What it means to be an 'Untouchable' in 2017
by Thenmozhi Soundararajan
Discrimination and rejection are rites of passage for any Dalit, anywhere in the world. One Dalit-American artist contemplates all she has learnt from being branded untouchable.
Life can turn upside down in an instant.
I was in the fifth grade when I learnt I was a Dalit. I had been reading up on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and how it had affected this large group of people called Untouchables. As I began to read more about them, about their ‘spiritual pollution’, a feeling of dread came over me. I felt this had to do with me somehow and I ran to my mother to ask her what she knew. The conflicted look on her face made it clear that this was a conversation she’d been dreading. Over the next couple of hours, she told me the truth about who we really were.
Suddenly, so much began to make terrifying sense. Why my parents had been mysterious with all of the other Tamil families we knew. Why my dad had always navigated questions that were meant to socially locate us, like where we were from, our last name, and who we knew – he was the master of the cough that changed the conversation and the joke that turned the focus to lighter matters. I now had a word for the anger and grief that simmered under the surface in my parents’ bodies. Later that night, as I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, I wondered what
I could have done in a past life that was so bad that I would be thought of as filthy in this one.
The truth will set you free… eventually. First there will be terror.
I came out as a Dalit at 19, with a film I made on caste and violence against women for my college thesis at UC Berkeley. It comprised oral stories from the women in my family and Phoolan Devi, who I’d been lucky enough to interview for my film. She had said to me that it was vital I kept growing as a storyteller because it was only in our stories that we could be free – exactly what I had hoped for with my film. The results, however, were mixed.
On the one hand, I had a classmate whisper into my ear that she was Dalit too and had never had the courage to come out; she hugged me and burst into tears. It was an incredible moment. On the other, it was fraught. Coming out meant my whole family was out and not everyone was ready for that, particularly my family in India. Friends stopped talking to us. I had plates and utensils switched on me. I even received hate mail and death threats. My coming of age and recognition of my family’s identity was viewed as something sinister.
I became really jaded about connecting with other Indians. At university, it was point of pride to be Tamil Brahmin while Punjabi students would get drunk and start repping their Jat identity in hip-hop ciphers. Because their castes had never been stigmatised, this caste culture became coded as Indian culture. All of the Indian professors on campus were upper caste as well, and all, except one, refused to advise me on projects and blacklisted my work. I stopped getting invited to South Asian events. These are some of the structural manifestations of caste in the diaspora. Once you’re out, you’re... out.
You find comfort in the unlikeliest of places.
It was always surprising to Americans to hear about the experience of Dalits – they had a hard time reconciling the stories I told of the atrocity and resistance with the vibrant India they knew from National Geographic. But unlike Indians, they did not deny the truth – they held it with me and for me.
I found my home within other communities of colour – women from these communities welcomed my experience and we found sisterhood in our shared intersections of sorrow.
There was a great beauty in that truth. The writings of Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, Cherrie Moraga, all became blueprints for finding my own place. They taught me to understand the power in being the Other and how I could own that power.
Stories are the most important unit of change.
When told by other Indian writers, academics and leaders that Dalit Americans were not real, I didn’t believe it. In a country of 1.2 billion people and 18 million Indian immigrants, it boggled my mind that my family could be the only outliers. I had to find the others.
It was a powerful time to be in the Bay Area. Art for me had long been a place where I sang, wrote and filmed myself into being, and it was in the poetry and music scene here that I came into my own as a singer and writer. I began work with Marvin Etizioni [a veteran bassist] on my debut blues album Broken People, a collection of liberation songs from black and Dalit peoples. My goal as an artist became to keep creating platforms for engagement so people could hear the Dalit story, and know that we were more than a label or a slur. That ours is not just a legacy of pain, but a tradition of resistance.
In 2012 I wrote an essay, The Black Indians, for Outlook magazine, on the Dalit experience in America and created an ongoing photo series ‘We are all Untouchable’. I had no idea how big they were going to be until the emails, tweets and Facebook messages began to pour in. From Australia to India to the UK and Peru, my inbox was flooded with messages from people who wanted to come out too (as well as a good number of death threats from conservative Hindus). I was finally validated in my assertion of how global this issue truly is. Two hundred million Dalits is not a fringe group, it is critical mass.
Sometimes you have to decide to be strong first, and then strength comes along.
I began to put together a map of where Dalits were in the country. We had been informally organising ourselves for years in America through listservs and emails. Now I wanted to connect in person. I knew quickly that this was a full-time job, so I gave up my apartment and car, and took up jobs and residencies around the US to be able to meet other Dalits. And what an amazing community and history I discovered!
I learnt that Ravidassi temples were some of the largest centres of Dalits and they were instrumental in movements against fundamentalism in the US. I learnt that a prominent member of the Ghadar movement (organised by Punjabis in the US and Canada before World War I to fight British rule in India) was a Dalit. I even learnt of Dr Ambedkar’s history with WEB Dubois [a noted African American scholar and activist] and how intellectuals like Cornel West were teaching Ambedkar in Harvard while Indians abroad ignored him. I gradually went on to engage with the international Dalit movement. I remember vividly this moment of validation: I was in Durban at the UN World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and all across the city, we could hear the rumble of the parai drums and the chants of Dalits calling for recognition from the global community. I wept.
There is resilience in all of us.
It requires great will to take on the gravity of who you are in the face of a society that believes you are not equal. Every Dalit I know has had a turning point where they have rejected the stereotype and forged their own way. Whether it was my grandfather who walked 10 km each way to the only grade school that would enrol him, or the Dalit women who fight every day for justice in the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect yatra – this raw strength is what defines us as a community and is what I lean on in the hard times of my work. We may have been branded Untouchable, but we chose to be Dalit.