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Making the Forked Tongue Speak ...An Ethnography of the Self

The consciousness of caste is constitutive of the self in caste society. It is also embedded in the realities of class, which structure the experience of bare life itself. In order to rupture caste formations, it is necessary to engage self-consciously in the politics of becoming, regulating notions of the self, de-schooling and politicising the self in new ways that push you to belonging elsewhere. This essay maps the trajectory of becoming, through an exploration of the textures of subjectivities by revisiting family folklore, personal experiences and professional practices.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 19, 200863Making the Forked Tongue Speak … An Ethnography of the SelfKalpana KannabiranThe consciousness of caste is constitutive of the self in caste society. It is also embedded in the realities of class, which structure the experience of bare life itself. In order to rupture caste formations, it is necessary to engage self-consciously in the politics of becoming, regulating notions of the self, de-schooling and politicising the self in new ways that push you to belonging elsewhere. This essay maps the trajectory of becoming, through an exploration of the textures of subjectivities by revisiting family folklore, personal experiences and professional practices.Out, damned spot! Out, I say!...What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?……What, will these hands ne’er be clean?…Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh! (Macbeth, Act V, Scene I)To bounce like a ball that has been hit became my deepest desire, and not to curl up and collapse because of the blow(Bama, Karukku, vii).1 Constituents of the SelfHow does one begin to articulate a social location that straddles brahminism, orthodoxy, liberalism, non- vegetarianism,intermarriage over four generations (inter-caste and inter-religious), brahmin communism, non-brahmin religiosity, feminism, opposition to caste, communal preoccupa-tions with colour and beauty, “harijan” cooks-cum-caregivers right through childhood, witnessing the habitations of aged brah-minchild widows and uneducated brahmin women’s resistance to bigamy seven decades ago, the subjugation of wives through domestic violence, hearing stories of the elopement of a brahmin wife-mother from the agraharam to live with a parayar husband in the cheri in the same town? How did homosexuality figure in the discursive realms of the heterosexual brahmin family six decades ago? How may a child receive and understand the every-day denigration of a dalit Christian grand aunt – the abusive res-onances of “parachi”1 – by an extremely principled and upright great grandfather (her father-in-law) even while he lived in her home? What are the ways a brahmin son-in-law may find to repu-diate conjugality as revenge against the daily humiliation by his wife’s family for being raised by three widows – his mother, grandmother and grand aunt? How does one cope with seeing that children born of inter-marriage between a sudra man and a brahmin woman are treated as fully brahmin – the erasure of the non-brahmin (and non-Hindu) self in mixed marriages? Or being told that these children are “chandala” since they are the progeny of pratiloma unions by enlightened friends in jest? And then learning that parents did in fact get scheduled caste certificates for their childrenusingthisargument, till the claim was explicitly re-jected in the law? What are the possible ways in which one may resolve the brahminism of sudras, the brahminism of SyrianChris-tians, or the dominant caste consciousness ofReddyandNadar Christians (exemplified in the single practice of untouchability – thedefiningtrait of brahminism) with the anti-brahminism of a brahmin having encountered the possibility? How does the In memoriam: For my grandmothers Pankajammal (1903?-1994), Sama (1924-2005) and Chudamani (1924-2007), with humility, respect, love, and gratitude.I am indebted to Kancha Ilaiah for forcing me to re-examine my assumptionsinstudyingcaste – especially my relationship to sociological scholarship. This essay is part of that process that began around 20years ago.S Anand persuaded me to attempt this essay. Kannabiran, VasanthandVenkathavediscussed various aspects of family history and folklore with me and have helped me reflect on the implicationsofthese stories.Theseareconcerns we share and I have learnt different ways of seeing from them. Raj Mohan Tella, Upendra Baxi, Peter Fitzpatrick, Z M Yacoob, Kathy Sreedhar and S Anandreadandcommentedonthis essay. Each of them has seen a different version, because it has changed in response to each of their comments. I have felt strengthened by their engagement with my ideas. Kalpana Kannabiran ( is at NALSAR, Hyderabad.
