“I can’t be depressed, I am Dalit.”
Posted On: 10-10-2019
Academia is obsessed with marketing mental health as a science, without bothering to locate it as something that could be produced by social realities. And in India, is there any other social reality that is bigger than the reality of caste?
By Vijeta Kumar
2019 is a year of many millennial wonders. It is the year where finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman blames millennials’ dependence on Ola/Uber for the crisis in the automobile sector. It is also the year where millennials are being credited for being proactive – for showing political gusto, not being apathetic – and most importantly, for lifting the stigma off of mental illness.
What isn’t clear, however, is whom we imagine when we speak of millennials. In India, the term ‘millennial’, much like the terms ‘adulting’ and ‘mental illness’, is entering that dangerous territory where words and concepts go to become Savarna before they can be used in a more accessible way by others. When we say millennials here, are we referring to a group that is inevitably English- speaking, politically correct and dominant-caste?
So where are the Dalit millennials? Do they talk about mental illness just as openly as other millennials do? Do they even have mental health issues the same way that others do? If we are looking at psychology and its practice for an answer, we have very little to go with.
Not much has changed in the psychology that I knew as a student eight years ago, and the one that I know now. Today, the only difference seems to be the growing interest in making mental illness a condition of national importance. And this is done with a passive-aggressive resistance to deal with caste as the default national condition.
In counselling practices and in classrooms, sensitivity to caste is mentioned only in passing – under the garb of ‘socio-economic’ contexts where caste is easily interchanged with class. As this article rightly points out – “Casteism plays out in several ways and the everydayness of it in (these) institutions is hardly curtailed by rules and regulations.” The idea that caste-based discrimination is a thing of the past, and that only class is the real problem nowadays, is venomously pervasive in the urban classroom. Very often the only time caste emerges in these discussions is when strong anti-reservation sentiments need venting.
So what we are essentially getting is a western manual to understanding mental illness that doesn’t have the backbone to look eye-to-eye with caste. The problem with psychology and counselling as they appear to be practised in academia today is their obsession with marketing it as a science(in classrooms, lectures, careers.)
There has been a consistent narrativising of mental illness as a universal problem without bothering to locate it as something that could be produced by social realities. And since we are speaking about India, is there any other social reality here that is bigger than the reality of caste?
Urban Dalit students sometimes grow up being unaware of their identity but always suspecting that there is something very wrong about them, and the way others treat them. If they are fortunate enough to discover Ambedkar or have Ambedkarite friends, all those failed friendships, the slurs, the anxieties of the past begin to make sense. But more often than not, for an urban Dalit, the discovery of their identity usually comes after they’ve been made to feel that they don’t deserve to be where they are – and always, the people who come bearing this news are Savarna.
If a Dalit student sitting in the same classroom as others finds that this is their mental illness, what discourse surrounding counselling is equipped to understand that? At the same time, if a savarna student has been led to believe that they are not just depressed but also have the right to be, how often is this right made to confront caste privilege?
These are questions that psychologists/counsellors in academia today do not have an answer to, and worse, don’t care to ask. It is too much to take in. After all, if anything has been given the narrative of equalising people or at least producing its illusion, it is mental illness. In its face, everyone is an equal.
In The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Oprah tells us about the time she was trying to convince an African girl that she had depression. But the girl said, “I can’t be depressed, I am African.” Oprah later added that it’s what she was trying to get African women to see – that they can be depressed too.
Watching this gave me a language to understand the older women in my family. The point here is not for us to say that we can be depressed too. The point, at least for me, is to recognise that older women in my family have fought, and are fighting long battles with themselves, and longer battles with the world around them without any discourse or nuance (celebrated savarna words).
The argument here is also not that Dalit women don’t have access to mental health practitioners (which is a perfectly reasonable claim to make) but that Dalit women are surviving the silence that comes from/after knowing that no amount of mental healthing is going to save them from a Savarna world. That the point of the lesson all along was to understand that if you live in a Savarna world, you are, by default already mentally ill – no matter who you are – Savarna, Shudra, or Dalit.
What counselling or therapy can help this?
Believing that someone else is going to do your job for you – for which you not only have to pay but must also make yourself submit to medication – is a time-tested Savarna practice.
From the women of my caste, I have learnt that the phrase “I cannot be depressed, I am Dalit” is not something that needs to be fixed – it’s to be dusted and worn proudly. My father’s adolescence was dealt with in this manner. He spent most of his student days having to save himself from slipping too deep inside. When you walk the entirety of your youth on eggshells, having to be cautious at every step about not offending people, about not drawing attention to yourself, about wondering where your food is going to come from, there is no time for depression. If all your focus is on not being murdered, squashed, pushed back into a corner – that becomes your depression.
When I was growing up, my father was annoyingly watchful of my moods and extremely angry if I so much as ate food without showing gratitude. He filled our home with everything he couldn’t have while growing up, but took extra care to not spoil us. He would constantly, sometimes aggressively, bring our attention back to ourselves – how we were sitting, sleeping, eating, brushing our teeth, reading and so on.
