Presidency is a dream college for many students across India, especially in Bengal. The college, now a university, was established in 1817 and is one of the oldest educational institutes in the country. It has a long list excellent alumni which include the first President of India, a former chief minister of Bengal, Nobel Laureates, an Oscar recipient and many more.
However, I, as a Dalit, never felt the urge to flaunt my alma mater. Sadly, the three years I was there between 2006 and 2009 remind me of some of the most difficult times of my life.
For some, it may come as a surprise as many believe that West Bengal doesn’t rank high on a list of states known for caste discrimination. My experiences found this to be untrue – while I was at the receiving end of the worst casteist taunts otherwise too, my experience in college was much worse.
Within the halls of the place of learning of one of India’s most progressive educational institutions, taunts and casteist slurs became a part of my student life.
I was born and brought up in a middle-class family in rural Bengal. My father was a school teacher and my mother a housewife. They tried their best to hide the truth of our caste identity and its nasty effects, but they couldn’t do it forever – as I’m sure they very well knew.
The first time I got to know about caste was when I was seven or eight.
During one summer holiday, I was playing with our neighbour, a Brahmin boy, who was a year older. When we got into a small fight, he called me and my family mochi – a lower-caste tribe, mainly chamars, who traditionally make shoes using animal skin.
Back then, I didn’t understand much about caste. I only had a vague idea of the concept and that I did not fall on the side considered favourable.
Then, on my very first day of joining Presidency, I got my first taste of what it is to be Dalit.
During counselling, one of my batchmates called me a ‘sonar (S) chand (C)’. The phrase stands for ‘golden moon’ in Bengali and it is used as a sophisticated casteist slur while referring to someone from the Scheduled Caste, or lower caste. It took me a while to understand its meaning as I had never encountered the phrase before.
When I did get it, I was awestruck. How could they come up with such a phrase? How could they innovate a casteist slur and indirectly humiliate someone?
This was my welcome at Presidency.
I have lived in many states in India to pursue my higher education, and this form of casteist attack is rare to find elsewhere. While caste is prominent in northern regions, it is implicit and hidden under the surface in Bengal, as per my experience.
But just because caste isn’t visible, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
In a recent interview with Anandabazar, Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee – also a Presidency alumni – said that he came to know about caste and how it is intertwined with poverty only after he went to Jawaharlal Nehru University, and not when he was in Presidency.
He may not have seen, but caste was always present – and probably still is.
It is noteworthy that Presidency has always remained a hub of one of the most progressive politics in Bengal. All shades of left parties are active in the campus but, when I was there, nobody ever cared to discuss the Dalit issue. The parties would organise talks and discussions on a plethora of issues but caste was never in the picture. There were no support groups or redressal mechanisms for Dalit students. Plus, the space was not conducive enough for students to freely communicate their issues.
When I joined, I faced some difficulty in understanding the lectures and the prescribed books because they were in English and my entire schooling had been at a Bengali medium school.
One day, I approached a fellow student, a Brahmin from Kolkata’s suburb area. When I requested him to teach me a topic which I didn’t understand, he looked at me and said, “Kuttar pete ki ghee hojom hoi (how can a stray dog digest butter)?”
I was shocked. This was the most insulting thing that I had ever heard.
I was crying on the inside and was wracked with pain and frustration. I felt so humiliated that I skipped all my classes for the next two days. The incident had a deep impact on me, and it finally led me to depression. The only good thing about that whole episode was my hostel life, where I made friends who came from the similar background.
But my classmate’s comment continues to haunt me, even now.
A couple of days back, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling restless as these thoughts came rushing in. I took out a pen and paper and decided to write about it, so that other people, who may have experienced the same, don’t feel alone.
I am still friends with that person on Facebook and we share greetings some times. He perhaps doesn’t even remember what he said and may defend himself if I confront him someday. For him, it was only a casual comment, which he made in the passing.
But for me, it was something which has unsettled me for years.
However, instead of ignoring the harsh reality, I slowly decided to face it, to confront it. There is nothing I did for which I should be ashamed. But the people who knowingly or unknowingly made others’ life hell by passing such comments should be.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty
This story is part of LiveWire’s series – On The Edge – centred around caste-based discrimination on campuses across India. If you wish to share your experience too, write to us at [email protected] If you are not comfortable writing, you can also let us know if you’d like to speak to our reporters.