Bringing India's castes to book

A Delhi publisher is challenging the way people accept a racist caste system

The Age
Saturday, June 30, 2007

By Amrit Dhillon

As a child growing up in south India, S. Anand knew only the rigidly orthodox world of Tamil Brahmins (known as "Tam Bams").

His grandmother imposed strict caste rules: non-Brahmins were not allowed in the kitchen or at the dining table and they could not to use the same dishes as the family.

"I was like a frog in a well. I knew nothing outside my community. I did not mix with other castes. My grandmother wanted me to take my own plate to the dining hall at university because non-Brahmin meat eaters might have eaten off the same plate!" he says, in his office in Saket, a Delhi suburb.

Later, as a journalist, Mr Anand, 33, was struck by media indifference towards the massacres of low caste Indians -- known as "dalits", formerly called "untouchables".

His fellow journalists, on hearing about dalit women being paraded naked through villages before being raped and burnt -- would merely shrug as though to say "what's new?" If reported at all, the killings usually ended up as news in brief.

Now, Mr Anand is India's only publisher devoted exclusively to books on caste. His company, Navayana, won the British Council's international young publisher of the year award in April for his pioneering work.

Mr Anand works with his friend and co-publisher Ravi Kumar on filling the gap they detected in the the market. One in six Indians is dalit but books by dalits or on dalit issues are few.

"Mainstream publishers either published nothing on caste or stuck to only one genre -- autobiographies by dalits of their terrible experiences," says Mr Anand. "We wanted to change the way people think about caste and create a certain atmosphere of debate where caste issues are given due importance."

Navayana publishes provocative titles such as Dalit Diary: Reflections on Apartheid in India by the country's only dalit columnist, Chandra Bhan Prasad. Other publications are India Stinking, about dalits who remove excrement from people's homes, and Brahmins and Cricket (by Mr Anand himself) on why Brahmins dominate Indian cricket.

A forthcoming title is an illustrated book for schoolchildren, aimed at catching them young, before their prejudices crystallise.

The book, Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land, conveys the dignity of manual labour in a country where it is despised due to the caste system's division between physical and mental labour. Hindus have traditionally looked down on manual workers such as barbers, weavers, cobblers, carpenters, gardeners and potters -- all dalits.

The upper castes do not get their hands dirty. They perform mental work as priests, scholars or traders.

The book tries to show children that weaving cotton or tanning leather are important skills and should not be disrespected. Mr Anand is pleased that some schools have shown an interest in buying the book.

Dalit groups are trying to persuade the UN to recognise the caste system as a form of racism or apartheid. "It would shame India on the world stage," Mr Anand says. "The Government insists that caste is an internal matter. But if the global community recognised it as racism, India could be asked to account for its treatment of dalits."

The dalit argument equating caste with racism rests on the segregation that is a feature of village life. Dalits are forced to live in separate areas, banned from drawing water from the well, and forbidden to enter temples.

"If that isn't segregation, what is?" Mr Anand asks.