‘The real stories of Dalits are not shown’
New York-based journalist Yashica Dutt’s book, Coming Out As Dalit, is a powerful memoir in which she reminisces her past, and makes strong and optimistic arguments for a better future. The future at stake here, is of the Dalit community. The writer makes startling revelations about the discrimination faced by the community and paints a picture of the verbal and psychological trauma they go through. “It’s not just the words that are hard, it’s also the behaviour — the discrimination in colleges and universities,” she says. In an interview, the Joan Didion admirer talks about the motivation behind writing this book, her research process, and more. Excerpts:
When did you decide to become an author? What made you write Coming Out As Dalit?
I never wanted to become an author. I never wanted to write a book because I didn’t think I had a story worth telling. But when I came out as a Dalit in 2016, after being completely moved by Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, I realised that I had nothing to hide, and also that I could use my voice to tell stories that haven’t been told for so long. Not just my own, but also of other Dalits, who have been forced to hide their identity, to raise a voice against the subtle and overt forms of discrimination that they face. So, I thought that it made for a compelling story.
What was the research process like?
This whole book is based on an intense amount of research. I looked for articles, academic papers, books and almost everything I could get my hands on, to not just support my argument, but to also understand what Dalit history looked like. I read a lot of BR Ambedkar’s work, and I tried to understand the roots of the Dalit movement — the questions as to where have we come from. I also read contemporary writers. I think this whole book has been an effort in research and it comes from my training as a journalist. My editor Poonam Saxena really encouraged me to carry out as much research as I can.
You mention the unflattering words Dalits across the country are subjected to. Was it hard revisiting that?
It’s not harder than living the reality of a Dalit person. It just is a part and parcel of being ‘lower cast’ in this country. The words which are used are just the reality. It’s about how when Dalits chose a life partner who is supposedly upper caste and are killed for that. That’s hard. So, the active form of discrimination is much harder than the words. These words carry great meaning and they can be very hurtful. But they’re a reminder of our status in the society.
Do you feel the Dalit appeasement drives across the country help the community in any way?
I think it is just more visible now. Most of those agendas don’t really lead to results. There are a lot of empty symbolic gestures where ministers are involved in photo-ops. These things have been around for a long time and they really mean nothing. What really matters is actively tackling discrimination and creating policies that benefit Dalits.
You make your disappointment evident with the way Dalits are portrayed in Indian films. How do you think this portrayal affects the society?
Films play an important role in shaping our ideas about an evolving society. If you look at important movies over the decades, they’ve been able to successfully create some kind of social change. What we see around us, with regard to popular culture, which to a large extent are movies, they only show upper caste characters and don’t show Dalit characters. This creates an idea, it creates a narrative in popular imagination that Dalits either don’t exist or if they do, then they are just like everybody else. The real stories are not shown. It leads to erasing of Dalit identity. As I have mentioned in the book, in Lagaan (2001), it is the most unfortunate thing that they had a Dalit character and they thought that they’re doing a great job. But my objection was that they named him, ‘kachra’. While other people in the movie are clearly upper caste, they have normal names. You’ve demeaned him right from the beginning. In order for us to feel sympathetic to him, he had to be handicapped too. Om Puri played a Dalit in a film called Sadgati (1981), but his character was named Dukhi. They’ve been used as a prop and what that does is to create an impression that Dalits are not fully realised human beings.
Who are the authors you look up to?
I started reading works of a lot of authors who wrote in the same space as I do now. My natural inspirations were writers of colour, especially women. Academics like Bell Hooks, who’ve been writing for decades about effective ways to see how systems are built around us and how we can challenge them. Joan Didion’s works taught me how to construct a good sentence. I read a lot of her works and thought that maybe if I could bring some of her same style and technique to the book, I might be able to do a good job. Toni Morrison is another author who’s had a huge impact on me.