Reading Time: 5 minutes

The poem Identity Card by S Joseph portrays the strong undercurrents of the caste system that are deep-rooted in the psyche of an otherwise progressive community. The poet purely talks about the unseen stings of pain produced by racism. This poem portrays the depth, sincerity, purity and innocence of the heart and feelings of lovers before the venom of caste spreads its poison. The bitter truth of the man-made caste system is depicted in the form of paradox and irony. The poem was translated from Malayalam to English by the noted writer K Satchidanandan.

The poet evokes a sentiment of nostalgia in the initial line of the poem as he recounts his student days and his love interest. The girl is described as reciprocating the sentiment creating an illusion of secular love. Nevertheless, this turns upside down when she rejects him because of his caste. When the girl discovers the identity card, she reckons its actual meaning. It is a mark of discrimination based on caste. Caste becomes a reality and it decides an individual’s position in a pseudo-modern Indian society.

The relationship was as innocent as a child and bloomed like a flower until the time the poet’s identity was not known to the girl. One day the poet loses his identity card. He never must have realized, thought or dreamt that along with the identity card, he would also lose his love. This shows the power of a man-made label of caste identity to break and destroy love, brotherhood and relationships in the world. The depth of the poet’s grief and the stigma is highlighted in the portion where his girlfriend gives him his lost identity card and tells him in hidden unuttered words that her love for him had faded after her coming to know the truth that he is a Dalit and that she wanted to end the relationship. He strikingly brings out the painful and cruel harsh reality of caste discrimination.

The pain and aftermath of the breakup due to caste differences instilled a sense of mistrust in love and its stability in the minds and heart of the young poet. And it is brought out in the portion where he says that when he sees a boy and girl deeply in love, he is sure that they will depart very soon due to the same reason of caste difference and if they unite he wouldn’t be surprised if that boy unquestionably is not a Dalit. Religion did not matter or come in between their love but it was his identity as a Dalit that mattered to the upper caste Hindu girl.

The card is metonymic of secular modernity that promises pseudo-liberatory citizenship in the Nation-state. The card and the stipend entered in red received as a Dalit that emerges as a mask of his caste, made the lady aware that the man belongs to a lower caste which made their love impossible. The poet emphasizes the idea of identity being more than a piece of card or paper.

Caste discrimination is a common experience for people who belong to lower castes and the poet has realized it very young in his life. The girl who came laughing to his life rejects him for his caste. Returning my card is symbolic of the closure of their relationship. The card was supposed to remove the tag of oppression and lack of status attributed to the Dalits. The speaker was discredited by his lover for being a Dalit and realised that caste will always remain a factor in the relations and associations of people with one another. After the incident, he decided to distance himself from lovers. He knows that only people belonging to the same caste have the possibility of uniting.

S Joseph

S Joseph expresses through the poem Identity Card the subaltern experience of the speaker who is loved and later neglected by others for his caste. The poet ridicules subaltern marginalization through his poem. The identity card is the moment of revelation for the speaker, the moment when he realized that his life is flanked on both sides by caste and its delimiting principles. Identity card is an image of indifference, resignation and loss of hope. He thinks that the Dalit identity will remain marginal and discriminatory always.

Unlike any other poem of protest and denunciation, Identity Card does not resort to jargon, ideologies or even exhibition of emotions. Instead, the poet succeeds in layering the lines with subtle undertones and suggestive wordplay. The magnitude of unsaid words hits the reader as the poem draws to a close forcing one to question the beliefs that one holds onto.

Identity Card is a powerful social commentary that prompts the readers to question systemic distortions that tend to dehumanize individuals and reduce them to basic identification data. It’s a call for respect for individuality and humanity beyond the constraints of documented identity.

Theme and Content

The major themes of the poem are identity, discrimination, and social injustice. It puts forward a social critique of how individuals are frequently reduced to mere numbers or names on an ID card. It emphasizes how this depersonalization ignores the individual’s humanity, background, struggles, and experiences.

Form and Structure

In terms of structure, Identity Card employs a simple, straightforward style that belies the depth of its content.

Language and Tone

The language used is accessible and relatable, which enhances its appeal and impact. The reader can readily relate to the speaker’s situation, adding to the poem’s efficacy. The tone of the poem is one of indignation and protest, reflecting the poet’s concern about the present social circumstances and his scepticism towards the efficacy of an ID card defining one’s identity.

Societal Commentary

S Joseph questions the prevailing social system where individuals are forced to verify and validate their existence through identity cards. Identity is presented not as a singular, solid entity, but a constantly evolving one, molded by our experiences and actions.

Previous articleProverbs
Next articleAllomorph
Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.