My official name is Sushil Kumar Jha but now mostly people know me as Jey Sushil. I have been asked a lot of times about Why I changed my surname on Social Media. Here is the answer.
Let me confess something very seriously. The first time in my life I felt the importance of my surname was in JNU*.
Before that it had never mattered to me; never ever in my life. In the so called progressive, anti-cast, secular environment, I felt suffocated when someone approached me and said, ”so you are a Jha, a Brahmin.” I didn’t take notice of it but then he stressed, ”we want you in our party. We will give you a councillor seat.” His eyes were shining with my surname and my heart was burning with indigestion of those ‘important’ words. I said, ‘thanks but I am not interested.’ I came back to my room, confused and enraged, which turned into anger in next few hours and frustration after some months. I avoided that person for many days. I didn’t want to offend anyone by taking the so called progressive stand-‘I am anti caste’.
The truth was, at the age of 24, I was not even aware of my caste. I joined JNU as a Botany graduate who wanted to study Social sciences. With all my small town dreams I never realised I was a Brahmin. Despite the sacred thread, I was never asked to do anything specific which only Brahmins do.
Never ever in my 24 years I had any inkling that my caste matters. My welder father and housewife illiterate mother always told me. ‘Education is the only thing which matters.’ My brother ran away from house and married a girl from other caste. Even during those stressed moments, my parents maintained the fact that it was not about caste they are feeling bad about. I never asked and my parents never created any fuss about why my brother married a woman of different caste. They were against the whole notion of love marriage. It was all about family value of defiance which every parent feels bad about. They always said there must be some problem with rearing of our eldest son.
Yes…. My best friend was a Tribal and another was from SC (Scheduled Caste) Community. We ate together, slept together for all those years which we call growing up days. My parents never objected on anything. Seriously speaking, I only came to know that my best friend is a Dalit when I joined JNU. One can call me naïve but if that is naivety I would like to be naïve all my life. The mistake is off course not mine but Nehru’s (India’s first Prime minister Jawahar lal Nehru) who created these oases called townships all over India, where everyone can work, eat together and sweat out for the new India. My father’s best friend was a Dalit who use to sweep our colony. He later became a welder. We didn’t have a TV in our house. We used to go to Premlal’s house to watch Ramayana. Off course Premlal was a dalit and I always had my Sunday lunch with his son Tibru.
The Pilgrimage places of Nehru (Nehru referred the new factories in Independent India as Pilgrimage in his speeches) emancipated people like my father from there caste lines. May be my father was so poor that he could have done anything to survive. Even change his religion. But when he started working in mines as a welder, he never asserted his caste or his religion. His best friend was a Sikh and my mother’s best friend were a Muslim family. Nehru achieved what he wanted just to lose it in JNU.
That’s not the end of my story. I was made to learn about caste and its politics when I started my formal learning of social sciences. I was forced to accept that in India people vote their caste, they don’t cast their vote. I have voted once in my life before and I am dead sure that it has nothing to do with the caste of the person. He was a tribal after all and even today I do not know whether tribal have a caste system or not. If they do then I don’t want to know about it. In such times, I feel ignorance is a real bliss.
When I started working as a journalist no one asked my caste. I got a job without any caste affiliation and worked my way up. Never felt that so called caste bias. May be I was lucky, but then I joined one of the well-known journalistic place to work. Day in and day out, experts rejected all the modernist notions and said Caste is the last truth in India. I tried to argue but in vain. I stopped fighting with the experts. They see everything in black and White. I tried to reason with the grey matter but failed to do so. I kept quite. My own demons were more than enough for me to fight. I talked about these issues with my close friends in the journalistic fraternity. Most of them agreed that ground realities are different than what we write. One thing also came constantly in our debates. For a bigger cause, small sacrifices need to be done. For the larger benefit of Dalits, if the friendliness between the upper and lower caste becomes poisonous then be it. It was an unbearable truth for me.
The peaceful co-existence was breaking. I slowly realised that in JNU, Dalits have almost stopped conversations with the upper caste students. They built their own ghettos, own political party and own ways to deal with. May be that is the way out. I don’t know what the best way is. I mourn the death of my innocence every day. I have almost stopped talking about caste and any debate related to it. I don’t want to think even for a moment that I am a Brahmin or my best friend is a Dalit. This thought nauseates me.
Then Facebook happened, the so called liberator of social identities in the digital space. I was one of the those excited entrants of social media who wanted to know more about the society on the social sites and took a deep dive into the humdrum. The one mistake I did was putting my surname on it. Guess what? I got a flood of friend requests from people with same surname. As caste was not one of my priorities, I ignored it and added all of them thinking, everyone is interested in what I write or may be because I am working in a respectable institution so people want to connect to me in some ways.
I watched people talking about castes and at times instigating others on caste lines. Abusing upper caste became a shortcut for being a big shot. People started worshipping those fake gods. I refrained from debates on Reservation*.
Keeping myself clear off the shallow debate, I specified my stand when enquired that I was all for upliftment of lower castes and Reservation is a good process to achieve it. Few months of my activity and I started getting messages on my chat box. Hi, are you from Darbhanga, which village? As soon as I replied, the next question would be “what’s your gotra?” The question basically leads to the fact that they are coming up with a marriage proposal. I politely replied that I am married. Then I updated my FB with relationship status- Married.
These all chats came from the same surname as mine. Then came the other kind of messages, in Maithili which is my mother tongue talking about how they feel proud of being a Maithil and I should support the creation of Mithila as a new state. Bla bla bla… I maintained my calm for a while and refrained from these chats but they refused to die. People kept messaging me and talking to me only because I am a Jha. They either wanted some kind of help or guidance. I helped with the guidance explaining that they should not give importance to my caste in any ways.
But after some time I really got irritated and changed my surname as Jey. A lot of people asked me about it. Why have I become Sushil Jey. I couldn’t answer them. It was a decision of my heart. I didn’t want to be identified as a Jha. I have my own identity by what I write or what I do, not because of my caste in which I am born.
Jey has no meaning as such. It just feels good to be Jey. I feel it’s real. It doesn’t give any inclination about my caste. Some people thought I am from Portugal. Some thought the surname is Goan. I let the confusion prevail. I feel better when people are confused about my caste. I feel at ease. The nausea has gone down. Though I get messages at times from some die hard caste-wallahs but I have decided not to entertain them. I want to live my life not my caste.
The piece originally appeared on Bargad.com on 11 Nov 2013 under the heading- Nehru achieved what he wanted just to lose it in JNU
*JNU- Jawaharlal Nehru University is a premier University based in New Delhi, India. commonly referred as JNU.
* Reservation is a government policy for the upliftment of lower caste giving them quota in jobs and University education.