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Posted by Gayatri Borkar

Recently, I found out that Octopuses have very unique DNA structures that they constantly edit, to meet and adapt to the changes in their environments. This is called ‘De Novo’ and as our New Avengers member Jessica Jones defines the term; ‘Out of Nowhere’. As someone, who’s been brought up in a “privileged home”, I never had the ear for anything that even showed a shadow of De Novo. My shorts were always those that I stole from my brother, my clothes never came from anywhere outside branded showrooms, and my stomach was imperfect only when it wasn’t flat enough. I think that gives me enough affirmation to call myself “privileged”. 

The subject of caste was something that I heard only at the dinner table being whispered in quiet hush tones. As a teenager with not a single care for anything out of the convenient comfort zone, the idea of ‘caste’ never really affected me; up until, the sound of it rang along with slight resonation with the falling of dishes giving it warm music as my parents’ roars struck each other. Till today, I am unsure of how I feel about this scenario in particular. 5 years later, it still plays out in slow motion in my head as an opera on-screen as me and my brother try to control our tears.

‘Caste’. What a word! Who could’ve thought that adding an ‘e’ right at the end, could turn a convenient and right-sounding word into a term that forms the huge pot that carries hundreds of years filled with violence and agitation against a certain system of society? This pot rests in the arms of those silenced, and those scoured with long years of injustice tightly tucked tied in a mini potli tucked inside the petticoat worn to hold a saree straight. This petticoat was shared between my mother, my mausi and also millions of women who fall into the scaffold hit endlessly by social constructs through hundreds of years.

In areas affected across the country, it is mainly called ‘zaat’ or ‘jaat’. The struggle of caste has been for long a point of discussion and this has raised it to the extent of study. Throughout history, though Dalit movements have left a mark, the contributions of women on the same issue are widely unknown and remain uninvestigated.

In areas affected across the country, it is mainly called ‘zaat’ or ‘jaat’. The struggle of caste has been for long a point of discussion and this has raised it to the extent of study. Throughout history, though Dalit movements have left a mark, the contributions of women on the same issue are widely unknown and remain uninvestigated. In the lay, one may think that the contribution wasn’t as great as to meet the flame sparked by the Dalit men in their fight for equality and power. However, dalit feminist writer Baby Kamble rips the heads of brahmanic masculinity in her autobiography called, ‘The Prisons We Broke’. 

An excerpt of her work: 

“When the Mahar women labour in the fields, the corn gets wet with their sweat. The same corn goes to make your pure, rich dishes. And you feast them with such evident relish! Your palaces are built with the soil soaked with the sweat and blood of Mahars. But does it rot your skin? You drink their blood and sleep comfortably on the bed of their misery. Doesn’t it pollute you then? Just as the farmer pierces his bullock’s nose and inserts a string through the nostrils to control it, you have pierced the Mahars nose with the string of ignorance. And you have been flogging us with the whip pollution”

Also read: Ezhava And Proud—23 Years After Hiding My Caste From The World

With their nibs as swords, Dalit feminist writers have undergone and worked towards creating tremendous impact which recognises them today in valor and provides them a spot quite close to the widely read and popular Dalit Poet Namdeo Dhasal. 

With their nibs as swords, Dalit feminist writers have undergone and worked towards creating tremendous impact which recognises them today in Valor and provides them a spot quite close to the widely read and popular Dalit Poet Namdeo Dhasal. 

One can not merely ignore the weight of the nibs that wrote a revolution of blood and toil for the women of Dalit men. If you think that Ambedkar was the one who sparked the revolution amongst the Dalits, then let me prove you wrong by mentioning a few names that you could google. Thank god for the liberty of the internet.

Shantabai Dhanaji Dani, in her book ‘For Us – These Nights And Days’ mentions a conversation with her father: 

“Are we not human beings?”

“Yes of course we are”, said the father. 

“These people touch cats and dogs, then why not us?”

Other notable mentions apart from writers, is the folk tale of Nangeli who belonged to a lower caste and as a happenstance of a sad time, lived through the colonial rule over Kerala, especially when ‘Mulakkaram’ or the ‘Breast tax’ was widely prevalent. This tax forbid women from covering their breasts and even if need be, a tax was levied depending on the size of the cloth required for coverage. This law also asked women to uncover their breast whilst passing by a male belonging to a caste above that of the woman’s.

With a Dalit background, Nangeli and her family did not have enough money to pay for this ‘privileged’ piece of cloth. In respite, she covered her breasts. When the zamindar came to ask for the tax, she rejected his orders and when he couldn’t stop his demands, she cut off her breasts and presented them to him on a banana leaf. Following this, she bled herself to death and her blood, sparked the revolution of Dalit Women against this heinous law which later fueled the feminist movement, resulting in the withdrawal of the same law. 

Also read: Kerala’s Casteist Breast Tax And The Story Of Nangeli

The contribution of these women has been legendary and needs assertion. Their literature and strife needs the media that it deserves. The sacrifices of Dalit women must never be associated directly with the cause of modern-day feminism as the needs they serve, were served years ago to the upper castes. This is a revolution running backwards to help, preserve and change the future. This is De Novo in its most beautiful and revolutionary version.  


Gayatri finds her peace resting between words and epiphanies. She is a student of Sociology who writes stories and poems in her leisure time. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.

Featured Image Source: Citizens for Justice and Peace

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