Unmapped
Issue 18

The incredible story of Queer Ink

By Noé Garel

Queer Ink is India’s first unconventional bookstore. It’s an online platform where people can find material that helps them to be empowered. Sounds wooly so I’ll just say it’s a story about entrepreneurship, business, activism, literature, love, and… India!

     

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There is no sign outside. Inside, it almost looks like an attic. The office is tiny, in the middle of a huge shopping area of Andheri, lost in the middle of the buzzing fourth world city, Mumbai.

Behind a bunch of people typing frantically on their laptops, smiling at each other, and sticking cute stickers on the walls, there is a bookcase full of books entitled Gay Bombay, Lesbianism in Kolkata, and even Kumari loves a monster.

They sell books. That’s what they do in here. Not just any books: they sell what they call “non-mainstream” books. 

    

     

The woman behind the books

“My company is called Queer Ink and Queer refers to anything that is odd or strange. Queer is also an umbrella term for alternative sexualities.” Shobhna Kumar, the founder of the publishing house and online bookstore sums up in an interview to the Indian newspaper the Hindu in 2011.

Behind the India’s first online unconventional bookstore, there is Shobhna’s ankle.

In 2009 Kumar broke her ankle. “I was laid up in bed for about three months and naturally I wanted books, so my partner went to buy books from the retail store but you know, it was just not what I wanted! Then we tried to buy these books from Amazon, but they would not ship books to India because there is a law that says that you can’t export anything that affects the 'dignity of the Indian culture.' There is this customs law that prohibits books like this. Amazon would not deliver here at that stage.”

“That’s how we got this idea of 'let’s start an e-commerce platform that will be available to anybody as compared to just a bookstore somewhere.' At that time, this was 2009 and with the Shiv Sena (1) things were a bit tense, for anything violence was the answer, vandalism was the answer. That’s why we went online. It meant that people could access this website wherever they were, in a safe place.”

A year later, Queer Ink was born.

Shobhna Kumar and her partner invested twenty lakhs (2) in the company. They did not expect profit for the first eighteen months. In third year, Queer Ink broke even. After four years, it became profitable. So the venture is about making money. But not only. For Shobhna, it’s all about “raising awareness, and empowering people.” She sees books as tools.
 

“I grew up in Fiji, where the Indians were the second-class citizens," Kumar explains. "Being from an Indian family it meant I was a second-class citizen. I inherently understood the injustice of it: books helped me escape and taught me that things can be made differently. The knowledge I got from books is what makes me stand up now.”

Kumar remembers understanding that the social situation in Fiji had to do with ignorance, and that only books could teach us that no matter what people around would say, it was OK to be different.

The South Pacific islands became independent in 1970. A few years later the Kumars left for Australia and settled in Sydney. In total, Shobhna lived for a while in four different countries.

The Queer Ink founder is in her late 40s but it sounds like she already had several lives. From studying in San Francisco, to being a social worker in Australia, she has been looking for “spiritual perspective” in a bunch of very different places.

Thirteen years ago she met her partner online. Both were “Indians from abroad,” Kumar holding an Australian passport and her girlfriend being American.

In 2001, Shobhna lived in California. “At that time I got to know other women through Yahoo groups.” On July 9th she started to chat with a woman based in Bombay.

Two months later, Shobhna was supposed to go back in Australia. On her way back she decided to stop by India.

She met her online lover at the airport for the first time, and … she never left the country.

“Our life is based on a very western perspective but we both love living in India.”

“For me it’s been right time and the right space because everything has been accidental. From the non-profit sector to jumping in to getting a bookstore together because I did not have enough books to read on the topics I wanted to become a publisher, it’s all been accidental for me," she explains.

In a way, it’s almost a love story that brought this book lover to become a publisher! But let's cut the corny Bollywood-toned romance, and take a few steps back…

     

From social worker to publisher

In India, Kumar did consultancy work for several NGOs across the country. She worked in the area of HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention, she managed Anand Grover’s lawyers collective (3) for a year. She was also involved in the LGBTI (4) community in India. She calls herself a “facilitator” of “processes that are now very visible and part of the mainstream queer events.”

The more she would listen to the community, the more she would realize that there was a true lack of information, that would lead to misconception, misunderstandings… “People would know that some books would exist about LGBT, but they could not access them,” Kumar explains.

