Coming Out As Dalit by Yashica Dutt: Caste violence, systemic oppression and owning one's identity.

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.’

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. 

Daddykins by Kalpana Mohan: A bitter-sweet memoir that will make you laugh and cry.

Daddykins is an intimate and deeply relatable account of our relationships with our parents whatever our age, and the shared experiences of love and grief that unite us all.

While driving back in the car after the party, he turned to my sister to ask her the one question that seemed to giving him heartburn. “Was this a birthday or a sendoff?”

Returning back after celebrating his ninetieth birthday, the one thought that kept lingering in the mind of Daddykins, was that of mortality, and how much more time did he have? In this memoir that’s written with utmost affection, love and respect for a man the author grew up loving, her father, we see life through his eyes, and how with changing times, Daddykins, remained loyal to his routines, his family, and everything that was dear to him.

Kalpana Mohan, a journalist in California, flies down to take-care of her father whose health keeps deteriorating, She describes her father’s life, piecing together every little detail with precision, and caution coupled with laughter and wit. She traces her father’s life of when he was growing up in a country that went through partition, his marriage at an early age, and fighting poverty to landing his first job. Often dealing with the crankiness that the illness brought him to seeing him wither down and accept defeat when his body could no longer cope, Kalpana, captured the journey of a man who never lost sight of his bold nature, and smiled even at his lowest, never letting his physical inability hinder his sharp mind.

It was delightful and heartwarming to read about the relationship between a father and a daughter. The instances narrated made me tear up in parts, often making me think about my father’s idiosyncrasies, and how universal the bond is. No matter how old you are, you’ll always remain your daddy’s little girl.

The staff at the theatre walked up to Daddykins and asked after his health. He introduced me to them. “My little girl,” he said. Fifty-one years old, with hair dyed black to retain her youth and on supplements to stave off the onset of osteoporosis and peripheral neuropathy, his ‘little’ girl held Daddykins by the elbow and led him to their seats in the first row.

The camaraderie between Daddykins and Vinayagam, the witty remarks laced with admiration and respect for each other together with the author’s stark observation about the mundane, made the book even more special. Families come together during difficult times, and it is families who help us see the shore when the tides are high. Through this memoir, Kalpana, weaved a beautiful relationship between daughters, and their fathers, and how, when all is said and done, you need your parents to help you see the light.

I never imagined that my father would really die. Death had been a stunt practised in our home. My father had ‘pretend-died’ and come back to life many times before. Sometimes when my mother or his daughters castigated him for something, Daddykins’ face would fall. “I’ll just go away,” he would say, “and then you’ll see how life will be.” Then he would flump down on the sofa or bed. In a display of cinematic bravado, Daddykins would let his arms go limp. His head would roll to his side, his eyes would shut and the tongue would leak out of his mouth. But he always got up and walked back into our lives. That night in June, however, while my sister and I paced outside his room, anxious about the readings on his oxygen monitor, Daddykins exhaled, never to inhale again.


Author: Kalpana Mohan

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 192

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Blurb:

When journalist Kalpana Mohan’s elderly father falls ill in Chennai, she is on the next flight over from California and the home she has shared with her husband for three decades. Caring for her sometimes cranky, sometimes playful, and always adored father at his home in Chennai, Mohan sets out to piece together an account of her father’s life, from his poverty-stricken childhood in a village in south India, to his arranged marriage, to his first job in the city, all the while coming to terms with his inevitable passing.

 

Mohan’s tender, moving, and sometimes hilarious memoir is an account of a changing India captured in her father’s life, from the sheer feat of surviving poverty in I920s India of his birth, to witnessing key moments in the nation’s history and changing alongside them. Above all, Daddykins is an intimate and deeply relatable account of our relationships with our parents whatever our age, and the shared experiences of love and grief that unite us all.

 

Agnipariksha by Hamid Kureshi: Translated by Rita Kothari

A memoir of trauma and hope set against the 1969 riots of Ahmedabad.

Senior advocate and trustee of Sabarmati Ashram and Preservation Memorial Trust, Hamid Kureshi, penned down a detailed account of his life during the 1969 Gujarat riots. Hamid Kureshi’s Agnipariksha is a testimony to how in times of despair and adversity, kindness, unity and companionship surpass every ordeal; how it is human nature to rise after every fall, to see the light amidst darkness. The 1969 Gujarat riots are witnessed once again through the eyes of Kureshi’s personal account spanning over a period of five to seven days. The book, narrated in first person, describes the monstrosity and cruelty subjected by a section of society on to the other. Despite the rage, anger and hatred surrounding the atmosphere in the riot inflicted Gujarat; Kureshi’s personal story incites no violence or fury rather a sense of belongingness and sensitivity amongst the Hindu brothers and sisters.  As Narayan Desai writes in the preface for this book, ‘HamidBhai has presented his experiences with great restraint and yet managed to highlight acts of sensitivity and compassion in the midst of rage, hatred and suffering. This story of humanity is a welcome addition to humanitarian literature.’

