Room for One’s Own: A Conversation with Yogesh Maitreya

August 6, 2021   •   By Akanksha Singh

YOGESH MAITREYA’S NEW BOOK, Singing/Thinking Anti-Caste: Essays on Anti-Caste Music and Text, is his fourth (although he has translated three others from Marathi to English). He writes in his direct style, stopping to signpost the reader only when necessary, and taking the time to guide us when we are philosophically out of our depths, which happens often — yet, he always manages this without condescension.


Maitreya, a member of India’s Dalit community, picked up his first English book at 27. His first book, a translation, was rejected by several publishing houses.


In India’s structurally oppressive caste system, Dalits fall outside the classification into four main hierarchical castes. Over thousands of years, caste apartheid results in cumulative disparities in everything from education and medical care, to exploitation and violence at the hands of dominant, oppressor castes.


The world of publishing, it would seem, is no less hegemonized by oppressor castes than anything else. As an oppressor caste person myself, I know this to be true. The oppressor caste Indian primarily speaks English, correcting others’ versions of it wherever possible. Inevitably, gatekeeping ensues. (There are no official numbers but in Indian media houses, oppressor castes account for about 90 percent of the workforce.)


Eventually, Maitreya redirected his efforts and started his own publishing house. Born in 2016, Panther’s Paw Publication published its first book and became the first English anti-caste publishing house with a Dalit at its helm. It derives its name from the Dalit Panthers, a 1970s anti-caste organization inspired by The Black Panther Party. To date, it has published a total of 11 titles from eight authors, exclusively from oppressed caste backgrounds.


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AKANKSHA SINGH: In Singing/Thinking Anti-Caste: Essays on Anti-Caste Music and Text, you write at length about visibility and what it means to you, personally, as well as the Dalit community on the whole. Panthers Paw Publications (PPP) is, in many ways, a pinnacle of anti-caste visibility, being the first English-language anti-caste publishing house. How would you describe the ecosystem youve created with the publishing house in terms of its impact?


YOGESH MAITREYA: When it comes to the English language in India, of course, Panther’s Paw is significant — not just because I’m involved in it, but because of its vision and philosophy. Anti-caste publishers have been in India for hundreds of years now, and we can see them in vernacular states — even when they weren’t linguistic states. So, there were publishers who used to publish anti-caste literature from their particular languages. Over the decades, when British colonization ended in 1947, the domain or the control of the English language went straight into the hands of the Brahmins (the most privileged of the dominant castes; the priestly castes). So whatever happened in India in the English language — from bureaucracy to literature — was managed and dictated by them. Think of English writing (from India) on the global platform that gets recognition, the writings of Salman Rushdie or Anita Desai, or even their predecessors, Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Michael Madhusudan Dutt.


When it comes to anti-caste publishing, the narrative is anti-caste: a person has to realize their way of life is anti-caste. Once they’ve decided their life philosophy is anti-caste their imagination also moves into those directions. And if that person were to end up writing, we can call their work anti-caste literature. What commune did to communism, in terms of forming the consciousness, the anti-caste movement did for Dalits through an anti-caste consciousness — and that has started reflecting in literature; it was the beginning point of anti-caste literature.


Youve mentioned before that you were up against a lot of Savarna [oppressor caste] gatekeeping at publishing houses when you translated your first book. Why, then, did PPP choose to publish in English? 


What Panther’s Paw is doing is working in English — a language British colonizers got to India. But the history of English and Dalits is not the history of colonization; it’s a history of transformation. English did not oppress me; English opened up channels for education for my community. In Savitribai Phule’s poem [“Rise, to Learn and Act”], she describes how English opened the field of education to oppressed caste children. English gave us an opportunity to understand the world in a broader state.


It is a language that facilitates our action (as oppressed caste people) for unity. Dalits across India have different skin tones, different body structures, languages, cultures. But you find one thing in common among them — they’re all termed “untouchable” by the local Brahmin community. But while English is a facilitating language for Dalits across India to communicate, it is not always accessible.


Panther’s Paw’s philosophy isn’t just to publish anti-caste literature or oppressed caste authors into English, but to also introduce them to the world — no matter how slowly that is (because we do not have the mechanisms to distribute books at a larger scale). We’re dispatching one, two, sometimes 10 books outside India — which is where Panther’s Paw really becomes a movement, trying to spread our anti-caste consciousness to the world so we may have some global solidarity in the future.


