I always despised my parents for naming me Anquna Ananitha. That first name has no meaning and the second is derived from the botanical name for a poisonous mushroom. My mother is a botanist and decided to name her children after plants. My sister is named after the Greek word for custard apple and there I was, a name that was meaningless on the one hand and a name that meant mushroom on the other. My name was so absurd that every year when my name had to be called out in school, I would have so many different ways of pronouncing it.
After a point, I forgot how my name was actually pronounced and stuck to the sanest pronunciation. I was always jealous of my friends who were named after qualities like light, hope and love; after Gods and saints, and there I was, with one name that meant nothing and the other after a mushroom that could kill you. In my seventh grade textbook, the botanical name of the mushroom I was named after was in a box on the bottom of the page. I was rather excited to tell my friends that this is where my name comes from, they only pointed at me and laughed. In that moment, I never knew that my name could make me feel as insignificant as the botanical name in that box.
Today when I look at my name and wonder, why they chose to name me after a plant and not after a quality or a god is clearer. Appa was always made fun of for his name. Anbazhagan is a person who is said to be a man that is handsome and full of love. He got this name, when the maid in his house took him to the Healthiest Baby competition in KGF (Kolar Gold Fields), where his eldest brother who happened to be the judge recognized him and took him home.
Since then, he was called Anbazhagan. He studied in the school run by the Gold Mines in KGF and in this school, there were only Anglo Indian teachers. They found it so hard to pronounce his name that they went ahead and changed his spelling to Anbalagan. Being dark skinned meant comments about his name came up all the time and he had to deal with it. Amma was initially named Yedhagirinakshi, the name of a goddess who married Perumal. Everyone in school would make fun of her and say “Yedhukuthu” which translates to a feeling of nausea. They drove her parents to an extent, where they changed her name to Anusuya, who is said to be the good wife.
Years of this internalized mockery led my parents to naming their children after plants because somehow being called custard apple or having someone say Aquafina is better than being mocked for your character based off your name. Somehow, by giving me a name that has no meaning, they gave me this space to create meaning for myself.
No one else could say anything and even if they did, it wouldn’t haunt me as much as it continues to haunt my parents to this day. “What’s in a name?” wrote Shakespeare and to that man I wish to say that there is more to a name than he will ever know. A name changes a person; it becomes a marker of their identity.
It could be something that they are proud of or something that haunts them every day for the rest of their lives. It is only after understanding the kind of power one has with a name that has no meaning, does it make sense why they chose to name their children the way they did. They never let others define who their children were but let their children decide who they want to be.
Even so, I’m not sure what’s worse, knowing who you are and acknowledging the kind of things you go through or not knowing who you are and wondering what’s wrong with you and why these things keep happening to you. You dress the same as them, but you still don’t fit in. The food you bring from home will help them exercise the muscles in their face they didn’t know existed.
I’ve always wondered how they know who you are even before you do, it’s like we have this layer of repellent that makes them go away. All I wonder is, why? Do we not wear the same clothes? Do we not share the same spaces? Why is the mere act of touching something considered impure? That way, anyone who puts their finger in a jar of pickle can spoil it, can’t they? What magical powers do we so possess that the mere act of touching someone will make them want to go scrub themselves clean?
Nothing and everything that has happened to me in my life had prepared me for that one moment. It was just another day in college, and I was to meet sir to talk to him about my research paper. As I waited for him to finish speaking with another classmate of mine, I stared at the animal poster stuck on the shelf and tried to count the number of animals I knew and say their names like Sir David Attenborough.
I grew up watching that man hold worms and talk to them with such kindness that I now wonder if humans could only do that with each other, the world wouldn’t be such a terrible place, now would it? He wasn’t afraid of animals, he wasn’t afraid to handle poisonous snakes or porcupines, he treated them with the same kindness one would probably treat someone they really cared about. Somehow, I wonder if you treated other people the way you did with your pets or the way Attenborough did, would the world be a different place, a better place maybe?
