Life as an ‘untouchable’ in modern India

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Not long ago, at a conference that brought together academics, writers and artists in Kochi in south India, the historian Vivek Dhareshwar unsettled his audience by saying that there was no such thing as caste – that it was a conceptual category the British used to understand and reduce India, which was internalised almost at once by Indians. “Caste” was not a translation of “jaati”, said Dhareshwar; “jaati” was a translation of “caste” – that is, the internalisation by Indians of the assumptions that the word caste involve meant they took its timelessness and authenticity for granted. Dhareshwar seemed to be implying – forcefully and outlandishly – that caste was at once a colonial inheritance and a habit of thinking, whose provenance no one felt the need to inquire into any longer. This was deeply nervous-making. For one thing, no doubt the predominantly upper-caste right – rigorously free-market Brahminical in tone even if not always in caste origin – would love such an argument as further support for its article of faith: that Hinduism is a wonderful religion, and any blemish it might have has been caused by outsiders or by colonial interference. It does seem a bit tendentious to attribute such inventive conceptual powers wholesale to the British. If Indians subscribe to invented versions of their culture, they must take responsibility and credit for having created a very large number themselves.

Caste has been the author of such violence in India – people were dying of caste-based violence even as we sat and listened to Dhareshwar in that hotel – that to deny its existence would have seemed like denying the Holocaust. This violence continues despite the fact that “untouchables, backward and scheduled castes, and scheduled tribes” form the majority of India’s population. Any party that comes to power, as the BJP did in 2014, must get some of those votes. It continues despite positive action taken on an unprecedented scale since independence, so that compulsory quotas and reservations in government jobs and university places now stand at 50%. The consolidation of reservations in 1979, with the recommendations of the Mandal commission, did not happen without massive conflagratory and despairing opposition from the upper castes. It was around then, and after, with the rise of lower-caste parties, that those of us who had grown up blissfully unaware of our own caste and others’, who believed that caste would one day go away, realised this was not going to happen: first, because of unrelenting oppression perpetrated on, and the filthiest work still being the lot of, the lowest castes; second, because caste was becoming an instrument of immense political leverage. Ashis Nandy, one of the organisers of the conference, reminded Dhareshwar that caste was not so much a tool for political mobilisation as it was for electoral success. What had seemed new and refreshing two decades ago – lower-caste parties forming governments within India’s federal structure, through alliances or the sheer volume of votes on their behalf – is now a jaded reality. Lower-caste chief ministers were as much a fact of life as violence against the lower castes was; the power to manoeuvre decisively in the political domain hadn’t necessarily led to lower caste empowerment and dignity. The “untouchables” Sujatha Gidla writes about in Ants Among Elephants are as vulnerable as they were when she and her parents were growing up.

There was one sense, though, in which Dhareshwar’s talk was necessary. Somewhat bellicosely, it required us to take caste out of a professionalised discourse, where we already know, either as commentators or as participants in the caste system, what the terms of thinking about caste are; even what it means for a Dalit (the contemporary political term for “untouchable”) to think and speak as a Dalit. “I’m not aware most of the time what caste I am,” said Dhareshwar. This is generally an upper-caste luxury that constitutes one of the more shaky underpinnings of secular India. But Dhareshwar later told me, when pressed, that his mother “belonged to a ‘community’ that would now be called Dalit”. What is Dalit self-consciousness – or, for that matter, Indian, or feminine, or Brahminical, or European, or working class, or artistic self-consciousness? Self-consciousness gains an integrity when you are oppressed, and reminded constantly of what you are: “black” self-consciousness exists when the person who holds it suffers uninterruptedly for being black. It may not be possible, or even desirable, to transcend the self-consciousness of being part of an oppressed community into an ethereal and universal humanity; but are there moments of vacancy? Who are we at these moments? Do I wake up in the morning thinking I’m an Indian, or a man, or a Bengali? If I were a social scientist, would I be aware of the world all the time predominantly as a social scientist? I might, but only if my self-consciousness were thoroughly professionalised. This is where a danger presents itself: of a self-consciousness that relentlessly prescribes how you think and react and that itself becomes a tyranny.

