After years of living in rented houses marked by fish fried stealthily, by the many agarbattis left alight on window sills, by the swollen rooms that held their breath every time an owner turned up for inspection, and by houses denied to us for not being Brahmin; Amma & Appa built this home from the memory of what their & our childhood eyes were thirsty for.
Appa’s govt job kept him moving & as a result, we lived in many houses from Chikodi, to Raichur to Bidar to Gulbarga to Mangalore to Shimoga to Belgaum to Bangalore. But those houses were never homes – there were enough reminders of that.
As a child, I was preoccupied by the mystery of Duplex houses. Friends in school had these & while I was let into their verandas & halls – I never made it upstairs. ‘Wait here, she’llcome down’ – they always said & I waited to watch her come down. Often another friend, who was allowed upstairs would come down with her & I grew hungry for swirling stairs & the tight friendship that stood on top – arms linked, walking down together. Duplex houses came with duplex friendships.
When I passed by these houses, I looked only at the top half, longing to steal a glance. I imagined being invisible, walking up their stairs, & opening doors to their bedrooms. Handicapped by my own thrill of finally being able to see what lay behind, I never could open those doors. My curiosity for learning about women’s rooms persists. I want to see not just where they work, play & sleep but also how.
The duplex is a permanent condition of a secret, of something hidden, of something that you have to work up to see. And more than wanting my own, I was desperate to be part of someone else’s secret.
Our duplex was finally built after years of saving & borrowing, but my friends from Jain college were convinced it wasn’t hard-earned. It came from what they called ‘our money stolen by your briber-father’ They talked with such self-assuredness & street-smart confidence that I couldn’t fight. This became a running joke & since I didn’t know how to defend my home, I joined them & laughed at myself. I learnt that if you gave someone permission to laugh at you, you could become their friend. But there were rules – and the first one was – you could never laugh at them.
My anger arrived one day when a rich boy whose father also had a government job became their friend & there was an unbearably loud & dignified silence about his duplex. Where did that silence come from? Why was he given the dignity of not being laughed at? I thought it was because he was a boy. I understood the games that caste & friends play much later. They were experts at diffusing codes – who came from where & therefore deserved respect – who didn’t – who can you laugh at – whose father you should be afraid of – whose father you can make fun of.
I’ve never wished for a backbone as much as I did then. But it seemed like every time I got one just enough to stand up & scream, tears came too. And who wants to stand fighting & crying when you can sit and join them laughing? Even so, their merit was so hard-earned that a day before every exam, they came to me for help. I stopped doing this in my final semester & they never spoke to me after that.
Jabya smiling, Jabya laughing, Jabya crying, Jabya studying, Jabya singing – is a boy in love. Jabya doing homework is Jabya writing Shalu’s name on the slate. Jabya, in uniform, is Jabya dreaming of wearing t-shirt & jeans some day. Jabya who makes his friend wait while he combs his hair, who rubs powder on his face, powder dropped carefully from a paper is a boy next to whom nobody sits with in school. Jabya who reminds me of a student who loves to dance, Jabya who reminds me of my brother who pushes his hair back when nervous, is a boy who has to hide himself so he can watch the girl he loves & smile.
Jabya climbing up trees with his friend to catch a black sparrow that will bring him luck & love, is young Ambedkar climbing up trees to read. Jabya’s friend who doesn’t know how to climb down trees is young Ambedkar jumping down trees. Jabya at Aashiqui cycle mart is Jabya in love. Jabya pulled away from Aashiqui cycle mart to remove a piglet from the ditch is Jabya not allowed to remain in love. Jabya who has nightmares of that piglet when he sleeps is Jabya who chases a black sparrow every morning so he can convince himself that he is not the pig that Shalu has to flee from.
Jabya who cycles out of the village to sell ice lollies is Jabya standing outside a Van Heusen billboard in town, staring at the white man’s sharp nose & feeling his own flat nose. Jabya dancing on Chankya’s shoulders is Jabya closest to Shalu who is watching from above, even if momentarily. Jabya’s Chankya is a man who saves Jabya without even letting him know that he was in danger all this while. Chankya, who guides Jabya to remain alive, who sets him to chase a black sparrow, distracting him, even if momentarily, from the horror of this impossible love.
