‘We are not Dalits 24 hours a day’

Ajay Navaria began his academic career teaching Hindu religious scripture and ethics. This doesn’t sound particularly remarkable — not until placed next to the fact that his grandfather would have probably paid for it with his life had he harboured such ambitions. An associate professor of Hindi Literature at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, 46-year-old Navaria’s published works include two collections of Hindi short stories, Patkatha aur Anya Kahaniya (2006) and Yes Sir (2012), and a novel, Udhar ke Log (2008).

He shot to international fame after Unclaimed Terrain, an anthology of his stories in English translation, came out in 2013. Characterised by an easy idiom and a sharp political imagination, the collection quickly established him as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Dalit literature. In a freewheeling interview, he spoke candidly on a range of topics, including why “one doesn’t have to be a Dalit 24 by 7.” Excerpts: (translated from Hindi by the interviewer)

Would it be fair to say that not all Dalits are happy with your stories?

In 1990, when the Mandal agitation was on, I donated blood to people protesting against reservations. My fellow Dalits were not happy. I was asked why I was doing it. I told them reservation is one issue, but if even one student dies, that would be unacceptable. I told them they too should donate blood. When I am writing, it is never a case of ‘bad savarnas and good Dalits’. For me, the characters are always grey, whether Brahmins or Dalits. From my first story onwards, I have not been able to write in black and white, and that is perhaps one reason why some sections of Dalits have problems with my writing.

What exactly is their problem?

People have accused me of corrupting Ambedkarite politics with Marx. But today, those very people are beginning to realise that they cannot do without Marx.

When I see the kind of casteism around me, it isn’t only Dalits versus savarnas, it is also Dalit versus Dalit. When I highlight this aspect in my work, as I do in my novel Udhar ke Log, I get a lot of abuse. I have even been called ‘anti-movement’.

How did your journey begin?

I published my first story ‘Kohra’ [Fog] in 1995. It was about a Muslim family. I published two more stories in 1997, and they too were not on Dalit issues. Then I came to JNU for my M.Phil. and Ph.D., and it was there that I began to read Dalit literature. I began with Mohandas Naimish Rai and Om Prakash Valmiki, and then the Marathi writers, and I developed a new perspective. I realised that I had experienced caste discrimination but hadn’t developed the political awareness to recognise it for what it was.

How can a Dalit experience casteism and not recognise it as such?

I grew up in Delhi, so I didn’t suffer the kind of atrocities seen in rural areas. Besides, we lived in an area where there were only Dalit families. So I didn’t experience untouchability as such. But I’ll give you an example. When I was 20, I went to a village in Rajasthan for a wedding. It was a hot day, and we danced a lot. I got thirsty. I saw a woman standing outside her house. As the baraatmoved ahead, I stopped and asked her for some water. She went in and came back with a glass, but before handing it to me, she asked if I was part of the baraat. When I said yes, she abruptly said, “I can’t give you water.” I was puzzled.When I caught up with my friend, I said to him, “What a weird woman! She wouldn’t give me water because I was part of a baraat!” Even when my friends told me that she was a Rajput, it didn’t ring a bell. It didn’t strike me that she had behaved this way with me only because she knew it was a Dalit wedding; that I must be a Dalit too.

What does writing mean to you? Is it just a means to a political end?

Firstly, writing fiction gives me immense pleasure. But for me, writing is also a social responsibility, a tool to raise the political awareness of my community. That’s why writing on Dalit themes is central to my work. I also write to dispel this myth that Dalit writing is somehow wanting in craftsmanship — I work hard to ensure that my stories lack nothing in terms of craft.

Perhaps the most widely discussed story from your English anthology is ‘New Custom’. How did you get the idea for it?

Well, it’s a true story. And it has happened twice in real life. The first time was with my father. Once, in Rajasthan, he stopped at a roadside stall for tea. When he had finished drinking, the vendor asked him to rinse the cup. My father asked why. The vendor said it was the custom. My father said, “I am from Delhi, and I won’t follow the custom.” The vendor then said, “I don’t care whether you are from Delhi or elsewhere. You have to do it.” My father asked him the price of the cup, then smashed it. There were five other people with him. He asked them to also smash their cups. He then paid for the tea and the cups, and told the vendor to buy more because they would return tomorrow and break five more cups.

The funny part is I didn’t know this story until the exact drama played out with me too. More than 20 years later, I too drank tea at this stall and the vendor told me to wash my cup. I decided to break the cup and pay for it instead. When I got home and told my father about it, he told me he had done the same thing years ago. Even today, in Rajasthan’s villages, this form of untouchability is very common.

Are you from Rajasthan?

Yes, I come from a village in Dausa zilla, near Jaipur. My grandfather was a gardener, and my father also started off as a gardener, on daily wages. Later, he got a job in Delhi as a postman. He would do his gardening jobs in the early morning, then go for his postman job during the day, then again do gardening work in the evenings. He would leave at seven in the morning and return around midnight. We children — we are five siblings — didn’t get to spend much time with him.

What sparks a new story for you — a character, a scene, an image?

