Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Coming out as Dalit by Yashica Dutt
by Yashica Dutt
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
Yashica Dutt’s memoir about coming out as Dalit, written in the tone of a manifesto, ought to be seen against the backdrop of a burgeoning literary scene by lower-caste women authors hailing from the Indian subcontinent or the diaspora, including recent publications such as Kalyani Thakur Charal’s poetry collection I belong to Nowhere: Poems of Hope and Resistance, or Anjali Kajal’s short story collection Ma is Scared and Other Stories. Although Dutt’s text is non-fictional (part autobiographical, part sociological), its aesthetic quality shares with these publications a language and style whereby the personal is political and ‘herstory’ part of larger allegories of collective struggle, suffering and resilience, but also self-assertion, autonomy, and success. As Dutt reminds, Dalit authors are often taxed with “lacking aesthetic sophistication [though] many took inspiration from the works of African American authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and wrote rich, deeply painful stories” (123). Dutt also stresses Dalit activists’ debt to the politics of black liberation, from the Black Panthers Party to the Black Lives Matters movement, to bell hook’s pamphlet-like seminal text Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism.
Dutt displays an acute awareness of the intersectionality of identity formation, as well as a cross-cultural sensitivity towards the intricacies of expressing and representing what being Dalit means. Her opening statement, “I hope to speak for those whose voices haven’t been heard before” (x), is to be nuanced in light of queries coming forth later on, as to the epistemic violence involved when speaking of/about an oppressed group while claiming to reach out to this group from a (relatively) privileged position, as does Dutt. These are issues Gayatri Spivak, who made Columbia University her new home after migrating from India like Dutt, has written about extensively. Dutt does not shy away from tackling these issues head-on, and her memoir regularly morphs into a valuable social commentary on race, caste, gender, class, and to a lesser extent sexuality (the phrase ‘coming out’ is a vivid evocation of the queer community from which it was borrowed).
Being lower-caste, or Dalit, in effect cuts across very different realities and experiences (in classical Sanskrit, ‘dalita’ stands for ‘divided, split, broken, scattered’). Dutt’s memoir is both a celebration of, and a coming to terms with, the sheer diversity of Dalit lives and trajectories. Her own family is a good illustration of what French philosopher Michel Foucault dubs heterotopia (From Ancient Greek, ‘different place’). Dutt’s family history comprises ‘untouchable’ sweepers and toilet cleaners, also known as manual ‘scavengers’ (her grandmother) but also small (her father) and bigger (her grandfather) functionaries, while she herself managed to attend some of the most prestigious educational institutions, both in India and the United States. Bearing this heterotopic social tapestry in mind, Dalit stories making headway into the mainstream run the risk of falling prey to ‘cannibalistic’ appropriation and at times point-blank plagiarism on the part of unscrupulous intellectuals, academics, researchers, journalists, or artists, especially if these are Dalits playing the role of ‘native informants’.
The recent controversy in which Dutt has become embroiled over an episode of the Indian romantic drama web series Made in Heaven, produced by Amazon Prime, is a case in point. In one episode of Season 2, ‘the Heart Skipped a Bit’, the lead female character Pallavi Menke, who studied in Columbia, confesses about her Dalit origins. She mentions her grandmother, who happened to be a manual scavenger. The similarities with Dutt’s life-story are striking, and Dutt should have been given due credit for it. Its director Neeraj Ghaywan (himself a Dalit) must have deemed it was sufficient to acknowledge her name only in passing by means of an Instagram post. Following heated exchanges with Dutt on social media, the show later retracted from identifying Dutt’s book as an obvious source of inspiration, thereby denying Dutt the right to claim her own story back. This goes to show the extent to which Dalit labour and property remain vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and theft. Having passed as upper-caste most of her life, Dutt was herself ‘bypassed’ and her Dalitness usurped by one of the biggest corporations in the world at the point when it had been so rightly represented on screen, as Dutt noticed with bittersweet pleasure.
