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

Lot’s Wife

I like watching women walk away. I realized this first when I was watching Piku. Piku and her friend, Syed are arguing and she has had enough. She holds the door open and wonders if she should sit in the car when suddenly, she announces, “You know what? I need a break” and then she just walks off. She walks off and doesn’t return to work for days after that. She cleans her home, arranges books, goes out for a party and does other things.

Season 3 Episode 8 of Gilmore girls: Lorelai, Rory and Emily all walk away. Richard has fixed an appointment with the Dean of Yale University without checking with either Lorelai or Rory. When he ambushes Rory outside the Dean’s office, Lorelai charges towards them and speaks to Rory.

When Richard interrupts, she says, “Rory – the only person I am speaking to. You don’t have to go in there if you don’t want to.” When Rory says she will go in, Lorelai walks away without saying a word. This isn’t a pissed off walking away. This is a – “I’m here for you and I won’t let them bully you so just say the word and we’ll go” – walking away.

I am always amazed when Lorelai walks away. She doesn’t want Rory to go in but she is gracious when Rory decides to. That’s the kind of walking away that comes from respecting people and their freedom. The kind that I hope I’ll be able to do one day.

Scenes later, Rory walks away from Richard and so does Emily. Except that when Emily walks away, I’m both amused and frightened. ‘Don’t you even look at me’, she says to Richard before storming off. It took me years to admit this but I never get tired of watching her on screen.

Someday I want to walk away like that. I want to walk away without wanting to look back. Often I look back because I feel like I have left something back and without it I cannot do anything. Often, it is nothing. Just my frightened self, sitting and staring at nothing.