Book Review: Coming Out As Dalit

Ever since I read The Essential Writings of BR Ambedkar last summer, I’ve been trying to read Bahujan literature in order to learn more about the caste system and how it continues to affect the lives of millions of people in India. It is perhaps disheartening that many of us know more about movements like #BlackLivesMatter than about the injustice and atrocities that are being perpetuated in our own country.

I recently read somewhere online that systemic racism doesn’t imply that the system is full of racists. Rather it means that the system leads to differential outcomes based on race. In India, the same can be said about the caste system. The below passage from Coming Out As Dalit highlights how systemic casteism plays out in India:

To quote directly from the book’s inner jacket, ‘In Coming Out As Dalit, Yashica Dutt recounts the exhausting burden of living with the secret and how she was terrified of being found out. She talks about the tremendous feeling of empowerment she experienced when she finally stood up for herself and her community and shrugged off the fake upper-caste identity she’d had to construct for herself.’

I found the book to be incredibly engaging right from the very beginning. In the prologue, Yashica shares how she came across Rohith Vemula’s letter when the news of his suicide broke out in 2016. Latter when she comes across his photo, she suddenly realizes that she’s seen the same photo before. He had sent her a friend request on Facebook two weeks before he committed suicide. ‘And I had deleted THAT request, I thought with dismay, a request from someone in whose life I so easily saw my own.’ Soon after this, she started a Tumblr page called ‘Documents of Dalit Discrimination‘ in which she shared her own experiences as well as published the stories of many others who wanted their stories to be heard and shared.

A topic that often comes up in the book is that of reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. She highlights how students who avail reservations are often mocked, ridiculed and made to feel unwelcome. In her words, ‘But most Indians failed to see the irony in demanding compensation for nearly 200 years of colonial rule while refusing any reparation for thousands of years of discrimination against their own citizens.’ She quotes senior policy analyst Shikha Dalmia, ‘If paying collective reparations for collective guilt is appropriate then how about India ‘atoning’ for thousands of years of its caste system?’ Dutt brings this up in the context of Shashi Tharoor’s famous Oxford University debate which went viral in 2015.

While studying at IIFT Delhi, I have seen for myself how, within the first few weeks of joining, many of my batch-mates used the campus portal to look up everyone’s entrance exam percentiles. They used this information to figure out which students had availed of reservation. Many of them would later go on to bitch about these students during drinking sessions while complaining about how unfair the system was and about how some people had it ‘easy’.

I recommend this book for the extremely simply but powerful way in which Yashica Dutt puts her point across about so many social issues. And yet the book feels incredibly personal. By the end of it, you can’t help but feel like you know her a bit.

Movie Review: Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

When I was in school, we had to study a short story by Khushwant Singh titled, Portrait of a Lady. I love how it opens with the following lines:

My grandmother, like everybody’s grandmother, was an old woman. She had been old and wrinkled for the twenty years that I had known her. People said that she had once been young and pretty and had even had a husband, but that was hard to believe. My grandfather’s portrait hung above the mantelpiece in the drawing room. He wore a big turban and loose-fitting clothes. His long, white beard covered the best part of his chest and he looked at least a hundred years old. He did not look the sort of person who would have a wife or children. He looked as if he could only have lots and lots of grandchildren. As for my grandmother being young and pretty, the thought was almost revolting. She often told us of the games she used to play as a child. That seemed quite absurd and undignified on her part and we treated it like the fables of the Prophets she used to tell us.

Similarly, I sometimes find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that my parents and grandparents used to be young once upon a time. Even if I were to picture them as kids, I can only do so in black and white. I can’t imagine them growing up in a world that had colours in it. Watching movies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro has a somewhat similar effect on me. I find it almost preposterous to think that oldies like Naseeruddin Shah and Neena Gupta were also once young and full of life. For me, it’s hard to shake off the image of Naseeruddin Shah playing the role of the old drunkard from Iqbal.

The movie is over the top, outlandish, improbable but somehow, it still works! It’s a brilliant satirical take on corruption in Indian society. Although the movie was released almost four decades ago, it is still as (if not more) relevant today as it was back then.

There is one scene in the movie that really captures the essence of the movie. In the scene, a new bridge is being inaugurated by Tarneja, a corrupt builder, played by Pankaj Kapoor. During the inauguration, he says, ‘Yeh pul sirf ek pul nahi hai. Yeh laakhon logon ka sapna hai. Aur kai gareeb log ek din is pul ke neeche apna ghar basaayenge.‘ (This bridge is not just a bridge. For lakhs of people, it’s a dream come true. And one day, many poor people will build their homes under this bridge.)

