Posts Tagged ‘Kerala’

Meeting Ayyankali

In Historical record, Report on August 23, 2013 at 8:42 pm

In the Report of the Ceylon Labour Commissioner for 1914, 1915, D.H.M. Bowden, the Deputy Commissioner, wrote about his meeting with Ayyankali. Bowden was sent to scout for places and castes from which he could hire coolies for the Ceylon tea plantations. After touring the Tamil-speaking regions of Madras Presidency (and noting approvingly that villages with Pariah and Shanar Christians were among the best places to hire from), he visited the princely state of Travancore and was encouraged to hire from the Pulaya caste in the state by its administration. Two administrators told him that he would need Ayyankali’s help to convince people to migrate. There only was negligible migration from Malayalam-speaking regions to Ceylon and it is likely that this meeting was not followed through. This report, however, further underscores the significant role that Ayyankali had in Dalit political assertion of the early 20th century.

Recruiting of Travancore Pulaya Coolies

Report by Deputy Commissioner

In accordance with your instructions, I arrived at Quilon on 27th ulto, to enquire regarding the above matter.

Before leaving for Trivandrum, I visited some villages on the Shencotta Road where riots had recently occurred between Pulayas and Nairs. The latter object to the rise of the Pulaya community due to the fact that education is spreading among them owing to the schools instituted by the late Dewan Gopala Chariar, and they had burnt a large number of Pulaya houses. The Pulaya people had mostly taken to the jungle as they were under the impression that, as they were a depressed class, they would be blamed for the whole business. Incidentally they had burnt two Nair houses in revenge for the loss of their homes.

On Saturday, the 30th, I visited the British Resident at Trivandrum, Mr. Graham, who advised me to see the Dewan as emigration is not a matter concerned with the British Government in any way. He said that he did not know much about Pulayas, but thought it possible, in view of the unrest among them at present, that they could be persuaded to emigrate. In the afternoon I visited some villages a little distance to the east of Trivandrum and went to a place called Vallappal, where I saw Pulayas at work and made enquiries as to their mode of living, rate of wages &c. On my return, I called on Mr. Sri Narayanan Tampi, who is the son of the late Maharajah. He is the proprietor of large lands and also is the Managing Director of the Travancore Commercial Corporation which runs the Motor Bus service between Quilon and Cape Comorin. He told me that the old bond between Pulayas and Nairs had been broken. It is not so long since the Pulayas were absolutely slaves and it was possible to buy and sell them, and although this slavery was done away with by the Government, the Pulayas remained dependent upon Nair landlords as there was no other kind of work available for them. He also told me that the spread of education among them is making them discontented, and, although one sees little of the results of the caste system in a town and it environs, it is palpable that the system still obtains favor in the country places. Mr. Narayanan Tampi was of opinion that the recent troubles would help in the direction of inducing Pulayars to emigrate. He also said that they are good workers but inclined to be dishonest. I do not know if this disqualification is peculiar to depressed classes.

On the 31st, I expected to see the Dewan, but as he returned from Camp at a late hour, I was not able to arrange a meeting with him.

On the 1st November I had an interview with the Dewan Mr. M. Krishna Nair at an early hour, and after that, left for Nagarcoil. The Dewan thought it would be a very good thing if a proportion of the Pulaya community could be induced to migrate. He expressed the opinion that it would be difficult to move them, but said that, if the co-operation of Ayankali could be obtained, it would be of very great assistance in this work. He also said that the recent troubles would be of assistance. The Dewan informed me that the State had no objection whatever to emigration and at present there are no laws at all on the subject of emigration to British India or any other place.

On the 3rd, I returned to Trivandrum, and leaving the main road about 8 miles from the latter place, I went 4 miles along a branch road to Venganoor where I had an interview with Ayankali, who is the General Secretary of the Sadugana Paripalana Association. This person is a Pulaya and is their local representative and mouthpiece. He is the Pulaya member of the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly, which is much the same as the local Legislative Council. He was elevated to this position after the Maharajah on the advice of the late Dewan, as he was considered to be most influential among the Pulayas. His place of residence at Venganoor is surrounded by a large tract of country which is almost entirely inhabited by Pulayas who make a poor living out of the land owned by Nairs. The Pulaya Association of which he is Secretary meets every Sunday, and he asked me to send him some Malayalam advertisements to be read out at one of these meetings. He promised to do all in his power to send coolies and said that he was quite certain that a large number would go. He asked that his nomination for maistries be accepted and said he would send men who could read and write to take this post. He also expressed himself desirous of sending families only, and I told him that this was what was required. Having had this satisfactory interview with Ayankali, I then returned to Trivandrum.

On the 4th I interviewed Mr. A.J. Vieyra, who is the Chief Secretary for the Travancore Government and is of burgher extraction. He has been in the Travancore Government service for the past 30 years and has a very wide knowledge of the State. He told me that it would be necessary to get the assistance of Ayankali before much could be done in the recruitment of Pulayas, and when I told him that I had already interviewed this person, he said that the present was a favourable time as the Pulayas do not enjoy the same advantages as they had during the regime of Mr. Gopala Chariar , the late Dewan, and as the present Dewan is a Nair. I then returned to Quilon where I stayed the night, and left for Trichinopoly the next morning.

The houses of the Pulayas which I saw do not compare unfavourably with those of the Tamil Pariahs and of low caste coolies, and are generally made of mud walls and palm leaf roofs, and these are kept in a moderately clean and tidy condition. The coolies themselves are of about medium size and tall men are uncommon. They seem to be quite capable in wielding a mammooty or in carrying a head load. I understand that Superintendents of Estates in Travancore find that the Pulaya is fairly satisfactory as an Estate labourer. In the southern parts where I recommend recruitment, they are mainly employed in cultivation of paddy in ordinary wet cultivation, and on lands that are not suitable they grow tapioca and other dry crops. Their staple food is boiled tapioca and canjee water. This is a very cheap food, and the cost of it represents their daily earnings. At one place I saw women bringing in large head-loads of firewood ready bundled for the town market, and they were drawing from 1 to 3 annas according to the size of the loads they brought, and the latter figure was reached only in the case of coolies of about average strength. Their average earning on ordinary agricultural work is about 2 annas per day, and as far as I can ascertain, they are not under advances to any field owners.

N.H.M. Bowden

Deputy Commissioner

Extract from Report of the Ceylon Labour Commissioner for 1914, 1915, in the library of the Tamil Nadu State Archives, Chennai, X:9.4498′N14 N15, Accession number: 67211.

The brief autobiography of Rettaimalai Srinivasan Part 15

In Book Excerpt, Historical record, Translation on August 10, 2013 at 11:01 pm

This concludes the translation of Rettaimalai Srinivasan’s(1860-1945) autobiography – the complete translation of the book is now available on this blog (see below for links to earlier sections.) These important appendices to the book provide the details of the Poona Pact (in Appendix 3) and a legislation allowing all people access to public spaces, a law that Rettaimalai Srinivasan enables is described with some detail. While the irony of a law to allow the public to use public space speaks for itself, Rettaimalai Srinivasan’s description of a Brahmin ‘cheri’ is dripping with sarcasm. The word ‘cheri’ is usually used to describe the Dalit settlement, ritually situated away from the village. Here he uses it to describe the ‘agraharam’ – a Brahmin settlement that is an early example of government subsidy for elite castes, since it was situated on land that was given by kings as tax-free land to Brahmins and was declared off-limits to Dalit castes.

