Illustration by Opashona Ghosh.
In a church adorned with jasmine flowers and fairy lights, I looked into the eyes of my partner and said “I will”. It was a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pews were full — my friends and family had flown into Visakhapatnam from all over the country, and the world, to attend the ceremony. I was wearing an off-white brocade sari, a champagne-coloured veil that matched the sari’s zari and a shade of lipstick that was in step with my brown-skinned foundation. I liked how I looked. After reciting my vows, I walked the wedding march holding my partner’s suited elbows — feeling loved and accomplished.
This moment had been 16 years in the making. After several (exhausting) dates, multiple relationships that went nowhere, unspeakable abuse and hours of therapy, I found my home in a Dalit man. He came into my life at a time when I had resigned myself to believing that love was too entangled in caste for it to be true.
My mother — also a Dalit feminist in her own right — had anticipated this moment for quite some time. This was typical for an Indian Christian family, but there was also a different charge to this because I had lost my father 12 years ago in 2010. His departure meant that my wedding became her sole responsibility, and her lack of social capital would make the pursuit difficult. Unlike her peers, she had not coerced me into seeking an arranged marriage, and she pushed back against those who undermined my “worth in the marriage market”. She did her part to make me believe in “true love” and wished that I, too, would find someone who cherished me as my father cherished her. The wedding, thus, was her miracle; so much so that she wore flowers in her hair for the first time after my father’s passing. And to this day, she keeps reminiscing about the events that led up to our wedding, including the parai attam that kicked off our reception in Chennai.
During my pursuit of this true love, I spent most of my twenties believing that “love conquered everything”. I was unaware of my perceptibility as a dark-hued Dalit woman and the implications that held for others around me as I started acting upon them. “It is a force unlike any other”, I had internalised and argued, a force that transcended religion, like in Bombay, or caste, like in Kaadhal, or class, like in Maid in Manhattan. And with every sour experience, I convinced myself that my partner was just one date away, one flight away or one swipe away.
I watched the second season of Bridgerton with much glee. During one of her conversations with Anthony, Daphne describes love as this: “If you say she is the one in whose presence, you cannot properly think, or even breathe. If you say you feel that feeling…the one that makes it impossible for you to look away from them at any given moment.” The depiction she offers is certainly charming, endearing even. It is also no different from what popular culture has dictated about how desire feels — this apolitical romantic attraction based on preconceived notions of what a desirable body looks like. But it doesn’t consider how desire, in and by itself, could be a choice that is conditioned, however personal it may appear at first. And even though Bridgerton is not a show I look towards to give me an astute articulation of caste and racial hierarchy structures, what it does offer is fantasy. But, it does so without acknowledging that fantasies are often products of systemic forces.
The question then becomes this: is it possible to feel desire when you haven’t already worked towards wanting to desire that person? Haven’t been conditioned into wanting to desire that person, socialised into desiring that person?
A decade ago, I met a nadar Christian man on a matrimonial website. He told me it was “fine” that I was Dalit, “as long as I did not show it”. The extent of his bigotry and its egregiousness from that point unravelled quickly. Shortly after, he disclosed his belief that Hitler’s idea of Aryan supremacy made complete sense and, by extension, so did brahmin superiority — which drew upon the same logic of hierarchy and subjugation. The very next day he told me his family has insisted he marry into the caste. I continued to date him, and in that, I went through more emotional abuse that broke down my confidence in ways I could never heal from.
