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The Ghastly Ghosts of Caste

How can full and authentic healing occur when caste continues to operate globally with impunity, having mixed the modern lie of “today-we-are-all-equal-and-caste-based-discrimination-does-not-exist” into its cruel, intoxicating cocktail? This is the question I’d like to ask with all my extended Dalit siblings reading this. Asking this question, I believe, is part of the continuous work of self-healing.

In this spirit of healing and reflection, me and my siblings scheduled a video call across three time zones to talk about caste. We started with a good laugh because it is only now in our late 30’s that we are consciously talking about how we encountered and experienced caste. Growing up, we wrongfully thought we were beyond caste. We are children of an inter-caste marriage — our  parents transcended a major barrier of caste so I   subconsciously, thought, “It shouldn’t really affect us.” Also, although my father always mentioned that he was “SC” (short for Scheduled Caste, the government term for Dalit persons), neither our parents nor us siblings claimed the benefits of affirmative action. We were just Christians without prefixes and suffixes of other identities, we thought. Now, we know better.

As our laughter settled on the call, I started by exclaiming it was crazy that my sister experienced caste-based discrimination in the metropolitan city of Bengaluru. It was in the same city of Bengaluru, where I received my graduate theological education, that a classmate came up to me one day and asked, “You are Dalit, or what?”

I remember feeling a most strange feeling. This feeling — a mix of anger and (was it shame?) — came over me not because of the pointedness of the question, but because of its emotional inflection. It was patronization, condescension, and pity blended together; as if one is supposed feel shame for being Dalit.  So, I quickly and firmly responded, “Is there a problem with being Dalit?”

Earlier that day and week, before my classmate asked this question, I remember that I was passionately making the case during class discussion that it was a Christian imperative to marry across caste in order to annihilate caste. I distinctly remember the professor asking me, “John, are you saying that Christians are to be open to inter-caste marriage or that Christians should marry across caste to annihilate caste?” “The latter,” I said.

Given how most of my fellow classmates and teachers married partners from their own caste, it ruffled some feathers. Over the course of my theological education, more than one professor told me that I was the problem for bringing up caste. One even invited me to their house for tea to encourage me to tone down my voice and disassociate myself from other vocal Dalits on campus. Each of those experiences evoked anger, but my classmate’s question —“You are Dalit, or what?”— did something else to me. It made me ask myself, how does it feel to be Dalit? For someone like me who was only just coming to terms with my Dalit identity, that was overwhelming.

What most angered me was not the interrogation of my caste identity but rather the pity that was associated with perceived Dalit identity. Part of the continuous work of self-healing means that we Dalits have to recognize that many of the existing dominant templates for what constitutes a good life are dominant-caste templates. To phrase this observation in the form of a question, one might ask, how can we Dalits undertake the task of self-healing when casteist forces continue make it seem as if being Dalit is not a thing of honor and pride? Doesn't that kind of dominant messaging negatively affect our psyche?

What started as a jovial conversation between us siblings about the ridiculous nature and function of caste evolved into a conversation about the sense of humiliation that affected our most sacred interior selves. Ignorance of how caste operated might have been bliss. But alas. We now know. And once we see the ugly face of caste, it never disappears.

It is this casteist force that surrounds every Dalit person. B. R. Ambedkar is absolutely right when he writes in Annihilation of Caste, “turn any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path.” One could say that caste is not simply the monster that lies under your bed; caste is the seemingly invisible but cruel monster that lies right next to you in your bed, reaching even into the spaces we would think are otherwise sacred and safe.

For me and my siblings, there are layers of trauma that are beginning to unravel. Despite our best intentions, it seems there are some repressed memories that our bodies have remembered but our minds have forgotten. Like in the case of my classmate asking me the question, “You are Dalit, or what?” the force, for me, was less in the actual meaning of the question and more in the implied meanings that were conveyed through emotional affect and inflection. As I reflect more on the question of healing from caste-based trauma of various kinds, I find that tracing my memories by asking the question “How did I feel?” during this or that time — which in retrospect I am able to name as a caste-inflected encounter — leads me to some difficult but necessary stations in life. I am learning to trust my feelings and emotions. These feelings and emotions, however, are not always pleasant. In conversation with each other, over lots of laughter and some trepidation, I realize that the more we recognize the ghastly ghosts of caste, the more we would be able to heal ourselves.