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.

Book Review: Americanah | Extremely relatable on many levels

I just finished reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’ this morning. It’s one of the many books that I bought off a sale at Flipkart. Before buying it, I had never even heard of it, but decided to go ahead with the purchase because it was being sold dirt-cheap.

On some level, I found the book similar to Murakami’s works in the sense that the central theme explored human relationships and how they change, especially as you grow up. However, several other themes come into play in this book – most notably, race.

I found the book and its principal characters (Ifemelu and Obinze) extremely relatable. On some level, I could understand Obinze’s obsession with America and his dogged determination to experience the American life. Very often, I feel frustrated with life here in Mumbai and wonder what it would be like to experience life as an expatriate in some other country. In my case, my attentions are focused on China for the time-being. (I am learning Mandarin at the moment!)

Ifemelu encounters race when she moves from Nigeria to America. For the first time in her life, she realizes that she is black. When I moved from Trivandrum to Delhi for my MBA a couple of years back, I felt something similar. From being surrounded by Malayalis, I went to being a ‘Mallu’ in a so-called cosmopolitan city. Everyone that I met measured me in terms of my Mallu Quotient. “You don’t have a Mallu accent. Did you grow up in the Gulf?” “Can I borrow some of your coconut oil?” “I like Mallus. I had many Mallu friends back in engineering college. They all smoke up a lot” I found most of this amusing. What bugged me was how nobody seemed to know anything about the geography of South India! (“You’re from Kerala, na? Which part? Are you from Chennai? I’ve been there” )

I could also relate to how Ifemelu feels like an outsider, both back home in Nigeria (where she is considered an Americanah) and in the US (where she is an American African, rather than an African American). I sometimes feel like I don’t truly belong either in Mumbai or Trivandrum. I’m stuck in limbo, somewhere in between – neither here nor there.

All in all, Americanah was an extremely enjoyable read. Highly recommended! I’ve decided to give Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other books a shot as well.