For Rohith Vemula, who wanted to learn, but ended up taking his own life; and for Savarnas who are too good to learn
Those clueless about caste will never know why scores of DBA students never make it to the finish line in higher education, and why Rohith Vemula took his own life three years ago.
When you give hunger food, it will swallow it whole with everything it has.
It’s what Rohith Vemula would have done if he had the time, the space, and the energy that millions of spoilt Savarna kids have.
Today, classroom spaces are under the threat of producing spoilt brats who get away with spewing caste privilege.
A worry that hasn’t left me since I began teaching seven years ago is that I am not good enough.
The beginning of that worry came from the fear of not being good enough for students who are good enough. It changed faces over the years: ‘That girl writes beautifully, what can I possibly have to teach her? I don’t know what this word means - let me just say something so they don’t think I am stupid - If I am wrong, I will come back tomorrow and say coolly ‘So I did some research and this word actually means this!’ Why is that girl with great English sulking? Maybe she already knows what I am talking about - let me throw in some big words so she’ll wake up - That boy is rolling his eyes - maybe I should talk less Ferrante, more Bukowski? Chuck this - I should just get married. I am useless.’
From there, I am now in a place where I shamelessly share lived experiences with my students. When I read something that sends shivers down my arms, I take it to my class immediately. Today teaching has come to mean this — sharing my goose bumps with my students, hoping they catch those goose bumps too. These goose bumps are rare — when they come, life is clearer, meaning is unnecessary and living is love. They come when I read something and life starts making sense, they come when I struggle with writing a piece for weeks together and one morning suddenly, it finds a voice clear as water.
My own student life was a long stretch of a wasteland where I didn’t read, didn’t write, but fell in love, and that was my only achievement from 16 to 25 — that I was able to manage a relationship well.
My real learning began when I started teaching — meaning it was too late. Because here I was teaching students who had written poetry when they were eight, small novels when they were 18, had read Shakespeare in school and knew how to spell Dostoevsky without looking constipated. I was a State Board gal, meaning we didn’t read Julius Caesar (even as omnipresent as he was across CBSE and ICSE).
But so what if I didn’t read Shakespeare? I read nice stories of young Chinese women named Tsu who took to weaving while they waited years together for husbands named Yohyoo to return. In class, a boy and I were made to read this story out loud and our classmates began teasing us together. I felt shy and the boy wept until his ears were red. It’s probably the only reason why I remember the names and this may not be much but it’s enough that I also remember the weaving bit and that it came back to me with force. It means that if my mind is able to smile at some story I read when I was 12, I am not entirely useless.
But it’s not enough. At least for students who want more. They need to be challenged, pushed to extraordinary discoveries. Added to that was my shame that their parents and even great-grandparents would know a lot more than what I had to offer, and this scared me to bits.
One morning in 1998, I woke up panicking because it was Teachers’ Day and all the students in Class Five had to write a composition on S Radhakrishnan and bring it to school. I searched for the name in old textbooks; couldn’t find him. Then I ran to my mother who had no clue too. She didn’t know who he was. Dad had heard of him but didn’t know enough for a composition. So, my mother suggested I go next-door and ask my friend’s grandfather. She had apparently heard him speak ‘Good English’.
I was embarrassed. His grand-daughter and I were nemesis. She hated me and I envied her. I didn’t want to be caught going to her house for help but I had to, so I did. That morning, I sat down on the carpet in their veranda even as my friend’s grandfather closed his eyes and recited whatever he knew. I wrote in pencil so I could scribble fast, take it back home and then write it neatly in ink pen.
Needless to say, the school gave us cakes and sent us back home and my friend’s grandfather’s S Radhakrishnan essay sat sadly in my bag.
This story was a big part of my growing fear — that not much had changed since that morning in 1998. That I would always have to go elsewhere to learn, to find answers — unlike most of my students who just have to reach inside, within their own bodies and find everything they need. And because my learning did not happen at home — and definitely not at the right time — I was convinced that it was too late to be rescued. And I would have given up long ago if it hadn’t been for a few Dalit/OBC students who were struggling like I was; from them, I learnt to shut up and carry on.
These students are often first-generation learners in their family; the first ones to get a college education, the first ones to know English and just the fact that they are here – in an English-speaking classroom, working hard, invested in their own learning, swallowing knowledge in whatever way they are able to gather – gives me the energy to go back to the classroom every morning.
Despite reservation, despite borrowed social capital and so much more — there is something a lot more powerful that holds us back. And because so much power cannot sustain on its own and be visible at the same time: this power is invisible.
When invisible power lays its hands on you and pulls you back, you will turn around, scream back, become angry, mad, irrational and throw desks and benches like Pariyerum (From Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal) did. But to an outsider, you are a mad person who is hallucinating danger that nobody else can see. That’s why for a lot of clueless people like Manu Joseph in this piece, caste is a hallucination; it doesn’t exist.
And that’s why they will never know why Pariyerum throws desks, why scores of DBA students never make it to the finish line in higher education, and why Rohith Vemula took his own life three years ago.
