‘Excuse me Sir,’ I took permission as I entered the Talathi’s office in my village, Curtorim.
‘Yes, come in,’ the Talathi replied, as he looked up from the files that he was poring over.
I entered the office, and seeing that there were others sitting before me, I kept my documents on the table without a word and sat down.
I had gone to the Village Panchayat, seeking the Talathi’s report, the first step in procuring a Scheduled Caste Certificate.
I was keen on applying to the Department of Sociology at the Goa University and there were limited number of seats. A few days back, I had gone to meet a friend who lived behind my house and hearing about my enthusiasm for the course, her mother asked me why I didn’t make a caste certificate to improve my chances. My first thought was, ‘How does she know that my family belongs to the Gawda community? That must surely mean that most people in the ward would be in the know.’ As I was digesting this information, my friend’s mother informed me that another neighbour had got admission for higher studies with the help of a caste certificate. Another shock! I didn’t know that they also belonged to the Gawda community. So I went back home and asked my mother if that was true. She said it was, and told me that the same neighbor had advised her not to get a caste certificate as it would lead to us having to face discrimination of all kinds throughout life. But, oddly enough, she herself had gone ahead and got a caste certificate for her son.
But getting an admission was not the reason that I wanted to get a caste certificate for myself.
‘Yes, tell me,’ the Talathi asked as he reached for my documents. Before I could say anything, he went on while browsing through my documents, ‘What do you do? Are you working?’ ‘Yes, I am working as a Research Assistant at Global Health Histories,’ I replied.
After a moment of silence, he asked me, ‘Where exactly do you stay?’
‘Near the chapel, next to the school,’ I replied.
‘Hmm… Dias… I don’t think there are any STs (Scheduled Tribes) living there, are there? And with this surname?’
This question actually left me speechless. I was a little worried as I didn’t know much about the presence of Scheduled Tribes in my area, but I remembered what my mother and aunt had said. So I said confidently, ‘Yes sir, there are STs.’
‘Are you sure? How many ST houses are there?’ he quizzed.
‘Yes, I am sure, sir. There are three or four houses,’ I answered.
My nervousness increased as I had no idea about the exact details of ST families in my locality. I had never taken much interest in knowing such things. My early schooling was from St. Joseph High School, Shiroda, in the Ponda taluka. I studied there till my third standard and then our family had moved to Curtorim, some 30-odd kilometers away.
I was about eight years old when our family made the move. Life was very different in Curtorim. The excitement of new friends, a new school, new neighbours and new faces was exhilarating. When I first joined school in Curtorim, there was a period of adjustment to familiarize myself with the students and teachers, and making new friends. Then, as I moved in to high school I realized that apart from being known by our names and our grades, we were also known by our caste. I had no deep understanding of the caste issue. This was the first time I ever noticed the strong presence of caste. There were students from different castes in my class. One set of students were known as ‘backward,’ but I always felt that they were wealthy and I wished that I was a part of their community. The other set of students were not ‘backward’, and in some sense, they were more ‘developed’ and ‘cultured’ as I understood it at that time. Naturally, the question arose in my mind: Where did I belong? I counted myself among the developed and cultured section of the students.
Later, as I moved towards college I started getting a clearer idea about two types of communities — Shudras and Gawdas. Once, during a conversation between friends about caste, my friends wanted to know my caste and I told them that I was a Shudra. I drew that conclusion based on what I noticed in school and comparing it to how we lived at home. I happen to come from a family that belongs to the Gawda community, while my mother is a Shudra. At home, there never was a mention of Gawdas or Shudras. There was always a comparison with the Brahmins though, so it was clear to me that I was not a Brahmin. Anyhow, that evening I asked my mother what our caste was. My mother was startled. Why do you want to know about our caste? Who asked you? You shouldn’t believe in all that… She went on and on. But finally she did tell me that we did belong to the Gawda community, and that too just because my younger cousin laughed and said, “Ami ani khuinchi ami gawdi.” (We are also Gawdas). I didn’t know what to say to my friends. I wondered if I should go back and tell them the truth but then dropped the idea as I felt uncomfortable about revealing the truth.
We didn’t discuss caste among friends again until there was a new person in our group who belonged to the same community as me. So it happened that we were just having an informal discussion and the caste issue came up. I was quiet, and then this new friend said, “Hanv baba gawdi” (I am a Gawda). That’s when I blurted out that I, too, was a Gawda. But my friends didn’t react to this. What I noticed was that although this new friend said he was a Gawda, it was in a low tone. I felt he was as uncomfortable as I was about revealing his caste.
‘Who is your Panch?’ the Talathi continued questioning me.
