(January 13, 2024) During his school days, eminent scholar, Gaurav Pathania, was a reserved kid. Ask him why, and he quips, “I come from a Dalit family, and while enrolling me in school, my father thought it best to leave out my surname to ensure that I wasn’t discriminated against. But, at school, teachers would often ask me about my surname, and often the conversation became quite difficult and uncomfortable for me. So, I thought it best to keep to myself and not talk about my family with anyone at all.”
Once a man who used to stutter a bit, Gaurav is now an Assistant Professor at Eastern Mennonite University in the United States. Interestingly, the scholar is also the lead actor in the recently praised film Origin, directed by the well-known Ava DuVernay. The movie, based on Isabel Wilkerson’s book ‘Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents‘, features the scholar portraying Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In an interview with Global Indian, he reveals that it was quite a surreal experience. “Ambedkar is a role model, not just for me, but for several million people. And to be able to portray him and screen, sharing his ideas and experiences with the world – as him – is a very big honour for me,” the scholar expressed.
Growing up with the caste system
Born in a village in the Kurukshetra district in Haryana, Gaurav shares that he was very inspired by his father, an Ambedkarite who worked at a local bank. “He was the first person from my village to graduate from high school. He always encouraged me to strive for a better tomorrow. That was my motivation to study. He was my biggest inspiration, but unfortunately, he passed away just 20 days before I received my Ph.D.,” shares the scholar, adding, “But schooling wasn’t an easy time for me. I was mostly alone, and frankly, for a couple of years, there were no teachers at school as well. It sometimes felt like a jail.”
However, it all changed when the scholar came to college. “I completed my bachelor’s and master’s from Kurukshetra University and then came to Jawaharlal Nehru University to pursue another master’s in sociology. It was a completely different world for me. My time there brought a lot of awareness and exposure about the world, several social stigmas, and more importantly my rights. It was through a professor there that I got to know about new avenues of Ambedkarism. He told me that as an academician, one should engage in activism, particularly for a sociologist, as it’s essential to understand the people being studied. I believe it’s true when they say that once you become a part of JNU, you carry the spirit of activism with you for life. People there encouraged me a lot and from a stutter, I went on to become an affluent speaker,” the scholar laughs.
Eventually, Gaurav went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology from JNU in 2017, and it was also around this time that Gaurav claimed his surname again. “My education documents don’t have my complete name, as my father had enrolled me in school like that. However, I had no qualms about who I was and where I came from. I was quite proud actually,” shares the scholar, who is also the author of the book, The University as a Site of Resistance: Identity and Student Politics.
Venturing into academics
The scholar first came to the United States of America after finishing his Ph.D. “I applied to the University of Massachusetts for my postdoc and was selected. Eventually, I started teaching at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. After holding a few temporary positions at the Catholic University of America and Georgetown University, I got the permanent position in a university where I’m currently teaching,” shares the scholar.
While the shift was easy, it was the US culture that had Gaurav completely awed. “I come from a place where caste plays a big role in our daily lives as well. It decides whom we speak to, where we go, and how we live. Here, I was free from all of it. No one cared about my surname, no one bothered what my father did, all that mattered was my merit and my passion to succeed at what I was doing,” he says.
A remarkable educator, Gaurav has mentored numerous students. In addition to his teaching role, he serves as the Assistant Editor for the South Asia Research Journal, affiliated with SOAS in London. As a scholar, he oversees mindsofcaste.org, a website offering a space for academics exploring the intersection of caste and mental health. Beyond academia, Gaurav is recognised nationally as an anti-caste poet, writer, and community builder. His poetry, acclaimed at both popular and academic levels, has been featured in various publications.
Claim to fame
Inspired by the book ‘Caste: The Origin of Our Discontent‘, Ava dedicated two years of relentless effort to craft the film’s script. During this time, she delved into extensive research on caste, racism, and the Holocaust. Ava even journeyed to India for firsthand research on caste, receiving support from the internationally renowned Dalit figure, Suraj Yengde. Notably, Suraj Yengde also makes an appearance in the film as himself. The film has been making waves at prestigious film festivals like Venice and Toronto International. “I believe this movie holds great significance, addressing a timely and noble cause,” says the scholar.
While he is being praised by many for his role, for Gaurav, acting was never part of his plan, but rather a delightful surprise. “Ava had made an open casting call for the movie. A friend of mine, Siddharth Varicharli, who is also a Las Vegas-based Ambedkarite, informed me about the movie and the casting call. I just recorded my audition and sent it to her. After I was cast and started shooting, Ava told me that though she could have cast any prominent Indian actor for the role, she wanted someone for the marginalised community, as Dr. BR Ambedkar himself was,” shares the scholar.
Waiting for a worldwide release of the film, Gaurav shares that he is already working on several new projects. “Currently, my focus is on developing a movie script and penning down my memoir, both of which are occupying a substantial part of my time. Alongside, I lead the Global Initiative for Equity and Justice, collaborating with scholars committed to anti-caste, race, and feminist perspectives in higher education and social justice. Additionally, I serve as a community organiser, contributing to the Authors’ Lab at the Ambedkar International Center, where I mentor emerging scholars in the realms of caste and social justice,” he shares.