When I think back upon all of it, it strikes me as painful dissonance. To say that I felt lonely as a Dalit woman navigating urban spaces in the face of an utter lack of relatable perspectives on desire, does not cover a modicum of the despondence I experienced because of the loneliness. On the one hand were savarna feminists, who were heralding a new world of sexual openness and exploration. They were pursuing supposedly edgy and aspirational writings about the orgasm gap, polyamory and casual sex. On the other hand, were the women in my family, who were harping on about the importance of morality and modest aesthetics. I became a living paradox: feeling pressured to explore intimacy in one moment because I was a “modern woman” and guilt-ridden in the next because I was flouting a hundred rules of respectability. While growing up, I was told that the most cardinal of all sins was sexual promiscuity. This instruction, however, did not just stem from our Christian beliefs but, rather, from a fear that we could get slut-shamed and the severity of the social consequences that would hold. The precarity of our lives and reputations could be threatened even by an unfounded rumour. Our only source of social capital — the Tamizh Christian community — could further ostracise us in addition to the discrimination they were already inflicting. The fear that I could be called “easy” and the reality that men of all castes interpreted my innocuous gestures as “slutty”, influenced most of my romantic and sexual decisions during my formative years, when I approached desire with trepidation.
One of my first understandings of the kind of conservatism I was experiencing came through my friendships. Curious differences between our experiences, despite some outward similarities, baffled me. It is not like my savarna girlfriends did not have fear drilled into them too; they came from families that were conservative in their own ways. Yet, their worlds were starkly different from mine.
Most of them identified as feminists and had the awareness to recognise abuse within intimate relationships, but they did not seem to understand how power differentials between partners — especially when one of them is a Dalit woman — intensified the potential for violence. They seemed unaware of the ecosystem that was enabling this harm and would tell me that I was too picky whenever I shared my stories of these disappointments. I felt let down by this lack of engagement, not to mention their disinterest in understanding the specificity of my situation and the stereotypes Dalit women have to confront.
My experience with the nadar man, and the ones that came both before and after him, felt alien to my savarna friends. In one instance, in the aftermath of an abusive episode with an ex-boyfriend, I was cautioned to “be very sure before I broke up because there was no guarantee I would find someone again”. By not understanding the prejudice inherent to the situation, they distressed me further. I clearly knew what I was hearing was untrue, but thanks to my poor self-confidence, I was unable to openly question it. I remember freezing up as my friend said those words; one of my fears was being validated by someone I trust.
Dr Tamalapakula, in her brilliant analysis of the conditions of Dalit women on Indian college campuses, explains:
While the assertive mainstream feminist is respected, the assertive dalit woman is mostly condemned both by upper-castes and dalit male groups. The reason being the visible assertion of feminist students is understood to be the result of superiority of their caste/class and urban life […] where as the dalit middle class woman is expected to reject sexuality to fit the stereotyped image of a victim of caste based sexual violence.
Regardless of how my savarna girlfriends exercised their sexual freedom (casual sex, sex with coupled men, queer experiments), they never seemed to run out of prospects for dating or marriage. If any of them failed to find a person through modern methods of courtship, their families were still able to find them a partner through arranged marriage; their “hoe phase”* not coming in the way of this. They effectively leveraged global discourses on sexual liberation to allow themselves comfortable choices.
Women’s lifestyle magazines were worse; they published several first-person pieces about sexual experiences but never acknowledged intimate abuse, let alone delved into its intersections with caste — and the abuse that emerged in that place of intersection. Granted that the information ecosystem in my early twenties was markedly different from what it is today, but it also shows how decision-making structures were skewed back then. It is not surprising that the experiences of Dalit women — in romance, sex and desire — weren’t of interest to editorial teams, which were mostly dominated by savarna men and women. This explains why I did not receive the education to critically understand popular culture and the romantic lives of my savarna peers; it did not occur to me until my exes became explicit in their casteism, when the language to understand their contempt became urgent.
Although my exposure to mainstream feminism, which manifested in the media I was consuming and through my friends, made me want to blame the women in my family for their “regressive positions”, I later understood why they were so austere when it came to sex and desire. They called themselves “no-nonsense” — a term that indicated a certain comportment; they hoped it would deter unwanted sexual advances. This decision —made both purposefully and subconsciously, to maintain and project a morally upright conduct — was crucial for their survival, especially amid the prevalence of caste-based sexual violence. They had to work extra hard to tackle the impunity with which this violence arose and to come across as “respectable women of value” because Indian societies, by default, ascribe value to individuals based on caste.
