‘The guilt-ridden Hindu self badly needed the untouchables to expiate its guilt, but the heroic stature of the caste Hindu reformer further dwarfed the Harijan personality.’
—Self-purification vs Self -respect, The Flaming Feet… D.R.Nagaraj, p 45
Why Dalit Memoirs?
My first exposure to Dalit autobiographies came as late as my mid-thirties when I read a number of Hindi translations from Marathi. Subsequently, as I began looking for similar works in Hindi, I failed to find any for quite some time. I soon realized that the delay was not my own doing as ‘While the first Dalit autobiographies in Hindi were translations from the vibrant stream of Marathi Dalit literature, Dalit writers in the Hindi belt began to write their own life narratives from in the mid-1990s. The most influential of these include Mohandas Naimisharay’s Apne Apne Pinjare (1995), Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan (1997), and Surajpal Chauhan’s Tiraskrit (2003)’ [Beth 546]. I have since sought out more and more Dalit autobiographies, translated or otherwise and my craving for them has only grown over time. I have to admit that my firsthand experience of caste is rooted mostly in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh but also some other regions in the Hindi belt albeit through ethnographic fieldwork. Although I am certain that such exposure in early life must be guiding and limiting my views on caste in seen and unseen ways, I refer to the following autobiographies in order to embrace a wider but manageable variety of regions, castes, and languages.
- ‘Akkarmashi’ by Sharankumar Limbale
- ‘Achhoot’ by Daya Pawar
- ‘Joothan’ by Omprakash Valmiki
- ‘Murdahiya’ by Dr Tulsi Ram
- ‘Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit’ by Manoranjan Byapari
The purpose here is not to provide a textual analysis of these works but to illustrate how Dalit autobiographies came to occupy their place of prominence on the bookshelves of my mind and why I see them as central to the Indian culture. Each of these volumes deserves extended glosses and analysis but given the limited purpose here, my references to them may seem highly selective and thus perhaps unfairly scanty, a lack I can only repair in my future works.
Significantly, soon after I began reading these volumes, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering why an upper caste Indian like me should at all develop fondness for Dalit autobiographies which often target people from my social background. This would once have been an easy question to answer – the simple reason would be an innate empathy and eagerness to explore unfamiliar terrains of experience through a firsthand approach. In fact, that is the common allure of any autobiography that seems inviting. During my younger days, it was easy for me to discount my brahmin filiation but as my eyes turned inward with greater discernment, I have tried as a brahmin born to understand why these autobiographies have continued to hold such a potent sway over my imagination since the very outset.
With so little that seems seductive about the Dalit autobiographies, my unstinted liking for these harsh testaments occasioned some serious questioning.
Was I just an unabashed voyeur taking joy in someone else’s misery to celebrate my exemption from a similar fate? Was the Dalit just a handy proxy for my rebellion against my own clan and caste? In which case, how far would an empathy based on such motives take me in my emancipatory journey? Was I trying to notionally recruit the Dalit in pushing my own political-ethical agendas or subsume his causes and agendas as part of my own? Or else, was I aiming to immerse my own angst in the vicarious cause against caste to become a part of a broader whole?
These seemingly niggling questions took me well beyond the primal guilt I inherited from a family that did not oppose caste but came down heavily on blatant caste arrogance and excesses. Compared to the spiraling reassertions by the upper castes seen in the new millennium, families like mine during my childhood [1960s-80s] were a bit more resigned to the loss of their caste privileges except perhaps for matrimony where the modernist sanctity of personal choice would leave their tenacity unchallenged. But it turns out that even decades later, every time you begin to indulge the thought that caste may be declining through an almost natural process of wear and tear, a Dalit bridegroom in some distant village gets pulled off his horse to be lynched by a mob, or a Dalit applicant for a job is prevented from filling up a post marked as reserved. Paradoxically, it seems caste must reach its demise only through several rebirths and diminishing iterations. All these questions seemed pressing enough when I read my first Dalit autobiographies in the 1980s but have since acquired a renewed urgency in the new millennium. In order to fully emphasize this urgency, I only have to quote the last lines of the first volume of Omprakash Valmiki’s ‘Joothan’ [p 164] – ‘why is my caste my only identity? My friends hint at my loudness and my arrogance. They suggest that I am trapped within my narrow walls. That a literary expression must be seen through wider meanings. That I should leave my narrowness behind. What they imply is that being a Dalit and retaining an attitude in keeping with my environment and social-economic predicament makes me arrogant. All this because according to them, I stand outside the door, an SC who is an outsider’.