The year is 1969, and Hamid Kureshi is on his way to the High Court. Little does he know that a seemingly normal day would soon turn catastrophic in the days to come. Being married to a Hindu, Hamid lived a secular life. Believing in the goodness of humanity, the communal riots that led to assaults on his mental as well as physical self left an indelible scar. For the first time, he was seen not as a lawyer or a contributing law abiding citizen of the society but as a Muslim; a target. The anger and hatred towards a minority of the society took away the last shred of hope from him.

The ideological principles governing Hamid reflect his Gandhian principles of love over hatred and peace over war. Growing up during India’s struggle for freedom, his participation in the Quit India Movement followed by imprisonment turned Hamid into an ardent believer of the Gandhian principles. His grandfather, Imam Abdul Kadir Bawazeer, was a close companion of Gandhi and was called ‘Sahodar’ by him as a term of endearment. After the death of Imam Saheb, a house was built in the precincts of Gandhi’s Ashram, which came to be known as Imam Manzil. The Kureshi family then took permanent residence in this house. In 1969, when the communal riots spread, his house in Swastik Society was burned down and the Ashram had also been attacked. Hamid Kureshi then writes, “I am thinking if the Imam Manzil in Gandhi Ashram is not safe, then where can I possibly seek shelter? I am bewildered. I shut my eyes.” This moment, perhaps, can be regarded as the most painful moment in a series of heart-wrenching events.  Imam Manzil was under-threat, challenged by those who preached violence and practiced hate. The paradox, here, is unbelievable. At the end of the day, Imam Manzil surfaced unscathed and protected by the members of the Ashram. The sheer power and support of the Hindu community at such an unfortunate time has been narrated by the author with compassion and gratefulness.

Translated from the original Gujarati by Rita Kothari, the book takes us through the riot-torn areas, lanes, and roads of Ahmedabad. Kureshi’s writing style is articulate, providing a picturesque and detailed sequence of events as they unfolded. From the minute he realizes the seriousness of the riots, we learn and experience life though his eyes. The horrified and fear-ridden atmosphere of his family members, the calm and composed demeanour of his father, the negligent attitude of the Government and police department, the places he passes by– staring as the shops are set ablaze and areas which are no longer recognizable, give us a clear projection of life in 1969 Gujarat.

Hamid Kureshi ends his memoir by focusing on the silver lining; that good that still exists within each and every one of us. By choosing joy over grief, believing in peace and harmony, we can emerge victorious.


Author: Hamid Kureshi

Translator: Rita Kothari

Pages: 84

Publisher: Orient Blackswan

Blurb:

A memoir of trauma and hope set against the 1969 riots of Ahmedabad, Agnipariksha recounts the experiences of an eminent Gujarat High Court lawyer who lived in both word and spirit a life of religious and cultural pluralism. Hamid Kureshi grew up in proximity to Gandhi in a family whose devotion to the nation and to Gandhi, was absolute. During the riots, when perhaps for the first time, Kureshi—a third-generation Gandhian and a non-practising Muslim married to a Hindu woman—is reduced to being only a Muslim, he struggles to comprehend the hatred and rage directed at his community even as an entire legacy of Gandhian syncreticism stands challenged.
In this matter-of-fact, restrained, yet poignant first-person account, Kureshi provides the landscape of a violence-ridden city, as also a glimpse into the many lives associated with the Gandhi Ashram. In an atmosphere of terrible fear and uncertainty, he recounts how his family’s struggles for self-preservation were buoyed by the constant shielding presence, concern and affection of Hindu friends and neighbours and the Ashram community. This memoir is an assertion of human kindness, friendship and dignity amidst mortal danger, hatred and fear; and Kureshi’s narration, untouched by bitterness or resentment, leaves the reader moved.
Agnipariksha is a valuable addition to Gujarati literature and a welcome companion to Gandhi and Peace Studies. This translation by Rita Kothari—a reputed cultural historian, author and translator—makes a rare document of a period, a city and inter-faith relationships accessible to a wider readership for the first time.