At the National Seminar on “Dalit Literature: Texts and Contexts”, organised by Delhi University’s English Department over three days (13–15 March 2019), like at any other seminar, a buffet lunch was served. As happens at most such events, the sole meat dish, or nonveg as it is called, was kept a part apart. At what was deemed a safe and agreeable distance from the other pure-veg stuff. Safe for and agreeable to whom? It was not clear if the Manu Smriti or Narada Smriti or DU’s rulebook designed by some long-dead registrar had been consulted as regards the decorous distance to be maintained. I asked an aproned cateter on whose orders this had been done. We do as some saheb tells us, he offered. Besides this is how it’s always done, another said. But how can this happen at a Dalit Literature conference? What texts, what contexts? While my eyes, tongue and my animated hands made much of this slight, the horizon of my sight was and is as such narrow, and I quickly got a a measure of this narrowness. Anyway, lunch passed without any commotion. Savarna and avarna supped together. My friend Satya told me he had boycotted the nonveg since it was kept separately. Nevertheless, over paneer and mutton, rice and roti, we discussed, gossiped, networked, exchanged cards, phone numbers, jotted ideas for another conference, another book, the next business. As conferences and conference lunches go, this was a modest affair.
In the middle of the hall, leaning along a rectangular pillar, was a large red plastic tub with a lid that would flap open, bob a bit, take in what we dumped, hide what needed to be hidden. But in no time, the beige styrofoam plates filled the tub. Thinking to be helpful, someone had taken the detachable lid off the tub so that room for more plates could be made. But there was no further room. This caused a tilting tower to rise. It resisted the brazen imposition of human illogic for a while. This installation emerged not out of art or deliberation. It came from the deliberations of many and yet no one would take responsibility for it. It was as if it had come up by itself. It was situational. Situation had created it, and it was now creating a situation. No one was taking pictures. My eyes kept darting to the impending disaster as I fingered my plate conducting an important conversation with Mini. The teetering temple could fall any time now, I said to Mini who sneaked a glance across her shoulder and averted her eyes. We muttered our disgust and got back to the business at hand. I was distracted but just enough to not do anything; not upset enough to disturb the balance of the room. A woman who knew she might cause it all to fall bravely took the risk and tried stacking her plate on top of the impossible pile. She shrank away when it all splattered with a bare muffle in the noisy room; the advantages of styrofoam are many. Use and throw, but who must still do the throwing away? The words disposal and disposable got stuck in my head. Gravity had unsentimentally offered us a quick measure of our indifference but we all remained unmoved, sure of our footing in this unequal world. Those that came after the tower’s collapse paused but for an empty moment before they emptied themselves, depositing plates on the floor, and walked towards the dessert corner. A Japanese, a Pakistani and a Hungarian seemed a little more disconcerted than the Indians habituated to their own apathy, but they too did as everyone did. I sat. I thought thoughtlessly. Is this the emptiness of the soul that the Buddha spoke about? I’d even glibly cited the the Paticca Samuppada speaking of Ambedkar during my pre-lunch presentation. The law of dependent arising or co-arising that says: From this being, that becomes; from this arising, that arises. This not being, that does not become; from this ceasing, that ceases. The resources of anticaste consciousness are not in Vedanta, but often in Buddhism, via Kabir and Ambedkar, I had said virtuously a little while ago.
I then gathered Mini’s plate and mine, with much more than our leftovers sticking to them, and placed these in another red tub in a corner of the hall. The creamy chicken with capsicum had indeed tasted good. I returned to the table and we discussed the merits of having dessert and whether Mini or I should publish Renukumar’s biography of Ayyankali written in Malayalam. There’s so much we have done, much we do, and so much more we could do for dalit history and for literature; there’s much we do to live with ourselves; it is doing something in and about the unfolding present that defeats us quietly. We forever look to not see. To be fair to myself and everyone in that room, to the organisers and participants, what happened was normal and must cause no cause for alarm. We must keep up the fight against injustice even as we inscribe ourselves into it. That, you see, is the work of thought. That is the work of politics. The work of literature. Like this. Equality, too, is merely the work of thought.