As against this as an educated Indian, my identity was rarely reduced to my Brahminhood. Perhaps as a tease in lighter moments, yes, but that is not a line of enquiry I am pursuing here!
CasteAamnesia; Denial and Affirmation
With Dalit autobiographies figuring nowhere on the standard reading lists to explain my inclination, the long inventory of questions soon turned inwards, and I was compelled to look at the many meanings of being born and brought up a Brahmin. I believe that such focused questioning by a reader is unavoidable if we must make sense of Dalit autobiographies as vibrant narratives breathing life and not just a storehouse of coldblooded ethnography. What seemed rather obviously a part of literary edification thus acquired an air of mystery awaiting candid and convincing answers. The answers to why I sought out Dalit autobiographies began to emerge from my own autobiographical musings and memories of early socialization when children mingle rather freely with fewer constraints of adulthood. Such laxity of social mingling of course includes evasion of matters bearing heavily on the ludic horizon of the child. Caste transgressions during my childhood were indulged and easily forgiven even in the rural setting of my paternal village in East Champaran, Bihar in India where I spent long summer and winter vacations. After all, in a moderately orthodox and urbanized setting like mine, a brahmin was not much of a brahmin before a cursory thread ceremony and during the indeterminate phase before his second birth [Dvija ceremony], enjoyed certain transgressive licenses. I freely broke many of these taboos just for fun and got away since these transgressions often provided a comic relief from the usual straitjacket. But suddenly, all the bonds of friendships and comity formed during those limbo years dissolved in a quick fugue-like transition to adulthood on a university campus. The adult me had already learnt how to ‘handle’ caste and deal with it differently in the rural and the urban settings. In the raw rural setting, a juvenile Brahmin was still considered a brahmin loud and clear, whereas the suave urban setting encouraged a quieter way of dealing with it in its tacit ubiquity.
The urban anonymity of metropolises like Bombay and Delhi that often provide an undetected Dalit some relief from his humiliation also prolong this period of sheltered innocence a bit longer for the upper caste youth, perhaps right till the ogre of caste reservations stares in the face.
This is when the upper caste teen may convert overnight into a victim, blaming the caste-based reservations for violating his innocence and imposing caste on his feigned tabula rasa.
Since the typical upper caste family at this moment of confused fury does little to contextualize the reservation system for their child or to assuage him, he ends up blaming the Dalit for all his woes. Such ‘caste amnesia’ is therefore internalized by a youth who would have known better if his family encouraged him to weigh and ponder the ethical rationale and the widely known arguments in favour of positive discrimination. Instead, perhaps the child’s anger only gets validated and further amplified by the family when he is made to look at reservations as a personalized handicap he didn’t deserve. The growing child is also able to place caste squarely in the past as an empty fossil rather than a living privilege. Even worse, he learns to relegate the excesses and the violence against Dalits as isolated misdemenour or undifferentiated crime. Even though the Caste as an issue of theory may thus remain a puzzle for a long time to come, the mental reflexes and the ethical jugglery of liberal Brahminhood come readily fashioned as part of social skills required of a full-grown adult. Of course, denying caste its operative role may extend all the way from daily life to high theory where caste is transmogrified into class with a procrustean resolve. As for daily social interactions, the trick is to appear a bit taken aback when faced with caste as if something just dropped out of the sky! But such denial, lighthearted or otherwise is where lies the real source of violence against Dalits.
My reading of Dalit autobiographies seemed to cure me of the impulse to deny caste when I saw it. They made it clear to me that unlike the upper caste, a Dalit does not for a moment enjoy the luxury of such a denial. Contrast the mental universe of an upper caste person where caste as a valid category is habitually missing with that of a Dalit who sees it everywhere and all the time, whether as a dull routine or a startling slap in the face. These autobiographies therefore rid me of the inane coyness over caste typical of the forward-thinking upper caste. I found that the Dalit autobiographies aided me in healing a painful disjunct between my ‘self’ as a Brahmin born and as an individual struggling to free himself from caste biases of the emotive or the epistemic kind.
My caste and caste-free selves had always seemed like parallel lines that would never meet since a liberal will typically rarely admit caste as part of his real self, bracketing it and setting it aside with a Vedantic detachment as shed skin.
