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No Alphabet in Sight

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Exclusive excerpts from the recently released No Alphabet in Sight, edited by Susie Tharu and K. Satyanarayana, that brings together contemporary dalit voices …

In my student days

a girl came laughing.

Our hands met mixing

her rice and fish curry.

On a bench we became

a Hindu-Christian family.

I whiled away my time

reading Neruda's poetry;

and meanwhile I misplaced

my Identity Card.

She said,

returning my card:

‘the account of your stipend

is entered there in red.'

These days I never look at

a boy and a girl lost in themselves.

They will depart after a while.

I won't be surprised even if they unite.

Their Identity Cards

will have no markings in red.

“Identity Card” by S. Joseph

Backdrop: daily life in a college in Kerala — a state renowned for its achievements in education, its development model and a score on the quality of life index which matches that of many countries in the West. Bubbling through the restrained reportage is the headiness of youth, of college life and its promises of freedom and equality: a girl's inviting laughter, a bench on the grounds, the intimacy of shared food, the thrill of touch. Poetry. Revolution. A world opening up. In the happy, secular lighting of this theatre, the dark age of religious difference has long been left behind. Enter accidentally: an identity card bearing the official record of his Scheduled Caste stipend. She must leave, and does so feeling deceived. He remains — numbed, holding what he now knows as the dark secret of this modernity; and the beginnings of a sensibility and an assertion that enables this dalit poem.

The title poem of S. Joseph's 2006 collection Identity Card opens onto a number of the themes and concerns in this volume. For the one who assumes that a secular modernity may be taken at its face value, that he can be a world citizen, aspire to poetry and to love, the real betrayal is not singular or by an individual; it is a many-layered betrayal by a politics, a government, an era. What he encounters is not a traditional taboo, but a modern stigma. It is assigned by modern means in a modern institution. Ironically, it is precisely that which offers possibility of escape — state stipend, higher education, reservations — that also stigmatises him, mocks at his aspirations, returns him to his place, exposed, humiliated, externed from the world of those ‘normal' others who can love and unite. For the other, whose liberation appears total — she came laughing, shares a bench and lunch box, brushes aside belief — caste turns out to be the line that cannot be spoken or crossed. The account of their parting cited in the poem is hers. It is the upper-caste story. She speaks; her point of view has public legitimacy. She leaves, returning to her kind. A readymade sensibility allows the common reader to consider her action ‘only natural, understandable'. He remains silent, immobilised, alone.

So much for the story. We turn now to the poem. The point of view and the experience that it reframes direct us to the two stories that comprise the poem. One is relatively familiar and focused on love in the localities of caste and the pain of parting. The other records the modern protagonist's journey from innocence into [a dalit] maturity, from a desire limited to individual fulfilment, into a desire that involves a painful turn away from that scheme, towards his communal identity — and, equally significantly here, towards poetry. The first story constitutes the plot — it tells us what happened. The second directs us to the poem itself as a happening, a critical event. It is the poem that directs our attention to the setting, to the silencing and to the turning away from the bright air of the campus to a darker region in which the poet must encounter his difference and explore its meaning for himself.

Subtle shifts enable a reader to first notice the poetic persona; then slowly to see his silence, to acknowledge a disagreement that deserves full hearing; and finally, to endorse the human right, not simply to recompense or welfare, but to love. In the process it is not only her story that is reframed, but also older ethnological-humanist formulations of the untouchability question as well as the statist mode in which ‘historical wrong' and its official remedy have been configured in modern Indian history.

The poem puts the identity card into unprecedented play.

The moves made here are indicative of the complex, late-twentieth-century shift in conceptualizing the dalit question that this collection attempts to document. We have chosen the dossier mode for the documentation because it creates room for the variety of themes and concerns, the cross-cutting connections as well as the divergences, arguments and tensions that comprise this productive conjuncture. The poised control of writing, the self-possession, is evidence of a break with earlier modes of thinking about the dalit question and of the creative opening up of the field in recent times. When dalits themselves formulate the dalit question they bring innerness to the enquiry, but that is not all. This dossier is evidence of the new issues, settings, figures, experiences, analyses and propositions that have emerged...

Caste Reconfigured

The theorisation of caste undergoes transformation in the 1990s. It takes several turns in rapid succession. The commonly held idea that caste is a remnant of a pre-modern, hierarchical, purity-pollution formation specific to Hindu religion is criticised and rejected. Caste, the new theorists point out, is a live force in modern Indian culture and politics. The remnant-of-the-past thesis transforms what is actually a contemporary form of power into an outmoded religious practice that disadvantages those subjected to social stigma and geographical or social segregation. In other words, the caste issue is morphed into a problem of the social and economic marginalisation of one section of society, and the caste problem is seen as a problem only for the lower castes who ‘suffer from it'. The social and political dominance of brahmins and other upper castes, their role in perpetuating and extending caste discrimination, the benefits they derive from the formation and the role of caste in modern culture and modern institutions — all remains uninvestigated. This dominant view of caste underlies the well-known and largely ineffective moral campaigns to change traditional mindsets, legislations to ‘abolish' caste, initiatives to uplift and modernise the lower castes and see to their welfare.

It is important to note that when dalit and other subordinated castes describe existing theory as upper-caste or brahminical, the criticism is not only directed at the academy that produced this theory, but also at the efforts of the Indian state to address caste inequities based on such theory. In fact, the anthropological notion of caste as a religious hierarchy has informed state action. Thus, the Nehruvian consensus was to eliminate, through planning, education and administrative action, anomalies like caste in order to make India modern and secular. The state designed developmental programmes to address ‘ disabilities' such as bonded labour, untouchability, manual scavenging and atrocities through rural development, poverty alleviation, land reforms, the Anti-Untouchability Act and so on. In this scheme, reservations were considered compensation for past wrongs and not as remedy for current suppression and marginalisation. The Scheduled Castes and other oppressed caste groups are regarded as suffering from known injuries, caused by residual pre-modern formations. Further, they are merely ‘target groups' for welfare programmes extended by the state.

The contemporaneity of caste

Relocated thus in the domain of modernity, caste is reconfigured as a contemporary form of power. It structures social relations and therefore also state action. It works in renewed and updated forms in modern contexts and institutions. This history of caste is part of the history of modern India. The experience of the dominant castes — their authority, visibility, power, economic presence — as well that of the lower castes — their subordination, oppression, invisibility, and economic and political marginalisation — is a modern phenomenon.

A second important line of critique is that of the norm of the secular citizen. This normative figure, and the assumed neutrality with which it occupies the public domain, is shown up as marked by caste and as reaping the benefits of caste power and privilege. Since this figure is foundational for modern institutions — law, education, knowledge forms, the arts, public culture — it is also the principal modality through which these institutions practise caste. Third, caste is re-conceptualised as institutionalised in the modern state as a form of power and as a source of privilege.

(From the Introduction to the volume.)



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