A while later, it was my turn to talk to him. Sir described to me the process of writing the paper, which would involve me talking to my family about the experience of caste in their lives and the documentation of the same. Before I met him, I decided to do some snooping of my own to try and understand what caste meant to my parents, this resulted in them lashing out on me, asking me to go do something else and not disturb them about it any further.
I told him about how I tried to discover which caste I belonged to, he sat there with his eyes closed, occasionally nodding and stroking his beard. When I told him that the only thing my parents knew about our caste is that we were Aathi Dravidar, he slowly opened his eyes, waited for me to finish, looked up at me and told me that I was Dalit.
I did not know what to say. The only thing I remember is my ringing ears and nothing making sense. It took me 22 years, a course in Dalit Literature and a professor to tell me that I am Dalit.
Knowledge of this fact is an uneasy feeling, so uneasy that writing about the experience of caste is suffocating and physically distressing. Knowing that I am Dalit puts many questions into my head and at the same time is the answer to the many questions I had growing up. Writing about caste experience is fighting these demons you keep locked away for so many years, that shadow you never turned around to look at because looking at it and acknowledging its presence made things real.
Questions such as, why did my parents not tell me? Is it because they did not know? Is it because they wanted to live a life free of caste? Is it because of the economic mobility that we had in our life that we were able to let go of this part of us, come into my head.
Living a casteless life in a country that is casteist, seems impossible but my family seems to have removed the stitches so seamlessly that it makes one wonder if caste was ever there in the first place. Caste at home was always something that came up only when we had to fill in application forms, and one was always told to tick OBC. That is how we functioned, when asked, this is what we were told to say because we were Christians and Christians fall into the OBC category.
He was a friend from one of my classes, a Madurai boy who went to the temple diligently every day and we knew this because he always had vibhooti on his forehead. The two of us were Tamilians and one day when we sat at the same table, he asked me which place I came from. I said Bangalore. Then he asked where my parents were from, to which I said Bangalore as well. At this point, he seemed a little confused because my mother tongue is Tamizh and I said that both my parents are from Bangalore. Logically, he asked me where my grandparents were from and in that moment I forgot the names of their villages in Tamil Nadu so I said I’d find out and let him know.
When I told Appa about this, he simply told me not to say anything more and if that friend were to ask me again, I was to say I didn’t know. These are simple questions to know what your caste was, but I never knew that he was asking me about my caste, I thought that it was just him trying to get to know me better. My ignorance of caste in this situation, reminded me of Jyothi from Pariyerum Perumal. Her state of oblivion to this idea of caste made me want to scream into the screen and tell her to open her eyes and look at the world around her. I wanted to scream at my past self and tell her how ignorant she was about the world around her and how her parents were trying their best to keep this shadow of caste out of her life.
As Robin M. Boylorn in her article From Here to There writes, social identities are sometimes fluid and it is possible for one to experience privilege and marginalization simultaneously. When this statement is looked at closely, what one can therefore arrive at is the fact that caste experiences can come from a place of both privilege and marginalization.
We see that in terms of privilege, there are people who belong to castes in lower orders gain economic mobility, but at the same time, their social mobility is stagnant. When she states that it is possible to experience both, we can look at how though a person may be Dalit, they may be in a certain state of economic stability but that is not the only thing that defines their identity.
There is this realm of the social that one needs to take into account and that is where caste comes into the picture. Caste in our country, in many ways, defines the social identity of the individual and in doing so, concretizes their position, and therefore, that individual can be subject to experience both privilege in terms of their economic stability and marginalization in terms of their social position.
Writing about caste experience after you learn that you are Dalit puts you in a place where you are neither here nor there. There is this state of discomfort that encircles you when you have to write about your experience of caste because reading Dalit literature, Ambedkar and others’ caste experiences, on the one hand makes you feel like you are not alone and on the other, it makes you feel like your experiences don’t deserve to be told because they are nothing.