‘Mr. Cardozo,’ I said
‘Does he know you?’
‘Yes,’ I replied quickly.
‘You know Mr and Mrs. Fernandes? Do they know you? Mrs. Fernandes was your ex-Panch, no?’ A barrage of questions was thrown at me.
‘Yes I know them and they know me too. I stay in the same ward,’ I answered.
This Mr. Fernandes had once advised my mother to make an ST certificate. So I saw a ray of hope that he might attest to us being Gawdi. The Talathi decided to call some of the people to check about our family.
‘They are not answering the call,’ he said after a few attempts. I was a little disappointed. Just then, one lady entered the room with her son. From the manner she spoke Konkani I could make out that she was a Brahmin. I remembered that whenever the relatives on my father’s side came to our place, my aunt, who has spent most of her life in Mumbai would say to us, ‘Don’t use words like “tiyani” (‘they’ in colloquial, enabling quick identification as a Gawda), we say “tenni” (‘they’, a more sophisticated version). She used to say, “Gawdi te Gawdi uttole kennach sudorpana” (You will always remain a Gawdi and will never rise up). Now I understand how they must have felt at that time. My younger cousin once told me of an incident that had bothered me a lot. She had gifted one of her friends a green shirt and her friend shot back, “Only your kind of people wear such colours, not us.” I had once got a marriage proposal from a Brahmin Christian family, and my mother said, “Avoi…Bamon…Chamti te!” (Oh Brahmins… they are always misers). But then she also told me that if I wanted to go ahead she wouldn’t mind.
‘Your Panch is also not receiving the call. Now whom should I ask about you?’
‘Yes come in,’ the Talathi called someone else inside.
I turned and saw that a cousin of my friend who lived near our house entered with a form in his hand. I got a little worried that he might see my documents and then spread the word. He left soon and I felt relieved.
I had been in the Talathi’s office for half-an-hour and I was beginning to think that he would not give the approval letter because there was no proof of me being from an ST community.
‘If parents have a certificate, then it’s easy,’ the Talathi broke the silence.
‘My parents were ashamed to make one because of all the discrimination. But my cousin has one. If you want I can bring her certificate,’ I said.
I feel my parents must have had a reason for not getting an ST certificate. Perhaps they wanted to save their children from the stigma of being identified as a Gawdi. So I don’t blame them. In fact, I remember my mother telling me that she had to fight with her own father to marry my father just because she was a Shudra and my father was a Gawdi. Whom do I blame for excluding us from the community of original settlers of Goa? I thought it was a matter of pride, but then why is it a fact that needs to be hidden? When I read and studied about the Gawda community, I always admired their dances and songs. But I don’t have a deeper understanding about the community. If I had a deeper understanding, things would have been different.
‘Hi, Sir,’ I heard a familiar voice while I was lost in my thoughts. I turned and saw that it was my Dad’s friend, along with a neighbour of ours.
‘I know them. He is my Dad’s friend and the other person is my neighbor. You can ask them about me,’ I quickly told the Talathi.
This neighbour belonged to the scheduled tribe himself. But, I didn’t want him to know that I was getting an ST certificate made because he would tell the whole world. My mother had informed me that it was this neighbor who had told my parents not to make an ST certificate. I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to finish my work and leave as soon as possible. The Talathi did not show any interest in asking them anything about me. He got busy with a phone call. It was becoming excruciating sitting in the office.
Before this, I had had to get a Samaj Certificate made, and submit that with a host of documents to the Mamlatdar. It had not been so difficult. After that I had come to the Talathi to get his report. I had not anticipated that it would be so tough to convince him. I hadn’t even told my brother what I was up to. When he had asked what I was preparing all the documentation for, my mother said it was for the renewal of an employment card. I had kept quiet. I don’t know why I did that. When my father had asked why I needed a caste certificate now, my mother had told him that it was for the NET (National Eligibility Test) exam, which is what I had told her. Nonetheless I had their full support.
‘Take this and get a Xerox copy (photocopy) and come back,’ the Talathi said, giving me the approval form.
‘Is there a Xerox shop nearby?’ I asked with great excitement.
‘Are you really from Curtorim?’ the Talathi looked puzzled again.
‘Yes,’ I answered.
‘You stay here, studied here and you don’t know where the Xerox shop is?’
‘I know the shops in the market. I don’t know any shop here. May be it’s a new shop,’ I said and rushed out of his office.
I got a photocopy of the approval form from a shop next to the Panchayat office and returned to the Talathi.
‘Fill it up,’ he said. ‘But there should not be any problem for me, okay?’ he added.
‘No. Not at all,’ I assured him and after a little over an hour I left his office.
