One of the poems in Yogesh Maitreya’s collection of poetry, The Bridge of Migration , is titled ‘Proof of Merit’. The short poem, about handlers of carcasses who write beautiful poems and stories when given an opportunity, resounds like a thunderclap in the midst of this continuing debate about merit and reservations that we have in our deeply casteist society.
Started to write
They wrote poems
Of their lives.
Maitreya’s poems are simple, just like this one. Bereft of tropes that one usually associates with poetry, Maitreya’s poems often come across as just a collection of words. However, the feeling of indignation and a desire to rise against the odds cannot be missed in the simple, seemingly unpoetic verse.
The varna or caste system leaves the job of clearing carcasses to those who don’t belong even to the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy. While the Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes are relatively sharply defined, the fourth rung, the Shudras, are further divided into sub-castes — so that ‘Shudra’ might perhaps be called a group of castes and not a caste.
Consider this: among the Brahmins, a Dubey can marry a Choubey and a Mishra can marry a Pandey; among the Kshatriyas, a Singh can marry a Thakur. But among the Shudras, a Yadav cannot marry a Mahato and a Pramanik cannot marry a Mandal. This should give a hint of how the caste system allows the Savarnas to place themselves in exclusive coteries where they can have relationships with others of their kind and exploit their oneness to their advantage, but the Shudras have almost no scope of interacting with other Shudras because the caste system further sub-divides them. A Pandey is only a Brahmin, but a Pramanik is a Shudra as well as someone from the barber caste. This is perhaps where the importance of the term ‘Bahujan’ — literally meaning ‘the majority of people’ — as opposed to ‘Savarna’ can be seen.
The fifth caste
The castes that clear carcasses don’t feature in these four main castes. The removers of carcasses have always been treated as ‘impure’ and ‘untouchable’ by the four castes, and these ‘untouchables’ have not really been a part of the Hindu-Brahmini Dharma or their caste system, even though the proponents of the system have called them ‘Atishudra’ (inferior than even the Shudras) and the pancham varna or the fifth caste — the rank fifth denoting that the caste system places the untouchables in a far worse position than the Shudras.
I am writing this piece in Jharkhand, where it is the task of the Dom caste to clear carcasses. Historically, Doms have been treated as impure. However, with changing times, these ‘impure’ people have, through education and opportunities, risen up in life and earned a relatively respectable place for themselves.
Today, Dom is one of the Scheduled Castes (SC) in India, while the Dom people, along with other oppressed people generally on the bottom tiers of the caste ladder, have come to be known by the politically heavy term Dalit . Dalit includes not only those castes which were once untouchables or which are included today in the SC, but also those castes which were called Shudra earlier and which may, in the present time, be included in the Backward Castes (BC) or the Other Backward Castes (OBC). Despite all of them being Dalit, the BC and the OBC members might still treat former untouchables or other SCs as inferior or even untouchable — this should not come as a surprise.
Dom people have traditionally lived in ghettoes marked exclusively for them. People higher up on the caste system — even those from the BC and the OBC, who might be called Dalit — do not live in these ghettoes, which are traditionally considered impure and untouchable. The ghettoes are called basti , and because Gandhi has had such an influence on our society and because Gandhi called Untouchables “Harijans” (people of god), these ghettoes came to be known as Harijan basti .
On the periphery
There was a Harijan basti in Ghatsila, my hometown, whose residents were employed as the sanitation staff in the nearby copper company. Cleaning drains and toilets and afterbirth in the company hospital’s labour room were tasks that people of other castes would just not do. In Chandil, where I now work and live, there is a Dom basti : Dom Para. Since the name sounds too indicative of the caste and our society practises caste discrimination but does not like to talk about caste, many people — including some Doms too — prefer to call the Dom Para by a moderate-sounding name, Kalindi Para, Kalindi being a common surname for people of the Dom caste in this part of Jharkhand.
The discrimination they have faced down the ages might have suppressed the voice of the Dom people; but now, they are a vocal and assertive lot. They demand what is due to them, and despite being aware of their precarious position, are not too afraid or intimidated. Their power is particularly visible during the elections when politicians distribute blankets in the Dom Para — their numbers make the Doms a formidable vote bank. The point, however, is that the Untouchables have always been excluded, placed in isolation, on the periphery.
Maitreya grew up in one such basti in Nagpur in Maharashtra. Nagpur is an interesting place. Apart from being the second capital of Maharashtra and famous for its oranges, it is Nagpur’s religious and socio-political position that is noteworthy. This is where the right-wing, Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was founded in 1925. Nagpur is where the Dalit Buddhist movement (the Navayana or the Neo-Buddhist movement) was started in 1956, when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism, rejecting Hinduism and its caste system.