The publisher’s preface to the book is here, the author’s preface and the chapter titled the ‘Government’s Opinion’ is here. The brief autobiography of Rettaimalai Srinivasan (1860-1945) begins here. The next part about the Paraiyan journal and the travel to London is here, which is followed by the section on the origin of caste and the birth of a petition against the Congress demand to hold the Civil Services exam in India and the impact it has in both England and India. The subsequent chapters are on how Adi Dravida society was formed and how they gained education and on Rettaimalai Srinivasan’s service in the Legislative Assembly, followed by brief notes on the Roundtable conference and a legislation brought in by M.C. Raja.

The brief autobiography of Diwan Bahadur Rettaimalai Srinivasan (Dalit Sahitya Akademi: Chennai, 1999) pp 61-68

Appendix 2
The advertisement that appeared in I.A. section of the Fort St. George Gazette on January 27, 1925, was corrected and published on April 28, 1925, in the following manner:

Fort St. George, September 25, 1924 (2660 L&M Government Order)

L. 1009 – When the Legislative Council met on August 25, 1924, they made the following resolution:

This resolution was brought to the Council by Rao Bahadur R. Srinivasan

1. (9) “This Council recommends that which is seen below to the Government:

(a) That there be no objection to any person or persons belonging to any group or any community, in any town or village, walking on any public road, street or footpath.

(b) Just as the caste Hindus may enter any courtyard of any government office, use public wells, ponds or spaces where the people commonly gather or enter places where work is conducted or buildings, in the same manner any individual belonging to the Depressed Classes may enter and use them and that there be no objection to this.

This should become the government policy and they should accept this and publish it in that manner.”

The government has consented to fulfill this resolution. Therefore, that this may be known to the governing councils of all regions and all officers, and that they may henceforth follow this order, it is being announced here.

C.P. Cattol
Government Secretary

In keeping with the above resolution, the local board district and municipality laws are amended in the following manner.

Local Boards
Amended according to Act 1 of 1927, Act 14 of 1920, Section 157 A:
Those who prevent people going on public paths will be fined Rs. 100.

According to the amendment of 1930, Act 14 of 1920, Ch 11 Section 167:
Those who prevent people entering the Local Board Markets will be fined Rs. 100.

Amended according to Act 23 of 1933, Act 14 of 1920, Section 126 A:
Those who prevent people using public wells and ponds will be fined Rs. 100.

District Municipalities
According to the amendment till 1930, October 1, Act 5 of 1920, Section 180 A:
Those who prevent people from using the street will be fined Rs. 100.

Section 227 of the Act:
Those who prevent people from using wells and ponds will be fined Rs. 100.

Section 259 of the Act:
Those who prevent people from using the markets will be fined Rs. 100.

The laws mentioned above have been published in a booklet. Those who want a copy can send one anna for postage charges and receive it.

There is a Brahmin cheri called Kalpathi in the Palakkad taluk next to Malayalam country. They have gone to the High Court and to the Privy Council above it to obtain an order that no non-Brahmin should be allowed to enter it. Even if a non-Brahmin doctor should attend to his patient, he may only enter and return on a horse, it seems. Some among the untouchable community called the Ezhavar from the village next to the cheri read of the law that had been created as a result of the resolution I brought to the Council. They entered the Brahmin cheri during the temple festival. The Brahmins beat them and chased them away and filed a complaint in the Magistrate’s court. After inquiry, the complaint was thrown out. The Brahmins appealed the decision in the Madras High Court. It was decided that any boundary, street or path maintained by the Local Board Municipality can be used by the common people. Now everyone enters the Brahmin cheri. Now people show officials the booklet that I have published, saying that everyone can use the public wells, ponds, paths, rest houses and buildings. The oppressed are now enjoying the comforts of many such places.

Appendix 3
Poona Pact
The representatives of the Depressed Classes said their communities needed separate electorates at the Round Table Conference. Gandhi opposed it and said that they should be joined with the common electorate. It was resolved that only 18 places will be given to the Depressed Classes in their separate electorates. After returning to India, Gandhi went on a fast demanding a single joint electorate. The representatives of the Depressed Classes and the Hindus discussed this and resolved that 12 seats in the Legislative Assembly would be given to the Depressed Classes and they would be added to the joint electorate. Adding this to the earlier 18, the Depressed Classes now had 30 seats in the Madras Legislative Assembly. The Pact was only for ten years. It came into being on September 24, 1932:
Details of the Pact
For the representation of oppressed communities in Legislative Assemblies, for their well-being, the representatives who work on their behalf and the other leaders of Hindu society have arranged the following pact -

In the Presidencies’ Legislative Assemblies, of the joint electoral seats, the following numbers of seats will be reserved for the Depressed Classes.

Madras – 30
Bombay (with Sindhu) – 15
Panjab – 8
Bihar Orissa – 18
Central Provinces – 20
Assam – 7
Bengal – 30
United Provinces – 20
Total – 148

*In this place, a paragraph is unclear in the original.

18 seats in the Central Assembly
(4)In the Central Legislative Assembly, of seats allotted to the joint electorate of British India, 18 seats out of 100 will be reserved for the Depressed Classes.

When the Preliminary Election Method Concludes
(5)The method of the Depressed Classes’ voters themselves selecting four candidates from among themselves to stand for each position in joint electorates will come to an end in 10 years. This method can be terminated earlier if there is a mutual agreement to do so after the sixth year. If it is not terminated earlier through mutual agreement, it will come to an end after 10 years.

Slavery & caste

In Book Excerpt, Novel, Translation on July 27, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Because the untouchables of today are not seen wearing the chains of slavery on them, it is not to be supposed that they never did. To do so would be to tear off whole pages of history.
- B.R. Ambedkar, Which is Worse? Slavery or Untouchability?

