Breaking the Mould

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A guest post from author and schoolsworker, David Skivington (@DavidSkivington).

What does a simple clay cup have to do with oppression? While it may seem of little significance, the tradition linked to these objects has served to reinforce caste-based discrimination for centuries. Traditionally in parts of India, after a member of the Dalit caste had drank from the cup, they were expected to smash it to prevent a member of a higher caste accidentally using the same vessel and becoming polluted by the lower caste. This simple act around the common activity of drinking chai served as a daily reminder of their place within the constrictive societal hierarchy.

The Dalits were previously known as untouchables or out-castes due to their position outside of the four main castes of the Hindu caste system. However, they chose the name Dalit for their group to represent how they felt about themselves. The word is originally from the Sanskrit language, translated as 'broken' or 'ground down’' much like the clay pots surrounding the chai stalls. Historically Dalits have been denied basic rights such as an education, entry to police stations or places of worship and even access to water. These practices of untouchability and caste discrimination are banned within India's constitution, yet despite many laws these practices still occur, leading to the feeling of brokenness among many.

However, this view is slowly changing. The Dalits have become empowered in many ways, including increased political representation. My MA Development Studies dissertation at the UEA focused on Mayawati's election to Chief Minster of Uttar Pradesh, the first Dalit woman to hold the post in any Indian state. This indicates the changes which are slowly occurring in India, increasing the pride within the Dalit people.

An interesting example I saw of this changing attitude was through a charity called Life Association. They work alongside skilled Dalit potters in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai, taking their work, marketing and selling it as a high end gift item in Britain. This provides valuable work for the potters and their families at a fair price.The profits also fund schools, orphanages and a home for disabled children in India. Through the education provided, the children are able to learn about their rights as citizens as well as increasing their employability.

What is it the potters produce and sell? Clay pots! Instead of drinking from them they are transformed into candles and filled with scented beeswax by Dalit women that the charity employ. Something which was once used to remind Dalits of their lowly place in society is now giving them an income to educate their children and create a better future. These candles are more than just a product, they are a vehicle of change for the Dalit people.

So, what does a simple clay cup have to do with oppression? Less now that it has been reclaimed as a symbol of freedom.

Using my experience – I recently completed my debut crime thriller novel Scar Tissue which is set in Kolkata, while volunteering in Andhra Pradesh. I had previously volunteered in Kolkata, and was approached by human traffickers offering me young girls for sex. This shocking experience led me to research the issue of human trafficking, particularly within India which is estimated to have nearly half of the world’s slaves. The novel is written as a way of raising awareness on sex trafficking and caste based discrimination and is available on amazon.

I am currently working on my second novel which is based on the practice of the Devadasi, temple prostitution, within the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is due to be released this summer.

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