In an issue dedicated to the pluriversal imaginaries our all-too-strong influence from the U.S. political ‘software’ prevents, it was crucial for us to address one massive blindspot of this model: caste. This is why we invited Vijeta Kumar and Shaista Aziz Patel to exchange by letters about their perspectives on Dalit resistance from the two distinct geographies of the Indian Subcontinent and the diaspora in the United States.
We are two caste-oppressed women, coming from very different contexts, here in a conversation today. Could you have imagined coming together 20 years ago?
How often are people from non-dominant castes understood to have anything to contribute to a conversation in a text picked up by theorists from different fields? This opportunity is quite precious for me. I am excited to see what we can tell here in words; I am even more excited about the silences we are collaborating on in our writing. All the ellipses, all the words that trail off into nothingness. This is the bond we are forming here through writing and refusing to write. And as I write this, Black feminist scholar Katherine McKittrick’s words ring loud in my ears:
“The story asks that we live with the difficult and frustrating ways of knowing differentially. (And some things we keep to ourselves. They cannot have everything. Stop her autopsy). They cannot have everything.” (Dear Science and Other Stories, 2021)
We won’t tear open our flesh or that of our kin so that the reader can understand how genocidal caste violence has been for centuries. Let them Google things. They have cheered over and probed at our decaying and burnt flesh long enough.
But to you, I say what you already know: no matter how intent the Brahminical and white supremacist world order is on erasing us in all our forms, how much it wants to erase our histories, we are here, and we are the future ancestors of those whose arrival into the world has been challenged for millennia. Every act of ours towards addressing caste violence, even this act of coming together, I see this as an event of welcoming them into their world—a world where they can live wholeheartedly.
Vijeta, we both are in academia. So, let’s begin with that? I would like to talk about caste work in the U.S.. I will be grateful to hear some reflections on your work as an educator in India. It’s a context I am somewhat unfamiliar with as a diasporic Pakistani.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to ‘get’ an education. I am considering the word ‘get’. (c. 1200, “to obtain, reach; to be able to; to beget; to learn”). The word is dependent on the act of obtaining. As in not something that is already there for you to take. But as something that relies on your ability to ‘get’ it. One needs to be able in order to get.
I’ve been thinking about this word because last week I spoke to a student sitting across from me at my table in college, who could have very well not been sitting there—not because of fate or chance, but because of caste. He told me that, in his school, he believed (like everyone else around him) that he was a weak student because it took him a long time to answer questions. At parent-teacher meetings, his parents were told to take him back because he didn’t have the capacity to learn anything, and that he simply didn’t know “how to be a student.”
His mother, a sweeper, was once asked by a neighbor what the point of sending him to school was? “It’s not like he’s going to do anything great. What can a sweeper’s son do?” When the exam results were announced that year, his mother was sweeping the street outside his school, and discovered in horror/delight that her son’s photo was being displayed on the school gate along with the other
rank-holders for having topped the exam. She called him from someone’s phone and made him come to school. They stood outside the school for a long time that day, watching his photo. Later, his mother bought a box of sweets, took him along and went to the neighbor to tell her that her son was a topper, and to also casually ask where her son’s photo was. He laughed as he told me this and the joy in his face stunned my need to break down.
It reminded me of the late Kannada Dalit writer Siddalingaiah, who once recollected in an interview the story about being invited for a talk at a hostel and going up on stage to be felicitated. He was surprised to see his cheering mother, also a sweeper in the hostel, holding a broom in one hand and waving at him from the other.
I am wondering what these stories are about, if not of celebration? But then again, these are also stories of mothers and the brooms they hold in one hand, and the joy they hold for their children with the other.
A lot of what those who come before us sacrifice a lot more about which we may never learn. There is so much about education this country takes for granted that I am afraid that I may take it for granted too. When the student had finished telling me this story, we both scrambled for other words to fill the silence. He hadn’t talked in class for a long time until one day he saw a picture of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on my window and, since then, every time he came to see me, he came with more stories. It scares me sometimes to think what would have happened if he had never seen that picture or, worse, if that picture was never there to begin with.
I am thinking what does it mean then, to get an education when there’s so little for Dalit students on campus to want to continue. There is more of an active pursuit to keep them off campuses than there is to keeping them in. Especially when it takes so little for them to feel like they belong. And as teachers who were once students like them, what does it mean for us to be involved in their education while we are still holding onto ours? When there are students carrying caste on their shoulders, in the classroom, what do we do with ours?
