Merit and my middle finger

This is a cartoon of Dr. Ambedkar that I return to very frequently these days. In it, Dr. Ambedkar is making way for sweepers (I assume this is Eeran’s way of depicting Dalit people) to enter the parliament; and is holding a rolled up paper that says Constitution. We know he is Dr. Ambedkar because of these things, yes but also because we know those glasses, that endearing rotundness of the belly that in other more humane depictions – holds capacity for big, shattering laughter. What’s supposed to shock us is that he is wearing a janeu, carrying gomutra (?), and blessing a line of Brahmin men at his feet.

He is referred to as the modern manu in one place and ‘our new brahmin’ in another. 

Context – this illustration was published in Filmindia in 1950, a little after the Hindu Code Bill and twenty three years after the Mahad Satyagraha where Manusmriti was first publicly burnt. The depiction of Dr. Ambedkar as a brahmin here is to issue a threat. To brahmins, yes but they are threatened by everything so let’s not go there. 

The threat here is issued also to the other ‘real’ Dalits. The ones real enough to be naked, starving, and dead. Because obviously, if you are literate, dress in suits, speak english, and have expensive tastes, bro are you even Dalit? This is the picture that began it all. Some call it the Savarna gaze, I call it more impetus to keep working.

While reading Babasaheb for the first time can open doors, give one the freedom, and the permission to reimagine oneself differently, it also makes one aware of the other door that is closed. One that only he can open. It’s the door I’m most curious about because the urge to know him more intimately can only be dissolved there. To know what worries he took home from work and back to work, how he worked, where he sat, what he ate, and how he dealt with distasteful reactions to his work. I tell myself that it isn’t necessary to know him like that. That his work is the way to know him and that it’s enough and it’s all there is to know and learn from really. But on some days, when the noise from outside pours in and I can’t hear myself or bring myself to read his words, I feel an itch to feel with my finger, the exact line of crease on his forehead, that line of worry and what he did to smoothen it out. 

He worked his way out, yes. But in that moment of absolute disgust when he found himself amidst attacks like the one above, whether savarna or otherwise – how did he overcome the paralysis of finding oneself in a state of distrust, inaction, and aggression?

The chilling fact about the Ambedkar cartoons is that they are all ridiculous depictions of him while he is at work. That’s where it hits savarna ego the most – that while you are at work, you take space, that your body is full of work and work full of your body and when they walk in pinching their noses, the stench of your work nauseates them.

Just his presence in the parliament was enough to threaten the cabbages who were barely interested in what actually happened in the parliament. Most of the cartoons are wordless depictions of Ambedkar. Quite obviously so. Ambedkar’s language is so precise that no savarna worth his salt can imitate it. So they put in all their bitterness into making his belly bellier but didn’t know how to make him look dimwitted so they gave him little to no speech.

It’s perhaps in these cartoons that we learn most about Ambedkar’s work ethic simply because it’s here in these cartoons that we see the acidic hatred towards him and his work. What surrounds these cartoons is Ambedkar’s silence and the resolve to not be distracted by cow dung when there is so much work to be done. Another version of Savitiri Mai’s extra saree if you will.

The lesson to learn from this is if you are a Dalit who reads and writes in English, who may not be as willing to share her pornography of caste violence with the world, who chases joy deliberately, persistently, madly – then there is a line of people waiting to take away your SC certificate. It’s a funny, funny world. If you want to survive, you have to prove to one set of savarna cabbages that your merit is hard earned and real. And to the other set of cabbages that despite your merit- you are still suffering. Any evidence of joy, confidence, stability means you are brahmin.

Either way, you are more convincing as a Dalit if you are dead. Don’t be alive, that’s all they are asking. And by chance, if you are alive: don’t look happy, don’t read, don’t write, and definitely not in English. Then, when they are satisfied that your suffering is authentic, then they will give you a real Dalit certificate. 

