– Ronak Gupta
I vividly remember watching Nagraj Manjule’s searing debut film Fandry for the first time, a few years ago. I had never quite seen anything like it until then. Fandry uses tropes of love stories from mainstream cinema and yet does something these movies consciously avoid – it indicts the caste system. Manjule said in an interview,1
“Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t…”
Indeed, Hindi films largely gloss over the subject of caste and blunt most conflicts down to a class disparity, as illustrated particularly starkly in the Bollywood remake of Manjule’s sophomore feature Sairat. Manjule’s Fandry introduced me to a radical artistic voice, the kind that was conspicuously absent from the media I had consumed until then. It made a deep impression on me. It implored me to seek out a different kind of cinema and expand the scope of art I engage with. It is on this path that I discovered Yogesh Maitreya’s excellent collection of short stories Flowers on the Grave of Caste.
Yogesh Maitreya is a writer, poet, and translator who also runs Panther’s Paw, a publishing house with a strong focus on promoting anti-caste literature. His collection contains six stories across which he widely experiments with literary style and scope. The result is an eclectic collection of short-fiction that is written in simple but often poetic prose. Yogesh’s sentences invoke powerful imagery and nowhere is this more apparent than the contrasting images that begin and end the first story “Re-evolution,” a fable of revenge, in which Yogesh weaves a personal journey coming to full circle.
In the titular story, he conjures up a mystical gravedigger as a passer of knowledge and keeper of stories. He uses this conceit to discuss the persistence of caste in death and mark Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism as a radical event in the liberation of dalits.2 “The Sense of the Beginning” traces the campus life of a narrator as he goes through an arc of exhilaration, disappointment, despair and ultimately, hope, while trying to make sense of the world around him. In “Life is Beautiful” we see a seamless collision of two lives and two narratives, but only one emerges and the other is flushed away. In “Educate, Organize and Agitate,” Yogesh tells an expansive coming-of-age story of Gautam. The story ends with Gautam’s chance encounter with Asoka who explains to him the importance of each of the three words in the story’s title and transforms his life in the process.
My favourite of the collection is simply titled “Caste.” It lays plain the hypocrisy of the privileged urban upper-caste student who, initiated in the ideas of Marx, engages with anti-racism and anti-colonial literature but is mostly reluctant to participate in anti-caste rhetoric. The ending has the same gut-punch as final shots in Fandry and Sairat.
Impressive as the varying scope of these stories are, what stood out to me were some of their unifying factors. Dreams feature heavily here. Whether they are a medium for rekindling inspiration or an ether to hold and pass on stories. There is also a pervasive sense of hope throughout the book, most evident in the titles of the shorts. And, of course, caste plays a central role in all stories.
The subject of caste has earlier been tackled head-on in autobiographies like Baluta by Daya Pawar and Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki, as well as in fiction, such as in collections like Baburao Bagul’s Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti (When I Hid My Caste). Flowers on the Grave of Caste joins this rich legacy of dalit literature but diverges from it in a couple of key aspects. First, it eschews the need for translation to English3 and second, it highlights the dalit youth experience of interacting with urban spaces.
Along with the likes of Coming out as Dalit by Yashica Dutt and Ants Among Elephants by Sujata Gidla, this book is a crucial recent addition to a new Indian literature—books written in English by contemporary dalit authors with powerful and unique voices. These contain stories that have been kept out of mainstream imagination, told in a lingua franca that has been rigidly protected by power structures… Yogesh’s Panther’s Paw Publications aims to position itself as a major force in this literary movement4 of resistance.
English language gatekeeping is a particularly vicious type of discrimination in urban and college spaces. About this sphere of dominance, Yogesh writes,5
“In this sphere operates a certain jargon, and expressions which have transformed into elements of exclusion of Dalits. English, through Savarna/Brahmin guards, often asserts its authenticity through the rules practiced by them. In this process of being subject to such diktats, though not explicitly, Dalit students often get dragged into an inferior position in the discursive sphere. And the violent consequence of all this often is the killing of the moral stamina of Dalit students who seek to achieve philosophical wealth in academics.”