First, there were very few books in India that would talk about anything related to gender or sexuality –less than a hundred, recalls Kumar. Then, buying those books from retail stores was not that easy. It was often considered as “porn,” therefore it would either not be distributed, or people would be afraid of being judged when they bought them.

Lastly, because of customs restrictions as previously mentioned, it was not really possible to explore that road.

But Shobhna Kumar was sure of one thing: “people were craving for non-mainstream books.” The day Queer Ink went online; it also got its first order that Kumar delivered in person.

      

From small venture to business success

The publishing market in India is one of the most lucrative in the world. In fact, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry stated that India is counted among the top seven publishing nations in the world. India ranks third after the US and the UK in English language publishing, with an estimated market of 10,000 crore rupees (5).

But these stats have to be handled with kid gloves. In 2007, India also had one of the largest numbers of illiterate citizens in the world according to the Human Development Index, put together by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme in India).

The census of India in 2011 stated that all over the country 74.04 percent of individuals who were seven and above could read and write –the average figure worldwide is above 80 percent, according to UNESCO.

Paradoxically, almost ten years ago, the NOP World Culture Score index released a study conducted over 30,000 people worldwide. India was the biggest reading nation, with an average ten hours and 42 minutes of reading a week.

1.4 million people visit the New Delhi World Book Fair every year.

There is a significant jump in the size of the national publishing industry, as international publishing houses settle in the country, including Hachette in 2008, Simon & Schuster in 2011, and Bloomsbury in 2012.

This is all well and good but how can Queer Ink survive surrounded by those big-name companies?

    

Towards an Indian movida?

It seems that Shobhna Kumar didn't really care: she felt that no one had been doing what she was doing, namely providing India with its own counter culture - a big undertaking!

Nilanjana Roy, a well-known Indian journalist, columnist for Business Insider and recognised literary critic, saw it coming, proving Kumar's intuition right.

“There's a growing appetite for all kinds of independent work: from documentaries to theatre to books on caste/gender etc. The clash between what the mainstream culture wants and what the counterculture has been demanding has rarely been this strong,” Roy explains.

At first, Kumar stocked titles that she defined as “not the norm.” Queer Ink used to have a collection of books for children that one would not find in the usual retail stores for instance.

“When you look at children books you only used to get average Lewis Carroll books and this kind of things, but here there are several publishers that promote children books that have girls as very empowered figures for instance. I wanted to sell those innovative books.”

“When I started the bookstore I started listing all that but now I don’t do that anymore because what have happened is that India is not ready… I dropped the line in 2011. I was getting too many emails, comments about it’s not right…”

Today might be a good moment to rethink this strategy.

Karishma Attari, founder of the Super Readers Club, a reading club for children up to the age of twelve, works with children every day. She makes them read and discuss what they have been reading.

For her, there are a lot of confusing issues that are not addressed by the current children literature. Recently she read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with children aged eight to twelve years old. The book ends in a bleak but charming landscape.

“After discussing this, I asked each child to sketch out his/her version of the loveliest and saddest landscape in all the world. Not a single child in the group of eight children wanted to. They refused to confront sadness.” They did it eventually, but Attari had to convince them.

“Even the parents were alarmed at first that I asked their children to process sadness. But that is the kind of literature children can grow with!” she says.

“There is a need for unconventional books for children because children don't fit into standard shapes and sizes to begin with. On the other hand they are routinely taught that they must, whether its at school or at a birthday party where girls go as princesses and boys go as Spiderman.”

“For instance, I had an eight year old at Super Readers Club today who went on about how 'non vegetarians eat babies, and eat meat, and are disgusting people but how can we stop them?' He is reflecting cultural values that must be rampant at home. If he were to read a book about the many tastes of a multicultural world it might get him to think differently. But parents often trap their children in binary structuralist understanding of the world - black and white, worthy and unworthy, vegetarian and non-vegetarian."

There is a similar need in LGBT literature. Today Queer Ink is not importing books any more, mainly because it's not what customers are asking for: “The demand is more and more for India-based content on queer issues. There are simply not enough books!” Kumar says.

     

Are books the most efficient weapons?