In a piece I wrote in 2018, I mentioned that in Hinduism, the brahmin woman is deemed to be the most valuable amongst women — followed by the kshatriya, the vaishya and the shudra. No value is attached to the Dalit woman; she is regarded as one of the lowest of life forms — polluting and dirty, and on par with wild animals. I had begun investigating the intersection of caste and desire in my twenties, and I dug further into the roots of what is believed to legitimise violence and discrimination within Indian dating. The following verses from the Manusmriti illustrate further:
[Chapter 8: 373] “A double fine should be imposed on a man who has already been convicted and is accused (again) within a year, and it should be just as much for cohabiting with a woman outlaw or a ‘Fierce’ Untouchable woman.”
[Chapter 11: 176] “If a priest unknowingly has sex with ‘Fierce’ Untouchable women or very low-caste women, eats (their food) or accepts (gifts from them), he falls if knowingly, he becomes their equal.”
[Chapter 12: 55] “A priest killer gets the womb of a dog, a pig, a donkey, a camel, a cow, a goat, a sheep, a wild animal, a bird, a ‘Fierce’ Un-touchable, or a ‘Tribal.’”
Dr Roja Singh, whose work I read last year, in her book Spotted Goddesses: Dalit Women’s Agency-Narratives on Caste and Gender Violence, has commented on these verses:
“In the Manusmriti, a Dalit woman will cause the downfall of a caste person as the reification of curse. The caste person who has intimate relations with her becomes “untouchable” because she pollutes their purity and destroys chances of salvation […S]he is the brute whether she is the victim or not, and her body as the curse becomes the premise of victimisation of which caste males need to beware. However, the Manusmriti does not state that the untouchable woman could gain redemption in sexual relations with a caste male embodying “purity” [.…] A Dalit woman is stagnant in her polluted state as “a curse” and “the cursed” as she cannot recess into anything worse or become anything better.”
From the above, the distinctive forms of aversion and domination reserved for Dalit women become very clear. The Hindu texts are derogatory to all women, and the Manusmriti, in particular, has been influential in coding caste-wide misogyny into the Indian social system. But subject to the authority of brahmin men, brahmin women are still placed at the top of the pyramid of Indian womanhood, followed by kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra women — all of whom are under the authority of their caste men and those positioned above them. This placement gives them (savarna women) enough authority to hegemonically dictate what constitutes desire and who deserves to be desired.
Dalit women, who are considered inferior and untouchable, are placed so far below in the pyramid, that they are subject to the authority of everyone above them, including the women that belong to the shudra and dvija* (twice-born) castes. Social media influencers of the Indian diaspora, who are reclaiming their desi feminist roots, must realise that Hinduism does not consider “women” as a homogenous category; instead, it prescribes clear distinctions along with power, labour and sexual discipline.
Thus the caste system, or more appropriately brahminical patriarchy — “a set of rules and institutions in which caste and gender are linked, each shaping the other and where women are crucial in maintaining the boundaries between castes” — both victimises and benefits savarna women. Uma Chakravarthy in her seminal paper in Economic and Political Weekly, ‘Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India’, explains that “women’s perpetuation of the caste system was achieved partly through their investment in a structure that rewarded them even as it subordinated them at the same time”. Consequently, their superior caste positions don’t just entitle savarna women with the social power to subjugate but also compel them to embody the characteristics of “ideal womanhood”, which include chastity, purity, modesty, fidelity, beauty and sanctity — all as imagined by the brahmanical mind.
Over the ages, this “ideal” has undergone several transformations. Due to political, social and ideological interventions in the last century, whether it is demands for women’s education and property rights, the influence of Western media and feminist thought, and the participation of savarna women in nation-building processes — those mechanisms that sought to control the identity and sexual freedom of sarvana women have been disrupted. This shift has enabled them to redefine the very concept and expression of womanhood — from traditional to modern, from conservative to progressive. But these transitions, whether intentional or not, have been tactical, integrating newer feminist elements with older brahmanical notions. ‘An Ode To Modern Indian Woman and All That She Is…’, an article on Medium, puts it this way: “Today’s woman is progressive in thinking but still, has a deep-rooted respect for the Indian culture and traditions.” Priyanka Chopra Jonas reclaiming the mangalsutra – an accepted symbol of caste endogamy — while facing no threat to her status as a “modern feminist icon” is a case in point.