The remembered and continued practice of slavery is central to the Malayalam novel, Sarasvati Vijayam, or the Triumph of Education, first published in 1892. The author, Potheri Kunhambu (1857-1919) of the Ezhava caste, was a lawyer who also ran a school for children from the untouchable Pulaya caste. He notes in the preface to his novel that he had read of the abject condition of members of the Tamil Pariah caste in an English newspaper from Madras. Hoping to change the hearts of some Malayalis by describing the worse state of the Pulaya caste, he wrote this novel, he says. The author is not as interested in the nature of the relation of slavery or the violence it enabled, as he is in describing what it made possible for the master. The histories of the Brahmin’s palatial home cannot be written without a history of the Pulaya hut, he seems to argue, and that the histories of power and enslavement are similarly entwined in the system of caste. Kunhambu describes the landholding of the fictional Brahmin landlord as extending ‘throughout that district’ and that he ‘had not heard of the British legislation banning slavery’, since clearly his land was worked by slave laborers, the family of one of whom is driven off the land for the crime of allowing their son to study with missionaries. These lines help the reader place the narrative in time – it must be after 1843, since the East India Company issues a proclamation prohibiting slavery in that year. The early chapters set the scene with great attention to detail – the way in which the Brahmin woman was dressed, her upper-body covered, unlike the slave women in her retinue, the gold that flashes on the Brahmin landlords fingers as opposed to the bare bodies of his attendants, the tiny hut the Pulaya family lives in and the spacious home that their Brahmin master inhabits – the inequalities of the system are constantly on display in his description. The novel begins with a description of a Brahmin family on its way back home. The translation from Malayalam follows:

There was a Brahmin of name Kubēran Nambūdiri, from the house of Kanakashekhara. He was a big landlord and was well-versed in the Shrutis, Smritis and the epics that were the holy texts of the Hindus. At the time of the incidents that begin this story, he is about 45 years old. It has not been many years since he died. His house is in the north of Malayalam country. The income that this house drew from the rent for mountainous and plains crops, the income from chilli peppers and from letting out land would be, at an approximate, not less than Rs. 20,000 a year.  He is a householder. During this time, he has a daughter and two sons. The first offspring is the daughter. This lady is now about 25 years old. She has been given away in marriage. She has a six-year-old daughter and two sons of ages one and two.

Kubēran Nambūdiri, his daughter and her children and their slave men and women were journeying from the daughter’s marital home to his house. Kubēran Nambūdiri was of average height. He had fair skin tinged with a red hue. He wore a good pāvu wrapped around his body. It has been rolled up and tucked high so that it may not obstruct his walking. A washed tōrtu, the folds undisturbed, lay on his shoulder and, with it, he would occasionally blot his sweat. He held a Pālakkāḍ umbrella with a longer-than-average stem to keep off the sun. When entering paths shaded from the sun, he would give the umbrella to the children who walked by him. You could say that every one of his ten fingers had gold rings upon them. When looking at him in the sun, it would seem as if there was not a single finger that was not adorned by a ring. He did not wear anything on his head. He did not wear a shirt or sandals. The Nambūdiri woman introduced earlier had draped a fine white puava around her. It just about reached her knee. With a puava for the upper body, she had covered her breasts as well. The arms had a silver bangle each. She wore a simple ornament without engravings and made of gold on her ears. There was only a tāli around her neck. She journeyed with her face hidden under a wider-than-average umbrella. Her children had a small muu each. Since the muu slid down as they walked or were lifted up, their muu had been removed and draped around their neck. The eldest child would only walk a little. It would also have to be carried every once in a while. The slave women wore a single puava around their bodies which they could barely bring till their knees. It wasn’t customary for them to cover their breasts, was it? They also had a muu each on their shoulders. The slave men also wore a muu each. Though it reached their knees, it had been hiked up with another muu tucked in at the waist. They also had small umbrellas woven from palmyra fronds.

Translated from Malayalam, Potheri Kunhambu, Sarasvati Vijayam [The Triumph of Education], (DC Books: Kottayam, 2004). First published in 1892.
Pāvu , tōrtu, muṇḍu and puava are all strips of cloth that are wound around the body or draped on shoulders in different ways. The tāli is a thread or a necklace made of precious metal that is worn only by married women.

Slavery in India

In Historical record on September 21, 2012 at 3:17 pm

“As my wife is dead and as I have two children, who have no one else except me, to take care of them, it would be a matter of regret to me if I were to be sold at so distant a place as Tellisherry.” Below is a transcript of sections of an inquest conducted to inquire into an attempted sale of slaves in Malabar in 1819, a few years after the buying and selling of slaves was declared illegal. The record in full is available at the Kerala State Regional Archives, Kozhikode.

Several Dalit castes were, in the 19th century, treated as slaves who could be bought and sold, mortgaged or hired out, their labour held in perpetuity by upper-caste masters. Colonial estimations of the slave castes in the Malabar and Kanara regions alone put the slave population to have been over 3 lakh. Not only was the labour of lower castes the ‘right’ of the upper castes, they were also taxed through various means including a taxation on ‘professional implements’ such as the barber’s razors. The direction of these taxes towards temples and royal treasuries is most visible in the records of former princely states that maintained an uneasy relationship with the East India Company and, therefore, maintained a grudging record of the revenue they collected. The labour and money of Dalit castes sustained the temples and palaces and form a substantial part of the ‘treasure’ they accumulated.

Kinds of caste slavery included the outright buying and selling of slaves, agricultural slavery that forbid people from migrating and the demand that certain forms of labour be performed for no remuneration. Colonial officials record, with horror, the wretched living conditions that people endured, of how they were fed meagre amounts only on the days they went to work, were not paid at all, forced to part with or from their children (so that they may be sold) and could be mutilated or murdered by their masters without any legal inquiry afterward. Agricultural slavery which tied several Dalit castes to the land on which they must labour at the mercy of their upper-caste masters was abolished in 1843.

Examination of Parropapoorate Oonykutty Nair, nephew to Oony Korasha Nair, aged 22 years, Cultivator by profession, inhabitant of Palati tarrail Deshom, Chelamoor Hobly in Calicut Taluk, taken on the 2nd Wrichigum 995 or 16th Nov 1819 before the Magistrate

Did you give Polear Teytria and Polear Kannan in charge of any one for the purpose of selling them or did you send them to Tellisherry? If you did so, state the particulars.

…I carried my jenam slaves Teytria and Kannan…for the purpose of selling them…I had determined to send them to Tellisherry as I would get at least one fanam more [there]…

Does the custom of the country sanction a Jenmakar to carry his slaves to places distant from that of their original habitations in order to dispose of them there?

When there may not be people inclined to purchase slaves at the place of habitation, they are carried to other places for that purpose.

How much did you intend to sell the slaves for?

I recommended their being sold from 20 to 22 Rs…

Examination of Polea Cheruma Teyitira, Son of Iralamhara, aged 50 years, Cooly by profession, inhabitant of Poluod tarrah, Chelanoor Hobly in the Calicut Taluk, taken on teh 1st of Wrichigum 995 or 15th June 1819

Who is your Tambooran (Master)?

Aripapoorate Oonykutty

Whom are you working for at present?

Oonykutty Tambooran not having paid his Revenue, he placed me under the Parbutty Tambooran and nine days ago self and Polear Kannan were sent to Tellisherry under charge of Mopla Amotty and Govinda-Erecha- for the purpose of being sold there – We stopt on the road one day; and the next day reached Tellisherry where we could, 4 or 5 days living at several places, at last we were taken to a place where there was a house and from whence orders were passed prohibiting us being sold there and directing us to be taken back to this place.

Would it be a matter of grievance to you if you were sold at Tellisherry?

