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Coming Out As Dalit, as the title suggests, is a memoir of a young Dalit woman Yashica Dutt, who documents her experience of being systematically forced to hide her Dalit identity to get somewhere in the world.
“I didn’t think I had enough to say, that I was willing to share with the world. After I came out as Dalit, I no longer had anything to hide.” – Yashica Dutt.
It was a surprise and a joyful moment when I checked an mail suggesting that I review this book. At that point in time, I never thought that this book would make me reflect on my past, but I did, going through a plethora of mixed emotions as I read the book.
I was happy that I got to read a book which in many ways mirrors my own experience as an urban Dalit woman. I was also angry as I read the book, since it made me realise that I too, was made to hide my identity as a Dalit from a young age. I couldn’t pen down my thoughts about the book for few days since it would mean to revisit some more distressing moments of my childhood. However, I feel the book has given me courage to share, as I no longer have anything to hide.
Yashica, a young Dalit woman talks about how she was told to pass off as belonging to an upper caste by her mother, which was similar to my mother’s advice during my school days. She would warn me (and my siblings) not to use the word ‘beef’. In fact, she would manipulate us by calling ‘beef’ as ‘mutton’ so that we would not reveal our Dalit-ness. While reading, I remember my mom’s struggle to train us with a bunch of lies about our caste so that we wouldn’t be treated as inferior. My father would constantly tell us that we belonged to farming community, and never did he reveal the caste name ‘pariha’.
I’m sure the book will resonate with most of the young dalit women who still struggle to live in the ‘closet’ because of ‘symbolic caste violence’ that prevails everywhere.
“Being able to talk in perfect English with no trace of a regional accent remains the mark of wealth, pedigree, class and even intelligence in modern India. She (Yashica’s mother) knew that anyone – even a Dalit – who spoke ‘good’ English would be treated with instant respect. So she decided that I would speak the language fluently – it would gain me the respect and acceptance that she had not.” – Yashica Dutt
While I was reading Yashica’s narration about her school days, the visuals of my school days just played in the background.
Admitting children to a reputed English medium school so that they attain social and economic mobility is still a dream for many Dalits. English has aided some Dalits to climb the social ladder. However, it has not been an easy entry for Dalit women.
Yashica’s work traces the struggle of young Dalit women to get an education, like her mother’s dream to get education is crushed by the patriarchal system within the Dalit community. Yashica’s own journey from a small village to New York was possible only because of the support from her mother; two diverse discourses of Dalit women of two different generations foreground the intersectionality of caste, class and gender.
Here I am of a generation that is still a ‘first generation learner’ finding my way into college education. The book respectfully paves way for such diverse experiences of Dalit women getting education and empowered.
“There are excellent narratives that address the direct consequences of being Dalit. I found nothing that engaged with the unique anxiety of giving up one’s identity to take on another that is seen as superior. So, I decided I had to find a place where such stories could live.” – Yashica Dutt
The most gripping part of the book is that the author unravels the ‘unique anxiety’ of giving up one’s identity. There were moments in the book where I felt like author was speaking my mind. Due to the conditioning at home, I had learnt to hide in another identity.
I used to be anxious when the officials from scholarship department in school would come to classroom to check if we had applied for scholarship. Those were the moments where I had to recreate lies and hide in another identity. When friends used to question about the scholarship, I had to tell them that my family is from upper caste but we applied for SC scholarship since we are economically poor (not knowing the constitutional reservation at that time).
Recollecting such moments while I was reading the book was painful and disheartening. However, the book didn’t make me feel guilty for hiding in another identity since it was not my fault, but the fault of caste system.
As a memoir of a young Dalit woman – Yashica Dutt – who documents her experience of being systematically forced to hide her Dalit identity, Coming Out as Dalit creates a safe and nonjudgemental space for embracing Dalit-ness without shame.
“I was putting an end to my constant struggle of hiding behind my education or my career, escaping through my proficient English or my (not so dark) skin colour. I was turning my Dalitness into a gold medal of ancestral pride and suffering. I was going to proclaim openly and proudly that I was Dalit.” – Yashica Dutt.
I felt such a great relief when I read these lines. It isn’t that easy to live without embracing your true identity. I have seen many dominant caste individuals who openly embrace their privileged caste identity even though it oppresses certain sections of the society, while a Dalit like me is not in a position to reveal this identity, leave alone embracing it. In the past few years due to my exposure to the writings of Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule and other Dalit literature, I’ve mustered the courage to embrace my identity, and this book has given me more inner peace after realising that there are stories similar to mine.
“He (Rohit Vemula) made me recognize that my history is one of oppression and not shame. Despite the fact that he (Rohit Vemula) was dead, Rohit’s note made me less afraid. And I hoped that somewhere, someone like me would read my note and possibly feel less afraid too.” – Yashica Dutt.
Dear Ms Yashica Dutt,
Your note has made me feel less afraid…
I would say it has made me feel confident!
Her writing resonates with most of us – the urban, English speaking Dalit women who go through similar emotional trauma of hiding their identity on a daily basis.
Yashica Dutt has been painstakingly triumphant in weaving a balanced narrative of her experience as a Dalit woman alongside systematic analysis of historical, socio-economic and cultural oppression of Dalits in India. Dalit writings are brushed off as ‘mere experiential’ in academic circles. T
his book is an answer to those dominant caste intellectuals who do not consider Dalit writing as ‘intellectual enough’. A must read to crack the danger of a single story floating in books, media, films, and in art forms about Dalit. We are more than the single narrative constructed by ‘caste Hindus’.
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Assistant Professor at St. Joseph's College, Bengaluru.
Former Assistant Professor at Jain University, Bengaluru.
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