Savarna feminism has thus been designed only to challenge patriarchy, not caste. It enables savarna women to exercise liberal politics, practise sexual freedom, exhibit desirable aesthetics, access global literacy and achieve economic success while keeping their caste power and privilege intact. Their feminism doesn’t threaten their caste location and, in many instances, is even emboldened by it. This is why the empowered savarna woman archetype, in its many versions, is considered aspirational and attractive by the Indian psyche, which has been socialised for centuries to see savarna as superior. It is all the more so in our current capitalist reality, where one’s caste can be leveraged and downplayed simultaneously, so as to create an entirely new but evolving identity — the globalised, modern Indian woman, who is savarna but cultured enough to keep her caste location subtle, international, woke* and learned. This collective accomplishment of savarna women, which becomes more layered with every generation, is possible only because of their caste power — one that they didn’t have to work for, one that was bestowed upon them at birth.
In sharp contrast are Dalit and other caste-excluded women, whose existence is still conceived within stereotypes. Neither do they possess the caste power to access capital and resources nor can they meet the ever-changing cultural mandate for womanhood or wokeness, as defined by those with caste power.
In the popular imagination, Dalit women are also perceived to be mere victims, as individuals that can’t exist outside of violence. Although violence is an inescapable reality for many Dalit women, especially for those who live in impoverished and unsafe conditions — the amplification of the victim stereotype not only engenders more violence but also normalises it. Within interpersonal contexts, particularly those that are romantic or sexual in nature, the victim stereotype translates into a power dynamic that has the potential to oppress Dalit women.
But what exists in opposition to, and along with, this purported narrative of victimhood, is the general incredulousness around the crime when it takes place. At a panel discussion that I was part of a few years ago, a communist male leader brazenly opined that “Dalit women are too scary, we can’t touch them that easily.” No one in the audience seemed to have a problem with that statement; they welcomed it as fact. And yet, crime statistics say otherwise. The misconception that was disclosed in that panel has not in any way dissuaded perpetrators from inflicting heinous violence on Dalit women. But it has discouraged civil society members and lawmakers from taking caste-based sexual violence seriously. Assaulting “scary, tough” Dalit women is unfathomable to the minds that believe they are too unfeminine to be touched.
Almost every love interest of mine has tried to correct my behaviour and nudge me towards adopting a more “ladylike” demeanour. Some have explicitly compared me to their savarna girlfriends or exes, saying that the latter were womanlier and more delicate, and, as a result, evoked intense feelings in them. On their part, television and cinema have reified this false feminine-unfeminine dichotomy between savarna and Dalit women and promoted the idea that femininity, as expressed by savarna women, is a key ingredient in heterosexual and heteronormative desire.
By casting savarna women as the love interests of its protagonists, popular culture has also reinforced that they are the only ones worthy of love, lust and legitimacy. Even in the case of Dalit male protagonists, the person who becomes their love interest most of the time is a savarna woman (Sairat, Thalapathi, Kaadhal). Dalit women, if and when represented, are depicted as angry, loud and verbally abusive. Pa. Ranjith’s Kaala, a 2018 Tamizh film, is an interesting example, however. Selvi, Kaala’s wife, is cast as a loud-mouthed homemaker, and Zareena, Kaala’s ex-girlfriend, is cast as a sophisticated activist. While the stereotypes are kept intact, what I found refreshing was Kaala’s choosing to be with Selvi, the Dalit woman.
