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How my Memory Introduced me to my Caste

Photo of a group of people on a train, from the partition of India

When I was in the Second Standard or so and we were introduced to the caste system, I think it was in Social Studies that we studied it, I came home wanting to know what my caste was. To which my mother simply answered, “Caste is over in India.” I was told to pick any caste, as if we could just pick from some available options! I don’t remember what I finally picked but I do remember going back to my maternal grandfather to listen to his story of Partition. His story was my comfort place to go back to; I did not want to decide on a caste when I could listen to a true story instead. My grandfather never talked about Partition from the point of view that Muslims are ‘bad’ and Hindus are ‘good’, but rather he explained how a geographical line changed neighbours overnight. To my seven-year-old self, the story had the makings of suspense, drama, survival, and bravery.

The story about Partition was always about people missing their ‘home’ and making a life in a new place. My grandparents’ memories of that time seeped into my life as a keepsake, forming my own idea of the city where I lived. I never fully felt like I belonged to Delhi. I felt like someone who didn’t belong anywhere; my home was always missing.

What did it mean to be part of Delhi? For the most part it entailed becoming someone I was not, nor aspired to be. It was a body, a look, and colour of skin, mannerism, and friends. It was always a struggle to fit in.

Memory is a funny thing; it both makes you and distorts you. In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera famously wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

My idea of self and body was rooted in the stories of displacement caused by Partition and not so much in the Hindu identity of the family. I never felt I belonged to one city. In Delhi, I struggled to fit my plump body, dark skin, and awkward mannerisms into the masses of confident, fair, thin, and ‘bright’ women and men. I only began to feel comfortable in my own body in Bombay. The hustle and bustle of the city made me feel that I could comfortably get lost and yet still be part of it. People focused on making a living and did not bother about the colour of my skin, the weight of my body, or my mannerisms. Maybe my comfort was tied to the liveliness of the city coupled with the fact that as an outsider in Mumbai, others did not know my caste location or privilege as they did in Delhi.

I was always on the plump side of the weight spectrum till recently when I lost it all. In Delhi, I hid behind large clothes; in Bombay, I learnt to wear shorts. I brought a bit of Bombay with me to Delhi, and traversed the city somehow now comfortable in my body. After living in Bombay, wearing skirts in the Delhi metro was not a stand-out-act. The stares and glares of the city didn’t matter because now I was from Bombay. Perhaps it was the sense that I was not ‘from here’ and that I belonged elsewhere that gave me the confidence to wear something else. The memory of having lived in a space where there were no stares gave me the confidence to brush the ones I was getting aside.

Today, many years later since my teenage years and the early negotiations with the city, my dialogue and compromises with the city and my body are influenced by the caste dynamics that I was oblivious to for most of my life. Memory sometimes also forces you to confront your caste. I am well aware of the fact that this is a privilege of my ‘upper’ caste location.

~ People from privileged castes have the possibility of negotiating public gaze on their bodies. On the other hand, the bodies of Dalit and Bahujan women have historically been made ‘available’ for public consumption, either by prohibiting them from wearing clothes that cover their entire body, thus making them hyper-visible in the public space (while the ‘upper’ caste woman’s body was to be hidden from this public consumption), or subjecting them to widespread sexual abuse and violence. It was only much later while interacting with my Dalit-Bahujan friends that I saw my need to uncover my body in a different light. While I may fight for a certain visibility, Dalit-Bahujan women have for long fought for their right to cover their bodies if they so choose.

Their daily struggles to keep their bodies hidden from the preying eyes of men of all castes along with a complete apathy towards this issue from privileged caste feminists in saris has made Dalit-Bahujan women’s struggle to wear that sari that much more layerer. Their collective memory of having the privilege of covering their bodies often is that of first- and (in a few cases) second-generation Dalit-Bahujan women. My need to aspire to certain nakedness, on the other hand, comes from my caste’s history of covering and hiding women from the public gaze. My sexual expression as a woman wearing short skirts came from a city that was too busy to care and a caste that has historically hidden women from the public eye.

~ My memory of childhood is tied to Partition, to the documented and oral stories of violence and brutality. My memory is full of details of the atrocities committed on the bodies of women, by men belonging not just to the ‘other’ group but also our own. What I know about this time is somewhat defined by the seeping down of the simmering hatred against the ‘other’: Muslims. But there has been a silence; a brushing aside and a negation of the everyday violence committed on the bodies of the Dalit and Bahujan women. In the imagination of the nation, in the social contract between the state and the family, women were relegated to the realm of the home and controlled by men. But this imagination of the state subsumed the reality of caste, rendering it as given and yet invisible. This allowed for one reality to dominate every other reality. Today, we render Jyoti Pandey the status of a hero but we know and talk very little about  . Jyoti[1] was bestowed with the title, Nirbhaya among others (in order to protect her identity), but Jisha and Megha were ‘just’ Dalit girls who were raped and whose names were flashed across media channels. In the case of the former, the rule of law of not naming the survivor/victim was followed and she was glorified, while in the latter case, their names, like their bodies (of Dalit-Bahujan women) were up for media coverage, making them yet another subconscious footnote in our collective and individual memories.

~ My decision to wear a sari today, or to not cover myself up, or to get a tattoo is a direct result of the caste privilege that my family told me was no longer present in India. Historically, morality has been a privilege of the Savarna, and sexuality has been the fort that Savarna men seek to protect through patriarchy. And my choices are decided as much by attempts to challenge these two forces on a personal level as seeking to understand and incorporate the resistance against them at a political level. My memory keeps a note of these evolving political locations, along with the arguments I make and occupy. It also observes and acknowledges how my body and sexuality respond to these factors.

[1] Jyoti belonged to dominant caste.

Cover Image:(CC BY 2.0)/Flickr

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