The omnipresence of caste in our lives

In Perumal Murugan’s Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell, writers narrate tales of living, loving and dying

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Getty Images

Anita Balakrishnan

Not long ago, at a potluck lunch at work, I noticed a curious phenomenon. While some of the dishes were rapidly consumed after drawing appreciative comments, certain food items remained relatively untouched. Upon tasting these again, I found that they were wholesome and delicious. When I remarked upon this curious occurrence, my close friend and colleague cleared up the matter. She said those dishes were prepared by Dalit members of the staff and hence they were taboo for many others. This incident brought home to me the brutal fact of caste discrimination, even among an urban, affluent and highly educated section of society.

When I began to perceive chance occurrences through my newly-sensitised eyes, I noticed many acts which had seemed innocuous earlier. Certain people washed their hands if they had come into contact with Dalit colleagues; some others were irritated if the first person they encountered in the morning was a Dalit and muttered prayers to ward off the bad karma that would follow. And all this was taking place among the supposedly westernised urban elites!

These incidents forced me to reconsider my smug convictions regarding the egalitarian nature of Indian society. The brutal cold-blooded murder of Dalit youths who had dared to marry upper caste girls, I thought, were just instances of crimes of passion. At that time, I did not see them as a symptom of a feudal mindset that dominates the thinking of vast sections of society. Other news about the two-tumbler system in tea shops in certain parts of India where Dalits and lower castes were served in separate glasses took on a new poignancy. As did reports that landlords were unwilling to rent houses to the ‘lower castes’. Suitably chastened, I wondered that if this was the situation in cosmopolitan urban areas, what would be the ground reality in the deep pockets of caste orthodoxy in the villages!

As sociologist Dipankar Gupta observes, India is quite undeniably one of the most stratified societies in the world today. In addition to wide income disparities, there exist religious, caste and community differences that are deeply engraved into everyday social situations. Yet caste stands out because there are elaborate rules and rituals prescribing how these distinctions are to be maintained and sanctions if these rules are violated. Significantly, Gupta states that no caste considers itself to be inferior to others. In fact, each caste cherishes origin tales that seek to establish that caste’s purportedly royal lineage.

Notions of purity and pollution and the elaborate rituals and rules associated with such ideas are the central focus of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s edited volume of essays titled Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell, sensitively translated into English by CS Lakshmi, who also writes Tamil fiction under the pen name of Ambai. In her introduction, she notes that the essays in the book are about living, loving and dying with caste as an indelible marker. The 32 essays in the book, written by members of Perumal Murugan’s research group, narrate how from childhood to adulthood, caste intruded upon their lives, from food, clothes and games to love and marriage. As every aspect of their existence is shaped by caste, it becomes a dominant theme in their lives. Lakshmi asserts that these are not merely sad stories about caste oppression; sometimes caste can give one security in the form of a goddess or god that belongs only to you; it provides the comfort of belonging to a group, though this can be restrictive, limiting or even exclusionary.

The essays are written mostly by college professors and school teachers who are part of Perumal Murugan’s professional circle. Though the castes of the writers ranges from Brahmin to Arunthathiyar, that is from the very top of the caste hierarchy to the lower castes, their experiences of pollution and the purifying rituals are startlingly similar. Especially poignant is P Ezhilarasi’s account of how she had nurtured caste like a sleeping demon in her bosom when she utters a lower caste name which she did not think she was capable of, not realising that a woman she considered to be a second mother belonged to that caste. P Balasubramaniam speaks of the harshness of caste practices that lead the Gounders, a non-Brahmin caste, to treat lower castes such as the Sakkilayars worse than animals. In a household with many cows and buffaloes, he is offered black coffee in a coconut shell, as the Gounders believed that if the Sakkiliyars tasted the milk, they would caste an evil eye on the milch cows, causing their milk to dry up!

The central thread linking the various essays is the ubiquity and deep-rooted nature of caste practices. Several writers note the pervasiveness of caste feelings that cause people to relentlessly question a chance acquaintance till they find out his caste! Tamil Nadu today boasts of numerous educational institutions, from primary schools to universities and professional colleges. This has led to an exponential increase in the number of educated people, with many rural youths employed as teachers and professors. Sadly, as many essayists note, this has not translated into the waning of caste discrimination. On the contrary, caste is seen at its most potent in colleges and schools. P Suresh notes how under the pretext of giving scholarships and other special privileges, schools identify and sequester school children belonging to the lower castes, leading to caste discrimination becoming ingrained even in the minds of young children.

Perhaps the most comprehensive statement about caste is made by Perumal Murugan in his essay titled ‘Everyday Moments’. He states that caste is like god in our society today; it is as omnipresent and as powerful. It governs every aspect of our lives, whether we want to rent a house, eat a meal at a friend’s home, drink tea at a wayside teashop or bathe in the river. It operates in the most illogical manner, overlooking the most fundamental scientific facts. As Perumal Murugan resignedly puts it, “In my experience, I feel caste is like god. There is no difference in villages, cities, mountains or among the educated or uneducated—god is everywhere; so is caste….There is only one difference… those who have seen god cannot explain what god is. But the everyday moments constantly produce before us visuals of caste.”

This collection of essays provides an insightful and in-depth exploration into the phenomenon of caste, a phenomenon that has such a strong impact across all levels of society in contemporary India. While the relentless narration of the dispiriting facts about caste discrimination does occasionally depress the reader, the overwhelming presence of caste in India today makes this an important ethnographic contribution to studies on the lived experience of caste.

(The author is the head of the Department of English, Queen Mary’s College, Chennai)

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Published: 18 Feb 2018, 9:01 AM