My love for reading came from my mother. I vividly remember our Saturday afternoons. Amma would sit in our front yard, drying her freshly-washed hair in the sun, and read from her collection of Mills & Boons. Appa would buy those for her, or borrow from a local lending library and forget to return them.
My sister and I had our own books. Champaks were bought at railway stations, from dingy book stalls that had an array of religious and political literature. My little heart ached only for the comics. Misha came a little later; the glossy, white magazine from the Soviet Union, whose stories I didn’t always understand, but whose smell I adored. Sixty rupees for a ‘foreign magazine’ was an expensive annual subscription for my parents. If I were them, living in that time and age, I may not have spent that much on my children’s entertainment.
But that’s the thing; my parents, particularly my mother, didn’t see books as just entertainment. They were her idea of sweet escape from our everyday reality of caste and drudgery. It was her ladder, the one that she lent to us so we too can climb, like Jack did his beanstalk.
Speaking of which, I never got to read the classics as a child. I was in my twenties when I managed to read The Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan was a stranger till then. I knew Jesus though. I was a committed Sunday-school goer and the Indian church did its bit in encouraging me to read. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was recommended but I couldn’t get myself to focus until someone gave me an illustrated version. It had detailed sketches of Christian and his encounters with Obstinate, Prudence, Giant Despair, and others. I didn’t find his adventures relatable; he was white, muscular, and male. I was more curious about Christiana, his wife, the one who stayed behind.
Over the years, I have searched for other Christianas in between pages. The ones authors don’t always talk about, the ones that are lost in the noise of the mainstream. Nancy Drew was great, but what was Bess, whose weight was always mentioned, like? Divakaruni’s women were a delight but what of those that lived in the periphery?
It was a close friend who introduced me to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s work. I was walking into my university campus when he noticed a thick Harry Potter novel in my hand and chided me for reading ‘children’s books’. I’d like to escape into fantasy, I said. But have you tried Indian fiction, he asked. That took me to Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies and later, The Namesake; Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe, which I somewhat liked, and Mistress, which I fully disliked; Divakaruni’s Sister of my Heart and Queen of Dreams, Mistress of Spices and Vine of Desire, all of which I pored over, partly because I wanted to impress my erudite friend and partly because I loved her poetic prose.
But I soon became disillusioned with Indian fiction and its long-suffering heroines caught in the web of upper-caste patriarchy. I tried hard to relate to Priya Rao of The Mango Season and Padma of Listening Now. I tried harder with Ammu Ipe of The God of Small Things, who felt the most foreign. I was more concerned for Velutha and the women in his family. Who was his mother, what was her grief like? Did he have a sister, a cousin, a girlfriend, maybe? If I were in Ayemenem, would I have shaken him up from his reverie and warned him of what was to come? If I were his mother, would I have cursed Ammu and Baby Kochamma and their Syrian Christian hubris that killed my son? Roy’s book didn’t make me sad, it made me angry. Velutha’s death was too much of a sacrifice for Ammu’s love.
My sister led me to Bama. She was working as an editor at a publishing house in Chennai and her knowledge of Dalit literature opened a new world to me. Karukku was my first. Bama’s clear, honest retelling of her life’s journey felt closer home. I found Sangati later; twelve chapters that reminded me of my grandmother, my mother, and sometimes, myself. Harum-Scarum Saar & Other Stories, came next. All three books left me wanting for more. I found Urmila Pawar’s The Weave of my Life at a book fair in Chennai’s Quaid-E-Millath, Sharankumar Limbale’s Outcaste at New Delhi’s Janpath, and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance at my college library. I found as many books as I could. I wanted to read them all.
By the time I finished college, our little house had a little library. It had Appa’s stray Chandilyans, Amma’s assortment of romance novels and Christian literature, my sister’s Foucault’s Pendulum and One Hundred Years of Solitude, books that we stole from our grandfather’s pastoral library, Navayana’s issues of The Dalit, and my new but growing collection of non-fiction.
I bought my first non-fiction book on a whim. Elisabeth Bumiller’s May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons would not have appealed to me today, but back then I was yearning for all kinds of stories about my women. Anita Pratap’s Island of Blood was a similar buy. I didn’t have the language to critique her book and I don’t remember much of what I read, but one of her quotes stuck with me through the years: Hunger is the best spice and exhaustion, the best sedative.
I slowly found my way to African-American literature, and other kinds of non-Indian writing. Before I fell out of my admiration for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I read her Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. I bought bell hooks’ Communion and Melissa V. Perry’s Sister Citizen, both of which became my die-hard favourites, books I would gift my child for their sixteenth birthday. I found Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer prize-winning science journalist, whose Woman, I devoured every waking moment. I read Ellen Kay Trimberger’s The New Single Woman when I was going through an abusive relationship. I bought Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things when life fell quiet.
Reading was my most favourite thing to do before social media came along. I read books in secret, on the bus risking my vertigo, at railway stations amidst overpowering noise, in between chemistry exams, and during church sermons. What began as a hobby during weekends became somewhat of a safe space. Something that I sought to process trauma, both intergenerational and personal. Something that I held onto when microaggressions overwhelmed me. In times of distress, I read and repeated the words of Bama and Pawar, bell hooks and Angela Davis, and more recently, of Sonya Renee Taylor and Brené Brown. Reading became my handrail.
Reading also became a form of resistance. My ancestors weren’t allowed to access knowledge. Manusmriti, the law book of Hindus, is understood to prescribe that molten lead be poured into the ears of a shudra that intentionally listens to the recitation of the vedas. I’m not a shudra; I’m worse, an untouchable. I’m not supposed to even exist in the vicinity of the vedas or any other kind of knowledge production. And to realise that both my grandmothers were teachers and my mother is a college graduate who reads books for pleasure! Perhaps the delight in my heart every time I find a new book, and the ecstasy that comes from smelling an old one, is their way of assuring me that my love for words is real.
But all these years of reading has left in me an unfulfilled void. While books have been immensely helpful in shaping me into the person that I am today, I’m yet to find a genre of writing that is authored by Dalit women for Dalit women. I want to read how savarna-authored stereotypes of Dalit women can be dismantled. I want to know how as Dalit women we experience love, sex, and relationships. I want us to delve deeper into our feminisms. I want to read about our sisterhood. I want to read about our diverse journeys, our aspirations, and our possible futures. I want to read about our happiness, our healing. I want to read how we can thrive in a world that isn’t letting us survive.
Perhaps someday, I’ll take Toni Morrison’s advice, and write the book that I’ve always wanted to read.
Christina Dhanaraj is a Christian Dalit woman from Chennai, India. She is a consultant for women and minority-led initiatives focusing on social justice, self-determination, and collaborative models of scholarship. She is currently an advisor for Smashboard. She was formerly a consultant for #dalitwomenfight and the co-founder of the Dalit history month project. She works and lives in the Netherlands. She tweets @caselchris1