Portraying Dalits remains a fraught exercise, on screen as elsewhere, if only because lead roles end up being almost always upper-caste. Whether conscious or not, minoritizing strategies rely on bypassing, as in the case of Dutt’s row with Made in Heaven’s producers, but also involve trespassing (not to say trampling or violating) as well as passing by without a sign of acknowledgement. In so doing, one deprives the ‘Other’ of the possibility of agency by reducing the latter to a state of social invisibility or to the status of a mere passer-by as passive victim. Thus, the difficulties of giving full justice to the constellation of practices characterising Dalits amount instead to a ‘single story’ (158). Dutt borrows the phrase from the Nigerian authoress Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who also studied in the United States. Both Dutt and Adichie are commanding enough to allow for a fairer, more balanced, and nuanced characterisation, beyond victimising or wallowing in ‘poverty porn’ (176).
In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison captured the condition of being Black in America, in particular having to face indifference from (white) society. As Dutt recalls, the novel proved highly popular among an emerging Dalit middle-class readership who could identify and sympathise with the main character’s feeling of anomie and ostracised position as an outcast, all the more since caste unlike race or gender forms an ‘invisible package’ (90) turning out to be just as pernicious. Growing up ‘Bhangi’ (the name of a Dalit caste used as a cuss word in India) while pretending to be Brahmin (upper caste) helped Dutt pass various interviews and entrance exams at convent, private schools like St Stephens College in New Delhi. Yet her performances would have to mean surpassing herself, both financially and academically, this at the risk of passing out or even away like her tutelary figure Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student and activist at Hyderabad University whose suicide letter triggered Dutt’s outing and was written in the wake of seeing his scholarship blocked. As she puts it: “I had to work harder so ‘they’ could overlook my ‘inferiority’. I couldn’t pause to recognize my ‘triumphs’ or take it easy every now and then because then I would fall behind and they would stop respecting me.” (37)
Internalised casteism in part stems from the belief that mimicking the upper-caste through adopting their lifestyle and codes of conduct may save one from persecution and offer a pathway to a better life. It means believing life is undeserving as it is, without merit, and worthless to such an extent that a quota-based system of affirmative action known as ‘reservation’ in India, is needed to compensate for otherwise menial, mediocre, and miserable career prospects. Hence, passing-as-hiding both serves as an existential act of survival and an economic necessity. Part of the disguised performance involves, above all, the mastery of the former coloniser’s medium of communication – namely the English language. Ironically, English allowed for the upper-caste to pass as Western (and for Dalits to pass as upper-caste), alongside bleaching or wearing ‘ubtan’ (face mask), as Dutt was ritualistically forced to as a child in the hope of posing as fair-skinned. In a poignant passage, Dutt describes Dalitness as a ‘carcass’ to be borne (perhaps an allusion to the Chamar caste’s disposal of dead cattle as tanners) and English at which she excelled, as a ‘crutch’ to lean on:
English—the language I had hoped would help me escape my own Dalit identity. The language I had stubbornly practised since I was five. Flawless English was supposed to bring me to the same level as my upper-caste classmates in school and college. I leaned on it when the carcass of my Dalitness became too heavy. Later, writing in this language became my career. It is very likely that English was Rohith [Vemula]’s crutch too. He was probably still honing it so he could stand tall against those he had decided to take on—those who perhaps equated his Dalitness with an inherent sub-humanness. (xiv)
Following independence from Britain in 1947, India abolished the caste system that the British colonisers had exploited to their benefit, relying as they did on upper-caste Brahmins to fill up the ranks of their bureaucratic apparatus. India now projects itself as a caste-blind society despite having a head of state as a Hindu nationalist whose latest stunt was to rebrand India as ‘Bharat’. Chaturvarna’ (the caste system) is a legacy of Vedic scriptures and of Hinduism though it extends across other religions of the Indian subcontinent. The spiritual concept of ‘karma’ has been central to the maintenance of a caste-based, endogamous, apartheid-like structure, and to the acceptance of their lower status by Dalits as “pay[ment] for the sins of previous lives in subsequent lifetimes” (12).
