I had to say I didn’t know my caste as if I was upper caste: Yashica Dutt on coming out as Dalit

04 August, 2019

A few days after Rohith Vemula’s death, Yashica Dutt, a journalist, penned a post on Facebook stating her decision to come out as a Dalit. Subsequently, in a story about a few adverse responses that her post received, Dutt wrote, “I am privileged to have had the opportunities I enjoyed – in education and in my professional life. But, shockingly, for some, even that failed to rescue me from discrimination.”

Dutt, a 33-year-old, worked as a fashion and culture journalist in Delhi, and then pursued a Master’s in arts and culture at Columbia University. Her autobiography Coming Out as Dalit was published in February this year. In a conversation with the journalist Bhumika Popli, Dutt recounted being ashamed of her caste as a child, the trauma that was an offshoot of hiding her identity and how she began taking pride in being Dalit.

Bhumika Popli: In your book, you wrote about how you decided not to involve yourself in discussions about caste-based reservations, because, among other things, you were wary and worried about people finding out your identity. How did you arrive at the decision to write a book that weaves together your personal struggles? What was your experience of exploring the autobiography form as a writer?
Yashica Dutt: The transition seems a bit drastic—from being super scared to now being so open with my life—but it was a full arc. It was a journey of acknowledging that there is nothing wrong with my caste.

When I started learning about identity, race and politics and how they are interconnected, especially in Columbia [in 2014–2015], I started thinking about caste a lot. I was hiding my caste for a long time. The fear of being found out was doubly painful. In Columbia, I was able to get a distance from all of that and I spoke about what I went through as a Dalit person in one classroom. There I told everybody because there were mixed-race people, [those with] mixed nationalities and mixed genders. I wasn’t worried that if somebody found out I was Dalit, I would be persecuted or discriminated against. The reactions were of shock and complete horror, and that made me realise that the life I have been living is not normal—hiding my identity was a burden that I had to carry for no fault of my own.

After I graduated from Columbia, I decided to take a writing course. There were a lot of wonderful writers there who were open with their stories of sexual abuse, immigration, personal trauma and deep tragedy. I noticed that a lot of those writers were actually healing themselves through their writing. They didn’t have any shame. So my creative ideas, especially about writing, were shaped by being in New York, not just that I was walking around and looking at buildings, but because I was with these incredible people.

And then when I read Rohith’s letter, which was so brilliantly written and it conveyed so much, it was like a light bulb. [There are] few moments in life in which everything just begins to make sense … when you have that epiphany, so to speak. That was my moment of epiphany. All [his] pain and raw emotion made me question what I am doing with all this education when a 26-year-old person, who had so much struggle in his life, was able to stand up for what he thought was right and had to give up his life. That made me confront that I am, in a way, living a relatively privileged life—I don’t have to confront what my caste is.

I [realised that] I can use my journalism and my experience to focus on our stories—our stories of being Dalits, our stories of being ignored—that have been ignored so far. The only stories about us were on reservation or somebody getting killed for marrying somebody upper caste or for putting [a song on] Ambedkar as their ringtone, and so on. I realised that I needed to create a narrative that was separate from what we were listening to all the time and that’s why decided to create the Documents of Dalit Discrimination [Dutt’s blog on the media platform Tumblr, where members of the Dalit community share their experiences.] But then I realised that I cannot invite anybody to write their stories unless I do it myself. And in one swift moment, I took that decision. I am ready to tell the world. In fact, I am very excited to see how people will react when they find out that they have been friends with [me]—people who weren’t friends with a lower caste or an untouchable person were sort of forced into giving me an equal treatment. I wasn’t scared of what people will say about my caste, or how they will judge me.

