Yes, I am assertive. Assertive of my caste identity. It is not a ‘fashion statement’ trust me, it takes a lot of courage and training of your own self to be this assertive. You asked me what harm did you do to me. You know what you did, you asked me to let go, not resist , take those casteist comments ‘easy’ and not make a big issue about it. You know I was reminded of what Ambedkar had said, ‘my own people betrayed me’. Yes, you betrayed me, you betrayed yourself and our community by not voicing and by not letting me raise a voice against the casteist behavior of his father. And I refuse to forgive you for this. I am sorry.
I was too happy to go to the hills for a vacation but not much time did it take for me to encounter the reality of life. Reality which I thought would not affect me, that I thought was a myth. I entered a friend’s house after a lot of resistance, resistance because going to someone’s house means you will be under scrutiny and endless questions about your family and background would be thrown direct at your face, sometimes in a mild, friendly manner and sometimes in an absurd, insulting way. This ‘savarn’ friend whose house I went to was the son of a retired Army officer. Before even the glass of water could reach me, his father had already got to know my native place, my father’s profession and what my siblings were upto in life. And yes, he completely ignored that I had a mother too, about whom he did not bother to inquire. Probably like many others, he too thought that it’s not relevant enough to bring my mother’s life into the interaction we were having.
As usual, irrespective of his interest I made sure that my mother’s contributions are included and acknowledged in the conversation we were having. It wasn’t the first time though, but I get amazed by people and their interest of query. I was definitely confused initially on whether I should be taking his words seriously or was he just trying to be more humorous but was soon sure that I was at a wrong place. I just had one sip of water when this man says, okay so you are Riya “Singh”, singh…singh…singh, well singh from UP would mean that you must either be a ‘Rajput’ or may be a ‘thakur’. I kept sitting and listened to whatever he had to say. I was amazed by his ability of delivering judgments. I visited this house for the first time. His declaration of me being a rajput or a thakur was bothering me but I had no space to just shout my throat out that Nooo I am a Dalit. Not a Rajput, Not a thakur either. Before I could even reply to this, he jumped on to his next question.
He: So, did your father open some NGO after retirement? Almost all bureaucrats do this these days.
Me: NO. That is so mainstream and a capitalist idea. He now writes.
He: Hahaha, little girl everyone writes. What’s new in it.
Me: He is a Dalit and he writes on Dalit issues.
Here the conversation ended. There was a weird silence in the room. Not even a single word did we exchange after my last reply. Probably he understood that all his claims and whatever he had guessed about me and my identity was wrong. I was someone different than what he expected me to be. I wish I should have resisted more strongly to my denial of not going to his house, but after-all it was a ‘friend’s place’. I believe that no one would feel unsafe at a friend’s house, right? NO, these ‘friends’ are no different. They are a part of our casteist society who intentionally or unintentionally inherit casteist attitudes which they might not even recognize, and for sure, their behavior might not cause you any ‘big harm’ but will definitely cause you hurt, hurt that can remain within an individual for years. I am sure many people like me would experience sudden panic and anxiety when we are invited to someone’s house. Going to someone’s house means preparing yourself for hours to deal with painful things you will come back with. This process is difficult, painful and full of anxiety. It isn’t easy, It’s hard. Very hard. Does this mean I should stop going to other people’s houses and confine myself to the ‘safe spaces’. I don’t know.
And where are these safe places? When I stood up to leave after a ten minute silence I had realized that this man could stand my presence inside his house only because I was the daughter of a ‘Dalit’ man who has served the Indian ‘bureaucracy’. Otherwise such people will not even bother to offer you a glass of water. In all of this, my friend (T) who had accompanied me to this guy’s house did not utter a single word. Rather my friend insisted I visit his house before we leave for Delhi. This time I had an option to offer. I told T to go and say goodbye to this friend but I chose to stay downstairs and wait. This made T very upset. T could not even realize why I had so much anger against going to that house again. T who is also a lower caste failed to extend support to my views. Leave aside the views, T could not even see anything wrong in what happened that day. Instead T told me not to overreact and said all parents are like that. Take it easy. I literally had to yell to get my point across that I will not enter that house. I did agree last time but not again. I told T that I will tell this to this friend that his father is very judgmental and I did not really like how he questioned me. T asked me not to do so. And I should just let go. I kept quiet and wept. Wept because I felt so so anxious and I had no other way to vent it out. I felt caged. It was even more suffocating. I held all my emotions within and kept quiet.
I wonder when people say that they are anti-caste, what do they mean by that. How would they be against caste when they can’t even raise a voice against a casteist comment made by a friend. When they are not even ready to confront their good friends, not willing or I may say not courageous enough to take a stand against such behavior of their own friends and family. I am sorry, but you know if you don’t even have the courage to open your mouth in front of your friends and family then one should not pretend to be ‘so anti-caste’ and demand social justice. You are one of those who somehow want to do nothing to annihilate caste , rather keep yourself on the safe side, not raise your voice, let things happen so that you may have peace with all other people irrespective of how casteist they are. You would point your finger at the outside world and call them casteist but not confront your own people. How convenient is that. Throughout the journey back to Delhi I had all this rush in my head with some headache and a feeling of something stuck in my throat.
In all of this, whatever happened to me I was wondering how did my ‘class’ help me in any way to escape from discrimination. Being surrounded by intellectuals and academicians I am often tagged as ‘an upper class dalit’, or ‘not a real dalit’, ‘not-dalit-enough’. I do not fit into their image of who a dalit is. My identity, my knowledge and my access to all those places which were exclusively meant for them challenges their idea of who a real dalit is. And in that image they can not fit me and thus they add ‘upper class’ before dalit and they only recognize me with this tag. How did my ‘class’ help me to escape the new forms of casteism that the savarnas are using? How did my identity of being a so called ‘upper class dalit woman’ help me in any way? You know all it did was that it gave me little more strength and power to RESIST.
Riya Singh is an MPhil scholar in women and gender studies at Ambedkar University Delhi.