A major corollary emerging from the masterly works of the historian Nicholas Dirks [Dirks 2011] would suggest that when caste lost much of its substantive political power under the aegis of the modern colonial state, what remained was just the lingering aura of preeminence. In a continuing tale even in our time, it becomes as urgent for the upper castes to guard the aura as a fast diminishing caste privilege. At a time of upper caste insecurity, its sociopathic wiles can understandably become excessively devious and its violence ever inventive. You can demolish a material body or a flawed syllogism but how do you slay the etherealized aura of caste?
It is hardly surprising therefore when A M Shah prefaced his recent article ‘The Mirage of a Caste-less Society in India’ with the following: ‘I am asking substantially the same question as my teacher M N Srinivas asked, “Castes: Can They Exist in India of Tomorrow?” at a seminar in Delhi in 1955, and his teacher G S Ghurye asked in a chapter, “A Casteless Society or a Plural Society?” in the ﬁfth edition of his celebrated book, Caste and Race in India, in 1969’ [Shah 2017 p 61]’. It is of course one thing to trace the reincarnations of caste persisting through three plus generations of sociology gurus and another to trace its ever-renewing presences in the tangled life strategies of the upper caste Indian of today. My socialization in a progressive middle-class ethos had made me place caste in a cognitive limbo – one was expected to enjoy the upper caste entitlements with quiet civility without admitting they existed. This limbo allowed me and others to at once reject and revalorize caste endlessly depending on the occasion and the opportunity.
Juggling between an affirmation of caste and its flat denial is part of the social skills an upper caste child learns through socialization till it becomes a largely tacit behavioural reflex.
Facing the Dalit Protagonist
The liberal or reformist upper caste Indian is thus potentially a protagonist who readily enjoys his privileges as ‘vestiges from history’ but abstains from justifying them overtly. Curiously however, such renunciation makes him feel qualified for upper caste privileges through an ethical back door. If this reasoning sounds convoluted, it is mainly because its loopy pathways are fashioned to accomplish an extraordinary feat – of heroically abdicating a privilege at the front door only to resume it in the backyard again. The idea is not to claim or fight for a privilege but to enjoy them passively as a reward undemanded. How a mental sleight of such order can be maintained by the educated upper caste through a lifetime is an epic tale yet unwritten. What I intend to underline here is that annihilating the caste within is rather like the endless scraping of a bottomless rabbit hole. Agreed, with due respect, the Gandhian process of self-purification is a lot of hard work as it painfully burrows through an unending tunnel of privileges and inequities. But as Nagraj stresses in the lines quoted at the opening of the essay, the upper caste liberal’s unending attempts to annihilate the caste demon within enrich his internality and lend his heroic self a sublime moral stature. Ironically thus, the deeper he delves into his social conscience, the taller his moral stature, turning him into a towering colossus deserving unquestioned esteem. Such is the lot of the upper caste hero at his liberal best – the agonized brahmin simply grows taller by renouncing his Brahminhood for which a Dalit must feel evermore grateful. Could anything be more maddening for a Dalit aiming to break through his mental and material thralldom!
My entry into the world of Dalit autobiographies however cut this story of inflated vanity short before matters got too far. Over time it became easier for me to admit my many presences within the Dalit autobiographies and own them up with due straightforwardness. This was not a narcissus gazing at his reflections in the unlikely mirror of someone else’s autobiography but a vigilant stalker aiming to catch the slippery Brahmin self in all its antics.
Traversing Dalit autobiographies thus proved to be a dual task where placing the Dalit protagonist in the social ambit of my childhood seemed as urgent as locating myself within his or her narrative universe. These two interlacing processes seem to me akin to a simultaneous dialogue within and without – with yourself as well as the Dalit protagonist as you move from one autobiography to the other. Indeed, this is a subtle mental process difficult to achieve through charged public debates, where one bargains to win an argument at any cost. It is a fitful journey of pausing and movement, of digestion and dialogue in an atmosphere of sympathy and patience. It requires much meekness and modesty to take a Dalit autobiography in hand and open its pages.
The passage from the arena of one’s own introspections to the internality of a Dalit life and his perceptions can be strangely liberating. It can free the upper caste liberal of the pious but increasingly needless moral burden of defining the Dalit when he can just listen to an eloquent Dalit define himself instead.
But I also knew that all attempts to make this entry into the Dalit autobiographical universe must follow some basic though obvious sounding directives:
- The Dalit autobiography is intrinsically a domain where the protagonist is definitionally a Dalit. This is not a sphere to be usurped by the upper caste hero, however forward looking.
