RG: What was it like growing up in a brahman family? How aware were you of caste oppression?
SA: I grew up as a brahman in a middle class household that comprised of bigoted parents and even more bigoted grandparents. It was a life of serious deprivation in many ways – no books, no poetry, no art. A little Carnatic music came in belatedly because my mother took to learning to play the veena late in her life, after her two sons had grown up. But even this music was packaged as classical and that brahmans have always excelled in it – which is of course historically untrue.
Yes, there was never a shortage of food – I never experienced hunger – but there was a serious short supply of love, and of humanity … hatred for all kinds of ‘others’ was inculcated on an everyday basis. When we lived for two years in Warangal, Telangana, when I was about fifteen, my grandmother used to be worried I’d veer towards the naxalites, the Maoist guerillas of the People War Group, who were a strong presence. But I was attracted to poetry and girls.
Relations would always counsel and caution me: ‘Everyone has reservation, we brahmans have nothing. Study well.’ I was not so deluded as to think brahmans were indeed victims, but I had no sense what reservation was either, for a long while. At home, there was religion and ritual, but nothing that could be called spiritual.
When I once brought a cricket-playing Muslim friend home for a drink of water, they did not let him into the kitchen and served him in a different glass and later explained to me that I should never bring such persons home. I was embarrassed but had to toe their line. I may have been 12 or 13 then, and this was in Hyderabad.
Despite always being raised in cities or big towns of Andhra Pradesh, I was allowed to have little idea of the world around me. Imagine growing up in Hyderabad and not eating biryani! Such is caste. Today I see my brother raise his children quite like that in Delhi. And it sickens me.
Moving away from my parents and living in a hostel during my undergraduate days (1990–93) in Nizam College and then my four years in the University of Hyderabad (1993 to 1997) made me confront caste both within and outside of myself. It was in 1993 that the Ambedkar Students Association was formed in the university. I fell in love with a woman who was not brahman and sought to make a life with her. This eventually made me sever all ties with caste and family, and this was in many ways a turning point. I now know that to get away with this was also our privilege – for in India you could be lynched for this. It was love that made me fight caste. Whenever I turn back to see the horrors I left behind, I only have the desire to walk further and further away from any identity that stifles me, boxes me in.
Reading and reviewing Kancha Ilaiah’s 1996 work Why I am Not a Hindu was a key moment of awakening too. Ilaiah taught me in my undergraduate days but back then he spoke more of class conflict and communism than caste. By 1997 when I met him again, he was proud I had been ‘converted’ to the anticaste cause. On his advice, I began reading Ambedkar seriously, and in 1999, I got myself a set of Ambedkar’s collected writings and read most of it over a year.
By then I was in Chennai, working as a journalist in one of the most brahmanical newspapers in India, The Hindu – which to the outside world presents a rather liberal and progressive face, while they issue circulars about not allowing meat or even egg in their office canteen and call this a private matter.
In 2003, while I worked as a reporter with Outlook news magazine, my friend Ravikumar and I founded Navayana – on a whim. It was a tentative effort to create an independent space for publishing against caste in the English language. I remain tentative about Navayana still. It is never good to be too sure of what you are doing. Ravikumar is a writer and poet in Tamil and has founded and run several little magazines. He was and is a key influence in my life, though he has moved on after taking a plunge into electoral politics.
RG: I’d like to ask you now about the new edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, brought out by Navayana in 2014. I imagine it was a huge task, to annotate, and to publish. But it also elicited controversy. Would you tell us a bit more about this?
SA: During my Outlook days, in 2003, I published a feature about what kind of Dalit literature was getting published. Back then, following Bama’s landmark Karukku, it was just Dalit autobiographies that mainstream publishers seemed to be after. So my friend Ravikumar, who was critical of the valorisation of Dalit life narratives, told me I must write about this development – back then, a day did not end without Ravi and me talking for at least an hour on the phone, conversations from which I learnt much.
I interviewed Dalit writers, translators, publishers, and academics who pioneered the teaching of Dalit Literature. The interviewees included P. Sivakami, an established Tamil Dalit writer; K Satyanarayana, who pioneered the teaching of Dalit texts at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad; Mini Krishnan, who edited and published translations at Oxford University Press; Anand Teltumbde, a keen chronicler of civil rights issues in India; Narendra Jadhav, who had just published a memoir about his father who grew up during Ambedkar’s time, Arun Prabha Mukherjee who’d translated Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan from Hindi, among others.