I dreamt of Babasaheb last night. He was wearing a suit, smoking a very expensive cigar, drinking single malt whiskey from a polished glass. His glasses were there, so was his belly. We were in a room full of books. We talked about work, food, love, and old letters. He told me to tell you ‘Nimduke certificate namduke beda’ (I don’t need your certificate)

To know more about this cartoon and others like it, please read No Laughing Matter : The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932–1956 by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

A for Always

2

I don’t know why I write but I think it’s because I keep returning to it. I return to hear myself when there is too much noise. To relocate my self-respect that is still childishly tied to things that it shouldn’t be tied to, snatched when I’m not looking & sometimes even when I am.

Often, when I am speaking to someone, I try to make myself likable, to show them sides they expect to see, praying they are softened by the yellow light through which I hope they are seeing me, & not the harsh white of tube lights. And when they leave, I ask myself – Why did I do that? Why do I care? And a voice says, ‘OK next time, act cool. Be better’⁣

But when next time comes, nothing changes. I don’t trust myself around people. I used to think I can’t trust people but it’s me I don’t trust. And so I turn to writing, so I can return me to myself.

When I am writing, I feel the least use of yellow or white light. Here I can be anyone, in any light, my self-respect firm in the palm of my hand. I write so I can become likable in person. I write so I can stop worrying about not being liked. So that at the end of the day, if I can lock myself up inside the folds of other writers’⁣ words & my own & allow them to show me who I am, it won’t matter that I don’t belong in a world that is becoming increasingly Savarna.⁣

I write because when I talk, I stutter, like Pa does. I am afraid my language is garbled when I try to speak, to fight. It leaves me when I need it most but comes back faithfully, like a dog returning with a ball, when I have calmed down. So what I can’t do face to face, I try to do face-to-paper.

I think of the women who came before me, women married to gods & villages, touchable enough to be raped and yet somehow, still ‘untouchable’

I write because I am because they were.

I write because I am hiding. I am hiding because I am slowly stealing time. Time to gather power to feel fire in my tongue. Fire like the fire Babasaheb left for us. He learnt to write because when people & systems fail you, words will hold you. Always.⁣

Writing is, after all, picking up the stone & learning to throw.⁣

N for Nuance

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Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter

(Nuance defined as: noticing a very slight difference in meaning or someone’s feelings that is not usually very obvious)

Bole toh, if a Savarna journalist accuses you, a Dalit writer – of not having nuance, it means that you are not smart enough to look beyond caste. It means that caste is but a mere ‘accident’ in all our lives & it’s not their fault that they were born there, & you were born here. None of us chose it alva? Then why the drama, mama? And if you are not able to look beyond it, then what is the point of education? Of Ambedkar?

Nuance is a quintessential Savarna demand. But sadly, it is not challenging enough for a Dalit writer to do better. Because Savarna nuance is to make all the Dalit people they’ve ever known in their lives stand in an imaginary line & pick the one that appears most authentically Dalit  to them. The darker you are, the poorer you look, the weaker your English is – the better.

If you don’t have these qualities, then sorry – you might be Dalit but you have to unsee caste. In the Savarna scale of imagination, be assured that a dead Dalit is more Dalit than one alive. And if you are alive, well, & kicking – then you shouldn’t be talking caste, bro. You should be working quietly despite it & produce art that is more nuanced & less self-indulgent. 

But bro, if our art & literature is too self-indulgent, it’s not like yours isn’t no? Savarna journalists who win awards for writing about the suffering underprivileged deploy the highest form of self-indulgence. It’s your craft, your merit, your nuance, your sympathy, & your talent against someone who is barely trying to survive.

Jia Tolentino remarks in an essay that sometimes social media allows people to take more comfort in a sense of injury over a sense of freedom. When I read this, I heard the sound of a long, feverish worry being unlocked – the worry that being on social media was like gathering a certain kind of something – an assurance perhaps. That one needed to keep producing an injured self over & over again to maintain it.

Thankfully, Ambedkar had a solution for us long before anyone else did. Because he was a constant learner of things- his passion for violin, gardening, and tea is our freedom. It gives someone like me the backbone to fall in love with someone like Alice Munro. Sadly,  your nuance, and punishment for demanding it from others is Manu Joseph. 

Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter.