Dutt’s memoir shows contemporary discrimination against Dalits to be rampant, even in urban, cosmopolitan settings like New Delhi. One falls under the impression that Dutt, while working there as a journalist for the fashion industry, was indeed better off hiding her caste, since it gave her privileged access (passe-droit in French) to an otherwise exclusive, glamorous milieu. The dressing up of her origins behind the make-up of her impeccable English, somehow to be expected from her, did not matter so long as it was swept under the carpet as mentioning her caste would have been socially awkward – a fatal faux pas deemed de mauvais goût. This is testament to the level of hypocrisy and corruption of Indian society, especially among the brightest and best educated sectors. To paraphrase a famous line, it feels while reading Dutt as if something is deeply rotten in the state of Hindustan (the land of the Hindus).
The fiction that India is a meritocracy also seeps into Dalits’ minds, and many regard education as a shield against casteism and vehicle for social ‘upliftment’ – a term Mahatma Gandhi himself was particularly fond of using concerning those he patronisingly called ‘Harijans’ (God’s children), to mean Dalits. By contrast, Dutt’s vehement defence of reservation, from which she benefited, originates in her understanding that sheer merit plays little or no part in order to climb the social ladder. This comes in spite of her reluctance to see herself classified among the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs), and stigmatised as such. To quote from her memoir:
A month after the admission interview, I attended the ‘first assembly’ at St. Stephen’s. Mum had hastily sold off the land that had been our backyard garden which she had lovingly tended. The money would cover the rent for a shared PG I was to stay in. As we filled out the admission form, Mum suggested, for the very first time, that I tick the box that said I was an SC/ST candidate. Like so many Dalit students who don’t understand how systemic casteism works and buy into the casteist narrative of ‘proving themselves without a crutch’, I didn’t think I needed reservation. If I checked that box, I would taint my achievements with the ‘quota student’ tag. My lifetime of lessons to successfully appear upper caste would be rendered useless with that single stroke. But I didn’t have a choice. I needed the financial aid and scholarships to pay even the heavily subsidized Delhi University fees. (60)
The reservation system remains limited in scope as it covers the public sector only, which has historically provided Dalits with employment opportunities that come with the hope “that some of the respect linked with a civil service position might rub off on them and go some way towards negating their Dalitness” (1), even though Dalits disproportionately occupy the lower rungs of government. However tepid and timid, attempts by the Indian state to redress inequalities have come under fierce attack from some of the most conservative, reactionary corners of society, paralleling the US supreme court’s recent decision to overturn affirmative action in US colleges. Dutt writes about the anti-reservation demonstrations that took place at a medical school in Delhi in 2006, though in effect, it is the lower-caste and religious minorities who face daily discriminations at colleges and universities, including ‘hazing’ and ‘ragging’ (73). Anoop Kumar’s documentary film The Death of Merit forcefully chronicles these practices in India’s higher ed (74).
Dutt’s narrative is a treasure trove of intertextual references facilitated by her background as a journalist. Her blog, ‘Documents of Dalit Discrimination’, for instance inventories both testimonies and eye-witness accounts of casteism. Secondary sources Dutt builds upon in her memoir include Kakoos (2017), a documentary on the officially abolished practice of manual scavenging, or English Vinglish (2012), a film dealing with India’s “unnatural deference to English [which] is a result of our internalized colonial hangover” (21-2). Dutt’s ability to shed light on Indian contemporary society by means of her personal – and at times heart-rending – family history (her dad’s alcoholism, her mother’s suicide attempt, or Dutt’s inner turmoil while growing up), is what makes her memoir so vibrantly lively. Precious in particular is her overview of India’s media landscape, ‘culture wars’, and Dalit activism. In spite of India’s hardening stance and crackdown on dissenting voices under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term (the latest controversy being the assassination of Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil), Dutt shows independent news reporting to be thriving thanks to the use of social media and alternative news outlets on Dali issues such as RTI, Ambedkar’s Caravan, Savri, Velivada and Dalit Camera (166).