As my wife is dead and as I have two children, who have no one else except me, to take care of them. It would be a matter of regret to me if I were to be sold at so distant a place as Tellisherry.

Where are your children?

They are with my Tambooran Oonykutty.

J. Vaughan
Collector and Magistrate


In Dalit Writing, Short story, Translation on September 7, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Translated from the Malayalam original in  the anthology Paristhithi, Dalithezhuthu, Pennezhuthu (Kerala University Press, Thiruvananthapuram, 2011)/പരിസ്ഥിതി, ദലിതെഴുത്ത്, പെണ്ണെഴുത്ത്  (കേരള സര്‍വകലാശാല: തിരുവനന്തപുരം, 2011)

Conversation with the dead

C. Ayyappan

“Listen to me. Talking to you, I am going to separate the stones from the rice in your mind. I alone remain here to talk with you who are shackled. I speak only the truth. I have no interest today in the trivial pleasures to be gained through lies. I’ll tell you why. I am only a corpse or an evil spirit today. The loss of peace and a tiny bit of self-interest now use me to read the daily news to you. You now have the lamp of knowledge and the immaturity of the sun is the youth of your wisdom. It is when the sun is extinguished and destroyed by darkness that a madness akin to the moon itches its way into you.

Your ignorance of the meaning of a suicide and a murder hunts and tires your vigour. Now, be healthy again. I will line your eyes with the naked truth. Don’t blink or move your head. What if my fingernail should touch your eye!

Let the beginning be about my suicide. I trust that you will have understood why it happened. How sad! It has come to pass that I should teach the grammar of my own mind. Such work is unhealthy. It is only because there is no other way that I am doing it now.

I don’t have to tell you that I was your dear brother’s secret lover. All that could happen between a man and a woman who were of age happened between your elder brother and I. That practice had begun when I was 15. I came to your house to spread out the rice that had been laid out to dry in the attic. When I was leaving, I became enclosed in your brother’s arms. I was bewildered. I blushed red under his lips.

Coming down the attic ladder, the boy said, “Then, don’t tell anybody!” It was then that I grew a little afraid.  That day I had become a prostitute. The idiocy continued for another six or seven years, when I asked the young man. “Will you marry me?”

The answer was a sincere question.

“How will I be able to marry you?” The helplessness in his question hurt me. Even if he was the primary school teacher, even a Christian could definitely not marry the daughter of the Pulaya woman who came to work in the house.

But, when I reached home one evening after seeing him, I was a little terrified: Amma was ‘chanting’ to Achan about how uncle’s daughter had gone astray. Would I also go astray? I couldn’t breathe. My breathlessness was unnecessary. The young man, even in his extreme youth, had been smart. Befriending the Pedros who went to the Thrissur Market with betel leaf, he had acquired certain things. In any case, those preparations were unnecessary. He was unable to give the gift that no woman can destroy. I slowly began to understand this when the desire to conceive a child of his and to spend my life raising it grew strong within me. When he came to know of my desire, he said he wanted to laugh, and spat. Then he raised his hand and slapped me. Afterward, he took great pains to force me to say that I did not love him. But he was defeated. Finally, he said he would commit suicide and then burst out laughing. That’s when I began thinking about killing myself.

Nothing gave me peace. Didn’t everyone know what went on between him and me? At home, my father shuddered at the sight of me as if at the sight of the thorny Inja. Some nights, he would wake me up and force me out of the house when needed, leaving me with a confused, throbbing heart. More intolerable was our neighbour Gopi Sir’s attention. He had tutored me after I failed English for my pre-degree exams. It seems that he had been in love with me since then. He was of the same caste. He wasn’t too bad to look at. He was a good man too. Yet, when I came to know that he loved me, I remembered the moment when, a long time ago, I was transplanting paddy with mother and playing around when I saw a stupid leech, swollen with blood, hanging from my thigh. Seeing it, with no courage to pluck it off, my arms and legs shuddering with disgust, I started screaming.

Once, faking joviality to hide his shyness, Gopu Sir said, “I’m wondering if I should fall in love with you!” I said roughly, “That is not necessary.” Vindictively, he replied, “It’s not like I’m going to make you pregnant.” I stood stunned, as if someone had hit me. There was no help for it, I would have to tell him the truth. I said, “There is another man I…” He interrupted me, “I know. But he doesn’t give a damn for you.” Hastily, shivering within, I walked away. I ended up in front of the man. I asked him, “Do you love me?” He hurled an ugly obscene word at me and grinned. I broke down. I wasn’t crying because it was the first swear word he had used with me. He didn’t love me.

Weeping, my neck became ensnared in a rope knot.

Now, about your father having killed your brother: I say that it is a good thing. I could have never thought, while I was alive, that someone would kill him. Let that be, you wonder in your grief why your father did it. Let me burst the boil of that grief.

On the sixteenth day after my corpse was interred, I rose from the grave.

I came straight to your house. He was not there. He must have gone to watch the second show of a movie, I guessed. Let him come. I came to your bedroom to see you. You had fallen asleep without remembering to switch off the light. I felt great wonder seeing you lying there on your side, holding on to your pillow, with your white pavadai ridden up to your knee. He came in then. He must have come to see why there was a light in your room. When he looked in, you were laughing. For a minute, he stood still as if struck numb. Looking around and then back at your face with confusion, he came to your bed. That was when, for some reason, you convulsed with laughter. Then he started paying attention to your behaviour. With a burning face and making consoling noises under his breath, he switched off the light. The light pierced and entered me. Was it fear or helplessness that made me scream? Your sleep was destroyed. You held on to him tightly. I slipped into your body through the cracks of your terror. Then I began to laugh. Your father and, in your wakefulness, you, began to cry. People put their hands up to their faces in wonder. Your behaviour was unnatural. Night and day, you wouldn’t let him alone. You did not have peace unless you were touching him. When he beat you, the music of laughter fluttered in your weeping.

It had become clear to everyone except your brother that my spirit had become one with you. In his understanding, you had gone mad. He did not believe in ghosts and devils, only in madness and rationalism. Many people said that I should be nailed down and taken to Chottanikara. But your father did not consent. When your relatives called him to question him, with great shame, he said, ‘If we did that, Rosa Kutty’s illness  may grow worse. What if she remembers all that happened before her illness changed?’

My fear had been about another thing. Would your brother do something thoughtless? If he should die, how would I smell the fragrance of his sweat like I could now? I relaxed when I remembered that, if he should die, he would become an evil spirit like me. He wouldn’t lie in the church cemetery. Then we could wander around happily. But I did not think, even then, that he would face a bad death.

You had been shackled and he had fallen asleep, hugging you. Your father, who killed him with a single blow, is a saint. But, like the actions of all saints, your father’s actions might be hard to understand. Why did he do that? Was it because the young man had used your illness to his convenience? I am not very sure. I can only tell you my opinion.