- Second, the Dalit autobiographies open a rich universe of Dalit subjectivity and internality that can no longer remain the privilege of the upper caste hero with his endless introspection and the eternal stirrings of the restive conscience. A clear admission of the fundamentally limited reach of introspection and self-purification by itself has a great liberating potential for an upper caste liberal sloughing off his background and privileges. As stated earlier, this is of course also the path to an overt and ever widening dialogue not simply with a Dalit but also with one’s own complementary self in the simple sense that there is no Dalit without a brahmin, just as there is no brahmin without a Dalit.
Caste and the Thick Veil of Socialization
Integral to this article are my responses to two forceful comments faced during an initial presentation of a summary paper on the subject at an academic conference. I found the two comments noteworthy for their emblematic tendency to resist and trivialize the solemnity of a Dalit testament and its centrality to our culture. First, one of my interlocutors rather sententiously decided that my judgment was clouded by a commonplace and wearisome upper caste guilt that is quite avoidable. Second, another commentator wondered why I should be ‘fascinated’ rather immoderately by Dalit autobiographies, insinuating that I had perhaps shied away from Dalit company all my life and instead chose the company of books written by them. May be a lack of close contact with Dalit friends she seemed to imply, explained for me the novelty of the autobiographies. As far as she was concerned on the other hand, they were filled with the well-worn tales of injustice and oppression, she was long familiar with. Although I can think of many other reasons for ignoring Dalit autobiographies, these two seem outstanding in that they are particularly determined and doctrinaire.
The first comment seemed to imply that there is something rather pointless about upper caste guilt, making the unfounded assumption that such guilt is widely internalized in our society. If that were the case, I would lose the most compelling reason to write this essay. The dismissive sounding comment though may be partly justified in that the upper caste guilt may ironically also lead to ethical complacency in ways discussed earlier. Even though guilt is often depicted as an eddy with a deep churning within, it often ends up in a stasis like the whirring of an engine that never moves. And yet, a sociopathic absence of guilt, I believe, is very alarming for someone questioning the status quo of caste and one may even claim that it underlies the fundamental difference between the liberal and the illiberal among the upper castes. Yes, while the upper caste guilt by itself does not lead to emancipatory pathways and may often peter out in the sands of moral conceit, it is also an indispensable threshold to a long drawn ethical adventure and lifelong dialogue.
This is perhaps why in the essays of D.R.Nagraj, Gandhi’s ‘self-purification’ seems to be a dynamic quest rather than the draining of a festering conscience for all time to come or a mere instance of self-flagellation.
Guilt alone may not be adequate, but it is certainly not dispensable or redundant. It would thus be perverse to quarrel with guilt or any other variety of internalized morality and attempt a quick parsimonious surgery on the conscience. A healthy sense of guilt is in fact a prerequisite for an internalized moral precept that goes deeper than the constrictive caste morality. To feel shame over unjustifiable privilege and a desire to be acknowledged for hard-earned accomplishments is indeed a robust moral trait for all possible castes and human beings. It is certainly the initial fillip that pushed me out of the Brahmin haven and move towards a freer and wider social horizon. I found it unacceptable that the credit for my individuality and energy should go to my caste parentage or privilege and felt shame when it did. Call it guilt if you like!
As for the second comment questioning my unhealthy fascination for Dalit autobiographies or my inability to mingle with Dalit friends and neighbors sufficiently through the early stages of my life, my response will be rather staccato. I believe that my critic forgot to make a note of how caste pervades and impacts our socialization process in a variety of settings in India. The fact is that if children and adolescents from all the castes mixed freely and were able to enjoy uninhibited intimacies, caste system would cease to exist in any substantive sense. Of course, in my casteless utopia, the marriages will indeed be free of caste, but perhaps even more elementary, children from the very outset will play freely without bothering over caste in a state of ludic liberty. I will illustrate the point through two telling examples from Dr Tulsi Ram and Daya Pawar.
