Physical Distance, Social Unity

In linking, on Wednesday, to Sujatha Gidla’s moving op-ed – about being “a New York City subway conductor who had Covid-19” and “going back to work” in the wake of having lost multiple beloved colleagues to the disease – I started to reference her memoir, Ants Among Elephants. According to her publisher, the book is “The stunning true story of an untouchable family who become teachers, and one, a poet and revolutionary.” I’m not entirely sure about that sentence – including it’s use of the outmoded term “untouchable” – but its content should be enough to illuminate my hesitation and ultimate, temporary side-stepping of her biography and identity.

But then last night over dinner, my partner cut to the heart of the matter. “I read Sujatha Gidla’s editorial. It was powerful,” she said, and then paused. “She must have referenced caste and then the Times edited it out.”

We talked about this at some length before I volunteered that I was going to write this piece today, and while I can’t say what any editors may or may not have done, it remains striking that an op-ed on COVID-19 disparities in a time of social distancing, an op-ed which references Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as the point of connection between “a woman from India” and the “black co-worker [she] used to see every day” – a coworker with whom she became friendly enough that “whenever [they] ran into each other [they] hugged and cheek-kissed” and who, in recent weeks, died of COVID-19 – that an op-ed at root about injustice should elide caste.

Right here, I’ll stop and say unequivocally that it is Sujatha Gidla’s business, and her business alone what she chooses and chooses not to disclose or discuss about herself; however, given that the Times links, at the op-ed’s bottom, to the book’s official site, it feels reasonable to at least point to yet another failure – not of Gidla’s, for I have no criticism to level at her, and am humbled by the efforts not so much of mythologized “heroes”, but of public sector workers and the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have kept the City running through these crushing weeks and months – but of the Times. I’ve been critiquing the New York Times for years, and although I’d love to simply be done with the publication, it just keeps giving me new opportunities (not that I go looking for them), and it seems likely that I’ll be critiquing our problematic, bourgeois paper of record for years to come. For now, I’ll just point out that for all its coverage of COVID-19 in India, the Times has barely mentioned caste.

Caste is, of course, a minefield, a tragedy, a whole society’s shame, and, above all, a monumental evil and injustice. I’m not the right person to speak to its manifold historical and contemporary complexities – which is why, in approaching it on Wednesday, I eventually decided to avoid the topic altogether. Too explosive, and not my place; however, given the widespread failure of corporate media in the United States (or – from what I’ve observed as a regular Times of India reader/skimmer – in India) to acknowledge the troubling resonances of the virtuous social distancing in which we’re all now expected to engage, and the ancient social stigmas associated with the conceptions of purity and contamination that are coded into caste logic, I’m now feeling duty-bound to make such an acknowledgement myself.

Caste matters, obviously. It’s as confusing to talk about Gidla’s solidarity with her Black colleague in the absence of caste, as it would be to talk about the inspiration that the founders of the Dalit Panthers took from some people in the United States without acknowledging that those people were Black.

(Incidentally, Michelle Alexander herself advances an – in my view troubling – argument that we now have a “racial caste” system in the United States. Obviously, race matters as well, and when Black men are being gunned down on video in cold blood in the street [link is for a Color of Change petition demanding justice for Ahmaud Arbery], and the NYPD is resuscitating stop-and-frisk under cover of social distancing enforcement, far be it from me to detract from the centrality of white supremacy and anti-Blackness to the substance of the United States, but to conflate the two – race and caste – tends towards an erasure of relevant specificities when perhaps an elaboration of the similarities and differences of those specificities is apropos.)

In India, independent media outlet The Wire – the editor of which is currently being subjected to legal harassment at the hands of the government of the most unhinged BJP chief minister in India – has been reporting since March on the connections between caste and social distancing, in pieces like “Social Distancing and the Pandemic of Caste” and “The History of Caste Has Lessons on the Dangers of Social Distancing,” and while I’d qualify that the phrase “Pandemic of Caste” is itself clumsy and misleading, the case remains: What now we do to protect ourselves and each other echoes practices that have long been employed to marginalize, exclude, and destroy Dalits in India.

