We Need to Talk about Caste: Roanna Gonsalves Interviews S Anand

By | 1 August 2016

RG: Your responses could be seen as hollow defenses.

SA: On the contrary, many of my friends, some of them Dalits too, believe what they see as my ‘defensive’ response to – even my guarded appreciation of – the criticism from some quarters as totally uncalled for. This criticism is historically and ethically necessary even while it is personally bruising. Equally, I have lost personal friends to the other side – those who have crossed over, saying they now realise how Navayana is such an evil brahmanical enterprise. The poem I mentioned, or the piece I wrote on the death of Rohith Vemula, or my calling Navayana a necessary historical mistake – none of this is going to redeem me in their eyes, I’ve been told. A non-Dalit friend even said, ‘You sound more like a Round Table India caricature than the Anand I know. Worse, your sense of personal guilt for being born a brahman comes across as self-indulgent.’ In effect, I have been asked whose side I am on now. Whatever I do or say, even if I mock myself like no one can, ‘they’ are going to mock me, I’ve been told.

But I’d ask everyone to consider what my fellow-traveller and scholar Soumyabrata Chaudhury draws attention to, by turning to none other than Ambedkar: that the habit of not feeling grateful must be practised. Speaking of Gandhi and his shenanigans with the Harijan Sevak Sangh, Ambedkar says in his book, What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables: ‘Untouchables having become independent will cease to be grateful to the Hindus.’ We must take this out of context and treat this as an axiom. Now, I could cry myself hoarse that Navayana is not in the least a Gandhian or brahmanical enterprise, but there’s a larger lesson we must draw from Ambedkar here.

Howsoever I fashion myself as a radical Ambedkarite, the Dalits have the right to reject me outright, even if my birth should be cited as the primal cause. Are they practising casteism? No. If a Kabir teaches us to love, Namdeo teaches us to both curse and love. For the first time, we have a historical reversal, of a Dalit-led group boycotting a brahman-made (if not brahmanical) ‘product’. Dalits who have always been at the receiving end of social boycotts have decided to politically boycott something and someone with a ‘no-thanks’, even a ‘fuck off’. Now we can endlessly debate whether this is just, and if there are not better recipients of such a boycott call than Navayana /Anand / Roy etc. Soumyabrata, or Shomo as we call him, says: ‘I will call this the project of a new conduct of defaulting rather than induction into the old brahmanical habit of ‘being-in-debt’.’ And so I have come to not expect any gratitude from anyone for the historical debt I owe to the caste society I am born into. Such a debt can be waived perhaps only when axiomatic equality establishes itself at the practical level: in other words when caste disappears or is completely annihilated, a realm where no one would have to be grateful to anyone. But then, that realm of truth and reconciliation, that moment of enlightenment, is not even on the horizon.

RG: Who is allowed to tell Dalit stories? I suppose what I’m really asking, the concern woven into this seemingly simplistic question, is how does one negotiate the need to illuminate for an Indian as well as an international audience, the shocking brutality that Dalit communities face today, while at the same time holding a sense of reverence for and insistence that their stories to be heard in their own voices?

SA: For ages non-Dalits have written about Dalits. This is not Dalit literature. Premchand, Rohinton Mistry or Arundhati Roy and Uday Prakash may feature Dalit protagonists or characters but they can have no understanding of being Dalit. Both imagination and empathy have their limitations when our social worlds do not even overlap. There are some who say, well then what’s stopping a Dalit from writing the big novel? Now, the novel – which the market loves – is not exactly the form Dalits have to excel in. They have a rich legacy of music and poetry, and theatre. The best poets of India in all languages have been from shudra and Dalit background. When performance art was looked down upon by the brahmanical classes, Dalits excelled in it for centuries though they lacked recognition and never had capital.

While academics could continue to profit from debating ‘representational politics’, and lived experience being the lack of freedom in experiences in the context of Dalits, there is also a serious lack of initiatives that productively broaden the conversation like Navayana has tried to do by publishing the translations of Gogu Shyamala, Premanand Gajvee, or Ajay Navaria. How else would Teju Cole, a Nigerian in New York, find something in common with Navaria, a Dalit in Delhi, and say ‘the reader emerges from the pages of this fierce book wiser’? At the risk of being kind to Navayana, if we look beyond the appropriation debate, which (though not without importance) is momentary, rhetorical and concerned with defining itself as against other quarters, Navayana has also been about building something up. It is an ongoing task to define what Navayana is, and in a way that disturbs some quarters.

Years ago, Ravikumar encouraged me to license rights for unaffordable books on philosophy and political theory and publish them for the Indian market at prices individuals and students could afford at. That is how Navayana came to publish a Žižek or Foucault, for Ravi believed you cannot fight caste in isolation – in and for itself. For me publishing Saidiya Hartman’s deeply affecting memoir, Lose Your Mother, where she shows us how the ghosts of slavery still haunt the present, was important too, for it would otherwise remain inaccessible to a lot of readers here. This is what led me to invite an icon like Angela Davis over to India to give lectures when I also published some of her new work like Are Prisons Obsolete? I think getting both Žižek and Davis to read Ambedkar (and thus engage with caste) is important. Getting Ali Cobby Eckermann to reckon with caste is as important as getting even a few Indians to know writers like her or Alexis Wright. Today, April as Dalit History Month has come to be celebrated globally – but truth be told it was Ravikumar who suggested the idea in 2003, inspired by Black History Month in the US. So somewhere along the way, Navayana keeps finding a way.