 

Q for Qualification

Art by EV Anil
Art by EV Anil

I’m thinking about what you were doing now, at this moment, in 1918. When you were teaching at Sydenham College, and students liked your classes but you weren’t allowed to drink water from the same jug as your colleagues. What did you do? I am haunted by which of these scenes you carried back home everyday. I am haunted by what you thought of, how you worked, what you did in powerless situations, how you picked up the stone. I want to work like you did. I want to write like you did. You had fire in your words & people are still lighting Pataki with them.

When you got ready for work the next day, were you comforted by the prospect of meeting students who liked your classes or demotivated by that jug of water? What did you do after a bad class? What did you do when you were asked to prove your worth again & again?

I find little respite from watching this scene in a film about you. Before you walked into the classroom, there were whispers about your qualification & unfitness to teach. You told them calmly – “If any of you feel like I am not qualified to teach you, and would like to leave, feel happy to do so now” – and I felt lit from within.

I wish I’d said that one morning in 2016. I wish I knew you in 2015. I wish I’d put your picture up on the wall next to my table in 2014. How powerless & hopeless those times were when I didn’t know you & your words. I was once accused of not being qualified to teach. And I let myself down by believing it was true. My degrees didn’t come to my rescue then- your words did. And now I know that you are the only qualification I’ll ever need. You know what’s funny though? When I put your picture up, they all ran away. They left skid marks.

I keep hunting for books that can give me anecdotes about you but most of them only have text-book type information. If I wanted that, I’d go back to school. But I want to know other things about you – what were you like when you were in love? What letters did you write when you were in love? What was your first kiss like? What did you like playing on the violin? Why did you not like eating? What’s with the three fishes only deal? What made you laugh? Did you like dogs or cats or both? Where did you get your suits stitched from? How did you manage to keep your giggles inside when people yammered on about Savarna merit?

I’ll tell you something funny now. That story of you falling into an ash pit from a tree & how people called you Boodisaheba & you told them “Lol, screw you peeps, I’ll be Babasaheb someday” is my favourite. I tell it to people all the time.  Some of them have very seriously come to me & said “You know that didn’t happen no?” – and I laugh out loud. Siddalingaiah knows it happened, you know it happened, I know it happened. Who are these other people & why are they after our joys?

Sometimes I feel very lost & I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I take forever to notice when I am being humiliated. And when I do, it’s too late – moment’s passed, they’ve gone & I feel like throwing stones at nothing. I can’t always think on my feet & this scares me. Sometimes I forget to remember you, especially in moments when it’s all I should do to feel powerful – I still forget, and then I sit & curse myself. It’s only now that I am learning to shut up & work & not worry about responding.

I like wearing suits now because of you. Appa still wears them all the time, like Ajja used to wear them all the time. I think Appa thinks they are like sweaters. He feels warm. I used to laugh at him but now that I also wear them, I know where the warmth comes from.

Image credits: Art by EV Anil

Knowing and Unknowing

At some point in 2015, I became very comfortable with the idea that teaching is an autopilot thing. That it was enough if I had read a text/poem/short-story once – no matter how long ago it was – that it would be enough if I remembered it. Teaching was – more than anything else, remembering. And sometimes only that.

I woke up in 2018 accidentally, when for an Arts and Culture Journalism class, I had to read Pauline Kael again, but this time – I fell for her. I noticed a lot of things that I had barely paid attention to the first time. Her words made me hungry to write like that and I felt very alive. So I spent an hour before class that day drinking pleasure out of her Bonnie and Clyde essay and then making notes on the white board in the small media lab. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and it was a very unusual feeling. It’s sadly the only hour in seven years where I think I actually did well.

The preparation that went into that hour was eerily close to the preparation that went in for a class on Metonymy and Synecdoche three years ago. But that lecture was a disaster even if the pleasure was similar. I had just begun to understand the concepts but not enough to teach them. A lot of things had gone wrong but that hour taught me to measure my own learning before I did anything else with it.

And the Pauline Kael class taught me how to measure my learning. I learnt that in order to know what I was saying, I needed to perform a different kind of remembering – a more reliable kind – something that even students could take pleasure in seeing. This kind of remembering was easier because I only had to figure out what the element of pleasure was but it was also trickier and more difficult because this meant I also had to convince students that this kind of learning was valuable. And it’s only now that I can say – I cannot convince them without knowing enough.

