Can the COVID Mask Unmask Our Identity? by Jeanne Maria Dsouza
Jeanne Maria Dsouza is a medical student from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, India. She is an avid writer and has published poems and prose in Indian newspapers and magazines. She has a tremendous interest in quizzing, and has stood first in many national level medical quiz competitions. She is passionate about art, literature and medicine.
Last May we were in Ramganj, a small town in North India, creating awareness about the rights of Dalit women. Our NGO was getting much publicity. A journalist came up to me and asked, “Well, how would you define your cause?” This stirred me and with fire in my eyes, I spoke of how Dalit women were suffering even more during the COVID pandemic. My companions supported me fully. I had read in print that we were not in this together and quoted the media extensively. The journalist did not stop there. “And how would you define yourself?”, was her next question. “A Dalit woman activist”, I replied. “A feminist, a woman of the 21st century. This is one of our major battles. Our battle is not just against Covid, but the discrimination that it has brought”.
The next day I visited the Ramganj Covid Centre, which was jam-packed with patients. “How many of these are Dalits?”, I asked the man at the counter. “About 50”, he said. He was too tired to engage in any conversation, so I quietly walked up in my protective gear, to a bed in the corner. The patient happened to be a Dalit woman. They called her “Didi” out of respect. She was known for her tremendous contribution, especially during the pandemic. I wanted to listen to her. So I began, “Didi, you are a Dalit woman. You have done so much for us”. She looked at me rather startled, and replied, “Why do you call me a Dalit woman?”. “Well, you have been defined a Dalit hero – you have done so much for us”, I said.
She seemed to drift into a dream and started talking of her younger days. “When I was in high school” said she, “the teacher talked of intersections. In my dreams, I would imagine myself standing at multiple crossroads. Pondering at night, I’d see myself as a star – a part of the many constellations I’d make in my head. One day in school while I was lost in thought, the teacher shook me from my sweet day-dreams and asked, ‘So how would you define yourself?’ ‘I am an individual’, said I. ‘Well, you are a lower class Dalit woman’, said the teacher. I said, ‘Yes - that describes me but does not define me.’ ‘You are a very independent thinker’, my teacher said.”
Her eyes dimmed as she walked down memory lane. Seeing her sadness, I asked “Didi, what happened?” She replied “It was way back in the late eighties. The tension between the upper cast Brahmins and Dalits was at its peak. They set our huts on fire. My father and brother, who rushed to the rescue of the villagers, got burnt in the process and succumbed to their injuries.” As I heard Didi’s tragic story, I saw red as I remembered the injustice and humiliation I had suffered from these upper cast Brahmins, especially at the hands of Shankar, the scion of an affluent family, who used to insult and taunt my brother and me as kids. The sight of him would infuriate me always.
Didi went on, “I bore in my heart the sorrow and grief of their passing away and gradually learnt to bear this loss. Then COVID came along and took away my husband and son. As I stood by the river, watching their ashes drift away, my tears mingled with that of countless others, as we bore the pain of this parting. United in grief, we were totally oblivious to who we were – rich or poor, Dalits or upper caste Brahmins, men or women. I resolved that day, that I would now devote myself to the care of this mass of suffering humanity.”
I was surprised and I said, “Well how can you even think of helping these non-Dalits who have always oppressed us?” I was hoping she would share some more of her bitter memories, but her reply was very different. She said, “All of us are suffering, aren’t we? When I serve them, I feel as much a sister to them as to those of the lower class. From my very childhood, I always felt as an independent individual. I never felt myself to be part of any class. If you must put me into a group, I’d like to be in all the groups. Just as the star which was a part of all the constellations of the universe I made up in my mind.” She smiled.
“Yes”, she added. “What are all these intersections? Does the COVID virus have intersections? Why does it rule the world? Because it knows no boundaries. It refuses to be broken by intersecting walls. If only the mask that COVID drapes over our faces would strip off the mask we wear! If only we could be like Corona. United. A united people. And forget for a moment our intersecting identities; break these walls. We would be strong and glorious, like a crown. Like Corona.”
I looked at her with new respect. I had regarded her as a prominent Dalit woman but today, I respected her as an individual, an intellectual. Unbroken. Untouched. Unconquered. They could not break her. That was her story. Her heart was open - not pent up with the bitterness and hatred which existed in our oppressed society. She had risen above it. It did not matter to her. Our long conversation had tired her, and she looked a little breathless. I knew she needed to take rest, so I bid her adieu. The soft radiant smile on her ethereal countenance is something I can never forget.
A week passed by. It was a windy day. As I saw her ashes being sprinkled into the river, I suddenly felt that she was still alive… Yes, she had become a part of the water that would bring freshness to the fields and crops, the water that would make the flowers bloom and render nature novelty. She had transformed my perspectives and attitudes.
As I finally got up to leave, fighting back my tears, I suddenly saw Shankar in the distance-the same ‘high and mighty’ Shankar who had made us the butt of ridicule and derision in the past. He had carved a reputation as a champion among the upper classes. I waited for my blood to boil as it had always done, for the silent curses to well up in my breast as they always had. This time though, they did not come. I couldn’t hate him anymore. Our eyes met and for the first time I did not look up or down, or pretend that he did not exist. I met his gaze. He tried to smile. I knew it by the crowfeet across his eyes even through the mask. I was rather surprised. I stretched my hand to shake his, and suddenly remembering the guidelines of social distancing, I nodded, smiled, folded my hands and said ‘Namaste’.