Jabya chasing pigs is Jabya hiding behind the walls, hiding from school, hiding from classmates, hiding from Shalu. Jabya still inches away from the black sparrow is Jabya never losing hope. Jabya, inches away from catching the pig, Jabya standing still for the national anthem is a slap on your face, my face, and this fucking country’s face.
Jabya pelting stones at the pig is Jabya learning how to pick up the stone differently. Jabya has picked up stones to catch the black sparrow before but he always did it out of love. Jabya carrying the pig in front of his school walls where Ambedkar, Savitrimai, & Jotiba look on grimly is the image we need to remember everyday. Jabya picking up the stone in the end, is Jabya finally picking it up for himself. Jabya throwing the stone at the camera is throwing the stone at you. Manjule’s slap for you, for me.
My memory of watching Appa read is soaked in the sound of his laughter. I cannot separate the two. He’d have a ಬೀchi (Beechi) book open on his stomach, his back straight, his fingers firm on the spine. When he began laughing, the room had to hold its breath. His belly moving, his body shaking, puffs of air escaping his mouth, he’d explain why he was laughing. There was always a man named Thimma & something ridiculous always happened to him in very Vadivelu-like situations.
Amma & I’d wait for him to finish & demand more explanation until he gave in & revealed that he was actually laughing because it reminded him of something from his hostel days. About the time when a boy terrified of ghosts refused to pass by the graveyard after they were returning from a late night horror film, and how one of them pointed at a tree and started howling only to watch the boy scream, run & fall, scream, get up, run & fall all the way back to the hostel.
I learnt a lot about pace from watching him read. It never happened that immediately after laughing at a funny bit, he returned with more laughter. There was always time for reflection after a laughing fit, almost as if the book had to use strength to calm him down, rest his bouncing belly, make him pause. Then he’d say mchh & close his eyes for a bit.
Schools can be creatures of Brahmanical impositions. Sanskrit was shoved down throats under the garb of ‘scoring subject’, Kannada was made alien because fears of halegannada (old Kannada) were thrown around, English was desirable, English songs even more so, boy bands were cool even if they had difficult names (Enrique was/is Henry K).
I pushed myself to mug big words in the dictionary, never quite knowing when to use them. At home, I grew ashamed of all the Kannada books & hid them behind English books with thick, impressive spines, not knowing whom they had to be hidden from. It is not ironic that I teach English for a living today but have returned to Kannada with a fervor – a kind of Sairat. Reading Siddalingaiah helped this return. Watching Big boss Kannada confirmed this. Now when I write in Kannada sometimes, I am pleased that my hand remembers it very well.
I was born into castes that whipped Kannada & Konkani together to produce a gadbad of joys that English will never understand. And yet, a man living all the way in Latin America, in fucking Aracataca who wrote in Spanish, somehow made it to a tattoo on my arm.
Last week, Appa learnt that our thread-wearing neighbour had procured enough newspapers to sell. He went & asked for Deccan Herald with great interest, bought it & also a copy of Kannada Prabha. At home, he threw the DH in a corner & read KP. He did the same thing the next day, & the next. I smiled & felt rescued. Somehow by showing & hiding, we have found our own ways to survive, read, and be taken seriously.
Chimamanda Adichie was once complimented for not using difficult words in her stories — for writing in ‘simple’ English. She laughed her watermelon laugh and said ‘Thank you very much but that’s probably because I don’t know difficult words.’ I like to imagine that the interviewer bit their tongue and did not recover.
Reading Americanah was patting that low grumble in my stomach that is hungry to have written, never to write. It was feeling grateful for Adichie and her ‘simple’ words that brought me Ifemelu, the writer who came into being because she started blogging. It was regarding Ifemelu with a sense of wonder and being in awe of her pauses that allowed her quiet, ceaseless moments of self-respect. And then it was feeling happy for seven years of rumlolarum.com.
Race and Caste are so much the same and so much not. Reading about race is reading about caste and yet there seem to be so many Indians who are more comfortable talking about racism than caste. They don’t know caste, they don’t see caste, they say.
