The University of Oxford held a two-day conference on caste census on 5th and 6th February. Day one had a very special panel called ‘Whose culture is it? Decoding caste within popular culture’ which had some very very special people – Pa Ranjith, Nrithya Pillai, Meena Kotwal, and Sylvia Karpagam. You can watch the recording here. This is me, weeks later, looking back at what was the most rewarding way to begin this year.
If you are moderating a panel where the panelists each speak a different language, then you have failed even before you have begun. But 30 minutes before the panel, I was watching Sarpatta – again – and drawing from the film everything that was to carry me through the night.
When Pa Ranjith switched his camera on, I was terrified. It meant that it was actually happening. But then he smiled and I wasn’t so scared anymore. I was looking at his teeth and how they came together to greet me. Watching him smile calmed me and the entire evening after that went past me like I was missing a train that I wasn’t supposed to get on anyway.
Because it was Pa Ranjith, and because ever since I watched Sarpatta, I’ve been feeling closer to the work I do, and because I celebrated Kabilan’s entry into the ring and eventual victory more personally and intimately than I’ve celebrated my own joys, and also partly because and despite the fact that I don’t understand Tamizh very well, I was catching every word he uttered like they were falling only for me, like some rains sometimes do.
Here are some things he said that I want to carry with me this year, and the next, and the next.
Dalit artists cannot afford to be mediocre:
Simply because we have no choice except to work hard. It is rare that hard work and a commitment to minding your own business produces mediocrity. As much as anyone likes to believe that we got here on someone’s favour or quota or luck – we are here because we worked hard and now must continue to work hard. Notice how even the worst and laziest of Savarna mediocrity remains both unpunished and left alone? It’s a luxury not all have so we find relief in the thought that if our work is itching some people’s bums, they should buy itch guard.
So what do you do when the cow dung won’t stop coming?
It is hard to forget the shine in Pa Ranjith’s teeth and the way his laugh took over his face when he said IGNORE and waved his hand. It dissolved every worry and fear I had gathered so far. Here was a man whose smile and words were undoing the curse of every other fragile male ego I’ve had to deal with in the last two years. He urged me to think about the time when Ambedkar was surrounded by people with sticks threatening to beat him at the Parsi inn and what it must have been like. What did Ambedkar do? He walked away and went about his work. If I wasn’t so much in love and salivating all over zoom, I might have cried. I think I did.
Keep doing what you are doing
I am beginning the year with his words and the rain of his laugh. I am going put them both into my everyday and my work, life, love, food, and sleep.
My WhatsApp had been going berserk and my berserker students were sending me love shaped pictures of Pa Ranjith and me. Some said to close my mouth because a mosquito could go in, some saw mosquitoes going in and coming out also it seems.
When I woke up the next morning, I was still