Book review: Coming Out As Dalit by Yashica Dutt
COMING OUT AS DALIT by Yashica Dutt, Aleph Books.
I have just one word to describe this book: eviscerating. Dutt`s account of going through her early life hiding the fact that she belonged to the Bhangi caste, adopting a non-specific surname like Dutt, learning to quickly cover any traceable trace of her origins with a mantle of subterfuge, had me reading the book at the slowest pace I have ever read a book, absorbing facts, learning new facts, flinching at old facts.
Dutt passes for an upper caste girl through some luck that has to do with her skin colour, the fact that her parents held down respectable jobs, and that she was a quick study, able to learn and adopt upper caste traits as quick as she spotted them. She goes to St Stephens to do her undergrad studies, lands jobs in a couple of media publications immediately after, then heads to Columbia for further studies.
So yes, it’s a success story by any standard: for a Dalit, for a girl, for a bright student, for a working professional.
For a quick reiteration of some salient facts:
- Untouchability was declared illegal in 1950. 25% of Indians are Dalits. And the bottomline is inescapable: Dalits were treated like dirt for over a thousand years, Dalits are treated like dirt now. Change is supposed to come in incremental doses for all of us; it just hasn’t for Dalits.
- Their education and experience being equal, a 2007 study found that Dalit applicants were called 33 % less (and Muslims 66% less) than upper caste candidates.
- Dalit businesses are all too quickly identified as `Chamaron ki dukaan` or `Chudon ki factory` and of course this discourages customers from doing business with them.
- Dutt`s case is that reservation is called unfair only when it attempts to get Dalits and OBCs the same opportunities, education and degrees that the upper castes have had easy access to for decades.
- All the dices are loaded against Dalits. All the odds are stacked against them. They lack the cultural capital (described as dispositions, attitudes, values and behaviours that parents can pass on to their children) that is taken for granted by the upper castes.
Dutt laboured under the double whammy of being Dalit and poor despite having a superhero for a mother. She had to leave India to come out as Dalit; but once she stopped hiding from herself, there`s been no stopping her.
I defy the reader to read the Bhangi passages with a dry eye. I defy the reader to read the manual scavenging passages without flinching in a shared shame that some of us have to do this `job` for a living. `My grandfather`s first wife worked as a manual scavenger cleaning dry excrement from people`s homes,` Dutt writes. And you get to thinking: how many times have you read this as part of an origin story?
Dutt starts off by telling us her distressing yet uplifting tale, then pulls back and shifts focus to Gandhiji, Ambedkar, the rulers of the Raj, Dalit literature (which she says is an emblem of strength, resilience, support and hope), the parallel of the caste system with the racial discrimination suffered by Blacks in America; Dalits and the Manusmriti.
If ever a book screams : check your privilege, this is it. However, even the most woke amongst us have never really sat down to list our privileges. We need to do that now, acknowledge how an accident of birth is what makes or breaks a person in this caste-ridden society, this caste-driven country of ours. We need to repudiate the Chaturvarna system which, for those who are a bit foggy on the details, divides Hindus into four unequal castes. We need to politely disabuse those who would tell us that caste has its uses. That is when we walk our talk.
This is a difficult book to read when one knows that every word is true. All of India is following the same playbook it has followed for centuries. Shame on us.
Videos feat Yashica Dutt: