The harshest and perhaps the most brutal aspect of hiding your identity (for me at least) is that it feels like nothing. You think this is all there is, this is your life without the option of it being any different. The cruelest thing hiding can do to you is to take away your options. I became so used to hiding my Dalitness that I didn’t know I had the option to tell anyone about it. I just lived everyday – like many of us still do – thinking the weight of my caste was somehow justified and how things were supposed to be. As a lifestyle journalist, I worried about being careful enough to keep the construct of my ‘upper’ caste. I had to pretend to know things I knew nothing about (I made up for it with intense research, of course) because if not, I feared people would find out my caste. They would see through the pretense. Coming out gave me the courage to admit that I won’t know everything about everything and that that’s okay. When I finally stopped pretending to be ‘upper’ caste, I was able to be more authentic and honest about what I wrote. And I think it comes across in the book.
Coming out as Dalit
My grandfather, father and I experienced our Dalitness in vastly different ways. Dad—the son of a revered civil servant wasn’t forced down from his horse, neither was his wedding party disrupted. Two generations of prestigious government jobs and concealed last names somewhat diluted the obvious markers of Dalitness. But not enough had changed that I could give a straight answer to the question: ‘What caste are you from?’ My Dalitness still weighed heavy within me; I dragged its carcass behind me through my childhood and into adulthood. As a child, I worked harder to hide it, every tiny nudge throwing me off balance, every new interrogation about caste assaulting my spirit. My civics textbook educated me about ‘The evils of caste system’ but didn’t equip me to deal with its manifestations in my own classroom. It didn’t explain the stinging shame that pierced me as one of my classmates or teachers called someone ‘Bhangi’, a slob. I didn’t even know I was ‘Bhangi’, but I knew it was something I, and not everyone else, should be embarrassed about. I knew something about not being ‘upper caste’ but pretending that we were.
“Writing, in my experience, is a muscle that becomes stronger with each rewrite.”
I don’t think I was ever fully ready to share my story with the world, or anyone. I am not sure if I still am. But it was just something that I knew I had to do. After I read about Rohith Vemula’s death and then his suicide note, I knew I had to. I did it because it felt right not because I ever felt ready.
It was the most challenging project I have done so. I was chasing a deadline (which I obviously passed several times over) and struggled with how to even begin. So I read a ton of books, the kinds you find in the DIY aisles of the bookstores and felt incredibly dumb buying a title that actually read – ‘How to write a memoir’. I somehow thought that if I was a ‘true’ writer, the words should flow out of me. That any advice that told you how to ‘write your memoir,’ wasn’t for real writers. I couldn’t be more wrong. Writing, in my experience, is a muscle that becomes stronger with each rewrite. I should know; I did four. Each of those four times when I read my draft from start to finish, I gained new insight on what was right for this book, and what needed to be saved for later. In the first draft, I said everything I felt I had to say. It was also terrible, as all first drafts are. But more drafts I wrote, the more they ‘sounded’ right. I also left a lot to instinct and my experience as a journalist, not to mention the abundant wisdom of my editor. Of course, I still don’t know if I have made the right decisions at picking and leaving what I have, but at some point you just have to leave the blinking cursor alone.
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra