I remember being a completely introverted child and my parents being worried about it. So, they continuously encouraged me to participate in every single activity at school, and I did. I was considerably good at what I did – music, painting, academics, and more. I couldn’t make any significant progress in oratory skills, but I still participated and tried to improve. Because of my activities and achievements, I was envied by my schoolmates.
As someone born in a city like Mumbai and as a girl born to parents who are exceptionally great in many ways, I never understood the vigilant stance of my parents towards the world. No, I was never discouraged by my parents for being a girl; for that matter, I didn’t even realize until a long time, the sort of resistance other girls were facing from their families. But many times, I used to feel that my parents’ insistence on making me ‘bold’, ‘courageous’, and ‘extraordinary in everything’ was a little too much. It was, as they’d explained, because I was a Dalit. My father always quoted from Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s speech, “You have no other option but to work hard. Because when you’d work worth gold, they (so-called ‘upper’ castes) will consider it worth tin.” It inspired me and confused me at the same time.
Looking at the world as a child, I was oblivious to the depth of it and couldn’t relate the quote to my real life. But my parents took me and my sister to visit Shivaji Park in Dadar, Mumbai in order to pay our tribute on the death anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar. There were lakhs of other people coming from various regions, classes, and statuses.
My parents were successful in exposing me to the harsh realities of discrimination and poverty running in our society. This is why I don’t belong to the group of Dalit youth who enjoyed the bliss of ignorance and claim that the times have changed and we face no discrimination in society. Most of the youth from the well educated/well-earning section of the Dalit community actually believe that celebrating all sorts of festivals together with other communities, getting enrolled in good schools and being friends with Brahmins collectively means that we are not excluded and we are all equal. I accept the fact that I have lived a comfortable life and I went to a good school, and this privilege is not accessible to many from my community. Still, I thought I never faced discrimination until I realized how my perception was wrong.
Almost 5 years after passing out of school, while searching for some old documents I found a certificate from the time I was in 2nd grade. It said that my painting was selected for a children’s exhibition in Delhi art gallery. I thought hard and tried to remember why this memory was not significantly implanted in my brain. I tried to search for any memory of a prize distribution ceremony. I couldn’t remember anything, because no such event had happened.
On one usual school day, a peon had brought it along with other usual stuff like chalk, duster and attendance register. He handed it to the class teacher, who saw my name on it and passed it towards me. That’s it. I must have kept it in my bag, because I wouldn’t have understood what it was; I was in Marathi medium till 4th grade.
It was quite an odd treatment from a reputed school that announced every single achievement of students, no matter how small it was. All achievements were announced on speakers and the entire school applauded the students. I wonder why I never asked myself, why the school didn’t announce this on speakers. Regardless of how much my parents might have praised me for it after reaching home that day, it was still not the same, was it?
Then I started recollecting my entire school life from this newfound perspective. I found a lot of similar incidents, right from kindergarten. For example, the third prize that I got in some competition in my junior KG had not been given to me on stage (when annual prize distribution ceremony was taking place) with the excuse ‘only first and second prizes are given on the stage’, which was invalid because some got their third prizes too, on stage. Or, when the school appointed a special mentor to another student for Homi Bhabha Young Scientist Award, the same school didn’t even bother to check my result for the second level of that exam.
I discovered that I could sing well in my third grade. One of my teachers (who was also a Dalit) brought it to the notice of school’s music teacher and my parents – I am eternally grateful to him for convincing my parents to enrol me in a music class. I started learning music and looked forward to joining my seniors for the school’s annual musical program, performed publicly by students above the fifth grade. The twist here is, when I got to 5th grade, all those senior singers of the school, who were all from upper castes, mostly Brahmins, passed out of the school and the school never conducted that program, saying that there weren’t enough singers or if there were any, they largely belonged to the SC/ST/OBC category and didn’t need a platform to showcase their talent.
One more ‘comical’ incident was that I was the student who won medals in various inter-school drawing competitions, and I was also the student who represented the school by singing on Doordarshan (solo) and in AIR (group). But after listening to my mother talking about my achievements on the same Doordarshan program, many of my teachers looked surprised and cynically prodded her by saying, “Oh! We never knew that Mudita could paint as well!” Or, those who knew said, “We thought she was only focused on academics,” some even went as far as berating me for being distracted in extra-curricular activities despite knowing that I was always one of the top 5 rankers. So, if an upper caste student is involved in multiple activities, they are an ‘all-rounder’ or ‘multi-talented’, but when I do the same, I am ‘distracted’.
I recently finished a course on education policy-making arranged by the Center for Civil Society, Delhi. It had a separate emphasis on ‘access to school’. In one of the lectures, Vimala Ramchandran said the term ‘access’ to school needs to be redefined. No doubt students are getting physical access to schools, but that’s not enough. Not all kinds of discrimination is loud. A larger part of it is extremely subtle. The subtlety increases as you go higher up the ladder, thereby making Dalit students feel more and more insecure.