Dr Tulsi Ram almost passingly mentions Hiralal, an upper caste classmate who insisted on addressing him as ‘chamra’, a common caste slur aiming to put down the Dalit boy who topped the class. The derisive label follows young Tulsi Ram right up to high school when Hiralal blurts out to him ‘oh, you have even reached here’. Another upper caste classmate, even blunter in his spite asks Tulsi Ram ‘why do you have to be so smart?’ This is clearly a disarming question in all its brutal innocence! But it indicates the stuff that a Dalit child’s socialization is made of. Hiralal and other upper caste children threatened to maim Tulsi Ram if he dared to appear for his final matriculation exam, for which he turned up under protection. Other Dalit students without backing from muscle power had their legs broken. I imagine that the derisive address ‘chamra’ echoed in Dr Tulsi Ram’s head all his life, perhaps even ruining his greatest moments of triumph and grace.
Probably an equally pitiless and moving tale comes from the opening paragraphs of Limbale’s autobiography ‘Akkaramashi’ where he describes a picnic arranged by his school. During the outing, after the Dalit children ate up their own measly home food, they were invited to sample the sumptuous leftovers from the upper caste children which they attacked with gusto but not without feeling the shame of it. The next day the entire class was asked to write an essay on the picnic – the expectation must have been that the student would recall the feast gleefully, embellishing his prose with lyrical depictions of the natural surroundings and other school essay clichés. But still numbed by the ignominy of the earlier day, the pensive child didn’t know where to begin. This is how Limbale launches his autobiography! No wonder, Om Prakash Valmiki used the title ‘Joothan [used, leftover food]’ for his autobiography to convey the dense symbolic meaning of a running theme in a Dalit’s life. But these two are just freeze shots from an ever-ending tale of slight that could mar the spirit of the child forever but doesn’t.
It is for such glaring reasons, I believe that early socialization in caste has not received due attention, the assumption perhaps being that the story of caste belongs solely to adulthood with little lasting impact on a growing child.
Even those willing to give the remoter social history of caste oppression its due place perhaps fail to acknowledge the continuing traumas from the life of a Dalit child. Not surprisingly thus, among the five autobiographies earlier mentioned I found that instances of enduring inter-caste friendships were quite rare – of course, a Brahmin girl did fall in love with young Omprakash Valmiki but as soon as he revealed his caste to her, she told him disbelievingly but bluntly ‘if what you say is true, and if you ever come home after this don’t let my father know.’ Manoranjan Byapari in his audacious career made several upper caste friends entirely through his political activities. His politics saw him mingle with the college educated Naxal [CPI-ML] cadre in Calcutta and then later with Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha under the leadership of Shankar Guha Niyogi. With some guidance and help from the well-known author Mahashweta Devi, a rebellious youth grew up into a renowned writer feted by the Bangla literati for his raw literary genius. Byapari thus draws us into a world to which we wouldn’t have access but for his writings. Dr Tulsi Ram’s chumminess with the legendary Hindi-Bhojpuri poet Gorakh Pandey is well known in the Hindi literary circles but this friendship was again formed in college during their salad days. There are of course exceptions that prove the rule – my early childhood in its rural setting was relatively free of caste constraints and my family did not resent my preference for playmates largely from the neighbouring potter caste households. But I cannot pretend that this one-way license applied to children from the Dalit castes. Their homes were clustered typically on the periphery of the village which limited our contact.
Thankfully, the Dalit autobiographies rip through this adult-oriented pretense by mercilessly culling memories scarring their tender years.
Early socialization in caste has however seen visible changes over the decades in my own lifetime [1955 -] and it is easy to see that every following generation will have its own story to tell. This is the main reason why I await fresh autobiographies written by the newer generation of Dalits where the earliest memories, however traumatic or inescapably tangled in caste will vary considerably. A second and perhaps equally important reason is the almost fickle and often counter-intuitive diversity of castes and their localized status in different parts of India that adds further variability. Who knows, there may be an exceptional Dalit who himself faced few adversities in life but writes keenly about others who did! How an individual from a specific Dalit caste in a specific region as part of the local power equations saw himself in relation to others can lend unforeseen levels of originality to each story. I say this with a full awareness that my own experiences and reading are coloured heavily by what I saw in rural and urban Bihar and Uttar Pradesh since my childhood. But all the autobiographies discussed here repeatedly mention exceptional upper caste individuals or structural fault lines in the local caste practices that brought them untold relief and opportunities to overcome their caste handicaps. The question is how the number of these ‘exceptional’ upper caste members may increase over time and at what rate. The so-called annihilation of caste depends rather vitally on this well-hidden statistic.
