Chhapaak (2020) has an interesting moment that I want to remember.
Malti (Deepika Padukone) and her team are in the office, celebrating the new amendment in the IPC (326 A and 326 B – which ensures a separate section for acid attacks) There is a cake that says ‘Happy Birthday 326 A 326 B’ – there are chips, samosas, juice, and loud music (Radha from Student of the Year) At one point, the neighbours phone them up, and ask for the volume to be reduced. They scream noooo and keep the party going. There’s mauj in the air. The women (all acid attack survivors) look happy and continue dancing.
Amol (Vikrant Massey) – activist, and founder of the NGO walks in and turns off the music. He looks displeased. Malti tries to pacify him (“come, cut the cake”) and he patronizingly asks for an explanation of what 326 A and B mean. Malti answers him and he goes on to berate her and all of them. It has only been amended. That doesn’t mean acid attacks will stop. Even cold drinks are more expensive than acid. Acid hasn’t been banned. Your own petition to ban acid has gone nowhere in the last 7 years and you want to party?
I want to slap his face.
Everything I want to take away from the film rests unfairly on what Malti will say next. And as I inch closer towards Malti, she calmly says “Amol sir, you know what your problem is? You behave as if you’ve been attacked with acid. But the acid was thrown on me, not you. And I — want to party“
The people standing tensely around them loosen up a little, and begin laughing. Amol doesn’t know where to look. He has just been served so he retreats.
I was left amazed but more importantly, I was left with a stone to throw at every idiot who took my personal and made it their political. Every so often, I meet young people who want to change the world. I don’t have very many feelings about them but it’s beyond irritating when they begin to act like Amol. Everything is either black or white. They won’t notice love but they talk about change. Nothing is political if it isn’t spelled out or doesn’t come with the color of dissent. You can’t party or run fests in times of dissent. What kind of a Dalit are you if you are happily sitting and organizing fests when the country is crumbling around you?
They ask this so articulately and with so much passion that you will wonder if they are Dalit.
In the past, I have felt extremely inadequate next to these super articulate people, looking back at my childhood and parents with bitterness, accusing them of having taught me nothing. Growing up was bitterness, inadequate, insecure, always doubting if I was thinking correctly, and always on the lookout for approval from super articulate people.
I craved the clarity that the Amols of the world had – they knew when they were right and that was ok but they pakka for sure knew when you were wrong. How do you arrive at that confidence? The Amols of the world have convinced us that we need their stamp of approval even to confirm our victim hood, even if it means that we want to party, despite our victim hood.
It began changing when I discovered being Dalit and then I didn’t want to be that kind of articulate anymore. That kind of articulate is rooted in privilege, in the safe knowledge that there are enough people under you over whom you will always be above and therefore ‘better’ and ‘correct.’ That it’s somebody’s great fortune that you are forsaking this privilege to share their miseries. That you must be right because you have impeccable English and speak so fiercely and articulately.
When I became more and more watchful of my parents as Dalits, I went back to my childhood, and their early parenthood with a force that was still very new to me. There was guilt and I didn’t know where to put it in the middle of seeing them in a completely different light. I discovered them as heroes who did more revolution than anybody else and they did this without patronizing other people or knowing anything about activism. What can be more articulate than that?
The clarity with which super articulate people speak comes with its own share of arrogance and that made me thankful for everything I didn’t have as an adolescent. I still wish I had the courage to speak my mind when I thought I was right but I am glad I didn’t take that chance because as I have come to discover – constantly wondering if I am wrong is a better way to learn. It’s perhaps why in my adulthood now, I have very little to undo, to unsay, to apologize for. And like Malti, I can tell you to fuck off if I want to party or organise litfests.
“I was feeling cold and I thought Ambedkar would be feeling the same, and therefore I have covered him with a blanket and lit a bonfire near the statue”
This is the sort of story that Gabito would have loved – the sort that Manto showed us so often in his. But why that soulless headline? This is probably why Garcia Marquez said that journalists should read more fiction – someone who’d read Manto would never have written that headline.
