Passion Unlimited

A father-son pair takes literature on caste to a new level

AK Gautam inside his bookstore in Hardevpuri. SHIVAM VIJ FOR THE CARAVAN
01 September, 2011

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.

As they started to take their bookstalls to exhibitions, book fairs and events across the country—they have attended 2,500 such gatherings to date—their customer base expanded from Ambedkarite activists to scholars, Eleanor Zelliot, Gail Omvedt and Sukhdeo Thorat amongst them. While the son sold books, the father began reading them. He discovered how, for instance, his own caste, Jatavs (formerly ‘Chamars’), can be classified into 1,155 sub-divisions. “The man who pulls the dead animal won’t skin it, the one who skins it won’t tan it into leather, the one who tans it won’t make a shoe, the one who makes shoes is different from one who mends it!” says Gautam. If you visit him, he will very likely guess your caste and tell you more about it than you are likely to know. And if he likes you, he will take you inside his home where, packed floor to ceiling in a very small room, he keeps a private collection of books.

Gautam Book Centre is now a publisher as well—mostly of Hindi books. Amongst them is a book written by SS Gautam on sayings about various castes from different Indian languages. He collected nine such books of Indian sayings to flesh out his anthology. During the process of collecting the sayings, he found an inordinate number of insults against women, which he compiled into a separate volume to make apparent the intersections between understandings of gender and caste. “Caste is the axis of Indian society,” he says. And it remains the axis around which Gautam and son revolve as well.