Add to all this another major reason why I await new Dalit autobiographies. Given the highly variegated profiles of castes and subcastes you see an unimaginable variety of experience and cultural output among Dalits in different regions of India. As my own ethnographic work on regional culture illustrates [Tripathy 2018], a simple tabulation of the musical, theatrical and literary forms practiced by different castes and subcastes in almost any given region can leave you wonderstruck! You may even wonder if the upper castes in those regions show comparable levels of cultural attainment at all! Despite all this, I gather from literary gossip in Hindi circles that Dalit autobiographies are often ridiculed as boring litanies of misery and when a new manuscript is submitted, the publishers frown dismissively and exclaim ‘oh, one more Dalit autobiography’! Such attitudes have left Hindi literature and culture with a gaping hole, of course! Where others would insist on seeing mere stereotype however, I found an untold wealth of diversity in an ever-widening arc of human experience. Therefore, my brazen fascination for Dalit autobiographies!
Dalit Protagonist and His Reader
Although a Dalit autobiography may be read in a variety of ways and at many levels, my own reading of them threw up a set of handy exegetical pointers that seem most congruent with the specific discourse and genre in question. They are as follows:
- Autobiography as a healing or cathartic conversation with oneself – as an access to the deep subjectivity of the protagonist lending depth and richness to the inner world of the Dalit
- as a social testimony, the autobiography throws light on the basic fault lines in our society and politics
- as an invitation to a dialogue by a protagonist it opens up a political process embracing both Dalits as well as a variety of castes and regions
In other words, with the Dalit autobiographer as the protagonist, and with the reader endorsing his/her primacy, the acts of narrating and listening acquire a political hue, joining them both in a mutual compact. Listening to someone without interruption or hasty exegetical meddling is inherently an act of deference. It is equally important to appreciate the intrinsic stance of the reader of an autobiography – she is responding to an invitation for a journey in the internal mindscape of the author. This is poignant for both – the author who reveals his internal self with an assurance of being heard and the reader keen to explore a terrain untrodden.
When we remain silent and wait for the other person to tell his life story, that by itself defines however momentarily, a certain parity of power and existential equivalence.
I tend to see Dalit autobiographies layered at different levels as they help me map the otherwise untraceable strands of communication spanning the private and the public life. In fact, at the core of the autobiography lies the rather inscrutable magic of a quiet soliloquy transmute into a bold testimony as part of public culture. Like many other autobiographers, Sharan Kumar Limbale in his ‘Akkaramashi’ reflects on the rationale for his autobiography. Even a cursory look at his elucidations make it clear that Limbale’s motives are quite tangled, ranging between the entirely private to the utterly public. So, at one point he admits ‘I have lived a life that seems scary and horrible. I don’t comprehend how I was able to live that life. The poverty, humiliation, oppression depicted in this book are real. But my sister denies all this and says, ‘if I admit the truth of all this, I will lose all the respect in my in-law’s home’ [Limbale p 18]. Whereas a little earlier he contends, ‘I do not see ‘Akkaramashi’ as a work of creative art but an explanation. I suggest that the readers see it as a case of social oppression’ [Limbale 16]. Clearly, an autobiography is both preceded and followed by immense tensions and self-doubt. ‘Akkaramashi’, the title itself is an oblique term of abuse for an illegitimate child, the Marathi metonym conveying the sense of ‘incomplete’ or ‘lesser’. Verily, unlike many other autobiographies charged with triumphism, Dalit autobiographies are often about a defining lack in life and its overcoming. They are unfailingly the very opposite of exemplary life stories trumpeting achievements and unashamedly seeking the reader’s adoring gaze.
Restoring & Updating Caste Memory
I can understand as did Limbale that a Dalit autobiography may seem unbearably painful not just to an upper caste person but even to other Dalits though not for the same reasons. The shock of Dalit autobiography is partly lost on a self-absorbed reader concerned only with her outrages and oblivious of the author’s pain in revisiting the old traumas and wounds. It takes some courage after all to tear away at old scabs and scars to share a life with an anonymous reader.
One after the other, the incidents from a Dalit life leave the reader on the brim of almost impenetrable qualia of humiliation and suffering. I have nevertheless been bewildered by a type of forward-looking person who would hastily embrace all the politically correct positions on the caste issue and avoid the vast terrain of Dalit experience. I wonder if the ardor for political correctness and ‘toeing the line’ in such instances is driven partly by an eagerness to skip the endless saga of pain in the favour of a misguided emotive economy!
