“What happened to you?” Vishal asked me. “What did you experience that set you on the path that brought you here?” I had met him only a few hours ago, at Nalanda Academy in Wardha, an initiative for preparing underprivileged bahujan students for higher education. He was curious how a privileged dalit from a non-Ambedkarite, Arya Samaji family had reached this place, trying to learn about Babasaheb and his movement.
“What happened to you?” My mother asked me after I had spent a couple of days with my parents, telling them my thoughts about caste and anti-caste activism. I sensed fear in her tone. It was the fear of finding out that they had failed to protect me from the spectre of caste despite their best efforts.
Jatin did not ask what happened. “Fucker! You’re talking as if you’ve been personally oppressed!” he spat out when I told him I was writing about caste. He had been the one friend from college who had always been encouraging and supportive of my ambition of becoming a writer. Usually happy to hear of anything new I had written, he was livid as soon as he heard ‘caste’. He did not ask me what, or if, anything had happened to me. His disbelief and outrage were too great to listen to his friend. This disbelief stemmed from the same place as the other, more empathetic questions: What could an English-medium educated, relatively affluent, faux-savarna have experienced that he chose not to enjoy the fruits of a privileged life in silence, and was instead wading into the muck of caste?
It is not an easy question to answer, for indeed, unlike my less privileged brethren, I haven’t been beaten, paraded naked, tortured, force-fed excreta, or even told by my school-teachers that I don’t have the capability to learn; not directly anyway. But then, how could any of these things have happened, when I have successfully hidden my caste most of my life, half the time not even conscious I was doing it?
The first time anyone ever asked for my caste was when my 3rd standard teacher wondered if I was a Brahmin, and specifically what kind of Brahmin. He demanded to know if I kept a choti – a top-knot – like him. Years later, I was in the Pune Collectorate, trying to get some official document, when a plump, balding, middle-aged clerk got excited on knowing my last name, “Oh! Silodia! Sisodia! Warrior clan! Just like us Marathas!” he exclaimed while waving an imaginary sword in the air with enthusiasm. I was too shocked to react to this comic spectacle. These are a couple of instances I remember where people explicitly told me that they assumed I was a savarna, and surely there were many more where the assumption was tacit. I remember many other instances where I was asked for my caste identity, from “Silodia kismein aate hain?” (What caste does Silodia belong to?) and “Aap kaunsi community se belong karte hain?” (Which community do you belong to?) to “Tum kaun jaat ho be?” (Which caste are you, fucker?).
Such questions put me in a dilemma, every single time. I could answer truthfully and then wait for something bad to happen, or lie and experience a strange mixture of fear and self-loathing.
I guess this is ‘what happened’ to me. Fear happened. A fear of the unknown, of something hiding in the shadows, just waiting to jump at me. I have known this fear since childhood, when my parents told me to lie to our neighbors and tell them that we were ‘pure vegetarians’, shunning even eggs. It didn’t matter if the neighbors themselves were openly ‘non-vegetarians’, eating the same kinds of meat as us; we just couldn’t afford to behave like them. We had to be furtive about our diet, from buying the meat/eggs, to bringing it home, to cooking it and eating it, to talking about it. There was an unspoken, unexplained fear behind this taboo. Something bad would happen if we broke it. No one had to say it explicitly. Children pick up on their parents’ fears intuitively.
At some point, the taboo about meat converted into a taboo about caste. As a young child, you may be excused for not knowing your caste, but as you grow older, it sounds more and more suspicious to the questioner. Who are you, they would ask, Brahmin, Baniya, Agarwal, Rajput, Maheshwari, Marwari, Kayastha? No one asked me if I was a Bhangi or a Chamar. These words were fit only for abuse, not for questions directed at a ‘savarna-looking’ boy. We don’t believe in these things, I would say, or I would tell them that my parents are Arya Samajis. Yes, yes, they would say, but even so, you must belong to some community, right? This pushy attitude confirmed my fear of something ugly lurking in the shadows, just waiting to come out. Sometimes I lied, saying that I was a Thakur, to avoid the uncomfortable questions.
Some dalits, like me, are privileged enough to lie and get away with it, sometimes. We can hide in plain sight, but it comes at a cost. The cost is to listen to hate-speech against SC/ST from people around you, imbibing those ideas. You don’t dare to argue, because, if you did, they might find out you were one of ‘those people’. And then what? Would your colleagues who were praising your work ethic and creativity until yesterday still look at you the same way? Would you be able to make mistakes in front of them and count on their support after that? Would you lose friends? And how do you square their otherwise warm and generous personalities with their hatred for people like you? Are they wrong or is something wrong with you? Maybe they are right. Don’t you remember one SC/ST person who fit their negative stereotypes in some way? And don’t you sometimes look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if there isn’t something rotten, something bad, something hate-worthy about you? After all, you are already a liar. And your human failings, are you sure they are what all normal people experience, or is it a proof of your sub-humanity, your laziness, your dirtiness, your boorishness, your lack of intellectual capacity?
Self-loathing happened. Not all at once, not so obvious that I could fight it fair and square. It happened over the years, slowly, insidiously. Every small failure seemed to justify it, while I barely noticed my successes. When I look back at the journey of my life, through all the successes and failures, I realize that it has been quite ordinary. It was more or less what you could expect from a person of my socio-economic background, intelligence and personality, regardless of caste. If it wasn’t for the self-hatred, I could have handled my failures better and enjoyed my successes a little more.
It didn’t remain a purely psychological phenomenon either. The fear and self-loathing also manifested physically. When I started writing about caste, in my personal journal, safe in my own home, I had to fight my own body. My hands would shake, my throat would dry up, I would crouch, my heart hammering. The first time I wrote a piece about caste online, under my own name and face, I felt physically ill. Years later, when I read Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan, I immediately identified with his description of reliving his painful experiences while writing the book. Initially, when I started discussing caste with friends and family, sometimes my jaws would clamp shut mid-sentence, and I would have to force them open with a great effort. It was as if my body was trying to protect me by forcing me to shut up.
These symptoms lasted for about a year, during which I let go of many things which had been poisoning me. I was able to do that by embracing a new identity, namely, dalit/bahujan. Being Arya Samaji may have worked for my parents, but it does not work for me. I cannot accept that the varna system was fine and only the jati system is to blame for the sins of caste. I cannot accept that the Vedas are the source of all knowledge. I do not feel any kinship with my caste either, unlike my savarna friends who have made cool-sounding acronyms of their castes (TamBram, GSB, KoBra) – my parents ensured that which is a good thing.
The dalit/bahujan identity is what I am most comfortable with because this identity embraces history and denies passive victimhood. Its legacy is one of survival and struggle for human dignity. And so, I am now learning about the history of anti-caste struggles, hoping to do my part, however small or big, in claiming human dignity for everyone.
Anand is a computer science postgraduate from IIT Delhi, currently working in the US as an IT professional.