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Anger and Aspiration in Caste Society

Struggle for a language that speaks to oppression in spaces dominated by oppressors.
caste opperession

When the oppressors wrote history, they made some people out as objects, only to declare them as unwanted and then discard them. Those made into objects and then left behind were the oppressed people. Wherever we find people with songs whose stories have been erased, we know they are the oppressed people. The oppressed survived because they never forgot their singing. Their songs are their history, their ideas and imagination of life, and their dreams. Their songs kept their language—and them—alive. The oppressed exist with their language—the language of an abandoned mind.

India’s elite academic spaces are prime examples of the struggle over language between the oppressed and the oppressor. “There is an extraordinary power in the possession of a language,” Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, 2008). The oppressor in academic spaces knows this power all too well. When oppressed-caste students enter these spaces, a certain uneasiness surrounds most of them when they start conversing. Neither their body nor their emotional world is in sync with the language being spoken around them in these modern-day Agraharas. 

Gradually, in academic spaces, the oppressed caste member develops an alienation from their old world. Those in touch with their conscience find it extremely difficult to translate their emotions into the language of a place defined by the oppressor caste. This has consequences for them. They either become outspoken—which could make them more vulnerable—or totally silent, which makes them passive carriers of the norms of the oppressor’s language. In both cases, the oppressed start witnessing an almost irreversible alienation from the language of their emotional world. They start using terminologies and phrases the oppressor uses to appear intellectual. 

The oppressor makes language the strongest embodiment of intellectualism, but this is a trap most among the oppressed—those who do not become perennially angry—fall into. I suspect it is because, in oppressor-dominated places, they cannot find the language of their emotional history. The inability to find words for feelings turns into anger and impulsive rhetoric. Anger is also an act of breaking free from the language trap. Where the language of the oppressor is the norm, the oppressed manifests his connection with his roots through impulsive speech. 

But this also makes the oppressed overtly anxious and insecure in moments of, say, heartbreak. While the oppressor lover calls this anxiety ‘possessiveness’ and the inability to ‘move on’, the oppressed—who has faced social, personal and political abandonment—does want to be abandoned once more. For this, he is labelled as a misfit. After all, his language is shaped in circumstances—by powerlessness, not power—which someone from the oppressor caste never experiences. That is why the anxiety of the oppressed can be misunderstood as anger, his resistance as impractical, and his ability to assert as rhetoric. 

I remember the first time I entered an elite academic campus in Mumbai, feeling like English was almost being thrown at my face. I did not mind because I was already fascinated with the language, which is presented in India as the language of learned people and intellectualism. For a long time in India, English has been in the possession of oppressor castes, who constructed it into a language of aspirations. It is natural for the oppressed to seek access to their dreams through language, but in caste society, English was also equated with knowledge, learning, culture and modernity. To assimilate oneself in all these aspects of life, the oppressed desperately try to learn English and often make it a lifelong dream. They hardly realise that this quest comes at the cost of alienating him from his emotional world, where aspirations hardly existed and which has been historically shaped by experiencing oppression, humiliation and discrimination. 

English as a language was always in the possession of oppressor castes due to their proximity to the British colonisers. Conversely, the love and laughter of the oppressed have been shaped in the language of his erasure from written history. One day, he enters an academic space where, to follow his aspirations and dreams, he must learn the language the oppressor castes designed. When after learning it for years, he returns home, he finds he cannot communicate with his parents. Not because he forgot their language or his roots but because, in the academic space, he was taught that [only] English means communication, conversation and dialogue. 

The oppressor learns in a space dominated by the oppressor castes to speak English in a certain way, but his parents neither understand that language in terms of communication, conversation or dialogue nor as a medium of intellectualism. His parents speak a language which is the direct and unadulterated manifestation of their feelings and emotions—the language true to them. The newly-educated oppressed emerging from oppressor-dominated academic spaces finds this development intolerable. This intolerance turns into anger and then causes his self-depreciation. 

The oppressed, if conscious about this negative development, finds in himself a deception nurtured during his stay in oppressor-dominated places. He becomes aware of his social, political, cultural, intellectual and sexual abandonment in society and makes a pact with his anger, restlessness, and anxiety. He discovered his alienation long ago but now wants to break his historical silence—through anger, restlessness, and anxiety. 

This pact to live with anger, anxiety, and restlessness comes with a risk.

I was abandoned, but don’t want to be any more. I cannot go back, but don’t want to go further at the cost of more alienation. This is how he keeps on thinking. His response to life (with his reactive self in sync with his roots) is also the result of circumstances which the oppressor created for him when he, the oppressed, dared assert his right to gain knowledge and enter their academic spaces. In these spaces, the oppressor first pushed the oppressed self away from his language and memories, then offered him tokenised validations when he followed the norms of oppressor-dominated areas. 

In such spaces, the oppressed self is often stuck between aspirations and history, the latter of which demands total independence from oppressor-dominated spaces. The only natural response, soon as the oppressed realises his alienation, is to get agitated—anger and reactions follow, which become the language of the abandoned mind.

My grandfather, born in the twenties, could not pronounce my name. I was born in 1985. In his generation, because of untouchability, namers had derogatory meanings such as Kachru [garbage], Dagdu [stony] or, my grandfather’s name, Gariba, which means poor. His generation lived amid a language that humiliated them, so they spoke of pain. Dreams or aspirations had hardly any place for them. The same goes for my father. After getting educated, I found it difficult to converse with him because my mind was filled with words, ideas and subjects—a language—to which he felt no connection. It was not he who could not understand me. It was I who had dissociated myself from his language of pain. It happened because oppressor-dominated educational institutions taught me the language of aspiration. I followed this language for a long but was eventually disappointed. I discovered my alienation from my history, and the crucial role language played. At first, I felt agitated and restless and became vulnerably silent. I could see myself as the abandoned mind and the dangers of the language of aspirations for people like me. But my ancestors had bequeathed songs to me that manifested my anger, restlessness, and anxiety.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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