Fissure lines of Tamilian casteism
Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell
Author - Perumal Murugan
Publisher - SAGE, Rs 595
This book looks into the ways in which caste — a concept that could have done its share to preserve tradition — is often misinterpreted and misused in Tamil Nadu, sometimes even at the cost of lives of people, says GAUTAM MUKHERJEE
This is a engagingly written set of unpretentious and short essays, straight from the heart, on the unbending rules and practices of caste in rural Tamil Nadu. The narratives range from birth and one’s sense of station, to assignations, marriage, and what might have been, the simulations and euphemisms of tact, particularly between religions, and also death — with its separate and stratified final rites. These are stories of personal experience and very touching for their authenticity.
Published by Sage/Yoda Press, the quality of the flawless editing and presentation in this volume is exceptional. The essays, serious in content, are written by a pantheon of highly educated academics, authors, poets, editors, even a doctor, who could easily have chosen to be pedantic and pompous, but have instead chosen a quiet tone of dignified poignancy, simplicity, and acute honesty.
If one didn’t read the notes on the contributors, bristling with PhDs, though many were indeed born in the village, you would have taken the entire collective of 31 to be ordinary people, writing directly on their own experience with their caste and religious identities.
The essays, some only two or three pages long, have been impeccably translated by the distinguished Dr. C.S. Lakshmi, specialized in Women’s Studies.
The Editor of this slim but valuable collection, Perumal Murugan, is a professor, author, poet, with what must be a fairly rare PhD in Tamil. Caste is a formidable construct in India. The message of this book, however, is that though it can, and does, much to preserve traditions and structures — with its rigidities, it often destroys lives too.
Recent Assembly elections in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, the North East, taught us caste, class, creed, tribal loyalties, are all crucially relevant to the “social engineering” aspects of winning State elections.
Such groupings compete with religion, ideology, and the modern, inclusive, siren calls to development, and still hold their own. The vast metro cities with a population in millions are perhaps the only places where these issues loosen their hold, provided one does not seek out familiar ghettoes.
Most recently in Karnataka, we were treated to detailed analyses of Lingayats and Veershaivas, sub-castes, Mahants, Mutts, Vokkaligas, Kurubas, the Muslim- Shia, Sunni Imams, Maulanas, Dalits, Maha-Dalits — all bubbling away in the election cauldron.
Reservations, the modern affirmative action panacea, say some in this interestingly titled book: Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell, are responsible for even more divisions than were originally built into the caste system.
Getting in is one thing, but then cheek by jowl colleagues proceed to snuff each others’ promotions based on caste groupings.
Skin colour, physical features, crudity, refinement, food habits and inclinations, are all repeatedly brought up as visible markers of caste to the discerning observer. The untouchability of caste practice, though some of the authors attributed it to departed mothers and grandmothers, is heartbreaking — the separate glasses, the laxman rekha of inside and outside, bathing to dispel “pollution”.
It is no wonder, given the childhood trauma, that many of the erudite writers here meekly accept their caste limitations, hinting at genetic probabilities, without demur.
It is poignant to read this. Comparative study would explain to these distinguished professors that the tinker, tailor, butcher, baker, candle-stick maker of “tradesmen entrances”, craftsmen, artisans, would have never climbed into the Boardrooms of Europe and America if this was inviolable. Of course the world wars that wiped out their aristocracy helped.
But also, mongrellisation seems to have worked really well in the “melting pot” that is America, and here we are, hesitating at “inter-caste marriages”, and being routinely lynched by the Tamilian equivalent of Khap Panchayats. There is a feeling, represented in most of these essays, that caste is immutable in the village. It can, after a fashion, lose itself in the big city, in the Chennai of this book.
But only if the incumbent does not let himself be tortured by its internal dictates even there, amongst all the reasonable anonymity and the cosmopolitanism. A suicide is cited even here though, when the attempt fails.
Caste is heartfelt. The low, the middling, and high-born, all feel its lash in different ways. This is interesting, and true enough for the articulation. Nobody is really on top anymore, certainly not by right! It is money that is replacing caste, and thank God something is.
Not even the atheist politicians of the South, and their ardent followers, who tried to cut through the Gordian knot are anything but just such and such
(generally low) caste, who say they don’t believe in God anymore. There is a churn, but one must still carry the baggage.
Theoretically, if a person can shed the effects of caste on his developing psyche, particularly if he grew up in Tamil Nadu’s villages, then all is well.
But not one of the authors of these essays dares thumb his nose at the notion. Everyone accepts its pernicious hold in the spirit of age-old Karma. There is no communist or modernist attempt to belittle the meaning of caste and its stratifications in this volume. Perhaps it is not lost on this distinguished assemblage that Karl Marx was himself a Jew.
This realism is indeed remarkable, and at the nub of this book’s honesty. No one celebrates the apartheid of caste, but no one denies its existence either.
Everyone ends individually and separately, with a hope that future generations may make a better job of rendering caste irrelevant than they have.
It is possible. A multi-cultural Europe has blurred colour, ethnicity, race, and cultural lines in the minds of most of its people. A generation or two ago this was unthinkable. Did economics and technology do the trick? Perhaps the answer is in all of the above, and in the inexorable processes of evolution too.
The reviewer is an entrepreneur and a former corporate executive
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