I am paying attention to this because it is distressing to notice that students who are very aware of their learning, whose faces light up when I begin to talk about a poem lose interest because I am unable to go beyond a point. And I want very much to complete that circle of learning for them and that circle of teaching for me – simply because they are interested.

In Seattle, I was a student again- furiously taking notes because I was afraid I would forget something that had made too much sense to me, that if I don’t immediately write it down, it would be lost, and the world would be a distressing place to live in again.

That was how I learnt and now, it’s how I want to teach.

I am beginning to see the 50 mins that I spend in the classroom with students as time I’ll never get back, not even if it’s the same class the next day. I have to give this all I have, no matter how many times I return to it later.

***

Teaching Creative Writing is becoming more and more challenging. To begin with, I have to get over my own boredom with using old materials. I stick to Deepak Bhat’s Monsoon memories because its lessons are plenty and liberating. And I want to continue sticking to that. But I think I am becoming a little disillusioned with my own comfort with speaking about writing because writing has been the hardest this year, and so speaking about it has been hard too.

The Dalit and Bahujan literature classes were difficult to teach this semester. It kept me on my toes for several reasons. For once, it made me return to Ambedkar every week. And I learnt a lot but had no idea where to put it or how.

And then I also saw that this is a class where I’d have assumed the auto-pilot method to work very well but it’s the only class where an auto-pilot method will never work because it’s difficult to talk about Ambedkar first as a Dalit man, a leader, a political figure and then to make students see the other Ambedkar – the sexy writer. And I can never do this from memory. I can only do it from a place of reverence and playfulness both of which are difficult to produce week after week without having read Ambedkar every day.

This semester, I read Maggie Nelson, Ali Smith, Natalia Ginzburg, and Miranda July but I don’t know what it means if I haven’t felt the desire to take them to classes yet but have enjoyed reading them very much. Maybe this has a lot to do with my realisation that teaching and writing are not on auto-pilot anymore and this scares me but it also makes me feel like an adult with real problems.

I now realise that the only writer I have consistently read over this year is Ambedkar and I am looking forward to approaching him as a creative writing teacher next semester.

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from

After a student was told that Dalit women have a constitutionally protected act in workplaces and anybody choosing to attack such women teachers with an intention to malign them professionally would be reported to the cops; the light left his face, he touched his hair just so he could do something with his hands and his eyes grew small with fear.

He may have gulped twice before leaving the room, shaking with rage. But he never bothered me after that. Even the smug way in which he passed by me in the corridor vanished. The gossip and the malice continued of course but the glint of fear I saw in his eyes that day remained.

The Savarna woman sitting next to me shrank in size. But she remained big in my head until I discovered Ambedkar.

There was continued debate whether that speech, the interference, as they saw it, was necessary. It was necessary. It helped – because in that moment, in that room, something shifted – without harming anyone. And I continue to be curious about how a simple reminder about the constitution can produce fear in someone who is extremely confident in assessing other people’s abilities.

I am amazed that the man who built the constitution that long ago was able to see so deep into our futures and know why even the ‘right’ kind of money, marriage, color, place would still be insufficient to live with dignity.

But how much of what happened in that room that day was triggered by my caste? Did they know I am Dalit? Does them not knowing it before they attacked make them innocent? Are they innocent? Am I making a big deal? Am I being a fraud by invoking caste in this narrative ‘suddenly’ ? —  were only some of the many questions I asked myself everyday. Until a much larger question arrived and my doubts were laid to rest. Why is it my burden to ask these questions and look for answers?

It is their burden.

Even so, I take that Ambedkar is warning us. We cannot live and die inside our castes, even if people will make sure we do. Just as there are ways in which we believe that everything is about caste, there are also ways to believe that not everything is about caste. And neither is wrong.

How do people live castelessly though? Is that possible?