I am not always able to do that because as the saying goes, you may not follow caste but other people do. Something in my body or its memory or that of a student’s will take control of my day and I give up and return to being the scared and weak student I once was.
I am compelled also to think if it would’ve happened to me if I was a teacher from a dominant caste. It is exhausting to live in a constant push-pull of “ifs.” But the casualty, very often, is not me, I know I will fight it. The casualty is that line, which I have now lost to the rhythm of caste, once again.
Toni Morrison speaks of race as a distraction in her 1975 keynote address at Portland State University:“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
This is true of caste as well. It is a distraction. My student shouldn’t have to worry about parent-teacher meetings when he could be figuring out a way to be a student on his own. I shouldn’t have to get sucked into another debate on reservation (merits/demerits), when I could be writing a short story about women who move in together to read books all day only to have one of them discover to her complete horror that the other woman talks a lot. I don’t want to write about caste. It is exhausting to have to think of different ways to say the same thing over and over again.
“It keeps us from doing our work.”
This was just a small glimpse into my work day. What is yours like, Shaista?
What you’ve shared above is so powerful. There are places where I have left comments on your reflection, asking for references or dates, all in an effort to make some of the words, some of the people you’ve mentioned, more legible to Western readers. I now wonder whether I should have done that… Refusing to become legible is refusal to be devoured by them. So, I apologize for my earlier comments, Vijeta.
Your desire to leave caste outside your classroom, for me, is a concrete example of that otherwise dubious-for-me conception of building a different kind of a world—an otherwise world. What you said reminded me of a line from the formidable Dr. Kumud Pawde’s autobiography (1981), where she notes, “What comes by birth, but can’t be cast off by dying—that is caste.” I have read this line many times, but hearing your desire to “leave caste outside,” while reveling in the generosity of beautiful words, is making me feel so many things, and I find it difficult to calm down my brain and intellectualize any of my many feelings. I do have fleeting images of unfleshing myself… Like that would let one leave their caste or race at the threshold.
I don’t know if this appears ‘out of place,’ but I wonder if there are Dalit genomic scientists examining our DNA sequencing and if they can find that our centuries of survival, of living in the face of most brutal humiliation and genocides can teach the world something about humanity, about reliance, about willing our way out of apocalypses. I just finished reading Métis novelist Cherie Dimaline’s book, The Marrow Thieves (2017). This young adult fiction, which moved me to my core, is about a futuristic world—maybe it’s the world we live in right now? My tenses are genuinely all confused and I laugh and choke it up to English being my second language but, really, that is so not the case. In the novel, white people have lost their ability to dream and so they hunt down Indigenous people for their bone marrow since it holds the cure for this fatal calamity of dreamlessness. I loved that very difficult-to-read book, but also kept thinking about what the power of Dalit dreaming might also be able to teach the world, you know? Forgive me for my tangential or rather intrusive thoughts… Where was I?
Everything you have shared above is, for me, an intentional practice of living with dignity, of building communities outside of a world order made meaningful through caste hierarchies. I just want to take a moment to appreciate all that you are sharing with me. My writing of a ‘response’ is shifting and I keep going back to my sentences, and erasing them. We have a deadline so I will have to send this in to Léopold and Shivangi Mariam, but I hope what I write can be read as a continuing engagement with your reflections. This way, I would find some peace in knowing that readers understand that my thoughts in this moment are insignificant and a ‘bad draft’ in relation to what I might have written tomorrow or the day after…
I was going to talk to you about casteism in the U.S. academy. But I genuinely don’t know what to share. I should have made a list of key points… But I want to say that I feel like an unfeeling robot some days, constantly trying to make caste legible in Western academia, constantly reminding students, colleagues, and all the administration people that caste, as a 2,500-year-old structure of violence, as one of the oldest forms of incarceration, is older than that of white supremacy.
Here I am, wanting to talk about Dalitness as recalcitrant, as rebellious, as an errant, as a refusal of and challenge to the very ways in which life is organized in our world, but the utterances from my mouth at meetings and in emails to my department are requests to include/recognize caste in my University’s anti-discrimination policy. All my thoughts about Dalit dreaming and its teachings get reduced to requests for inclusion. And this diversity work forces me to build strategic alliances in ways that sometimes engulf caste violence, and I stay there, waiting for my turn to bring up anti-Muslimness and casteism.
