Indian literary works focus on stories to do with Savarna histories, romance and struggles, excluding DBA (Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi) stories, writers, readers and communities. The caste hegemony has seeped into literature, despite ‘untouchability’ being abolished by Article 17 of the Indian constitution 66 years ago.
Literature is a powerful tool to establish emotional connections with a large audience and bring forth new perspectives. By only representing the voice of the powerful, the literary world has sidelined voices from DBA communities from the mainstream.
Two Indian, independent, anti-caste publishing houses—Navayana and Panther’s Paw Publications—are challenging the prevailing Savarna dominance in literature, by publishing works of DBA writers (for DBA readers and others) in the English language.
Established in 2003, Navayana focuses on “the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective,” by publishing non-fiction books, translations and poetry, written by DBA and Savarna authors.
S Anand, the publisher and director of Navayana, said, “Being anti-caste is not just about reading books by Dalits. It’s about trying to practice equality in everyday life. Most Savarnas who are moved by Dalit literature, do not often have any interactions or real friendships with DBA communities. Anti-caste writing allows for Savarnas to understand how Savarnas practice untouchability without even realising it.”
A three-member team, Navayana has been extremely successful in uplifting unheard stories and writers. Books published by Navayana like “Bhimayana“, a graphic biography of Ambedkar, are taught in schools and universities to Savarna students. According to Anand it’s not enough, because:
“Savarna teachers and professors will teach Dalit literature, even books from Navayana, for example. But, the main question is: how does it affect and change the mindset of the Savarna teachers or students? Professors often do not ask why there are so few Dalits on their faculty. Does literature have an impact on their life? For Dalits, this is the life that they are living.
Unless Savarnas learn to question why and how the spaces they occupy—be they universities or offices or reading clubs—often have no DBA presence, reading books will never be enough.”
Despite their success, they feel as though the ratio of Savarna to DBA authors they have published remains skewed (33% DBA authors). This thought, accompanied by their determination to increase DBA visibility, sets them apart from mainstream publishing houses.
Navayana opened up about the struggles they have faced and continue to face in their journey. Till 10 years ago, Navayana would provide a 45% discount on cover price to distributors across the country, who would payback within six months, if they ever did. Anand elaborated:
“Booksellers run up debts with distributors; distributors run up debts with publishers. But, you can’t stop supplying your books to retailers who tend not to pay, because you have to be in circulation.”
Now, with the rise of online retailers, this discount has risen to 60%—which drastically decreases their flow of money.
Since 2019, Navayana has been warehousing and distributing with HarperCollins India, in an effort to reach a wider readership within the country. This collaboration was extremely successful for a year, with Covid-19 striking soon after.
Currently, the publishing house is focused on commissioning new titles, editing and preparing manuscripts for a post-Covid-19 world. As anti-caste movements all over the country have continued to blossom with renewed vigour, over the past few years, Navayana plays an extremely important role, as it fights to normalise anti-caste narratives through literature.
“Navayana seeks to address the question of why India’s elite are not even engaging with anti-caste literature and Ambedkar. Navayana’s aim is to be part of a project for equality that allows for redressal of the unequal structure of caste,” explained Anand.
Panther’s Paw Publications, founded in 2016 and run by Yogesh Maitreya, got its name from the Dalit Panthers. It was an Ambedkarite social organisation founded in Maharashtra (inspired by the Black Panthers in the US), that sought to combat caste discrimination in India.
Growing up in a Dalit basti, Yogesh Maitreya’s understanding of literature and India was vastly different from his Savarna peers. Early on, he noticed that the stories he read in his textbooks weren’t relatable—they were about Savarna people, written by Savarna people, and for Savarna people.
Publishers in India shy away from investing in the works of young, contemporary DBA writers. Instead, they choose to publish the works of Savarna writers or dead ones. They have no interest in publishing translated works of well-established, regional writers either.
So, he established his own publishing house. The first book he published was his previously rejected translations of the poetry of JV Pawar. Social media has been a huge boon to anti-caste publishing houses like Panther’s Paw Publications, by connecting them to readers who want to access such works.
The main drive behind Panther’s Paw Publication is to build an anti-caste sensibility among people. As its founder put it so eloquently in a previous interview:
“An idea can bring about change and we can do that by ensuring this (honestly communicated) literature gets published.”
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Nov ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.