Living, loving and dying with caste

In this excerpt from Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell - Caste as a Lived Experience, edited by Perumal Murugan and translated by Ambai, Perumal Murugan narrates everyday caste moments

Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Perumal Murugan

There is a lot one can write about caste. Caste is as omnipresent as god in our society. There is not a day when one can forget about caste. Some moment or the other in everyday life makes you realise the existence of caste, makes you think about caste. We also meet every day the stances being taken about there being no god. Some say there is caste in the rural areas and not in the urban cities. In the villages, one can feel the force of the wind. Even though the wind loses its force when it hits the buildings in the cities, it is not non-existent in the city streets. Caste is something similar.

A math teacher from Velur District got transferred to the college where I was working. Namakkal District is, after all, known as the Oxford of Tamil Nadu in education. So, with the intention of making his son a doctor, he had admitted him into Vidya Vikas School known for its reputation for the highest scores... My house was close to Vidya Vikas School. The Housing Board Colony was in that area. He asked me if I could find him a place to rent in that colony. I enthusiastically began to look for a house for him.

Many of my relatives and acquaintances lived in that colony. Through one of them we settled on a house and went to pay the advance. They were sure that there won’t be any problem in the payment of rent as he was a professor. But the house owner did take me aside and ask, ‘What caste does the gentleman belong to? If he is an SC it won’t work out.’ I had no idea of his caste until then. It had not even occurred to me to ask him. What could I do under the circumstances? I told him, ‘We work in a college. We never ask about caste nor do we observe caste.’ That was, of course, a lie. There were caste groups even within the college... I approached the professor hesitantly and asked him. But he seemed to have anticipated such a question. ‘I am an SC, Murugan,’ he told me. If this was conveyed to the house owner he may have refused to give the house and that would be an insult. So, we thought of telling him that the professor was a Mudaliar. And that is what we told him. He stayed in that house for two years and there were no problems.

It is not as if such problems exist only in small towns. Big cities are in no way less conscious of caste. I lived in Chennai for eight years. I was actively involved with a Marxist-Leninist student organisation at that time. I used to go around Chennai distributing pamphlets, pasting posters on the wall and doing similar activities. I never had enough money to meet my expenses then. So, I had to exercise a lot of self-control over matters of food; not self-control exactly, but there was a dearth of food. I used to cook just rice and eat it with some chilli powder mixed in it. There were just a few days when I made a khichdi of rice and dal. If I ever prepared rasam that meant it was a feast!

Once in a way I would visit some comrades. During such visits, even if I was asked for courtesy’s sake to eat I would immediately accept the invitation and be ready to eat. Those were times when I understood that hunger had no dignity and felt no humiliation. Once I had gone to a comrade’s house. He himself visited his house only rarely. I always looked upon the mothers of all the comrades as if they were like the mother of Pavel, the hero of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother. In their own way, they helped the revolution indirectly. Yes, isn’t offering food to people an act of indirectly helping the revolution? But no one ever wanted to go to that particular comrade’s house. One could go only if one had the resilience to listen to the complaints and abuses of his parents.

I was going there for the first time. The comrade’s mother looked at his face and, perhaps she realised he was hungry. So, she asked us to eat. One could sense from her different expressions in the conversation that she was disappointed with her son giving up his studies to become a full-timer in the Party...

The lady placed just one plate before us. I was shocked thinking she was going to serve food only for her son. She called the comrade and asked him to remove the leaf plate from the alcove above. The comrade made a face and told her to serve in the plate but the lady insisted. The comrade took out one leaf from a bundle of leaves...

The mother, like Pavel’s mother, was going to offer me food. I wondered how many comrades these very same hands would have fed. I felt overwhelmed and was almost in tears. The mother sat before me and asked me, ‘Which varna do you belong to?’ This was the first time I was facing such a question in my time in Chennai. First, I could not quite get the word varna but then I could guess its motive. I immediately understood why the leaf plate was being used. Even revolutionary mothers observed caste restrictions. In front of me was the leaf plate washed and clean. There was the cooked food before me. I understood at that moment what the proverb ‘there is many a slip between the cup and the lip’ really meant. Even in hunger my mind was sharp. I told her, ‘I belong to BC, Backward Community.’ By then the comrade came out of the washroom. His mother removed the leaf plate. What was the problem even after I had said I belonged to a backward community, I wondered. The comrade asked his mother smiling, ‘So, have you made the enquiries?’ ‘Go on, leaf plate is not convenient to pour rasam,’ she said and went in and brought a steel plate and placed it before me. I drank a lot of rasam poured into my plate and had a satisfying meal.

When she found out that I was a university student she asked me to advise her son. I told her that I was also asking him to remain a student while working for the Party. After that she served me with more care. After the meal, I thanked her and when I came out I told my friend, ‘Comrade, even though mothers observe caste restrictions, they also help the revolution. After the revolution, even mothers will not talk about caste, isn’t it?’ I also made sure to know what caste he belonged to. When I went to his house on another occasion, his mother asked me which group I belonged to among the BCs. Since I knew my comrade’s caste, I mentioned that as my caste. She would not talk about caste when the comrade was around. But when he was not around she happily spoke about caste-related issues. After that whenever I went there I was given special attention. She would enquire about people of her caste from our village. I would also tell her half-truths I knew. I would be served good food. The comrade himself would invite me to go with him saying that his mother did not scold him whenever I was around. That is the caste role I donned in the city.

Sometimes without intending to, one is forced to use caste in certain situations.

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