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Caste and the idea of ‘coming out’

There has recently been a controversy around an episode in the series Made in Heaven (S2) on Amazon Prime. In the episode, a Dalit professor is addressing a gathering in the US about her book Coming Out. She reveals her caste identity in that book.

The controversy revolved around the fact that Yashica Dutt, a Dalit woman writer, also in the US, published a memoir titled Coming out as Dalit. She alleged that Alankrita Shrivastava and Neeraj Ghaywan, writer and director of the episode respectively, had taken the idea from her book and not acknowledged it.

The ‘borrowing’ is perhaps too slight to be called plagiarism butNeeraj defended himself and also pointed out that he was himself a Dalit and one of the few in the film industry to have ‘come out’. The term ‘coming out’ (in my reckoning) was associated with gender identity (LGBTQ) but it is being used for caste, and I think there are some unaddressed political questions here.

Coming out is the revealing of a hidden aspect of one’s personal identity and it implies that both Yashica and Neeraj’s caste identities had not been revealed to the public until the two chose to ‘come out’. Dalit persons are among those who have suffered caste oppression the most. Although a reservation policy is in place (as compensatory discrimination), it is acknowledged that it has benefited only a small handful. The majority is still suffering immensely; sanitary workers still choke in drains.

Yashica and Neeraj articulated the issue among a privileged public and this implies that they felt underprivileged by their caste identity and not by their socio-economic conditions. They were, in other words, among the small minority in the community who had benefited from affirmative action by the state. On reading about Yashica and Neeraj on the Internet, we also note that whileYashica graduated from St Stephen’s College, Delhi University, her father was an excise official but her mother ‘worked at several jobs to make ends meet’. And all the earnings of the parents ‘were invested in their children’s education’.

Neeraj’s father was a research scientist while his mother ran a garment store. In the episode noted above, the Dalit professor in the US declares that her grandmother cleaned toilets, an extreme social condition not generally associated with those who have benefited from state action. But it is not unusual for privileged members of underprivileged groups to appropriate the horrific experiences of others in the group to make them part of their own personal histories.

A web series like Made in Heaven may not be the platform where social issues like caste oppression can be explored truthfully and the subject has perhaps been served better by ideologues like Arjun Dangle and Sharankumar Limbale.Arjun describes Dalit persons who have benefited from state action but keep their distance from others of their own as ‘Dalit Brahmins’. Sharankumar also portrays that class in his stories. Littérateurs in India have been of the elite and Dalit experiences are generally outside their realm. Sharankumar, therefore, observes that the portrayal of ‘raw Dalit experiences’ cannot but be rare in Indian literature since upper-caste writers would not know what the Dalit existence entails. Such experience could have raw power on being related but only by genuinely deprived Dalits.

When we examine the relevant episode from Made in Heaven, Neeraj makes his Dalit professor ask for a wedding according to ‘Dalit rites’. Marriage rites are devised according to jati (caste) practices and ‘Dalit’ is not a jati but a broad collection of jatis put together based on notifications by the state. Neeraj’s identity is Dalit but he makes the errors of an outsider without knowledge of his people.

Yashica has written extensively but there is also little ‘raw’ experience that she shows knowledge of. Among the most touching is her description of her shame at having her name announced in the Dalit quota at admissions time in St Stephen’s College. One understands it since the Dalit quota is small and most of the others in the list would be ‘merit’ admissions. But it also lends credence to the term ‘Dalit Brahmin’ as someone who distances himself or herself from the community. Writers like Sharankumar and Arjun feel a certain pride at being Dalit culturally but those who distance themselves feel none of it. ‘Coming out’ is a personal acknowledgement that does not bring them back into the community.

There has been a move by Dalit persons in the US to portray caste as a form of racism but race as an attribute rests on visible differences. Yashica resents people telling her, “You don’t look like a Dalit.” The Dalit appearance is not identifiable and the fact that Neeraj casts Radhika Apte (who is Brahmin by birth) to play the Dalit professor is evidence.

African-Americans have an identifiable appearance that binds them together as a community with a rich culture but Dalit persons can be so different in appearance that they could easily hide their caste identities. But if they decide to reveal it by ‘coming out’, they could find themselves isolated.

When upper-caste Hindus lament that reservation is being unjustly used by those already given privileges, they should remind themselves of the solitude of those Dalit persons privileged by reservation policy but without a community to belong to or a culture to cherish.

(M K Raghavendra is a well-known film critic)

(Published 20 October 2023, 18:15 IST)

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