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Through the 1990s, the elite Kolkata school La Martiniere for Girls was equal parts pomp and casual cruelty. In its arched hallways, belonging was measured by the number of vacations spent abroad. Faber-Castell coloured pencils, then unavailable to buy cheaply in India, were a key signifier. A button awry or imaginary grime on all-white uniforms drew swift censure. So did speaking in any language that wasn’t English.
“She would never want to relive her LMG days. She didn’t have too many friends, she had it very tough. One, because she was a quiet person, and two, there was a layer of judgement.” There was an audible sigh on the line, and Shruti Todi paused to collect her thoughts. We were talking about her friendship with the publisher Ruby Hembrom, who is a writer, documentarian, and the founder of adivaani, which is, as far as I have been able to establish, India’s first and only Adivasi-owned English-language publishing house.
Both women attended LMG. So did I, almost a decade after them. The student body was “cosmopolitan” in Todi’s account, the campus a place where the children of the city’s businessmen, doctors, and academics whirled through Sports Days and Founders’ Days in a haze of good-natured optimism. Hembrom, on the other hand, remembered the cheer as entitlement.
Twelve years earlier, Hembrom had bailed on Shruti Todi’s wedding. “She didn’t come because she thought she’d feel out of place, that people would look at her and she’d feel uncomfortable,” Todi said. She sounded upset at the recollection. “But, till date, she has saved the wedding card.”
I first reached out to Hembrom in 2018, requesting a conversation about Adivasi representation in the Indian English-language media.  I was writing my dissertation on anti-mining youth activism in western Odisha, and it was impossible to escape the caricatures of Adivasi lives that pervaded national discourse. Adivasis were frequently either painted as guardians of the forest, bravely resisting corporate takeover of their lands; or they were portrayed as stuck in a primitive past, obstructing infrastructure projects that were critical to the country’s development.
Neither representation fit the young Adivasi women and men I met. For most of them, the desire to make a life in the city coexisted with feelings of deep attachment to land and forest. Figures of the ecologically conscious Adivasi and the Adivasi victim of upper-caste or state violence are undoubtedly based in reality, but they cannot and do not encompass the lives of India’s 10.4 crore Adivasis in more than 700 tribal groups, and speaking almost as many languages. Over three-and-a-half years, I corresponded intermittently with Ruby Hembrom, learning about her life and work, trying to understand how and to whom to attribute this denial of complexity.
A Class Apart
his year marks the 10-year anniversary of adivaani. Over the last decade, the publishing house, whose name means “first voices,” has published 19 books in categories spanning fiction, social sciences, memoir, poetry and art. All the titles are reasonably priced, between ₹90 and ₹500.
The topics are diverse and specific. Oraon poet-journalist Jacinta Kerketta’s poetry, for instance, deals with Adivasi struggles for land and a voice.  Sociologists Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche have authored a photographic essay on the condition of Adivasi and Dalit wage labourers.  There is also a children’s book on the 1855 Santal Rebellion with illustrations from Santal artist Saheb Ram Tudu. 
Hembrom herself has written three children’s books for adivaani, spoken at international literary festivals, and received several awards and fellowships for her contribution to elevating Adivasi forms of knowledge and cultures in the public domain.
But as in LMG Kolkata, entry into the institution doesn’t guarantee flourishing, and adivaani hasn’t separated itself from its founder’s trauma of growing up Adivasi.
She is well-known in India’s English-language publishing industry, a scene almost wholly dominated by upper-caste and class individuals, many of whom have generational connections in the world of media and literature. But as in LMG Kolkata, entry into the institution doesn’t guarantee flourishing, and adivaani hasn’t separated itself from its founder’s trauma of growing up Adivasi.
In Kolkata, Ruby Hembrom was a dark-skinned Santal girl, singled out in school for being different and bullied for not backing down. One classmate refused to sit next to her because she was too dark. Another ceremoniously washed their hands after an accidental brush. Others mocked her with “jinga la la hoo, jinga la la hoo,” a ridiculous refrain of humming, whistles and nonsensical words supposedly approximating tribal music made popular in the hit Hindi movie song “Hum Bewafa Hargiz Na The.” 