Yogesh visits this process of exclusion in “The Sense of the Beginning”, in which a student is alienated by the gears of this very machinery. This part of the story is very reminiscent of the struggle faced by the protagonist in Mari Selvaraj’s transcendent film – Pariyerum Perumal.6 The characters in Yogesh’s stories experience brutal social exclusion and violence, and express a sense of anxiety, isolation, and confusion. They are inspired by the poetry and prose of dalit writers. By telling their stories in English, Yogesh reclaims space not afforded to such stories by those presiding over literary discourse in India.7 This makes his fiction’s assertion more path-breaking. In “The Sense of the Beginning” he writes,
“Fiction is not only the construction of a story but writing one which is never written, which is eclipsed by treacherous history.”
Yogesh’s stories are also cognizant of the varying levels of caste-based oppression in villages and cities. This difference in the ‘rang-roop’ (colour-form) of casteism between urban and rural settings is also emphasised by Manjule.8 In “The Sense of the Beginning,” Yogesh writes,
“And in these villages, the nature of caste crimes was explicit and deliberate; it wasn’t accidental or well crafted or subtle in its forms, like in the cities.”
When he chooses to focus on urban settings, mostly an educational institution, his stories present a starkly different view of campus life and education from the one my gaze processed. His characters are vastly self-conscious. For instance, one character ruminates about how he smells different; another character is awake to his caste identity as he participates in a covert relationship with a dominant-caste woman. Their daily interactions are coloured by inherent power dynamics and they often feel out of place. When they are distressed, they seek solace in the words and actions of people like themselves. These words aren’t taught in these institutions. There aren’t enough people like them. In “Caste”, the narrator says,
“What was being taught in the poetry course did not interest me. One of the reasons was because I found my world and my experiences missing in it.”
Last year, I came across a post about the Dalit experience of an anonymous student at BITS-Pilani.9 It re-affirmed the subtle nature of institutionalized casteism prevalent in the institutes depicted in Yogesh’s stories and made me confront a host of questions I’d asked myself since I graduated. When I arrived at BITS-Pilani Goa, my only encounter with caste had been through a gross misunderstanding of reservation-based affirmative action; and also in Civics textbooks, where caste is featured along with religion, sex, and race in a list of factors that the State was prohibited from discriminating against.
BITS-Pilani was the bastion of ‘merit’. It formed a key part of the institute’s legacy. We took pride in it. The anonymous post expounds,
“The atmosphere at BITS has been designed to encourage students to think beyond caste since we were all there based on “merit”. It convinced us that those who didn’t get in were not good enough…The system basically allowed us to pretend that caste didn’t exist, and thus locked us into our rolls as agents in the propagation of casteism.”
Had there been even a modicum of discussion around the idea of merit, this pride would have easily collapsed. But, BITS-Pilani remained largely devoid of such discussions, at least in my experience. I have been a participant in the kind of language dominance and intellectual gatekeeping that creates an atmosphere of isolation in students. Literary and Debate Clubs were largely a microcosm of BITS’s general population—urban, upper-class and dominant-caste. They laid emphasis on punnery, smart wordplay and a very specific type of fiction. If the lack of diversity was glaring then, now I think it was insidious. The abject lack of inquiry into the ideas of merit and the socio-political realities of caste meant that I continued to believe in a ‘just world’ and remain unaware of my vast accumulated privilege. In a perceptive introduction to a collection of essays,10 Namit Arora says this about those who believe in a ‘just world’,
“Their behaviour is more an instance of what the philosopher Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’ which refers to the tendency of ordinary people, who, as cogs in an oppressive system, unthinkingly inflict great violence on others and normalize and perpetuate the system, all while believing that they’re leading a good and moral life.”
