We Need to Talk about Caste: Roanna Gonsalves Interviews S Anand

By | 1 August 2016

RG: What are some of the challenges you face as you continue to build up the list at Navayana? What are your dreams for Navayana?

SA: The real challenge for Navayana remains resources, primarily financial. It is not run like a business, and I must admit I never had the nous for business. Besides, we receive no subsidies or grants either from the state, other grant-making bodies or what’s called CSR funding (corporate social responsibility – a term invented by unrepentant capitalism to show it could be charitable towards the very people it impoverishes). Unlike in the first world countries where university presses are hosted by large state universities and even receive extensive corporate funding, or where independent presses are supported by Australia Council grants and suchlike, in India small presses have to fend for themselves or are run either by those who are born into wealth or have a successful trade list.

That said, Navayana, because of its location and choice of language, has had it way better than several Dalit-run presses in the various languages of India. But the advantage Dalit presses have is also huge – despite their far meager resources, they reach a very wide Dalit audience that Navayana never perhaps can. Sharmila Rege and Badri Narayan, both brahman scholars, have documented (in English) the significance of the print culture and the hunger for books among Dalits in both Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.

However, a far more passionate and involved account of this comes from Gaurav Somvanshi who tells us what this Dalit–non-Dalit dichotomy means in the world of books – this neat divide between where books related to Ambedkar (and the Dalit movement) can be found and why they are not easily found in ‘elite’ spaces. The kind of reach that Kaushalya Prakashan, founded in 1995 and run by Dr Ashok Gaikwad – a medical doctor who also runs an ENT clinic in Aurangabad – that has published over 300 titles, is something Navayana may never have. Gaurav also documents, among other things, the work of the couple Shankarrao Hatole and Devayani Hatole who since 1979 have published over 1200 titles under the head of Anand Prakashan.

The success of these mission-like publications is owed to their persistence and popularity: it is this habit of reading that has produced our Dalit movements, however fragmented they are, and the counter-public created by these movements is among the most inclusive of physical and intellectual spaces there is in India right now, despite all the apparent rancor on the surface. It is true that Navayana and Kaushalya reach different audiences, but we need both. I’d still like to believe we are both in the same Ambedkarite struggle and Navayana could play a counter-intuitive part in this struggle (though I am the one that gets to do this interview with Cordite Poetry Review).

Given that I publish in English, Navayana’s public profile (like that of other small Indian publishing houses like Zubaan, Seagull, Yoda) is rather disproportionate to the titles we actually manage to publish and the numbers we sell, though we reach the bookstores that the aforementioned Dalit publishers cannot. We have far more social clout and cultural capital to offset our sometimes meager resources. And none of us has really evolved a diversity policy to make place for Dalits and other marginal groups who go almost unrepresented.

The so-called independent publishers in English have never implemented any kind of reservation or diversity policy in their institutions that are run like little fiefs: not even in the placement of unpaid interns do we see this. This is true of other mainstream publishing and media (Caravan being perhaps a rare, even singular, exception in this matter). This is a shameful state of affairs, and I am part of this ecosystem, and most of the time I just float along, grumbling.

I could pat my own back and say I have done my share of lobbying with journalism colleges and those who run publishing courses to implement some kind of diversity for Dalits and Adivasis. They make a few noises, and do it most reluctantly once or twice, and then they just ignore me, almost saying it’s none of my business – you see there’s no law to make us do this, and even if there is, we know how to flout laws.

Suppose this moral and political pressure comes not from someone like me or Navayana but from Dalit-led groups like Round Table India – a ‘news and information portal’ that heralds the ‘Ambedkar Age’, run by fiercely committed people mostly connected via the internet and all its entrapments, people who have never met yet form a community of shared emotions and thoughts – or from a consortium of various such groups that the Dalit movements in India have thrown up, we may perhaps see a change.

The privileged castes in India have no sense of shame or guilt – this has to be induced – yet they tend to often sound righteous. Today a young Dalit man is working with the journal Economic and Political Weekly, and he says so proudly. There are a few Dalits working for The Hindu, Hindustan Times and Caravan and some of them are often open about their political affiliations (many are openly critical of Navayana, and I read, listen and learn from everyone). These few Dalit journalists tell some stories like no one else can. These are modest, finger-countable successes in the left-liberal-secular English speaking world.

RG: What are the challenges around building your readership at Navayana?