Hembrom’s voice never faltered as she spoke about these everyday humiliations during her school days. “Reflecting back on this stuff must be hard for you,” I volunteered. But Hembrom shrugged. “I just found it strange that my classmates were totally ignorant about the Santals,” she said. “Later, I realised that their cruel jibes probably had a lot to do with ignorance.” 
In Kolkata, Hembrom and her sisters grew up in a Santali-speaking household on the campus of Bishop’s College, where her father Timotheas taught Old Testament. Their home was the editorial hub for Jug Sirijol, a Santali newsletter edited and produced by Timotheas.  Ruby served tea to guests, who were typically Santals working white-collar jobs during the week and moonlighting as writers and poets over the weekend. “These were the first generation of migrants who wanted to remain connected to their language,” Hembrom said. “None of them had written before or had any experience. Poetry, short stories, political commentary, all went in.”
Her life was split into two: in school, she tried to fend off bullies by making herself inconspicuous; at home, on the sprawling green campus where her father taught, she was free. Hembrom’s mother Elveena, who had long anticipated this split, warned her daughters. “The world will make fun of you,” she said, and the world did.
We Adivasis can inhabit only two narratives. We’re either fighting some mining company in a forest, or we’re topping the state board examinations. There is nothing in between, no nuance,” Archana Soreng told me. Soreng is an Adivasi youth activist and member of the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.
Soreng, who is 25 years old, belongs to the Kharia tribe. She grew up in Sambalpur, Odisha, and regards Hembrom as a role model. Both women are active in the Church of North India’s youth wing, and belong to a generation of Christian Adivasis who are comfortable articulating the history of missionary activities in Adivasi-majority areas as part of their identity.
In this spirit, Hembrom spoke at length about the Scandinavian Lutherans who’d arrived in the Santal Parganas armed with dictionaries and Bibles in the late nineteenth century, determined to turn “aboriginal heathens” into god-fearing Christians. When he was 14, her father Timotheas was chosen to study at the mission’s headquarters in Benagaria, in present-day Jharkhand, and then the seminary in Serampore, 30 kilometres outside Calcutta.
After his training, he returned to Benagaria as a pastor, keen to work among his own people. But, in 1970, he was kicked out of the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church for playing traditional Santal drums at a local wedding. These ritual instruments were considered pagan and anti-Christ. Many missionaries expected Adivasi converts to disavow their culture as remnants of a backward past and adopt a new identity centring Christianity. Timotheas Hembrom, on the other hand, wanted to be both Christian and Santal. The newly minted pastor was first exiled to Cherrapunji and then Calcutta. He would not return to work in the Santal Parganas again.
Almost all photographs of Benagaria in the archive of the Danish Mission, held at the University of Southern California, feature the Ebenezer Church, a whitewashed neoclassical structure bordered by stiff hedges. “On one side there was this grandeur, buildings made out of stone and mortar, bungalows, all European structures,” Hembrom recalled. “On the other side was the Santal village with thatched roofs.”
Hembrom lived in Benagaria for three years, where she was raised by her aunt while her father completed his PhD in Bangalore. Many of her memories of the time involve playing with animals. Back then, her love for their company had even worked its way into a beloved family tale. Ruby once crawled under a cow, the story went, and the hapless creature pooped on her. The dung turned her dark forever. “My mother had a great sense of humour and she would ease things for us,” Hembrom said. When she was bullied about her complexion as a child, Hembrom would hang on to this story for succour.
Root of the Matter
fter finishing school at LMG, Hembrom went to study law for five years at the University of Calcutta. There, she discovered that working hard could be futile without social networks and access. “More than half of my 300-plus batch in law school came from legal families,” she told me. “The remaining, especially me and my family: we had no clue about the system of apprenticeship. We had no connections. I had nowhere to go, after.”
After law school, Hembrom set out in search of a vocation. She taught English, worked as a trainer in the BPO sector and developed curricula for adult learners. There were occasional bursts of fulfilment in these journeys, she told me. The jobs offered her financial freedom. She cherished the friendships she built with other tribal people in the corporate world. But the sense of feeling out of place never dissipated in a decade spent shuttling between Gurgaon, Kolkata, and later, Imphal, where she was testing the waters to set up an English-language training institute.  “I was so self-conscious, I never made any friends. I kept thinking, no, they wouldn’t like me or want to eat with me.”
