The act of changing one’s appearance, picking up new habits and trying to lead a double life became pretty common in the caste system of Modern India whereby lower castes started to adopt upper-caste traditions to get ahead. The term, Sanskritization, was popularized by M.N.Srinivas which was as true as it was unjust. Yashica Dutt spent all her life, hiding her ‘Dalit’ identity from her school friends, up until she went to Columbia to pursue her Master’s in Journalism. Her mother, Shashi, wanted to leave no trace of their ‘Dalit’ identity, didn’t want to carry it along with her or pass it to her kids in fear of them being ostracized from the society. She didn’t want their Dalitness to stick to them. In an attempt to be considered as a fully functioning part of the society, she started changing her lifestyle, wearing saris and buying expensive clothes for her daughters to pass off as upper-caste. Yashica narrates how her mother left no stone unturned when it came to giving her children a good education and ultimately a chance to have a normal life even though the whole ‘act’ of passing off as upper-caste soon dissolved into oblivion due to financial restraints—something all Dalits including Yashica’s family struggled with most of her life .
In this memoir, Yashica with great sincerity reveals how she spent most of her life running away from her reality, one she didn’t even question. She writes, ‘ I never saw caste for what it really is—the invisible arm that turns the gears in nearly every system in our country. It’s been working silently for so long that we have stopped noticing it, even though it exists all around us.’ We may not want to accept the caste supremacy still very much prevalent and spreading like wildfire here in India but many Dalits continue to face the brunt of systemic oppression that has eaten the very fabric of a just nation. Yashica hid her identity to escape systemic caste discrimination. Rohith Vermula’s death sparked nation-wide protests demanding an end to systemic caste-based discrimination and institutional oppression. His death also ignited something in Yashica. She wrote a Facebook post, revealing her Dalit identity, which came as quite a shock to people who knew her. For her, this was no longer being afraid of her identity, one she worked so hard to push out of her existence. It was like the fog had cleared, and she could see herself for who she really was.
Yashica points out cruel treatment meted out to Dalits, the glaring flaws in not just the Indian education system but nearly every job sector, the entire narrative around reservation, lack of accessible opportunities, zero representation of Dalit voices in movies, arts or academia. Furthermore, she sheds light on Dalit woman who are not only suffering caste violence but have no bodily autonomy, a recurrent patriarchal notion of women not having claim to their own body. Upper-caste men use mutilation, public humiliation to silence Dalit women. It’s just another way of making them know their place in the society. Drawing parallels from black women across US, who just like Dalit women, feel under-represented by feminist movements, Yashica writes that upper-caste women only seemed to focus on issues that directly affected them, refusing to acknowledge the struggles of Dalit women.
We grow up being told segregation exists. We’re already given a tier in the hierarchal system of caste. It doesn’t come as a surprise that prejudice, discrimination & oppression are elements of a skewed society that only seems to be exacerbating. During my teaching years, I would often be asked what my religion was by a number of students. Their questions came from a place of innocence, but mainly, from conversations happening at home. It wasn’t enough to tell them I was ‘Muslim’ because not only would I be met with surprise but some would take it further to ask, ‘Sunni or Shia?’. I never took it as an offence and would always tell them it doesn’t really matter, does it? After which they would drop the question and forget about it. Caste system has seeped into every layer of our being, taking shape and molding itself in subtle ways. You might say our family doesn’t believe in caste but it’s just your privilege talking. To assume, caste is a thing of the past, is shirking off accountability and giving up your privilege.