Sultan Singh Gautam is a publisher, writer and a bookshop owner. But he prefers to call himself a protester, and the books he publishes, writes and sells ‘protest literature’.
Gautam, 63, owns what is perhaps the country’s only bookshop that exclusively sells Dalit literature. Tucked away in a narrow lane in east Delhi’s Shahdara, the three-floor bookshop attracts customers from both India and abroad — mostly scholars and students studying caste dynamics in the country.
It all started when Gautam first visited the World Book Fair in 1992.
“I went from stall to stall collecting catalogues of various publishers looking for books on Dalit issues. I collected about 3,000 catalogues and realised that there were very few books published on the subject. The only place where you could get books on Dalits was Ambedkar Bhavan in the capital. I decided to change that,” says Gautam.
So, in 1994 he set up Gautam Book Center with a collection of about 100 books — all on Dalit issues. Gautam first started selling books from a stall at Parliament Street on Ambedkar Jayanti. “I collected books on Dalit issues from all across the country, and when I realised that the collection of my shop would not grow much, I decided to turn a publisher,” says Gautam. He has published over 500 titles so far on subjects related to Dalits. Gautam participates in all the book fairs across the country and also sells books at important community events.
He has himself written and edited about 25 books on Dalit issues. “All contemporary Dalit literature is an expression of anguish over the atrocities the community has faced and the scars it left on their psyche. The hallmark of Dalit literature is that Dalits are the protagonists, the heroes in these books, not some inconsequential characters,” says Gautam as he gives us a guided tour of his bookshop.
Each of the three floors of the shop has iron shelves crammed with all kinds of titles-novels, short stories, literary criticism, commentary, essays, etc. There are also books on Dalit leaders such as Kanshi Ram and Mayawati.
Among the bestsellers at his store are Annihilation of Caste and Who Were The Shudras by BR Ambedkar and Dalit Panther Andolan by Ajay Kumar, a well-known contemporary writer. He says the bookshop attracts scholars from as far away as the US, the UK, The Netherlands, Japan, etc.
“There is a whole new interest in subaltern studies all over the world. Books by Ambedkar are still the bestselling but a lot of young Dalit writers have arrived on the scene. Unlike their older generations, they have an excellent command over the language and terrific stories to tell. They are essentially exploring their roots through their books. They have taken Dalit literature to a whole new level,” says Gautam.
He says that another reason why he turned a publisher is that Hindi literary scene has been plagued by nepotism and Dalit writers were finding it difficult to get published by mainstream publishers. “The fact is most Hindi literature has been divorced from reality. It is all about myth-making,” he says.
Gautam points out that the literature of protest that he is promoting has a lot of relevance even now. “In the old times, Dalits faced ‘unseeability’ (even the sight of a Dalit was to be avoided), then it became untouchability and now it is unacceptability,” says Gautam, who is often invited to speak at various Dalit forums.
His private collection at his home, situated not far from his shop, has hundreds of books — books on what he calls ‘black literature’, old editions of Dalit newspapers and periodicals such as Mook Nayak, Bahishkrit Bharat brought out by Dr Ambedkar and papers pertaining to various Scheduled Caste Commissions, all neatly packed in polythene sheets.
He says that the readership of Dalit literature is growing fast and a lot of educated Dalit youngsters have personal libraries.
“There is this burning desire among them to explore their roots through books,” he says.“I am here to help them in this quest.”