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Dalit Identity and the Ivy League

Posted on December 07, 2022

2.5 Million Dalit Women to file Land Claims
Boy at protest during the 2013 Dalit Land Rights Campaign in India. By ActionAid India.

"Do you have to erase your cultural identity in order to succeed?" So wonders the narrator of Suraj Badtiya’s masterful short story “Gujji,” translated by John Vater. The story appeared several years ago as part of a Words Without Borders collection of literature from members of India's Dalit caste, sometimes pejoratively referred to as "untouchables."

Recently Brown University joined a rapidly growing group of other US schools in explicitly banning caste discrimination, becoming the first Ivy League institution to do so. In an NBC report on the new rule, a graduate of the university who suffered from this kind of discrimination comments:

“It’s a first step. It opens doors for dialogue that hasn’t been happening,"

Despite some progress, the continuing discrimination against Dalits in India constitutes what Human Rights Watch has called "a hidden apartheid;" a 2014 study found that 35% of state schools required Dalit children to sit separately from others at lunch. It is no surprise, then, the question of what it means to be a human among humans permeates this literature.

Gujji” tells the story of a young Dalit man's rise to middle-class success, and of the sacrifices that entails. The main character, Ramdas, comes from a family of pork sellers; his nickname, "Gujji," is a slur word for the sausage they make (with great difficulty) and sell (for pennies.) The narrator comments:

Before he was even aware of it, it was as if his ears had absorbed this slur on his identity. First given to him in school, the name had already cooked through by the time he was a boy in the alleys of the neighborhood, much like the sausages boiled and hung from his family’s shop. When we’re raw, we’re free to trim our identities—their shape and size—to our liking. But what do we know then? Meaning, it takes time for rawness to give way to maturity. And how mature was Gujji at that age?

Such a nickname---and all the ostracism it implies---could hamper a person for life, but Gujji succeeds in school, re-assumes his given name of Ramdas, attains an MBA, and, in one of the story's ironies, seeks an executive position at perhaps the world's most famous purveyor of cheap meats: McDonald's Corporation.

Yet, a feeling of deep shame, compounded by the covert prejudice he senses from potential colleagues, continues to haunt him. After an interview in which Ramdas answers all their questions with "deep confidence and enthusiasm," he goes home to a sleepless night spent wondering, "Even after I’ve gotten so many degrees, why won’t they look at me like another human being?”

Educators might introduce the themes in this story by having students respond to the question "Do you have to erase your cultural identity in order to succeed?"---which remains relevant in many places besides India.

When they are finished reading, students might discuss their responses to a different question from the narrator:

[D]oes society torture all Ramdases this way? Not everyone is lucky enough to study and become a manager.

What happens to young adults who face the same harsh circumstances and stigma as Ramdas, but lack the combination of factors that can smooth a pathway into an easier life? (As an extension, students might research "Ramdases" in their own parts of the world.)

Many others stories on WWB Campus could make interesting pairs with "Gujji," including,

  • The Stone Guest, from Russia, another look at what it means to "trim our identities," via the metaphor of sculpture, rather than sausages
  • A Dream in a Polar Fog, from Siberia, an inside look at the way racism clouds perceptions
  • A Failed Journey, set in Mexico, this story also features a character's journey to McDonald's

With its organizing metaphor of sausage, harrowing scenes of animal slaughter, and implicit critique of big business, "Gujji" could also make an excellent companion text to Upton's Sinclair's The Jungle.

As a culminating assignment, students might speculate about it might be like for Ramdas to work at the McDonald's corporation, with colleagues who may share some of the prejudices of the man who quit rather than work alongside him.

For students interested in learning more about Dalit equity, the civil rights organization Equality Labs posts a collection of research, as well as online resources for people experiencing discrimination. For a personal account, we recommend Vasant Moon’s Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography, described as "eye-opening" in the New York Review of Books.

This post is modified from a teaching guide that first appeared on this site in 2018---Eds.