Do you write with a specific audience in mind, then? What about as a publisher — how important is the audience” as far as marketing goes?


Of course, as a writer, the audience is something in my mind, subconsciously, even though it’s not explicit. When I was writing Flowers on the Grave of Caste, it was the world which was in the front of my mind, because I knew I was writing in English; I was writing my life, I was writing the way I want, but I wanted to share this with the world. Most of the audience or the readers of these books are urban-based; mostly students or professionals; people who are readers of the English language — who have access to English.


And since we do not have a distribution mechanism, the audience is similar. Most bookstores take a cut of 40 to 45 percent, which basically means we’re left with nothing for our authors, the people who translate, the people who transport.


When we got a little initial publicity, Panther’s Paw’s visibility was increasing and we moved onto social media, it became about people’s imaginations. So I thought, if people know about it, we should keep working at it — be alive and updated on social media; keep them engaged. I don’t understand when oppressor caste people get upset about social media — “spoiling the quality of this and that.” I don’t see it like that. It has given access to people for whom access was prohibited. Like, now I can reach at least 100 people with a post I want to write, the way I want to write it. On the best days, there will be 100 people who order from us. Social media has completely changed the way I sell books.


Do you feel pressure to do well by the Dalit community as the only English-language publication house that publishes exclusively Dalit-Bahujan [oppressed caste] authors, would you say?


When it comes to English, I don’t feel pressure; I feel enthusiastic. I feel enthusiastic because I have started it and I know this is not the only one. There will be a lot of people who will come to publishing as Dalit-Bahujans, and who will challenge the oppressor caste publishing industry in India.


I’ll quote Dr. Ambedkar. He says, “For us, struggle is a matter of enjoyment.” There is no single day in our lives which is not without struggle. But I think we enjoy it when we say we are challenging this inhuman system of caste. Of course, it is not easy to live in a country like India as a Dalit every day — it’s the most inhuman system of oppression. But to survive it and fight it — that’s a huge thing; only the solid can do this; mentally, physically.


Whats next for PPP and the future of anti-caste publishing?


We reached over 60 percent of our target for the seed funding [set up in January this year]. I wasn’t expecting it — it was a great response. It has given me scope, time, and mental space to work for two years. I can publish as many things over these two years — without feeling a financial burden. We’re soon going to have an office for Panther’s Paw Publications in Nagpur, through a friend who is a philanthropist — we’re going to renovate it, and then we will publish more and more books.


We have two upcoming Dalit women, who are poets who write in English — their poetry collections are coming out soon. And four to five first-time authors to introduce.


Whats one thing youd like a foreign audience to know about caste through your work, and through anti-caste literature in general? 


I think foreigners, especially people in Western countries, they have a theoretical idea about caste as a system of oppression, but they are still far away from realizing what caste can actually do to a person. There’s a poem by Loknath Yashwant, a Marathi Dalit poet whose work I translated with Dr. K. Jamanadas — “caste is like a flow of electricity; wires are visible, but not the current.” For foreigners, caste is like wires. It’s not lethal; just wires. But the people who experience it, they know how lethal it is.


Overseas, caste is very much overshadowed or camouflaged or even glorified wherever Indians have gone, including British colonies. One of the prime examples of this in literature is V. S. Naipaul. The ancestors of V. S. Naipaul were Bhumihar Brahmins; when they went to Trinidad, they built temples, their “culture” flourished. But they never addressed the problems of caste. The same is true with the White House (Kamala Harris, Brahmin on her mother’s side) and Silicon Valley (where a caste-discrimination case is ongoing). Caste has benefited Brahmins; they will never talk against it. Instead, they’ll celebrate it; and this also creates Brahmin representatives of Indian culture.


So foreign audiences can start reading oppressed caste writers to understand stories from India — the maximum side of it, the real India. The day when their stories are read, I think people will understand caste.


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Akanksha Singh is a journalist, content writer, and editor based in Mumbai, India. Her essays and journalism have appeared in BBC Culture, Bon Appétit, CNN Travel, HuffPost, The Independent, South China Morning Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, and more.