I meaningfully walked up to Juli standing next to the site of disaster—she’s to do an ethnology on e-waste in Delhi, not sure it will do anyone including herself any good—and she said, I wish I could do something about it but I’m too ashamed to say I don’t know what to do. I’d asked one of the waiters what could be done. Don’t worry, the safai-wallah will come after you are all done, he said. And so it must have happened, as it does at conference after conference, away from our gaze, as we huddled back for the post-lunch session.
The next day I went with Kamna, a research scholar in the department, to the dining hall a little ahead of lunch time. As a volunteer at the conference she had a tag and exuded some authority. Together we asked the head waiter to consider shifting the paneer dish to a safe distance from the rest of the food items, and keep the fish manchurian right in the middle of everything. They gladly obliged us. We had expected some resistance. Kamna and I felt triumphant. We congratulated ourselves for the radical act of subversion we had achieved with little effort. At a Dalit Literature conference we may be far from serving beef or pork but at least this blatant segregation of the more acceptable mutton, chicken or fish must be resisted. I boasted about our gesture to a few friends who walked into the hall and queued up with their styrofoam plates and plastic spoons. Avarna and savarna delegates appreciated our cleverness. Satya said he’d surely eat the fish now. I ate early and left before any of the red tubs could fill up and briefly ruffle my conscience or impel me toward a more real measure of resisting inequality.
Earlier, during a self-issued pee break, I had noticed what many had likely missed. The Conference Centre has several framed prints of great artists adorning its walls. On the way to the toilet, there was a M.F. Husain reproduction that I had been meaning to stare at when I had a moment to myself. It was hanging a little above eye level. Mini later told me, I too saw that painting and was studying it but had to move away quickly because a guy came along that deserted corridor unzipping before he had stepped into the ‘Gents’. After relieving myself into a bowl full of napthalene balls that neutered the ammoniacal discharge, I walked out and stood before the Husain. I stared. The protagonists of the painting were a man and woman, both painted in thick hues of brown. The man, shirtless and wearing a dhoti, was seated on the invisible ground with his hands animated, his fingers dancing as if forming a face of a horse (Husain had his signature horses on a cart by the left corner of the frame), his eyes masked by what seemed like a horn painted red and white, and a third eye, red, on his forehead, off-centre. Along the man stands a dark woman wearing an unevenly shaded indigo lehenga and a blouse, holding in her bangled right hand a light brown bag out of which three exquisitely etched spring onions pop out, their bulbs white, hairs brown. The bag has ‘SC’ written on it. The woman, like women in several Husain paintings, at once wears more than one face, seeing in many directions, one emerging and lapsing into another, a brown face merging into white, and then an abstract face jutting out. What does ‘SC’ stand for? Scheduled Caste seems most likely; I’m relieved it isn’t harijan; not Supreme Court surely; although Husain had his battles with the court, this didn’t seem to portend such affairs. Despite being in the thick of politics, dalit is a word in a sentence yet to come to Husain. What did Husain have in mind? What did he talk to these two about, what did they tell him? Is the man hiding his eyes from the sun as he looks up and sees us unseeing with his third eye, a circle of blood rimmed black. The work is dated and signed: ‘8.8.88 Husain New Delhi’.
Is this the only ‘dalit painting’ by Husain, I wonder. I could email some connoisseur and ask. I share my fortuitous discovery with Raj, Satya, Kamna and Jacob. Some of them go take pictures with their phones, like I had done. I’m easily pleased with my keen eye. Years of working with artists, reading Berger and Sontag and Ambedkar has paid off. I can see things that are right before my eyes, for which you need vision more than sight. I fall into the arms of pride. I stoop low to conquer. I’m a political animal who cannot be sated.
16–17 March 2019