In 2012, Hembrom enrolled in a publishing course in Kolkata, which she asked me not to identify by name. She was 33 at the time, and believed that the publishing industry could not throw her anything she hadn’t seen or dealt with before. When she met a fellow Indian publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years later, the conversation didn’t surprise her. “She told me, ‘Don’t forget your privilege,’” Hembrom said. “Being able to navigate in English, sitting with her in a car as an equal: that was a privilege for her.”
“What did she expect?” Hembrom said. “Should we not have education, should we not have opportunities? What exactly is my privilege? Intergenerational mobility?”
Even newspaper articles covering adivaani’s launch had latched on to this seeming opposition between Hembrom’s Adivasi identity and her urban, English-speaking upbringing. “Tribal woman quits IT multinational to bring folklore to the masses,” declared the India edition of the UK’s Daily Mail.  The Times of India was even more exuberant: “Santhal girl on mission to unite with roots.”
“We’re either fighting some mining company in a forest, or we’re topping the state board examinations. There is nothing in between, no nuance.”
“But when was I divorced from my roots?” Hembrom said. “We went to Jharkhand four times a year and I speak Santali fluently. I would sit down and tell reporters the whole story and they’d put in these sensationalist headlines. It was embarrassing.” She sounded more irritated than embarrassed.
Alienation and personal discovery punctuated by years of struggle, followed by a well-timed epiphany: the tropes pander to a mainstream audience’s expectations of what the underdog’s life looks like. Hembrom’s own retelling of adivaani’s origins marshals details that compel the listener to witness a longer history of discrimination and erasure. She does this by a meticulous accounting of her own trauma.
In 2014, Hembrom delivered a TEDx talk at XLRI, the management school in Jamshedpur. It began with a steely indictment of the racist stereotypes about Adivasis that permeate elite social spaces and interpersonal relationships. “Being Adivasi was extremely important because at no point did I shy away from telling people that,” Hembrom had said, “but that would not really stop people’s curiosity. I would be directed with many more interesting questions. ‘Do you hunt?’ ‘Can you demonstrate a war cry?’”
During a panel discussion on ‘The Indigenous Literature of India’ at the 2016 edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Hembrom opened her remarks with an anecdote about how a stranger, surprised by the presence of “someone like her” in a literary gathering, said that she reminded them of their neighbourhood chaiwallah.
In another conversation with The Telegraph in 2019, Hembrom returned to the difficulty of existing in an Adivasi body without it eliciting commentary from the outside world: “There was no one who looked like me. Being Adivasi means your features, your face, they tell your story.”
With every interview, editorial column and public appearance, Hembrom reiterated that the bullying and the humiliation was not an exceptional thing she had somehow managed to transcend through sheer force of will. It was, instead, a broader accounting of harm enacted by the social majority against Adivasis.
In conversation and in interviews, Hembrom often brings up a day during the publishing course in Kolkata. It was a day of master classes with the who’s who in English-language publishing. The roster did not include a single Adivasi name.
Hembrom remembered going home rattled, unable to let go of the erasure she’d just witnessed. “Why were we absent in the English publishing industry? We publish in our native languages. We publish in the dominant regional languages. Or is it the usual, they don’t care about us or our stories?” After a restless night, Hembrom decided she would choose action over mere chagrin.
By the end of that summer in 2012, Hembrom had a name for her publishing house. She also had a logo featuring Has and Hasil, the two geese who the Santals consider to be among their ancestors. One of them looks backward at the past, and the other looks forward to the future. adivaani, Hembrom told me, was grounded somewhere in between. Armed with a name, a logo, and three collaborator-friends she’d met at the publishing course, Hembrom launched adivaani from a 600-square foot rented space in Kolkata.
The English Question
ndoing ignorance about Adivasi cultures and histories was not, and is not, an easy task. A decade ago, Ruby was one of the few people furrowing a lonely plough. More recently, there has been a growth in independent Adivasi media. YouTube channels, online magazines, and Facebook groups are producing multimedia content in Adivasi languages, as well as English.
