“My great-grandfather learned to write by scrawling with a stick in the mud because the higher caste school teacher forbade him from holding a slate… My grandfather’s first wife worked as a manual scavenger, cleaning dry excrement from people’s homes. By the time he cleared the Rajasthan State CSE to become the first Dalit Municipal Magistrate in Ajmer, she had passed away…,” writes Yashica Dutt in her heart-rending memoir Coming Out As A Dalit, which has won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar this year.
In a world where so-called upper-caste narratives either ‘criminalise or victimise’ Dalits and more recently, the ‘woke’ pedastalise Dalits for either performing, or resisting against forced menial work, Dutt’s book is humane in its assertion, extensive in its research and brilliant in its articulation.
Explicating her agonising experiences, while contending with a detailed societal analysis, Dutt establishes how so-called mainstream discourse has never humanised Dalits — be it the oppressor-caste dominated judiciary denying justice; a vicious media which rarely, if ever, gazes on Dalits only when they are dead bodies, but never as full humans with life; choices and dignity; the entertainment industry that openly caricatures and denigrates Dalits; or the so-called upper caste feminists who are ‘unfeminist’ for they fail at intersectionality.
The only time the media gets reminded of living Dalits is when they have to reprimand Dalits on debates over basic rights such as affirmative action. However, the panels comprise solely of upper castes who discuss the subject in newsrooms afflicted by gatekeeping only to finally manifest how the panel’s understanding of the constitution is not merely debatable, it is non-existent.
In her book, not only has Dutt been detailed about society and its consequent impact on her, but she has also been vocal about her family. That she was being made to feel guilty for wanting to have a good education even as a child, that she endeavoured to pass off as an upper-caste to fit in. That her grandfather had been forced down from the horse he was riding during his wedding procession at sword point. And how throughout her life, neighbours or classmates would cut off after getting to know her caste. That she grew up afraid of being associated with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar for the fear that her Dalit identity would come out.
At Columbia University, Dr. Ambedkar had presented a thesis on caste in 1919. It took Dutt a journey from Ajmer to Columbia, where she met students from umpteen marginalised identities asserting themselves, where she saw Dalits forthright about their identity and greeting each other with ‘Jai Bhim’, to finally realise that it wasn’t she who was hiding, it was a system that made her difficult to openly exist, and that her existence itself is staunch opposition to it. That’s when she realised that Dalits have been doing this rebellion forever — inside these systems.
Dutt speaks of how oppressor-caste Indians look down on manual work from their entrenched caste-system based inequality, and gatekeep respected positions and material wealth. How they speak against racism but not casteism because they benefit from the latter. How casteist educational institutes constantly make Dalit, Adivasi and OBC students suffer and die by suicide. Be it the alumni or management quota, or the rampant casteism in the private sector where oppressor-caste business people favour each other, she speaks of how every aspect of life is related to caste. How SC, ST and OBC candidates are given fewer marks in interviews, disobeyed on duty and have promotions stalled, how English media houses discreetly attempt figuring out the caste of journalists during “hiring tactics”, and Hindi media houses straightaway ask the caste of the journalist to determine whether they would be “promoted or even hired”.
Dutt writes of how the dehumanisation of Dalits is normalised and the perpetrators are supported by both the system and society. How Dalit women are raped on their wedding nights, how the abuse continues all their life, how Dalits are forced to work as manual scavengers, and how the British administration in India – comprising of a small number of Britons and majorly of so-called upper castes – who became a part of the colonial bureaucracy created policies to serve their interests, while relegating Dalits to their exploited roles.
By putting forward chapters of Bahujan history which have been heinously ignored by oppressor castes, Dutt speaks of the strength that Dr. Ambedkar’s existence is, and how the oppressor caste dominated academia and media never gave Babasaheb his due across the myriad fields which he not only revolutionised but also created, and how despite oppressor castes harassing Dalits who say ‘Jai Bhim’, Dalits have hitherto kept his legacy alive. How Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and Kanshi Ram had brought about revolutions across innumerable spheres.
A casual look at the nominees of the Sahitya Akademy Yuva Puraskar Award exhibits that most of the others have had the culminated privilege of caste, and the consequent class and leisure. Contrarily, Dutt’s life incorporates struggling to pay fees while living in abusive places, facing enquiries about her caste by colleagues in pre-shifts as she toiled on part-time jobs to support herself, and reading foreign portals post work at her workplace to self-tutor herself since she didn’t have a computer at her rented home.
Dutt’s win, then, is not a mere bullet-point on a resume or a list – it is a victory of a multitude of Bahujan women whose experiences and opinions are paramount. After all, resumes are too trivial a parameter to judge Bahujan women; for their college admission form itself is history being written down.
As Dutt puts it, “My history is one of oppression and not shame… Let us hear stories of pride, of history and ownership against the emotional, personal, physical and mental toll of the caste system. Let it be known that Rohith’s birth was no ‘fatal accident’.”
Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.