Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > Yogesh Maitreya: Choosing to live a life of the mind

Yogesh Maitreya: Choosing to live a life of the mind

Against all odds, Yogesh Maitreya stuck to his dream of becoming a writer. As his memoir comes out, he speaks of the need for ‘lots of Dalit literature’

What publisher-writer Yogesh Maitreya, 37, validates with this memoir is that “a life of the mind” can truly be one of meaning.
What publisher-writer Yogesh Maitreya, 37, validates with this memoir is that “a life of the mind” can truly be one of meaning.

Listen to this article

Yogesh Maitreya is aware that the force of his truth in incontrovertible. His poetry frequently reminds him of it. His prose, nurtured by both his poetic sensibility and his belief in his own truths, is quietly confident of this. This is just what shapes his memoir, Water In A Broken Pot. A journey of discovering one’s self and purpose through reading and writing, the book is also a slow processing of generational trauma as a Dalit and a feverish need to help others with similar experiences find some solace, company, and their way.

Yet, more than any of this, what Maitreya, 37, validates with this memoir is that “a life of the mind” can truly be one of meaning. In this respect, this memoir by the writer, translator and publisher of Panther’s Paw Publication, dedicated to publishing Dalit-Bahujan writers, would be especially empowering and inspiring for young people from socially and/or financially disadvantaged communities who are guilt-ed into abandoning their dreams and aspirations, whether by themselves or the system, or both. As Maitreya writes, “The learning was my wage, reading my labour.”

This, he backs throughout the course of this memoir, displaying raw honesty of his thoughts and doubts throughout, and therefore tracing the evolution of ideas and principles. This quality stands out especially when books, and excerpts of his notes and/or reviews of them, come up constantly: titles and authors are signposts on this journey, sometimes revisited and re-read only to lead him down another fork from their specific crossroad. The journey of his writing, too, is presented in a similar way, his practice, movingly and miraculously, offering him a discovery of himself. 

This becomes evident especially in one affecting statement that, in a way, resolves the dilemmas that bi/multilingual people in India who read English either by default or as aspiration, are faced with: the one of choosing between rootedness, reality, and responsibility. Maitreya contends with this at various points in the memoir, finally writing: “I accepted English as the language for my thoughts and imagination, but I ceased to see English as the language of my sensibilities”.

In conversation, he flags that it is still “a risk and not a privilege” for him to have chosen a career in writing. In the book, he accepts that following this dream was only possible because he walked the path of selfishness and seeming heartlessness. He is also consistently candid about the times he slacked or had been distracted. Clearly, he analyses his actions and inactions, both so crucial in any life.

Yet, his clarity does not come at the cost of passion. Maitreya’s memoir forms an arc over his life so far, from his childhood and to the pandemic. In 300-odd pages, he writes a dreamer’s portrait of his family and a son’s evolving relationship with it; as a Dalit student, he turns in a sharp yet insightful critique of the education system; he weaves in a realist’s intelligent and evolving thoughts on love. And he does all this even as he composes a Dalit activist’s mini-treatise on caste-based social hierarchies and status quo.

Maitreya’s reader will delight in his prose: a unique marriage of realism and gentle poesy. In this interview, he talks about a sweep of ideas from his book, all of which come under the umbrella of the strongest one: reading, writing and creating a Dalit discourse “that eventually disrupts the logic of the caste system”. Edited excerpts:

The idea of a commitment to reading and writing is evident in the book. At various points you say that what you read gave you revelatory clarity. There is the sense that writing reveals things when you revisit an experience years later. What does this say about the need for Dalit literature?

Basically, an untouchable, or as we now politically call them, Dalit, is prohibited from the intellectual life. This means, historically, there has been no way for the Dalit community to document their lives in a way that the other communities could. Also, any attempt to do that was also codified as a crime. This created a huge void between generations, to know, for example, what my grandfather’s generation was doing, what kind of language they were speaking, how they dealt with the Brahmins or the Britishers, what the local food was, what kind of experiences, painful or joyful, that generation had.

...a life of the mind can also mean that he (the person) remains free to choose his working hours, the extent of his production, and (with that) he will keep his dignity intact.

Our life was such that we did not have the privilege to sit and talk and discuss, there was no scope of sharing stories. Because this takes time—but our immediate reality is that we are working 18 hours a day (to make ends meet) and when people come back, they are so tired that they just eat or drink or sleep…. If you don’t share stories, you basically do not show your emotions or your feelings to your people. But they too are human beings like any other, and their life is a story. It took several generations for somebody to understand that.

As I mentioned in the book, our story is not about the few people who succeeded, it is also about those who lag behind and why they lag behind. It’s like because we were untouchable, we were not just untouched by physical touch, but also we remained untouched by the imagination of the other people. Because of this unverifiability of our history, (we do not realise that what we think of as an) individual experience or issue (could actually be the experience of) generations.

You say in the context of a lost love that “you grow up fast as a human when you cease to see your pain in isolation”. Given what you have just said, this seems to apply in your life, not only to love but also your understanding of your generational pain.