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 19, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly64practiceofuntouchability and caste endogamy by these (and similarly placed) groups situate them apart from brahmins, in re-lation to dalits? Does it?How may we articulate nurturance and care that is located firmly within kinship but outside the parameters of brahminism within brahmin contexts as critical to the development of consciousness?The consciousness of caste is constitutive of the self in caste society – embedded in the fact of being, underwriting it in deep seated yet often unarticulated ways. It is also entrenched in the realities of class, which structure the experience of bare life it-self. The caste-class nexus produces an array of articulations that tell stories of the complex contradictions between consciousness and survival, which are also stories of the caste system. This is not to argue that this consciousness cannot be ruptured or that the self cannot be reconstituted. It is necessary even while examining the ruptures, to delineate what elements of caste-class remain solid and unshaken, and what parts allow for a re-constitution. Even while there may be significant ruptures around you, in the normal course, these will have the status of folklore – ofstories that you hear, of heroism that you see and believe but cannot “know”. In order to know what the rupture of caste con-sciousness means, it is necessary to engage self-consciously in the politics of becoming, regulating notions of the self, de-schooling and politicising the self in new ways that push you to belonging elsewhere.2 This process of reconstituting the self can only be intentional and the result of a carefully crafted strategy. This essay attempts to map the trajectory ofbecoming,bydefini-tioninthemaking,through an exploration of the textures of subjectivities by revisiting family folklore, personalexperi-ences and professional practices.2 Marriage Inter-religious and/or inter-caste heterosexual marriages have taken place in my family for four generations. On my father’s side, there is the story of a musician aunt who left her brahmin husband and five adolescent children to live with a dalit mridangam3 player in a cheri in Chennai. Several years later, as the wife, she was informed of the brahmin hus-band’s death, and allowed to attend the funeral, but warned by the sons not to “create a scene”. In a starkly different story, my father’s first cousin (the only son followed by five daughters) was disinherited by his father because he married a dalit woman. Thrown out of his job in a popular hospital in Nellore, he left his wife and children behind in search of work. After several difficult years and unsuccessful attempts to find work, supported part of the time by my paternal grandmother in Madras, he decided to go through “shuddhi”4 after which he committed suicide. His body was taken in a procession through Nellore to be buried by the Pennar river by the dalit community to the drumbeat of “A brahmin has become a Madiga”.5 Both these people lived in fairly orthodox brahmin communities and the instances of intermarriage even in successive generations are few and far between.On my mother’s side, the picture was very different. My great grandfather, the eldest of five brothers was the only one to marry a brahmin woman – an orthodox one who had to deal with brothers-in-law and a son who brought in non-Hindu wives, cooking for them and their communist comrades from different faiths who were frequent guests, yet keeping the kitchen out of reach. The second brother married a Catholic woman several years older than himself; the third entered a common law mar-riage with a parayar woman, a former sex worker who returned to sex work after his premature demise; the fourth, a political activist, was single, and the fifth married a Muslim-Hindu woman.6 After three generations which saw both endogamous and exogamous marriages, in my generation brahmin endogamy is non-existent. Breaking out of the circle of endogamy, however, does not by itself lead to a breaking away from the caste system. It leads insteadto a re-figuring of caste consciousness in troublesome ways. The absolute non inclusiveness of dominant peasant com-munities on questions of caste, their easy and uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of the brahmin, the adoption of extremely brahminical lifestyles, the tacit condonation of extreme forms of violence and discrimination against dalits by non-brahmin peas-ant communities, the absolute rejection of reservation for dalits and the righteous assertion of their own privilege of access to education and employment constantly interrupt my occasional interactions with my extended non brahmin affinal family. This has been a cause for extreme discomfort for me – praxiologically – because those very practices and the consciousness that undergirds them mirror the grounds of their own exclusion by brahmin communities.7 The grip of