In other news, my time is being vacuum- cleaned by god knows what. Suddenly, there is too much to do and suddenly I am only watching Sex and the City. It’s January already which means it’s not long before the Pink Tabebuias outside my house start blooming and falling – not long before Meta comes and goes, not long before I whine about Orion Mall and BIFFES – not long before BQFF – and definitely not long before I am 31.
My blog carries an extra saree more than I do because it gets attacked with more cow dung than I. It changes sarees like my mouma does – lazily, quickly, and effortlessly.
People who really want to engage don’t carry around cow dung. It’s a good thing that so much of Savarna opinion is unoriginal which means it’s the same old ghissapita flavor of cow dung which hasn’t changed since 2014.
But really – can’t you at least throw something of a challenge along with the cow dung?Even so, my blog likes wearing shimmering pink sarees with small mirrors on the border, and bright yellow bandhani sarees with backless blouses. In a small bag, it carries a plain cotton one – the color of cow dung.
Some nice things happened in November – I realised that what I have really wanted since 16 was to be independent. It has taken me 14 years but it is finally beginning to feel like it’s happening – I am 16 again. It’s like coming home and finding myself waiting all these years.
And then, more answers began falling – a mad writing energy took over, First Post asked me to write columns for them (!) and I found new love for podcasts and poetry.
Everything is moving too fast, like news on Twitter – and like always I must come back to my blog to breathe.
I can’t help but recollect that when I began writing for The Ladies Finger – I wrote about what I really only care about – films, TV shows, and books. I wish I could go back to doing that. It’s where I learnt everything I know today. They took me seriously as a writer and made me believe that I am more than my caste. This is something that other news websites and magazines should probably learn – you only notice us when some burning caste issue takes over and suddenly Dalit women are in demand to write. It’s not a nice thing to do.
That’s why I am thrilled about writing columns. I am waiting to write about Sara Ali Khan, Mrs. Maisel, food and gossip.
Much of last semester was spent at home with my damn foot in a plaster. Probably a valuable lesson – I now watch where I am walking. Something else that I began seeing only lately is the idea that sharing is anti-Brahmanical – whether it’s knowledge of what you are reading/writing or what Tejas Harad thoughtfully did here by sharing what he wrote last year and how much he was paid – sharing essentially breaks down a system that benefits from keeping knowledge and money a secret.
Here are a bunch of things I read/listened to/ wrote:
The Mill on the Floss (going back to it now) – George Eliot
I used to think that translation was effort, time, and energy. But it’s a whole other joy to get to know translation as an act of intimacy and love more than anything else. The Maltirao piece was translated to Hindi by Rahul Paswan and to Tamil by LJ Violet.
Paswan’s translation is much better than the faltu English original. Reading it in Hindi gives it another kind of energy altogether. If I could read Tamil, I am sure I would say the same about LJ Violet’s piece. Needless to say, the Maltirao piece is not mine anymore – it is theirs.
Here are a bunch of other things I am excited about –
Wearing sarees. I have always wanted to wear it the way Namsiess does.
Understanding quizzes as narrative
Wondering if there is more to math than numbers – understanding math as narrative too
One Sunday I talked about Pariyerum Perumal for The Lewd Cabal podcast run by a bunch of enthu tamil boys. I was nervous. I don’t think I made sense but I enjoyed being on the show
Every time I return from Dilli, and my AIDMAM sisters, I feel like I have become a better version of myself. This time, Asha Zech taught me to be less angry – nodkolona, aagatte (let us see, it will happen) she says about everything.
Through this all, I think I am close to understanding what Joan Didion meant when she said ‘Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point’
Why are you writing so many ‘Dalit- Dalit’ things these days?
