Immediately after the Kutch earthquake in January 2001, I spent a week in a tiny village that had been reduced to rubble, working with a team on various reconstruction projects. Also in the village were some marble traders from Delhi, who had decided to offer villagers free food for a week. Lunch and dinner, they cooked up steaming puri-bhaji and the locals streamed into their pandal to eat, sitting in long lines.
Lunch and dinner, yes. Their effort lasted through all of two meals. Late that first night, dinner done, a number of the villagers approached both us and the marble traders. "This can't continue," they said. "We won't sit and eat with those lower castes."
Next morning, the marble traders packed up and drove back to Delhi. We were left to marvel: even in this time of great tragedy, even in this place where everyone was suddenly living on piles of brick and stone just like everyone else, the ancient prejudices bubble up.
"Why do they hate us?" asks Chandra Bhan Prasad as early as the subtitle to this book, and it is a question I could imagine some in that remote Kutch village asking.
And the hatred doesn't have to be as explicitly expressed as on that Kutch night. Take the medical students in Delhi who found what they must have thought was a novel way of protesting the government's proposed policy on reservations: one day last April, they picked up brooms and began sweeping the streets.
You don't need me to spell out the implications. Now I would wager good money that not one of those students would admit to a distaste for people below them on our caste pole. Yet the lesson from the images of doctors sweeping -- as from that village in Kutch -- is that there's something about caste, about that distaste, that is almost programmed into us.
This is precisely what Chandra Bhan Prasad -- "one of the leading Dalit intellectuals in the country", says the blurb -- wants to address in this book. This is why I was eager to read it. What do you do about caste prejudice? Prasad would like Dalit Phobia to be recognized as a medical condition and its sufferers (if that's the word) subjected to therapy to cure it.
This might just be an interesting idea, even worth considering seriously, were it not for the parallels Prasad draws. (Among other things). In his last chapter he actually spells out such a course of therapy. But to give us the gist of what he is getting at, he starts with the multi-stage therapy required if "someone is hit by Anglophobia (fear of England and English Culture)", and Stage I is:
- The Anglophobia patient is taken to the houses of White men and women repeatedly. This may be initially done from a distance. The patient is subtly told that the White men and women were Americans.
The pity is that Prasad undermines what should have been a fascinating subject with this kind of reasoning (if that's the word). The book begins with an examination of the "hate-America vocation" of Immanuel Kant, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson, and it stumbles along from there, mostly downhill. It is filled with propositions and questions and stages and myths, some numbered, some lettered, some Roman numeraled, some just listed. It covers a great canvas of issues, flung there seemingly Jackson Pollock-style: "Indus Valley and Non-Aryans" to "Experiences of X Series of Parties (XSPs)", "Approached the Cot" to "The Phobia Regime".
And I'm only quoting a few section headings chosen at random.
At first glance, this looks like an impressive amount of scholarship. And after all, it's not till two-thirds through the book that you run into "Experiences of X Series of Parties (XSPs)". But only a few pages of actual reading tell you that Prasad has just collected material -- much of it off the Web -- and thrown it together with a sprinkling of his own thoughts and speculations. With this much, he hopes to build some kind of thesis.
The pity, again, is that he doesn't. He can't, not this way. Not least because you keep stopping short, asking "What was that?"
What, for example, were these?
- Consider the time speed of [the Indus Valley] period and contrast it with the time speed of today. [O]ne year of today may actually be equal to many more years of the ancient period.
- 42.16 per cent of the Scheduled Castes work force in UP were agricultural labourers ... 17.53 per cent worked in industry ... Of the remaining 7.97 per cent, a large chunk was in government service. Thus not more than 3 to 4 per cent Dalits would be in leather occupation.
- When Dr Ambedkar approached the cot [on which Gandhi lay, for their famous Poona meeting], there was an echoless silence and a breathless eagerness. ... entrancing sadness in the atmosphere ... enveloping personality of Mahatma Gandhi ... entangling silence prevailing.
Now I believe there is a serious and fundamental reality in this country, more fundamental than religion or wealth or status, and that reality is caste. I believe many of us are burdened with the irrational prejudices of caste, and that these prejudices get expressed in all kinds of ways. I believe all that is a legitimate subject for serious inquiry and discussion. In fact this country can only benefit from such a discussion, especially if it is open, honest and informed. Prejudices are best dealt with that way. We may never get rid of them, but we may come to terms with them. Learn to live with them.
It was that kind of spirit I searched for in Chandra Bhan Prasad's book. Instead, there's a kind of muddled khichdi of ideas, data and opinions, much of it irrelevant.
By the end, I was left bewildered. I found myself wishing dearly that Prasad had filtered his manuscript through a no-nonsense editor. That would have served the interests of the caste debate, of our country itself, well. That might have offered those Kutch villagers, or those sweeping students, something to think about.
What a pity that, instead, this leading Dalit intellectual has given us this unfortunate mish-mash.