Sridhar Rangayan has a life-long expertise in cinema and activism. He has been part of a lot of projects related to the LGBTQ community in India, and five years ago started the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. This year’s edition gathered almost 2,000 people and screened movies from 31 countries. To him, books and movies are key-elements in changing mentalities.

“I can’t stress enough how important are films and books in catalyzing change in mindsets," Rangayan explains. "These cultural mediums are fluid, they can reach out to masses more easily, and they can be accessed by more than one person. They also offer a starting point for initiating dialogues. Films and books can be both personal and public – I mean I could see a film, read a book to immerse into it, indulge my own emotions, validate my own existence; but they can also be used a public tools to sensitise, impact and urge people to understand us better.”

Shobhna Kumar strongly refuses to be labelled as an activist. But she would say that Queer Ink is a “form of activism.”

“Queer Ink is a very very new concept in India and it takes people a while to get used to it and know what to do with it,” she explains. “These last four years were about pushing for getting it established getting known out there… Now we are working on a new website for Queer Ink and that’s really a new big step.“

That is where Shobhna Kumar has a very interesting way of dealing with activism, spreading new ideas, and working on changing people’s mindsets. That’s where she is innovative. The new website will be significantly more collaborative with a whole section called “citizen café” and another that will be dedicated to documenting queer culture in India.

“I don’t feel like an activist, but the work would be described as activism because it is putting material out there for a community.” Queer Ink’s side projects are a big part of this new activism she’s defining.

“One of the things I like doing as part of Queer Ink is collaborating with agencies. We collaborated with an organisation called “We the people,” which works on the Constitution of India. On our new website we’ll include that as part of our work, saying that every person, forget LGBT, forget queer, whatever, who is an Indian citizen has certain mandated freedoms and rights and responsibilities as per the Indian constitution. I have a very clear mandating Queer Ink that the Indian Constitution was where I will base our empowerment process.”

“Instead of saying that section 377 is wrong, I will say that the constitution gives us this right.”

“It’s about saying: you have to read this, to understand this, and claim your rights. Rights and your freedom are not to be given. It’s about claiming what you have.”

“Every part of the constitution will be defined for an Indian citizen, how you chose to deal with that, and your identity is up to you.”

       

Dodging bullets

Another area where Queer Ink has had to innovative is when publishing something could be controversial. In 2009, the same year Shobhna Kumar broke her ankle, the High Court of Delhi declared as unconstitutional section 377 of the Indian penal code, and decriminalize sexual activities "against the order of nature" – which referred to homosexual acts.

But last December, the Supreme Court of India overturned that judgment.

The LGBT movement was in shock but decided to fight back. Sridhar Rangayan explains it this way: “only same-sex sexual activity is criminalised, not being gay/lesbian or public gathering or holding LGBT related events. The legal experts have clearly spelt it out. While there could be some obstacles, our wings cannot be clipped. We are soaring and there is no going back.”

But then, in this already tense context, a new government came to power after the biggest elections ever held in a democratic country last spring. The elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, is known to be conservative. This could be serious cause for concern for a venture like Queer Ink that claims to go against the norm.

Nilanjana Roy sees a strong connection between what is happening in the book market and on the political stage. According to her, it dates from a couple of decades before the new government came into power. She predicts a potential counter culture literature, and goes even further, referring to dissidents fighting against censorship in the Soviet Union.

“We've seen some decades worth of creative chill in India, and unless the new regime works deliberately to change/scrap the offence laws, the corporate defamation laws and the Internet laws, writers will continue to work in a hostile environment.”

“The battles over competing histories and over the freedom of religious inquiry are likely to intensify; nor is it at all easy for writers to speak freely about sex, love, desire and relationships given present levels of intolerance.”

“Publishers and writers cannot flourish in the present climate of repression. But I can't see this country holding its collective tongue for much longer, and you should start to see the rise of a kind of samizdat creativity soon enough.“

When asked about this situation, Queer Ink's founder answers that she made a strategic decision. “What I worry about is books, print books it’ll go on a bookstore and it will be vandalised or the books will be banned, and that I don’t want. So we’ve decided we will not print any books, we’ll only make them available on ebooks. For the rest of this year, all our publications will be as ebooks. “ According to her, it helps Queer Ink not to be targeted.

