The other day I was travelling from Coimbatore to Kochi when my mobile phone rang. It was a call from my wife. I spoke to her for a couple of minutes and then resumed reading Bernard-Henri Levy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl when a fellow passenger struck up a conversation.“I guess you’re a native of Palakkad?” the man said with a friendly grin. He was fair, tall and wide-eyed, in his late thirties. “How do you know?” I asked him. I was actually not surprised because he’d heard me speaking on phone in Tamil with a heavy Malayalam influence. This I knew had betrayed my identity. “It’s your Tamil,” he replied with a glint in his eyes.
This fellow passenger was not the first to read my identity. In Kerala, most people can trace the identity of Tamil Brahmins like me, settled in their State, just by looking at our faces. ‘Swamiyalle’ (aren’t you an Iyer?) is their general refrain. People of Tamil Nadu, however, can’t identify us unless we talk and when we do, they won’t hesitate to ask with a kind of contempt: ‘malayalathaana’ (aren’t you a Malayalee?)
The bus was crossing Walayar forests. A stray puff of wind wandered about rustling the trees that stood on either side of the national highway. “To which agraharam you belong?” the man probed further. He was apparently bored, and perhaps was not impressed having a person next to him buried in the pages of some stupid book. So, I closed the book, deciding to pander to his longing for some small talk. I told him, I hailed from Chembai agraharam. “Oh! Are you related to the Bhagavathar?” I knew he was referring to the legendary Carnatic musician Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. “You know how it’s in an agraharam, most residents are related to one another, in one way or the other,” I replied suppressing a smile.
“True…True…!” he exclaimed, leaning back on the seat. “But, how is your agraharam? I mean…do other caste people stay inside?” Maybe, he thought his question was inappropriate. So, lest it should offend me, he hastened to add: “Not that I care much about castes. I myself am a member of ‘Kaduppottan’ community.”
‘Kaduppottan’ is a splinter group of ‘Ezhuthachan’ community placed three or four rungs down Kerala’s Hindu caste hierarchy. It is an irony though that it is a community that has traditionally patronised the value of art and letters. It is so much devoted to Goddess Saraswati that it had expelled a section of its members a few centuries back when they started appeasing Goddess Lakshmi to tide over poverty, turning to trade and business, neglecting the value of learning.
The expelled group came to be known as ‘Kadum Brashtar’ (the ones who faced extreme ostracism), which over the passage of time corrupted itself to ‘Kaduppottan.’ I pondered over the mysterious ways in which new castes evolve as my new acquaintance eagerly waited for my reply. So, I told him: “There’re no non-Brahmins in our agraharam.”
“Oh! That’s nice! I’m also from Palakkad. We’ve an agraharam near our house. But, there’re hardly any Brahmin families left,” he added with a sense of sincere loss. Agraharams – Tamil Brahmin villages – are aplenty in Kerala and Palakkad tops the list with 96.
Typical in construction, an agraharam contains about a hundred houses, each one sharing a common wall with the neighbours on either side. It is a chain of houses in two rows separated by a wide passage dotted with three or four public wells and two temples on either end whose deities are seen as the protectors of the village. Tamil Brahmins migrated to Kerala some 700 years back as crops failed in Tamil Nadu due to successive droughts.
The erstwhile Kings of Kerala has a history of welcoming Jews, Muslims and Christians. They did not disappoint Tamil Brahmins either. The paradesi Brahmins were given large swathes of land, financial assistance to build houses and offered jobs at temples and palace kitchens bringing their social integration to a full circle. They gradually coalesced into the landscape of the new country that adopted them, and absorbed local traditions, customs and festivals like Onam and Vishu. They also exchanged pleasantries with Christians and Muslims during Christmas and Eid celebrations. Yet, to date, they also keep alive their original identity by retaining the flavor of the cuisines brought from Tamil Nadu, celebrating Avani Avittam (a religious function during which Brahmins of Tamil Nadu change their sacred threads) and by speaking Tamil at home.
As the community grew in social stature, many became rich land owners and joined the league of the powerful and wealthy Namboodiris (the Malayalam-speaking Brahmins) in practising untouchability and unseeability. Kerala’s Dalits and other suppressed classes have a genuine grouse against these Brahmins, particularly the Tamil-speaking ones, because they were treated badly in their own home land by the ones who migrated.
Yet, there was no backlash against the Namboodiris or Tamil Brahmins in Kerala, nor did these two sects become an object of ridicule and hatred by non-Brahmins as is the case with Tamil Nadu which is dominated by Dravidian politics. This reflected in the genuine pain in which my fellow-passenger lamented about the distortion of the agraharam near his place.
He could have insisted upon correcting the historic wrong as is the fashion today. But, he did not. To tell you the truth, it is not just him; most non-Brahmins of Kerala bemoan the fate that has befallen the agraharams in their State.
Their behaviour might appear quite strange at a time when sectarian strife seems to be the order of the day. It would be easy to say they do it because they still feel servility to Brahmins. But, that would be a gross injustice. These non-Brahmins are genuinely pained because they adore agraharams and its residents since they add vivacity to the region with their unique culture and customs.
The bus pulled to a stop before a tea shop for a 10-minute break. I thought my fellow-passenger would step out for a cup of tea. But, he did not. “Most agraharams lost their original glory after the Land Reforms Act,” he opined, looking at the distant mountain. It was cold and drizzling outside. I recalled how the Brahmins of Kerala, particularly, Tamil-speaking ones, were forced to migrate to big cities for a livelihood after they lost their lands.
“In the agraharam near our place, Brahmins who had suddenly become poor sold their palatial houses for a pittance. They did it because they wanted to escape poverty and most houses were falling apart. And, only non-Brahmins had the kind of money,” he said. The story he poured out is in fact the story of most agraharams in Kerala. But, he was surprised that Chembai was an exception.
“Didn’t your people lose land?” Residents of Chembai too had lost their lands. Yet, they did not sell their houses though there is no law that prohibits a Brahmin from selling his house to a non-Brahmin or a non-Brahmin from buying it. Actually, no non-Brahmin would like to buy a house in Chembai, even if he is offered one, because he does not like to alter the demographic and cultural character of the village. It was too complicated an idea to explain to the fellow passenger. So, I gave up.
Nevertheless, I am certain about one thing. The NDA Government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which defanged Article 370 taking away the special status of Jammu and Kashmir can take a lesson or two from the non-Brahmins of Kerala.
For, they don’t see the minority, Tamil-speaking Brahmins as a threat, because they live in exclusive villages, and they do not want to alter the demographic and cultural fabric of the agraharams.
It is trust that wins, not threat is their clear message. But, can the Modi government see the wisdom behind this message is the moot question.
(The writer is a senior journalist, political analyst and communication specialist)