Diversity work is one of calculations and so that’s what I have become: a mere mathematician in this game of diversity in a large public university in the U.S. Sometimes, after administration or departmental meetings, I ask myself what it means to be present in ways that you do not even recognize yourself? I move around my office, walk around my campus and in the world, feeling disengaged and alienated from myself. It’s like I am the shadow walking with that other ▅▅▅▅ body. I have an academic analysis of caste and race and what it means to think about caste in a department like Ethnic Studies. Or even what it is to keep doing anti-caste work at my school with its Brahmin cis-man ▅▅▅. But instead, here I am, stuck in all the affect and all the sensations, miserably failing to write in a scripted, ‘professional’ academic form that I am expected to deliver my writing in… ▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅▅ or myself, feeling completely isolated.
[These redactions are an unseeing of my words because I mean to refuse 1) more information and 2) let you revel in my misery. I am grateful to Christina Sharpe (2016), Billy-Ray Belcourt (2016) and Eve Tuck (forever) for teaching me this practice]
Were I to speak, I’d look
like a cracked windshield.
My two hundred and six lonely bones
have each acquired a type of consciousness.
Sometimes a body is that which happens to you. (Billy-Ray Belcourt, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, 2019)
Vijeta, that quote from the wonderful Toni Morrison which you have above is so powerful. We are alienated from our being, from our kin, all in an effort to make our humanity legible to these systems of domination in the first place. In that effort, our ability to love ourselves and each other is compromised.
Where caste is rejected as vestigial in a casteism-like-genocide world order, what futurity can even be afforded to those whose lives are marked as completely disposable? You know, as I was writing this, I was reminded of how somebody shared a news story in a whatsapp group on how they, that is, genociding anti-Muslim, casteist, and heteropatriarchal Bollywood is now making a biopic on that Thakur man who shot and killed our revolutionary warrior elder, Phoolan Devi. That man is now a politician which is not an aberration. We know that they become leaders only through our massacres and genocides. Every day, the casteist and anti-Muslim violence feels so intense. I am enraged every single day. But even then I want to hold onto this sense of futurity because look, I am so privileged. Caste is not a site of genocide in Pakistan or its diaspora so I feel like I need to sit down and be quiet. But here I am, all weepy and excited because I get to write these letters to you in all my incoherence and with all these tangential- to-the-script disruptions. I said it above too that these words… futurity, otherwise worlds, joy, liberation… do not come easily to me. But as our sister Thenmozhi Soundararajan reminds me, and often, our ancestors did not fight and lived the lives they did just so we can be sad. So it’s a constant dance between terror, hope, living, refusals, escaping death… You know what I am saying. As a Dalit woman in India, you know better than I ever can. I acknowledge that.
I can’t tell you what a joy it was to read you. “Dalit dreaming” is a phrase I have never heard before and feel all too overwhelmed by the possibilities it holds. And to hear of it for the first time from you, here, like this, makes these possibilities all too touchable, reachable. I am wondering now what it means for you, me, and others like us to dream. I am thinking what it must be like for you to carry around these dreams in your eyes, your body, and mind every day and to have them “reduced to requests for inclusion” in boardroom meetings. What you’ve said with such deliberation is at the heart of what I wasn’t able to articulate and what I have struggled with in the past, and continue to struggle with even now.
Sometimes when I talk about caste in my classroom, a part of the energy goes into proving to a caste-ignorant student that caste is alive and thriving. By the end of this argument, after having gone through every excruciating detail from history, lived experience, anecdotes (those of mine, and others), I see a look of absolute disgust on the student’s face. That’s a look I know well, and regardless of how familiar this look is, it always unsettles me. It’s the belittling look of someone asking “If indeed things are as bad as you say they are, how did you end up here, wearing what you do, teaching English, writing on a macbook?” There are several ways in which I address this and, in that moment, I am always able to claim space back, but nothing prepares me for the way I want to abandon myself for the rest of the day.
That student isn’t saying anything particularly different or anything I haven’t heard before. We have all heard the same argument in various ways, and it doesn’t merit more than a yawn as response, but even the capacity of the laziest argument to unsettle you, an experienced teacher, and make her reconsider whether she truly belongs in the classroom and whether she should even be talking about caste at all is inhuman.
That student is merely mimicking what they have heard before, picked up from home, street, friends, but I hate that in that moment, I am allowing someone who is just reciting an unoriginal thought to consume me. This is a worry I have learnt to respect over the years. I don’t want to be unkind. I worry that my defensiveness, eagerness to prove the student wrong or more importantly, to prove myself right gets in the way of their learning.