Dalit parenthood is a curiously unchartered territory. It must be scary for Dalit parents to bring up children in a world that is hell-bent on making their children believe that they are depressed/anxious for a reason that can’t be helped. When they come to cities, they often have no predecessors to follow, no textbook/manual to navigate things like what to say to neighbours or how to behave at parent-teacher meetings or where to take your child if she looks sad all the time.
The only thing that they can do is mimic Savarna parenthood. And when they can’t do that, they can only rely on instinct (which is true of most parenthoods). But this is scarier because they prepare us not to compete, but to survive in a Savarna world, so they do this by shielding us from caste. They won’t tell us who we are or what the world thinks we are. They give us the best version of themselves to us, and pray that the world will too.
My grandmother doesn’t laugh when she tells me that we became GSB (Goud Saraswat Brahmin) when a Brahmin priest poked her palm with his index finger, and chanted mantras. She doesn’t laugh when she tells me that a year before her husband died, he wrote down the date of his death on their bedroom wall. In fact, in all the time I have known her, she has never said anything that she didn’t believe to be true.
But last week, when she came to live with us, my mother told me that my grandmother had lost her mind. That she spent hours talking to herself, carried a fistful of sugar from room to room, eating it like she was drinking water, that she lied about taking her medicines and people stealing/owing her money in the same breath, as if they were interchangeable.
“Depressed people do that”, my mother added.
When I asked her what my grandmother talks to herself about, she said that they were mostly abuses hissed at people she still imagined were alive – older relatives, neighbours, husband and so on. Then she quickly gave me a delayed preamble: “She has gone through a lot. Both before and after Papa passed away. She brought us up alone.”
It was Amma’s way of reminding both me and herself that there is no medicine for the way she is.
Elsewhere, I have written about how caste lives in our bodies and what it does. Much like depression, caste and its symptoms are invisible to an entitled eye. But unlike depression, there is neither a therapist nor a prescription to help deal with caste.
What my grandmother will not admit to is – being denied entry to temples when that’s where she most wanted to be. What she will instead tell me is that things are much better now, that there was a time when her mother-in-law was pulled by her hair and dragged away by priests when she went to the temple, that people stood armed with stones to attack her if she so much as came close. That ‘things are not like that anymore’ and for this, she is grateful.
A couple of my students who are slowly discovering that they are Dalit are finding it extremely hard to deal with the trauma. They feel guilty for having a good life and are afraid about what this discovery means because they are constantly thinking about the Dalit people who are suffering more than them and this makes them feel like they don’t deserve anything.
When you go through life believing that there’s always someone else who deserves kindness more than you do, it becomes a kind of trauma that cannot be ‘counselled’ by someone whose knowledge of caste begins and ends with adding the word ‘creed’ after that.
There must be a space where we can meet to understand that what these women did back then or what my students are doing now is beyond the comfort zone of romanticising Dalit resilience or submitting it to the badge of victimhood. They are fighting – with or without recognising it as mental illness.
I sleep-walked through most of my school years. Much of it was spent dealing with an undefinable emptiness. It came from feeling dead inside in the classroom and outside. And because my mother is quicker at observing and learning from Savarna behaviour, she kept telling my father to take me to a psychiatrist and he dismissed it by saying, “Give her work to do”.
He pushed me into doing small chores around the house every time he saw me idle – “Go make tea… go water the plants… go clean the bathroom.” I thought that he wouldn’t have told me to do these things if I were a boy and it made me so mad that I grew up detesting him. Now I recognise that I spent a large part of my adolescence by behaving in a very Savarna way towards my father. Because what he did back then by dismissing psychiatry/psychology saved me. Every time he pushed me into work, he was pushing me away from myself. And for this, I am grateful.
When people say that depression will go away if you throw yourself into work, it’s a stupid thing to say, yes. It comes from an entitled place of not knowing what depression feels like, yes. But it’s what my father said to me and it saved me then just as much it is saving me now.
Being Savarna makes it easier to remain with mental illness. Dalit people cannot afford mental illness. And the answer to this is not, “Come, you have the right to feel/be depressed. Go to a therapist, do self-care.” The answer to that for me is what my father told me, and what Ambedkar showed us: “I have come to realise that excellence is achieved through devotion. My devotion does not mean retiring to a forest and meditating there. My idea of devotion implies extreme power of enduring suffering, and extreme power of working.”
In the essay Shall we Leave it to the Experts? writer Arundhati Roy had observed that the people of India seem to be loaded on to two trucks (one big, one small) and that “they have set off resolutely in opposite directions. The tiny convoy is on its way to a glittering destination somewhere near the top of the world. The other convoy just melts into the darkness and disappears.”
That essay was written in 2002. As of 2019, one of those trucks has crossed the top of the world and is landing/lost on the moon, and the other has melted.
At a Dalit Women’s conference in 2017, activist Ruth Manorama had asked a roomful of women, “Where were these so-called college counsellors and therapists when Rohith Vemula died?”
Nobody knew then. Nobody knows now.
Author bio: Vijeta Kumar is a Bangalore-based teacher and writer. She spends a lot of time drinking tea and laughing on Twitter. You can follow her @rumlolarum or read more of her work on rumlolarum.com.
Illustration by Ipsa Jain. Title: The ghost of self. Note from the artist: Berated and beaten throughout history, the self becomes detached, but remains a part of existence -- a depression.