I grew up in a dalit (ex-untouchable) colony in India. For us, spending time with books, reading them, and consequently growing up with them, was a luxury we could hardly afford. To summarise the formative years of my life, metaphorically, then I must say that I grew up like a wild tree without conscious care and emotional nourishment. Since survival was the prime concern for us, and it took all our energies and time, we rarely had the privilege to sit and communicate. In the absence of this, not only did I grow up as an introvert but emotionally fragile. You do not talk to a child and he often turns out to be wild, mostly from within. That introversion is a decoy of this wildness.
In my late twenties, I left everything to pursue literature in a provincial college in Nagpur. For three years, I literally did nothing but reading in a disciplined isolation. I sensed for the first time what it means to grow up, emotionally and intellectually, with books, with stories. What humans did not give me, books offered me in abundance: a courage to face my own fear in the form of words, written and read. But, I did not grow up with all the books I have read. Some books offered me escapism from my bleak life with their fictional world whose idea was rooted into my oppression in real life. But those books which problematised oppression and made urgent appeals to overcome it, helped me grow up. With them, I overcame my emotional fragility. I learnt with them to face my own fear: of being isolated, of being rejected and of being abandoned.
On 23 March 2020, nationwide lockdown was mindlessly declared in India. On 22 March 2020, I left Mumbai where I was living for seven years for my studies: the purpose; but to escape the home: the reason. I hurriedly packed my bag and a few books leaving behind hundreds of books and memories of growing up. Among those few books, there was My Name Is Why, a memoir by Lemn Sissay. I was least aware of the impact it was going to leave on me, in me, strangely under the skin, profoundly arresting my way of thinking about the bleakness of my own life. Home is the place, I told myself, I escaped once. Now the pandemic forced me to face it once again. Reaching home on 23 March I found the world shut. I had only two literary books with me. A novel, The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kedare. I read it quickly. I felt lonely once I was done with it. Now, it was a turn of My Name is Why. I read it in two days. It left me feeling complete, courageous. I do not know why but I felt clear, about many things in my life now, after reading it. It is like an old friend has opened up his heart, his dejected world, and his story of overcoming the pain, before me.
Lemn Sissay is a black man, an Ethiopian-British man, a poet who until his eighteenth birthday, was raised by foster parents (as a child) and in Children Care Homes in England. This memoir is about the cruelty of these child care homes, and the strangely selfish interests of foster parents which Lemn had to witness. What could be more cruel than keeping a child away from his mother? But Lemn writes with love and compassion, about cruelty. Remarkably overcoming the hate while revisiting his memories. I have instantly connected to his story. I told myself, I know what he is talking about, I know this cruelty. In my case, this cruelty is social, more subtle, more normative, more disciplined.
For a dalit man to grow up in India, and possess an aspiration, a dream, is to struggle against the history of this country in which he is erased, and reduced to a redundant mind. His struggle is personal and at the same time inseparably social. He does not need to go to any institution to feel surveilled or abandoned. The caste-society is that system in which a dalit man is surveilled, hated, and abandoned from time to time. My Name is Why clarifies this so metaphorically, this struggle, this feeling of abandonment. My Name is Why is a struggle of a captive black man, in the white country, against his own memories and his longing for his roots. The very factor of roots in the life of a dalit man is crucial because, his identity is destructively formed over the centuries during which, he is alienated from his roots which are essentially located in the culture against caste society. He is an embodiment of the cruelty this nation carries as a social-system. I was thrilled by the sheer wisdom which Lemn has offered in it, despite all pains. And he says something which solved the mystery of years for me, “Hurt people hurt people.”. Yes, caste hurts; caste is hurt. I am hurt, over the years, by institutions, by society, by individuals from dominant castes. My Name is Why demands the need to rise above hurt. This one sentence helped me to see beyond my own hurt, to grow, to blossom in all human potentials.
Lemn talks in this book about his absence of photographs, memories and poetry. How all of them shaped him the way he is today. If you are aware of the life of a dalit person in India, especially in the context of dalit literature, his quest to be intellectually and emotionally remain alive in the society which made him untouchable, you perhaps would feel how important photographs, memories and poetry in his life and why they are the most prevalent evidences of his survival, his triumph over forgetfulness of society. This is one more reason why My Name is Why arrested me eternally, not just as a book, but essentially a proof that I can survive, as a writer, as a poet in the society that is skilled in erasing me from its memory. Lemn tells his story from a different world which is different than mine, perhaps he must have never heard of my world. Yet, as I went on reading it, twice, thrice, I told myself that I know these feelings, I know how it feels to be captivated, and how necessary it is to be constantly in a pursuit of breaking it.
Poetry rescued Lemn, as it is evident in the book, from the isolation amidst people. Poetry rescued me too. The book reclaims the lost conviction that words can redefine us. I felt it in my nerves, as I read My Name is Why. I think I am no more the same person I used to be. Something in me has changed forever. I feel urgency of love, compassion, and determination in life. This all is triggered from the words of My Name is Why. This is not a new feeling. But it is a fresh feeling. I am growing up with this book.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator, and columnist. He is the founder of Panther’s Paw Publication. He can be followed on Instagram @yogeshmaitreya