Dignity of labour
Maitreya was born Yogesh Suresh Wanjari in a Buddhist family in Nagpur. Theoretically, as a Buddhist, he should have had no caste. But his forefathers were Hindus who had converted, in 1956 with Ambedkar, to Buddhism, and, like Ambedkar, Maitreya’s forefathers too belonged to the Mahar caste. Mahars were Untouchables, and are today categorised as SC, “and since we live in… a caste society,” Maitreya told me over email, “and since… Mahars converted to Buddhism as a movement, the society still sees us as Mahars or untouchable.”
A basti might denote segregation but living in a basti with others of the same caste ensured that Maitreya’s interaction with the other castes — read: non-Dalit — was minimal and, hence, as a child, he did not face caste discrimination. He grew up hearing from the people in his basti that they were Buddhist and Ambedkar’s people; hence, ‘caste’ was a word he was not aware of for a long time.
Also, the residents of Maitreya’s basti were known for what he calls “their militant attitude and fury”. Several residents from Maitreya’s basti were government employees, financially independent and secure. Therefore, despite the existence of higher castes like Brahmins and Kunbis, which have been included among OBCs, around their basti , there was never, in Maitreya’s memory, any incident of “caste conflict in the direct manner”. Maitreya first confronted caste when he had to collect his post-matric scholarship. That was when he had to get a caste certificate made, which said that he belonged to the Mahar caste and was an SC.
Maitreya’s childhood was beset with financial difficulties. His father worked as a driver. When the family’s financial crisis deepened, his mother started to work as a domestic help, something she does even now. Her children today ask her to stop working in other people’s houses, but Maitreya’s mother refuses. “You work for yourself,” Maitreya recalls his mother telling him, “I too should work for myself as long as I can.” Maitreya believes that people who labour and earn have a strong sense of dignity and that, perhaps, is why his mother continues to work.
Buddha of friendship
Maitreya had to discontinue studies for five years after his Class X board exam, during which time he worked to support himself. It was only later that he was able to return to studies and complete Class XII. Even after that, he had to work for another year before college. It was during this time that Maitreya realised that for a person like him with no social capital, sustaining oneself materially and intellectually was very important. Realising the importance of money and education, Maitreya focussed on education.
Today, Maitreya is a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, which he joined in 2013 as a post-graduate student. As a poet and writer, Maitreya is known by his pen name; a name he adopted long ago, in 2008. For a brief period, Maitreya had been in contact with a Buddhist order whose approach to Buddhism was totally spiritual with no social pursuit. Maitreya Buddha is believed to be the Buddha of a future time, who will be born as a symbol of friendship. Maitreya does not believe in the story of Maitreya Buddha any longer, but he liked the concept of Maitreya Buddha so much that he decided to adopt Maitreya as his name even before he had actually written anything.
It was at TISS that the idea of creating Panther’s Paw Publications came to him. Maitreya says: “I have seen that the history and stories of my community have always been that of victims. From where I come, I have not seen my community as a victim, but a community of militant people.” Maitreya could not relate to the Dalit texts that he was tasked with reading at TISS.
When he read the first volume of J.V. Pawar’s writings on the Post-Ambedkar Ambedkarite Movement — written originally in Marathi — he realised that the history of Dalits was different from what was taught in institutes like TISS where the medium of instruction is English.
Learning from observation
That was when he decided to translate into English the writings of Pawar, who was one of the founding members of the Dalit Panthers. Once the translation was done, the question was who would publish it. Maitreya decided to publish the work himself. He had no experience and no knowledge about publishing, so he decided to learn from observation. The people who helped make Panther’s Paw Publications possible were mostly Buddhists, Ambedkarites and a few Savarnas with an anti-caste vision.
Someone directed Maitreya to a printer-cum-publisher — an enterprise run by a Savarna — in Prabhadevi, Mumbai. Maitreya says: “Most of the people running this press were Communists. I got a chance to see the publication process closely... I started visiting the press often and learnt about paper varieties, size, cover page quality, production cost, etc.”