I find it fascinating that some people can walk the earth as if they don’t need anybody. As if they’ve never needed anybody. It’s probably why I loved Piku, that 2015 film. I loved watching her. I loved that she was able to just walk away from conversations and men that she wasn’t interested in. She didn’t spend time impressing anyone. She didn’t wonder if anybody liked her, and even if she did – she definitely didn’t run around making compromises in her life to accommodate them.

Where does she get the strength from though? It wasn’t all because of her overbearing father no? I am not questioning it, I am celebrating it. And today I am still celebrating it while also being acutely, painfully aware of an answer to why she might be the way she is: Caste.

Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from. The strength that men and women perform onscreen and off, that I adore from the very core of my heart gains power from caste.

Balamma from Gogu Shyamala’s stories walks that way too. She has to. Because like her, there are many who don’t have access to the PoA act even though it was made for them. And the villains in their lives are real, unlike those in mine who, at the mere mention of Ambedkar and Constitution, vanish like the memory of a loose underwear.

Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org

Wild Hair and Mad Dalit Women

Featured Image credit: Dr Sylvia
Featured Image credit: Dr Sylvia

The idea all along was to live castelessly. My father and mother did it well. The last time I saw them hassled was when we lived in an apartment in Basavanagudi and the man upstairs did jasoosi, found out we were Dalit and started making a fuss. First he had full respect for dad’s position in the government. Sir! Sir! He’d say every time he saw him. Then the ‘Sir’ went off. The first thing to go when people ‘find’ you out is respect. The second is conversation. He stopped talking to my dad and began talking to dad’s office car driver.

But Noorullah loved my dad. Dad still finds it very puzzling that Muslim men have the greatest love for him. Noorullah didn’t tolerate that man’s banter. Once he came to chat with Noorullah about dad’s income and if reservation was going to take care of his pension as well. I am told that Noorullah attacked the man with a newspaper and chased him up the stairs.

After a while, my parents thought it best to leave that house and go elsewhere. Amma was heartbroken. She had built it – brick by brick. Right from the colour of the walls to the spoon in the kitchen – amma had given the house more than two years of her life. It was our first ‘own’ house, our first ‘non-rented’ house and that too in Bangalore. Wherever we were before this, we had always lived in rented houses and amma had hated it. She was tired of the agarbattis and the dhoops that had to be lit every time she made fish or chicken. She was tired of being asked what caste we belonged to before we were even given a tour of the house.

Maybe they still experience caste in small shocks today but because they have seen so much worse, they just laugh it off and ignore it.

This should have been my first lesson.

Today dad keeps having WhatsApp fights with people who are anti-reservation. When Tina Dabi topped IAS, it bothered many people and they sent shit forwards to him. Dad would sit and compose long messages to shut them up. They all began the same way – Mr so and so. I think you are wrong because –

He does the same thing even when he posts his Islamophobia ridden and anti-Tamil forwards but that’s another story and another tragedy altogether. I think he has figured out that the country is so stupid and so beyond help that the only way to gain respect, especially if you are Dalit is by behaving like a Brahmin or at least by trying to become like one.

***

Very early in school, it became clear to me that there was something wrong with me. I stood before the mirror every day of my school life trying to figure out what it was. One day it was the gap between my teeth. Another day, it was the dullness under my eyes, the paleness of my skin, the thinness of my hair, the roundness of my nose. The day after that it was my weakness in math and science. And the next day it was a smell that followed me everywhere I went. I stopped eating egg.

But I couldn’t find out what it was and gave up. I did what I had seen my mother sometimes do. She’d make friends to learn the secrets of the trade, as it were – to be accepted, to be liked. So to forget my own discomfort with myself, I craved friendships that seemed to be in excess for other people everywhere. Girls and boys who lived next-door to each other, who would walk to school together, eat lunch together.

Years later when I will read Elena Ferrante, some bits of my caste ridden childhood will begin to make sense to me. I understood the violence in those books because that was caste in my world. This is probably why my students find it hard to relate to the book, to me – because I keep talking about experiences that were/are alien to them.