Ifemelu after she returns from America, says that she stopped being Black when the plane touched down in Lagos. Babasaheb said he’d forgotten he was an untouchable in America and that he became one again when he landed in India. I thought of Rajini Krish who wrote about his first time on a plane, and how he described the view from the window as ‘full white, full silence, full powerful, full myth.’ I thought of his struggle, and what he was thinking moments before he took his life.
I thought about Isidore from Togo whom I met last year at an internship program in Seattle. I thought of his hands as he beat his chest with them one day, demonstrating how wildly his heart leaps everytime he tries to speak in class. How I wanted to grab his hands, slow them down and say me too. I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember. I thought of how dense must someone be to not see the loneliness of others.
In these stories, and in others, I have always yearned to find the perfect sentences to begin writing. But I’m afraid my words aren’t perfect and I’m hungry to make them perfect. What an odd demand it is no? To write perfect about things that aren’t.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
*Featured Image Credits – Savarna Audience by Dr Sylvia Karpagam at drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com
Every time Celine Dion’s Titanic song came on TV, Pa would close his eyes and begin singing. He wouldn’t sing the song as much as imitate the way Celine Dion’s mouth opened and closed at certain points. When I started handling the remote control and learnt what the mute button does, I’d hit it and he would freeze. I’d unmute it and he’d unfreeze. Through my childhood – this used to be our favourite game.
My heart will go on used to be my school anthem, he said. Thereafter, all English songs became his school anthems. From Backstreet boys to the Friends theme song.
It had always been his dream to study in a convent school, to speak in English, to watch English films without subtitles. This led him to be fascinated with those who spoke English fearlessly and fluently.
He believed that my sister was far more fluent than anyone in the family because she was able to pronounce difficult words effortlessly.
What is that word, he asked me one day when we were watching Simi Garewal.
-Redezvas, I said.
-No – that’s not how you pronounce it. Call your sister.
-She rolled her tongue, pouted here and there and said – Raundevoo.
-Ah! he said, delighted. His tiny eyes smiling.
A week before Christmas last year, he came to me and asked if I knew any Carol songs. I found some that we both knew from having watched Home Alone obsessively. I played them for him. He bobbed his head this way and that.
–School alli ittu ee haadu (We had this in school)
— Haan, howdu, aaytu (haan, yes, ok)
So while my father was busy making faces to match Celine Dion’s song, my brother was convinced that the song was written for him. He played with his toy cars with an insane energy singing – ‘My Hot wheel go on and on’
I seem to have inherited some part of this fascination with English. In school, I was crazy about all the catholic girls in my class. I wanted to be very much like them – smell like them, bring lunch dabbas with ham sandwiches and hot dogs in them.
On the rare occasion that I went to their homes, my head would wrap itself around whatever smell there was. In Madam Rose’s tuition, I spent all my time trying to figure out where the bedroom was so I could quickly go smell it.
Sometime back, I watched this documentary, Where’s Sandra? by Paromita Vohra and was immediately reminded of my school girl days – How I longed to go to Mass and Sunday church. How I once told Madam Tara that I was Christian too so could she please allow me to accompany my other Christian friends to go build Baby Jesus’ crib?
I remembered a lanky tree we stuck in the living room of our Belgaum home and how we proceeded to assault it with ribbons and chocolates. I was crazy about Christmas and cakes and cookies.
I once spat out all the water I was drinking when my friend said that they give wine at some communion type thing in church. Wine was what my father made excuses to drink- with great difficulty to avoid amma’s pressing looks.
-It’s actually grape juice.
-It’s good for the heart.
-I’m drinking white wine. The red is actually bad for health.
-I’m drinking red wine. The white is actually bad for health.
It appeared that my mother was the most unsocial parent so every time I took friends home, she would shrug. And I was amused that in the homes of various catholic friends, their mothers seemed open with not just their children but also me. “Yes sweetheart – what’s your name,” they’d ask me. And I’d smile shyly.
-Your mom called me sweetheart! She’s so sweet – I’d say to my friend.
Josephine and I met in college. She’d wear sleeveless tops and midi skirts & again, I longed to wear the things she did. She brought me homemade beef pickle in glass jars and I emptied them into steel dabbas and told people at home that she’d made me chicken chilli pickle.
