March 22, 2020

Until March 22, 2020, I was reluctant to shift back to my hometown, Nagpur. Home to me was my hostel room (D-305) in Tata Institute of Social Sciences’s campus in Mumbai. A notice had just been circulated to vacate the hostel in the campus for a week, and many students had already left for their homes across India, their belongings stashed into backpacks. The reason was Covid-19.

I did not want to think about the gravity of the situation and was reluctant to go back home. If all I had were a few clothes and books, I would have left, and travel would have not been a problem. But I was not alone: I had a personal collection of 600 books. They were stashed into an almirah; my clothes always remained on a chair or hanging on the wall.

I also had about 1000 copies of books published by Panther’s Paw Publication, stocked in 6 cartons. The cartons lay by my bed and chair. It was my warehouse, the chair and table on which I worked for my PhD was my work-station. The laptop which I had borrowed from my girlfriend was my virtual office.

This room, to be precise, a corner of that room (since the room was shared by two other students) was the place from which I had been running Panther’s Paw Publication for the last three years. With the pandemic, I found my carefully organised work process from conceiving-to-publishing-to-distributing books disrupted overnight. I was not prepared for this. As the notice was being circulated, pushing us to leave the hostel, I realised that I too would have to leave my room.

My girlfriend, who had already reached home, pushed me to leave TISS. I was sceptical. I resisted her urging. She explained to me what a pandemic is. But what would I do with my books? The trains had stopped running on 22 March, 2020 and I couldn’t carry the cartons with me. My girlfriend said I had to leave the place for good.

She booked a flight ticket for me for 23 March, 2020 (I am yet to repay her for the fare). From midnight 23 March, flights too came to a halt. So on March 22, I had a few hours with me to shift my books: my labour, my struggle, my vision and my memories, to a safe place.

Frantic, I phoned a friend who stayed in Navi Mumbai. I told him I needed to a place to store my books until I returned to Mumbai next. He agreed at once. I booked an Ola, packed all 6 cartons properly, shifted them from the third floor to the ground floor of my hostel where the Ola pickup was waiting, and left for my friend’s place. There I unloaded the cartons and took them up the stairs to his apartment one at a time.

Exhausted and breathless, I stood outside his door for a few minutes before I rang the bell. “Arey, you could have called us downstairs”, he said. I just smiled. I did not want to be a burden. I shifted the cartons to his room and finally relaxed. Over dinner and drinks, we tried to make sense of the COVID-19 situation and speculated that it wouldn’t last more than a month. My own speculation was fifteen days or twenty days.

Two of Panther's Paw's titles

Who knew that it would take months, maybe a year, before I could return to the place, Mumbai, where Panther’s Paw was first conceived, took roots and started its journey, so naively, in the vast sea of publishing.

Seven years ago when I left Nagpur for Mumbai, I wanted to be a writer, not a publisher, but I realised that in order to be a writer I had to also be a publisher of Dalit literature in English. Dalit literature is a movement, its writers and its publishers its soldiers, and I could not see writing and publishing as different tasks. As I started publishing, my vision about its politics and importance became clearer.

With my forceful exit from Mumbai, I saw a bleak future for Panther’s Paw. I felt unready. Alongside a few books for my personal reading, I picked up 30 copies of Flowers on the Grave of Caste and 30 copies of Savitribai Phule and I (books which Panther’s Paw published recently) and left for Nagpur.

March 23, 2020

I reached Nagpur around 5 pm. The pace of human activities had changed; the fear in the air was palpable. I opened the Ola app, but it showed rides were unavailable. Uber too had stopped its services, abiding with government decisions. There were private vehicles around the airport. I got one but it charged me double the usual amount. I had no choice so I paid.

Now, I too started feeling anxious and it became more intense when I thought of those three/four books which I had planned and scheduled to publish in the next few months. The lockdown, which was first announced on March 23, kept extending; simultaneously the cases for COVID-19 were on the rise.

The NMC Commissioner of Nagpur kept the city under strict discipline to curb the number of cases. Like all other parts of India, Nagpur too came to a standstill. The news from Mumbai was increasingly disturbing, making the idea of return any time soon almost impossible. For almost two and a half months, there was no book order, no delivery service available.

I was running out of savings. I worked on a couple of things I’d been commissioned to write, but the payment was delayed due to lockdown. I finished all the books I had carried home for personal reading. I had no stationery, no new books to read.

