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Heroes Are Human

The False Authority of Dalit History

By Dhanya Addanki |
JULY 31, 2020
Courtesy of the Addanki Family Archives
I frequently remember and write about my grandmother — especially one story of her in the rice fields. When it was dark, and the rice stalks young, she would sleep by the crop so no one could steal or destroy it. She was known to physically fight anyone who came to steal the crop — and win, too. My dad tells me she was a gifted singer, often holding a tune while she worked with her hands, transplanting one rice paddy sapling after another, after another.

I don’t share this story to romanticize my family or trivialize the horrors. A Dalit field laborer in India in the mid 1900s, my great-grandmother did not own the land upon which she tilled, planted, and harvested. And I don’t imagine that the landowners who paid her pittance wages were kind to her or the women she worked with. Looking at history, we know the treacherous abuse that many women laborers faced at the hands of upper-caste men and women. We know about the police brutality, the harrowing segregation and exclusion of Dalit communities from every aspect of society, and the impurity and pollution identities that were stamped on them, all wrapped up with a dreadful bow called caste apartheid.

This past feeds into the present. Even today, in the northern state of Punjab, there are Dalit women leading the fight for land rights and ownership. In Uttar Pradesh, a teenager named Vikas Jatav was enforcing the caste hierarchy.

But discrimination also comes in forms that are not so blatant, however, as many would argue, are equally violent; if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually.

During her oral history interview, Roja Singh, a professor and the author of Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women's Agency-Narratives On Caste And Gender Violence, spoke about a vivid memory of hers that hints at how her family was different from other families in the Christian university faculty community in which she lived as a child.

“Sometimes my dad and I would be walking and this brahmin professor would leave his house and he would turn around and go back to his house and it would happen every time,” Singh said.

As she started learning, understanding, uncovering more layers of her identity, Singh was able to chat freely about being Dalit with her father. She learned why the professor would consistently turn around as Singh and her father’s steps approached.

"We are considered to be bad omens so he used to turn around — you can’t face a Dalit when you’re leaving the house, its bad luck," she said laughingly.

And although the professors in the university where her father taught Tamil literature held him in high regard, Singh also recalls that, when she went to brahmin people’s houses, she could only play in the veranda — never inside the house. When brahmins came to Singh’s house, they would sit outside and never drink the water or eat the food at their home.

Stringing together moments like this and classifying them as discrimination came later in life. Singh, like many Dalit people, did not know about her Dalit identity until she was an adult.

Mimi Mondal, in her oral history interview, shared similar experiences. Mondal, a Hugo and Nebula-nominated author and editor, said that she didn’t fully register many of the things that happened as casteism until later in her life.

“[In school] they were not really being framed as casteism, but as ‘you don’t come from a very good family,’ while they had not even met my family,” she said.

Mondal also talked about a term in Bengali called chotolok, which she described at the opposite of bhadralok which, loosely translated, means “intellectual or gentlefolk” in Bengali. Mondal said people in school would often call her a chotolok. She thought it might be a slur against working-class people and, although still disrespectful term, an economic or culture slur, not a caste slur, as she found out by reading Manoranjan Byapari — a Bengali Dalit writer whose work has recently been translated to English.

“As a child you don’t get offended that much because offense takes a framework,” she said. “I heard chotolok being hurled at several misbehaving children once in a while but I always got it way more even when I was not misbehaving. As a child, I didn’t figure that I was getting this more than others because it has a specific meaning [and] is not very well documented; it’s not there in a lot of casteist slur directories, where people make lists of what casteist slurs are.”

This thread of keeping knowledge away from Dalit people, or refusing to document the community in more “official ways,” is consistent throughout nearly all of the oral history interviews I’ve conducted.

But many don’t want to believe these oral histories or stories passed down generationally, which begs the question — who exactly has the authority over what history is right and what isn’t? Who has the right to tell a deliberately marginalized person that their experiences, both good and bad, are not real because the documentation doesn’t exist or exist in a way that caters to the people with traditional power — both colonial and Brahmanical?

It is a double-edged sword of not allowing folks to record history and blaming folks that there is no “proof” of their lived experiences.

When I tell the story of my family, I am recounting oral histories. I tell them to remember where I came from and who I am. These oral histories are memories, the only thing many have to remember who lives in us.

My great-grandmother has a story, a history, and a life apart from anything that centers her within my experience. She was an individual in a community and in a bloodline, yes, but she had dreams and hopes and aspirations that were personal and were never recorded. And for me, this does not make anything any less valid. Her life lives in our memory — in the land, yes, but also still continues whether anyone told her story or not. So while we have documentation systems now, it is important to remember that, while they are helpful and necessary, people’s history and story still live in the earth. But a small part of me wonders — what would she have said to me if I were able to record her?
Dhanya is an editor, writer, and photographer, working mainly in advocacy, human rights, and justice oriented spaces. She was born in South India and raised in South Texas. Her fellowship focuses on the liberation of the Dalit community and the work being done by community members. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.