Adivaasi Drishyam, for instance, was founded in 2018 by Kharia student Eugene Soreng from a hostel room at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The YouTube channel hopes to work as an inter-generational bridge between young Adivasis and traditional knowledge systems. In 2015, a volunteer-led English- and Hindi-language news media platform called Adivasi Resurgence started publishing the work of Adivasi creators.
Hembrom described her decision to start an English-language publishing house for Adivasis as “a strategic move” that goes beyond building a readership or making profits. “It had to be in English,” she told me, “because what’s the point of me doing something that was already being done? Not that I didn’t want to do Santali or any of the native languages, but then I wouldn’t be helping the larger movement.”
Over email, Ananya Mishra, lecturer of global indigenous thought at Queen Mary University of London, told me that “adivaani’s decision to be a publishing house of and for Adivasis is an affirmation, signalling that Adivasi literatures exist in their own right, and that there is an avenue exclusively supporting Adivasi voices to be placed in sections of ‘literature’ and not classified under ethnography/folklore that unfortunately continues in literary spaces and institutions.”
The decision to exist as Adivasi, and in English, also insists on Adivasis’ claim to English as much as on Sadri, Ho, Santali, Kurukh, or Kui. For Adivasis who’ve become distanced from their mother tongues following migration into cities, or as a fallout of an education system that rewards mastery in English, adivaani offers a bridge.
In 2019, a series exploring Adivasi citizens’ relationships with the Indian government on Firstpost included first-person student narratives unpacking the complicated role of English in Adivasi lives. “The structure of our educational institutions is such that despite the presence of the rich cultural storage of Adivasi languages, we have to identify a “dominant” language,” Ritu Kongari, a Munda woman, wrote. “In my case, that language was English… I can understand Mundari but I fumble when I try to speak in the language.” 
Books in Mundari wouldn’t necessarily serve Adivasis like Kongari. City-based Adivasis may have heard some of these stories in their ancestral villages, but they have no one to hear them from in the city. Hembrom herself grew up isolated from Santali oral culture in Kolkata. She said she knew more about Adam and Eve than the Santal creation myths she’d go on to publish as illustrated children’s books.
As a child, Hembrom hated books and struggled with schoolwork. “I was so not used to reading,” she said. As a new publisher, she began to read expansively, especially about indigenous peoples’ issues in India and abroad. adivaani’s eclectic catalogue tracks Hembrom’s own evolution as an Adivasi intellectual. What began as preparation for the work of running a publishing house soon turned into a journey of solidarity and discovery.
A Difficult Pill to Swallow
ven as India’s Adivasis continue to be thwarted in their goal of being recognised as indigenous in “the UN way,”  Hembrom feels a deep connection with indigenous authors from around the world. “I want to meet them and be amongst them and say, ‘We are the same people,’” Hembrom told me. “When we meet, I don’t need to explain too much. They say, ‘We believe you.’”
In India, adivaani has reprinted Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, a book by Canadian author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. The context of Simpson’s book will be intimately familiar to any Indian Adivasi: mining, deforestation, land acquisition, repression of indigenous dissent. What Hembrom thought would be new and inspiring for her Indian Adivasi readership in Dancing was the theme of indigenous resurgence: Simpson writes about the Anishinaabeg First Nations’ struggles to reassert indigenous languages, political traditions, and worldviews.
“I love that you non-apologetically use words from your mother tongue to beautifully weave ideas, concepts and notions,” Hembrom told Simpson in an audio conversation after the release of the reprint. “How do non-indigenous peoples react to your writings?” Simpson’s response was that non-Native readers in Canada had found the book “a very difficult pill to swallow.”
Hembrom’s search for Indian Adivasi writing that can produce enlightened discomfort in non-Adivasi readers hasn’t been entirely successful yet. Historically, Adivasis have had little control over what gets written about their communities or their internal lives. Outsiders like anthropologists, surveyors, administrators, and missionaries disproportionately shaped government policies in Adivasi-majority areas. They reinforced cultural stereotypes in their writings, and stymied developmental outcomes.
“My writing comes from my experience, and in my world, Adivasis have jobs, they live in flats in cities, and travel by cars. I have never felt burdened by the need to say otherwise.”