Classrooms are meant to be learning spaces after all. How is any kind of learning possible for them or for me if I am constantly protecting myself and being vulnerable at the same time? It is easy to borrow the manufactured rage from twitter and unleash it on students, to drop words like “entitled,” “savarna” (dominant caste), “spoilt,” etc., but as a teacher, my job demands that I leave that rage, especially since it comes so easily outside the classroom and rely on something more surgical, cold, unyielding like logic to defeat them.
On some days, my bitterness scares me, my own capacity to rely on bitterness as an excuse to not work hard scares me more.
So when you say, what does it mean to be present in ways that you do not even recognize yourself, Shaista, I was able to see you, and I was able to see me.
This year’s Dalit History Month, for me, is a constant reminder of kindness. I don’t know if I have it in me to return to kindness every day, but I want to try. What is your Dalit History Month like?
We are exchanging these messages in April which is indeed Dalit History Month. I don’t really know how (widely) it is celebrated in India, and if there are discussions on themes for the month, and how it disrupts the Brahminical supremacy of Indian institutions. But I genuinely appreciate this reminder of kindness from you. Thank you. I am going to hold onto it in my coming days and weeks.
Here, in the U.S., I sit in terror during this month, waiting for event announcements on social media from casteist Indian scholars who never engaged with caste in their analyses, but have now learned that caste is a profitable site of career building (publications, grants, street credit, gratitude from caste-oppressed people, wonder and appreciation from their white or not Western colleagues and students). These academics have, through hard work of Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi theorists/organizers, realized their ‘caste complicity,’ and purport to design research projects (with funds, of course), and write journal articles on the matter, and yet can never be honest about their very willful participation in upholding caste-based and anti-Muslim genocidal world order. You can never make them speak about the particularities of their own families’ participation in this dehumanizing-for-us structure of Brahminical patriarchy.
In Western academia, brown-skinned South Asians are flattened into the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) categorization of “brown” or “Asian.” We then circulate as being the same kind of people coming from same or similar cultures, histories, caste, and political locations, as if there isn’t a centuries-old caste apartheid in place. In North America, Brahmins, presenting themselves as injured subjects of white supremacist universities, and touting postcolonial and subaltern theories pretend to present seemingly ‘alternative’ archives of history from that of the colonizers. There is much respect for the field of Subaltern Studies in South Asia and in the West. However, the entire field of subaltern studies, and postcolonial studies as done by caste-dominant South Asian academics, has always been led by Brahmin and other caste-privileged Indian academics and yet… I am untenured, Vijeta. There is so much I want to say and have said, but in the face of genociding caste powers, sometimes my knees shake… I dream of Savitribai Phule, Mohtarma Fatima Sheikh, Nangeli devi, Jhalkaribai, all of them forever generating vengeance and haunting these academics. Okay you might be laughing now. I am too but, honestly, the rage in my body for them makes me hope that these pretentious ‘subalterns’ are actually silenced through sheer terror of being haunted. Am I being anti-academic here? Honestly, we talk about generosity in our scholarship and this prayer for never-stopping haunting of caste-dominant people is my care for our people. I’m so clearly reminded here of this quote by Eve Tuck and Christine Ree: “Haunting does not hope to change people’s perceptions, nor does it hope for reconciliation. Haunting lies precisely in its refusal to stop” (“A Glossary of Haunting,” 2013). I am exasperated. See how a celebratory month for me also becomes about all this bitterness (nodding at what you said above on your bitterness and anger toward the university and caste-dominant students).
You know Vijeta in my department of Ethnic Studies I wrote and released an anti-caste statement. It went relatively easy for me, with people either staying silent (a majority) or emailing to support this statement. The administration is Brahminical and white supremacist, but I don’t think I am on their radar as yet, which is the reason for all this happening smoothly. Then I think about the experiences of Dalit and allied savarna students and alumni who had to fight so hard to get caste included in California State Universities, the things we heard at the Santa Clara Commission for Human Rights hearing on caste last year, the notorious case of caste apartheid at Cisco and in all workplaces in the U.S. where Indians are, the BAPS mandir in New Jersey which used Dalits for coerced labor, all of these tell you that caste violence is very well alive in diaspora. As Babasaheb (Ambedkar) said, “If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.”
While these dominant caste people continue to steal our lands, bones, flesh, souls, futurities, I am going to continue my refusal to give in and continue to do my work and think through how our (Dalit and Muslim) acts of meaning making can serve our ancestors, our people, our future generations.
They can’t steal the sacred from us. We will continue to dream different lives for ourselves and our children. Insha’Allah. Jai Bhim. Jai Savitri. Jai Fatima. ■