He did it because he loved me, not you. Your father is my father. I understood this after I died. Even my mother had not been sure. That’s probably because your uncle also came to have fun with my mother who had been employed in your house. It was God who made my paternity clear. God called me the sinner who had her nakedness uncovered by her own brother. I was not ashamed. I spat on his face and asked, “How can a Pulaya woman become a Christian’s woman?” That put a banana in God’s mouth. His eyes bulged. Then he hung his head. Let that be. Rosie Kutty, your father believed that I was your sister. If I should say that in God’s language, that poor man did not know that your uncle had also uncovered my mother’s nakedness before she was married. Then you may ask why he didn’t put an end to the relationship between your brother and me. He had forbidden it. The young man himself had told me. Father had called him once and admonished him, his face like a devil’s. “You must put on end to your interactions with that Pulaya girl.” The son, stunned upon seeing the father’s expression, spoke the truth: “I am not going to marry her.” That put a banana in his mouth too.

Now you understand all that happened, yes? The young man had uncovered my nakedness. When he held you tight, you had become me. It was with me, only with me, that he had committed a mistake. It was that mistake which father set right. That is why he is now imprisoned for life.

Now about my selfishness in this incident: I will leave you. In case I do not speak the truth for what it is – I had been afraid that a great accident would come to pass – I have a request for you. You should continue to live. Before that, you should help me. Call Parayan Kannan and have three measures of mustard put into my open grave. If that is done, I will not be able to come out. A corpse cannot leave its grave without counting out the seeds of mustard that have been put there. There is no night long enough to count out three measures of mustard.

I know you wonder why I am not eager to wander with your brother who is an evil spirit now. I think your doubt has passed. Light dawns on your face. You think that your brother is my brother now. You are mistaken, my sister. That is not it.

I had been looking forward to your brother’s death with great anticipation. I was holding my breath, waiting to spring at him from behind and close his eyes with my hands the moment his spirit left the body. His death and my realization of a truth happened simultaneously: He didn’t have a soul! All that he had had was the breath of life. What could have been the reason? Maybe it was because he was a rationalist who did not believe in the human soul.  Or it may have been the weeping and gnashing of teeth of the God who speaks in the language of the Bible.

So there is no salvation for me if I do not return to my grave. Don’t forget the mustard. I give you my freedom. You will find proof that I have left if you look at your legs. Where, where are those chains?”

Paul Chirakkarodu

In Biography, Book Excerpt on August 16, 2012 at 9:50 pm

via Shibi Peter

August 4th was the death anniversary of Paul Chirakkarodu. The Dr. Paul Chirakkarodu Memorial Meeting will be held at 10 a.m. SEDS Centre, Pakkil, Kottayam on August 18, 2012. Details here

Biography excerpt follows from No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India, Dossier I

eds. K. Satyanarayana & Susie Tharu

Penguin, 2011, p. 393.

Paul Chirakkarodu is widely acknowledged as the first self-conscious dalit writer and one of the founders of dalit literature in Malayalam. Born in 1938, the fourth among the six children of the Rev. C.T Daniel, a converted Pulaya, who was a priest in the church of South India, Paul grew up during the war years which was also a time of famine in Kerala. Unbearable hunger is his strongest memory of childhood. It was war time. The family lived on wheat, millets, maize (staples alien to Kerala) and even grass; sometimes there was kanji (rice gruel) served in the churches. Clothing was also scarce. Paul was a weak child, fainting often and given to fits. But he also remembers the kindness of schoolmates who helped him, and the grandeur of the river Pampa, with the yearly boat races in Aranmula and the huge revivalist conventions organized on its banks at Maramon during each summer. He was a good student, praised for his keen memory and a gift for writing.

He studied at St Thomas School Kozhencherry, Sacred Heart College, Thevara, and the law College in Thiruvananthapuram. He holds master’s degrees in English and Malayalam in addition to an LLB and, in his final year at the Law College, was president of the student’s union. As a student, he supported himself through his writings. His first novel, Alinju Theernna Athmavu (Melted Spirit), written while he was a student, was brought out by BKM Book Depot in Alappuzha that had also published the well-known novelists, Thakazhi and Pottekkad. After reading his manuscript, the publisher asked to meet this talented new writer and went on to publish several more of his works.

After he left college in the 1960s, Paul, inspired mainly by P.T Punnose, grew closer to the communists who were a rising force in Kerala at that time. He travelled with visiting leaders from Bengal, Translating their speeches, and interacted with writers such as Thakazhi, who wanted him to join the Party. Later Paul would write a powerful dalit critique of Thakazhi’s novels about working people. There was a suggestion that he stand for parliament, but, he observes wryly, ‘The Party was not ready to accept a Dalit Christian.’

If there is one theme that runs right through Paul Chirakkarodu’s work, it is casteism in Christianity, and that too, not only in society at large but also in the church. Son of a pastor, he grew up with religion as central to his life. However, he recalls with bitterness, ‘Christian converted from the Dalit Castes had none of the privileges or opportunities that were available to Syrian Christians (considered upper caste). Western missionaries had supported the Dalit protests, but after 1947, when the old Anglican Church established by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) became the Church of South India (CSI), Dalits were marginalized in Church institutions. They did not get jobs in church-run hospitals, schools, colleges or presses.’ The new formations set up connections between dominant caste Christians in Kerala and their counterparts in other states.

However, later Paul did find himself welcome in the CISRS (Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society) in Bangalore, which after the emergency in the mid-1970s had become interested in dalit issues. He worked there on a study of ‘Dalits and the Left in Kerala’. In 1982, he wrote what is considered the inaugural essay of dalit literature: Dalit Sahithythinoru Mukhavura (A preface to Dalit Literature). Along with Abraham Ayrookuzhiel of the CISRS, with whom Paul collaborated for sixteen years, he also developed the idea of a dalit theology, and visited many Christian Institutions, including the United Theological College at Bangalore, the Andhra Lutheran Mahasabha, the Gurukul theological College and the Phirangipuram Dali University, speaking about this concept. In 2007, the Anglican Academy of Religious Studies awarded him an honorary doctorate.

In the 1980s, with Kallara Sukumaran, whose classes on Ambedkar had inspired many, Paul set up the Indian Dalit Federation (IDF) of which he was the General Secretary. He led the Guruvayur padayathra – a twenty-one-day walk to gain access to the oottupura, the area where the Brahmins were fed in the famous temple. The SNDP extended support to the initiative. The IDF merged in to the Bahujan Samaj Party after a few years. Between 2001 and 2005, Paul edited the journal, Padavukal. In 2003, he led a procession in Sultan Batheri, along with C.K Janu and others, demanding the implementation of the Act passed by the Achyutha Menon government granting land to Adivasis. He has travelled widely all over India, meeting and working with some of the most distinguished dalit and left leaders of him time.

Paul Chirakkarodu leaves us a substantial body of literary work (over twenty novels, several collections of short stories, biographies and essays). Significant among them is Pulayathara (Pulaya Hutment), an important novel about Pulaya converts to Christianity, and the three volumes Mathil (Walls), Nizhal (Shadows), Velicham (Light), now out of print. A 586-page book on Ambedkar failed to find a publisher. Paul feels that the reason was its criticism on Gandhi. An unfinished novel features Ayyankali as the principal character. Among his seventy-odd publications are authoritative works on Dalit Christianity.

