Caste, the dirty C word everyone is too afraid to mention, but a societal construct embedded deeply within all our minds. One may argue the issues regarding this societal construct has existed since the inception of human civilization. However, we seldom acknowledge that just because something has existed for the longest time doesn’t necessarily mean it should not change. Stagnation in our thought processes allows for the flourishment of toxic ideologies.
Post the devastating Hathras rape case that shattered most of our faith in humanity, our minds were provoked to reassess and introspect this serpent that slithers in our society: caste. The uproar of people denouncing caste and its fatal impacts on the less privileged people of our country often gets muffled and forgotten as time passes and we delude ourselves that our hoarse voices have invoked some sort of change. But the truth of the matter is that change is a constant battle and the grueling nature of it is what makes most of us give up halfway. What’s left is just a small echo of the less privileged relentlessly fighting every day for the change to occur. The issue of caste is a battle that has been fought for eons in India and like many civil movements, this too only sadly gets remembered in spotlights.
Yogesh Maitreya, the founder of Panther’s Paw, an anti-caste publishing house, holds the beacon of hope that literary works can be used to dismantle the rigid notions of caste and the discriminatory actions that follow. His primary focus is on Dalit narratives. Stories about the Dalit community told by the community. He feels that “it is particularly important for a Dalit writer to see the glory of one’s work while still alive. It’s recognition instead of rejection.” Panther’s Paw aims to emulate the spirit of the Dalit Panthers and is part of a larger societal movement and not solely a means of commercial business.
This very zeal for bringing to light forgotten or unheard-of narratives is what began his love affair with ‘Savitribai Phule and I’, a children’s book written by Sangeeta Mulay and published by Panther’s Paw. When asked what appealed to him about Sangeeta Mulay’s rendition of Savitiribai’s story, Maitreya responds with “In English, Savitribai Phule is not a popular imagination. Not in fiction and not in non-fiction narratives. When I read the manuscript by Sangeeta Mulay, I was amazed by the simplicity of the story but at the same time its significance as a story for women in India. I immediately realised that I must publish this book as soon as possible and so I did.”
Mulay echoes this admiration for the formidable force that was Savitribai Phule, “Despite making such an important contribution to girls’ education, Savitribai Phule has not been given her due. The fact that a large section of the Indian population remains unaware of her contributions constantly nagged me. The sheer gumption with which this remarkable lady went about with her mission to educate girls needs to be known by all. She needs to be recognized and celebrated.” Savitribai is a known name but very few people are aware of the profound effect she had on feminism, education, and especially the education of girls and people from backward classes. She was denied a formal education because of the caste she belonged to and fought till her last breath to ensure that everyone was granted an equal opportunity to access what was denied to her and she managed to do so by opening 18 schools throughout her lifetime.
Savitribai isn’t a name or a figure that should be stifled within a school’s history textbook. Throughout her life, Phule pioneered many important foundations and movements, all of which should be known and the values she instilled in them should be carried forward in our current society. “A majority of the privileged section of the Indian population remains largely unaware of the struggles of the deprived. I wanted them to understand and empathize with the struggles faced by many on several fronts, be it a lack of fluency in the English language, their caste, the color of their skin, or even their place of origin” Mulay laments.
Maitreya explains how “it is historically understood that those in power control the narrative. The same has been with Dalits for centuries. Whenever one of us has managed to write our story, autobiography, poetry, or fiction — the audience has remained limited to their own native language. For example, I truly believe that Namdeo Dhasal would have been an internationally renowned poet had a larger body of his work been widely translated.”
Panther’s Paw allows Dalit writers to retain agency over their narrative so that the authenticity isn’t lost. This eliminates the need for a large publishing house that would alter the narrative according to their own social conditioning. Mulay aims to put more diverse narratives out there too. With ‘Groggy Eyes’ her publishing house focuses on producing fun books for children around the themes of feminism, humanism, the environment, and diversity.
The fight for equality can only be fought when the stories are told by the people affected by the atrocities caused by discrimination. The power of an individual’s narrative is one that must be respected and it is time the microphone stops getting snatched from those whose voices have been suppressed for decades.
You can reach out to Yogesh Maitreya on the Panther’s Paw Publication Facebook page to purchase a copy of ‘Savitribai Phule and I’. The proceeds will help Maitreya sustain his homegrown publishing house and allow for more such diverse narratives to be published and heard by the world.