A year ago, a friend shared one of her conversations with a savarna man, who had spoken at length about his sexual experiences. She recalled him saying that if he knew the woman he was having sex with was Dalit, he would be extra rough and do whatever he wanted, as against a savarna woman with whom he would be gentle. I wasn’t shocked by his revelation, but it triggered me all the same, taking me back to my own experiences of sexual exploitation and assault. Sometimes, there’s no hard evidence to illustrate how caste breaches intimate boundaries. It is felt in the predator’s touch, their careless tossing of one’s body, their indifference to pain and fear, and their gaze once it’s over — a mix of lust, disgust and conquest.
It is with this knowledge, context and information that I want us to re-evaluate our contemporary understanding of inter-caste love, sex positivity, body politics and legitimacy. The recent slew of social media accounts run by savarna influencers, who have monopolised feminist narratives, with no awareness of how these interact with caste, is a case in point. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2020 Hathras rape and murder, in an effort to protest the gruesomeness of the act, a popular handle started a campaign that asked women to post tongue selfies. Other mainstream feminist handles also continued to create content around self-care, vagina appreciation and sex positions at this time. To Dalit women who witnessed this response, and were reeling with massive grief and anger, such campaigns are at best insensitive, indifferent at worst.
Similarly, popular anti-caste discourses that do not take into account how societies undervalue Dalit and other caste-excluded women, are equally disempowering. Inter-caste unions, for example, aren’t always anti-caste; it is highly possible that one’s choice to partner with a savarna woman, who has traditionally been ascribed higher value, is motivated more by social conditioning. It cannot necessarily be read as a desire to annihilate caste. It is revolutionary love only when, as Dr B.R. Ambedkar says: “Make every man and woman free from the thraldom of the Shastras, cleanse their minds of the pernicious notions founded on the Shastras, and he or she will inter-dine and inter-marry, without your telling him or her to do so.”
We need a Dalit feminist standpoint that uproots the entire infrastructure around which ideas of desire are being built. We need a feminism that interrogates caste as much as it does patriarchy.
Dalit women should be able to express their desire to anyone, without feeling insecure about their desirability or having to measure themselves against a savarna ideal — a radical Dalit feminist framework of desire would enable that. They have a right to sexual pleasure, in the way they imagine it, with consent and without shame, which includes having adequate knowledge about safe sex, obtaining access to contraception, choosing or practicing a preferred sexual orientation, experimenting without the fear of moralistic judgments, and having the space to talk about sexual pleasure and more both within feminist and anti-caste circles. And they deserve to feel accepted and cherished in relationships, without being pressured to constantly prove their value or susceptible to abuse by virtue of their caste location. And they have a right to seek marital unions if they so decide, without being judged by the savarna gaze for making “unfeminist” choices. Constantly prioritising savarna women and perceiving them as the only ones worthy of desire will continue to disregard Dalit women and, ultimately, rob them of their right to love and be loved.
We must rediscover Dalit love within our communities. Investing in each other is revolutionary, especially in the face of caste hatred. It is vital that we reimagine what sisterhood, community, parenting, friendship, solidarity and family means to us. In a world devoid of recognition, Dalit love will keep us secure, valued and rooted.
Notes on Terminology:
1. Savarna refers to individuals or groups belonging to the castes that are part of varna (caste) system. These include the brahmins, the kshtariyas, the vaishyas, and the shudras.
2. Dvija means “twice-born”, which includes only the brahmins, the kshatriyas, and the vaishyas
3. In this essay, “Dalit” refers to only those individuals and groups that were earlier known as the untouchables. Note that not all Dalits are officially classified as scheduled castes. This essay also does not claim to represent all Dalit women.
4. In this essay, the term “caste-excluded” refers to avarna (outcastes) communities that were not historically recognised as being part of the varna (caste) system.
5. The term “woke” refers to being aware of and taking a stand against social injustices. In the Indian/South Asian context, it is associated with progressive politics and could mean “anti-caste”, “feminist”, “leftist”, or a combination of all three.
6. “Hoe-phase” typically refers to a time in a person’s life when they are said to be especially promiscuous.