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Why access to opportunity doesn’t wash away exclusion

In Dalit History Month, Ajay Navaria’s ‘Unclaimed Terrain’ is a reminder that Dalits may have a foot in the door today but are yet to be truly included

Navaria’s tales are set in mundane, everyday situations.
Navaria’s tales are set in mundane, everyday situations. (iStockphoto)

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In 2013, when I first read Ajay Navaria’s collection of Hindi short stories, Unclaimed Terrain, in Laura Brueck’s translation, I was shaken. As a journalist, I had been exposed, for years, to a steady stream of stories of atrocity spawned by identity politics. News media, then as now, was strewn with accounts of caste violence. From a lower-caste groom being assaulted by Thakurs for riding a horse to his wedding, to carpenters refusing to build a bier for a Dalit woman, a whole spectrum of “punishments” were being meted out daily by kangaroo courts.

With the advent of social media and wider access to the internet, such heinous crimes now get aired on virtual platforms—either as twisted bravado or to seek justice. However, Navaria’s stories, with their running theme of cruelty, alerted me to nuances that I, as an upper-caste man, hadn’t picked up on before.

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In spite of state-sanctioned affirmative action, it would be disingenuous to understate the pervasive hold of caste on society. Discrimination doesn’t necessarily come in the form of overt violence. There are many other forms of exclusion and mental torture, which can be as devastating, especially in a society that tends to naively equate education and opportunities with mitigating antidotes to evils like untouchability.

Navaria’s tales are shocking precisely because they are set in mundane, everyday situations—in the local gym or sarkari (government)offices. His crisp, searing prose exposes the fault lines hiding in plain sight. Rereading the stories 10 years on, in the lead-up to Dalit History Month (observed for B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in April), I was besieged with a renewed sense of despair.

It has been a decade, and, in this time, we have had Tina Dabi, the first Scheduled Caste woman to top the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam. Rohini Ghavari, the daughter of a sanitation worker, recently spoke at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights about India’s affirmative action policies. Yet, there are still a bevy of Rohith Vemulas and Darshan Solankis, who have paid with their lives for alleged caste-based discrimination at elite institutions.

“We haven’t had a social revolution in the last 10 years but there has been a shift in public consciousness,” says Navaria, a professor of Hindi at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. “Dalits have been always told to accept their destiny as it is. But this way of thinking is now shifting, especially as students in schools and colleges are becoming more aware of caste,” he says on the phone. The emerging middle class is explaining to its children that caste is only a reality, not their destiny. The Gen Zs, Navaria believes, have a chance to rewrite the narrative. “They will not hate each other, hopefully,” he adds.

There is also the flip side, in that it’s always tempting, and easy, to put a caste angle to every form of rivalry. As Navaria puts it, “The difference of opinions between a Dalit and savarna person may be tied to the simple problem of two conflicting egos, nothing else.”

A similar strain of prudent optimism runs through some of the stories. In Sacrifice, the patriarch of a lower-caste family is furious with his son for marrying below his caste. He hurls abuses at his son and daughter-in-law, night and day. But one day, as the memory of his own forbidden youthful romance with a Brahmin girl comes back to him, the scales of empathy get tilted. In a unique gambit that adds a layer of complication to Navaria’s already complex stories, we see hierarchies of power and control play out between two underprivileged castes. “People still continue to form bonds by their jatis,” he says. “To this day, Dobhi, Chamar or Mahar communities are known to keep social distances from each other. Sometimes they even practise untouchability. This wasn’t Dr Ambedkar’s dream utopia.”

New Custom, in contrast, deconstructs the hypothesis of class triumphing caste. A chance encounter between an upper-caste tea-seller and a gentrified lower-caste man opens the floodgates of hatred. After initial obsequiousness, the servile tea-seller transforms into a venomous thug the moment he learns about the gentleman’s caste, ordering his client to wash his glass after he has had his tea. The story trails off on a note of bittersweet revenge, although justice is far from served.

In Scream, he explores the interplay of tensions between jatis and the slippery slope these rivalries can lead to. While it’s taut and superbly executed, this is the only story where I missed a larger canvas, a chance to experience this powerful seed of an idea bloom into a full-fledged novel.

In spite of their largely realist style, the stories move in and out of two distinct modes of existence: the archaic, rule-bound ethos in rural areas, where lower castes have designated wells for water and the slightest infringement of age-old norms can invite fire and brimstone; and the so-called genteel environment of urban spaces, where distaste and hatred are pushed under the carpet, though not always successfully contained out of sight.

In Tattoo, for instance, the well-to-do protagonist is besieged with pangs of self-doubt as he steps into a posh gym near Khan Market in Delhi. Everywhere he looks, every step he takes, he is conscious of others sizing him up, judging him because he doesn’t fit in. It’s hard to tell whether his apprehensions are real or unfounded. As Navaria writes elsewhere, “Money doesn’t smell.” But can wealth really erase ancient boundaries that have been erected to keep people apart?

The tell-all mark that the protagonist of Tattoo has imprinted on his skin remains indelible. No amount of worldly success can wash away the stigma he has internalised. It’s 2023, and his perception is still the reality for many around us. Today, though, social media has changed the rules of the game. “There is more scope for staging protests because of the internet,” as Navaria says. “It’s also evident that icons like Tina Dabi have got where they have not because of reservations but merit.”

Hopefully, in the next 10 years, the scales of justice will become more evenly balanced.

Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and an editor based in Delhi.

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