(Nuance defined as: noticing a very slight difference in meaning or someone’s feelings that is not usually very obvious)
Bole toh, if a Savarna journalist accuses you, a Dalit writer – of not having nuance, it means that you are not smart enough to look beyond caste. It means that caste is but a mere ‘accident’ in all our lives & it’s not their fault that they were born there, & you were born here. None of us chose it alva? Then why the drama, mama? And if you are not able to look beyond it, then what is the point of education? Of Ambedkar?
Nuance is a quintessential Savarna demand. But sadly, it is not challenging enough for a Dalit writer to do better. Because Savarna nuance is to make all the Dalit people they’ve ever known in their lives stand in an imaginary line & pick the one that appears most authentically Dalit to them. The darker you are, the poorer you look, the weaker your English is – the better.
If you don’t have these qualities, then sorry – you might be Dalit but you have to unsee caste. In the Savarna scale of imagination, be assured that a dead Dalit is more Dalit than one alive. And if you are alive, well, & kicking – then you shouldn’t be talking caste, bro. You should be working quietly despite it & produce art that is more nuanced & less self-indulgent.
But bro, if our art & literature is too self-indulgent, it’s not like yours isn’t no? Savarna journalists who win awards for writing about the suffering underprivileged deploy the highest form of self-indulgence. It’s your craft, your merit, your nuance, your sympathy, & your talent against someone who is barely trying to survive.
Jia Tolentino remarks in an essay that sometimes social media allows people to take more comfort in a sense of injury over a sense of freedom. When I read this, I heard the sound of a long, feverish worry being unlocked – the worry that being on social media was like gathering a certain kind of something – an assurance perhaps. That one needed to keep producing an injured self over & over again to maintain it.
Thankfully, Ambedkar had a solution for us long before anyone else did. Because he was a constant learner of things- his passion for violin, gardening, and tea is our freedom. It gives someone like me the backbone to fall in love with someone like Alice Munro. Sadly, your nuance, and punishment for demanding it from others is Manu Joseph.
I first saw Silk Smitha in Halli Meshtre and got impatient with the camera which took forever to show her face. Unfortunately, in all the songs that followed, that camera remained and so did the man behind it. Same man, same camera. They were interested in her face only when it was accompanied by the sounds of moaning. And in more ways than one, the Savarna feminist aka the saree-bindi feminist (I will forever love you for coining this, Darde-discourse) is no different from a man like that.
They both see what they want to see: a site to perform ‘perversions’ that won’t be performed on a ‘purer/fairer’ body or an opportunity to rescue a “poor, hypersexualized, lower-caste woman” who might not know better. (I don’t have to explain why I am more uncomfortable with the latter)
All I can say is that if you’re having sex, neither the man behind that camera nor the saree-bindi feminist will care about your pleasure. They will come and go.
Is there another way of looking at Silk Smitha then? She doesn’t make it easy to answer this and maybe she doesn’t have to. What she still brings on screen are possibilities that are not easy to confront. What do you do with a woman who has paid so much attention to a body alone in pleasure & its need to submit to shamelessness — that she is able to imitate the same tremor, bend, gesture, and moan when not alone and for a roomful of crew and cameras?
At the end of Love me allow me to love you, the ‘actual heroine’ of the film arrives to watch Shankarnag and Silk Smith rolling on the grass in some park, hugging and kissing. She tears them apart, calls Silk Smitha a ‘dirty bitch’, slaps her and throws her into a pond. Many have pointed out that this was the tragedy of Silk Smitha – that despite the power she held over men and women alike, she was, in the end, alone. They will say this but they won’t acknowledge caste in this. Silk Smitha’s loneliness is not very different from the loneliness of Dalit and Bahujan students who are murdered in institutions.
But I’d like to keep her alive in other ways too – by imagining & believing that she pissed people off because she taught savarnas how to have better sex. By acknowledging that no other actor was able to achieve what she was able to, that she single-handedly recognized the uselessness of savarna men. Whether it’s Ravi Chandran, Kamal Hasan, Rajinikanth or Shankarnag – all the men she acted with are so similarly boring that they are all easily interchangeable. Take all their songs, exchange the men – it won’t change a damn thing. What you’ll still see is one Silk Smitha, shining. Always.
Apart from Lihaaf, the other Ismat Chugtai story I often return to is ‘The Veil.’ It has the most memorable image of a man fleeing his bride because she is too shy to lift her Veil on the wedding night, and he is too afraid to do it himself. I’m fascinated by why I remember ‘The Veil.’ Sometimes, it’s the bride’s momentary courage to not lift her hands to please the groom. Sometimes it’s the groom’s voice as it moves (in the most humane way anything can) from a request to an order to eventually cries of pleas.
But what I’m most curious and delighted about is the window from which he jumps out twice. And what are veils if not windows? For the first time in a story written by a woman, I’m more smitten by a man who is so afraid, that he isn’t afraid of running away – twice. He’s the only man I know who has made the most accurate use of windows. Someday, I wish I have half the courage that Kale Mian did.
Tagging this under #DalitHistoryMonth because when my UC feminist teacher taught me this story, I had no language, no eye to look at the man in this story. It was not considered important. And I didn’t think to ask, to wonder, to keep looking. The luxury and tragedy of Savarna Feminism is that it has never been honest with itself. It doesn’t deal with male vulnerabilities derived by caste and religion because then its job would never be over. And my tragedy is that after discovering Ambedkar and Savitrimai, I find it increasingly difficult to trust an ethic that is afraid of hard work.
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.
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