In Belgaum where I studied for a year, neighbour aunties would pull their daughters out of our house exactly at 5 to say ‘Abhyas maadbeku. Time aaytu’

I thought Abhyas was some karate class they went to. My mother and I realised much later that Abhyas meant practice, study. Everywhere we looked, parents were training their children to be competitive adults – to get them ready to take over the world.

It must have been daunting for my mother to prepare her children in a city where everyone was fast, everyone was modern, where Merit sat like a Brahmin God — that visible form that we could see but not touch. Like kaig sikkidru baig sigolla. The proverbial distance between the cup and the lips.

We were put in good schools but beyond that these other girls had something that my mother knew she couldn’t give us because she didn’t know what, she didn’t know how. But she did something. She did what other mothers were doing. She took us to music classes, dance classes and there she figured, we will learn something. But did we?

The music classes were amusing. The children there seemed to know everything there was to know already. So there was no learning happening. There was practice happening. And then one day the music master played some tune on his harmonium and asked us to recognise it. Yeh raga cha naav kai, he sang to us. My sister told him her name. He stared, gulped air and moved on. So did we.

We didn’t go back after that.

How was my mother to prepare us for this battle without right genes and pure blood? It must have been a lonely time and lonelier world. This was a battle she was not ready for. Dad kept getting transferred so for the longest time she fought this alone.

This is what some of you would call cultural capital. And some of you would call Merit.

What does this mean in our lives but? How to define this invisible code?

It was that neat handwriting in which studious Brahmin girls wrote in their hardbound books, which some of us could never touch. It went from their hands and into the hands of others deserving and then into their bags. It was like a secret document that only some had access to.

It was the look of utter disgust on the faces of these girls when I asked them on the morning of some exam – can you please explain this theorem? And then they explained the same with pleasing smiles when some of their own asked them the same question.

It was the neat partition of their oiled hair, the ability to sit in perfect padmasana during tuitions, the glow of their skin, and the aroma of their vegetarian lunch boxes.

Essentially, Merit is a tall building full of assembly lined, well-oiled Brahmin robots who receive all the training very early to take over the world – Engineering, MBA, IIT, IIM, and now because it’s cool – humanities.

Merit is definitely not just hard work then. It’s the license code to being allowed someplace because you are of the right kind.

***

And this became starkly obvious to me when I started working as a teacher. I was still blind to caste in many, many ways. And discovering Ambedkar wouldn’t happen for a couple more years. But again, there was that growing anonymous discomfort with myself. I think back to the time when a Brahmin colleague declared over lunch one day ‘I am proud to be a Brahmin.’ I think back to the time when there was clandestine discussion over my NET qualification and its validity because apparently there was no evidential ‘merit’ involved.

I can only cringe with disgust now. It is clear to me that caste networks operate invisibly but quite strongly everywhere, especially in schools and colleges, and even among students. Here of course it takes on various forms – talent, good English, knack etc.

In the classroom, I am quick to sense when a student doesn’t find me challenging enough. When I take books that I’ve liked into the classroom – it is with a faint hope that if I can open out the book for them — something might click, and they will want to read it. I have learnt to rely strongly on my own pleasure to be able to reach out to students.

But the students’ demands on my ability to offer challenge, puzzle is blurring into that dangerous line where they switch off pleasure completely. I am horrified by their indifference to pleasure. What is the point of literature if you only want to capitalize it into an app that offers challenge and devalues pleasure?

Isn’t pleasure political? Doesn’t that make it a challenge? A book that did this for me was Nabokov’s Lolita. I struggled because I couldn’t believe how much I was being seduced by the damn book. And that immediately became political.

One of the things I have learnt from reading Paromita Vohra and watching her interviews obsessively is the idea that no one can and no one must define what is pleasure or what is political for you. That choice is yours to make and yours alone.

I might be the lesser person here for putting pleasure over everything else. And I know I cannot escape it when it leads to situations I often find myself in. For instance, it hurts my eyes when I notice students dumb themselves down to talk to me. But at least it doesn’t hurt my heart, thank god. Just my eyes, but oh my eyes! My eyes!

YouTube

But I’d rather have pleasure – you keep your merit OK? Tata bye bye.

What I have in abundance, that all Dalit people have, is the desire to learn, and the longing to feel alive.