In 2000, his health began to deteriorate. He grew very ill and was depressed and in penury when he died in 2008 August 4th. Principal among the problems of his life was that of the difficulty of getting a job. Having acquired an MA degree, he tried unsuccessfully for several jobs. As a dalit Christian, he was not entitled to reservations; since he was a dalit, employers looked at him with prejudice; his father did not want him to change his name; Christian institutions provided dalits like him with no support.

Survey of India/സര്‍വേ ഓഫ് ഇന്ത്യ

In Dalit Writing, Poetry, Translation on July 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

M.B. Manoj/എം.ബി. മനോജ്‌

Translated from Malayalam original in  the anthology Paristhithi, Dalithezhuthu, Pennezhuthu (Kerala University Press, Thiruvananthapuram, 2011)/പരിസ്ഥിതി, ദലിതെഴുത്ത്, പെണ്ണെഴുത്ത്  (കേരള സര്‍വകലാശാല: തിരുവനന്തപുരം, 2011)

ഒരു ഗോവിനോ
ഒരു ചണ്‍ധാളാനോ  കൂടുതല്‍ തൂക്കം

What is worth more?

A cow or an untouchable?

ഒന്നാമന്‍ പുല്ലു തിന്നുന്നു
രണ്ടാമന്‍ തിന്നപ്പെടുന്നു

The first eats grass,

The second is eaten.

കാടി കുടിക്കുന്നു

One drinks cattlefeed.

The other is drunk by others.

പോസ്റ്റര്‍ കടലാസ്, ബീഡി-സിഗററ്റ് കുറ്റി
പഴങ്ങളുടെ തൊലി
തിന്നുന്നു, തിന്നപ്പെടുന്നു

One eats posters, beedis and cigarette-stubs,

The skin of fruits.

The other is eaten.

പരസ്യമായി മുള്‍ളാം

Openly, it urinates – that is special.

It shits – that is even more special.

കുടിക്കപ്പെടുകയും, തീറ്റിക്കപ്പെടുകയും ചെയ്യാം

The other is, unabashedly, pissed on, shat on,

And even forced to eat and drink excreta.

വിശുദ്ധമായി  കറക്കുന്നു
മക്കള്‍ കുടിക്കുന്നു.

It is reverentially milked

For children to drink.

ആശുദ്ധമായി കറക്കപ്പെടുന്നു
അകിട് ഒട്ടും വരെ കടിച്ച് വലിക്കപ്പെടുന്നു

They are milked in unholy ways

And bitten and sucked until their teats run dry.

പാല്, തൈര്‍
നെയ്യ്, വെണ്ണ.

Milk, curd,

Ghee, butter.

മണ്ണ്, കല്ല്‌
കമ്പി, സിമന്റ്

Soil, stones,

Rods, cement.

എവിടെയും കയറിച്ചെല്ലാം
എവിടെയും കറങ്ങിത്തിരിയാം

The first may go anywhere.

The second may wander anywhere.


One slumbers within the ancient epics.

One on old mats.

ഒരു ഗോവിനോ
ഒരു ചണ്‍ധാളാനോ കൂടുതല്‍ തൂക്കം
ചത്ത ഒരു ഗോവിന്
അഞ്ചു ചണ്‍ധാളന്ടെ തൂക്കം
ജീവനുള്ള ഒരു ഗോവിന്
ഇരുപത്തഞ്ചുകോടി ചണ്‍ധാലളന്മാരുടെ തൂക്കം

Who is worth more?

A cow or an untouchable?

Do not be afraid.

A dead cow is more valuable

Than five



A living cow more than

Twenty five crore.

Filming Caste – II

In Personal Narrative on August 13, 2011 at 3:45 am

Rupesh Kumar, dalit documentary director, on how he began documentary filmmaking and how he participates ‘both on the screen and from behind the camera, in dalit political debates’. Read the first part here

Some upper-caste parents withdrew their kids from the nursery school of Oothalakandy village in Mancheri taluk of Malappuram district. They gave a strange reason, “Our children will lose their culture by interacting with the SC/ST students.” They sent their kids to other nursery schools where elite castes study. One upper-caste parent, who is a school teacher, said, “My kid is really getting bored while studying there.” What may be the culture of a home that ‘produces’ a kid who is bored while playing with other kids? The teacher of the nursery school, Rejitha, strongly reacted against this nasty custom of thrashing caste system into children. She presented this issue in different venues and added that children from dalit colonies need more attention for their education and other needs. Her pleas were ignored by the political leaders, local government bodies and other authorities. At last, she talked about the issue to her neighbor Soumya, who was a Mass Communication student of mine.

We decided to make a documentary about this and went to the village for the shoot. We took interviews of two Panchayat members who were leaders in the Communist and Congress parties. They said that there is no caste discrimination, but that students were moving from this nursery school to English medium nurseries. Mr. Narendran of Oothalakandy colony cried in front of the camera and said that the people of the dalit colony in Oothalakandy are being ill-treated by society. Rejitha teacher attacked the caste system prevailing in the area and added that political leaders also support this. She said that, as a nursery school teacher, she had contact with almost everybody in the village and she knows what is happening there. They use all sorts of psychological and social tactics to suppress the people of the Colony. Elite castes make remarks against the colony by saying, “They will never develop….we have done so many things for them.” She asks “Who are these people to define the people of colonies? Are these people [who make the remarks] developed? I know what is happening in every elite caste house in the area.” She says English medium is not the reason for upper-castes to withdraw from the nursery, but it is caste. She is a degree-holder and knows very well to teach English. One parent, a school teacher who had withdrawn his child from the nursery school, ‘suggested’ some development schemes for the people of the colony. He told us to build some “cultural centres or libraries.” She says, “People who have culture can talk about cultural centres.”

The documentary was screened before the media in Malappuram at a press conference. The situation there was beyond belief. Soumya, the director of the documentary, and Rejitha teacher were expecting some positive reactions since they were presenting a serious issue. But some of the members present tried to ‘teach’ Soumya how to make a documentary. The documentary (which was ‘standard-less’ according to some of them) grabbed four awards from different realms of society including film festivals. Soumya got the fellowship for the best upcoming director in the VIBGYOR short international film festival of Thrissur. The police interrogated us to check if we had any “dalit terrorist” background or connections with DHRM, the dalit political organization here. We found this interrogation strange.

Watch Twinkle Twinkle Little Caste

Potthan theyyam (dumb deity) is a ritualistic performance by dalit communities in North Malabar and is read as a cultural performance against the caste system in Hindu communities. Shankaracharya, who preached ‘Advaita’ philosophy, the great advocator of caste system and a Brahmin, had a debate with a Pulaya youth. When Shankaracharya asked Alankaran to move out of his way for he would be polluted by seeing or touching him, Alankaran replied, ‘The color of blood in your and my body is the same. Why this discrimination? You eat the grain we cultivate in our fields.’ Shankaracharya can’t answer Alankara and fails in debate. Alankara was killed and burned by Brahmanicals. In memory of Alankara, Pottan theyyam is performed by dalits. Pottan theyyam performs by night and plays with fire with burning embers. There is a Brahmanical hijacking of this myth in Hindu society that says that Alankara was the incarnation of lord Siva.

