(The following is an edited excerpt from Yogesh Maitreya's new book Water in a Broken Pot: A Memoir (Penguin 2023). Encompassing experiences of pain, loneliness, depravation, alienation, and the political consciousness of his caste identity, this intimately moving memoir is a story of resilience and raw brutality.)
I always wanted to be hugged
Hence mistook their needs for love,
Consequently, abandoned, snubbed
On barren land, barren sky above
I avoided Saira in classrooms and on campus. I started to hate her. Frustrated, with whatever money remained from the loan, I got drunk for a week. Later, I could not avoid the guilt taking over my mind as a result. I wanted to forget the pain of being alone again. But alcohol did not help. Once again, I found myself with no friends, no language to become a part of a group and no money to bring me to their level.
I also did not feel close to people who shared my caste background or my life experiences, because long ago I had ceased to belong to their moral world. In it, each person had to behave according to set moral codes associated with Buddhism, and the idea of liberation was reduced to politics and momentary protests. Drinking or smoking were perceived as traits of a person who was out of focus in life.
The ‘individual’ is the focus of Buddhism; I never found this approach among my people on campus. I chose to live in the utopia of my desires, my ideas and my dream to write and to survive. At this moment, all I had was books.
Indian writing in English, be it fiction or nonfiction, seemed to have nothing to offer to me. I felt detached and dissociated from it. I started re-reading The Annihilation of Caste. Then I read Waiting for a Visa, supposedly the only text Dr Ambedkar wrote about his personal life.
Knowing My Roots
As I read Dr Ambedkar depicting his world with intellectual clarity and emotional zeal, I saw him as a profound person and a philosopher. And my interpretation or understanding of his text, especially of Waiting for a Visa, led me to find answers in my life, especially with the idea of love, with which I was struggling at the moment.
I found Dr Ambedkar’s books helping me understand life more than society or politics. I started to see life through his words. Reading Waiting for a Visa was unsettling. It was about four experiences of caste-discrimination from his life that had informed his intellectual understanding and emotional clarity. But I read it in my way, to understand the problem of love and my emotional world.
In caste-society, I felt, love is not a spontaneous emotion. Hate is. Hate is alluring. Hate is fascinating. It is so powerful an emotion in India because each caste reserves a feeling of revulsion against another. Consequently, a person from one caste rarely feels close to a person from another caste. Hate emanates from the intention of rejection and selfishness.
For me – a Dalit, part of a people this land has never allowed to blossom – to develop the emotion of love is to develop an ability to overcome my own instinct of vengeance and take the risk to develop an affinity towards those who might push me into bleaker terrains of life. However, this is also the condition for me to be in this society and be able to speak and write. This is because I cannot write with hate nor with ignorance of the world around me. I feel that only love has the ability to overcome the fear I have of casteist society. Love opens up new avenues of meaning in life that hate closed for us long ago. Love is overcoming the fear of being alone. I learnt this from Dr Ambedkar’s life. He not only overcame this fear but transformed it into love that, today, does not let us feel alone.
In my eyes, Waiting for a Visa reaffirmed my position in society. It was incredible to learn to see the world through the perspective that was true to my history and in which I could feel the agonies of my ancestors, from whom I had inherited this social position. After all, I was not rootless.
Knowing his roots for a Dalit person means seeing the world in all its conspiracies against him. Suddenly, after reading Waiting for a Visa, my understanding of my surroundings became more polemic in a sense that I longer remained what I used to be: an introvert.
Finding Love, Finding Myself
The TISS campus was a small world in itself. I was fascinated by it. Outside the campus, the world was different, even contradictory, both in philosophy and practice. Outside the campus, there was Mumbai, which was hidden by the protectively ignorant and elitist world of the campus. I began to see Mumbai in its many hues when I met Jasmine and started to date her.
It was her need, more than love: I was her need. And I, who feared to be alone in the fascinating vastness of this city, started to learn to act upon my needs and desires, more than my ideas. A month or so after Saira broke up with me, I started spending time browsing Facebook. I came across Jasmine’s profile and randomly sent her a friend request because I liked her photos of Mumbai and mistook her profile for some Mumbai-based photography page. A week or so later, we started chatting and then, one day, we decided to meet.
We met at Costa, a cafe in Bandra at Carter Road. This vicinity was evidently elite and crowded with young people. In front of the cafe, there was the Arabian Sea and at its shore, there were rocks and thick mangroves where, I learnt later, people went to make out and have sex. The real sickness of this place was visible in the small children selling balloons, flowers, books and toys at the traffic signal. I reached the cafe early.
Jasmine came when the sun went down. The breeze from the sea was humid but pleasantly soothing. We ordered coffee, and she took out a cigarette to light it up. She offered me one. I took it and lit it for myself. I talked about literature and politics and she talked about photography and literature. She had been a reader since she was a child. Her father had put her into the habit of reading while he tutored children to earn money. Literature was the common thread between us.
I shared my readings and interpretations with her. She did too. There were some stories we had both read. We spoke till 10.30 p.m. I did not feel hungry. She guided me on how to catch the last local train from Bandra to Panvel. My stop was Govandi. When I caught the train, I was excited and happy thinking about our meeting. I did not eat that night. The dining hall at TISS was closed, and I did not have money to eat outside. But I did not feel the need to eat either. After that meeting, we met frequently for a few weeks, and the last local to Panvel from Bandra became my regular route to return to the hostel late in the night, often hungry, but mostly consoled.
It was 31 December 2013. We decided to meet in the evening. I started liking going to Bandra, feeling lost in that elite air and walking on the streets with Jasmine, buying books, smoking, drinking, with her showing me the places around.
While I did all that, I never felt I was visible to people there. Or maybe it was I who wanted to hide myself from the world. That evening when we met, we went to drink at a pub. It was noisy inside, but it was colourful enough to get mixed into it as another colour and forget who you were. This was Mumbai, a privileged part of it, in which I got dissolved as a colour that did not matter much. Inside the pub, we talked and listened to each other as much as we could.
(The above is an edited excerpt. Paragraph breaks, blurbs and subheadings have been added for readers’ convenience.)
(Yogesh Maitreya is a leading independent Indian Dalit publisher, writer, and poet.)
(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.)