the post below was written for Insight Blog, wrote it in between grant proposals and a dozen deadlines at work, the editor of Insight was busy organizing a meeting, so it went out without any editing. let me be very clear, i am aware no amount of cyber scribbling is going to change the trauma the Chitralekhas of the dalitbahujan world are subjected to, day in and out. they battle it out alone. they are the warriors.
me and a hundred other dalit women writing, subverting/ inversing logic is not going to make much difference to their battles. but if i could shut up some online ‘concerned citizens’ for a few darned minutes, it would be good for my soul. i pray and work for the day when all the dalitbahujan Chitralekhas can write their own story.
Chitralekha a perceptual divide
Some years back, Chitralekha, a young dalit woman, took a loan to buy an autorickshaw, and began her livelihood as an auto driver in her hometown Payyanur, Kerala.
The trade union organization (CITU) in Payyanur reacted to this with hostility. The history of her struggle with the organization isrecorded here in the archives of the insight magazine.
Chitralekha has ventured into this profession as a woman and a dalit: two non-collapsible identities of otherness. But together it catapults her into an unlit hazard prone road, with directed violence coming at her in unexpected turns and curves. Her auto was burnt down in 2005. A nascent support system rallied around her then, and she was back at work. Last fortnight she was subjected to police violence at the behest of the CITU.
The only remark I would like to make on this fresh incident and the reactions from civil society is: the organization’s current strategy is ensuring no support system springs around her, this time. It is definitely a far more complex campaign than lighting a match to her vehicle.
In this post, I have no wish to debate the details of the case or repeat the rapidly spinning tales around Chitralekha. As I find it deeply offensive and denigrating to all my intersecting identities with Chitralekha -dalit, working woman, wife and mother. Instead, I would like to use parallel anecdotes from the lives of Ruby Bridges, Savitribai Phule, Barbara McClintock and Chitralehka to frame these questions: How are pioneers perceived? And whom does a pioneer facilitate?
The word pioneer has these synonyms: colonist, colonizer, developer, explorer, founder, frontier, settler, guide, homesteader, immigrant, innovator, leader, pathfinder, pilgrim, scout, settler, squatter, and trailblazer. The term’s origin is French and was used to describe foot soldiers that went ahead of the army to dig trenches. Pioneers then were of low status. They took the burnt of brutalities in unknown territories.
Last month, New York State Museum in Albany, had featured a fascinating theme in the painting and photo exhibits section. It was titled: Through the eyes of others! On display were a selection of paintings and photographs of early American life, by European and White American artists.
The physical marginalization of Blacks in each composition, seen visually spoke more eloquently on racism and its manifestations than any thesis. The curator had also interjected a wall into this exhibit, and it contained paintings and photos of Blacks, by Black artists. The perceptual contrast presented here, held me mesmerized, and I had to force myself to respond to my son’s hushed but excited voice saying ‘amma look, that is Ruby Bridges’.
He was racing to view an image he recognized from his school lesson. The Norman Rockwell painting below is of the little girl chosen to be a test for the Brown VS Board of education ruling. It is a stunning rendering of the ‘other’ venturing into a rightful but hostile territory.
While my eyes focused on the terrible isolation around an innocent child with schoolbooks, being escorted by tall faceless marshals, my son was pointing to the artist’s capture of the violence directed against this tiny pioneer -a single splattered tomato against the wall. He said ‘grownups threw tomatoes and yelled mean stuff to her, every single day.’ He was recalling and connecting the dots of what he had learnt about this pioneering moment in history.
Back then; the prying open of mighty iron doors had rested on the shoulders of a six-year old girl! Could a child, the most defenseless and vulnerable of ‘others’ in a world run by adults, be a pioneer all by herself? Who became her support system?