The documentary “By the side of the river” is a re-reading/question against the hijacking of dalit myths by Hindu Brahmanism. It states that many rituals like Pottan theyyam should be freed from the Hindu platform to create a different political representation. After “Underworld memories of Untouchables”, we went again to my own village and shot by the side of a river. Folklorists and academicians don’t give an independent identity to Pottan theyyam and still tell this ritual as a subordinate story to the Brahmin Shankaracharya. Mr. Anandan, an academician from North Malabar, asked an important question, ‘How come a man who asked a great political question was named Pottan (mentally retarded person)?’ Who named him Pottan? It might be Brahmanicals. Dalits would never name their representative as mentally retarded. “By the side of a river” is an expression of resistance against Brahmanical attacks on the myth, culture, art, food culture, dalit life, psychology of dalits, their life and politics.

Watch By the Side of River

‘Blackboard’ was the first short film video for which I worked with a group of students in Sree Krishna College, Guruvayur. It was the struggle of a dalit girl who tries to survive in a campus controlled by caste and patriarchy. She loses her love because of caste. She can’t study because of poverty. She understands how the feudal, patriarchal, casteist attitude of teachers and the whole campus chains dalit woman students. She – as a daughter of a mason – has to fight economy, caste, colour and patriarchy in her struggle to live a campus life. My friend Anoop Ramesh, a film associate director,  supported us technically in the making of the movie. The film won wide recognition as a student production. Deepthi, who acted the lead, rendered a natural presentation in front of the camera. It has received wide acclaim and was selected as the best campus short-film in the SIGNS short-film festival in 2008. After this, we gained confidence in our film making abilities. I think this is the first campus movie in Kerala which discussed dalit and caste politics from a female angle. The documentary was produced by the department of English in the College, and the college gave great support in the production. This short film was directed by a talented group of active students titled “Les Miserables”. The background music was scored by my friend Arun Siddharth and gave an additional punch to the video.

Watch Blackboard (sorry, no subtitles)

My friend Sreejith Paithalen told me about a homicide of a gay man in Thalasseri of Kannur. He got the news from a newspaper and wrote a script about the psychological conflict of that gay relationship and the killer. He told me about the subject and we decided to shoot a short movie. I could not render the video well except for the scenes of sexuality. We got good actors, but as a director, I couldn’t make them present in a natural manner. This was simply my fault. To this day, I feel I spoiled a great subject. A lot of money was lost on this video. We didn’t try to screen it anywhere. The film was made on fellowship money from the VIBGYOR film festival, Thrissur. They also rejected the project. I wish I could do the movie once more for it is a great script, dealing with the politics of sexuality and of gay relationships. We titled the film “Crime and Punishment” in memory of Dostoevsky. (Dostoevsky wrote the novel “Crime and punishment” after seeing a snippet in a newspaper about a crime.) We had five days of shooting and it was a great social experience.

Watch the promo here

My experience of producing videos as a dalit is political. I read it as such since it is easy to represent ourselves. Some struggle for money  has made our efforts fruitful. We treat our video productions as pay-back to our dalit society which brings us up in political life with education and knowledge. Remya Vallathol, my life-partner, was the producer of the films I directed. Though she is a non-dalit, she empathized with our productions from her own standpoint. We struggle and experience and experiment with our productions and life to lead a dalit political life. We feel we need to fight a lot with our circumstances. I remember here our team, political friends and dalit critics all over the world for supporting our video activities.


Filming Caste – I

In Personal Narrative on August 12, 2011 at 3:45 am

Rupesh Kumar, dalit documentary director, writes about how he began documentary filmmaking and how he participates ‘both on the screen and from behind the camera, in dalit political debates’…

Like any other film personality, I too had an ambition towards mainstream cinema, but understood that it is hard to get into. Still, I decided to do something with the camera. From that dream and planning resulted my first documentary “Underworld memories of untouchables”.

Peringeel, a dalit colony where my father was born and bought up, has taught me compassion towards humanity and direct experience of agricultural and fishing life, even if I was not involved directly in it. My father told me that in his childhood days, they had to cook even their rice in salt water and walk kilometers to fetch some clean water. My father studied and got first class in SSLC in 1960s and got into a government job. From this platform, I got my English medium and college education and basis for political thinking and film making. The strong urge to move with a camera made me a documentary maker. My mother was also from a dalit colony, Chevidichal – derived from “Thevidichi Chaal”, meaning ‘land of prostitutes’. The name and the colony may be the creations of Savarnas.

In our personal experience, in the Kerala atmosphere, I experienced caste in the psychological realm rather than physically. Caste was experienced in schools and colleges in jokes, nicknames, blackness, body, friendship, language, dialects, etc. It was in questions like, “Are you a reservation student?”, a question asked in classrooms by classmates and teachers. We felt caste, colour and sexuality played a great role in receiving internal marks. And we realized that caste is the main hindrance to love. In campus politics and love affairs, caste played a decisive role. Even when I was working as a lecturer, caste played a great role in the psychological atmosphere of staff rooms and other places.

Though Kerala is archetyped as a casteless society, in different minute and complex realms we experienced caste and debated and tried to theorize it. Out of these complex debates, we reached our documentaries or video productions. After our first production, ‘Underworld memories of Untouchables’ was read as a dalit documentary, we felt it our responsibility to do more dalit video productions. We participate, through our video productions, both on the screen and from behind the camera, in dalit political debates and try to intervene in the critical realm also. It is funny (but also gives us confidence) that the savarna debates purposefully ignore our productions. We still communicate with different political and multicultural societies all over the world through the Internet.

“Underworld memories of untouchables”, our first documentary, was an attempt to politicize and use memory as a tool against the savarna-ist psychological gate-crashing into all dalit histories through their memories, writings and biographies. This documentary is a movement through conversations in which dalits in a village shared memories of caste oppression experienced throughout their life from history to the present. We shot this documentary in my own dalit village, Peringeel, the name which was derived from the term, ‘Perumkeezhil’ meaning extreme lowest.

Earlier, the people of the Pulaya dalit community were brought to this semi-island to work as slaves in agricultural lands. My father and grandparents lived in this village and worked in the fields here. We treat this documentary as a pay-back to a dalit colony where I got my political living as a human being with compassion and positivity. The documentary begins with my own memories of caste experiences in my education and working life that had psychological and structural impact. Our earlier generation had got education, but there was discrimination at the physical, verbal and psychological level in schools and other scenarios. The experiences of those three generations before include a lot of physical abuses as expression of untouchability from different realms. We received some comments from the local Communist leader that caste system has been evacuated and it is not practised in the present. We could not digest that statement, we thought it was funny, given our personal experience as a dalit. Mr. Krishinan, who passed away recently, asked us “What you know about history?” He explained the history of Peringeel and said it was a land of slavery. Mr. Sreejith Paithalen, journalist and my friend, clearly explained how caste is working in new ways in relationships, friendships, and how communists in Kannur play the politics of caste through their ‘love towards dalits’. Mr. Kallen Pokkudan, the environmentalist, spoke about the transformation of the “Communism of Kerala to BJPism”.