It seems to me that in this shortcut to political rectitude, an upper caste liberal commits the grave crime of eliding Dalit memories not to mention his own that must be embraced as wider societal experience shared by all. This tenacious denial of caste indeed finds nearly as many innovative expressions as the persistence of caste in its ever-renewing avatars.
The tendency to wish caste away however, invariably proves futile and what you do not let in through your doorways tends to come back with redoubled force and crash through your barred windows. If the upper caste chooses to practice caste stealthily, a lower caste person may also respond by camouflaging her caste in an act of perfect complicity, neither of which prove long-lasting. Recently, when a stubborn reminder of this came, it was not from a remote village in India but all the way from the USA in an autobiography exposing caste on the global platform. To quote at length from a report in the Indian media ‘The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, itself a result of the civil rights campaign in the US, overturned restrictions of race and colour, and allowed a whole generation of Indian skilled labour (mostly upper-caste) to take a shot at the American dream. A steady flow of “lower-caste” Indians has also followed, as they accessed educational opportunities in technical institutions via reservations. One such example is of the REC Warangal-educated Sujatha Gidla, whose 2017 book ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’, was published in the US to great acclaim’. ().
In case the gentler literary reminder by Gidla was not enough, all over again in June 2020 we hear that the state of California’s Department Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Cisco and its former managers for allegedly discriminating against a Dalit Indian-American employee on the basis of his caste. While talking to the press, Soundarajan, Executive Director of Equality Labs, the plaintiff in the case claimed that ‘…South Asians bring caste wherever they go,’. According to her caste is a major part of ecosystem of Silicon Valley. “Because of the heavy recruitment from IITs, dominant castes who pride themselves as being only of merit have just converted their caste capital into positions of power throughout the valley. Because of the system of internal referrals many managers recruit within their caste and their family and friends’ network. Cisco is one of those companies where the caste networks are very tight knit and intimidating to break through,” she claimed. ()
Far away from the caste-free fantasies of the Silicon Valley in 2017, let us again return back home in year 1978 where caste seems less exotic. Compare the press report from the alien soil of the US to the dated but equally work-related account from Daya Pawar’s autobiography ‘Balut’ [1978 in Marathi] translated rather palely as ‘Achhoot [untouchable]’ in Hindi. The list of societal duties performed by a Mahar villager according to Pawar were ‘collecting the levy from the village and carrying it to the taluka, running along the horses when the officials came to visit the village and caring for the animals, feeding the horses, functioning as the crier with a drum, conveying news of deaths in the countryside, removal of dead cattle, splitting firewood, playing instruments in the village fair, ushering in a bridegroom during weddings’[Pawar p49], were the jobs performed by his Mahar caste for which they received a balut’. Add to these by default another long list of forbidden tasks the upper castes were not supposed to do. Although ‘balut’ sounds like a fee routinely paid by the upper caste, the fact is that according to Pawar, the Mahars found it difficult to squeeze it out of the miserly upper castes and were often compelled to pray and beg for it. Born in 1935, one may infer that Pawar was describing the village practices from roughly the period of the 1940s-50s in the Ahmednagar region in Maharashtra. Clearly, the dated description may not apply to other parts of India and certainly not in the 2017 of Gidla or in 2020 of the Cisco scandal. It is easy to claim sweepingly that the world has changed radically since Pawar and that by making two successive leaps from rural India to a metropolis and thence to the distant USA, a Dalit would have managed to escape caste forever. And yet, when you juxtapose the two autobiographies from then and now, you begin to see with a bit more clarity what has not changed at all since the time of Pawar! And in a sense, somethings may have got worse!
I believe that an efficacious way to assess the historical momentum of caste in recent Indian history is best captured by D Nagraj in his essay on violence against Dalits: ‘Two clearly identifiable patterns emerge if one analyses the all-too frequent attacks on Dalits. The first is related to the notion of justice in village society. The second is a consequence of the efforts made by Dalits to secure new rights which the traditional society refuses to concede. The two patterns of violence are not necessarily different, although they have separate origins. The first form of attack gives birth to a new consciousness among Dalits and is usually the confirmation of their worst fears regarding the true nature of caste Hindu society. The second form of violence is a sharp Hindu reaction to the birth of a new awareness and the consequent beginning of a new form of social presence registered by Dalits’ [Nagaraj p 126].
