The Urban Dalit

I wake up to another bright day with the sunlight streaming in through the windows, calling me to start afresh. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I mindlessly start scrolling through Instagram for some early morning social media updates. As soon as I take my first sip, a headline grabs my eye, ‘India lost because it has too many Dalit players’: Casteist slurs thrown at hockey star Vandana Katariya’s family‘.

I feel my gut tighten. Only a couple of days ago, the incident of a minor Dalit girl being allegedly raped, killed and forcibly cremated in Delhi had come to the fore. I put my phone down and stare blankly at the wall. How long before I am next?

I am a Dalit. I live in a city. And I live in fear. Constant fear. Fear of being ‘found out’. Afraid of my name being revealed, my caste being discovered. I am scared of my identity. I hear people around me say that ‘caste is dead’, at least in the urban areas. But I know that it’s not. Or else why would I be sitting shuffling my feet and looking away amidst people as they talk about being Marwaris, Baniyas and Brahmins?

In school, I would be asked “who are you?” by my classmates – probably because I have an odd last name which most people use as a middle name. When I was younger, I would answer this question and say I was Hindu, because that’s what I believed myself to be. After all, I pray to Lord Vishnu and Maa Durga, I celebrate Diwali and go to a temple. Simple, isn’t it?

It wasn’t. Those kids, of my own age, wanted to hear something more; something I could not figure out.

When I finally did, the answer would never be so simple again.

Every time a discussion or a comment about caste or reservations would come up, I would try to find a way to excuse myself or change the subject. Or I’d just sit there, silent and terrified to find the answer to the question that plagued me, “What would happen if they found out?”

I lived with this dread during the course of my whole school life: evading conversations, finding excuses, or even sometimes, telling a lie about my caste identity. However, in Class 12, I gathered the courage one day. I told two of my friends at the coaching centre I went to, of the identity I had kept locked up inside of me.

I let my little secret out. I confided in them.

My friends started acting indifferent towards me from that day on, but only after saying, “So, you’ll get easy admission into colleges, right?”

Also read: Aside From Atrocities, the Everyday Dalit Life Deserves To Be Told

I got into one of the most sought-after colleges in the country through reservation. When I heard people in the so-called liberal space bashing reservation, I believed myself to be an impostor. I assumed that I had done something wrong, stolen something, and got what I never deserved. Students would talk about how they know a girl with an iPhone getting in through reservation, and I would sit there with my eyes on the floor.

I doubted myself and asked – was my 96% not enough?

Being a woman and a Dalit, I belong to the lowest echelon of society, right? I don’t possess a name I can speak out loud without thinking twice. I don’t have a legacy I can boast of. When others would speak about how their grandmothers would teach them English and Sanskrit, I could only think about how my grandmothers are illiterate. About how, back in the day, when their grandparents were travelling abroad, mine would try to make ends meet in a village where they were shunned. How they moved to a town and could only buy a house among other lower castes. How, although my parents are educated, my generation in the family is the first to get a good, formal education from premier institutes.

People may say that the caste system doesn’t exist anymore in cities and financially-stable households, but I have come to learn how entrenched it is in our past, present and future. While many people who I have studied with can speak proudly about the rich heritage that has been passed on, we can’t. We share the fear and trauma carried forward through the ages: the poor living conditions of our forefathers, the denied promotions of my grandfathers and the hardships our fathers had to face to come up to our present day standard of living.

My father studied in a village school, where he and the other Dalit children would be made to sit on the floor outside the classroom. His teacher declined a glass of milk my father brought from his home for the noon tea as it had touched an avarna’s vessel. He was just ten.

These are the stories that are passed on to the younger generations in my family. Not legacies of scholar forefathers. Not the achievements of an uncle living abroad. No gold necklaces, property papers or religious traditions. But tales of survival, attempts at fitting into life in a city, and countless shameful atrocities.

Still, I have to hear my peers making casteist slurs like, “How horrible you look this morning, no less than a chamar!” and remain silent. How many people can I confront, I wonder. And am even I qualified to speak, standing there alone as a Dalit, surrounded by none but savarnas?

Again, how long before I am the one attacked?

Shikha Chandra is a final year student of literature at Lady Shri Ram College who believes that she was born with a silver pen. If not sleeping or fantasising about Minions, you may find her dissecting pop-culture, classical literature and mythology.

Featured image credit: 愚木混株 Cdd20/Pixabay