SA: An important reason for Navayana’s rather limited reach is also that distribution of books in India is a mess, and is especially loaded against small publishers. After more than ten years of existence, averaging just about six titles a year, Navayana still has only two full-time staff: me and my general factotum Rajeev Kumar. In the last few years, I have had at least one, sometimes two, part-timers – mostly young middle class women, the odd foreign research scholar and an equally foreign-to-India Kashmiri – who bide time at Navayana and hone their skills before looking for better career opportunities. This is the ‘empire’ of Navayana over which I reign. Reminds me of something the Rajasthani Dalit singer Mahesha Ram offers as a Kabir song, ‘Darshan kar banda dehi mein’:

The koel reigns over the mango branch
The fool’s pleased with himself
The house-husband lords over the house
The mouse is the king of his hole

The house-husband here is of course me signing and singing myself into the song – a brazen act of updating and appropriating Kabir in the guise of translation. Kabir and Mahesha Ram actually sing of a wife happy with her household.

When I cofounded Navayana with a friend at age 30, I fancied I’d quit at 40 and leave it in the hands of more able people and turn to my own writing. This is perhaps because I’ve always seen my role in Navayana as an anomaly. Now I hope I can do that at least when I am 50 – in another seven years.

To professionalise itself, Navayana needs a full-time staff of at least five and we must produce 15 to 20 titles a year and become more viable both within and outside India. What I dream of for Navayana is someone giving us a generous grant and asking us no questions – but then I do have the habit of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Another, equally important, aspect to this narrative is this: at the risk of quoting myself, let me recall what I had said at the launch of Annihilation of Caste in Delhi in March 2014. Navayana – an anticaste publishing house run for all purposes now by a brahman – is a historical mistake. It seemed a necessary one. The time will soon come for it to wither away. But that time is not now. We have such a massive and persistent problem at hand – caste – and each one of us has to do our bit to vanquish it.

RG: You were born into a brahman family. What were the moments of awakening, so to speak, in relation to caste oppression, your journey that led to the creation of Navayana?

SA: This most often elicits a trite, well-rehearsed reply in India – that birth is an accident, and that my birth into a brahman household and someone else’s into an untouchable or shudra family are things beyond our control. But then caste is power; and the denial of caste and the unearned capital that accrues from it is an abusive exercise of such power. Most privileged people in India tend to use this logic to undermine the reservation policy, and casually say, ‘Okay our ancestors were bad folks, but why should we pay for that?’ One is sure to find echoes of this in other societies as well.

Often even liberals and progressives mouth this line, saying class is what matters but they never ask why a poor brahman never undertakes leatherwork or applies for sweeper’s job. A brahman would rather starve than lose ‘dignity’ by doing such labour. When an advertisement was recently issued by a department in a college campus welcoming non-‘untouchable’ castes to apply for sweepers’ posts, a police case was registered against the person issuing the advertisement for ‘inciting communal tension’.

By the time we become aware of this accident of birth, the fragile fabric of our existence comes to be defined by this very birth. Even if a brahman has never visited a temple or sees herself as an atheist she can be the bearer of unearned privileges and earned prejudices. Society, history, family and an entire phalanx of forces shape our perception both of ourselves and of everything around us. In India, caste has a way of being a part of our unconscious. This of course is only, in part, an existential trap. How does one overcome the accident of birth? Or should birth damn us all? This question is as old as the Buddha, perhaps.

Now the real and final exit from this trap seems to be death – but like Ambedkar says in his final work The Buddha and His Dhamma, to the Buddha death meant that whatever energy escapes from the body joins the general mass of energy playing about in the universe; for matter cannot be annihilated – and, in the meanwhile, how do we negotiate life?

The first thing a brahman ought to feel – or be made to feel – is he should be uncomfortable about his birth, his privileges, about his prejudices that he can sometimes afford to be not even aware of.

Sadly in India we have never had public ceremonies where brahman men reject caste and come out of it, by say burning their janeus, the ‘sacred thread’ they often wear beneath their shirts and suits even if they don’t flaunt it on their bare chests. I think we should every year have thousands of brahmans doing this, a Janeu Jalao Andolan, on 25 December – the day Ambedkar burnt the second century brahmanical code, Manusmriti. Not that caste goes away like this, but we have not even had these symbolic gestures.

If the accretion of Ambedkar statues is wonderful at one end, there must be a concomitant symbolic deficit at the other end. How does a brahman arrive at this stage of awareness? It does not happen in one instantaneous moment – like when Siddartha sits under a Bodhi tree. It is a lifelong process; you have to be self-aware till the sense of caste and identity dissolves completely, like Kabir says it must (and this does not necessarily happen only with death). This awareness happens through touch, through friction, through social interaction, and most importantly through love.

Ambedkar often says there’s no social endosmosis – a term he borrows from the French philosopher Henri Louis Bergson via his teacher at Columbia University, John Dewey – among people of caste. In village society each caste tends to be a world unto itself and the idea of the ‘social’ or society is foreclosed. Any interaction – socialisation – with another caste is a transgression. This is why Ambedkar strikes at the root of the problem and says caste is essentially anti-social. This rural model – that is not unchanging and has evolved over centuries – often replicates itself in urban areas though it is fashionable to say that caste has disappeared from the city.

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