This voice in your head is that weight, which holds you down every time you choose to write about something, this voice tells you to hit that delete button and stare at the blank page, this voice leaves you feeling empty. Sitting in a class where there are others like you, whose experiences are ones that you can relate to, make you feel like it is all right, but at the same time, it makes you wonder if your story is worth telling or even being written about.
In class, we were asked to read the Rohith Vemula Archive and that in many ways, has changed the way I choose to write about caste. I looked up the last letter he wrote to the world and in that he did not say he wanted to be an astronaut, he did not say he wanted to be the president of the country, all he wanted to do, was write. It is then that I realized the importance of writing about my caste experience no matter how insignificant it may seem.
When I expressed my inability to write about caste, I was asked to sit in front of the computer and write, little did I realize that the photos that sat above me were that of Rohith Vemula and Ambedkar. A part of me was in that state of discomfort because writing about caste is fighting these demons, but another part of me decided to fight because of these two people who died fighting the same demons.
Growing up when one is told to only speak English at home, it can lead to a sense of alienation when other members in the family speak the mother tongue. In some sense, an entire culture is not understood because of this language barrier. When they spoke in Tamizh, the replies were always in English whether they chose to understand it or not was left up to them.
Not knowing the language would result in being the family clown, the “Peter” of the family who only spoke English. When asked why the mother tongue was never taught, it was simply dismissed with the following statements, “You can learn the mother tongue whenever you want. We didn’t want you to face any difficulty in when it came to speaking English. It forms the foundation of who we are internationally. If you spoke only in Tamizh, would you speak English as efficiently as you do now?” to which there was no counter argument. Language does help one attain a certain position and it is now that Ambedkar writing in English and wearing only suits make sense, it allows one to take a stand for themselves.
School for many is a place that they say were the best days of their lives and that they would do anything to go back. A part of me is jealous of these people because they had such a wonderful school life and a part of me sympathizes with them because of their ignorance to what they said and what they did. It was the place where I experienced caste in its most innocent form being practiced by children as young as four and five.
Making friends never came easy for me because of the way I looked, short, dark and chubby, and my name didn’t help either. My parents always made sure I got what I wanted and even that wasn’t enough to help me fit into this school. I remember having this fancy blue tweety pencil box, equipped with the finest colour pencils, pencils and an eraser that neatly fit into the box without a hassle. This girl in my class came up to my desk, took it from me and told me that I didn’t need those things, that a box like that was never meant for me or people like me. She walked away with the box and I let her, and a part of me believed what she said, that I did not deserve the good things in life.
First standard, it was the year Amma finally let me take chocolates to school for short break. It only lasted so long because after a while, I refused to take them to school and it was all because of one boy. Tall, fair and like a ball of maida, he used to push me down every day and take away the chocolates I used to carry. He would tell me that I never deserved to eat them because I should only eat orange candy, the ones they sold in small shops. Big shop candy was not meant for a girl like me.
I went home with scraped knees and elbows every day, to an extent where my parents grew concerned. I was told to go complain to my class teacher who said she would take firm action against the boy who did this to me. That very afternoon, he walked into class and took the tiffin box from my teacher’s bag, I pointed out that it was he, who pushed me down and all she said was these things happened and that it was just a game. The six year old in me believed her when she said it was just a game.
Food is something everyone eats and is also something that tells you about the place you grew up in. When one’s father makes lip-smacking NV, one must take it to school to show off their parent’s cooking skills and in some sense attempt fit in with the rest of them.
NV is the term people in KGF called Non Vegetarian food, Mutton was M and Chicken was C. Third standard is the year one starts bringing lunch to school because there would be classes after lunch. The first day is always the most special. Amma’s sambar rice and Appa’s Mutton pepper fry just the way I liked it, food to impress my friends.
SN was least impressed because unlike the rest of their Barbie tiffin boxes in blue, pink and purple, mine was a steel tiffin box that was hard to open. When I opened my tiffin, she shrieked, called me a dead animal eater, pushed the tiffin box on my white uniform and ran away. I sat in class that day smelling of mutton and vowing to never bring NV to school ever again.