Her white teacher had continued teaching her like the classroom was full, ignoring the absence of other students pulled out by parents resisting this move. The state provided her protection, Ruby’s parents and the school did not cave in, and some other parents continued sending their children to the school, unfazed by dominant public opinion. These adults became the few, yet strong crowbars that helped keep the door ajar, while the child Ruby could occupy that space, thus claiming it for all Black children.
A few years back, I did my postdoc in a well-known genetics department, and soon received some oral history of one legendary predecessor and ex-alum, Barbara McClintock, Nobel laureate in physiology 1983. Though her work as a student and researcher was highly regarded, no tenure track position was forthcoming, not even from this department where she had spent a significant amount of time conducting complex experiments.
One reason being -the department was all male and there was no precedence of having a female faculty. She headed to another lab and later received her Nobel from there. So there! We could leave this story as one institute losing out to another, its moment in history, for management reasons of yesteryears. However, the department learnt from its colossal mistake and started to evolve as an equitable work place, attracting and retaining female researchers in impressive numbers, since then.
Although she claimed and could not occupy a space, she was the trigger for the transformative change. Despite leaving a vacuum, can we call her a pioneer? I do. In this case, I find the origin of the word, foot soldier, more suitable. She was richly rewarded from elsewhere, but here, she dug the trenches for the rest of us. When I say, rest of us, I mean a small group of women who want to specialize in the fields that this particular department offered. She was not a foot soldier or pioneer, for the math or history or economics department, or brick-making factory, somebody else did that, and may not have had such a quick and powerful impact, on changing the organizations attitudes.
The above anecdote makes me slice up organizations into before and after phases; for such a pioneer as the ‘first other’ exists in many professions, as there are very few that are truly democratic from the start. Sometimes these phases don’t help much to understand the peculiar and often violent resistance that some women face at their work place. Usually happens when the woman is also gay, or an unwed mother, colored or physically challenged, sometimes a combination of all these ‘others’.
The organization appears to develop strange new weapons forcing an unequipped person to spend extraordinary amount of energy just focused on remaining uninjured. Whereas she was there to do a job, earn a livelihood, she never went there to do battle, either attitudinal or physical. Here, the path cleared by the earlier pathfinders becomes obstructed anew. This makes us look more carefully at representative numbers of organizations before calling them equitable, as single or few pioneers rarely facilitate the spectrum of all the ‘others’.
In the year 1848, the first woman teacher of India, Savitribai Phule began demolishing the millennia old ban on education for Indian women and dalitbahujan, by opening a school for girls and lower castes. This revolutionary move was greeted with verbal abuses and hurling of filthy objects on her person by upper caste people, everyday, as she walked to school. Today’s taken for granted freedom to own space in education, and its consequences by modern Indian women, goes back to this single woman’s unrelenting walk, to teach, in an abusive atmosphere, two centuries ago.
Having paved the way and changing forever how Indian women and the masses access education, one expects such a pioneer to be imprinted on the cultural consciousness of this nation. Strangely, she is not. Any Indian, woman, man or child can easily image Sita or Kasturba, but not Savitribai, as her legacy is not mediated either by popular media or by academic culture.
The mainstream women’s movements in India –one of the direct beneficiaries of this pioneer, don’t fight to keep her memory vibrant. They appear to lend a tacit and silent support to the process of making her invisible, effectively marginalizing her from the rightful place as a preeminent leader of women’s and human rights movement. Does this have to do with Savitribai Phule’s ‘otherness’ of being from a lower caste?
In contrast, the dalitbahujan and their movements have kept her persona alive in their collective memory and writings. Here, I would like to go back to the theme of the photo exhibit ‘through the eyes of others’, which had visually highlighted the perceptual difference of the same elements by different peoples. When spectacular pioneering events come from the marginalized communities, even as the majority benefit from the breaking of barriers to newer horizons, they, with great dexterity work towards erasing the memory of that pioneer event.