While “I’ll write what I want” is generally a good response to stick with– I’m going to explain this to you with love, (because you seem like you have the potential to be a better person) and also with swalpa sarcasm (because I cannot able to control)
See for the longest time no? I had no idea why people were behaving the way they did with me:
why their tone changed from respectful (while talking to someone standing right next to me) to patronizing (the moment they noticed me)
why they thought that people were just being polite to me when they said they liked my blog (since there’s no possible way my blog could be nice)
why they were obsessed with how I ‘got to’ hang out with good looking intellectual people since obviously I don’t have the credentials to hang out with good-looking intellectual people at K or anywhere else
why they thought that the only way I was getting published was because people were doing me favors
why Savarna students thought/and continue to think that they have absolutely nothing to learn from me (this is getting too boring to deal with. I mean swalpa originality should be there even in Savarna-ness no? Too much to ask?)
why they thought it’s ok to tell me that they ‘don’t mind’ editing my writing (even if they don’t have the experience with either editing or writing) – even if they are just a Brahmin engineer with good English and a better internet connection.
It didn’t occur to me then to say fuck off. I thought they were right. So I spent some time doubting myself – maybe I really hadn’t earned my NET, maybe I really am not qualified to teach, maybe I’ll never be a good writer.
All of this was laid to rest when a friend made me see caste in all of this. After that I couldn’t see it any other way.
When Marquez read the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he fell off the bed. He didn’t know that people were allowed to lie in stories. AM says that that moment was as though someone had given Marquez permission to write.
AM himself has been the biggest permission to me – to stop whining and start writing.
When this permission appeared, my relationship with writing changed. Until that point and sometimes even now, writing was torture because my sentences didn’t sound beautiful, my control over structure was a useless battle, and the Savarna reader in my head wouldn’t stop shrugging, grunting and yawning.
I have often told Christina that reading her feels like a hundred dams are breaking inside me. It’s because reading her feels like permission to shoot the Savarna reader in my head. After the shots were fired, my writing relaxed. It took a deep breath and decided that it just has to write.
So, dear friend – when I finally feel like I have the permission to write, why won’t I? It’s definitely not new. I have been writing ‘Dalit-Dalit’ things for sometime now. Read my old blog-posts if you haven’t already 🙂
2. Will you ever write about ‘normal things’?
It won’t seem normal enough to you because for you – entitlement is probably normal.
Lol. Ok see. I was on a panel earlier this year – it was about Savarna control over documentaries. There were a bunch of snooty Savarna peeps who sat in the first few rows and rolled their eyes because apparently the panel was about a “serious topic” and I was not being serious or political enough.
When I asked the panelists if they thought that being Dalit meant that we could only write about political things that concern Dalits — Thank god for Gee, because he said – “I want to see a Dalit writer write about romance and food. I want to see a Dalit director make horror films”
If only we had some of my (DBA) people in the audience, I’m sure there would have been claps and hoots and whistles and pelvic thrusts (I am thinking about my lovely sisters from the writing workshop here)
So basically – I want to write about everything. I want to write about farmers, I want to write about Mayawati, I want to write about Ranveer Singh, I want to write about Joan Didion, I want to write about Siddalingaiah, I want to write about Koffee with Karan, I want to write about Bollywood films and weddings, I want to write about fashion, travel, food, cows, and birds. I want to see my short stories get published in Caravan, Round Table, Dalit Camera, Granta, fucking New Yorker even. Because I want to be a good writer. Because I don’t want to stop learning, ever. Ever.
3. How can you write about Koffee with Karan and about being Dalit at the same time?
Arre. Let me ask you a question – how many Dalit people do you know? And how many Dalit writers do you know who write about popular culture?
Don’t Dalit people watch TV? Shouldn’t they also watch Koffee with Karan like you secretly do (under the covers)? Don’t Dalit people go to pubs? Don’t we like drinking? Don’t we like wearing nice clothes?
And please don’t give me this political-volitical nonsense. I have seen enough Savarna boys in college who suddenly become Angry Savarna Boys. Then they obviously read Das Kapital in sports fields (because everywhere else is too mainstream), then they talk about philosophy and Marx — only to go get an MA and join some Infosys or Accenture.