Gidla’s beautiful book, parts of which are as deeply absorbing as anything I’ve read, comes to this question of self-consciousness and how we think of and express ourselves from different directions. Ants Among Elephants is an account of Gidla’s family, from the life of her grandparents to her own. This matter of both the accidentality and gift of self-consciousness, and the long periods of vacancy when one is not aware of the value of one’s own experience (a vacancy so important to writers and human beings, as it’s a time when no judgment or formulation is arrived at), is dwelt on in the first two skeletal but eloquent sentences: “My stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life.” There’s a paragraph break here, which allows time for this radical assertion to sink in. Then: “When I left and made new friends in a new country, only then did the things that happened to my family, the things we had done, become stories. Stories worth telling, stories worth writing down.” Three paragraphs follow, each a sentence that is also a separate, independent assertion: “I was born in South India, in a town called Khazipet in the state of Andhra Pradesh.” Then: “I was born into a lower-middle-class family. My parents were college lecturers.” Then: “I was born an untouchable.” The impact of these statements comes from their being – as with lines in a poem – standalone sentences that do not necessarily bear any relation to each other. Each could exist by itself. Their proximity to one another tells us all we need to know, in a way no argument can, about how caste is a contingency, an accident of a particular culture, as well as an inescapable fact. Gidla’s language and imagination are disjunctive and estranging. This makes the writing, at its best, more absorbing than any event described by it. Gidla is certain that the horror of caste is all-pervasive. At the same time, her tone is intriguingly detached in a way that’s not ironic, and not just a consequence of having moved to America, the “new country”. This detachment is as much – perhaps more – her own as her caste is. It allows her writing to be revelatory and arresting in a way that can’t be guaranteed by describing the extremities of experience.

The story mainly concerns her uncle, KG Satyamurthy, “a principal founder in the early 70s of a Maoist guerrilla group recently declared by the government to be the single greatest threat to India’s security”; and his younger sister, Gidla’s mother, who in her childhood years is referred to by her pet name Papa, and who, as she is transformed into an extraordinary and self-sacrificing woman, an exemplary student who becomes a teacher, a kind of heroine, assumes her proper name, Manjula, in the narrative. Gidla records these lives not as being marked by the fixity the term “caste” denotes, but convulsed at every moment by unpredictable desire – to be educated, to possess people one is attracted to (the narrative is punctuated by romantic episodes) – and by movement. The latter arises from the fact that untouchables have demarcated territories, where others need not see or hear them, but no home, especially if they wish to step out, as Satyam and Manjula do, of those demarcations. Movement also arises from Satyam’s commitment to a political life (he becomes an acclaimed poet too); specifically, to communism. What such a life entails at ground level, and why political ideologies are called “movements”, is made vividly clear in this book about upheavals but also about human ideals: “But Satyam would not be discouraged. ‘The Chinese, they walked thousands of miles,’ he said. ‘What is 25km?’ So, taking inspiration from Mao’s Long March, the 15 troupe members loaded their props, costumes, and instruments on their backs and set off on foot.”

This journeying, instability and visionary energy – if not the brutality that Satyam and his family faced – shaped the lives of many ordinary Indians in the first three quarters of the 20th century from the imperial age to the first decades of independence (the era described in the book). Reading Gidla’s book, I was reminded of my own parents, who shared with Manjula and Satyam some commonalities on a smaller scale: their emergence from nowhere (in east Bengal), deprivations and displacements (of partition), and the brightness of their beliefs. I also thought of Apu, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s impoverished Brahmin child-protagonist in his classic Bengali novel Pather Panchali, and the journeys, mental and physical, he made. No wonder Gidla’s own narrative is part essayistic, part novelistic; no wonder Manjula devoured Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novels in Telegu translations as a child, and modelled her own life on this Bengali Brahmin’s singularly “strong” heroines. There’s an incandescent fictionality about that age in India that derived from a capacity for belief that now seems unbelievable, and which cut across caste. And yet Gidla wryly knows that, for her forefathers, not character but caste was fate. So was transformation, undeniably. One of the singular results of that transformation is Ants Among Elephants itself.

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