Her mother, Shashi, was so determined to protect her three children from the discrimination of the Hindu caste system that relegates Dalits to the periphery of society that she pretended the family were Brahmin.
Shashi worked hard to find the money throw birthday parties, have curtains on the windows, and to follow traditional rituals correctly. But for the children it meant that one wrong word or gesture while playing with friends or buying sweets from a shopkeeper could expose the lie.
It was only after she had grown up, that Dutt, a writer and journalist, began to understand the trauma of her childhood. When she began therapy in New Delhi six years ago, she simply asked her analyst: “Help me to live.”
“I was always second-guessing myself, wondering if I had said the right thing, asking myself ‘would upper caste people with happier childhoods have said it better or done it differently?’ I had so much doubt from feeling like an imposter,” she says.
Dutt recounts the story in her book, Coming Out as Dalit.It tells of her mother’s ambition to overcome poverty and give her children an education, without support and with an alcoholic husband. Dutt went to boarding school and then studied at St Stephen’s, perhaps the most prestigious university in India. She worked as a journalist in New Delhi and pursued a master’s at Columbia University in New York, where she now lives and works for an advertising agency.
In the US Dutt, 34, discovered a parallel with her own experience. She heard some lighter-skinned African Americans talk of how they used to “pass” as white, assuming certain habits, tastes, language and mannerisms, just as her mother had mimicked those of upper caste Hindus.
As part of her book tour, Dutt was back in India appearing at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month; when the Guardian met her in a New Delhi cafe, she cut a striking figure with her wavy hair, black leather jacket and hands flashing with chunky rings.
Guilt entered her soul early and settled into sediment, she says. First it was guilt at her mother educating her when she could not afford it. Then it was guilt at having survived and enjoyed opportunities for education that so many in her community had never had and never would.
Her parents, though poor, were educated and lived in a city (Ajmer in Rajasthan) rather than a village and that allowed the family to conceal its caste in a way that is impossible for the majority of India’s approximately 200 million Dalits who live in rural areas.
Conversely, Dutt is concerned about the absence of guilt among upper caste Indians. While some white people joined the civil rights moment in the US or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the upper castes are nowhere to be seen in the Dalit struggle against discrimination, she says.
“On the contrary,” she says, “there isn’t even the same kind of open discourse here of the kind you have in the US about racism, white supremacy, which is all mainstream. Instead of acknowledging discrimination, upper caste Indians, instead of taking responsibility, have deluded themselves into thinking they are already living in a ‘post-caste’ society.”
She marks parallels with America in the wilful “innocence” that James Baldwin wrote of in that white Americans failed to understand what they had done to African Americans and that the race “problem” was “their” problem.
At Columbia, she was astounded to find black, Hispanic and gay classmates openly sharing their stories of discrimination without feeling any need to hide. Their accounts did not lead to the kind of social isolation she used to fear, but rather elicited sympathy from fellow students.
Even Dutt’s moments of triumph as a young girl, she says, were accompanied by self-flagellation. After much imploring by Shashi, she was finally accepted by Mussoorie Public School where her mother hoped she would pick up all the remaining social markers of upper caste culture from the other girls that she would need throughout her life to blend in.
Dutt came top of her class. “I felt nothing. To my mind, if someone like me could score so well, then this school couldn’t be all that great,” she says.
Caste haunted Dutt, who choose to work as a fashion journalist in India, eschewing politics for fear that in writing a story or expressing an opinion she might reveal her caste. The fear of being “outed” was a permanent cloud. “If people knew, would they even sit next to me?”
It was not until 2016, in New York, that Dutt felt able to “come out”. That year, suicide of a Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, at Hyderabad University, was a huge story in India. His last letter began: “My birth is my fatal accident.”
“Unlike me, Rohith did nothing to bury his Dalitness. Instead, he used it to … stand up for Dalit students at Hyderabad University,” she writes in her book. His pride and courage despite enjoying none of her advantages prompted Dutt to write a Facebook post announcing her real caste. Vemula’s death, she wrote, “made me realise that my history is one of oppression, not shame”.
The reaction from colleagues, friends, and acquaintances ranged from shock and dismay to support and praise. “Oh, you don’t look like a Dalit,” was one particularly inane remark.
Dutt’s book is part of a wave of Dalit literature, art, music and experiences finally coming to the fore in India. Dalit film directors are making films on caste. Dalit Twitter is a vibrant platform. Social media generally has become a powerful forum for sharing experiences and presenting a counter perspective to social phenomena.
Dutt feels she is now a “whole person”, at home in her own skin. “I have nothing to hide,” she says.
Whether her mother was right in her decision to conceal her children’s caste is a question that Dutt says she still does not have sufficient objective distance from.
“Right now, I believe it was the right choice. She was trying to protect us and give us a good education,” she says, adding, “in any case, parents always fuck up their children in one way or another, don’t they?”