By Aabhinav Tyagi
Coming out as a Dalit is a unique autobiography, much in the same way that J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, ‘The catcher in the rye’ is a unique young adult novel. Yashica Dutt’s powerful prose, that often ventures into social commentary and historical analysis, along with the main narrative of the author’s life, is successful in elevating the book from being an individualized account of a life lived, to a much more universal message about rejecting the archetypical constructions of what living on the margins as a woman and especially a Dalit woman entails.
While it is easy to see Dutt’s book as a book reflecting the struggles of the Dalit community in India, which it undeniably is; a more wholesome view of the book is achieved only by examining how Dutt attempts to locate the identity in question i.e. of being Dalit, in the backdrop of concurrent identities, politics and motivated rhetoric. The book achieves this by undertaking the delicate work of viewing Dalitness through various lenses whether it be through the lens of gender, class or the lens of a generalized ‘other’. Dutt’s journey begins by questioning this deep sense of internalized otherness, similar to the struggle of LGBTQIA+ people who haven’t ‘come out’ of the closet for the fear of ostracization embedded in the long history of oppression that they have endured.
Dutt’s borrowing of the term ‘coming out’ isn’t therefore merely incidental, it is a deliberate equivalence made to invoke an epistemic acknowledgment necessary to communicate an aspect of the Dalit experience that has been overlooked and resulted in hermeneutic injustices never before brought to light. The title of the book is not the only time Dutt borrows from this vocabulary, she describes her early experience with caste as a constant struggle to ‘pass’, a commonly used term in the west to describe the act of emulating the defining traits of a ‘superior’ social group to avoid being treated unfairly. She identifies her act of coming out as a privileged act shielded by her success and her residence outside India and acknowledges how her ability to do so would have been drastically reduced if she had not had the right mix of opportunities and protections that most Dalits coming from similar contexts do not often possess. However, Yashica’s memoir goes beyond the oppression characterized by overt violence often inflicted on Dalits to give a picture of everyday casteism that is bolstered by a vindication of discrimination stemming from colourism, elitism of language, dress and food which penetrates every aspect of living itself.
Yashica Dutt describes the moment in which she understood that she could no longer carry the weight of what she had been hiding all her life, as a soul-stirring realization triggered by the deeply incisive suicide note left behind by Rohit Vermula. Until this point in her life, she had been hiding behind an appropriated identity cultivated through emulation of consumption pertaining to education, diction and rituals. The theatricality of this constructed façade slowly fades away to become her de facto reality. She is guided in this protective act by her mother who has suffered in a multitude of ways from her identity as a Dalit woman. The role of her mother in helping her cultivate this identity is treated with the care it deserves, by not recklessly vilifying the very real anxieties that plague a parent bringing up a child they know will not comprehend the unjustness of the setting they’re trapped in and certainly not without completely losing hope and surrendering, as so many do.
Coming out as a Dalit is exceptional in its treatment of the subject of gender. Not unlike many Dalit women writers who have felt the pressure to sideline their own gendered experience of caste by allies in favour of a pan-Dalit narrative, Dutt describes this pressure in detail and concludes that her complicated position is not helped by merely glossing over the treatment of Dalit women by Dalit men. The impact of her father’s alcoholism and abuse on her mother is not confined to a bland recognition, she drills deeper into the deep-seated misogyny and deconstructs it along the dimensions of caste and gender to refine the template of oppression accessed by outsiders. She makes reference to the simplified version and points out how repeated exposure to this archetype has rendered people completely desensitised.
In conclusion, Coming out as a Dalit is an exceptional tale of a woman who is no longer afraid of taking up space she has historically been denied, the space to be her true self. It is a powerful response to the elitist rhetoric that frames caste as an anachronism that no longer exists. While it certainly does not speak for everyone, especially not the experience of rural Dalit women, it exquisitely lays down challenges to the well-established tropes of being Dalit that can further one’s toolbox for examining caste even in contexts where Yashica’s own experiences do not directly apply. The book is at its very core a feminist reckoning with caste, reinforced by the elevated eloquence of her prose. What Dutt has accomplished with her book is impossible to achieve without creating a system of symbols and grammar to resolve the injustice of language itself which often deprives the people suffering, of the necessary tools to even articulate what they feel, let alone draft a universal agenda for collectivising along with the commonalities within their individual struggles. This includes bringing into her description ideas previously unaccessed- like coming out and passing, as well as, the insidious turpitude of intra-caste, gendered abuse, which greatly contributes to the episteme of caste. It is a book that questions everything that an elite gaze obscures and provides answers (often painful) that anyone who finds themselves lost can rally behind.
Aabhinav Tyagi is a 2nd-year LL.B. student at Jindal Global Law School.