The dalitbahujan recall Savitribhai Phule, as a woman of phenomenal courage, who opened up possibilities for the masses of a huge country like India, and in the context of this post, the only word that comes close, is trailblazer. The perceptual divide between the mainstream and the dalitbahujan, of this pioneer woman leader is simply astounding, why is it so?
Perhaps, giving prominence to inspirational events and figures from the downtrodden would mean acknowledging them as a people, in possession of capacities and potential to displace the prevailing hegemony, and move towards an utopian world. The perpetuation of such historic memories perturb their notions of the marginalized people as infinitely exploitable, detestable or as sympathy deserving masses.
Amnesia comes in handy, and mass memory propagating tools being in their control, the majority finds it easy to deal with such uncomfortable memories. It even spares the ‘liberal’ among the majority from self-examination, and keeps the ‘other’ in a state of not becoming too familiar with their own power.
Some memories however, refuse to die down; the oppressed appear to posses an obstinate means of memory retention, which is kept percolating among themselves, long after the majority believes it is has done a neat job of suppressing history.
If one looked for commonality in the many kinds of pioneers that we see in our daily lives, it would be the opening up of new possibilities. The other common experience is loneliness. Since they are the first among their own kind to take on the establishment, support systems are not easy to come by.
In a personal communication, a dalit activist wrote ‘we have to ask Chitralekha if she would like to be relocated to a city, she has been fighting beasts for so long, she needs some peace’. This was from someone who I know understands the emotional and other costs of relocation.
This suggestion was to me poignant and reminiscent of how Ruby Bridges’ parents must’ve felt, when their child was being shown, a doll in a coffin, as her fate, if she continued going to the white school. The urge to bundle their child within their protective arms and shield her from the vileness of society must have been overwhelming for them.
Right now at Payyanur, a glimpse of the various processes set in motion to stop Chitralehka’s continued challenge to the establishment can be observed. The most fascinating one is the attempt to localize the story, and arrest its possible spread to a wider audience.
The dual purpose of this is evident -isolate her and break her spirit, and simultaneously prevent it from reaching the popular imagination of the dalitbahujan world. A world that is replete with pioneers, all of them breaking barriers in the multitudes of upper caste, male dominated professions, all poised to open possibilities for others, like themselves.
Hence, Chitralekha appears as a visible attack on the well-fed and muscled system. An act that can inspire all other Chitralekha’s across the length and breadth of this country. Therefore her true story has to be contained. The memory of her challenge to hegemony has to be erased, rapidly, at ground zero!
Well, it would seem like this has succeeded at present: as she stands alone, isolated even from her colleagues and local dalits. But this lady here, has overcome a crucial unseen barrier, her story is on its way to become embedded, she is already in the imagination of distantly located dalit men and women, and as I’d earlier said, the dalitbahujan are obstinate rememberers!
At this point, nobody knows whether Chitralekha will fall into the trench, get a sustained support system, walk away, or emerge as a trailblazer. Chitralekha’s courage to keep fighting the prolonged abusive working atmosphere, without giving in, is typical of most pioneers.
This characteristic, subjects her to ever diminishing value of her personhood, from the organization’s and its ecosystem’s point of view. They are blinded by perceptions of her as an easy victim, whom they have impounded within several layers of impenetrable isolation.
So intoxicated is modern India’s civil society in its comfort zone of seeing her as a devalued human, it remains immune to the existence of opposing perceptions of her. With each torment and her resistance to it, she emerges as a bigger hero for the dalits, and she evolves into an inspirational story for the dalitbahujan.
Lastly, no less than 45% of women in contemporary India are yet to reach literacy levels; to aspire and gain access to education based careers and jobs. Chitralekha as a pioneer in the informal sector of public commute; facilitates by example and grit, the livelihood possibility, for this large number of Indian women.
And a significant number of them are dalitbahujan, in the history of dalitbahujan women’s movement, Chitralekha occupies the space and power that encapsulates the spirit of all the different kinds of pioneers illustrated here.
Image courtesy from here.