apologies for breathing

Kali's picture

little hands, dusty and wrinkled ask me to stay in my place as my father rages on. i don't move, i'm not supposed to, i just curl in amma's lap as he walks around in drunken stupor, rattling the doors and other things that get in his way: the only unbroken chair in the house, the shards of the table from last time, sometimes it's me. he's always smashing the bottle against the table and once on amma's back. these aren't memories i remember on occasion, that tumble out only after i've  made an unspoken breach with some person, or when i need to expose my soul to a new lover. these memories breathe within my blood each day.

today i'm an academician and an activist, some people have even heard of me. three years ago i was a speaker at a conference on 'disembodiment of agency in gender relations'. my paper focused on the disembodiment of upper-caste male in relation to dissemination of agency against the antithetical construction of dalit feminine (a)sexuality. i finish discussing the paper and the first question i am asked is that 'as we live in a post-caste india, why are these vilified descriptions of caste politics necessary?' by a card-carrying feminist. why is caste relevant to me, you say.

up untill seventh grade, i went to the government school in my village because amma wanted me to. then they put me in the ninth grade because i was bright, but i had to go to the next village and i did because amma wanted me to. she said that for people like us, all we could rely on was education, and that dr. ambedkar is never wrong. the first three days i made friends, two brahmin girls. their skin is different than mine; it's cleaner and sometimes it shines. one told me that she liked my smile, the teacher saw that and asked me to stand up and tell the whole class what my caste was and where i came from. i told all of them i was from the neighbouring village and i was a dalit. the class starts shrieking with laughter, my two friends looked at me in disgust. did you know how words can attack you sideways, how they stop before you and stomp themselves in your core?

the grasshoppers are singing

did you know her father does the autopsy checking? the bastard stuffs his face in bodies decaying

he's a drunk, i've always seen him with a bottle and swearing like a madman.

i hear her mother is a prostitute. strange men are always around her house, in after taste, lingering

did you see the way this one looks at the professor too?

i wouldn't be too surprised. all dalit girls lust after brahmin men,

don't you notice all the ways they inject openings?

after i've answered all questions with the same answer that caste is unerasable from my visceral memory, why yes even in academic conferences, maybe the tone got heavier in the end, i head back to the hotel. in the lobby one of the speakers is waiting for me, he says he was impressed by my tenacity and the next thing i hear is how he wants me to slip into his room late at night. i'm not surprised, this happens very often because a dalit body is an open door, ready to be possessed and disposed at will. those men around my house weren't amma's clients, they were the hindu men who'd stop by when they felt like it. in exchange we got to live in the village and draw water from the well after the hindu women and their big necklaces leave the site. this man in front of me doesn't miss a beat when he bends to whisper what he'd like us to do in my ear, he is stunned when i turn him down. i walk away and the next day i get similar offers from the remaining men in the conference.

three months ago a fellow activist and i go to the police supritendent's office to complain of the dalit gang-rapes that are dismissed by his subordinated. he looks at us and tells us that'd he'd help us only if we comply to him first. then he says how he has always wanted to feel how some untouchable's skin would feel next to his. that night i cried in amma's lap again, and she doesn't say a word. she's exhausted her limit for merging consonants with sounds and vowels years ago. the only language she still uses is of silences and sighs. her hands are still little and dusty when they're clasping mine. she used to say, we fought in the freedom struggle too, only gandhi forgot to look at us. i tell her he still hasn't looked at us.

there's a little girl on a boat

she looks at me through her golden screen

she smiles and waves at me

i want to cry, touch and play

but if my shadow will reach her head

she'll become invisible too

so i turn and walk away

there are times when i've entered and slip out of rooms, completely unnoticed. lest i'm introduced by any non-dalit, then suddenly i become visible to the world. sometimes i feel like someone has conjured me up by magic, coloured me invisible. when i speak, suddenly the invisible comes off one square inch by skin each time. the anger simmers, words stumble out of my mouth, they're full of sharp flames. i used to be afraid of anger, but now i bask in it. anger is one privilege of the dalit community, we learn expletives while in the womb, they say. caste is a blemish that has been branded in my skin, because of it i am a body subject to cutting. prodding. conquering and philandering. my community and caste teaches me the art of disappearing, of letting go and completely negating myself and the body. i could never really sit still, so immobile rock i can't become today. accept my apology for breathing your air.

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welcome to the site, kali

arvan's picture

Thank you for sharing your identity and expression here.  You write about conflict and pain without turning away.  In your relationship to the events and surroundings of your life, you illustrate beautifully what we are as humans, as actors and subjects in the horror and beauty of our lives.


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