Opinion

Dalit Diary

In seventh grade, Maya Pramod was banished to the back benches because of caste. She tells a very personal story here—of her journey from virtual ostracisation to an international award at Brandeis University.

Dalit Diary
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Journey of a Back-Bencher

I made the trip to school for the mid-day lunch. Seeing me sitting on one of the front benches, the seventh grade teacher says, “The back benches are where your people sit”. Taking me by the hand, she leads me there. I had sat in front as I am short and the disease of scoliosis—a very painful, disabling curvature of the spine—made it difficult for me to view the blackboard clearly. That incident sparked several questions in my mind: who ‘your people’ were, if it signified dark-skinned people like me, and whether it should govern my choice of friends. I invited the teacher to my house…if one can hardly call that a ‘house’. Her response was one of extreme embarrassment and discomfort, as if she would be marked out for entering the colony house of a scheduled caste. Her words and attitude made me think. Thus did a seventh-grader, her mind besieged by these perplexities, start climbing the steps of progress over 18 years ago.

A Stone Angel Looks After Me

The Bluestone Rising Scholar prize, to be awarded at Brandeis University near Boston, was officially announced on August 27, 2019 by Vinod Mishra of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in Delhi. I was on a long journey home from college. Four days before that, I was invited to take part in the Ambedkar international conference at The New School in New York. Alas, it included no travel allowance. Yet the selection makes me happy, for it comes after I have been sending papers for seminars to be held in foreign universities for the past three years. Yes, two of them were accepted, but a similar lack of travel allowance meant I could not attend. I didn’t expect the Ambedkar Conference to be like that. I send emails to the New School University, coordinators of the conference, even Dr Mishra. There is no reply. On the way back from college on the 27th, I receive a mail saying, “I need to contact you; please send your number”. When I call Dr Mishra, I expect him to reaffirm the lack of travel allowance, but he asks me if I have a passport. Yes, I do. “I am very proud to say that Bluestone has announced their ‘Rising Scholar’ for this year and that the winner is from Kerala,” he says. As it transpires, I am the awardee. It is the motivation I need halfway along a road filled with isolation, frustration and academic pressure. In September, I go to Chennai for the visa interview.  I receive it in Ernakulam on October 5.

American Pastoral

The long, 16-hour flight from Doha to Logan Airport, Boston, increased my endemic back pain. During the check-in, Vivek’s and my luggage is opened and checked; the reason is a problem with our ‘body language’. Later, when we give them the award letter, the behaviour softens and best wishes are conveyed. The colour of our pelt often colours ways of seeing us and perceiving our ‘body language’. The Brandeis University campus is magnificently picturesque. We are shown to our rooms. After dinner at the cafeteria, I am given the next day’s award programme schedule. 

On Top of the World

At the award function in the evening, I am the centre of the world for the first time in my life. On the podium, with the Bluestone prize in my hands, I recall the words of my teacher all those years ago. I receive the award from Sukhadeo Thorat. In my speech, I speak about the Dalit woman’s plight, and of homeless women and families in Kerala. I say that my childhood experiences and caste have determined the course of my life.

Does the public know that 79 per cent of Dalits and adivasis in Kerala live in horribly cramped colonies?  I was born in one, and survived to tell the tale in a global forum. Can they imagine what life was like there? For that one needs to have a deeper understanding of the land-power relationship in Kerala. That would reveal how Dalits/adivasis and other backward classes are excluded from mainstream society. I lived in the Perunna Naalpaathi colony in Chengassery until the age of ten and later in a nearby hut. During childhood, we crossed the rail overbridge to go to school in Ashatiamma. The pain of a constricted, deprived life was underscored by the discombobulating shriek of trains. Till the eighth standard, our school had no electricity; only the prospect of mid-day meals made us go there. Meals we had to eat on the back benches, amongst ‘our people’. 

Maya Pramod is a Kerala-based Dalit scholar

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