Until this very day, there exists a fear inside of me when I open my tiffin box in front of my friends, the fear that my food will never be good enough. I remember begging my parents to get me a plastic box like my friends, Tupperware was not something we could afford so I had to settle for a cousin brand hardly anyone had heard of, Signoraware. Even though the box was now a bright colour, the food I brought, still the same, sambar rice, beans poriyal or chapathi and some vegetable fry it wasn’t enough. Somehow, whatever I did never seemed to be enough.
Appa always made a face when I asked him why we never ate beef, he would only frown and say that people like us should not eat beef. Amma was “Hindu” so she considered it sacrilegious to eat beef. One day when I was offered beef, I didn’t refuse because I didn’t know what it was. I ate it and remembered asking my friend who told me it was beef. It didn’t take me long to swallow the meat but swallowing the fact that you did something you weren’t supposed to became a lot harder.
I remember going home feeling guilty that day, I confessed to my sister that I ate beef and she laughed. She said she did it too and that it was okay. From then on, my sister and I ate beef in secret. Our cousins ate beef but we never did. Every time we went to KGF during our summer vacation, Sheela aunty would come home from work with a newspaper bundle, wrapped inside of it was spicy, crispy beef roast.
We decided to come out to our parents and admit that we ate beef because Iftar was around the corner and we wanted to try all the beef items on the menu. I remember Appa not talking to us for a few days and Amma slapping her forehead and saying that our brothers were corrupting us innocent girls.
To this very day, Appa despises the fact that my sister and I eat beef, and Amma chooses to live in denial because the state of denial is a lot better than accepting the fact that the children you raised are eating beef. But my sister and I find slight joy in the discomfort on their faces when we do what we’re specifically told not to, somehow the taste of beef when I eat it in front of them is much better than the beef roast I ate in secret.
Not knowing what it feels like to be Dalit is one thing, but knowing you are Dalit and not knowing what to do about it is something else. The first thing that I wondered is why I never took caste so seriously, if I did, I would have known I was Dalit.
If only I would have known that these experiences I had were because of caste, were because I was Dalit I would have learnt to look at them differently. Somehow, others knew exactly who I was but I never knew, if I did maybe I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself, maybe, I would have learnt to be kinder to myself.
The process of accepting the fact that you are Dalit comes in stages, just like the stages of grief. The first of which is denial, denial of the fact that you are Dalit, telling yourself that these experiences are not worthy of being told. The second is that of anger.
Anger that comes from the fact that you didn’t know you were Dalit, the fact that everyone else knew and they treated you a specific way because of who you were, anger from the fact that you were so oblivious to who you were and continuously blamed yourself for the things that happened to you.
The third is that of bargaining, if only you knew you would have treated yourself better, if only you understood that what you went through is because of caste, if only you knew like the others did, things would have been different. The fourth, is that of depression, at some point you feel sorry for yourself for not knowing you are who you are, you feel sorry for yourself because of the things that happened to you, but that soon goes away because you reach the final stage, which is that of acceptance.
Once you reach this stage, you know that your experiences are your own, that as much as you let it define who you are at one point, you know now that coming to terms with being Dalit comes from writing about it and writing about it means writing it out of your system. The only difference in the five stages of grief and being Dalit is in the fact that there isn’t anything one needs to mourn, the only thing that is mourning is the voice inside your head that led you to believe that what happened was your fault.
Discovering that I am Dalit helped me look at my experiences in a different way. Somehow, I was no longer protected by my parents who fought their daily battles with this shadow of caste that followed us wherever we went. Ambedkar wrote that as much as he ran away from caste, it still came back, and I can relate to this circular path he followed because, it is the same path I now follow. If you were to ask me which stage I’m in, the only answer I can give is on the road to acceptance.
A road I choose to walk on with these brand new heels on that journey. Embracing those heels and walking in them not because I was forced into wearing them but because I choose to wear them and learn to wear them with pride.
Image Credits: Art by EV Anil
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