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What It Means To Be Dalit, Poor, And A Woman All At Once

"I used to think that at the rate they worked, men and women both, every single day, they should really be able to advance themselves. But of course, they never received a payment that was appropriate to their labour.”

Many people say “I never even knew my caste till I had to apply to colleges after grade 12”, to prove that the caste system is dead, and hence reservations should be abolished. What they choose not to realise that being “unaware of caste” is a privilege enjoyed only by those of the upper castes. A Dalit is reminded of her caste every single day.

In her searing memoir, Karukku, Dalit Christian writer Bama describes how as a young girl she was amused to see an elder from her community carrying a packet of vadai by its string. What if the string broke and the vadai fell down, she said while narrating the scene to her older brother. It was then that she found out that while carrying food for an upper caste person, a Dalit would have to ensure that he didn’t touch the packet even by mistake. She was mortified to hear that, but gradually came to realise that Dalits like herself were treated very differently by those of other castes.

She narrates how on public buses, she was often asked where she lived, and when the street name revealed her caste, she was ordered to vacate her seat by the person sitting next to her. When she refused, the other person would often stand up herself, but would not remain seated next to her. She talks of how her mother often advised her to lie about her caste since it was unlikely she would be found out, but Bama refused. She was rebelling on behalf of the community– for her it was an act of protest against injustice.

Survival a daily struggle for many

The most poignant passages, however, are those where Bama talks of how they started working even before sunrise, and kept working till dead of night, yet, remained poor. Dalits would be made to do the jobs that nobody else was willing to, and were kept poor by the upper caste employers who underpaid them (often a fistful of millets for a day’s work), and by upper caste tradespersons who always short changed them while bartering goods or services. Dalits, as she writes, work exceedingly hard, but barely survive-

“When I saw our people working so hard night and day, I often used to wonder from where they got their strength. And I used to think that at the rate they worked, men and women both, every single day, they should really be able to advance themselves. But of course, they never received a payment that was appropriate to their labour.”

“This is a community that was born to work. And however hard they toil, it is the same kuuzh every day. The same broken grain gruel. The same watery dried-fish curry, it seems they never even reflect upon their own terrible state of affairs. But do they have any time to think? You have to wonder how the upper castes would survive without these people. For its only when they fall asleep at night that their arms and legs are still; they seem to be at work at all other times. And they have to keep working until the moment of death. It is only in this way that they can even half-fill their bellies.”

Even in poverty, Bama notes that “even if they did the same work, men received one wage, women another. They always paid men more. I could never understand why.” This gender pay gap is not restricted to the Dalits, but in case of a Dalit family the difference in wages could mean the difference between eating and starving.

The casual assumptions that hurt

If daily discrimination and not being sufficiently compensated for hard labour is not bad enough, Dalits often have to deal with the casual assumptions of people who do not wish them harm. Bama narrates the story of how she was forced to lock herself into a bathroom and cry during a college function, because she didn’t have anything to wear. “Why didn’t you write home and ask them to send you a silk saree?”, a friends enquires casually. How could Bama explain to her that her family is so poor they have never owned even a single silk saree. Her friend didn’t mean to hurt her, but the remark hurt.

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After becoming a teacher, Bama decided she could make a positive difference in the lives of young Dalit school children if she joined a convent, so she took up vows. However, she encountered casteism even in the convent. She realised that “The Jesus they worshipped was a wealthy Jesus. I saw no connection between God and the suffering poor.” The nuns, she writes, were more interested in what they would cook and eat than in how they could provide the best education and the best pastoral care to those who needed it most.

Why is it so hard for Dalits to better their lives?

Very often people say, “Why can’t Dalits just study and move out of the cycle of poverty?” The argument made is that with reservations being in effect for many decades, if a person hasn’t been able to pull him/herself out of poverty, it must be because of lack to will or effort.

Bama, however, explains exactly why it is so hard for Dalits to advance. In school, Dalit students were made to run around performing menial tasks, and would be the first to be blamed when something went wrong. While there were a few token Dalit children in many schools, the students were not given as much attention as the others. Even if Dalit children won scholarships and managed to go to college, they were subject to much scrutiny and ridicule, and only the most mentally strong could survive. After all that, if a Dalit managed to graduate from college, caste often became a reason to not recruit them. In the book, Bama shows how though the caste system has been abolished on paper, it flourishes in myriad ways, and ensures that Dalits are kept down.

Karukku is a book we need to read to understand what it means to be a poor, Dalit woman. It peels off the layers of religious hypocrisy and caste discrimination and you are forced to confront the everyday lived reality of people. However, there is also joy. The games they played, the songs they sung, the religious gatherings they attended. It is when you read of how they continue to squeeze joy out of an existence that will crippled most people that the full enormity of the oppressive caste system really hits you.

Outspoken, direct and hard hitting, this book is a must read.

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Image source: book cover Amazon

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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