Things at 3am, like Rohith Vemula

A name from an email, a name that I recognise as distinctly East African, Kenyan to be exact, buzzes in your head. It goes round and round because it is unusual and melodic. The name belongs to someone who attended a talk I gave at an event some years before. I gave her my email ID and said ‘write to me if you have any questions, or if you want to talk more, I’m great on email and terrible on Facebook’. However, she has only ever reached out to me to accept her LinkedIn request. [I have an inbox filter set to identify the word LinkedIN in a subject line and push them to the trash folder.] It occurs to me that the two most plaintive cries of our times are: “you’re breaking up!” and “Teresa Wambui sent you a Linked In Request.” I imagine a long line of LinkedIN requests waiting patiently to be accepted, long-suffering and hopeful like not attractive people on a dating site. I ignore all of those requests, because they aren’t really requests; they are intrusions generated en masse by someone else not reading the fine print, or for that matter, what’s on the box itself. I curse her and everyone who doesn’t know what the default means, that there is default setting on things. Perhaps even on the world as you encounter it. Like the world that seemed too much for Rohith Vemula to struggle on with any further. The stardust of his dreams catch in your throat and you think about every single way that caste privilege and power is casually and not-casually implicated in your ideas of the world, your self.

My mother, after being called North-Indian-Lower-Caste by the maamis in madsaars to the point where her name was changed on her own wedding invitation card to sound more South Indian and Brahmin, has become a naturalised Tam Brahm. I can hear it in her English and Tamil. For years she was judged and teased for not being able to produce the perfectly set curd or sambar. Personally I applaud her for this, though I know it has been the source of much self doubt for her. Of course every last tyrannical Brahminical madsaar-wearing Maami wanted her to be their doctor, and she gently and respectfully helped them reach the end.

There’s the way the Brahminical self is asserted, usually jokingly, about our gradual lapse into modernity. From eating beef in restaurants, to bringing cooked beef into the house, and the granddaughter of the no-beef-in-my-house grandmother producing the finest erchi oliyathatu ever. From rank alcoholism and domestic violence to genteel wine tasting tours of Napa. Marrying lower castes, Christians. No Muslims yet, but who knows. Some never marrying at all.

Then there are the smart “Paapan” genes, shorthand for a combination of privilege, access, pressure and expectation to become doctors and/or engineers who will eventually live The Good Life in America, far away from the heat and dust of Chennai, visiting only to look in on old parents and expose American-born children to their roots. It’s a little perverse, like spitting on your grandmother’s diamond earrings, to choose something else, something outlandish like Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Activism.

Do young people have to die in India to make a point? First there was Jyoti Pandey and now Rohith Vemula. It seems that they do. The work of politics however is harder and more personal, and it’s something that I think you do in private, in the small gestures that no one sees. It is in questioning origin stories, speech, in what you’ve come to believe in as personal choices as really being about giving in to conditioning and pressure. The work on the self doesn’t stop if you want to live a considered, sensitive life.

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