CASTE HAS BEEN AN OBJECT of study for around a hundred and fifty years now, but our attitude to it remains ethnographic. Bahujans are written about as objects of research through which caste might be understood, as if caste is about them and not dominant castes. This attitude extends to literature. For liberal readers, literature becomes about caste only when new—usually Dalit—voices from the margins share their worlds and experiences as ethnographic data. A review of Imayam’s novel Beasts of Burden in the Hindustan Times last year says that he “writes about the family’s life and daily activities with ethnographic details.” T Janakiraman’s novels also describe in great detail the milieu of Brahmins with roots in Thanjavur living in Madras, but they are never called “ethnographic.”
In the minds of our readers and critics, caste stands opposite the human as such. A reviewer for Feminism in India, writing about Bama’s famous autobiography Karukku, says that its “nuance is incredible, as she describes not only her experiences as Dalit and a woman, but also the loneliness of her everyday life”—as though nuance is to be found only beyond experiences marked by caste or gender. Oxford University Press advertises Ocean Rimmed World, the English translation of Joe D’Cruz’s novel Azhi Suzh Ulagu, as “an insider account of the fishing community of the Tuticorin coast,” as if D’Cruz is less a writer than a native informant.
A review, from 2019, of Poomani’s novel Vekkai—Heat—in Scroll says: “Poomani doesn’t wish to make this about caste, but he makes it clear enough that the systemic violence stems from the astounding inequity at the foundation of our social structure.” But the foundational inequity is caste; and the novel, about a boy from a landless Dalit family who kills an upper-caste landlord, is also very much about caste. The critic thinks, almost as a reflex, that a universal human drama transcends supposedly sectarian matters like caste. Indian liberalism—or late Brahminism—takes casteless and universal to be synonymous, when its entire universe is caste.