So, excuse me for not taking you seriously.
4. So what is the point of all this?
Basically it’s this – Ambedkar once told me to tell you – I can’t stop being Dalit just because you are casteless, macha. So stop being an ass.
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.
Premalata is a 23- year-old MBA graduate from Telangana. I met her on Day Two of the Dalit Women Speak Out conference in Pune, 20 Dec 2017.
When I first saw her, she was angrily untangling the beads from her dupatta. She had just ended a very upsetting phone conversation. She snapped the phone shut and jammed it inside her bag. On the other end of the phone, I had heard a man who was persistently asking her where she was.
Poooonaaa, pooonaaa. Pooongaa alla pa, thooo. Poooonaaaa, she’d screamed. After she noticed me, she smiled apologetically and began straightening the creases on her orange Anarkali salwar-kameez.
– Appa? I asked, pointing to the phone now recovering in her bag. Father?
– Illa. Mera Maama – Morning se phone karta. No, my uncle. Has been calling since morning.
This girl was my heroine. She’d refused to give the annoying uncle any bhaav, and now she didn’t want to waste her time talking about him.
She saw my open notebook and asked if I was writing about the conference.
Yes, I tell her but I want to write about her. Is that ok?
She giggled and said, “Main itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” But I’m not a big man.
“Main bhi itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” I’m also not a big man.
She smiled and I was distracted by the calm in her eyes. I didn’t know Telugu and she didn’t know English so in our garbled Hindis we continued to talk.
She said she was fighting with her family because they didn’t want her to work. And that she was seeking an NGO’s help to negotiate with her parents.
When she thought she’d said enough she began interviewing me.
– Tum kya karta? What do you do?
– Main English teacher. I teach English.
I thought back to what I knew about Telugu and grudgingly arrived at fair-skinned heroes against shiny backdrops of big temples; and bubbly heroines with flowing hair. But I’m wondering what her version of the language is.
So I asked her the most personal, most important question in my life.
Tum picture dekhta? Do you watch films?
She nodded wildly and her eyes looked like they were swallowing me along with the entire room.
– Tumko heros main kaun pasand? Who is your favourite hero?
– Ram, she blinked.
– Kaunsa Ram? Ram Charan Teja? Which Ram?
Cheeee! Her face tightened up with disgust and my eyes widened with surprise.
– Toh phir kaunsa Ram? Then which Ram?
– Ek hain Ram karke. Ready main bahut acha acting kiya woh. Ram has done super acting in the film Ready.
I felt slaughtered. I was desperate but equally dreading her answer to my next question.
– Mahesh Babu pasand? Do you like Mahesh Babu?
Cheeeee! She squirmed again.
– Kyuu? Sabko pasand hai na Mahesh Babu? Why? Everyone loves Mahesh Babu no?
– Agar sabhi log Mahesh Babu ko pasand karenge, toh Ram ka kya hoga? (I don’t want to translate this sentence. English doesn’t deserve it)
My shame shame -puppy shame evaporated because I had fallen in love with her. I was too unsettled to say anything but her eyes were calmer than ever as she stifled her guffaws behind the beady orange dupatta.
Even before I could ask her the next question, she had answered– “Genelia girls main pasand.” In girls, I like Genelia.
And then she blushed like red balloons.
– Tum idar kaisa aaya, she asked me. How did you come here?
– Akela? Alone?
– Tum bahut daaare, she said, giving the English word the lift of a plane taking off. And with a thumbs up in my direction, her eyes drank all of us in again.
Premalata gave me more moments to live in than all the waste Telugu friends from college who gave me nothing more than dabba fair heroes to remember them by.
I think of her occasionally and every time I do, I wonder why I didn’t ask to take her picture. Then I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. You can’t trust cameras for moments like these.
