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Ujithra Ponniah

By Clarinda Still
Orient BlackSwan, Noida, 2014, pp. 258, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 9 September 2015

I n the last two decades a number of autobiographies have been published both in English and regional languages documenting the experience of dalit-ness and the constitution of the dalit self. Some of these autobiographies are by dalit women and it forefronts the gendered experience of caste, critiquing dalit men, the dalit movement and the mainstream feminist movement. Ethnographic accounts of dalit women, capturing contemporary processes of change however have been missing, and Still’s scholarship situated in Madiga palli in Nampalli district of Andhra Pradesh addresses this vacuum. She uses the heuristic device of paruvu-pratishta-gowravam (prestige-honourrespect) to understand the changes in aspirations and effects of mobility on dalit women. It is an interesting trope to employ, for ‘honour’ in common usage is associated with the dominant, and in a highly stratified society like India, it would automatically accrue to the brahmin or the upper caste. By using it to understand the changes in the dalit neighbourhood, Still unburdens ‘honour’ from its archaic and feudal undertones that have made deep roots in the collective psyche of people across time and space. It also helps stir the received and oppressive ideas of stagnancy, poverty, moral ineptitude and backwards associated with dalits in the country. Still draws and contributes to three areas in caste studies. First, drawing on the works of Fuller (1996) and Gupta (2000) she argues that the ‘substantialisation’ of caste has happened, that is the arrangement of caste is no longer as vertically arranged caste hierarchies but is horizontally arranged competing class and caste shaped interest groups. She argues that with the breaking away of rigid hierarchies, mobility becomes more complex and dalits have now formed their counter-publics and celebrate their previously stigmatized markers of identity like eating beef and working with leather. Second, Still (2014; 207) asks an important question, ‘are Nampalli dalits copying an outdated model of the dominant caste, who were in turn copying the Brahmins, who were in turn copying the western colonial elites?’ Through her ethnography she argues that it might appear that dalit practices are identical to the upper castes however, their political consciousness is too advanced to view the upper caste models of mobility as being desirable. Still moves away from easily accessible models of sansrikitization and attributes the mobility patterns in dalits to class and not caste. Third, Still argues that the ‘Dalitisation’ of identity coexists with the pull to adopt paruvu-pratishta-gowravam through the regulation ...

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