For a publisher like me, no one in whose family has had anything to do with literature, let alone publishing, for centuries, I realised that I must stick it out against all odds especially at this time. Many publishers have found themselves in the same situation, but it was a particularly dire time for a publisher whose publication focuses on a particular ideology.

For me those 80 days of lockdown were very stressful and left me dealing with a situation I had never imagined I would find myself in. Yet, as a publisher, the lockdown was also a chance to reassess my own work and plan towards my future in publishing.

The launch of 'Days Will Come Back' in Pune.

As a publisher, it is important to think about your readers. As has been very clear with each passing day, the financial situation of people has kept worsening. Will they buy books in such a situation? But I also thought, if I have to publish more books, then I will also have to sell books, and make enough money to publish more books which are in pipeline; there was no other way. Without any earnings, I was now in negative growth.

Only one title from Panther’s Paw Publication is listed and available on Amazon. It sells two or three copies a month. You can well imagine the returns. Besides this, I have distributed my books through People’s Book House, Mumbai (they always pay after six months and do not keep more than ten copies of a book; I gave them some copies in November 2019 and they are yet to pay for them).

I have also sent some books to Aakruti Books in Bangalore and to Mayday Bookstore, Delhi. Apart from these, Panther’s Paw Publication has no distribution mechanism or avenues to sell books. In addition, reading as a habit has been on a decline in India.

The story of the foundation of Panther’s Paw Publication appeared in two major print newspapers and one or two electronic platforms. Besides this, it did not really have a presence. Being the only full time staff at the publication, I had to figure out a way to keep Panther’s Paw alive and sustainable. I must increase my presence among people, aggressively, I thought. Desperate and determined to survive, I decided to make an appeal to buy books on social media.

July 11, 2020

As the postal service resumed, I asked my friend in Mumbai, at whose place I had kept all my books, to send me fifty copies of We The Rejected People of India, our latest title. They took ten days to reach and cost around 800 rupees to send. At home, I had fifty copies of Ambedkarite Movement After Ambedkar, our first title, which I had carried with me when I came home in 2016.

Around thirty copies of Flowers on the Grave of Caste and Savitribai Phule and I had been ordered before the lockdown began. I despatched them as soon as postal service resumed in April. Now, only a few copies of Flowers on the Grave of Caste and Savitribai Phule and I were left. So, I had around 128 copies of four titles with me to sell. But how?

I prepared a writeup of the titles and appealed to my online followers to buy the remaining copies to help my publishing house survive. I posted it on my Facebook wall, on the Facebook page of the publication, on my Instagram feed and Instagram account of Panther’s Paw Publication. To my surprise, I managed to sell all the books in just two days.

But it took me a week to note down all the addresses, buy stationery to make parcels, wrap them, stick address labels on them, and dispatch them. It took me seven days to fulfil the orders. Every day, I would give some ten parcels to my sister – a practising lawyer in Nagpur, she also works for a law firm – whose office is near the post office.

Every day she went to the post office during her break and despatched the books for me, which is how I fulfilled those orders. Selling those 128 books meant that now I have money to print my next book, and my expenditure for a month is taken care of. I am still uncertain about the months to come, and how I will print books in future. But at least I have taken the first step.

Notes on myself as a publisher during Pandemic

I am a Dalit (not a fact that I wish to emphasise, but I want to make my position clear as a publisher). I am a first generation university-goer in my family, the first person to get a doctorate. I have been working in English language publishing for four years now and I know what it means to publish stories, especially those which were deliberately erased from public consciousness.

I also understand the implications and repercussions of this. I am driven by an objective, a vision at whose end there is a society, reasonably equal, liberal without causing harm, and mutually fraternal. To bring about such a society other people must start sharing your vision of the society you want to create. To achieve this, what can be better than the path of writing, publishing and taking your stories to people?

Panther's Paw Publication's books at Trilogy Bookstore, Mumbai.

I published and distributed books in the absence of any social capital, and with no experience in publishing. But the pandemic pushed me further back, wrecking my financial situation. In a highly unequal society like India, Panther’s Paw Publication has very few friends. But this pandemic has made us realise the need for fraternity in dark times, and hope that more people will believe in our objectives and join us.

Panther’s Paw Publication is not merely a publication, it is a movement. If you believe that in order to create an equal, liberal and fraternal society, our stories need to be shared and heard, do reach out to us. Drop us an email at: pantherspawpublication@gmail.com. Or Whatsapp us on: 9987133931.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.