At the inauguration, another guest goes on to say this about the late Municipal Commissioner after whom the bridge is being named, ‘Unhone ek hi morche pe itne mahaan kaam kiya. Aur woh morcha hai… GUTTER! D’Mello saab aksar kaha karte the – Kisi desh ki pehchaan agar kisi cheez se hoti hai, toh woh hai GUTTER. Woh gutter ke liye jeeye, aur gutter ke liye mare. Marte marte, unke aakhri shabd thhe GUTTER. Hum unke yaad mein ek din ke liye sheher ke saare gutter band kardenge. Isliye aap logon se praarthana hai ki aap log peene ka paani ek din pehle bhar ke rakhe.’ I have no words to describe the brilliance of this one scene, the effect of which is heightened by the thunderous applause that this announcement is met with.

There is yet another dialogue that had me chuckling. The character Ahuja (played by Om Puri) says this about his business rival, ‘Hum cement mein raith milaate hai. Woh toh raith mein cement milaata hai. Pul toh tootega hi!’ (I mix sand into cement. He mixes cement into sand. It’s no wonder that the bridge collapsed!)

In my opinion, there’s also something magical about seeing the old Bombay in these old movies. I find it fascinating to see sights that I am familiar with in a somewhat different era and setting. It evokes a weird sense of loss for what once was. (I recently saw Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, another movie set in Bombay, to which there is a tongue-in-cheek reference in this movie.)

Another aspect of the movie that really caught my attention was how the two principal characters are extremely hesitant to travel without a ticket on a local train. This, after a drunk policeman waylays them in the middle of the night and relieves them of all the money in their pockets! This stands out in stark contrast to how the editor of a newspaper famous for exposing corruption is willing to accept hush money.

In conclusion, if you’re in the mood for a dark satire with over the top antics and some rib-tickling dialogues, you really should watch the movie. You won’t regret it one bit. I could literally have gone on and on about some of the dialogues from JBDY, but then that would kill all the fun for you!

My Weight Loss Journey: From 91 kilos to 78 kilos

After completing my MBA, I returned home to Trivandrum on March 1, 2019. Over the course of my MBA, I had gained almost 10 kilos. It’s not like I hadn’t realized that I was putting on a lot of weight. I just didn’t have the time to deal with it when I was studying at IIFT. Or at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. All those late night booze parties and cheese Maggis had definitely taken a toll on my body.

By the end of 2018, I had started hating myself for how much weight I had gained. Every time I looked in the mirror, I would get pissed at myself. I hated posing for photos. I dreaded wearing formals at college because I was afraid my tummy and man boobs would show.

Even if I managed to get over how I was feeling, I would always get reminded about my weight gain in some way or the other.

My plan was to start working on losing weight as soon as I got home after my MBA. I began by cutting down on snacking and junk food. I ate healthy meals and tried to limit my carb intake. Lunch was mostly a cup of rice that I would measure out for myself. Dinner was two chapatis or fish/chicken salad. If I felt hungry between meals, I would have fruits.

To keep myself motivated, I started following a subreddits related to fitness like r/fitness and r/bodyweightfitness. Reading about other people’s weight loss journeys and seeing their before/after photos gave me a lot of confidence. I kept telling myself, ‘If so many other people could do it, so can you.’

Things got really scary when I tested my blood sugar and lipids. I was only 24 and my cholesterol and blood sugar levels were messed up. This made me even more determined to get fitter.

I joined Gold’s Gym and went there regularly (almost everyday) for 3 months (from April to June 2019). At the gym, I would do some light cardio to start off my sessions followed by 45 minutes of weight training. I’d mostly do upper body-lower splits. In addition to this, I would go jogging at the Museum grounds in Trivandrum as often as I could. By June, I managed to shed around 8 kilos.

I would obsessively track my weight on a daily basis using the Libra app. It’s very useful because it plots a trend line based on the weighted average of the weights that you log in the app. It smooths out the daily fluctuations in your weight and gives you a pretty good idea of where you’re headed.

In July, I moved to Mumbai. It took me some time to get settled into a routine here. I joined a gym (Thera, Lower Parel) that also offered cardio kickboxing and yoga sessions. I’d do kickboxing twice a week, yoga once a week and do weights on the remaining days. The kickboxing sessions were a lot of fun and I could see for myself how I was getting stronger. I’d also supplement my gym sessions with regular jogging sessions at Worli Seaface.

Within six months, I was able to bring about a sea change in my cholesterol and blood sugar values.

It’s been more than a year since I started off on my weight loss and fitness journey. I have lost 13 kilos and gained a ton of confidence. More than the weight loss itself, the fact that I am now stronger, healthier and capable of doing things that I couldn’t do a year makes me incredibly happy. The joy that comes out of being able to wear clothes that you wore back in your second or third year of engineering is indescribable!

Since the lock-down kicked in, I haven’t really been working out much but even then, I’m glad that I haven’t gained back any of the weight that I’ve lost.