“So, how did you know…” he paused.
“…that… I’m a darbar?”
With these halting words the urbane, educated protagonist of Ajay Navaria’s short story “New Custom” steps gingerly into a tabooed region of South Asian social life, a terrain as disturbing to the logic of caste hierarchy as it is generative of alternative imaginations of relatedness. Though Dalit by birth, Navaria’s hero exhibits none of the signs of meekness and deprivation associated with the victims of the structural violence of untouchability. On the contrary, when he disembarks from a bus at a sleepy roadside station somewhere in north India, his fashionable coat and self-sure demeanour lead a tea vendor to assume that his new customer must belong to the darbars, a caste of socially and economically dominant landlords.
When the tea vendor addresses him as “darbar,” the protagonist initially ignores him, declining with silence the invitation to confirm the assumption or specify another caste identity in its place. But when the vendor, busy preparing chai, several times repeats this enactment of caste deference, Navaria’s hero slowly allows himself to play along. He permits himself to inhabit, for the moment, a social role that the caste system categorically denies to his kind.
“Seeing your coat and pants, and your commanding presence, anyone would know,” the tea vendor tells him. The protagonist, committing himself further to the experiment, elicits the social location of the tea vendor. “Are you one, too?” he asks. Apologetically, the vendor replies that he is a Mali, a low-status but still “touchable” caste. In this way the ritual of recognition – the dance of assertion and acknowledgement that inaugurates social interaction between strangers in caste society, and according to which both parties then calibrate their performances of deference and condescension – is finally accomplished.
But only provisionally. Whether Navaria’s protagonist can sustain his enactment of darbar-hood, and avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences that could follow from the revelation of his Dalit identity, depends on his nimble navigation of local social norms, his adroitness in reading the signs of his interlocutor’s thought and improvising convincing responses.
Readers of American literature might well imagine Clare Kendry, the light-skinned African American lead character of Nella Larsen’s acclaimed 1929 novel Passing, egging on Navaria’s hero in this risky transgression of hierarchy. Orphaned young in Southside Chicago and ill-used by her white guardians elsewhere in the city, Clare conceals her African American origins and upbringing, marries a wealthy white businessman, and leads a life as opulent and free of discrimination as her childhood was marked by scarcity and racist mistreatment. When Clare has a chance encounter with her childhood friend Irene – who is also African American and fair-skinned – she invites Irene to test with her the waters on the other side of the colour line. In words that could be directed at Navaria’s protagonist as much as to Irene, Clare says to her friend, “You know, ‘Rene, I’ve often wondered why more… like you… never “passed” over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”
What in the United States is known as “passing” – clandestinely crossing categorical borders, allowing oneself to be perceived by others as belonging to a social (often racial, ethnic) group other than one’s “own” – has provoked public debate and propelled literary production for generations. Reflecting the degree to which American culture remains riven by race, instances of racial passing in public life in the present continue to attract furious attention, eliciting condemnation and defence from a range of political positions, much as they have over the last century and a half. In the literary sphere, the lives of those who slip across the colour line have inspired no small number of novels, short stories, essays and scholarly discussions from the 19th century onward. Several landmarks in the American and African-American literary canon are, at heart, passing stories.
Passing has a counterpart in South Asia. This is the tabooed domain Navaria’s protagonist enters when he affirms the tea vendor’s assumption – when, offered the role of “darbar,” interpellated as the proper subject of caste privilege, he accepts. Though it has not, until now, been contemplated as an object of study and considered alongside its American analogue, this region of transgressive sociality is a significant focus of Dalit literature. Navaria’s protagonist is not alone in presenting a parallel to Larsen’s Clare Kendry; in fact, Dalit authors have explored this terrain in dozens of short stories, novels, poems and plays, as well as in autobiographical writings.