BP: With the Documents of Dalit Discrimination, did you hope to counter the one-dimensional narrative of what it means to be Dalit?
YD: I was able to create a small narrative that focussed on everything other than death, reservations and violence. The Documents of Dalit Discrimination started for me as space where we could share our pain and the trauma of being Dalit. Those platforms already existed, I just didn’t know of them. I wanted to do something for people like us so that more people like Rohith would not have to give up their lives. Of course, I personally couldn’t have helped anybody in that sense, but maybe I could help people be seen in some way, help them realise that [they] are not alone.

But as the book started, I saw that it was a great vehicle to do that as well. [With the book] I am hoping people see that there are more like us, and that we are valid, we are worthy and we deserve to be seen.

BP: Your book sheds light on how caste-based discrimination leads to depression in children. How have you seen this play out in educational institutes?
YD: The message you get from the society—be it pop culture, cinema or mainstream media—that you are not worthy enough, or that you have to hide in order to be a successful person, slowly erodes your sense of self-worth. It chips away at your understanding of who you are and you begin to think that, “I am this person, I am not good enough.” That gap and perception of what I think I am and what I need to be [to be] accepted can have dangerous consequences.

Whether we reveal our caste or not, we just feel that they will never see that we are good enough if we don’t work hard enough. For example, students who are availing reservations, Dalits in particular, a lot of them come from highly disadvantaged situations. They are often, if not the first, the second in their whole family to go to college. The kid works hard and gets into a good college. But that’s where the difference between an upper-caste person and a Dalit person comes in. The upper-caste kid has not been labelled as a quota student. The Dalit student has been labelled as a “quota student” and is made to feel shame about it.

I have talked about the ragging experiences that happened in universities in particular, where kids were forced to explain why they belong there. So, the idea that the government has done a favour to you is institutionalised right from day one. You are supposed to feel guilty. There is data to support this in my book. There is other data that talks about how Dalit students have said, if we don’t work as hard or twice as hard as other people, then people will they say, “They had a quota … they don’t have any merit and they don’t deserve to study in this institute.” And it is not just me, there are examples in African-American literature. [The author and journalist] Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “Black people quite particularly in America have to work doubly hard just to be equal, just to be taken as seriously as white people in the US.” Some students have been quoted in another study, done by Mr Jodhka, saying that when upper-caste kids or non-quota kids fail, the perception is that they “got a little irresponsible,” but when a quota student fails, the perception is always that, “See, you don’t belong here, that’s why you failed.” [Surinder Singh Jodhka, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has written extensively on caste structures in India.]

There are statistics upon statistics [about] so many Dalit students who were forced to commit suicide—not just Rohith. They were told they do not belong there because they are the quota students. And when someone is forced to believe that nobody would care if they left this world, it is clear how your mental health [can be] affected.

BP: You have been vocal about how your own mental health was affected because of your identity. After you joined a boarding school in Mussoorie, you mentioned in the book, you “had to work harder so ‘they’ could overlook my ‘inferiority.’”
YD: In school, no matter how hard I worked, I just had to keep pushing myself in order to be accepted, which is why I didn’t rest to triumph, or soak it in that I did a good job. And this has lasted all my life.

As a child, it was that much harder. In the book, I have mentioned how difficult it was for me to make it to the school. My mother really worked hard to get us there. When I reached the Mussoorie school, a couple of weeks before the quarterly exams were to begin, my mother was like, “Beta pass ho jana bas kisi tarah, baaki koi baat nahi marks ache nahi aye toh.” [Just somehow pass the exam, it does not matter if your marks aren’t good.]

And I came seventh in the entire class. The principal, in front of 300 kids, called my name specifically and said, “This child, she came to the school three weeks ago and then she got these marks and we are very proud of her.” I was 11 years old at that time, and I didn’t get it. Why did someone think it was out of the ordinary? For me, it was not anything that anyone should celebrate. Similarly, before I became the head girl in Sophia, [a school] in Ajmer, I used to think, it would be so great if I got this opportunity. Somehow, when I got that badge, it stopped mattering. I thought if I acknowledge success, I will become weak and I won’t succeed anymore. I didn’t believe in myself at all.

