A publishing house that is translating Dalit writers’ works into English
Translating is a specialised job, but Maitreya isn’t limited by the idea of setting high standards in translation. He rejects it as ‘extremely casteist’
When Yogesh Maitreya discovered the works of noted contemporary Marathi poet Loknath Yashwant in 2013, he was struck by the simplicity of the poetry and its underlying dark humour. It strengthened Maitreya’s belief that a lot of powerful writing from the Dalit community remained invisible in the mainstream because the works had not been translated into English. In 2016, Maitreya launched Panther’s Paw Publications and in the three years since, he has published seven titles under the label, which are either original works in English or English translations of works by writers and poets from the community. This also includes a compilation of Yashwant’s poetry, translated by K Jamanadas and Maitreya, titled Broken Man : In Search of Homeland (2019).
The publishing house brings out its eighth title this month, a collection of stories by Maitreya, titled Flowers on the Grave of Caste. Written mostly from the perspective of a first-generation Dalit student who goes to study at elite English-medium educational institutions, it weaves real life with magic realism.
The 33-year-old is one of the few Dalits in English publishing, which has remained an upper-caste preserve. “When I launched Panther’s Paw Publications, I was aware that my work will be niche. I also knew that with my limited resources — I am merely a student (at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences) — I would have to be the one man running the show,” Maitreya says.
Born in Nagpur, Maitreya’s journey to Mumbai and into publishing was a long-winded one. He says he grew up unaware of the importance of BR Ambedkar to his own community. And while he came from modest means, Maitreya had not experienced oppression. “I was going about life, quite unaware of the realities of caste,” Maitreya says.
“I dropped out of college in the first year to take up odd jobs. Then, drawn by the hippie lifestyle, I joined a Buddhist order started by a British man, and left for a monastery some 50-odd km from Nagpur. I spent three years there. I would get food, could spend time amidst nature doing nothing. They had a library and I started to read. That is when I discovered Ambedkar. But that wasn’t my awakening either,” he says. He left the order and returned to Nagpur to study English literature. It wasn’t until a Marathi teacher thrust books by Marathi writers into his hands, insisting he “read everything”, that Maitreya was introduced to Dalit literature.
“Before that, I would attempt to write. But my stories lacked rooted characters because I was unaware of our history,” he says. He started to discover writers such as Namdeo Dhasal, Baburao Bagul and Yashwant. “I realised the diversity of style that exists within our own community. If Dhasal’s writing was revolutionary, Bagul had a quiet rage; Shankkarrao Kharat wrote in an empathetic way. But there was no one introducing these writers to readers beyond Maharashtra,” he explains.
That is when he realised the need to start Panther’s Paw. “It is historically understood that those in power control the narrative. The same has been with Dalits for centuries. Whenever one of us has managed to write our story — autobiography, poetry or fiction — the audience has remained limited to his or her native language. For example, I truly believe that Dhasal would have been an internationally renowned poet had a larger body of his work been widely translated,” Maitreya says.
Panther’s Paw, he says, replaces the need for a big publishing house to “discover” writers like Dhasal. “The publishing business relies heavily on the agent. But the agent is not free of his or her social and caste location. What they may consider ‘palatable’ will come from their own conditioning,” he says.
Unlike other publishing houses that focus on Dalit literature, Panther’s Paw, Maitreya says, solely focusses on publishing writers from the Dalit community. “We will not publish a Savarna writer’s anti-caste work. Here, we have a Dalit publisher only looking to publish Dalit narratives.”
Maitreya had launched the publishing house with the English translations of JV Pawar’s five-volume writing on Ambedkar in Marathi. Pawar is an author, poet and co-founder of the Dalit Panther movement. “Most academia relies on the understanding of Ambedkar and Dalits through Savarna writing. But here is a scholar who spent his entire life studying caste and Ambedkar,” says Maitreya.
With limited finances, each book is a challenge. “I print limited copies, mostly no more than 300-500. With Pawar or Yashwant, I knew their works would sell because they are both well-known. But, usually, I print about 100 copies for sale on online platforms whereas another 200 are kept for sale through events and circulation. In all, I make sure my cost does not exceed Rs 70,000.” Most of this amount is collected through sales of other titles or via crowdfunding. Maitreya’s hostel room at TISS doubles as his workspace and warehouse.
Translating is a specialised job, but Maitreya isn’t limited by the idea of setting high standards in translation. He rejects it as “extremely casteist”. “In terms of Dalit literature, the linguistic framework is not important. What we may lose in terms of translation, we gain in communicating our stories,” he says.
He recounts an instance of a student from Manipal University, who translated Maitreya’s poetry to Kannada. “He did so without my knowledge. When I asked him what made him do it, he said he was translating my words because they could express what he personally could not articulate. We do not always write for literary reasons. To us, it is an expression of our stories, our history, which, for long, have been ignored,” he says.