That said, how an issue is perceived to be ‘international’ today is a different matter. Even anti-capitalist causes – and those who champion anti-capitalist causes – have to be ‘packaged’ and ‘sold’ well. People have to become brands. This is why international campaigns like Dalit Lives Matter and the efforts to mobilise blacks in the US to stand together with Dalits have made headway. There’s too much emphasis today on social media and I feel this is important for short-term gains but it cannot be everything. If the Dalits feel happy about forming an international community that is connected, well then just look around. Brahmans of all kind, the marathas, the jats, all jatis have their own social media presence and WhatsApp groups where there’s much gloating and self-congratulation.

As Dalits get more organised against caste, so do the others in the opposite direction, to assert their jati identity. While the Dalits are using social media, and whatever means, to fight caste the others are using the same media to keep caste intact, even for finding matrimonial matches. But surely, we are not going to find among casteist groups such smart and wonderful campaigns as say https://www.facebook.com/justsavarnathings/, a Round Table initiative which is cracking and superbly curated.

Today, as I write this, we have news that a Dalit woman topped the civil service exams in India. Nagraj Manjule, a Dalit filmmaker is making world-class films. He says bluntly, ‘Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t.’ Manjule is wowing audiences in rural Maharashtra and Berlin at the same time. Sairat is the work of a genius who can combine powerful aesthetics with politics and mass appeal – like Kabir did. Never can Anurag Kashyap or Dibakar Banerjee make such a film; neither Ritwik Ghatak nor the overrated Satyajit Ray could make such films. The day may not be far when a Dalit from India wins the Booker – but should that be the goal? I’m not so sure. The everyday brutalities are also on the rise – they have always been there but they are being better reported now. If a Durban conference happens again, it will be very tough for the Indian state and its lackey intellectuals to win the day. We are set for very interesting times.

RG: In your view, what are the affinities and resonances shared by Dalit communities in India and Indigenous communities in Australia, and how might they draw solidarity and strength from their shared struggles?

SA: The Dalits as well as Adivasis of India share affinities with the Indigenous communities of Australia. Besides the struggle for entitlements, there’s much in common – in art, myths, songs, stories. It is in politics that India could learn from Australia, which at least has a Sorry Day since 1998, however tokenistic. There are serious state-led efforts at conscientisation towards indigenous Australians even if it seems to uphold a ‘multiculturalism’ logic. Indigenous art today has pride of place in a place like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, though we must remind ourselves that such institutes count among their patrons mining companies that devastate the traditional lands of the aboriginal people. But in India, the director of the National Gallery of Modern Art openly says they can’t host any Adivasi art there. He says: ‘The NGMA is for modern and contemporary art. There is the Crafts Museum to cater to Adivasi and tribal art.’ Forget saying sorry, most Indians do not even realise or feel for the horrors they are complicit in. You know what’s called Australia Day by the whites and Invasion Day by the aboriginals, 26 January, happens to be the day celebrated as Republic Day in India.

What I really feel is that all of us should feel kindred with the Adivasis and Indigenous people – they are the first people, and we all came from them. I realised this when I worked over four years with Venkat Raman Singh Shyam, a powerful Adivasi artist from Central India. Together, we produced the beautiful book called Finding My Way.

RG: The poem you wrote for Lionel and Ali, The Sydney Opera, links the earth and the sky to an aboriginality that is inclusive of white people too. The last line is optimistic, an invitation to ’to see that the stars are not all dead’, an exhortation to partake of the flesh of your flesh, what is most sacred to you, your mother’s heart. The last word ‘Come:’ leaves the poem open-armed and open-ended as the sky. What is it that you want them see ‘on a walk to country’?

SA: I don’t know what I want them to see, really. Who am I to tell? I really would like to be on that walk to country with say Lionel or Ali, and see what they want me to see. Or we could just read their poetry—incidentally, ‘Give Me Back My Mother’s Heart’ was the title of the poetry session led by Ali and Lionel at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year. But no one can teach you how to see. They can show, yes, but it is you who has got to see. Seeing is labour. This does not mean you and I can see like Ali, Lionel or Richard Green. I remember these lines from Whitman’s ‘Songs of Myself’:

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

It is the poet’s job to tell us this, and ours is to listen. And if you listen, and get it, you will stop saying that you know the meaning of a poem. When I was in Sydney, I did not get the opportunity to go see country. The line you refer to, ‘I want to take you on a walk to country’ comes from Richard Green reading this poem in Dharuk language, along with a parallel English translation, and I was very moved by it. I remember sitting late into the night in my hotel room and transcribing it too. My poem picks up where Green leaves his. I listened to it again now to frame an answer to your question, and frankly I could only try to hold back tears. It ends with the words, ‘Let’s walk’. After all that has happened, the Aboriginal is saying, let’s walk together. It is one thing for the white man – or the brahman – to seek forgiveness, say sorry personally and formally, a politically necessary act (something the brahman never of course does). But it is quite another for an Aboriginal to forgive, and still say, Come, let’s walk together. It is an act that places me, us, in eternal debt, and it is also a beautiful burden of expectation. It is an expression of supreme, profound and absolute grace, an act of love that engulfs us all and keeps us human and universal. When we reach this place, when the one asking for forgiveness and the one who forgives are both true to themselves and to each other, where there’s no place for any hierarchy, we should be standing at the gates of Beghampura, the City Without Sorrow, shouldn’t we? I think we should all reach this place at least with a few people in our lives. Annihilation of caste shouldn’t be just a dream, a utopia. It is a place where we must all go before we die – even if it means chasing the horizon.

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