A couple of years ago, a participant on the Library Educators Course was keen to explore the theme of caste for a focussed field project activity. In discussing the why and why not and the how and when with her and co-mentor Usha Mukunda, I was left with the growing realization that our exploration of the caste system and its multiple dimensions of discrimination and privilege in our lives on every level of existence was unexplored in the space of the library. It was unsettling to think about this.
So many of us in the library community recognize and articulate inclusion in the library. We appear to be cognizant of exclusionary practices and talk about social justice issues with deep passion. Yes, we agree, libraries are for everyone. Of course, we say, collections must be diverse. We ask who is representing whom and how in books. We examine books carefully trying to read between the lines and discern authors’ intentions and find spaces for our own voices. We do diversity audits and we are careful about explicit values and morals written in didactic ways. But, when it comes to facing caste in the library some barriers present themselves. Books on the theme are often cast aside for being too explicit, too complex for children and such. Books that do get used present points of view that reproduce stereotypes and oppression and do not want to confront the issue itself and then there is the way we talk about the issue without naming it at all, finding comfort in broader terms than in specifics.
I realized that I have used books on the theme of differences, discrimination and even discussed them but often my comfort and drive is to open these out with oppressed groups, where the story becomes a mirror and in some ways I, become the enabler to the ‘seeing’. I conceptualized a journey with facing caste that has enabled me to recognize that I am a part of the oppressor group and my mere sympathy is not enough. In not playing a more active role of recognizing my gaze and my perspective, my position, I am not deconstructing oppressive systems but rather being tokenistic towards facing caste while maintaining my own alleged caste-less position.
I chose to engage in an action research with a group of library educators to explore what it takes to face caste in the library. I wanted to experience a mirror-ing effect, knowing it would unsettle but recognizing the need for this unsettlement. I began with the acknowledgement that I have privilege that has served me in all my work always at the cost of others, and that I have agency and responsibility to acknowledge, learn, unlearn and do better.
As a part of this research project funded by Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures, India and IIHS (Indian Institute for Human Settlements) Bangalore, my co- investigator and I have experienced many humbling realities. A lot of these are about ourselves. Learning more about caste and ourselves can result in denial, guilt, and/or false empathy – all of which serve as barriers to change. I found that for years I was engaging in passive responses, and that it was time to “unsettle” as an active learning process.
As investigators and together with participants we have begun to realize how little and forlorn our reading around and inside the topic is. How our educational discourse has subverted positions and texts in ways that blinded us towards certain understanding and our positions in society reproduce those ‘fallacies’. How because of our privilege we have lived most of our lives reading other Savarna writers write about caste, if at all. In gathering material for the project we have come to know more fully how limited the children’s collection on this topic is – across Indian languages and when present how it almost always presents the child/experience from an oppressor point of view (often written by a Savarna) enabling pity, sympathy, care and concern, but at arm’s length to the positions of privilege that enable continued oppression. Dalit literature indicates outstanding text contributions for our collections, but most library practitioners have not encountered these.
Our research project was designed for self-study and independent reading as a part of our preparedness to meet and talk with experts in the field, who may engage with library educators. It was in one of these talks that Professor Satish Deshpande recommended we read, Coming out as Dalit: A Memoir by Yaschica Dutt.
The beginning of a circle
I was humbled by the suggestion and prompted to consider WHY I had not yet read this text? What in my own reading mind was keeping me away from a memoir written by a young scholar on a topic of interest and scholarship for me as a library educator? I was aware of the book, knew it won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2021 and yet….
The self-realization and necessary guilt at my own Savarna socialization around selections of text compelled a quick reading and a powerful call to colleagues in our library network to read the text together. There was a positive acceptance from many.
The reading circle
What followed was a coming together of a small group of library educators, prepared to be unsettled over five weeks with a simple schedule of designated chapters for discussion and a rotation of leads for each week’s conversation.
This simple yet collaborative approach meant that I, the reader, was enriched every week by the voices of other readers. New information and links and suggestions to further reading were naturally shared. Personal responses to experiences in the text were offered in trust and honesty and a growing realization of our biased knowledge of the experiences and reality of caste privilege quietened us into reflection and hopefully in time, action.
If I were to read the book alone, I am aware that the dimensions of thinking that colleagues brought would have been lost. I was struck by Radha’s opening question to us at our first meeting on what we expected from a book like this. I was alerted to Alia’s point of view about being a college student like Yashica in and around the same time/place, etc., and never having realized what the inner world of someone who is undercover may be like. Beena cautioned me about going back to source texts when extracts were shared that were compelling my mind to stray. Neeraj raised critical questions about point of view and Jennifer commented about writing styles and format that enabled us to dwell in lived experiences juxtaposed with information. Usha made many personal connections with life experiences and always articulated hope for us to do better which was affirming, given her years of dedicated and committed library practice. Nivedita got to the heart of the argument when she declared that our school and college reading had blind-sided us and this text was enabling us to open more windows into understanding.
After-effects of reading
Voices of participants of the Reading Circle
Nivedita – I was so struck by my experience of reading Yashica Dutt with Sujata and other library educators and educationists that I wanted very much to continue the good work and to continue it with teachers and educators who would take our understanding and books to children. I wondered if there were like-minded people around, but as if in a poof of magic seven friends, and their friends signed up.
