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The day I finally faced my privilege

I’ve realised now that my privilege does not just exist independently in a vacuum, it exists at the expense of another

As I dig deeper, I feel like my privilege is less a small can of tiny, wiggling worms, and more a large, thrashing and writhing python that has existed in my peripheral vision for as long as I can remember. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

In 2016, after a bad night’s sleep, punctuated with dreams I couldn’t remember (but could still feel in my core being), I started scribbling tiny fragments of memories onto scraps of paper. I had no idea why I felt the compulsion to do so, but I stuck with it.

The first memory, the most potent one, surfaced the night after the dreams I couldn’t recall, as I grabbed some last-minute groceries. The memory was from the time I was about eight, settling down to watch some TV after finishing my homework. It was a regular day; my mom had not yet returned from work and my brother was locked away in his room, playing computer games. I’d had had a chat with our cook and scored an extra plate of snacks. As I hopped onto the sofa, precious biscuits cradled safely in my arms, I realised there was a person huddling in the corner, attempting to disappear into the wall. It was the new house help, Sunita, who had probably arrived while I’d been at school.

I waved shyly, and she waved back, equally shy. She was about seventeen, and looked petrified. I talked to her, making idle conversation until she opened up a little, and then invited her to come watch some Cartoon Network with me. She refused, but I pushed, thinking it would be a great way to make her a bit less homesick (because when does Scooby Doo not fix everything?). We sat together on the sofa, sharing the snacks, watching Scooby, and the tension melted.

Midway through a sentence where she was telling me about her brother and his dog, the cook entered, and the entire mood shifted. He snapped at her to get off the sofa, yelled about the snacks she’d eaten, and apologised to me. As she slid from the sofa cushion to the floor, I felt a sense of intense guilt, but I said nothing. I understood that what was happening was wrong, but my eight-year-old brain froze, and I sat there, stunned, horrified and ashamed, drowning in feelings I couldn’t place.

When this memory resurfaced, some 16 years later in the grocery store aisle with the wine and the toilet roll in my hands, I decided to scribble it down in the margins of my grocery list. I wrote, “Sunita sofa fiasco”. I then added, “Taj security guy question”, “Mess in classroom”, “Rickshaw Noida” and 22 others over the course of the next few weeks. At first, I was unsure of why I was scribbling, but the mounting pile of notes brought with them a clear thread— around my privilege. In each of these situations, I’d had my privilege brought front and centre under a harsh, unflinching and unflattering spotlight—every ugly, murky and dark ridge thrown into sharp relief. In each instance, I’d queasily looked in any direction but right at it, feeling a sense of shame, but unsure of why.

In 2016, I began to slowly strip my life bare, tracing the tendons of luck and circumstance that kept me upright. I wanted to reach into the core of where the shame came from, to understand why these memories had stuck around so vividly all these years to surface now, in a tangled, interconnected heap.

I was aware of my privilege early, in the way middle and upper-class Indians usually are. With living and breathing examples of those less privileged than you on every street, there is a tacit acceptance that you—with a roof over your head, food to eat and a school to go to—are lucky. The sheer extent of the luck is something that takes a lot more digging. I used to liken understanding my privilege to a can of worms, but as I dig deeper, I feel like my privilege is less a small can of tiny, wiggling worms, and more a large, thrashing and writhing python that has existed in my peripheral vision for as long as I can remember: entering rooms and holding the door open for me as I walk in silence, worried that if I acknowledge it’s there, I’ll have to turn and look at it face on.

I was born in Chandigarh, to an affluent family, living in a ‘posh’ sector, with a loving mother and grandparents. I was born with no physical or mental impediments, was read books as a baby before bedtime, crawling into a warm bed with a full tummy, every single night without fail. I went to an excellent school, talked in English at home, and when I struggled in maths, had a tutor made available to me. I was born upper class and upper caste. These are a few of my most visible forms of privilege, most of which I recognised and accepted at a young age. Understanding caste was a learning experience that came with time, which in itself was an immense privilege few enjoy. But today, as I grapple with the many facets and manifestations of this privilege, I find myself stuck on the more shrouded and jagged edges.

I’ve realised now that my privilege does not just exist independently in a vacuum; my privilege exists at the expense of another. Privilege is, for the most part, built over time and institutionalised. The privilege I enjoy today, financial and social, has been accumulated for years by my family. This is not something everyone has access to—with economic and social mobility, a pipe dream for most, our lives are, in many ways, contingent on family decisions in the 1800’s. Which for me, means that my family’s social standing today, in 2021, can’t be extricated from my great grandmother’s subjugation of Dalits, nor can my financial stability today be considered without considering the stain of the zamindari system on the family.

My greatest reckoning with my privilege, the most painful part of my relationship with it, has been the understanding that for me to have won, generations have lost. To remove myself from this web would be yet another extension of this privilege, and reinforcement of a system that is parched for change. My privilege, my ability to type this today, has been built on the backs of people long dead now. And this vantage point, staring at the mammoth mass of history that weighs on me is simultaneously the most difficult and the most important line of thought.

The ongoing, absolutely knackering wrestling match between me and my privilege is a critical and taxing relationship that I have committed myself to for life. It seems a bit of a masochistic task remnant of Sisyphus’, but the best way I can dismantle and challenge a system I vehemently object to is by putting myself under the microscope, dragging out the ugly bits and prodding them for answers. I’ve lived a long time brushing things under the carpet, but to know myself, my place in the world and what I stand for, I must continue to grapple, even if just with memories scrawled on margins.

The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.

    02.02.2021 | 10:00 AM IST

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