Few days ago, I was at an Indian function and an elderly gentleman, who is fondly called ‘uncle ji’ and carries the patriarchal torch asked me what I was doing at that function. To cut short the very intense situation and just move on, I said I was there to fill in the blanks and to help out with anything and everything. Considering that is what I excel at work and considering that that gave me the edge getting promoted, I assumed it was a safe answer. He turned around asking for confirmation amongst his peers that sat around him discussing intense politics that I am the ‘Dalit’. For the uninitiated, in the traditional Indian caste system a member of the lowest caste is called Dalit. It has been an extinct concept in my head because I’d been out of the country for nearly 2 decades and besides the overzealous segregation at Indian parties, I was out of it.
When he said Dalit, I froze and so did the people around him. Sadly, I do know if he said it unconsciously or as a compliment meaning servant leader. Because that is what servant leaders do, serve. Few months ago I was reading the excerpts of New York-based journalist Yashica Dutt’s book, Coming Out As Dalit and was overburdened by the facts of discrimination, trauma, misrepresentation and how the section of humans had to pick the professions that no one else would. I am moved to tears when I read about rag pickers or sewer cleaners back home. I wasn’t sure what kind of hurt it was when I heard that long erased word associated with me.
This uncle-ji had come to the States about 45 years ago. It could be possible that his memories of remote India still dwell in his psyche and regardless of the exposure to this progressive environment he resides in the past. Or it could be that he actually meant that the ‘Dalits’ are or were the real grass root leaders that shaped the foundations of the billion person ethos. While I wasn’t born or raised in that privilege, it will always remain an enigma to me on what he really meant. Hopefully until the next time I see and ask him, I am going pretend I am agnostic of this cynical theology I stumbled upon.