‘My memoir is on inter-relational experiences of caste’: Dalit rapper Sumit Samos

Sumit Samos is a Dalit rap artist. | Picture: Sumit Samos Twitter

Sumeet Samos is a 28-year-old Dalit rapper whose memoir, published earlier this year, offers a fresh perspective on the Dalit autobiographical tradition. 

Riya Talitha | TwoCircles.net

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NEW DELHI — Sumeet Samos initially came to public attention as one of the first anti-caste rappers, using Odia, English and Hindi to decry the violence of Brahmanical hegemony, and share his Ambedkarite values. This, along with being a JNU student-activist solidified his reputation as someone willing to stand up for his beliefs regardless of public censure and scrutiny. 

Early this year, he came out with his memoirs Affairs of Caste: A Young Diary published by Nagpur-based Panther’s Paw Publication. Samos, at 28, might seem young to write a memoir, but he’s already lived many lives. 

“For years, I have seen events and observed people around me,” he says. “I wanted to let it out before starting afresh in academia”. And Affairs of Caste: A Young Diary precisely lives up to its name. While it represents a fresh perspective on the Dalit autobiographical tradition, it is a diary comprising a series of stories from Samos’ life woven through with his reflections as a burgeoning young anthropologist, bridging his narrative voice with his academic interests as a sort of exhumation before he embarks on his next chapter. 

Cover page of the memoir by Sumit Samos

In an interview with TwoCircles.net, Samos, who is finishing his master’s in Modern South Asian Studies at Oxford University, talks about politics in Christian spaces, church communities, and his use of different mediums of self-expression (Odia rap, social media posts, memoir), and Desia identity in Orissa.

How would you place your memoir in the genre of Dalit autobiographical writing?
In terms of autobiographical traditions, my memoir starts with early Marathi writings, where you see the crude caste experiences in villages being portrayed. Later, you have the writings of Dalit women, like Urmila Pawar, which talk about the different kinds of experiences, not just of their participation in movements but also within the family, what they experience from men, etc. Then you have similar kinds of writings in Hindi, like Omprakash Valmiki, who again talks about the very crude caste experience in villages. 

Then you have Ajay Navaria or Siddalingaiah, who talk about the experiences of middle-class Dalits, who have to get office spaces and respect. And then later, of course, there’s Suraj Yengde’s Caste Matters which is not a memoir, but he talks a little bit about his experiences. So what I wanted to do was different from that. 

As a Dalit from a village who has come to the city and studied in universities, I have my journey, where I have had experiences of caste around me in the village. But coming to university has exposed me to anti-caste literature in anthropology, in history, as to how people have understood caste and what they have written about caste. I read all of it. 

So basically, it’s narrating your own experiences and what you are observing around you and supplementing that with the broad literature. 

How was your experience of being a Dalit-Christian in Delhi?
There are a few mentions of it in the memoir, not particularly about Delhi, but about urban spaces. That urban churches have to be political is not something that is looked at positively. There’s a very liberal stance, like, “Okay, this is India, we are all in it together”, you know? By almost articulating that we are all equal and all having fun, it almost gets turned into a sort of a social club, where we just do activities, and the emphasis is all on our personal journey with Christianity. And they wouldn’t want any state intervention into the church’s activities, so on and so forth. But they will not talk about caste. So, that is something that I have mentioned in my book. 

How do you address being a Christian and reconcile your faith with your politics, and vice versa?
I think what has happened post-2016, unlike earlier times, where politics is done in a very organised way, in spaces like JNU, HCU, Jadavpur University or AMU, is that colleges have started being politicised, through small groups, or through the media reporting about the Rohit Vemula issue, or the JNU event. These discussions are part of everyday college life, right? And Christian students who go to church are also part of these university spaces. Now, they also have to navigate these conversations and engage with them, they cannot exist outside of it. 

Whereas the church has not equipped them to navigate or engage with these kinds of discussions. And so they find it difficult and end up with a very liberal kind of a position. They don’t know how to understand issues. They don’t know how to engage with questions of conversion or religion or whatever is happening around social justice movements. 

What do you think is needed to cultivate that kind of openness and those kinds of spaces in churches?
Of course, the church cannot act as a political group or organisation; its role is different. 

But, if they’re organising, let’s say, a lecture, or some talk on a Sunday, they could invite somebody who is part of the social justice movement, but also a Christian, maybe. Or even if they’re not Christian, they are talking about certain issues that concern communities rather than just talking about how to be a good father, how to be a good mother, or discussing some topics from the Bible. So this way, I think the church community, especially the youth, can be politically informed over some time while also not making the church look very militant or aggressive in its approach, given the circumstances in India. 

You are in academia, you post a lot on social media and you also write rap lyrics. Was writing a memoir a different experience?
Writing a memoir was challenging in the sense that I needed to figure out what to write and what not to write. Not because I didn’t want to write or share certain information, but because the question is about what I want to convey in the book. Throughout the book, the thing that I wanted to convey was caste, basically not about the lives of Dalits but about the experiences of caste, which are inter-relational. You have to constantly think about it. 

Then, of course, under each chapter, there’s what you’re writing, so, for example, there is the differentiation of caste. I talk about the different equations of caste regionally and nationally, in various institutions — in politics, in business, in education, etc. Then there is a chapter on identity, where I write about Desias, so it becomes very particular. But it’s also very interesting because the balance ensures you don’t get too emotional or get too bland. So that’s a big challenge.

Like, initially, I would get emotional when I would write on some topic. And after a few days, I would take a gap. And then look at it, and decide that I have become too emotional. Because emotion is something that has been conveyed, again and again, you know. And I’d ask myself, am I trying to do something new? Is there content, along with the emotions? Is the content new? Or is there something new that I’m going to provide? And that kept me going back and forth. 

I finished the book. But also, at times, I had to employ a polemic because it is also part of Dalit writing. Like if you look at Bama, that is something I found out in her writing. I had not read Karukku before. And I realised that she uses a lot of slang, particularly local slang. And she expresses her emotions through slang and scoldings.

And I realised that that is also part of writing. That is also part of Dalit lives. So even though I won’t use those kinds of things, there are certain polemics that I need to put in. Because I have felt that. For example, there is this Brahmin priest in my village; he was a school teacher with a bulging tummy. And I have heard that he takes all the prasad from the Ganesh puja and all that. So I have to refer to that and how people talk about him, like, “Look, he’s such a greedy person, you know, he takes away everything”. 

Or in reference to high caste women who walked through the Dalit colony every evening carrying their pets, wearing such heavy perfume; they’re so fair looking that everybody in the colony, even the Dalit women, would talk about like, “Oh, look, you know, it almost seems like they’ve taken bath in milk, almonds and honey, or whatever.” And that might seem like a polemic, but that is something that I have heard growing up.

How is your thesis going? What are your future plans?
Academic writing is something that I feel I am slowly learning. My thesis is on student politics. I am trying to argue from a very Ambedkarite perspective, as earlier writings on student politics have been mostly about protests, events, or cultural festivals or about how student politics differed in colonial India and post-colonial India. Nobody has done a comprehensive study of Ambedkarite or anti-caste student organisations. Professor Hany Babu talks about how there is so much focus on student politics, which speaks about dissent, but very little on equality of opportunity — where Dalit and Bahujan students talk about reservation, denial of fellowships and opportunities. These are some of the things that I trying to bring in.

Riya Talita is a fellow with the SEED-TCN Mentorship Program.