Spaces thought to be inclusive and ‘caste-blind’, actually have axes of exclusion. This is a glaring truth. As ignorance plays a role in perpetuating casteism, it’s also important to recognise that even in our ignorance, we, the dominant castes, are complicit. In a powerful article,11 Pranav Jeevan P, a PhD candidate at IIT Bombay, writes,
“So, any argument that uses ignorance and inherent stupidity as an excuse by the privileged to justify their atrocities is just an escapist argument which denies confronting their privilege and accepting the responsibility of actions.”
Given that we are well-equipped with tools to come out of the stupor of ignorance, and yet, we don’t, makes our ignorance the willful kind. This is in stark contrast with the forced ignorance of marginalized people who lack time and resources. Pranav alludes to this difference in his article,
“They only get to listen to the paid propaganda machines which distort everything for the establishment and maintenance of the hierarchical social order to give all the power to the privileged. They are not being ignorant by choice unlike the privileged who have access.”
To escape from the trap of the ‘banality of evil’, we have to counter willful ignorance by willful effort. Reading anti-caste literature makes us aware of our deep role in the persistence of caste over the years. It helps us mount a defence and arms us with a line of attack against exclusionary and oppressive practices. But we must not stop at reading. While it’s important that literature emerging from the Bahujan space reaches a widespread audience, we should resist the tendency to engage with such texts from a detached position. Laura Brueck, a professor at the University of Texas – Austin, writes about this in a paper,12
“For Dalit thinkers like Kumar,13 the supposed “elevation” of Dalit literature to the status of world literature is not only irrelevant, it’s an affront. This is because, as David Damrosch has explained, world literature is not a set canon of texts but what he calls instead “a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own (read: Euro-American) place and time” (281). It is this detachment that is so troubling for many Dalit writers and thinkers, for Dalit literature demands anything but detachment; it is a call instead for political engagement and social revolution. What Dalit literature teaches us is that it is not only an impossibility but an unethical reading practice to engage merely in a “detached” way…”
Reading in isolation is not enough; not only is it ineffective, it can, in fact, have the opposite effect of consolidating cachet and caste privilege. Instead, reading must be followed by questioning the foundations of dominant (oppressive) ideas, dissecting them incisively with logic, and then dismissing them. We have to call out casteist practices in our own caste groups and weed out habits that have led to the formation and proliferation of ultra-homogenous dominant-caste networks in the first place. It’s imperative to make space for stories and people who have been historically kept out of the spaces we dominate.
The characters in Yogesh’s stories find hope and emancipation in books. Maybe in books like his we could find some cold water to douse ourselves with. Ultimately our goal should be to become agents of anti-caste thought and action. Books are only a tool to achieve this.
Ronak Gupta is pursuing a PhD in fluid mechanics and soft matter at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. You can follow Ronak on twitter, subscribe to his newsletter on substack, or find his published pieces on Porterfolio.
This article was originally published on on May 22, 2021. We received criticism which the collective and author of the piece felt was warranted. The published article in its current form reflects additions made to address the feedback and we believe the piece has benefited as a result of this. Going forward, we will make a concerted effort to continually self-introspect and cover our blindspots regarding this important subject. We will also strive to educate ourselves and amplify Bahujan writing and points of view. We hope the piece reflects this call.
Joshi, N. (2016, May 6). ‘I want a break from this male-dominated world.’ The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/i-want-a-break-from-this-maledominated-world/article8566426.ece ↩︎
Yogesh prefers to use a lowercase ‘d’ instead of the conventionally used ‘D’ for the word ‘dalit’. In an article he explains, “Dalit are human beings. They are not a special entity or species. They breathe, feel, comprehend, reason, and make sense of life just like any other human being. Spelling dalit with a capital D gives it a special look that forces us to see the dalit community differently. Hence, I choose to spell dalit with a small d.” ↩︎
Maitreya, Y. (2020, February). Dalit writers – Savarna translators. Seminar, 726. https://www.india-seminar.com/2020/726/726_yogesh_maitreya.htm Chandramohan S. (2021, April 17). Claiming the English language as a Dalit poet. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/claiming-the-english-language-as-a-dalit-poet-7277032/ ↩︎
Shekhar, H. S. (2020, March 15). The Indian publishing house that’s become a movement. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-publishing-house-thats-become-a-movement/article31058534.ece
Menezes, V. (2020, December 12). A millennial’s big dreams for Dalit and Bahujan authors. Mint Lounge.
