It is the sort of place you will not find unless you are looking for it. Even if you find the address in Hardevpuri near Shahdara, you will not know where to knock. There is no signboard that will tell you this is Gautam Book Center. “A signboard will attract the attention of those who don’t like our books,” explains AK Gautam.
These are not books of pornography or an underground militia. These are books on caste.
“I have no memories of caste discrimination in Baghpat where I grew up or in the army, where I was a havaldar,” says his father SS Gautam. But then the elder Gautam took an early retirement and came to Delhi, where he took up a government job. “In a government office they discriminate against a Dalit in such a way as to tell you that you are worthless.” That was incidentally the turn of a fortuitous decade. 1990 marked the birth centenary of Ambedkar, helping catalyse the Dalit movement. Gautam met a Marathi Dalit professor who taught, did a radio show and also sold books in the Parliament street celebrations on Ambedkar’s birthday in ’92.
“I thought one man shouldn’t do so much work, we should share it.” That’s how Gautam Book Center was born in ‘94, and became his son AK Gautam’s life.
They collected hundreds of catalogues from publishers and booksellers across the country and ordered all books on caste and Ambedkar. “In those days such books weren’t so easily available as they are now,” says Gautam junior. In no time the word spread and anything published on caste reaches the room in Hardevpuri as if on its own.
As they started to take their book stalls to exhibitions, book fairs and events across to country – they have held 2,500 such till date – scholars joined Ambedkarite activists as their clients, Eleanor Zelliot, Gail Omvedt and Sukhdeo Thorat amongst them. His son sold books, the elder Gautam began reading a lot. He discovered how, for instance, his own caste, Jatavs (formerly ‘Chamars’), have 1155 sub-divisions within them. “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 ask your caste and tell you more about it than you know. If he likes you, he will take you inside his home where a very small room is full of a private collection from floor to ceiling.
Gautam Book Center now publishes as well, mostly in Hindi. Among the publications is a book by SS Gautam himself, on sayings from different languages about different castes. He collected nine books of Indian sayings to cull out this collection on caste. Doing this, he realised there were too many insults against women in them, so he compiled one on women.
“Caste is the axis of Indian society,” he says. He’d like to see more research on upper castes now.
“How are they taking Dalit assertion? What about their own world of caste? That’s what nobody is researching.”
(First published in The Caravan.)