By Sara Christensen
Kerala is a unique place. Within India, it is a state known for its development, both economic and social. Yet institutions such as the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST) are still needed. Although the caste system is now officially illegal in India, “former lowcaste citizens,” now referred to as Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Scheduled Caste (SC), experience sharp inequalities. After spending two months conversing with both students and facilitators of CREST’s various programs, learning about their past, their present and their aspired future, patterns began to emerge. Although these people (especially women, who made up the majority of my interlocutors) have dreams, hopes, and plans, they freely admit that their realities are dramatically shaped by forces that are outside of their control. Here, I hope to shine light on such forces, and give voice to systemically disadvantaged people I have come to care for. Their capacity to aspire is not blunted by the specific socioeconomic system within Kerala, but they are acutely aware of the boundaries they face on a daily basis. They dream both around and through these barriers. Blatant acknowledgement of factors such as religious affiliation, caste and family social standing is in no way self pitying. Rather, each of my interlocutors saw their specific situation in a realistic light, while leaving room for the desire to see change within their generation.
Every conversation I had with CREST students and staff revealed startling and disturbing stories about the social inequality that shaped their lives. Yet they told their stories in a calm, normal tone—there was no desire to surprise or gain sympathy. These were just their realities, laid out for me to understand and digest. There was, however, an unrelenting call for change. My interlocutors were not complacent to sit by and accept the injustices. The women I spoke with understood that they would face inordinate difficulty finding jobs, and face discrimination in many other parts of their lives, due to the families they were born into.
Coming to CREST was one way for them to deal with this truth. And let it be said that coming to CREST is no small feat— some students, for example, lived quite far from the campus, meaning they would not see their families and would be leaving the comforts of home to live with strangers in a strange city. This bravery was never presented upfront, but I sensed a defiant and challenging air.
It was if they came to CREST to say: “My social world does not find me employable? Fine. I will fix that.” One CREST graduate is taking the world headon, and working hard to get into a PhD program, while simultaneously being pressured by her father to take a husband. Her capacity to aspire is not hindered by the systemic social and economic disadvantage she has faced—and likely will continue to face—her entire life; rather, she worked around it, reaching for her goal nonetheless. One CREST instructor I spoke with took her own experience with inequality, and the experiences of others around her, and decided to do something about it. Even pursuing social work was not enough for her; she currently desires to gain a powerful position where she can affect real and positive change. She wants to see a Kerala that provides a new generation with the tools they need to find success.