heterosexuality has remained unruptured, even while practices of homosexuality – very few known instances – are acknowledged. Rajappa, a paternal uncle, a posthumous child, was an emotional and material support for the extended family – providing a home and education to cousins who had been virtually abandoned by their father. He was forced to marry at a young age, and never touched his wife. Part of his hostility to his wife was traced to the constant humiliation he faced in her father’s home in their early years of marriage for being raised by three widows. But the more immediate reason for his abstinence from any sexual relationship with his wife was that he was homosexual. There was anger in the family that was materially dependent on him, but the source of the anger, his homosexuality, was never openly spoken about. His orthodoxauntwhowas very fond of him wished at one point that some woman,any woman, would come up to her holding a child and say it was born of him. At the time of his premature death in his 40s, he was mar-ried, childless and in a relationship with a man several years younger, who married and raised children after his death. The intimacy between the two was evident, and the partner, a friend of the family, visited daily. And yet, the space for intimacy was not the family home, nor was there an explicit mention of the character of the intimacy. It was “known”, always wished away, and remained ever present. 3 Politics and FamilyFormal politics has been an accepted way of life in the family for close to a century – more specifically communism. Two of my maternal great grandfather’s brothers KittaThathaandRanga
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 19, 200865Thatha – were founding members of the Communist Party of India, and known for their work in the communist movement. Kitta Thatha, was a founder-leader of the Madras Harbour Workers’ Union, and Ranga Thatha a legendary communist lawyer in Delhi. My maternal grand uncle, Venkat, went to Ferguson College, Pune, after school, where he got involved in the communist movement, discontinued his education and courted arrest during thepeakofthemovement in the 1940s. He tells little stories ofhis long association with Kosambi, his tutor at Ferguson, and his relationships with other communists of the time, especially in Andhra. He distanced himself completely from the party after the move-ment was called off and spent all of his working life in a hospital for poor people – Ramchander Davakhana as it was popularly known. After he retired from the hospital he began to pursue his other passion, agriculture – and has over the past two decades become perhaps the most diligent practitioner of permaculture in the country, helping several groups set up farms and bringing together a small community of people interested in the philosophy of permaculture. He has been a communist all his life, rejecting all markers of caste and religion, and has lived life on terms that were entirely different from anybody else in the family. He is the primary caregiver to my younger daughter and responsible for all decisions that concern her – at school, home, everywhere.My paternal uncle, Chellappa peripa, a respected political sci-entist, was a communist hero during the time of the Telangana Armed Struggle. My father’s family, however, with the exception of his mother and in the last few years his communist brother, was largely absent from our lives, figuringinepisodesthatwere few and far between.My own sense of the two sides of the family through my grow-ing years was quite unambiguous – my paternal side was orthodox, and my maternal side was radical. And it was my maternal side, apart from my parents, that is, who provided me with a politico-cultural context. My mother, a teacher, the first woman president of the largest college teachers’ union in the state in the late 1970s, feminist writer and poet, supported the family with paid work since the birth of her first child, taught us to be different and struggled fiercely to create and sustain that space for us. The family over fourgenerations was extremely close knit; my mother,thefirst female child after two generations, holding people and lives to-gether at enormous personal cost. My father, communistby belief, a widely revered civil liberties leader taught us democracy by example, and showed us how to keep our faith in justice and good conscience through the most trying times. His work over the past four decades has centred on opposing caste and atrocity in courts at every level and arguing in courts and outside on the indispensability of reservation to democracy in India. These were ideas we grew up with and ideas that shaped our consciousness and thinking from as far back as we can remember. Diversity was central to our context, as also political radical-ism of which opposition to caste was central. When I think back now, however, I do begin to see a much more complex layering of the habitations of radical politics in these two