For me, it is mostly the theme that drives the story. I craft the character from the theme. The most important thing for me is the beginning. It could be a dialogue, or a situation, but it must generate the momentum to hook the reader and keep her reading. The beginning is what gives me the most trouble. Once I have the beginning and the ending figured out, it’s easy to finish the story.

Do we really need a label such as ‘Dalit literature’? Can’t we think of these works simply as literature?

Before the advent of the category ‘Dalit literature’, the literary mainstream was not really talking about caste as a theme, nor was it including those who wanted to focus on caste. So these writers, mostly Dalits, had no option but to start a movement linked to their caste identity. This was how the Dalit Panthers’ writings sparked a movement in Maharashtra. The idea behind ‘Dalit literature’ as a separate category is simple: it is about Dalit writers trying to break the hegemony of the upper castes over the literary mainstream. They are saying, if you don’t give us entry into your power structure, we will set up a parallel power structure of our own.

Are you sympathetic to any political party?

Opportunism defines India’s politics today. So if you are with a particular political party, you have to keep changing your stand every time the party changes its stand. So I keep away from all political parties. If at all I have any political attachments, you can say I am an Ambedkarite first, and a Marxist second. If there is a political party or movement that combines these two, it will have my support.

Are you excited about the rise of the Bhim Army?

It is too early to make judgements about them, as I am not very clear about their politics. But speaking in general terms, I would say that if an outfit advocates for one particular caste, say, Chamars, then how is it different from a Brahmin’s casteism? One group speaks of Chamar pride, another speaks of Valmiki pride, yet another of Yadav pride, and all of them are presumably battling Brahminism. But what about Dalit communities that don’t have the numbers that these castes do? Will they get any protection? Will you crush them? Or are we heading for a civil war between rival caste groups? I think it is the responsibility of all Dalits fighting the caste system not to fall into this trap.

In ‘Yes Sir’, one of your most popular stories, you have managed to get inside the head of a Brahmin peon serving a Dalit civil servant. Is this from real life?

In real life, I have never seen a Brahmin peon serving a Dalit officer anywhere. But I thought this was a very plausible scenario and therefore needed to be imagined and depicted. I also wanted to explore, for myself, how such a situation might play out. I have interacted with many Dalit IAS officers, but I have never paid attention to the caste of those who served water or tea. In this case, the Brahmin peon is purely a creature of my imagination, and I created him because the theme needed it.

How has translation affected your writing career?

Being translated into English has made a huge difference. If my work had been available only in Hindi, my readership would have been restricted to three or four States in north India. Soon after the English translation of my stories [Unclaimed Terrain] came out, my work went international. My stories are prescribed in Harvard and University of Minnesota, and read in Europe and Australia. Without English translation, I would not have received worldwide acceptance.

What I found refreshing in your depiction of Dalit characters is that they are not necessarily in situations of caste oppression. Their portrayal in non-casteist contexts — there seems to be little of it in the literary mainstream.

I have seen this madness with some people — they want to express their Dalit identity in every situation. Maybe they want to profit from it in some way, I don’t know. For instance, what is the need to reveal one’s caste identity in a gym — that was the theme of my story, ‘Tattoo’. Why can’t Dalits have a normal life too? We are not ‘Dalits’ 24 hours a day.

I don’t understand. Dalit identity is not something that you can switch on or off?

If I am sitting in a garden, I am just sitting in a garden, I am not a Dalit sitting in a garden. It is only when someone makes me conscious of my caste — makes me feel inferior — that my caste identity comes to the fore and I become a Dalit. We are not Dalits all the time. Right now, if you pick up my mobile and put it there, and I were to scream that you did it only because I am a Dalit, hello? You may have put it there for no particular reason! It also doesn’t make sense to connect every single thing that happens to a Dalit, to that person’s caste identity. You have to see if there is caste-based injustice at work before you raise your voice. ‘Tattoo’ is a story where there is no injustice, but it shows how the system creates conditions for caste injustice.

And lastly, a question that has become mandatory for every Dalit intellectual. Your take on reservations?

It is only because of reservations that a Scheduled Caste individual can sit in an institution with her caste identity out in the open. Today, if Ajay Navaria is sitting here in this office, he is sitting here with his caste identity. In a private institution, he may have had to pass himself off as a Brahmin, Bania, Kayasth or some other fake caste identity, with the perpetual fear that his real caste identity doesn’t get revealed by mistake.

Let me tell you a small fable on how caste works in this country. Once there was this party going on at the house of a prosperous civil servant. The host had ordered roasted lamb over phone, and after it was delivered, everyone had it and even praised the dish. A couple of hours later, the host received a phone call. It was from the caterer. After a profuse apology, the caterer informed the host that they had made a mistake in the order, and had delivered him roasted dog instead of roasted lamb. The host was stunned. When he told his guests that the lamb meat they had eaten was actually dog meat, they immediately vomited. Some of the guests had already left. So he messaged them. When they saw the message two hours later, they also vomited. Other guests came to know only two days later, but it made no difference — they also vomited. It is the same with caste. It doesn’t matter how much merit you feed them, and for how long, the moment people come to know you are from one of the ‘untouchable castes’, they immediately eject you and reject you. That is why we need reservations.

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