But to ‘sell’ such a story in a fickle magazine like Outlook, I needed a ‘big name’. Since I had read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and had a critical take on her depiction of Velutha, I decided to find her number and call. When she picked up the landline – I did not really expect her to – I frankly told her why I needed her name to sell or plant such a story. She readily agreed to be an accomplice. I liked her instantly because she was not such a badass. Along the way, I asked her if she had read any Ambedkar, and she said, ‘I am ashamed to say I have not. But I am keen to. Where can I buy his books?’ Sitting in Chennai, I had myself struggled to get Ambedkar’s books and knew it would not be easy for her. You could not walk into a bookstore in a metropolis and buy an Ambedkar book – and most non-Dalits, at least back then, did not even know where to buy Ambedkar or that he had written several books. So I told her, she could start with Annihilation of Caste and I could send her a photocopy. I sent it her way, and we exchanged phone numbers.
Now, the Outlook story on Dalit Lit in the print edition was just 1200 words. Ravikumar said, ‘Let’s publish the full interviews, it will lead to a debate.’ I asked how? Where? He said, ‘Let’s start a publishing house, for anyway it is not as if Outlook keeps you too busy.’ I felt tempted. I succumbed – without an idea of how to get ISBNs, what grammage of paper to use, how to distribute. The need for Navayana – which literally means a new vehicle and a new path, and it is the term used for Ambedkar’s godless Buddhism – was felt simply because there were publishers engaging with environmental issues, or communalism as the Hindu–Muslim conflict is called in India; there were publishers engaging with Left issues, such as LeftWord; and you had children’s publishers, you have women’s movements and feminist publishers, but you did not have anybody in English language publishing saying caste is a central issue.
So Ravi and I identified this as a ‘gap’ and said we will try to focus exclusively on caste. But then we could not publish just one book. We started with four small booklets – each between 40 and 80 pages, each priced between Rs 40 and Rs 60 – about 1 to 1.5 USD back then. One of them was the spin-off from the Outlook piece, Touchable Tales, a collection of interviews on what came to be defined as Dalit Lit by the publishing industry. Our print-run was just 600 copies for each of the four books. In retrospect I’m embarrassed about how this was all done, but it was a modest success, but I soon realised distributors ask for at least 45 percent discount on the retail price. Now it is up to 55 percent, and we are lucky if we earn back the balance of 45 percent after a year. So I decided we can’t price books below Rs 100 and that a book must have at least one hundred pages. Thrown into these waters by Ravikumar I had no choice but to learn to swim, even as I swam close to the comfort of the shore and have always been afraid of the deep waters of ‘business’.
Meanwhile, I asked Arundhati if she had read AoC. I also sent her a set of our four small books. One of these was a re-edition of Ambedkar’s six autobiographical essays collected under the head ‘Waiting for a Visa’. With an introduction by Ravikumar, we re-issued this as Ambedkar: Autobiographical Notes. Back then no-one cried ‘appropriation’. Perhaps because Ravikumar was with me. Perhaps because social media was not what it is today – where you click away your opinions first and then think later, if at all. Anyway Arundhati took her time reading Ambedkar, but once she did, she was stunned. There was no going back now. She purchased 40 copies of Autobiographical Notes for the school her mother runs in Kottayam, Kerala. On her way back from Kottayam to Delhi, she stopped by at Chennai to meet me. I called Ravikumar, who lived in Pondicherry, and he came over. Ravi and I decided to ask her to write an introduction to Annihilation of Caste. All this was in 2004.
By then I had also approached several academics and writers, Dalits and non-Dalits, some of them my mentors and friends – Anand Teltumbde, Sharmila Rege, Upendra Baxi, Gopal Guru, Aniket Jawaare, Gail Omvedt, Kancha Ilaiah, Meera Nanda, Jayant Lele, K Satyanarayana etc – to annotate their favourite Ambedkar texts, or put together ‘readers’ undergirded by a theme and write an introduction. The primary motive was the near-total absence of Ambedkar from the bookshelves of mainstream bookstores and hence from the homes of most non-Dalits other than academics who were forced to take belated cognizance. I even announced six of these titles in our 2005 catalog as forthcoming, calling them ‘Ambedkar Readers’. But nothing came of it. No one really seemed interested in the painstaking and labor-intensive task of annotations. Everyone hedged.
I quit both Chennai and Outlook in April 2007 after being awarded the British Council–London Book Fair’s International Young Publisher of the Year award, and moved to Delhi. It took two years for both Navayana and me to find our feet in this megalopolis. In 2009, I began working with Bhagwan Das, one of the pioneers of the Dalit movement, and someone who was closely associated with Ambedkar in his last years. Das was more than 80 when I met him, and was suffering from bouts of dementia. All he touchingly remembered were his interactions with Ambedkar, his first one being at the age of 16 in the 1940s. In the 1960s, when few bothered to publish Ambedkar, he had brought out a four-volume set of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches along with his friend, L R Balley of Bhimpatrika Publications in Jalandhar, Punjab. I published an annotated edition of the first of these volumes in 2010. This was my first effort at seriously annotating. The book had no takers, no reviews. There was no star driving it. There were no debates. For years I had been making books that flop and that did not deter me.
