Every time I’d go to my Ammumma asking for a story about her childhood, this one always made its way in between the others. This story takes place when my great-great grandmother (who belonged to the Nadar community) was a young girl, when the fight against caste was only slowly taking shape. Women of the supposed lower caste weren’t allowed to go out wearing a blouse and men weren’t allowed to step out in public with a moustache. I remember sometimes my father chiming in with his knowledge of the period saying, if anyone did dare go out with a moustache they would be publicly restrained and their moustache pulled out hair by hair. I always winced at the thought of it.
As the story goes, one day a woman went out wearing a blouse and it was ripped off of her. Publicly. Somehow Queen Victoria came to know about this and she wrote a letter which went something along the lines of “If this ever happens again, you will answer to my gun”. I felt great respect and admiration for this lady after I heard this story. Grandma told me this letter was eventually burned because it was a slap on the face of people of the dominant- caste. I’m not one-hundred percent sure how much of this story is true and how much of it has been filled in by own interpretation of the story and how much of it has been erased and re-interpreted over time. Whatever maybe the case this is a story I will carry around with me forever because it was through this particular story that I was introduced to my caste.
I used to proudly narrate this story to anyone who’d listen. How a Queen stood up for my people and saved the day. Now as I put it down I’ve realised how this narrative had shifted my focus from the Nadar community to Queen Victoria. She was my hero. In the telling and retelling of this story the struggles of the Nadar women who suffered under the oppressive power of the dominant caste, women who had fight, to make enough noise for the issue to be finally taken up by British authorities had been sidelined.
“Gandhiji had met many Untouchables before. But he had never come across an Untouchable intellectual. As a matter of fact, till that point of time, nobody had.” (13, Jadhav)
My Amma, a Nadar Hindu, married my Pappa, a Nadar Christian. Every time the topic of my parents’ wedding came up in conversation I’d be faced with the same question “was theirs a love marriage?”. It wasn’t. According to my mother, inter-religious marriage between people of the same caste was common practice. She told me it was because the number of people in our own caste with “proper education” and good jobs weren’t that many so people were ready to compromise on their religion but not caste. My parents got married in 1995, 64 years after the meeting between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Looking outside the case of my parents I see what my mother meant – my valyachan only had a 10th grade education when he got married, one of my uncles has barely enough money to get by in life, a good number of my relatives didn’t finish school, one of my aunts has been trying for a job for about 10 years, an uncle is bankrupt because people took advantage of his lack of education. Exactly how far have we come in 87 years?
Of course Gandiji hadn’t, until that day, met an Untouchable intellectual. How could he have when even today, 87 years later, oppression is still a constant companion of those oppressed?
“Even if your mind forgets your body remembers”
I was constantly tip-toeing around the conversation of caste. Careful not to make too much noise, not to attract any attention. To me caste only existed when you talked about it. So you act like it doesn’t exist and it goes away. This became so ingrained in me that I failed to see caste even when it was staring right at me. Did I, somewhere along the way, convince myself that belonging to a backward class meant that I was beneath everyone in the “General” category? Does my lack of self-worth have its roots in the caste system?
It is a lot to unpack. It is 23-years of learning that needs to be undone. Maybe putting it down in words will help me get some clarity. Looking back I see that at every stage of my life there have been incidents that made me feel like the space that I existed in was not mine. Years of feeling excluded from the crowd. Like there was something about me that didn’t quite fit the criteria to be treated as one of them. To realise that I was made to feel this way when I was just a child by other children of my own age. All of us were equally ignorant of the caste system and yet unknowingly practising the inherent evils of it. I would carry these experiences around in my heart for years to come.
I’m trying to navigate the complexity of the caste system through my story. To understand how it strikes you down over and over again all the while hiding in plain sight. The school I studied in till 8th grade was very big. The divisions ran from A to I (in some grades even more) and each class had a population of at least 50 students. In this overpopulated school I had one friend. It took me about 6 years to find her. After she left in 6th standard, I was back to eating lunch alone and roaming around the campus alone. No one seemed to want to talk to me.
My attempts at friendships were shot down rudely. I thought it was because of the way I looked, talked and carried myself in public. I remember always feeling the need to appear “cool” and “fashionable” (traits I’ve carried on to my adulthood) so people would want to talk to me. It didn’t help. I did find friends later on but never anything consistent.
There are a few incidents I remember very clearly. There was one girl in class who generally everyone found annoying. On the first day of 8th grade we were being shuffled before being sent to our new class and I was to be in the same class as this one boy (one of the “cool kids”). The minute my name was read I remember him saying “Ayyo njan Aishwaryade kooday venamenkil pokkolam pakshey ivaldey kooday venda” (I’ll go with Aishwarya but not her).
Was my brown different from her brown?
Rice, beetroot thoran and fish fry (or curry) was my lunch almost everyday. Every time I opened my lunch box I’d get disapproving looks from the people sitting near me. They had dosas, sandwiches, biryani, all things fancy. I’d tell my mother to pack something different, not fish, fish was bad, fish smelled. But fish was my favourite.
The other incident took place when I was in 8th grade. We were assigned seats on the first day of class and I sat between G and K. They made a huge fuss every time my hand rubbed against/touched their hands. Either the hair on my hand was pricking them or I was being annoying. I would be very cautious during class so as to maintain a distance between while sitting on bench shared by four people.
Boys would dare each other to talk to me, dares with an undercurrent of punishment. I looked forward to the momentary attention I was given as the boy who was on the receiving end of the of the dare made his way to me, all eyes on us, do whatever task he was burdened with and turn back to his friends who had by then erupted into laughter. Why did it require a certain kind of daring to speak to me? At the same time, why was I treated like a joke?