As I left the room after saying bye to her that day, I fished my phone out and began looking for Telugu actor Ram. Google showed me pictures of Ram Charan Teja. I rolled my eyes.
The Dalit Women’s Conference was liberating on many levels, mostly because I got to meet some fab women. This is a small account of the writing workshop I conducted in some very questionable Hindi on 19 Dec 2017.
The first thing I notice is that all my ten students are older than me. The little Hindi that I know gives haath and I begin stammering. In the second row, there are three middle-aged women who each have the sternness of my high-school history teacher.
The two oldest women in the group – Jamnadevi (62) and Asha (56) sit in the first row. Every time they smile, the liquid in their eyes glimmers in an alert way.
I fumble with words the first few minutes. I forget if Likhna and Lekhan mean the same thing. I’m not sure if I should rely on the same examples I use in the English-speaking classroom.
But what great sense does talking about writing make in an English-speaking classroom that I should worry about it not making sense in a Hindi classroom?
Some are unconvinced when I say that born-talent is bullshit, that writing is practice. I begin to worry that I’m making no sense at this point because a woman from the second row says – ‘Lekin humko technique malum nahi hain na? Toh kaise likhe?’ But we don’t know the technique. How do we write?
I wonder if should mention Marquez here and feel somewhat hopeful.
I tell them how he taught himself to write through the stories his grandmother told him. How she once told him that every Sunday an electrician would come home to fix things and when he left, the house would be filled with butterflies.
But Marquez knew that if he were to write about butterflies coming out of a room – nobody would believe it. So he borrowed his grandmother’s stone face to tell stories. He also added that they will believe him if he said yellow butterflies. His funda was simple – you want to write? Begin with the stories that you know. Regardless of how crazy they may seem.
The history teachers nod but are still suspicious. Jamnadevi and Asha are bowled over by the yellow butterflies and their smiles are the loudest.
Kisi ek kamre ke bare main likhiye jo aap kabhi bhool nahi payenge. Write about a room that you’ll never forget.
I wait quietly when they begin writing. I imagine what it must be like to touch the greying head tops of Jamnadevi and Asha. It could be hot, it could be cold.
When Asha begins to read, everybody looks at her– “Neele asmaan ke rang ki deeware thi us ghar main. Kone main ek bada kutiya rakha hua tha”
That house had sky-blue walls and in the corner of the house there was a big grinding stone.
When she says neele asmaan, the other women around her nod and she picks up.
When she is describing her mother’s hands and how she’d spend hours tracing them with her index finger, she breaks down.
– Aur nahi pada jata. I cannot read more.
She takes the ends of her white dupatta, removes her glasses and dabs hers eyes with them.
Jamnadevi who is sitting next to her doesn’t register any of this. She is almost smiling as she begins. She describes the only cot in her house on which, she says – her father taught her ganith (Math) and her mother combed her hair.
There was a small Ponds dabba near the window. We’d try as much as we could to make it last a year and then when it got over, granny would fill it with water so we could have Ponds scent. Even today the smell of Ponds reminds me of my grandmother very much.
I stood there beaming like a useless buffoon. All these women were better storytellers than I could ever hope to be. Every single person. I didn’t really have to do anything. Whether or not I did a good job, we had all agreed vehemently that we could not allow anybody else to tell our stories. Our stories are ours.
When Jamnadevi finished reading, she too breaks down.
The two girls sitting behind her tell me they don’t want to read their stories out because they don’t think it’s as good as Jamnadevi’s.
At this Jamnadevi giggles.
When I think about my experiences as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom, I think about how vulnerable knowing or not knowing a language can make one feel in relation to those that have language, power, and knowledge. I think about how I sometimes feel the need to hide my lack of good English. Then I think about all these women and wonder if I need to hide. They brought all their stories together to the classroom that day – Englishlessly. These were powerful stories rendered broken by unseen violence – the kind that is not easy to protest openly. And when they read out their stories, we didn’t know it then, but we were building our own histories with no help from anyone.
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
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