The Tribal Intellectual Collective India (TICI),  of which Hembrom is a member, identifies the persisting domination of European and caste majority knowledge systems as a reality that needs changing. But this history is also the reason why the TICI expects that most non-Adivasis won’t immediately accept tribal people and Adivasi intellectuals simply writing their own thing.
adivaani’s own mission is animated by one of the questions that the Collective asks: “Can we produce knowledge that is emancipatory for tribal and adivasi realities?” By centring the Adivasi reader—even at the cost of the non-Adivasi reader—adivaani hopes to retire the opposition between assimilation and isolation, a debate that has sustained a cottage industry of nonprofits, researchers, and bureaucrats, ever since the anthropologist Verrier Elwin and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru coined its hackneyed terms in the early years of independent India.
In a landscape saturated with stories of Adivasi suffering and resistance, adivaani’s work has tried to capture the texture of something closer to the everyday lives of Adivasis. Take Becoming Me, for instance, the author Rejina Marandi’s account of a young Santal girl’s experiences in urban Assam. Set against a backdrop of ethnic turmoil, the novel muddles stereotypical understandings about the evolution of Adivasi traditions, and challenges notions of which tribes may live where. Like much of adivaani’s work, it centres lives that are lived in tension between multiple languages, the city and the village, poetry and humour, the future and the past.
Responsibility and Representation
er publishing venture’s mandate to authentically represent Adivasi lives is a double-edged sword for Hembrom. She is often the first port of call for newspaper and magazine editors looking for an “insider perspective” on anything to do with Adivasi life. In 2014, a Santal woman was gangraped by men of her village in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. The crime, allegedly committed on the orders of a council of tribal elders, generated heated discourse pitting “backward” Adivasi norms against “modern” love. Hembrom wrote an op-ed in The Times of India refuting the claim that rape is a punishment commonly meted out to Santal women if they stray into romance with non-Adivasis. 
Often, Hembrom’s positions have placed her at odds with her community. One of these instances was in 2017, when the writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance, published by Speaking Tiger, was banned by the Jharkhand government because it was alleged to have denigrated Santal women.
Hembrom was a signatory of an open letter, published in Scroll.in, which condemned the “self-styled guardians of Adivasi culture and morality” trying to police Sowvendra’s writing. The campaign against Sowvendra was vicious, revealing a tendency among Santal elites common to their counterparts among conservatives of other social groups: they preferred to dismiss literary depictions of gendered exploitation as prurient, rather than confront it as social reality.
Hembrom personally knows many of these gatekeepers of Santal representation. “They have come home,” she told me. “They are people I have sat and discussed things with. They know my parents well.” That didn’t protect her from their criticism. “They attacked me for being nominated for an award in 2016 because I was the relatable, urbane, English-speaking Adivasi,” Hembrom said “And the real Adivasi women are Soni Sori and Dayamani Barla, so they should be getting the awards, and people like me take away attention from real issues.” 
To work as an Adivasi publisher in the English-language publishing industry necessarily comes with a mantle of activism and responsibility. It is an uncomfortable burden for Hembrom. “I cannot represent all Adivasis and neither can I say I speak for all Santals,” she said. “I am a city-bred Adivasi, so Adivasi in a different way, but still Adivasi.” And at the end of the day, Hembrom said, she is not an activist. “There is only so much I can do. I write. I don’t go to rallies and sit at dharnas as much as I’d like to.”
When I asked Sowvendra if he’d ever felt an additional responsibility to put out particular kinds of stories as an Adivasi author, he was direct and categorical. “Why does an Adivasi writer have to focus on Adivasi matters?” Sowvendra said. “My writing comes from my experience, and in my world, Adivasis have jobs, they live in flats in cities, and travel by cars. I have never felt burdened by the need to say otherwise.”
Sometimes, well-intentioned non-Adivasis take up the cause of representation. But those efforts can fall short. In this context, Boski Jain, Hembrom’s illustrator-collaborator, told me about the Indian publishing industry’s interest in embracing Adivasi art forms in book illustration and design. Tulika Books, for example, has produced a number of children’s books based on Adivasi folktales, including one about coal mining threatening a young Adivasi girl’s home. The themes might be Adivasi in spirit, but the credited authors are not.