This is a line I came to when I was writing this book. It came as a revelation. If you don’t know the pain and struggle of your generations, of your mother and father, if you have never engaged in knowing your history, then you end up growing in a very individualistic sense and in a way that you see things in isolation. (Any discrimination you experience will, therefore, result in an) an inferiority complex.

But if you know (that a certain issue) is because of the caste system, which is the burden society has put on you, and that much of your pain is also shared by generations of people, you grow faster. You don’t want somebody else from the next generation to share this same pain caused by this unnecessary thing called caste. So, you start to grow faster in the sense that you want to work towards annihilating it.

Water in a Broken Pot: By Yogesh Maitreya, published by Penguin Random House India, 320 Pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
Water in a Broken Pot: By Yogesh Maitreya, published by Penguin Random House India, 320 Pages, 499

There’s a part where you say caste Hindus involved in Dalit atrocities tend to hate Dalits who pursue the life of the mind and refuse to live by caste rules. Why do you think this is?

Education, in the widest sense, equips you to start negotiating for dignity; then you start fighting for it. Once you start reading and writing, you are not dependent on anybody—but untouchability was also a means to make you dependent on the caste society for your existence. If, through education, we have asserted that we are no longer part of whatever bullshit structure you have, and that we will take care of ourselves…we are becoming free, right?

We become a threat to anyone who wants to enslave us in any way—socially, culturally, or for our livelihoods. The immediate operational cost of this for them is that they will not get free labour or foot soldiers. It threatens them because their existence will become more difficult and challenged.

In the broader context, however, by “life of the mind” I don’t just mean becoming a professor or scientist. Even a basket weaver could be in pursuit of a life of the mind—the skill it involves requires the mind, too. But also, a life of the mind can also mean that he remains free to choose his working hours, the extent of his production, and (with that) he will keep his dignity intact.

You write about going to the movies with your father as a child. At the time, cinema was used to escape the pain and drudgery of life But when you watched ‘Asuran’ in 2019, you felt it “transcended… the meaning of a brutal event”. You write that “for the first time, I experienced cinema as an integral part of my memory and not an imagination defeating my memories”. Later, ‘Fandry’ (2013) “came as a promise in my life, a promise to exist and to resist in order to exist”. What is it that art should aspire to in order to perform this healing function?

So, I think we (as artists) ought to keep interrogating of our own self, whether in history or in the present, and also explore our own inspirations for the future. If I start revolving around my own victimisation, I only end up creating stories around my victimisation. Today, “Dalit issues” have become fashionable only when everything revolves around violence and victimisation. We are, in a way, trapped in this idea of creating only one story. That is why I quote Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her talk on “the danger of a single story”.

We as a society are very much into the habit of feeling sadistic pleasure when it comes to violence and spectacle, more than visionary, positive, creative things. In my work, I am trying to bring out different things that will help me see myself in the wholeness of a reality. I don’t want to just see myself as a victim. 

In a way, your mother’s support for your efforts to find yourself—choosing to continue your education despite the struggles at home, spending time at a Buddhist retreat—is a privilege, despite the fact that you may today be looking at it with retrospective guilt and/or gratitude. How do you negotiate that feeling? Do you think this could have been afforded to a Dalit woman peer?

Yes, what she did helped me have that time. That privilege of not doing anything was because of her labour and the labour of my father.

Initially, we live our lives at the level of instinct, although we are not clear about our dreams or aspirations. So, I went to that retreat—imagine a 24-year-old just living, doing nothing, reading, just eating whatever they were giving, without doing any actual labour of contributing to the family, despite their need. It was irresponsible behaviour.... And I want to say that it is nobody’s duty to struggle…women in the oppressed communities are pushed into different roles than Dalit oppressed men.

And no, it would be very rare to find a Dalit woman (who was afforded that irresponsibility). That’s how patriarchy works.

You write that we all “carry the past in our bones”, that couples from mixed caste or race backgrounds ignore the fact that they will bear certain “psychological repercussions” because they have been shaped by “two opposite histories”. How can this be overcome? Can people from different social hierarchies and castes actually enter into a true friendship or really fall in love?

See, there can indeed be many love stories, across religion, caste, gender. What do we seek in love? It is an idea of home; a place where, regardless of where we go, we can come back to this space and sleep peacefully, or just be ourselves. Love is just seeking that (secure) space, in the presence of a person....

I think struggle is the only answer—an intellectual struggle that is never going to stop, at least for certain centuries. If two people come with the same vision, this struggle also becomes an educative experience, it creates lessons. Just inter-caste marriages won’t annihilate caste. They are just disruptions. This fear or insecurity, or the kind of entitlement, this won’t go very easily. Ultimately, we live in a society where caste is the major reality—so the only answer is struggle and continuous interrogation.

Over generations?

Yes. And for this to happen, we need lots of literature that talks about these things. Especially in India, there are very, very few books on the psychology of relationships… And if you keep creating literature (with this in mind), it will bring some changes because it will offer some understanding, some kind of evidence to the future generations about how stupid this thing called caste is. It was stupid then and it is stupid now—and finally, somebody will think, “do we have to continue this stupidity?

Next Story