Resmaa Menakem, in his fascinating book My Grandmother’s Hands, writes, “Whenever one group oppresses, victimizes, brutalizes, or marginalizes another, many of the victimized people may suffer trauma, and then pass on that trauma response to their children as standard operating procedure… When the trauma continues for generation after generation, it is called historical trauma.” Menakem’s proposal to analyse history through the lens of trauma is powerful and revealing.
I have watched Nagraj Manjule’s movie Sairat (meaning “Wild”) several times but not once did it occur to me that the movie could actually be saying something about Dalit intergenerational trauma. So given my recent introduction to trauma studies, I intend to analyse the movie from the lens of trauma, bringing to surface a subject that has not been granted enough attention, particularly in relation to Dalit desire, which often tends to find its ground in inter-caste relationships.
Dalit communities for centuries have suffered multi-faceted historical trauma. On this note, Priyanka Singh says, “The Dalit trauma… experienced by members of the community has been multi-dimensional—from brutal physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse to everyday microaggressions, leaving a haunting imprint on the psyches of the people.” One can, therefore, infer that Dalit trauma is not constituted by a single event but a “series of traumatic events of varying degrees.” Given the pervasive nature of trauma, Dalit imagination, Dalit love and desire come to be shaped by memories of trauma.
What’s the issue with Inter-caste Desire?
Before I make reference to the movie Sairat, let me state why inter-caste desire is demonized and smothered. First, Dalits have for centuries been socially ostracized, patrolled, and controlled by spoken and unspoken policies. Dalits were forced to live in segregated neighbourhoods and were not allowed to walk through certain streets where dominant-caste bodies resided. It was a belief among dominant-castes that the shadow of a Dalit or that of a Shudra, one at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, could pollute anything it fell upon. In fact, Dalits continue to be beaten and murdered for sporting sunglasses, footwear, and tucked in shirts. Such gear is not meant for a Dalit body!
What is evident here is the dominant-caste body’s practice of boundary maintenance. Boundary maintenance, built on the logic of separatism and exclusion, results in this hypervisibilization of Dalit bodies. The practice of boundary maintenance ends up creating castecized spaces that in turn become sites of trauma. Thus, the hypervisibilization of Dalit bodies functions as both the cause and the result of Dalit trauma.
Second, in his famous 1916 essay “Castes in India: Their Mechanisms, Genesis, and Development,” B.R. Ambedkar argues that endogamy maintains the functionality of the caste system. In analysing the problem of the “surplus woman” and the “surplus man,” he states that the sole aim of caste-Hindus was to preserve endogamy. One can infer from Ambedkar’s analysis that caste hinges on women and their bodies. While a man may hold a certain amount of power by virtue of being a male and belonging to a certain caste, Ambedkar’s point is that in reality women are considered to be the defenders of the (purity of the) caste system, and by extension the nation.
The Trauma of Inter-caste Love
Coming to Sairat, the movie illustrates how a Dalit body is violated for coming in close contact with a non-Dalit body. Parshya, a Dalit boy, falls in love with Aarchi, who belongs to a dominant-caste. As they are aware of Aarchi’s parents’ disapproval of the relationship, they decide to elope and get married, which they end up doing with the help of a few good friends. Sometime after the two get married and have a child together, Aarchi, who has been feeling the separation from home, especially her father, decides to get in touch with her family. After a few phone conversations, the family, presumably on the directive of the father, sends some of their members to meet the couple in their new home in what is initially perceived to be an act of acceptance and reconciliation.
Family members, including Aarchi’s brother, come to her. She welcomes them home assuming it to be an act of reconciliation.
Parshya comes home and is surprised to see the guests at his place. You can sense his unease and anxiety even as Aarchi expresses a sense of hope for what might lie ahead.
What you are about to see next is a scene that continues to leave me numb each time I see it. I have edited the clip, removing parts that might be triggering for some. The scene is deliberately not accompanied with any sound, which I think suggests how violence against Dalits, and indeed Dalit trauma, is perceived in reality where every cry is met with deafening silence.
Both Parshya and Aarchi are murdered in their own home, while their little child escapes only because he happened to be out with one of the neighbours. This is the violence of the caste system. This is the trauma it causes to those that transgress its norms.
Since the relationship was perceived as a threat to the caste-based social order, a violation of the honour of the dominant-caste values of purity and honour, the polluted Dalit body and the transgressing body of the woman needed to be “put in place.” Because the woman had brought shame to her community by loving someone outside her caste, desiring a person that is considered ‘low-caste,’ the only way for her people to purge themselves of that stain was by eliminating its cause, the daughter/woman of the house. Desire is acceptable only as long as it maintains social order and hierarchy.
The image of the child witnessing the lifeless bodies of his parents, walking away crying leaving behind bloodied footsteps points to the reality of trauma being passed from one generation to another. That the trauma will now remain in that little fragile body and will be encoded in his memory should haunt each one of us. Those bloodied footsteps point to the ongoingness of trauma.
Judith Herman writes that traumatic events call into question the basic human relationships, and we see how caste violates the sanctity of human relationships. Even love and desire, a source of healing and recovery, is denied them. Cathy Caruth notes that one’s social location not only impacts the experience of trauma but also creates the capacity for it. The movie highlights how one’s position in the gender and caste hierarchies contributes to and enhances the experience of trauma. This is the violence of the caste system—that it ensures Dalits (and women that transgress caste norms) are trapped in cycles of trauma.
Will Healing Come About?
Resmaa Menakem affirms that all bodies are resilient and can heal. I do not know how long it will take but I can say for sure that healing can come about only when inter-caste relationships are not perceived as intolerable or scandalous, but nourishing and evocative with the potential to effuse healing and solidarity. Healing can come about only when women are not viewed as preservers of caste honour, but when bodies of Dalits and women are viewed as sacred repositories of wisdom and delight.
Healing can come about only when there is a recognition and acceptance of Dalit trauma, when there is collective action for healing, when barriers of repression and denial are lifted, when a strong political movement to study Dalit trauma is set in place, and when caste is annihilated.
Until then Sairat will continue to stand as an account of numerous inter-caste relationships, an account of Dalit intergenerational trauma.
Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.
Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience—Trauma, Narrative, and History.
Priyanka Singh, “Dalit Trauma: Why It Is Important To Address Its Intergenerational Aspect.”
By Arvind Theodore
Arvind Theodore is a PhD student at Union Theological Seminary, NYC in the field of Social Ethics. His interests lie in the areas of liberation ethics, Dalit studies, protest and resistance, gender and sexuality studies, and cinema and caste. Arvind is also the author of Church and Human Sexuality and blogs at Reflections.