In history classes, sitting in the same classroom, we learned , year after year, how caste was bad, how discrimination was bad and that its abolishment was of utmost importance. Year after year, history text book after text book we read about kings who ruled us, the Britishers who colonized us, the leaders who freed us and the intellectuals who shaped us. Never once did I read about the toddy tappers who migrated from Tamil Nadu to Trivandrum or the stories of Daya Pawar, Shantibai Krishnaji Kamble, Vasant Moon or about the mass conversion to Buddhism after Ambedkar’s death or how exactly people suffered because of their caste.
Gandhi believed all citizens should be treated equally. Sometime in history, Sati was abolished. Britishers cut down a lot of trees to build railways. Missionaries built schools. How did Gandhi expect this equality to come about? Did people of all castes practice Sati? How did the cutting of trees affect the tribal communities living those forests? How were children of oppressed castes treated in these schools?
Why did it take me 23 years to finally start asking and getting answers to these questions?
During my 7th grade summer vacations was when we bought our first computer. I remember joining an online chat site where you could make a 3D avatar and talk to people from all over the world. It was a fascinating discovery for me. It took me a few months to find solid friends (who’d later go on to become my best friends). I talked to them everyday till I joined college. They didn’t make me feel the way the kids in my school did. I was still the brown skinny girl with frizzy hair and unattractive features (the reasons I attributed to my not having friends).
Here I felt like I belonged, among these strangers on the internet. But looking back, I realise now how bad my school must’ve been for me to prefer this virtual world over the real one. In 11th and 12th when I finally had a group I could call my best friends, I felt strong. But in the anger I didn’t know I was carrying I gave back to the world what it gave me – judgement and discrimination. I had to teach myself to be kind, to be understanding, to be a listener. To be to other people what I wished the world was to me.
I used to be embarrassed by the way I spoke Malayalam. I was made to believe through films, comedy shows and by the people around me that it was comical, that it wasn’t ‘ the proper Malayalam’. It was the way my grandparents spoke, it was the way a majority of my family spoke. The Thriruvananthapuram slang. I never met anyone who spoke the way I did until I joined college. Even then when someone pointed out that I had a ‘Thiruvananthapuram accent’ I would make a conscious effort to sound ‘proper’. It took me ages to finally accept that this is my way of expressing myself. The Malayalam I speak is the Malayalam people who live near the board between Kerala and Tamil Nadu spoke, the place where most of my family lives. I now see that language also has caste.
I have come to these realizations and more because I found Ambedkar and the stories of the people who followed him so passionately. I can look at my stories through the lens of caste because I see now that, in India, everything is caste. Color of your skin, standards of beauty, the ‘cultured’ and the ‘uncultured’, traditions, history, everything we’ve come believe and accept as the norm has its roots in caste.
I’ve started asking questions I wish I had asked before. I’m now noticing things I wish I had before. I asked my mother if she could recollect anything from her childhood. She told me about the time when she cleared her MMB entrance exam. She’d gone to where she did her PU to collect her certificate when she heard a classmate saying “ithinum kittiyo MBBS” (even this got MMB). In Malayalam you use “ath” “ith” to refer to objects. My mother had to stand outside her tuition class because appuppan didn’t have enough money to pay the fees. She made it into Trivandrum Medical College all because of her hard work and yet the world wouldn’t stop trying to put her down.
Unlike my mother, my father refuses to open up. Every time I’ve tried to have a conversation with him about caste he speaks of it as if it’s something that only exists in North India. “I’ve had no caste experiences” he tells me. Recently I called him to ask him if he could tell me about our caste, if he remembered any stories. He told me he was outside and would call me later. I could hear the hesitation in his voice to discuss caste in public. I don’t know if he was embarrassed or if he thought it was controversial to talk about it in public. I wonder if there were similar instances from when I was young which ingrained in me the idea that being OBC was something to be embarrassed about. I still not brave enough to have this conversation with my brother, I do not know if I’m strong enough to take it if he does have experiences to share.
I was constantly running away from everything I saw and categorized as “Nadar”. I look at myself and I realise my constant need to look put-together and ‘modern’ I now understand that a part of it is because I do not want to look the way most of the people in my family look. You mustn’t curse in Malayalam. If you do, you become your father. Then you become your father’s caste. Even today, it’s physically impossible for me to bring myself to curse in Malayalam. My constant need be clean, for me and my surrounding to smell good like fruits and gardens, specifically to not smell like the houses of my relatives. I didn’t realise then that all of this was me trying to run away from my caste.
When my father constantly tells me and my brother to look “neat and presentable”, to improve my English vocabulary, to never come in a position to ask anyone for help, when he tells me to always be careful of the world, to never trust anyone completely he’s also probably trying to make sure my caste doesn’t catch up to me. As I write this I already understand him more.
It took me ages to finally bring myself to feel worthy of the space that I took up. 23 years to finally realise my stories have value, that they deserved to be heard. In many ways I’m only still learning to accept this place in history I’ve been gifted. I’m only learning to take pride in my roots, in the ancestry that has placed me in this time and place. This is coming from someone who was and is privileged in so many ways that a large majority of India isn’t. This is coming from a person who perhaps did not experience caste so directly and so violently as a majority of India does.
Caste has made people like Rohith Vemula who saw beauty in the infinity of the universe put an end to their lives. And yet people refuse to acknowledge its existence. History hasn’t been kind to the experiences of the oppressed.
Time after time the world around me has made me feel small and my stories insignificant. It is time history made space for our voices. I’ve come to realise it is not weakness but strength, to feel. It is strength to feel so deeply in your bones, the experiences of the women and the men who laid down their lives for me to be living the life I’m living. It is important to tell my story so their sacrifices don’t go in vain.
I will not let the world define my caste for me.
Image credits: Neeraja Radhakrishnan