Maitreya decided to name his publishing house Panther’s Paw Publications after the Dalit Panthers — who were writers, poets, intellectuals, and later leaders. Panther’s Paw, in Maitreya’s words, is an independent, anti-caste publishing house that aims to follow the footprints of the Dalit Panthers and is a part of the larger Dalit movement and not merely a business organisation. With its main office in Nagpur, Maitreya’s hometown, Panther’s Paw Publications published its first title in 2016, Ambedkarite Movement After Ambedkar by J.V. Pawar, translated from Marathi by Maitreya. Today, it is coming out with its seventh title, Sangeeta Mulay’s Savitribai Phule and I, the story of a Dalit girl who goes from a village to the city to study in an engineering college.
Its main office is in Nagpur but the publication house is run, almost single-handedly, by Maitreya from his hostel room at TISS. Maitreya chooses which books to publish. He talks to authors for their consent and, once published, he gives the authors copies of their books as their share. Being part of the larger Dalit movement, the enterprise relies on public contributions in the form of subscriptions, and any profit it makes goes into printing and publishing more books. Panther’s Paw does not follow the conventional trajectory of contracts, royalties, etc., and started giving copies to reviewers only as late as 2019, by which time it had already published four titles.
Care and attention
In no way does Panther’s Paw compromise on the production quality. Every title it has published — starting with the first till the latest, Flowers on the Grave of Caste , a collection of short stories by Maitreya — has a catchy and intriguing cover. In fact, its third book, Broken Man: In Search of Homeland , a collection of poems by Loknath Yashwant, translated from Marathi to English by Dr. K. Jamanadas and Maitreya, has on its cover a black and white photograph by renowned photojournalist Sudharak Olwe, who is a Dalit and a founder of Photography Promotion Trust (PPT), which — according to its website — is “a non-profit organisation that uses the skills of photography to create definitive change in the lives of socially marginalised communities and promotes social documentary photography.”
The paper quality and even the fonts used in Panther’s Paw books are on a par with that of books published by mainstream publishers — which Maitreya prefers to call ‘Savarna publishers’ — testifying to the care and attention Maitreya puts in. In The Bridge of Migration , there is a poem titled ‘Dilemma’. It is about language.
My father sang to me
In a language his father taught him
Hence, in it, his rage had clarity
His love was sublime.
But I grew up much greedy
I wrote in English and kept on writing;
Later father’s words turned voiceless to me
I turned deaf to his song, I grew up mean.
Today, I imagine
If I have a son or a daughter,
What song shall I sing to them?
Precisely, in what language shall I sing?
Just as in this poem, Maitreya was faced with the question of which language Panther’s Paw Publications would publish in. He decided on English — both original works in English as well as translations from bhasha into English — and Maitreya has a reason for this. “In our native languages,” Maitreya says, “Dalit literature has been written for many decades, but there is a dire need that it is also written in English language as — [in English, in the hands of the upper castes] our history, our stories, and the idea of our community have been distorted and appropriated.”
Deconstructing caste notions
Maitreya doesn’t feel positive about the recent interest that mainstream publishers are showing in Dalit writers and Dalit writing. “Savarna publishers,” he says, “have chosen to publish Dalit books that were milestones long ago, and they are publishing Dalit writers who died years ago.” Panther’s Paw publishes Dalit writers who are still alive as, Maitreya believes, “it is very important for a Dalit writer to see the glory of his/ her work while still alive. It is recognition, opposite to rejection.”
Maitreya disapproves of Savarna publishers publishing non-Dalit writers writing on Dalit issues. He wants Panther’s Paw to represent Dalit history and life through Dalit voices alone. He says he will work with non-Dalit writers only if they write about their non-Dalit lives in a way in which their writing helps demolish and deconstruct caste notions.
Maitreya’s own writing is very personal — the alcoholic, Bollywood-buff father in his poem, ‘Choice’, in The Bridge of Migration can also be seen in his story, ‘The Sense of the Beginning’, in Flowers on the Grave of Caste . Yet, apart from that, the one thing that I noticed in his stories was that he did use capital D to spell Dalit. Usually, in writing, words like Dalit , Adivasi , Savarna , are spelt with capital letters. In Maitreya’s stories, Dalit always begins with a small d: dalit. About this, Maitreya says: “Dalit are human beings. They are not a special entity or species. They breathe, feel, comprehend, reason, and make sense of life just like any other human being. Spelling dalit with a capital D gives it a special look that forces us to see the dalit community differently. Hence, I choose to spell dalit with a small d.”
Panther’s Paw is a humanising effort whose journey has just begun. It does not have a website yet and spreads word about its work only through a Facebook page and through Maitreya’s personal Facebook account. However, when one sees the work Panther’s Paw is doing and the faith and earnestness of founder Maitreya, one can see the bigger movement it has started.
The writer’s new book is the novel , My Father’s Garden.