Taking a cue from Nagraj, I would like to rename his ‘second form of violence’ as ‘retaliatory’ in order to emphasize both the historically layered nature of the injustice as well as its specific political lineament. This is important if we must make due note of the long history of Dalit struggle and its achievements, which in turn have led to retaliatory measures by the upper caste. It is perhaps relatively easy for a forward-looking upper caste reader to trace her caste lineage through the traditional ‘pattern’ of injustice and violence and disown the ‘timeless’ baggage. It is a bit more difficult as an eyewitness to fully identify and comprehend the ‘second form of violence’ mentioned by Nagaraj, which is mainly retaliatory and an outcome of reactions to Dalit assertion in the last several decades. Any upper caste reader receptive only to the first ‘pattern’ of violence is responding to half of caste history and must appreciate the more recent forms of violence for what they are. To illustrate the point, when Tulsiram faced caste tyranny from a classmate, the violence here stands out as retaliatory, as his classmate’s reaction to Tulsiram topping his class in school. Similarly, when Gidla faces untouchability at a bank counter in the US, it is because an upper caste bank clerk resents her journey to the US soil and her status as a customer seeking to be served. When incidents like this trigger the writing of an autobiography, they simply bring to the fore the core malaise of a society and in this sense deserve to be seen as the pillars of our culture. Although I do not fail to notice and underline the instances of the ‘primary violence’ in the later autobiographies, I try to trace the myriad pathways of violence in its retaliatory form or in forms that compound both rather inseparably.
And yet given that after the first flush of Dalit autobiographies in the 1990s, we have had fewer of them in the new millennium is not something that should go unnoticed. Whereas I expected a proliferation of Dalit autobiographies from Uttar Pradesh-Bihar-Jharkhand in the new millennium, that they have been far from numerous cannot be overlooked either. The cultural significance of this enormous absence is difficult to decipher but it clearly leaves a gaping hole in our social memory. No wonder, the resounding silence at our own doorsteps was broken by Gidla, an American migrant of Andhra origin who recalls facing discrimination from many Indians, the least humiliating of which was from a Brahmin cashier at a bank, “who wouldn’t accept money from my hands. She would demand that I place it on the counter.”
Interestingly, Gidla the author emphasizes in a colossal understatement that such incidents ‘make it harder to deny the reality of caste’ in 2020. A Dalit autobiography may just be the kind of cure we need to curb the crazy cultural oscillation between the search for a befitting theory of caste and a blatant denial of its reality, an epistemic ambivalence that seems nothing short of pathological. If you want a theory of caste you must begin by admitting it exists in all its fullness and its continued adaptations and variations over time and across regions!
Fear of the Pointing Finger
Even during my latest readings of Dalit autobiographies, I have not been able to escape the intermittent stabs from a pointing finger rising out of the text. I can understand why a forward-looking upper caste reader may want to dodge the phantoms and pre-empt them by voicing progressive slogans and viewpoints in advance. There is something almost comical about a bewildered reader running away from an autobiography as an imagined target in a very personal sense. There is often a pensive quality to Dalit biographies however that is very unlike the frontal political assaults you see in pamphlets and partisan essays. While an upper caste reader may surely claim some daring in facing the facts of caste, it is the author whose courage seems more remarkable in the face of distress recalled repeatedly through an autobiography. In her calmer moments however, the reader will also enjoy the profound trust placed in her by the author. It is this fine sense of complicity between the author and the reader that makes an autobiography a worthwhile cultural experience for both.
I must reiterate that the Dalit autobiographies listed here were certainly painful to write and that in publishing them, the author squarely faces his or her own odyssey of shame. The accusatory finger pointing at me thus often seemed to swerve back to the author of the autobiography as well. This is not something a reader may notice immediately but only over time after reading a number of these autobiographies. Dalit autobiographies are punctuated with quarrelsome and accusatory episodes but such moments are preceded by accounts of shame and ignominy that requires great courage to admit in ways so mercilessly elaborate. There is a finger the autobiographer keeps pointing at himself through a tale of relentlessly hurt pride. It is only fair if the same finger should also turn on the reader and cause discomfort.
Dalit autobiographies rarely speak like loudhailers in public spaces and are more like intimacies shared in a state of brooding raptness with a friend. In this sense, just as I share with all the authors named here the torment and the shame of caste, I also share the promise of an imminent emancipation.
At the end of an autobiography, I see the upper caste reader and the Dalit autobiographer at a crossroads, standing silently in togetherness in a posture of shared anticipation.