(The point is too obvious to bear reiterating, but social distancing is, itself a privilege, and the people most subject to caste stigma are also generally those least able to practice social distancing during the pandemic.)

Coming back to Gidla though, I appreciated her powerful memoir, and if the book’s subtitle – “An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” – hints that its target audience may have been educated US-based readers like myself (FSG published it, after all) that does little to detract from the raw power of her story and that of her remarkable family.

After the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012 (which, as Rebecca Solnit pointed out – in an essay itself problematic for its use of the term “Manistan” to characterize the space of global rape culture, as if it couldn’t instead have been the “Man-centric States of America” – occurred around the same time as the brutal gang rape of a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio), a white, female Facebook friend of my partner’s took to that platform to decry the horrible misogyny and violence against women in India (a country which she had never visited) and to express gratitude for all the freedoms she enjoyed in the United States. Again, identity is explosive, and I’ll let this case speak for itself, but what I hope not to see is any (white, US-based) readers largely unfamiliar with the horrors of caste coming away from this piece with an undue sense of self-congratulation or neocolonial moral superiority. We can despise our current President, all he doesn’t stand for, and – chief among his many faults – his long history of committing sexual assault, and still also believe that credible accusations against Joe Biden should be investigated. Something like that. It’s not an either/or; it’s about compassion and justice.

Say you’re interested in better understanding caste, though, since the New York Times will never, ever write anything meaningful or challenging on the subject. You could start by going through the many illuminating blurbs on the Dalit History Month website, taking note that two of the first modern anti-caste activists of note were the couple Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule; then read Arundhati Roy’s polarizing long-form essay “The Doctor and the Saint” on the relationship (and political conflict) between Gandhi and Ambedkar; then read Dr. Ambedkar’s own magnum opus (even considering that he also wrote much/most of the Indian Constitution), The Annihilation of Caste; then read this Equality Labs report on “Caste in the United States” (after which, you might want to peruse the Equality Labs website in detail); and after all that, you’re on your own (though if you practice yoga, you may also want to read my partner’s piece, “The Responsibilities of a Modern Yogi”).

And, of course, read Gidla’s searing book.

In closing, I’ll point to incisive scholarly work by the late Sharmila Rege, and ever insightful political commentary from the singular Vijay Prashad.

In analyzing the consumption of Dalit autobiographies by non-Dalit readers, and critiquing the “tokenist addition” of Dalit writing to anthologies, Rege questioned:

Can reading and teaching of dalit autobiographies radicalise the perception of readers? Do readers conveniently consume these narratives as narratives of pain and suffering refusing to engage with the politics and theory of Ambedkarism?

These are profound questions through which readers will have to sort for themselves, but even thoughtful people can’t sort through things they don’t first encounter. Such should be the role of media – to surface and shed light on what matters.

Finally, Vijay Prashad. I’m still concerned about some of his take on China’s handling of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, and perhaps its wrong to reference a non-Dalit intellectual as this piece concludes, but he’s had a number of nice articles out lately about Kerala’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and it is from Kerala’s Marxist Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan – quoted in one of Prashad’s articles – that I have borrowed the title of this piece.

To quote Chief Minister Vijjayan: “Physical distance, social unity – that should be our slogan at this time.”

Simple, elegant, and beautifully put. I don’t know if that framing manages to sidestep the disconcerting resonances between the necessary physical distancing of the present, and the persistent caste-based exclusion that is still so central to Indian life – in fact, I’m certain it does not sidestep the un-sidesteppable question of caste – but it is a heartening reframing nonetheless.

Physical distance, social unity. Here’s to that, and to overcoming the pandemic and all its concomitant hardships globally. And if you’re looking to support Equality Labs’ great work, they have a “COVID-19 Community Guide” up in a dozen different Indian/South Asian languages, and are accepting donations to support their continued “fight on behalf of South Asian American religious and cultural minority communities […] against caste and Islamophobia.” We’ve donated regularly, and it would be great if you did, too, if you’re in a position to do so.

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