“Printed books become currencies for anybody and anybody to say everything they want. But then with ebooks: it’s there one day, the other day it’s gone… The reader will take what they want of it or return it, and if they want to argue with me then they’ll have to go to my website and see where my office is or send me a nasty email, so again I’m not putting myself in a physically unsafe place, or anybody I work with which is very important for me.”

“People can know that I’m the source, they can send me a legal notice, but they won’t hurt people, or vandalise.”

It is perplexing, but as much as Kumar thinks that going digital is protecting her and her company by keeping her away from conservatives, she also thinks that ebooks are helping Queer Ink to have a way deeper connection with its readership. “Ebooks are about accessibility. It is larger through ebooks. Ebooks also help me to have a one-to-one connection with readers: it goes this way: Queer Ink to readers, instead of Queer Ink to retail stores to readers. The impact is huge.”

It might be one of the reasons why Queer Ink is such a phenomenon.

As a literary critic and former literary blogger, Nilanjana Roy has an expertise on publishing houses’ strategies in India.

“I'm not surprised that Queer Ink is turning a profit: they know their readers better than most Indian publishers. Also, they treat their readers as a community, and their readers tend to be actively engaged; it's very different from trade publishers, who treat their readers as a (passive) market” Roy believes.

      

Legacy versus impact

Queer Ink is definitely fascinating, From the fact that Shobhna Kumar did not plan on settling in India and has been in Mumbai for more than a decade, become a media phenomenon and a role model to the country's whole lesbian community , to the business venture of a publishing house in one of the most populated nations in the world that is slowly acknowledging the need for a counterculture: it could actually make a pretty good story for a book.

It took one year for Queer Ink to publish its first book, three years to be profitable. Today Shobhna Kumar says she hopes to reach millions of new readers in the next three years. She sells books to American universities interested in knowing more about the queer culture in India. She targets Indians that are based overseas. She works with historians and academics to develop a whole new literary movement.

Queer Ink's success and history is not an exception. Although it is not clear whether the Andheri-based publishing house set an example, it seems that it was part of something bigger in the Indian publishing industry. Other publishing houses are starting to work on LGBT-inspired content.

Alchemy publishers, another innovative bookstore in Kolkata, recently published Love and Death in the Middle Kingdom by Nalini Rajan. The historical fiction is based on a homosexual relationship set in 16th century. It was very well received in the market.

Whether or not Queer Ink has inspired this movement, Kumar is keen to stress that her priority is on driving forward her own agenda.

“I’m not concerned about legacy or creating an empire," she explains. "What is important to me is to empower the youngsters to live a life they choose to live. And that’s all I want to achieve from Queer Ink itself apart from making money.”

Ankit Bhuptani is one of these youngsters. A gay rights activist, mythologist and writer, Bhuptani is a very visible face of the Indian LGBT movement's new generation. He buys most of his birthday presents on Queer Ink and considers the website as a great platform that also faces challenges.

“What Shobhna has done is inspiring. Books can change people’s mindsets. They can be shared. Opinions can reach further than one may even imagine.”

“Of course there are limits. Only five to six percent of people in India actually understand English properly. And how many can access an ebook? Their books are made for the “metros” (6) audience. They do publish stories in regional languages but it’s limited. It is a profitable business model and it has a monopoly.”

“Nonetheless, what has to be highlighted is that Queer Ink already started to change people’s lives.”

Shobhna’s dearest wish has already come true. Not bad for a self-taught publisher.

        

(1) The Shiv Sena is a political organization founded in India in 1966. It is known as a Hindu nationalist and conservative structure.

(2) 20 lakhs: 2 million rupees, or EUR 24,649.

(3) Anand Grover’ Lawyers Collective Grover: this lawyer collective led legal cases in favor of the LGBT community in India.

(4) LGBTI: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transexual and Intersexed.

(5) 10,000 crores rupees: 10,000 x 10 million rupees. EUR 1.231 billion.

(6) Metros: Biggest cities in India.

    

Noé Garel is a journalist who often loudly wonders "where is my mind?" - no reference to the Pixies intended. Noe's role model is Will McAvoy. Noé is also a strong supporter of the French national football team, not only during the World Cup, and enjoys being in India, not only to watch the games.

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