Somethings never change. I buy mouth-watering beef pickles at North-East food fests, bring them home, tear the beef label, write chilli on them with a black pen and keep them in the fridge next to the Mallige Hoovu kept for God. Something else that hasn’t changed is that I still watch English films with subtitles (only reason why I was overjoyed about Netflix and Prime coming to India.) I have a nagging worry that if there aren’t subtitles, I will lose out on bits of the film – especially when white people talk fast.
There are many reasons to love Where’s Sandra? I love that when you watch it – you aren’t just seeing Bombay – you are also hearing it.
You hear the sound of moving taxis in Bandra where she interviews shopkeepers and Sandras. The drone of the sound of Taxis pulling themselves together – the kind that I imagine comes from the pit of Bombay Taxi engines – like the sounds that came from the pit of my brother’s stomach when he played with his toy cars.
My favourite woman in the documentary is Sandra D’Souza. Her face moves from one expression to the next so quickly – it brings to mind the faces of Catholic mothers whose daughters wanted you to ask them permission for night-overs at your house.
The face goes from jolly to strict in a matter of seconds. So you learn to be watchful in their presence – you train yourself to look at your hands because you have the feeling that if you look in their faces – even if you haven’t lied, you will want to admit to having lied.
Sandra here – sits by the piano and under her sometimes stern, sometimes playful gaze, you hear the story of a community adjusting to a vast city.
Sometime in the month of October, I wondered if my blog was developing a certain direction. It’s because I read and wrote more about caste than I have about anything else this year. A lot of my posts and essays this year were attempts at making sense of my life, work, and relationships and I could only have written them after I had seen caste. It’s not something you can unsee after seeing.
It took me a while to see caste in my life. What do I mean by that?
My parents have protected me for as long as they could. They still do. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I even know my caste. That’s how hard they’ve worked to ensure my safety in a world they grew up in. I wonder then – would I be craving to know more about my caste were I an engineer or a doctor today? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’m in a profession that demands writing and reading from me vigorously, tirelessly.
I’m glad that my job includes dialogues with students. Because it’s here in the classroom that I get to meet some fascinating, talented, also arrogant students. And it’s also here – in this space that my parents cannot protect me.
‘Why isn’t Vj political about her identity?’ was something someone once asked.
I was amused because it is a stupid question. What did they want me to do? Wear a board that said ‘I am Dalit’ and walk around?
I was writing then just as much as I am writing now. What can be more political than writing?
Maybe they wanted me to be politically active on Facebook. So if I had shared a couple of newspaper/magazine articles on the atrocities against Dalits, that would have made me political about my identity no? I have come to hate this word – political. At one point, I wanted to get a dog and name it poly – short for political. Because I don’t know – just.
It’s ridiculous to demand someone to be political. It’s just as bad as making Aadhar mandatory or making the entire theatre stand up for the national anthem. Because all these demands come from the same place. The demand to see your response. To check. To see if you meet expected standards.
As Christina Dhanraj once pointed out – ‘Is our personal your political?’
But what is the point of showing up to a protest in town hall if you are there only to mark attendance of those absent?
I have arrived at this point in my life at my own pace. That’s how it is with most people. There’s no need to be Meena Kumari if people decide to go watch Bahubali first day first show instead of attending your radical talk on ‘freedom of expression.’
Maybe there’s genuine freedom of expression happening when a bunch of 45 -year -old middle-class housewives look forward to something more important than the return of sons and husbands from office. So they wake up one morning knowing that by the end of the day, they’ll know why Katappa killed Bahubali – that is perhaps more political than finding out what great revolution is happening in the lives of a privileged few who have the mind-space to go to a protest.
It took me a while to reach and read Ambedkar and understand why he is so important to my history. But now that I have, he is permanent in my life.
Even so — within the boundaries of a classroom, I wonder how it is for the many other Dalit teachers out there. While classrooms can be a space for growth, knowledge blah blah… they are also spaces of violence. I have heard of stories where teachers have been prejudiced against Avarna students. But what happens when a Savarna student with a certain kind of education and a certain kind of English decides that a Dalit teacher has nothing to teach them? How is it visible?
From my experience, it is visible in the way they patronize you, in the way they treat the assignments you give them in class, in the way they decide that they can learn more and better without you, and the amount of time they spend in coaxing other students to lose respect for you.