Another children’s book from Katha Press called A Tree features ten “earth-caring” Adivasi artists working in the Madhubani, Warli, Bhil, Kurumba, and Gond traditions. On the front page, their distinct styles and histories are conflated as “Art by Tribal Artists from India.” “These are a mix of NGO and commercial children’s books publishers,” Jain said, “but their work is not categorised as by the tribals, for the tribals the way adivaani’s is.”
A commissioning editor from a Delhi-based mainstream publishing house told me that while English translations from regional languages are slowly gaining a readership, building a diverse author list requires English-language publishing houses to commit resources and time, which are in perpetual short supply.
In mainstream publishing, the frame of what is believed to be “new” is narrow, Mandira Sen told me. Sen is the founder of the independent Kolkata-based publishing house Stree-Samya. This is borne out by the evidence. Dalit writing in regional languages might be getting published in translation, but the translators are invariably upper caste and middle-class. Tribal literature from northeast India might be having a moment, but a lot of tribal writing from the region is already in English, bypassing the translation hurdles faced by Adivasis in Hindi-dominated peninsular India.
As a business, adivaani has struggled to break even. For years, Hembrom has kept it afloat with money from personal fellowships, workshops, and speaking engagements. Hembrom felt that, in many cases, she had become more interesting to people than her work. We read op-eds by her and profiles about her, but don’t end up buying adivaani’s books. Readers are more piqued by her personal story of conquering adversity than the Adivasi-authored literature she puts out. The pandemic has made things worse for adivaani, with no new books in the pipeline for this year.
In addition to the challenges of financing and distribution, finding people to write has been difficult. Hembrom often encountered doubt and fear in her efforts to surface Adivasi literary talent. “But we don’t have stories!” people would tell her.
“I am a city-bred Adivasi, so Adivasi in a different way, but still Adivasi.”
It was not her first experience of this lack of confidence. A few years before adivaani, dismayed by the complete absence of Adivasis in her BPO-sector training cohorts, Hembrom had attempted to float an English-language training institute in Jharkhand. Her reasoning at the time was straightforward: either recruiters were not going to Adivasi-majority areas to hire or Adivasis weren’t eligible for entry-level jobs. If it was the latter, recent undergraduates could benefit from English-speaking and writing lessons.
The initiative never took off. Among Adivasis, Hembrom said, there is an insecurity about their experiences and struggles being unworthy of an audience. She knows that this fear is not unfounded. “We are going to be criticised and scrutinised,” she told me. “People will always find flaws with the way we write.” Hembrom said legacy media reviewers refuse to review adivaani books claiming they are too “simple” and “blog-like.” In 2013, an online bookseller had refused to stock an adivaani title—Jharkhand-based Kharia activist Gladson Dungdung’s Whose Country Is It Anyway?—on the grounds that it was “not good.” 
embrom is currently pursuing a Masters in Inequalities and Social Science at the London School of Economics. In May this year, she attended a protest in London against plans to mine for coal in Hasdeo, Chhattisgarh. The project, proposed to be developed by the Adani group, is expected to displace thousands of Gond and Oraon Adivasis, and Dalits.
But mobilising for Adivasi issues abroad looks very different from the kind of engagement Hembrom sought out in India. It is lonelier. Over email, Hembrom told me that the turnout for solidarity events in London is sparse. One of the reasons for this is that convening transnational indigenous rights organisations keep campaigns siloed by region, even when there are clear convergences between them.  If Hembrom wishes for more interaction with other indigenous peoples’ movements in London, she doesn’t admit it.
In the three and a half years that I’ve known Hembrom, I’ve never seen her hesitate—in a panel, on a podium, or during an interview. She’s focused, sticks to her talking points, and scrupulously narrates anecdotes from her journey, her tone flat even during the moments that touch upon egregious racism towards Adivasis.
So I found it striking that Hembrom missed a beat when I asked about leisure. Is there a television show or a novel she is reading, in between writing her thesis? She emailed me back the next day, polite but unyielding. No, there is always too much to do.
Madhuri Karak is a writer currently living in Ankara, Turkey.