While reminiscent of the divide between white and black/brown feminists in the US, her depiction of an ongoing rift between ‘Savarna’ (upper-caste) and ‘Bahujan’ (people’s) feminism is proof of the rise and empowerment of Dalit women in India. Though Dutt admits Dalit stories and struggles still find it hard to break into the mainstream, she makes a point of ensuring these will not go unheard of in her memoir, which was published by an independent publishing firm in India. The case of 23 years old physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey (Brahmin), gangraped and left dead in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012, helped shift public opinion by initiating a national conversation about sexual violence and abuse in India. This outpour of support must be weighed against the similar fate befalling 29 years old law student Jisha (Dalit) in 2016, which comparatively generated little reaction from the media. The alleged ‘availability’ and ‘impurity’ of Dalit women as peddled by the dominant masculinist, casteist discourse make them particularly vulnerable to rape culture, so the onus is on journalists and progressives to spotlight their case.
In the same vein, Dutt recalls the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha initiated by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar for the untouchables’ right to use water in public tanks (‘satyagraha’ standing for a non-violent act of resistance and civil disobedience). This historic event was overshadowed three years later by a march against British colonial rule’s imposition of a salt tax, led by the well-known (upper-caste) figure of Mahatma Gandhi. Ambedkar’s writings and actions, including the drafting of India’s first constitution, have provided Dalits with spiritual solace and guidance, and his momentous legacy hovers over the pages of Dutt’s memoir. Not incidentally, Ambedkar would need a nod from another public (upper-caste) intellectual, Arundhati Roy, for his writing to find a larger echo, although “in the introduction to Ambedkar’s most radical and significant work [Annihilation of Caste], Roy positions Gandhi front and centre” (173).
As Dutt’s book unfolds, its aim stands clearer: to popularise and position Dalit stories ‘front and centre’ by capitalising on Dutt’s vantage point as a New York-based, Columbia graduate like Ambedkar, who received his PhD in economics from this same Ivy League institution in 1927. Hence, Dutt’s outing reveals itself as a deeply altruistic, humanist gesture instead of an attempt to take all the credit, as some of her detractors following her dispute with the producers of Made in Heaven have hinted at. Her memoir is an invitation to – quite literally –come out and take to the streets as Dalit and can be seen as part of a recent rise in Dalit militancy. In 2016, Dalits from the Chamar community in Modi’s historic state of Gujarat withdrew their labour by refusing to pick up carcasses of cows. The disposal of dead cattle is an activity traditionally reserved to the lower-caste, who find themselves looked down upon as manual workers and violently targeted by Hindu hardliners as ‘meat-eaters’ – “vegetarianism [being] the gold standard for caste purity” (xiii). Upper-caste mobs severely beat up strikers with police complicity, although “the simple gesture of Dalits refusing to do the job that the caste system had forced on them for centuries had such a powerful effect that it led to months of protests across the country and ultimately resulted in one of the largest Dalit uprisings in thirty years” (48). It led in particular to the Azadi Kooch March for equality, justice, and land reform – “land that had been allotted to thousands of Dalits on paper but was still waiting to be assigned after decades” (48).
As Dutt’s memoir moves to its final sections, the word Dalit gets hammered into, as if to suggest Dutt is now on her way to recovery after many years of self-loathing and denial. It also leaves the reader with a sense that Dalit lives matter; an allusion to the name of the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement that, as stated on its website, aims to “build constructive resistance against caste-based inequalities, indignities, and adversities globally”. As the generic character of Dutt’s book title suggests, coming out as Dalit (as opposed to ‘a Dalit’) is to belong to a community and be part of a collective with a rich and proud heritage attached to it. That Dutt will be able to share this heritage again through a US reedition of her memoir, out in 2024, is a gift worth waiting for. It is no small treat (and feat) either that in 2020, the book won India’s National Academy of Letters award for outstanding young writers, the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Readers who may not be familiar with India’s caste system will find a useful, thorough introduction on the subject while a more attuned audience may also enjoy Dutt’s bold journalistic cross over to the autobiographical genre.
Dalit Lives Matter
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD from Monash University, Melbourne, on the subject of Southeast Asian Australian women’s writing. He lives in Paris, where he teaches English across various academic locations and carries out research on postcolonial literatures while being politically committed as an activist on the French far left.