Baburao Bagul, in the title of his pathbreaking 1963 Marathi short story collection Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti (When I Concealed My Caste), supplies a possible organising concept for this domain: caste concealment. Many Dalit authors since Bagul – including several in this volume – have deployed one or another variation of this term, corresponding as it does with descriptions of the phenomenon in everyday vernacular speech. In Hindi, for example, one speaks of individuals who jāt chupāke rahnā, that is, who “live with [their] caste concealed.” But does the organic presence of concealment in the linguistic and cultural milieu justify its development as a concept?
To adopt a term already embedded in a social context, of course, is to risk reproducing that context’s prejudices. A whiff of accusation hovers around talk of caste concealment, ventilated by the moral logic that what is hidden must be bad and that concealing is deceiving. Such moral logic animates vernacular usage; that Hindi indicates stealthy action with the common pairing chorī-chupke (literally “stealing-concealing”), and that the Marathi chorli in Bagul’s title combines theft and hiding in a single word, seems to imply a necessary relation between concealment and thievery. Accepting concealment as an organising concept risks letting these presuppositions circulate unquestionedly. There is danger, as well, of tacitly endorsing brahminical ideology; to single out caste concealment for attention may inadvertently buttress casteist common sense that caste ought to be transparent, written on the body, and known to all. And, as with “passing,” “concealment” foregrounds the action of the one who passes or conceals, arguably drawing critical attention away from the structure of dehumanization that creates the very conditions of possibility of such action.
But there is more to Bagul’s inaugural formulation than the reproduction of vernacular common sense. The “I” of the title (the Mi of Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti) becomes important: here is a character who can choose to conceal the stigmata of caste background – or to reveal it – without it being always already laid bare before the privileged-caste gaze. The “I” announces a Dalit subjectivity capable of and interested in exercising authority over its representation. The hint of “theft” invoked by Bagul’s chorli (and Hindi writers’ chupana) is also more richly polyvalent than straightforward robbery – who, after all, is the victim of an act of “stealing” caste? If it is the privileged castes who are being robbed, their “loss” (of certitude that caste can be infallibly perceived? of another opportunity to exploit and humiliate?) pointedly raises the question of what constitutes crime in such a context. Bagul and subsequent Dalit writers are thus acutely aware of the pitfalls of brahminical common sense and the multivocality of vernacular concepts.
When they give voice to the accusation of caste concealment in their stories, they do often channel indignation at those who conceal their caste, yet they also expose the insidiousness of the charge itself. As a character in Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan says, anticipating the outrage likely to follow when people who have assumed that he is brahmin learn that he is Dalit, “Should we go around beating drums and announcing it?” Dalit writers deploy the concealment concept in ways that trade on its ambiguity, simultaneously activating and deconstructing conventional moral prejudices.
Dalit writing on caste concealment, then, deals with a range of phenomena. Practices readily identifiable as concealment are certainly among them, but others might better be described as equivocation, experimentation, unmarking, disidentification, and play. In the stories in this volume, some characters seek primarily to lead lives untethered to the dead weight of inherited status, to forge relationships beyond caste. Others find themselves perceived as savarna and toy with the prospect of inhabiting the role.
A number of narratives depict lives painfully and painstakingly bifurcated between a Dalit identity at home and a privileged caste persona at school, or in the workplace, or in the neighborhood. In others – only a few – we encounter Dalit individuals for whom concealment is an all-consuming way of life: those who, like Larsen’s Clare Kendry, almost completely sever ties to their birth community, or marry into a privileged caste without their spouse knowing their origins.
This volume brings together for the first time Dalit writings on caste concealment. Its two halves represent the genres in which Dalit authors have most frequently treated the theme: short stories and autobiographical writings, with the latter including both autobiographical essays and excerpts from autobiographies or memoirs. Originally written in Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, and Telugu as well as English, and spanning a period from the 1930s to 2020, the selections provide a window into eight decades of Dalit writing on this theme in multiple regions and literary traditions.
Excerpted with permission from Concealing Caste: Narratives of Passing and Personhood in Dalit Literature, Joel Lee and K Satyanarayanan, Oxford University Press.