The final stage of getting the ST Certificate was to submit this approval form at the Mamlatdar’s office. Everything went smoothly. I had to submit the certificate at the Tribal Welfare Office and finally I got the ST Certificate.
All said and done, I still wonder if I am really ready to go out and say to the whole world that I am a Gawdi.
I talk openly about my tribal identity only to those who I feel will understand me. When I wrote in an interview form that I belonged to the ST community, I hesitated, wondering if I should really write it down. There were people who knew me and I was a little embarrassed about my ST identity at that time. Somehow I gathered courage and wrote the fact. Sometimes I am open to talk about my tribal identity and sometimes I just want to hide it. I sometimes feel that when I see a benefit, I put on the mask of a Gawdi and then when I go to the outer world I remove it. By doing so, I feel I am adding to the discrimination… I support the fact that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of tribe or caste or creed. But on the other hand, may be I actually do discriminate. I remember refusing proposals just because the boys were from upper caste Christian families. Another thing I notice is that people from my village and my house still say ‘caste certificate’ for a ‘tribe certificate.’ I have also used the word interchangeably in this article. I assume that they are unaware of the differences between caste and tribe. They often use words like “Casta-che” (of Caste) and never “Triba-che” (of Tribe). I am fine with using the word ‘Scheduled Tribe’ but my certificate has CASTE CERTIFICATE written on it. And towards the end, it says ‘belonging to schedule tribe Gawda’. So, I too don’t know what exactly to say.
Well I am just waiting to see what this new identity has in store for me. I don’t even know if my cousins who have spent their lives in Mumbai know that we are Gawdis. If they do know, how do they feel about it? Does it matter to them? Why didn’t I say anything when my brother wanted to know what was going on? I once read in the newspaper that my village has three main Wards dominated by the Gawdi community. I still don’t know which ones they are. I don’t know if I would want my parents to know that I am studying or writing about my tribal identity. Is this to wipe off the caste difference or to hide my caste? I don’t know what it means to be a Gawdi. As yet, I don’t have any strong community feelings towards my tribe. I have lived like a non-Gawdi but I can’t call myself a non-Gawdi. Am I in some sort of an identity crisis? Will my life be the same, or is it going to change forever? Do I really want this identity? If so, is it only for its benefits? Wouldn’t I be encouraging discrimination? My parents have always kept me away from caste/tribe discrimination. Will I be able to face any discrimination if it comes my way?
Now that I have embraced my tribal identity I often wonder what would be the reaction of other Gawda people. Will they accept me or will they feel that I am a gold digger, acquiring the tribal certificate only for its benefits? Frankly, I don’t have an answer to that. I will not lie and claim that I will not use my certificate to avail my entitlements. But, more importantly, I have got the certificate as an attempt to reach some sort of conclusion about my identity. How can I write in forms, or elsewhere, that I belong to a general category when I know that I don’t? And if I write that I belong to a Gawda community then I need proof for that. So if I don’t have a certificate my conscience doesn’t let me be at peace, and if I have a certificate society doesn’t let me be at peace. In fact I fear that my own community members might say that if I haven’t suffered any discrimination and I have fears of such kind then why do I want to embrace the Gawda identity? They might feel that I am just like those who make fake certificates and take away their opportunities.
If they feel that I have never been a victim of caste discrimination then all I would like to say is that if I had not been a victim then I wouldn’t have been here writing about my caste experience. In fact I might have to face double discrimination, firstly from non-Gawdas for being a Gawda and secondly from Gawdas who might see me as using my Gawda identity only to claim benefits for myself. If there was equal treatment for all castes then it wouldn’t have made a difference to me even after knowing that I am Gawda. But since it is not so, I feel that I am a victim of the caste system.
Now that I have cleared my NET exam, I feel that there are more chances of being targeted as a gold digger. People will say that I have cleared the examination just because of my certificate and not on my merit. I know that some of my friends who belong to the general category have not cleared the NET exam even though they have scored a higher percentage than me. I wonder what they might be feeling about this. They will also feel discriminated against. So do I feel bad for them, or happy that I cleared the exam? In a way I feel the embrace of my tribal identity might create problems not only for me but also fellow members of the tribal community. There might be more opposition to reservations also.
There are times when I wish I could be known just as Favita. I wish I had not discovered my tribal identity and faced such a situation. But this fact has actually shaped me into something different. It has changed me into a new person. A person with a new set of questions that requires new answers. All I hope for is to get over this confusion and have a clear mind about what I want to do and where I want to place myself. I am also interested in knowing if there are others who face crises similar to mine.
The article was earlier published in Savari.