IT’S THE SORT OF PLACE you won’t find unless you are looking for it. And even if you could locate the address in Hardevpuri near Shahdara, an eastern suburb of Delhi, you wouldn’t know where to knock. No signboard directs passersby to Gautam Book Centre. “A signboard will attract the attention of those who don’t like our books,” explains AK Gautam, the owner. These are not books of pornography or by an underground militia. These are books about caste.
AK Gautam’s father, SS Gautam, has no memories of caste discrimination in the UP district of Baghpat where he grew up, or in the Indian Army, where he was a havaldar in the 1970s and 80s. It wasn’t until the senior Gautam took early retirement in 1990 and moved to Delhi, where he took a government job, that he began to feel the effects of his caste. “In a government office they discriminate against a Dalit in such a way as to tell you that you are worthless.” 1991 marked the birth centenary of Dr BR Ambedkar, an occasion that worked to catalyse the Dalit movement nationally. In 1992, Gautam met a Marathi Dalit professor who, aside from teaching, hosted a radio show and sold books at the Parliament Street celebrations for Ambedkar’s birthday. “I thought one man shouldn’t do so much work, we should share it.” And so in 1994 Gautam Book Centre was born—and would soon become a part of AK Gautam’s life as well.
The father and son pair collected hundreds of catalogues from publishers and booksellers across the country and ordered every book on caste and Ambedkar they could find. “In those days such books weren’t so easily available as they are now,” says Gautam junior. Word quickly spread about the book centre, and soon anything published on caste could be found on the tables and shelves of their store in Hardevpuri.