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‘Coming Out As Dalit’: An ode to rage and defiance

Vijeta Kumar | Updated on July 01, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Step up: There are those — mostly Savarna — who like to believe that fashion is the last thing a Dalit woman should be reporting about   -  REUTERS/ LUCAS JACKSON

Yashica Dutt’s memoir unpacks the humiliation — and the accompanying guilt — of growing up and succeeding against the odds of caste discrimination

It might appear that there’s a sudden surge in the publication of writings by Dalit women such as Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants and, most recently, Yashica Dutt’s memoir Coming Out as Dalit. The fact, however, is that the writings were always around, but it’s the attention they’re receiving that’s recent. And now that enough people are noticing, the question remains: Where do we go from here? And are we ready to leave the ‘here’ yet?

Coming Out as Dalit: A Memoir; Yashica Dutt; Aleph Book Company; Non-fiction; ₹599

 

A New York-based journalist who writes about fashion, gender and identity, Dutt’s memoir serves as a starting point in the quest for the answers. ‘Here’ is where first-generation Dalit women-learners are looking around in awe, pinching themselves, and still not believing they have made it. This is also a guilt that springs from having survived while our mothers and so many others couldn’t.

If there is something that the memoirs of authors Kancha Ilaiah, Gidla, and Dutt have in common, it’s that they each tell us about a mother hell-bent on getting her children an English-language education — a ticket out of caste.

Each school story that Dutt recalls from childhood is told with an equal measure of humiliation and guilt. At Mussoorie Public School, her mother struggles to get her admission. They cannot afford the fee, so they run from one office to another for an extension, only to be turned down. In the end, tired and without hope, she sits down outside the principal’s office and weeps.

Weeks later, Dutt is called on stage and the principal announces that she is the top scorer in class despite having had less than 10 days to prepare. But, for Dutt, the moment for celebration had passed. “I felt nothing. To my mind, if someone like me could score so well, then this school couldn’t be all that great.

For years after that, this sentiment persisted — no institution that accepted me could be all that good. I was never good enough for anything, and once I became good enough, it stopped being good enough for me.”

The words ‘like me’ are packed with remembrances of watching her mother scramble from authority to authority every time they tried to get a new life — a better life. Each achievement after this comes tainted, to the point where the feelings of humiliation and bitterness quickly turn to guilt.

The guilt in Dutt’s memoir is many-headed. Every time she narrates a particularly harrowing experience of caste, she is quick to add that there are many Dalits who have it worse. After a while the only stories the memoir will tell us are those that Dutt thinks deserve to be told and heard more than hers.

At various points, the book develops a certain kind of self-consciousness that prevents the reader from really getting to know its writer. This is possibly the only shortcoming. One wonders if this is because, in a climate where newer wars are being fought to defend caste, there are now newer kinds of Chowkidars of Privilege and cCaste-certificate checkers who are quick to use words like ‘Elite Dalit’.

But it is the Savarna structures that end up benefiting from having Dalit women doubt themselves and believe that if they haven’t suffered as much as other Dalits have, they shouldn’t be speaking/ writing at all.

Before Mussoorie, Dutt remembers the ways in which their caste was hidden by mimicking upper caste behaviour — a birthday party, taking vaastu shastra seriously and so on. But, over time, it became impossible, and unaffordable, to keep up this performance. Very often they didn’t have the money for it either to aid these performances.

At Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, where Dutt gets admission for a BSc, she finds herself having to address her caste after spending half a lifetime escaping it.

What the book succeeds in doing is getting the reader to seriously think about spaces and power. Educational institutions have a way of wielding architectural power that is designed to scare the powerless — in this case, Dalits.

It is not rare to see Dalit students walk uncertainly into these imposing buildings for admission. The parents with them look even more scared — half-expecting to be kicked out anytime. Reservation is a small way of addressing this — it’s a way of saying “You have a right to belong here just as much as anybody else”; but when the attack is targeted at its very core — “You don’t belong here because you haven’t earned it” — you know who exactly is burning here and what part of their body is burning.

Towards the end of the book, we arrive at the most exciting chapter in Dutt’s life. She wants to become a fashion journalist, but how does a Dalit woman become that? There are no precedents. She has to be the first, so others can follow. Plus, there are those — mostly Savarna — who like to believe that fashion is the last thing a Dalit should be reporting about. Never mind that some of them are almost always Savarna.

I cheered when Dutt “rather stubbornly decided that she was going to change (this perception on fashion reporting)”. When she applied at Columbia for a master’s in journalism, she did it just to see if she’d get in, and when she did she couldn’t believe it. Step by step, Dutt made it possible and at every point, she had to stop and wonder if this was really going to happen.

After weeks of scrambling together the fee, she wrote to Columbia for funding, which came through much later.

Kaiig sikkidru baaig sigalla is a saying in Kannada that loosely means a ‘slip between the hand and lip’. The fear of not being able to eat what you earn, of missing by a whisker, that you will miss it despite coming so close, is what pushes Dutt in the book. This is a real fear many urban Dalits today live with. But what happens if you do ‘get to eat it’ is perhaps what ‘here’ should start to be about.

If they don’t want us ‘here’ — we could either go one step further and make that our own, or remain where we are and stink up the place so bad that they leave us alone.

Vijeta Kumar teaches English in St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, and writes at rumlolarum.com

Published on June 28, 2019
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