I was born and brought up in a metropolitan city. Bangalore. I attended one of the most elite schools in Bangalore. I never felt like I belonged there. I always felt like some sort of a loser growing up. Most people didn’t talk to me or even touch me in school. Even the one friend I had by the end of school openly expressed shame at the fact that she was friends with me. She said to me that she doesn’t know why she’s friends with me because I always embarrassed her and I was so boy-crazy. She told me that one of her other friends asked her how she could be friends with me. Earlier around 2nd grade, I had a friend who told me that we could be friends but only if I promised that I wouldn’t tell anyone else that we were friends. So, I promised her that I wouldn’t.
I didn’t understand any of the discrimination or humiliation I went through every day growing up. I grew up believing there was something inherently wrong with me. The teachers and students treated me like I was stupid and I believed that I was extremely stupid. I started blaming myself for the way I was treated. More than myself, I started blaming my parents for the way I was treated. I thought if they were modern like the other parents, I wouldn’t have to go through any of this. I thought they were as stupid as I was. I started looking down on my parents and all my family. I hated everything about myself. I hated the way I looked, and hated the way I couldn’t articulate as well in English. I detached myself from everything that my family had passed on to me like my mother tongue. I learnt to be more and more like my schoolmates. I learnt to speak like them, dress like them, eat the food they ate, and do what the they did.
It’s only when I had to fill application forms for pre-university (11th class) that I realized I belonged to the SC category. From what I had learnt in my school I just knew that meant that I belonged to the untouchable community. I knew that was something I should be ashamed of. Now that I think about it though, I knew the caste of most of the Brahmin and other dominant kids but my parents had to hide my own caste from me.
When I was in my Bachelors’ I learnt more about caste discrimination and caste atrocities. Even then I didn’t think caste was something that impacted me in anyway.
I joined Masters in Delhi last year. I joined Ambedkar University which is known for its liberal and progressive ideals. I thought I would get introduced to concepts like caste and Ambedkar but obviously, like in any other liberal university, that didn’t happen. I was quickly getting disillusioned with the liberal/progressive space and the left. On the surface, they seemed to care so much about social justice but I quickly realized all of that is a façade but I didn’t understand why.
Around this time, while talking about caste, a friend of mine introduced me to Roundtable India. Through Roundtable India I found an entire world of Ambedkarites that I didn’t know existed. I started reading as much as I could on Roundtable India and Savari. I added almost every Ambedkarite I could find on Facebook. I would diligently follow all of them on Facebook and read all their posts. I would be on Facebook day and night and I would spend all my classes on my phone, reading these articles because this was this the education I was looking for.
Through these discoveries, I could make sense of my life experiences. I realized how everything in my life has been influenced by caste. People refused to touch me in school. That’s as basic as untouchability gets. When I was doing my Bachelors, my friend pointed out that this might have something do with my caste and I refused to believe it. Last year, for the first time in 21 years I was able to acknowledge that what happened to me in school and a lot of things out of school was because of my caste. I was able to acknowledge that what happened to me in school was not because I was some sort of a loser but because we live in a deeply sick, casteist society. I realized what happened to me was discrimination and I need to mention again how hard it was for me to accept that.
It’s like I could for the first-time reach Babasaheb through the Ambedkarite community and make sense of my life. It’s also for the first time in my life that I found a community that I belonged to. I felt like there are people out there who could understand what I had been through because they had been through similar experiences. For me, Babasaheb and the Ambedkarite community are deeply intertwined. I don’t see how one can exist without the other. I wouldn’t know what I would do without them. Without this community I don’t think I would have ever been able to make sense of my life. They have empowered me by providing the knowledge to understand the society that we live in and in turn to understand who I am.
Chandana Chandragiri is doing her masters in psychology at Ambedkar University and would like to study about the relationship between caste and mental health.
This is the fifth essay in our ‘What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me‘ series.