Although in Vemula’s case, power was not only not invisible, it also had total institutional support.
In Pariyerum Perumal, on the first day of his college, Pariyerum is sitting in the classroom with his new notebook and pen, waiting to write. He is lost because he doesn’t know what to write; the teacher is speaking in English. And through the film, he is lost and hitting real brick walls.
It’s hilarious and ironic that in the same college there are students who are protesting, questioning, intellectualising — in short, doing activist things but refusing to ‘see’ or be of help to Pariyerum in any real way. As a thumb rule, the first rule of such activism is to make insect-like, upper-caste noise. The second is to completely ignore the fact that caste is sitting in your own choices of food, your friendships, your classrooms, and your utter inability to take Dalit/OBC teachers and students seriously.
I teach Creative Writing to undergraduate students. Over the years it has become comical to teach a certain brand of upper-caste students who like to believe that learning to write can happen only once in life and that because they have already done it, there is absolutely nothing left for them to learn. This romantic notion of writing is borrowed from Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) who cutely declared that we live once, die once, fall in love once, and get married once. But in academia, this is tragedy. Tragic cuteness.
Because learning to write happens every day — no matter who you are and where you come from — that’s why you are a writer.
In the department where I teach, we have had a long tradition of recognising and practising that good English doesn’t always mean good writing. And when a student like the one in the previous paragraphs is made to confront this revelation, they take it badly. It’s like telling a believer: ‘Dude, there is no God’.
When I talk about writing to my students, I do what I wish someone had done for me when I was 16: made me believe that I could write. But if a student comes to the classroom believing they don’t need to be told that, everything else I do in the classroom becomes ‘manipulation’. Suspicion is the birth right of Savarnas. Especially if they have to learn how to write from a Dalit woman.
Seven years of standing in the classroom and feeling euphoric and defeated at the same time — I can now identify things like hunger and gratitude a lot more easily when I see it. For a DBA student, these two are inseparable from learning. For a Savarna student, these two are burdens.
At the writing workshop for Dalit women at AIDMAM (All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, Delhi), they have taught me more than I have taught them. And when I talk to them about writing, I feel like I have come home. They sit like sponges in front of me, absorbing every little thing I am telling them — whether they are far away stories of Marquez and Etgar Keret, or someone close to us like our own Gogu Shyamala or Ambedkar. It feels like magic — that I speak to them in my broken Bollywood Hindi and they catch my words fiercely with open arms and full of love.
The women here are much older than I am. Their stories have the power to rock your insides. Despite this, and the years of experience they have had — they are still able to trust me. In this room, we are all untouchables of a different kind... we are superheroes from Marvel. There is no suspicion or manipulation in this classroom. They want to learn and I want to learn. No smirks, no hisses. Just that feeling of total aliveness in body and mind.
It’s what we see in Pariyerum’s eyes when he discovers that there are books on law in Tamil. (‘I can now read and teach anyone else also.’)
It’s what we see in Rohith’s words: “I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.”
"I always wanted to be a writer."
When you give hunger food, it will swallow it whole with everything it has. It’s what Rohith Vemula would have done if he had the time, the space, and the energy that millions of spoilt Savarna kids have.
I never thought I’d say this but over the last couple of weeks, after having seen what people with caste privilege do — I am glad I am not Savarna.
To be Savarna is to believe that you are doing the world a favour when you write, that without your noble contribution, plenty of subaltern lives and minds would be empty. It is to be pissed off when you are told, “Please don’t teach us how to do our jobs, thanks very much but we can manage. We don’t need your revolution”
At this point, it is not entirely unfair to ask the question — is the Savarna student in the classroom more invested in learning or teaching? Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men set out as a way of learning but as many reviews have pointed out, it didn’t want to learn; it wanted to summarise, analyse, explain, preach. “This belief that she is a necessary medium between the speciality of trans-ness and “laypeople” is at the heart of why Invisible Men fails,” as Malur writes in her review.
To be Dalit in urban academia today is to want to learn — from wherever whoever whenever. This learning needn’t be an explosion of the mind; it can be that faint tingle in the back of your neck that you feel when you read something great. It’s believing that you have been given the world when someone shows you a way to write, a way to live.
It’s what I felt when I discovered that it’s not too late to learn how to read and write, that generations of DBA writers had taught themselves to read, to write and when they did — they all wrote powerfully.
Does this mean that no Savarna student is capable of learning? No. Does this mean that they shouldn’t be ambitious and ask for more? No. It is not privilege to ask for more, it is privilege to assume that what is being offered to you is useless. You are not casteist for not liking a DBA teacher.
But I am curious — when you are perfectly willing and capable of ignoring the load of incompetent Savarna teachers everywhere, if their incompetence does not bother you, then why does mine bother you? Is it because when I teach, write, laugh, fart, and live, you feel as though I have taken something of yours and your father’s?
Editor's note: This article has been amended to remove a phrase that might have been construed as a personal attack.
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