During our discussions and explorations, we were shocked at our denial of a systemic and structural pushing down of the ‘lower’ caste. As a group, I believe we are still in a sympathy mode. It will take much effort and years to wake up to a deeper realization of equality, justice and freedom for all.
Beena – I had never examined my life using the caste lens and this experience held up a mirror to my privileged life in ways that were disturbing and humbling. I felt emboldened to extend this experience to a small group of family and friends. Three accepted my invite to the reading circle and over a period of six weeks I saw the bubble of privilege wobble for one, get dented for another, and burst for the third. I realized that the journey to face caste is uniquely discomforting; by not undertaking it, we live a life-long lie.
Radha – How deeply caste is entrenched in every facet of our lives is what kept coming up for me in every chapter of the book. The safety of the reading circle allowed me to dig deep, face, acknowledge and then articulate my own guilt, around caste and privilege.
Usha – For me this exposure and awakening brought many half-forgotten childhood memories which had caused some puzzlement at the time but were soon swept aside as time passed. What the reading circle alerted me to during the readings was very sharp. That we take our privileged positions for granted. One window which you opened for me was to read and listen to Dalit voices, not always the ones who have broken barriers and gone to high places but more poignantly the voices of the unheard.
Alia – The reading circle has stayed with me as an exercise in collective acknowledgement– of privilege, of unease, and most of all, the gaps in our vision that make our lives cohere so smoothly around caste lines without ever naming it. Yashica’s book was a powerful, incredibly generous sharing of journalistic rigour, as much as her lived experience; and to have read, listened and reflected on it collectively is making it possible for me to sit with my own unease for longer. Caste and especially the cultural weight its privilege imbues, is something I’m starting to observe in word and deed and casual conversation around me, within me, beyond. It is deeply uncomfortable but it is also what it is.
Neeraj – I got to know about Yashica’s book through the reading group. I often wonder if it is my inability to stay aware of the latest good books or if some invisible forces work to make sure that certain books receive more or less light. I have been raised as a caste blind person. History lessons at school successfully managed to hide this reality and celebrated the dates of India’s freedom. Only recently, in the last few years, I started seeing how caste works and is everywhere. As always I reached out to books to make sense of all of it. Yashica’s writing, her especially urban Dalit experiences and historical pieces kept in between every personal chapter only brought me closer to acknowledge my own caste, non-dvija but also non-Dalit, privileges and problems, how my family’s entire caste blind practice subtly hides nuances of untouchability practices and why migrated families, like mine who would have stayed really poor if not migrated, choose to keep their children away from certain social identities, categories and realities. More than anything, reading this book only made me open to look for caste in me and around me in my family. It is both unsettling to me and especially to my grandmother with whom I like having a dialogue on caste and casteism, who just cannot accept that her family could be anything less than a ‘better-bigger-pedda (in Telugu)-caste.’ I think reading Ya.Du. deepened my reflective engagement with caste, which could be, perhaps, the only way to Anti-Caste.
Jennifer – While reading the book, curious to know more, I started following Yashica Dutt on Twitter. Through her handles, I also started following @dalitdiva (Thenmozhi Sounderarajan) and @surajyengde (Suraj Yengde). Around this time, all of them were tweeting about #dalithistorymonth, something that I knew nothing about! I learnt that it was inspired by the Black History Month and is an annual observance to remember important people and events in the history of Dalits or Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Reading Yashica’s memoir together in a group, laying bare our feelings and questions, I realized how much my own schooling experience had kept hidden from me about caste. As a library educator in an urban school, I saw this as an opportunity to open a small window for my students to issues of caste-based discrimination through a book display to celebrate Dalit History Month. In April 2022, just before school closed for summer holidays, students and teachers engaged with the display and shared their questions and thoughts as well.
For my work in the library on collection, some hard questions that I find I am grappling with are:
• How do I as a Savarna educator continue to reproduce points of view and life worlds through my selection and curation lens?
• How can I rethink why I reject certain texts and why I include texts or even promote them?
• How expansively am I able to think about stories and voices of experience that must be included to enable more and more readers to find reflection and expansion of their own worlds?
• How do I populate the shelves with childhood experiences that represent multiple childhood experiences in order to truly represent life worlds?
• What are the obvious dangers of looking for books only in mainstream places and not seeking writing in translation and from smaller presses?
• How do I build a bridge of trust with Bahujan creators so that the children and communities who access the library form a shared community with respect and dialogue?
• How might I continue to self examine and critically think of my own thinking and action to preempt bias in the library?
Reading this text together compelled me to acknowledge that in my own way (selection, curation, own reading, social location, status, notions of merit …) I was perpetuating ideas about oppression that were distant from me, when in fact, I am a part of the problem. I am unsettled enough to engage with this topic in quiet and loud ways and to encourage others to think about our place in this ‘settled’ world. I am unsettled enough to see anti caste work as a focus area of our library practice in the years to come and to invite more and more library educators to participate in this possibility. I am unsettled enough to recognize that sharing my story will hopefully unsettle more of us to do better.
The author is a library educator at Bookworm Goa, an organization that works with and through libraries in communities and schools. She co-founded the Library Educators Course with Usha Mukunda and Amrita Patwardhan and now offers it in English through Bookworm Goa. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.