When I went to St Stephen’s [a college that is part of the University of Delhi], I wanted to be in that world, but I knew I didn’t belong there. Not just because my parents didn’t have the money or we were struggling so much, but also because I was a Dalit. That’s an entitlement that upper-caste people in society have—society tells them you belong there.

Even now that the book is released, I feel the same way. There was good reception of the book [but] it is still very hard to sit and acknowledge that I did a good job instead of just [thinking about] how I can prove myself more. That’s a kind of mental-health status for anyone who grows up hiding their identity and for Dalit kids. I have been in therapy. It has really helped in understanding my experiences and taking ownership of them, but it is still hard.

I rewrote the book from scratch about four or five times—it was very hard for me to keep confronting [my experiences] again and again, especially in the earlier chapters because those have the difficult stories. But my writing kind of healed me.

BP: Apart from journalism, you have worked in the advertising industry and also as a tutor. Was there a variation in caste-based discrimination that you noticed in these fields?
YD:While I was in Stephen’s, I had to take up tutoring jobs. I didn’t face any discrimination because by then I looked upper caste enough, which is just my experience. But I am sure somebody else would have a different experience [if someone] found out that they were Dalit. They probably wouldn’t be allowed to teach an upper-caste person, unless the family really didn’t care.

When I was in college, I joined a call centre. Caste was always a conversation. Now, if you go back and talk to those people they will say, “But we didn’t talk about this kind of stuff.” Conversations on caste are so normalised in our society that you don’t remember [them]. But I remember those because during food breaks, asking about one’s caste was as normal as asking what kind of books do you read. When somebody used to ask me my caste, I used to say, “I don’t even know my caste.” That’s a line “progressive” people from my generation have used—“we are so progressive that in our homes we don’t talk about the caste.” I was using that line because if there was somebody that could live in that vacuum of not knowing their caste, it means that person is upper caste. At some point in their lives, a Dalit person is made to be aware of what their caste is. You cannot escape the reaction of the society around you.

Some years ago, when my mother was getting a minor operation in Ajmer, there was a lady sitting next to me and she was trying to get to know me. The second or third question she asked was what my caste is. I said, “Aunty, agar meri caste upper nahi hai, agar hum Bhangi hai, toh kya aap baat nahi karoge humse?” [If I am not an upper caste, if I am a Bhangi, then will you stop talking to me?] She got very flustered. She said, “Why are you getting angry about it, I was just asking casually.” I was clearly looking stressed, wondering about my mother’s health, and the second question you ask me is what my caste is?

When I was younger, I would say I am Brahmin or I am Marwari, and then people would ask me, “What Marwari? There are many sub-castes of Marwari.” I didn’t know what else to say [besides that], I am from Rajasthan. I would feel like somebody who had done something really terrible and they have to hide it. People would keep probing. They need an answer, it is important for them to know. When I was in the call centre, that question came up all the time.

BP: You spoke at length about your decision to reveal your caste to the world and your parents’ response to that decision. What did they think of you penning an autobiography, and chronicling how your family dealt with its Dalit identity?
YD: My mum was a little apprehensive—what’s going to happen if everyone finds out? My dad had said there is no point in talking about that time of our life. Mum went back and forth, and she was like, “Are you sure you want to talk about all of this?” And I was like, “I think it’s important for me to say it, and you need to stop being scared of your story as well. This is the story we need to be very proud of and we have been [through] a lot.” I told her that I am not writing anything that’s going to bring shame to us. “Trust me, you need to talk about it more in order to heal from this experience more than anything.” Eventually, she was completely on board.

I remember, when she was reading the book, she was saying, “Oh, you wrote this as well, and that as well?” At that time, I saw her feeling joy, excitement and also anticipation about what will happen next. And then she said, “Chalo, achi baat hai.” [It’s good that you wrote this.]

This interview has been edited and condensed.