Watch Underworld memories of untouchables

“Love stories in Black letters”, our second documentary, was the filming of a travelogue to a tribal organization called Thudi, in Vayanad, to hear a song of love composed by a group of tribal students. We made this journey an enquiry into the politics of inter-caste marriages in India. Caste experiences/inter-caste marriage experiences were brought out through interviews. It was strange to find that dalits blocked inter-caste marriages among themselves. This was a new revelation in our political thinking. There was a clear caste system prevailing among different communities of dalits. Mr. Hanu, who has an inter-caste marriage, opined that there should be an eradication of caste borders within dalits. He strongly believes that there should be inter-caste marriages among different communities of dalits themselves. I – being a dalit married to a Nair girl – admitted in the documentary that I couldn’t perform my marriage in a fully political style. Mr. Ravi, a Professor in Malayalam, said there is a lack of political consciousness even after different inter-caste marriages. Lovers and inter-caste marriage couples mostly take shelter in Hindu life realms and no dalit politics is formatted or developed after their life together and the offspring are brought up in the Hindu style only. Mr. Jayasurya said that in campus life, in politics, in jokes, in love, and in other experiences there is a clear underlying racism, and dalits are the victims. Love affairs are filtered and partners are selected through the norms of the Hindu caste system. Mr. Arun, research scholar in Hyderabad University, explained to us how Ambedkar put forward inter-caste marriage as a tool against the caste system prevailing in Hindu community of India.

Watch Love stories in Black letters

“Caste has been annihilated in Kerala” is the biggest lie that is heard from different social, cultural and political spheres of Kerala. Those who preach that ‘caste has been annihilated’ can’t really understand what caste is. It is the psychological suppression of dalits in various instances, stages and spheres of life and expelling people from power, money and knowledge in the present world. The people who enjoy all the benefits of caste system avoid debates against caste in Kerala and hold the classic idea that “Untouchables are now no longer untouchables”. This has been proved wrong in a Nursery school in Malappuram.

To be contd.

In the next part, Rupesh Kumar writes about how caste in taught to children, how the media can respond to portrayals of caste, of his other productions – both successful and failed, a documentary that took him back, again, to his village, the resistance encoded in rituals (and how these can be hijacked by Brahminical narratives) and the lessons learnt along the way…

Caste and the Syrian Christians

In Blog excerpt, Personal Narrative on June 16, 2011 at 9:07 am

An excerpt from a post by Thomas Joseph, a blogger based in the United States. Read the full post here

Christianity is believed to have come to Kerala in the first century AD when the Apostle Thomas, like other disciples, ventured near and far to spread the gospel in accordance with Christ’s command. There has been some speculation that the reason why St Thomas came to Kerala had less to do with converting the “locals” and was more to do with trying to convert the sizable Jewish population who lived in Kerala especially in Cochin.

I write about this because there was a communication on a Yahoo group to which I belong consisting of mainly Asians who lived or live in East Africa. Apparently there is a debate going on in the UK about outlawing caste discrimination in Britain – yes, the old-fashioned discrimination against Dalits that is associated with India. There is opposition among some Hindu groups in Britain, to this legislation – in effect arguing that caste discrimination in the UK should not be addressed! This entire issue of seeking to achieve a “protected” status for casteism in the UK by certain Hindu groups is a whole different discussion.

But, in this context another member of the Yahoo group cited an email he received from someone known to me and several other family members which essentially said that such casteism is not just confined to Hindus and that even Christians in Kerala are guilty of the same thing.

A part of his email stated:

“But do you know Hindus are not the only ones to be blamed for this accursed practice. Even the so called upper class Christians in Kerala are guilty of this though they had given up Hinduism centuries ago claiming to have been converted by the Apostle St. Thomas!”

He went on to cite a Goan he knew from many years ago when he was a student in England who apparently asked him what caste he was. He (the Goan) claimed he was of the Brahmin caste. He goes on to say: “Wow! I was confused. My parents had never told me what caste we belonged to, not that it would have interested me in the least.”

Now, I am a Syrian Christian by birth but because of my upbringing in Mombasa, Kenya where there were only a handful of other Syrian Christian families, my involvement in the Syrian Christian faith has been minimal. However, I felt that a response was warranted to address the statements made in that email. Here is the thrust of my response:

“I presume that by “upper class Christians” he is referring to Syrian Christians – being the descendants of those who were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas . In all my years, I have NEVER ONCE heard a Kerala Christian – Syrian or otherwise – referring to him/herself as belonging to so and so caste – as S—– pointed out, it would be incongruous to do so. What does happen is that the older generation talks about their antecedents and how they are descended from Brahmins, etc – incidentally such claims are not provable and are based on anecdotal information at best. Many of these claims of Brahmin antecedents are predicated on the belief that St Thomas converted several prominent Brahmin families in the first century. Some of these families are named in these anecdotes and today, if you check out the family websites of some Syrian Christian families, they claim to have descended from these converted Brahmin families. In fact, references to having come from an “ancient (Syrian Christian) family” are found so often that one wonders if there are any families left that are not ancient:)”

“What Syrian Christian families frequently do is to refer to their antecedents in the context of their family names. This is pretty much the norm in conversations among them – especially the older generation – where one of the first questions asked is where one is from within Kerala and then a query as to one’s family name. The younger generation who were brought up elsewhere in India or abroad, are quite oblivious of this sort of information and often view it as being rather superfluous and inconsequential.”

“My father used to say that the biggest change that had taken place in the social structure in Kerala during his years in Kenya was the diminished importance of family antecedents among Syrian Christians. It has been replaced with affluence – ie how well off is the family! He used to say it with a mixture of regret and pride – those who knew him can relate to his attitude. He was affected to his detriment by its diminished influence but he was intellectually detached enough to recognize that it meant true social progress and he used to say that it was a good thing that a form of meritocracy had taken the place of family antecedents.”

“Where I do agree with S—- is that there is a pecking order here in terms of how Christians view other Christians – yes, very unchristian but it is a reality. Syrian Christians – perhaps because of their assertion and belief that they were converted by St Thomas – view themselves as a cut above other Kerala Christians. They tend to view other Kerala Christians who were either converted by the Portuguese or the missionaries with diffidence bordering on mild unspoken derision – again, quite contrary to Christian teachings. In fact, even among Syrian Christians, there is a certain amount of denominational rivalry which occasionally gets quite antagonistic. However, when it comes to marriage, denomination invariably ceases to be a factor if an eligible young man or woman appears on the scene! So, pragmatism rules when it comes to self-interest!!”

Read the full post here


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