If you’d like to donate to Panther’s Paw, read Yogesh’s call for support here: https://velivada.com/2021/01/12/seed-funding-for-panthers-paw-publication/ ↩︎
Maitreya, Y. (2014, June 21). Savarna English and the violent exclusion of Dalits. Round Table India. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7564:savarna-english-and-its-violence-on-subalterns&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 ↩︎
Pariyan, the protagonist in Pariyerum Perumal finds it difficult to grasp the content of lectures in his law college, owing to the medium of instruction being English. In one scene, a professor calls him “mutta podara quota kozhi” (a hen that came in through reservation and is laying eggs).
See write-up (with spoilers) on the film by Sowmya Rajendran: Rajendran, S. (2018, October 2). ‘Pariyerum Perumal’: A brave film that addresses the omnipresence of caste. The News Minute. https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/pariyerum-perumal-brave-film-addresses-omnipresence-caste-89322 ↩︎
Uday Prakash’s two acclaimed novellas – “Mohandas” and “Peeli Chatri Waali Ladki” (The Girl with the Golden Parasol) dealt with caste in different settings. He has been vocal against the construction of the Hindi literary universe in India, often facing flak and ostracization for his views. The Brahminical dominance in this case is an appropriate stand-in for a similar hegemony in English literature. Prakash’s interview by the translator of his works, Jason Grunebaum: Grunebaum, J. (2016, November 20). A Conversation with Uday Prakash. Music & Literature. https://www.musicandliterature.org/features/2015/3/26/a-conversation-with-uday-prakash ↩︎
Krishnan, N. (2013, November 3). In conversation with “Fandry” director Nagraj Manjule. Sify. https://www.sify.com/movies/in-conversation-with-fandry-director-nagraj-manjule-news-bollywood-nldpJnajabisi.html ↩︎
Anonymous. (2019, July 6). “I am Tam, But Not Brahm”: My Dalit Experience At BITS, Pilani. Live Wire. https://livewire.thewire.in/campus/i-am-tam-but-not-brahm-my-dalit-experience-at-bits-pilani/
This article was one among a series on caste based discrimination on campus published on LiveWire. All the articles are collected on this Twitter thread: @livewire. (2019, June 26). [Tweet]. https://twitter.com/livewire/status/1144119415459520518?s=20
Additional readings on casteism on college campuses in India : Kumar, A. (2016, May 30). The Story of Caste on Indian Campuses (Part 1):. Round Table India. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8625:the-story-of-caste-and-indian-campuses&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 Kumar, A. (2016, June 9). The Story of Caste on Indian Campuses (Part 2).* Round Table India.* https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8636:the-story-of-caste-and-indian-campuses-ii&catid=119&Itemid=132
Punia, A. (2021, May 29). Casteism in City Colleges and Classrooms. Round Table India. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10119:casteism-in-city-colleges-and-classrooms&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 ↩︎
From the Introduction to the book, Arora, N. (2017). The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities (1st ed.). Three Essays Collective. ↩︎
Pranav Jeevan, P. (2020, August 11). Ruling Class’ Stupidity and Privilege. Round Table India. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9975:stupidity-and-privilege&catid=129:events-and-activism&Itemid=195 ↩︎
Brueck, R. L. (2017, December). Bending Biographies: The Creative Intrusions of “Real Lives” in Dalit Fiction. Biography – An Interdisciplinary Quarterly ↩︎
Kumar here refers to Anoop Kumar, a writer and thinker who founded the Nalanda Academy, an initiative that focuses on training and mentoring students from marginalized communities. ↩︎