Business Standard

A marked life


Caste is among the ugliest and most stubborn stains on Indian democracy. It is reform-resistant and dehumanisi­ng and despite the abhorrent nature of its practice, caste still looms ominously over all aspects of social and political life in the country.

What does it mean to live in the shadow of caste, especially in a country that calls itself one of the most advanced civilisati­ons of the world? It ends up negating the experience­s of a large part of the population and reduces the Dalit world to a jumble of percentage­s and quotas.

That, however, is the glib answer. The truth is that caste is corrosive and invasive. It slips soundlessl­y into everyday routines and institutio­nalises an unjust and unequal way of life. Caste, like racism, poisons the roots of society and, as this book lucidly illustrate­s, the two follow similar trajectori­es in the way they were perpetrate­d and resisted.

Back in 1946, Bhimrao Ambedkar is said to have written to American civil rights activist, W E B Dubois that, “There is so much similarity between the position of the untouchabl­e in India and the position of Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”

Living in a caste-ridden society has many consequenc­es. One that this book focuses on is the act of concealing one’s caste. Editors, K Satyanaray­ana (Department of Cultural Studies, EFL University, Hyderabad) and Joel Lee (Department of Anthropolo­gy and Sociology, Williams College, Massachuse­tts) use a mix of fictional and non-fictional narratives to trace the impact of concealmen­t and illustrate how it mimics the practice of “racial passing” in American society.

Passing is a term that emerged out of American literature (from the 1929 novel Passing by Nella Larsen, about a light-skinned African American), which in turn, draws upon a slave-era practice of issuing passes that let slaves travel alone. The “pass” was seen as a ticket to freedom by slaves and it lives on as a symbol of White supremacy today. Passing describes a practice whereby an individual deliberate­ly keeps one’s identity a secret from the outside world and is, therefore, perceived as someone belonging to a different social or racial class than the one to which they truly belong. Caste concealmen­t is similar and it was also developed by the Dalit community to be free from the tangle of discrimina­tory practices around their existence.

The stories in the book, some autobiogra­phical and some fictional, detail how Dalits want to erase their caste identity to escape bigotry, prejudice and violence. A story by Baburao Bagul, translated by Jerry Pinto for this collection (“When I hid my caste”), about railway workers in newly independen­t India holds a mirror to the brutality that dogs

Dalit existence in the country.

The protagonis­t hides his Dalit status by dressing and speaking like other “upper caste” workers but not only does he live in constant fear of being found out, he is also beaten within an inch of his life when his “true” identity is discovered.

Another story by Omprakash Valmiki translated by Joel Lee (“Dread”) is set in a middle-class colony of workers somewhere in North India and it talks about a family that is desperate to belong in a neighbourh­ood of Brahmins and Kshatriyas. They abandon their old gods, abjure timehonour­ed old sacrificia­l rituals of their community and give up eating meat. Until one Publisher: day, it all gets too much for the matriarch of the household. She declares her desire to conduct a puja the way her ancestors did, sacrificin­g a pig to the goddess and cooking a royal feast of meat dishes. What may have been a joyous occasion otherwise, turns into a painful ordeal of playing hideand-seek with the neighbours and, not surprising­ly, ends tragically.

The stories are chilling, because such acts of concealmen­t are not located in the distant past. They are found even today—whether it is among the Dalit community, Muslims, transgende­rs and other minority/ marginalis­ed poor in the country. Many are being forced to discard or hide their true identities to escape harassment and at times, a fate worse than death.

For those cocooned in the safety of an urban, privileged existence, caste may be a relic of the past and they may struggle to find the connection­s with racism. But outside such blinkered existences, there is no escaping the likenesses. This is not to say that caste and race are the same. There are difference­s and Messrs Satyanaray­ana and Lee write that their intention is not to dismiss the huge variance in context and culture that mark the two trends and neither do they want to “package the less-studied phenomenon (caste concealmen­t) to fit the analytical framework the better-known (racial passing) has generated.” Even so, it would be criminal to ignore the resemblanc­e.

 ?? ?? CONCEALING CASTE: Passing and Personhood in Dalit literature Authors:
K Satyanaray­ana and Joel Lee
Oxford University Press Pages: 196
Price: ~1,895
CONCEALING CASTE: Passing and Personhood in Dalit literature Authors: K Satyanaray­ana and Joel Lee Oxford University Press Pages: 196 Price: ~1,895
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