This is the first thing I learnt from Ambedkar.

The next was that merit needn’t be something we cannot touch. Either by challenge or  pleasure, if we can get to the point where learning becomes something we are invested in every day, then we have won.

When I saw this, it became tolerable, even desirable for me to look into the mirror every day.

***

A nagging question I have had of all big movements, whether it is feminism or the anti-caste movement – is what to do in situations that life throws at us?

Bratty cabbage girls who hate female teachers, Brahmin batata vadas who smirk when you talk about caste in classrooms.  How to deal with them? I find that every now and then, I discover an answer because I’m always looking for one.

I went from anger to humour, from Ambedkar to Dhasal to Manjule, and found the answer with Gogu Shyamala.

The women in Gogu Shyamala’s stories (Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…) make me feel more empowered than #MeToo and #Losha.

In Jambava’s Lineage, Cina Ellamma is a young Bhagotam performer of the Nizamabad Chindu Ellavva Troupe. One day a bunch of upper caste men abuse her and she is outraged. She goes to the senior Ellamma for advice and this is what Ellamma tells her –

My child, we too have lived through many similar experiences … but we have somehow managed to keep the art of the Chindu Bhagotam alive. Those who resent or dislike us will speak harshly. We have to deal with them, persuade them maybe, but make sure that we continue with our own work. What you saw happening today is nothing compared to the high-handedness of the dora folk in the villages when I was a young girl. They would make us do all the work, and then say ‘keep your distance … you son of a madiga … chinduloda… dakkaloda’

As they listened to Ellamma, Cina Ellamma fell silent. Something touched her deep inside.

Ellamma continues –

‘The best way for us is to attract them with our performance, to make it so riveting that they sit and watch for hours. That is the most fitting reply to those who try to ride rough over us.

On stage I’d bring out all the anger and suffering hidden in my heart. I’d indirectly abuse some of the men sitting in the audience as if I was referring to someone else. Initially they were very angry, but gradually they changed, and grew more polite’

I am sorry if you don’t see the connection here but I do. Perhaps because Gogu Shyamala is writing about my women – not yours. My ancestors entertained and performed for a living.  And this story is equally important to me as a teacher because what is teaching if not performance? When I am doing my job, there is room for a lot of Savarna noise to drown me out. When this happened in 2015, I was crippled. It took me years to move on. I wish I had it in me back then to make my performance so riveting that they sit and watch for hours.

Instead I whined and moped and did nothing except fume.

In Tataki Wins Again, Balamma walks like a ghost at the crack of dawn to go water her fields. If she is late, the upper caste landlord would empty all the water into his fields. And that’s why she’d wake up at 4 in the morning and get there before him, every single day. This offended him so decides to rape her.

He grabs hold of her one morning and drags her into the fields. When he begins to molest her, Tataki ‘takes aim and kicks him as hard as she could on the groin with both her legs.’

The landlord collapses.

In the village, the mala and madiga women giggled through their sari ends as they shared the news, “The landlord wanted to catch our balamani. She kicked him in the groin!”

When I read these stories I feel like I have more than just answers. I have a way to live.

Gogu Shyamala Picture Courtesy - The News Minute
Gogu Shyamala — Picture Courtesy – The News Minute

At the Dalit Women’s Conference last year, Ruth Manorama said that our Dalit women must never respond to campaigns like #MeToo because we just end up becoming numbers for the benefit of Savarna Feminists.

It doesn’t happen to me very often but I heard my heart click into the right place when she said it.

My Mouma is a champion in life. She represents herself and she is not bound by anything. She is 82 and takes care of herself like a queen. If you mess with her, she will hit you on the head with a water bottle that she always carries around.

My Mouma
Mouma

These are the women I want to read and write about. Sumitra, the woman in my short -story is vulgar in her laughter and dirty in demeanor.

I had just been looking in all the wrong place for answers but as it turns out – Dalit women have always had answers to these questions. Women with loud and vulgar laughter who, like their hair, are mad and untamable – always do.

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*Featured Image Credits – Savarna Audience by Dr Sylvia Karpagam at drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com