When I said yes to writing this review, I did a couple of things. I kept myself away from what was being said about the book and I didn’t read the reviews. I was worried that when it came out, I’d be seen as being biased. I wanted to be truly objective. Yet, while reading the last few pages of the book, I realised I cannot completely be so, and more importantly, I don’t have to be. I’m a Dalit woman and this is my review of a Dalit sister’s memoir.
Yashica Dutt’s Coming Out as Dalit stays true to the author’s journalistic craft. I grew up reading “Dalit literature” that was mostly autobiographical and went into this book thinking it would be of a similar style. But Dutt does something better – she weaves her personal stories with the political narratives of my generation. She writes about her arduous journey from Ajmer to St Stephen’s College, and thereon to Columbia University, while keeping the reader informed of how affirmative action, cheap labor, and higher education impacts Dalit life in India. She writes at length about Babasaheb Ambedkar’s legacy and her discovery of him. She is detailed and comprehensive. Classrooms that talk caste should consider having this book as part of their required reading.
‘A vicious strain of patriarchy’
Most Dalit writers I have read have made me emotional at some point. Dutt was no different. In her introduction, she recollects a phone call to her mother, where she blurts, “Maine sab ko bata diya main Dalit hoon” (I have told everyone I’m Dalit). Her mother responds, “Jeetay raho beta” (Live long and prosper, my child). Tears ran down my cheeks as I imagined Dutt, probably with childlike innocence, telling her mother about this brave act. I could relate to what Dutt would have gone through. My mother, to this day, hushes me when I begin to talk about beef or anything “Dalit”. It is a familiar feeling of fear, which is relentless in its question – what if the others find out?
Dutt writes poignantly about her mother who had struggled with this fear, much like mine. It is one of the many sacrifices that our mothers make, apart from the obvious. They give up on what it means to be their true selves or to articulate what they go through every day due to their vulnerability to caste, class, and patriarchy. I grew up fairly oblivious to my mother’s complex struggles, which Dutt describes accurately as “a more vicious strain of patriarchy within our own families”.
Not many voices have been forthcoming in their support for Dalit women, especially when the perpetrator is a Dalit cis-het man. In the name of “let’s not wash dirty laundry in public”, Dalit women have been silenced for decades from speaking about inter- and intra-caste patriarchy, and are always asked to tread carefully, when talking about casteism and feminism in the same vein. I’m thankful Dutt puts it as it is: “When it comes to abuse and violence against women, Dalit men are no different”. I agree. Unless we are willing to see how patriarchy cuts across other forms of oppression, to result in extremely toxic familial, romantic, and platonic relationships, we won’t go too far in ensuring a better world for Dalits.
To be Dalit and successful
My favourite chapter of the book is one in which Dutt recollects the events that preceded her admission to Columbia University. She writes about each step she needed to climb before being financially and mentally ready to cross the seas. She talks about the unique difficulty of being Dalit in India while aspiring to be successful, and how the lack of networks, mentors, and information continue to keep us on the periphery.
I couldn’t even imagine doing a master’s degree in the US or Europe – I simply didn’t think it was possible. More than my love for chemistry, I had the stark awareness of how deprived my parents were. So, I did my best with what I could – finished my first master’s in India, got my professor to recommend my candidature (I was among the top 3 performers for all 4 semesters), and went on to do my second master’s in Singapore, with a full scholarship and a stipend. But even that wasn’t easy. I scrambled at the last minute to submit my application (I had no information on what was needed to be done), ran from pillar to post to get my passport sorted, and had my parents take a jewellery loan for my flight tickets and my first month’s expenses. Somewhat similar to Dutt, going to Singapore was my ticket to a new identity – one that was not obviously Dalit.
But, several times through the book I found myself asking, if I, a Dalit woman, was an intended reader or if it was the savarnas/those of other identities that go about life, completely oblivious to how caste works. Perhaps they would benefit the most from this memoir – a summation of everything that is “Dalit”, suffused with personal experiences and detailed accounts of historical/contemporary Dalit politics.
Who are the readers?
A well-known Dalit woman activist once told me, that for the audience (especially western) to take notice, I have to shed a little blood – I have to bare my soul, show the world my vulnerability, and describe to them what the “Dalit experience” truly is. Needless to say, I felt uncomfortable – what price does another’s potential ally-ship ask of me? I yearn for the day when my audience will no longer just be savarna or white. I wish my readers aren’t just wannabe allies or researchers that are always so curious to understand “Dalit stories”. I dream of the day when our people will write for us – so we can engage, critique, and love each other’s work, freely, without being conscious of the white/savarna gaze, or feeling the need to cater to their intellectual or political needs.
The author represents what is possible for my urban, educated generation. Given how fatigued some of us are, from the hate and criticism that is unique in its of targeting of vocal Dalits, Dutt’s ability to overcome life’s odds, and her courage in telling her story as is, is inspirational. I hope it will encourage many of us to tell our stories too.
But as a fellow Dalit woman writer, Coming Out as Dalit leaves me wanting for more. I want to get past the author’s reportage-style narrative and have her sit with me for a coffee. I want to know why it is important to “come out as Dalit”, when so many of us (including our families) are trying to escape this identity. I want to talk about what it means to be “post-caste”, I want to know if it’s possible at all. I want to ask what community means to Dalit women, who are often made to navigate from a place of scarcity and insecurity, even within anti-caste movements. I want to talk about the things that truly matter to Dalits today. I want to know when we will stop writing for the privileged, and when we will start writing for ourselves.
Coming Out As Dalit: A Memoir, Yashica Dutt, Aleph Book Company.