Yashica Dutt on her decision to come out as Dalit: 'The truth was out, I didn’t feel the need to hide'
Journalist Yashica Dutt speaks about writing Coming Out As Dalit, the weight of pretending to be upper caste, and the pain that accompanies revisiting old memories
Yashica Dutt’s life would never be the same after 20 January, 2016. Not only because she had posted a note titled ‘Today, I’m Coming Out As Dalit’ on her Facebook account, but also because she no longer felt the need to hide. In the post, she detailed how often she had lied about her caste to people who had enquired; “a lie I spoke so often and with such conviction, that I not only fooled my friends’ mothers but even myself…” She spoke of shame, of the fear of being caught – and of the strength she had derived from Rohith Vemula’s story.
For the first time, she felt free and liberated. She was finally leaning into herself. “The truth was out. I didn’t feel the need the hide, or to escape out of my non-Dalit identity,” she says.
A few months later, she would begin to document her act of declaring her caste and her life’s story for a book titled Coming Out As Dalit. It’s a story that Dalits see themselves in and associate with, and one that savarna people find opens their eyes.
Born in Ajmer into a Dalit family, journalist Yashica Dutt spent three decades of her life pretending to be upper caste to escape the rejection and shame that accompanies a lower caste status. In her book she details the change in surname her family adopted, the convent school she was sent to, the birthday parties she was thrown – all attempts to hide the family’s Dalit-ness.
The sheer physical, emotional and financial investments the family – and especially her mother – put into this effect is evident. “Hiding your identity becomes part of who you are. You internalise it,” she says. Another consequence of this, she writes, is that you feel like you belong nowhere. This feeling characterised her time at St Stephen’s in Delhi, where she got a Bachelor’s degree in Science.
Her Facebook post marked the first time she was speaking about her identity on a social media platform, open to the public. Before, she had spoken about her experience in a feminist theory class at Columbia University, which was a sensitive, non-judgmental space. The biggest shift in her self occurred at an event held to commemorate Ambedkar in the United States. “I met other Dalits. That affected me – I realised that I could be proud of my identity, that we are made to feel shame if we achieve success or take pride in ourselves,” she says.
The response she received to her coming-out in India has been almost entirely positive. “People said they were proud of me. Some sent me letters detailing the same experience in their own lives… Controlling your narrative is a powerful thing. Perhaps this book shows how we can convincingly put our case forward,” she says.
Her story, and by extension her book, has helped savarna people understand how caste dynamics play out in society. She says many people weren’t even aware that the practice of hiding one’s caste exists. “Most people also didn’t realise that there was such a big gap between castes. It makes them talk, look inward, and observe how society treats different castes differently. I am glad I have both audiences,” Yashica says.
Writing the book was a daunting task for her, especially because she had never written one before. She chuckles about how she had to look up basic books – ‘Book Writing for Dummies’. “I didn’t think I had anything to write about until I began documenting my story. I wrote Coming Out As Dalit four times [four versions] in three years. Sitting in one place takes discipline. It was a challenging task and financially unviable.”
Part of the challenge was revisiting and confronting old memories, which Yashica describes as haunting. Does narrating stories from that difficult period in her life get easier (or less unsettling), now that she has written a book and given several interviews on the subject? “I don’t know if it gets easier... Therapy has been effective for me. Writing has also helped me greatly; when you deal with something like this on paper, it can be effective,” she says.
Conversations like the one I had with her for this interview are easier, but speaking about specific incidents requires her to brace herself. “Caste can deeply impact mental health, it can lower your sense of confidence and affect how you see yourself,” Yashica explains.
Coming Out As Dalit consists of two narratives that come together seamlessly: that of her own life, and meditations on the evolution of the caste movement in India. The latter is the result of comprehensive research, starting from the origins of caste to more recent events such as the protests that erupted in the University of Hyderabad following Rohith Vemula’s death. “A personal story is made gripping and impactful by context. I wanted to give a background of what lower caste people go through, to reflect on the narrative of caste so far and present the idea that caste impacts everything in society,” Yashica explains.
She asserts that she wanted to ensure that the sections about the caste movement were factually accurate and backed by sources. The choice to take this approach was also driven by her journalistic instincts – to show how one person’s life is connected to the larger narrative in the country.
Accessibility was also a guiding factor. “This is why I wrote it in a way that even a teenager can understand caste after having read it,” she says.
Yashica’s book was preceded by Documents of Dalit Discrimination, a Tumblr blog run by her which features stories about growing up and living as a Dalit, sent in by contributors. In a sense, this blog led to her book, she says. “I didn’t know a lot of platforms where people who were hiding their caste identities could talk… In the beginning, the blog was intended to get people talking. Running it was both difficult and eye-opening. It gave me insight into experiences other than my own… I did what I could to amplify the voices on Documents of Dalit Discrimination.”
I ask her how savarna people should respond when a Dalit comes out to them. While her personal belief is that she should not tell others how to behave, Yashica does feel that upper caste people should try to learn history and understand subjects like reservation. “Individuals hide their caste because they feel they will be rejected. If you want Dalits around you to feel comfortable enough to be themselves, you have to understand how your caste benefits you. Be aware, don’t feel martyred. Ask yourself if you are better than someone else because of your caste. If the answer is yes, then you have to confront the truth that you are not.”
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