Is there a way out of this? There is and I learnt more about it this year.
After Ambedkar, AM is an inspiring example. There was a point when I used to call him Grammar Nazi. But then he called me Grammar Jew and I resigned. I know now why he taught himself to be perfect in the things he does, and in the things he says and writes. It’s so that no Savarna idiot could point a finger at him.
When he writes, it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed by his power over language. As far as I can see – this is what pisses them (whoever) the most. That they cannot point out flaws with his argument because they can’t point out flaws in his language.
Writer Sujatha Gidla once told me – ‘English is a weapon in the hands of Indians. You can fend off casteism to a small extent by wielding it’
It’s what Ambedkar did. It’s what AM does. And it’s also what I am slowly learning to do.
An incredible event this year was the Dalit Women Speak Out conference. It was a turning-point of sorts because it’s the most powerful thing to have ever happened to me. It forced me out of loneliness in a world that is run by making people invisible. AM had once said – ‘If spaces matter to you, you must claim them to create them’
And that’s what we must do. In the classroom and outside. Claim spaces. Make noise. Sing songs. Dance loudly. And it’s what numerous Dalit women did that day on stage.
When I walked out of the auditorium, I was shaking. I saw Gee outside and something just went off. We both broke down and clung to each other. We didn’t have to say anything or explain anything.
Someone creepily took off one picture and I am not complaining because this is my favourite picture of the year 🙂
He must have responded to the thinning black skin around my eyes, the pimples on my face and the gap between my teeth that shined when I laughed. I must have seemed to him- ugly, scrawny, small. He threw the book on my face and I sunk back within the folds of my own embarrassment. Leaning against the wall, I looked away and cried secretly – punishing my forearm for being weak.
I carried my journal everywhere I went. It was a spiral bound notebook that I hid from many and showed a few. But I liked being seen with it. This is the same journal that I will go ahead and set fire to, a couple of months later because mother had found it.
When he picked it up that day, I had been writing about my affair with his friend. The three of us were sitting in the shade of an enclosure on the terrace. He was a big guy, easily intimidating and frightening to those who didn’t know him and charming to those who did. He snatched my journal away three seconds after he sat down and started reading really loudly.
My own tragedy is that I become a child when I am around bigger people. More than their bigness, my own smallness in their presence fascinates me. I whined a little, thumped his knee caps lightly and tugged at his shirt. He brushed me off first, pushed me a little and continued reading. I said no and tried to pull my journal away.
At this point, his face stiffened and he looked dismayed and surprised that I had a right over my journal. He flung it on my face and it fell with a thud onto my lap where it remained for the rest of the afternoon.
It must have hit my nose really hard because my eyes were welling up and my chest felt hot and stomach felt hotter. When I could no longer continue weeping quietly, I started sniffling. He said nothing. The other he said nothing either. When we stood up to leave, he put his arms around me and it feels brutal now because I’m ashamed that everything became ok after that.
The chappals that I liked wearing were black and opened around the corners of my foot. It covered only the middle part of my foot. When I lost these chappals, I went again to the store and asked for the same pair.
This time, four of us were sitting in the enclosure – both the hes and a she who was my best friend. She loved me a lot but she didn’t like the chappals I wore. One by one, they each took turns to say that it was ugly and hardly suited my height and that I am insulting my father’s richness by wearing cheap chappals.
-I like it.
-That’s not the point. You look like a slum girl.
-Vj, please ya. I will give you the money tomorrow. Let’s buy you something else.
In a friend’s house, I came to be known as Mochi because I got my chappals from a brand called Mochi. Behind their open laughs, I wonder now if there was more. Maybe Mochi was the unwashed rat’s tail that I tied into a pony. It was my plump nose that was made more awkward by the fat in my cheeks and the misery in my walk.
Here is my piece on reading Sujatha Gidla’s memoir – Ants among Elephants. The book was read over two days and written over three.
Best week ever.
The most comforting thing about the book was learning that I have to hurry. There are many, many family stories waiting to be written. This was also extremely unsettling. All the men and women in my family who can tell me about us – our caste, its history, and its stories are in their 80s.
Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.
Featured image Credit: Shirin Jaafari/PRI via https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-10/india-she-was-untouchable-new-york-city-she-became-author