Men in Basti
We have lost more men
to alcohol and loneliness
then the world lost them
in wars against men
fighting an invisible enemy
means soldiers often
end up hurting themselves.
My poem sprouted from my observations of Dalit men in my basti. Because I am made to feel disgusted about my oppressed existence, the construction of my social location, upbringing and the processes that followed from my birth within an oppressed caste, often, I feel the need to annihilate some part of me, if not my entire existence. I cannot help but hate my conditions and what they have made of me.
Though hating the self can transform into habitually harbouring resentments towards others, the oppressed individual cannot help it. Among his tribe of the oppressed, self-depreciation and self-harm are tendencies that have troubled him for most of his life. It is easy for him to hate himself because his legacy of oppression does not have a language that could teach him how to love himself or others. The oppressed are born where poverty, discrimination, jealousy, resentment and competition are everyday features of life. While their bleak realities are “normal”, no one tells them they result from the collective failures of society. One day, the oppressed pick up a book, start reading and discover their ruin and what caused it. They glimpse the truth but are ill-equipped with a language to comprehend it.
The oppressed resort to the ultimate language—silence. It allows sanity, at least in the body, when the mind is on a loose end. Some sing for sanity, but many long for destruction, a gradual death after wallowing in addictions. Strangely, the oppressed feel free in this slow death from substance abuse because addictive substances offer momentary dissociation from their oppressive and mechanical social life. The monotony of mechanical living is such that the oppressed breathe suffocation which their instincts recognise, yet they rarely come to terms with it or overcome it. To break free from this, the oppressed do not need an answer; they must arrive at the right question. It would reveal the nature of their oppression. Once this is done, the oppressed themselves become the answer and can break free.
In The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin Classics, 2001), Frantz Fanon describes how everyday violence is built into the lives of the masses by social structures which make the smallest, most rudimentary needs their biggest concerns. “The people…” he writes, “take their stand from the start on the broad and inclusive positions of bread and the land: how can we obtain the land and bread to eat? And this obstinate point of view of the masses, which may seem shrunken and limited, is in the end the most worthwhile and the most efficient mode of procedure.”
Land and bread—home and hunger—are extremely significant in shaping the course of violence in the lives of the masses. The search for home and food is the strongest ever-present lifelong malady for the oppressed. India’s oppressed castes hardly ever feel at home because of the indifference and discrimination of oppressor castes, which wounds them forever. Hunger is their other reality, to quench which, historically, they have had to pursue undignified occupations.
This history of longing for the most rudimentary needs has disappointed the oppressed about life. They could not bear what they saw and experienced, especially after they became conscious of this truth. To know the truth is one thing, but to handle it is entirely another. The longing for death begins in not knowing how to pursue or go along with the truth one knows. That is why some Dalit poets lament how learning to read became a curse for them—for now, they know the truth about their oppression, erasure from history, and how they have been despised. This truth often depresses them further. For me, at least, this truth creates a person whose reactions and responses could be self-destructive. This process is where alcohol and substance use—and abuse—come into the picture.
In All About Love (William Marrow, 2018), Bell Hooks writes, “Much of the violence in domestic life, both physical and verbal abuse, is linked to job misery.” For a member of an oppressed caste, the misery of work is linked to their historical struggle for dignity. Only after the Constitution of India was promulgated did the Dalits gain access to work that is considered dignified, such as teaching or other work of the intellect. Nevertheless, many remain stuck in informal jobs in fields where their personality is seen as linked with their caste identity, robbing them of their human dignity. The ghost of caste follows them everywhere, even if the Constitution has theoretically killed it. Declared free by the law of the nation but living as victims, unfree to pursue their dreams—this dilemma is their biggest trap.
Oppressed castes want to shout but are conscious of their vulnerability. Only when under the influence of intoxicating substances do they feel free inside, as then, they can speak without caring about its consequences. One who knows their voice belongs to a systematically suppressed self also knows that substance can provide a way out of this suppression. However, no matter how free an addiction makes one feel, it is self-destructive. It turns the violence an oppressed person experiences, whether verbal or physical, into active self-loathing.
At work, the oppressed constantly grapple with the fear of being seen differently and confronting the indifference of others. Inheriting and accepting the history of oppression begets the dream of liberation in them. So, the oppressed self dreams of living as a free man, even for a day, without fearing being asked who he is. The oppressed also often suffer under the weight of this dream, and some become its martyrs. To me, our dreams often appear dangerous because they demand we defy everything, even our memories of pain and the history in which we trace our transformation from visible to invisible. The failure of the anti-caste movement is that it taught its successors only one language—assertion. Therefore, the oppressed speak mainly from the position of being victims. Caste society, per se, does not have a history. It only has memory—and is very much in the habit of forgetting.
Forgetting gives the oppressor tremendous scope to live guilt-free and create a fantasy as history to support their propaganda. This is why caste society does not have a history but only memory. The oppressed must learn the language of creation—which manifests their vision—rather than a language of assertion, which is the effect of oppression. However, creation needs tremendous patience and work, and the atmosphere around the oppressed is so unjust that he often resorts to assertions to establish that he is alive. History tells us his assertion only exposes the oppressed and their vulnerabilities to the oppressor. To summarise, creation makes history, while assertion can fade away and become just a memory.
Memory utterly fails in caste society because no two castes can establish a bond of affection, empathy and love. The oppressed feel this instinctively, but lacking a language to articulate this, often develop a longing for death through substance abuse instead. For the truth to hold lasting or permanent value, we need not just to feel free but someone to share it with. Sharing is a form of creation, but caste society allows us to share our stories, history, love, and touch. The answer, we know, is a big NO.
The other day, in a video of philosopher Slavoj Zizek, he was saying: “Don’t fall in love with your suffering.” It did not take a minute to understand how relatable these words are to an oppressed self. The tendency to long for death—a gradual dissociation from the materiality of oppressive life—persists among the oppressed, and tragic demise through substance abuse makes it explicit.
The oppressed learned long ago to view the futility of suffering and developed aspirations to overcome it in their dreams of freedom. Yet, he could not deal with it without a language to confront the material reality of oppression. Sometimes, the comprehension of oppression itself frustrates him because its structures and trajectories are a complex web of dialogues between social, political, cultural, and historical realities. Only when the oppressed is “not normal” in the eyes of society does he feel “normal” and free! The oppressed self is a fertile dream of freedom, but the world is still unprepared to accept it.