“You don’t look like your brothers.”
It was not as cold as he felt. It was not as steamy as he breathed. It was not as silent as it was made out to be.
The thirteen-year old boy stood straight. The dining room was no longer as cosy as it was a moment before. It became a museum with oriental eyes glued to him, searching for how fat he was, how blunt his nose was, how small his eyes were and, moreover, how incompatible he was to be represented as a cousin brother.
He was a thirteen-year-old boy embarking on a journey where adolescence was about to teach him the complexity of existence.
Instead of teaching him how it precedes essence, his aunt (a professor of philosophy in a renowned college in Kolkata) taught him what he represents: a ‘body’ marred with dispute and ugliness.
Since that day, he roams around searching answers for what it takes to be the cousin of a Brahmin.
A sharp nose, fair colour or a pair of sharp eyes? Perhaps a tidy body without sweat and fat.
I was born to a Brahmin father and a Dalit mother in a typical secular bhadrolok family in Kolkata. I deliberately used the word ‘typical’ to categorise a specific group of people, I grew to identify as among the most classist and casteist people. My father, a renowned legal practitioner and a state level Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader was the embodiment of the Bengali bhadrolok culture.
He was the one who embedded in my mind the first phrase of ‘bullying’– ‘pehle darshandari, baad me gunbichari’ which, if translated, means “looks come first, then the abilities”.
My childhood was filled with three specific components – casteist slurs my mother gobbled up for using onion and garlic in cooking, Islamophobic comments towards my mother for having her maternal house in a Muslim colony and precisely few suicide-attempts she made to get rid of the crisis.
In most of the scenarios, I was made to be a case in dispute.
Though I hardly know whether my semblance with my maternal family (the blunt nose, small eyes and dark complex) was the only reason for me being called an outcaste on several occasions; in most cases I was not someone who was ‘presentable’.
My mother and I were left at home during marriage ceremonies and only my sister would accompany my father.
I rarely understood the complexity of the politics at that age but what I was certain about was the visual disturbance my ‘body’ carried, an outcast within the Bhadralok.
Unlike my cousin brothers, I was sent to a Bengali Medium Government School.
Casteism, classism and sexism (both casual and systematic) were the constitutive features of our idea of being student. However, the derivative factors of all the discriminatory practices got assimilated into a single word- casual and systematic bullying.
Let me share two separate incidents to elaborate on what I have called ‘casual’ and ‘systematic’ bullying.
There was a salon near to my house, namely – ‘Hi Handsome’. One day while having a haircut I found two of my savarna friends entering the salon. My excitement to meet the friends out of the school premises, nevertheless met with a standard, casual complement: “kothaay chul kaatchis dhokar age nijer mukh ta to dekhe ne” (See your face in the mirror before you enter such salon!).
They were subtly referring to the name of the salon which, by its very nomenclature, excludes people like ‘Us’.
The comment stripped me of my minimum sense of self-esteem. There were laughter, loud comments and for them, everything seemed to be normal. I was told it was a casual and friendly comment and was asked not to ‘feel bad’.
I didn’t until I was exposed to the next stage of systematic bullying.
Though I used to lack in most of the savarna capabilities those were celebrated as extracurricular activities, I was somehow a good debater. I am not claiming that I was a ‘pro’ but I was better than the certified ‘average’ (determined by the savarna school of thought itself).
Thus, when the opportunity to represent my school in one of the regional debate competitions on a television channel came, I started preparing myself for it. I was sure to be the one who would represent our school.
No! I was wrong.
One of our teachers said I was not the right face to represent the school. The television channel needed someone with a fair complexion, a sharp nose and all over a ‘representable’ face.
Without giving any reason, I was asked to wait for the next opportunity and was told ‘not to feel bad’. I didn’t feel bad. This time I felt humiliated, dehumanised, debilitated – perhaps something more that goes beyond my knowledge of the english vocabulary.
However, with the time, I learnt, unlearnt, encountered, negotiated with my body and its politics and when I started teaching, I realised it was my turn to find ‘me’.
I am still doing that in every nooks and corners of my reach.
Caste, class and racial discrimination come with its sister concern – ‘representation and face value’. My friends who used to bully me in school mostly turned out to be staunch supporters of Hindutva. A few of them have also trained themselves to be political liberals, perhaps unlearning the stereotypes their Bhadrolok family taught them.
I nevertheless, stay far away from them.
Few months back, I got converted to Islam to not only get out of the discriminatory savarna practices at home but to also turn my father’s slur against my mother a truth- “Muslim mohallay boro hole er theke besi ki sikhbe?” (What else would you learn being brought up in a Muslim mohalla?)”
While working on my doctoral thesis on Muslim mohallas in Jharkhand, now I find my place, sense of belonging and the answer of ‘What does it take to be a Brother’?
A simple answer – Brotherhood, what my Islam has taught me.
To conclude, I would like to refer to a forthcoming work of Jaquira Diaz’s book Ordinary Girls where she explores how the black girls in the schools of the US cities are discriminated against the white; how their expressions of sorrow and anger are even conceived in a bad way in comparison to their white mates.
Reading the excerpt of the book, I got reminded of my school life where for the same ‘crime’, my punishment was harsher against my friend whose tears made the teacher cry, whose pinkish-red cheeks made the teacher believe that I was the creator of the nuisance.
Sorry, I was not but definitely given a chance, I shall create nuisance.
I shall create nuisance for all the savarna ethos, for all the codes of beauty and visual aesthetics that traps the body.
Abhik Bhattacharya is currently a doctoral fellow at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi and he works on systematic exclusion and urban spatial segregation of muslims in Jharkhand
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty