing personnel started visiting bookstores, libraries, and other institutions to assess the situation. We realised people still want to read.
What is the thought process behind what OB publishes or translates? Do you have a favourite, or a particularly prized publication, that has a fond memory attached to its production?
Other Books, at the outset, welcomes changes and aims to walk against the tide. However, it staunchly believes that past has riches which has to be retold and shared. And at the same time, Other Books also helps young writers to come out of their shell. Hence, we utilised their skill in one of our projects called ‘Introducing Author series’. We have a list of authors whose works needed to be read and understood. Due to the enormous expenses in getting those books translated, we hired young minds to research on those authors and their works. We have published one of them, namely; ‘Sherman Jackson’ and the next one in line is ‘Naved Kermani’. Hopefully, it will come out soon.
There are more than a couple of titles which we hold dearest. However, each book has its own story to tell. Most of the books are translations from English to Malayalam. A few of them are original works in English as well as in Malayalam. We also have a couple of titles in the Kannada language. Our fastest moving titles are Malayalam translations of Muhammed by Martin Lings, Pracheena Malabar by Shamsullah Qadri, Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar, Quran and Woman by Amina Wadud, Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak and Fihi Ma Fihi by Jalaluddin Rumi.
Finally, what are you currently reading? Currently, I am reading Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’. It was on my reading list for many years. I am simultaneously reading Elif Shafak’s ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.’