Anyone collaborating with Ruby Hembrom is sure to widen his or her mental bandwidth. For she not just thinks out-of-box but also invests her soul and spirit into the work she undertakes.
Kolkata-based Hembrom runs Adivaani, a publishing house for adivasi (tribal) literature. It was launched by a group of amateurs that included her friend Joy Tudu, Luis A Gomez, a Mexican journalist, and Boski Jain, a graphic artist.
“The only way to get things done is by doing them,” Hembrom says. “So we just plan and ensure we are on top of our to-do lists. Things can get tough and I am overwhelmed by how much needs to be accomplished. But I have no complaints.
“Adivaani is primarily an attempt to make people aware of the adivasis, their culture and literature. The history and stories of adivasis have passed down from generation to generation, but nothing is on record. Being one of them, I know the tales are steadily vanishing and it is time to document them for posterity.”
Born and brought up in Kolkata, 35-year-old Hembrom studied at the La Martiniere for Girls School and later took a degree in law from Kolkata University. She says, “Our aim is not only to preserve the heritage and folklore, but also narrate our stories of struggles, exploitation and displacement in our own words.”
To do this, Hembrom quit her well-paying job in a multinational company to reunite with her roots. Adivaani has published Santhal tribe’s creation stories — “We Come From the Geese” and “Earth Rests On a Tortoise” and a book by Gladson Dungdung “Whose Country Is It Anyway?”, which is on displacement of the adivasis. The books have been picked up by a lot of research scholars, libraries and schools.
Did you consider it was a risk leaving the security of the IT job to pursue your calling?
Except the security of the pay cheque at the end of the month, there was nothing that came to mind when I decided to take the plunge.
So, what actually triggered your decision to do something substantial for the ‘largely invisible tribal community’?
I believe not everyone is meant to do just one thing in life. After graduating in law, I worked with Inlingua, International School of Languages in the Training, Learning and Development field for four years and thereafter was deputed at Genpact, where I conducted language and corporate behavioural training for three years. All this was in total contrast to my educational qualification. But then, it was a means of sustenance, though all through I was restless to do more with my life. Having grown up in a family where discussions on adivasi issues were common, I was naturally drawn towards them and have always taken pride in being an adivasi. So, after a point, I quit my job to work on taking learning and development, initially to the villages in Jharkhand and later extending it to other places. It was around then that a project accidentally led me to publishing, which became the starting point of my mission to propagate, promote and preserve facets of the adivasi culture.
What was the project that led you to the world of publishing?
I was working on a plan of revamping a set of conversational English textbooks, when I began toying with the idea of publishing books. My dilemma was that I knew what content to put into the books if I were to publish them, but had no idea how to make the pages of those books come alive. I realised this was the missing link and if I got it together, it would compact the conversational English books. Immediately, in 2012, I enrolled myself in the Seagull School of Publishing for a four-month course. Two days into it, I met two publishers — one exclusively publishing women’s narratives and the other only Dalit (lower caste) narratives. I went through the entire list, only to find that there was no adivasi representation. That set the ball rolling, as I wondered why our voice was not being counted.
So, when and how did Adivaani take shape?
Adivaani was born in the first week of my being in the publishing course, where I met my collaborators, Luis A Gomez, a Mexican journalist and writer, who had worked extensively with native people in Latin America and Boski Jain, a graphic artist from Bhopal with a keen interest in tribal art. All three of us would talk of Adivaani, before, during and after classes. And by the time the course ended, Adivaani was a reality.
How did you get tribal people to write books?
To begin with, we looked for stories in our immediate surroundings and those easily accessible in terms of authors willing to give us their works for free and also tales that we could write or collate ourselves. My father authored our first book; it was the translation in Roman Santali of his English book about the entity of the Santals (a tribe) as an indigenous people, their being and lifestyle and belief system. Since the book had been out of print, re-telling the mythical Santal creation stories in an illustrated format, which would entice young readers, emerged. So, I rewrote the text for a three-part series, out of which the first two are in the market.
Will it mean reproducing the works of authors?
Several adivasis have been writing and publishing in indigenous languages, evidently with limited readership. We want to publish in English to have a global readership and are getting in touch with writers contributing works on different tribes and asking them for stories, narratives and chronicles to translate. I also never fail to connect with adivasis, who may not be able to write, but have interesting stories to tell about their communities.
Now, as time passes, people are beginning to know about us and we are receiving proposals directly too. But one thing must be accepted of us — we may not fit in the ‘standards’ of what is ‘literature’ or the author being a ‘literary genius’, but we are proud of our roots. It has been a long struggle, living on the margins, getting accustomed to unfamiliar ways, cultures and languages in a world where we are not really welcomed. And English may not be the language we tribals are most comfortable in, but we want to be known the world over.
How do you handle the multiple responsibilities now that you are in the business world?
My father, a theologian and professor and mother a teacher, both retired professionals, have provided me their unflinching support in all my pursuits. I lived with them until cartons of books turned their home into a warehouse! And thereafter I decided to rent a two-room apartment, which is now residence and office.
A regular day indoors includes running the washing machine over breakfast, looking at correspondence, working on a manuscript, taking a break to cook, sneaking in a call or two while preparing lunch and getting back to the computer and discussing proposals with my associates. In this informal set up, some days stretch well past midnight — but with the idea of going back in time to rescue what is left of the tribal literature and leave something tangible for the future. That is my mission.
What kind of reception have your books elicited?
I am happy that a lot of schools in Jharkhand state have picked up our books for their libraries and a number of colleges have also asked for copies to include in their syllabus. We want more and more adivasi children to read the stories of their own people and be able to learn English through those books.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Putting all the oddities aside, I think we have done relevant books of good quality, which are reasonably priced. In fact, according to the readers, our first book is considered the nicest publication in Santali. People said that they had not seen such a beautiful cover or such lovely paper for the printed word. Interestingly, even those who cannot read have bought the book. They claimed they wanted to possess the book because it was about their history, which made them feel proud.
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.