Speaking of failures, I have to tell you this. I was most enthused about the poems of Namdeo Dhasal, one of India’s finest living poets then, a Dalit Neruda wearing Baudelaire’s clothes, translated by Dilip Chitre, a fine poet himself and a friend of Namdeo’s. I published the book in a lavishly mounted hardback in 2007 at a very reasonable price. Despite ten glowing reviews, it took four years to sell 1400 copies. I took it in my stride though I was saddened. (I must say through all this I have been supported and subsidised by my partner, the love of my life. And quite often friends and well-wishers have given Navayana small donations. My designer, Akila Seshasayee, does our covers for free; my printer Sanjiv Palliwal lets me pay the bills when I can – and all I have offered them in exchange are some poems.)
Raising 30,000 rupees from friends, I even made a low-budget documentary film on Bhagwan Das, called In Pursuit of Ambedkar, and issued it as a DVD along with his memoir translated from the Hindi. The film got screened at two documentary festivals where a handful of people saw it. I printed 1500 copies of the memoir-DVD, I still have over 700 copies unsold in our warehouse. This is worse than shameful. And it took me six years to sell 1500 copies of the annotated edition of Ambedkar selected and edited by Bhagwan Das.
Among the scholars I’d approached in 2004, only one person responded keenly – Sharmila Rege. She taught sociology in Pune University and extensively used Ambedkar and several anti-caste thinkers in her teaching. We could call her an upper-caste feminist who famously advocated a Dalit Feminist Standpoint theory. Her classrooms were mixed with rural and urban, Marathi and English-speaking students. And she taught both in Marathi and English. She was busy with several commitments and mostly with her heavy load of teaching. After keeping me waiting for seven years, she decided to put together her promised reader of Ambedkar’s writings on brahmanical patriarchy in 2011. After a thorough blind peer review process, we published it in 2012. She could not find the time to do the annotations, and I did these at my end. She died soon after this.
None of the other scholars and writers I had approached managed to find the time or showed the inclination for all this. I recall in 2007 Upendra Baxi – a leading legal scholar who had taught for years at the University of Warwick and one among the first non-Dalits to appreciate Ambedkar’s genius (he called him the ‘Aristotle of Atishudras’) and someone who wrote extensively on Ambedkar – asked for my help in procuring all the volumes of Ambedkar. I purchased a full set for him and had it delivered to his house in Delhi.
After the Rege reader was published, I became more than a little insistent in reminding Arundhati. Over the years Arundhati and I became good friends, and she kept reading on and around Ambedkar. Now, she began looking at the world with the caste lens; she saw how it infiltrated everything around us. I was especially keen on her critically engaging with Gandhi since I had on occasion seen her buy into the folklore about Gandhi. Many of my friends, some of them Dalits who now oppose what has been called the Roy–Navayana project, knew the strategic importance of getting someone like her to write and speak on the issue of caste. She was famous and her politics has kept expanding – one could not pigeonhole her. She seemed unafraid of messy situations.
Here, we need to recall some recent history – in 2001 we had the major World Conference Against Racism, WCAR, in Durban, and though this seems like the recent past, we must remember this was before social media. Not everyone had an email or even mobile handsets. While the Dalits, led by the NGOs, mobilised to say casteism is like racism at this United Nations forum, the Indian state and its intelligentsia opposed this on nationalist and even ‘social scientific’ grounds. Scholars like Andre Beteille and Dipankar Gupta were pitted against Kancha Ilaiah, Gail Omvedt and Chandra Bhan Prasad. Back then the silence of public intellectuals like Arundhati was disturbing (and the more disturbing thing is we have so few public intellectuals of pan-Indian stature who take on the state on what are called ‘nationalist’ and ‘sensitive’ issues). How and why do they not engage with caste and untouchability was a question a lot of Dalit friends and I would ask ourselves. And we had a particular expectation from someone of Arundhati’s temperament.
The failure of the Dalit caucus at Durban also showed us how little the rest of the world really knew or cared about caste and Dalit issues – and how little even non-Dalits in India cared. One quote by Ambedkar, from 1942, has always stayed with me, where he says, ‘Ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality.’ You see how he uses a universal language even when speaking of a particular struggle.
Now, the human personality of non-Dalits also needs work. It was important to do something in the English language and reach out – Navayana was born also of this need. From the beginning I strongly felt non-Dalits needed to read about and engage with caste. Caste is not going to go if only Dalits are against it. Non-Dalits too need to realise that they have a stake in losing the chains of caste. Books of course are only one means. To me reading and engaging with Ambedkar is a step towards this. Once you read Ambedkar or Phule with a clear head – and then go back to Kabir, the Buddha, the Ajivaka thinkers. – you cannot simply be with caste any longer. The point is you need to allow Ambedkar to appropriate you.