contexts.Practices of difference were constantly interrupted by scatteredpracticesof brahminism – especially language, thoughnotdiet,socialinter-course or ritual.8 4 ForemothersIn my paternal grandmother’s home in Mylapore, non-brahmins did not enter the kitchen. It would be incorrect however to freeze Paati (my paternal grandmother) into a completely orthodox mould. She had the courage to question the fundamental as-sumptions of the patriarchal brahmin family without a thought about the consequences or suffering she might have to undergo as a result, which she did. And in the face of the suffering, she was stoic. Although she put up with extreme battery by her doc-tor husband even while her children watched, terrified, for years, she walked out of his house with four of her five children and with no formal education or wealth when she was told that he was bringing in another wife. She never returned to him, the story of my father’s childhoodand youth being one that is underwritten by extreme poverty and deprivation. Much later whenherthirdson (who was dearest to her and who she had chosen to merge her share of the propertywith)askedherto leave“his”house and she came to live with us, my father told her quietly that while her dietaryrequirementswouldbere-spected, she would have to eat food cooked by the non-brahmin cook who lived with us. She was past 70 then, did not really have a choice, and came to terms with it without any fuss. But also her dispossession in a very ironic sense was complete. The feeling of destitution is one that haunted Paati till she died when she was past 90. The one hope she clung on to was thather husband’spensionwouldsomehow miraculously find its way to her, the legal first wife, even 30 years after his death. Paati spoke Tamil and Telugu, understood every word of Eng-lish although she did not speak it, had a transistor always on next to her ear, never missing a news bulletin, and knew of events be-fore anyone else in the family had read the papers. She wasliving with us at the time that I decided to marry,and I do not once re-member her asking what caste the boy was from. Had it ceased to matter to her? The second figure that frequently passedusintheshadowswas thatofChingaThatha, my father’s paternal aunt, a child widow. None of her brothers were willing to supporther,soshelivedwith my paternal grandmother, her sister-in-law. When my grand-mother and her children moved from Nellore to Madras, Chinga Thatha moved with them and stayed in Mylapore till she died, occupying a small room in the back of the house and being sup-ported by my uncle. She wore a dull brown sari, no blouse, no jewellery, and generally lived in the shadows. All the years that we saw her as children, we never exchanged more than a pass-inggreeting. We were told that she was a “child widow” but at that time, knew nothing of the painful consequences of enforced widowhood. Many years after she died, I was told by my father that when her brothers asked her to tonsure her head, she asked for a piece of land or an allowance so that she could pay the barber’s fees every month, whereupon the demand for tonsure was withdrawn. The third person, my grand aunt, Sama aunty, was dalit Christian, who came from a very poor family. Sama aunty,
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 19, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly66unlike my brahmin foremothers married at 40, was educated, a qualified nurse in government service till her retirement as theatre head nurse in one of the largest government hospitals in the state. She spent most of her working life living alone in Warangal where she was posted, visiting her husband on weekends. She supported her family through her pension after her retire-mentand joined the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission,spendingallher time in prayer, living an extremely reclusive life. The only place she visited apart from the weekly visits to church was my mother’s home in the neighbourhood – the home of their favourite child. Sama aunty, a quiet, but strong presence in the house, extremely affectionate and caring, turned her home into a play space for her grand daughter, greatgranddaughtersandtheir playmates. She taught the children of her domestic workerand sawthemthroughschool,following their progress from one day to the next. Shards of memories remain of the caricaturing of her and her church by the “liberal” brahmin family she married into; recounting of odd comments by her father-in-law who lived in herhomeinthelastyears of his life and yet referred to her de-rogatorily as “parachi”; the sense that she was generally seen as an outsider – not one of “us” by most in the extended family. And yet, there was nothing about her demeanour that conveyed to me the pain or hurt she certainly must have felt. She was a tremen-dous emotional support to my parents, my children, and me and was never materially dependent on anyone tillshediedwhenshe was past 80 in 2005. The fourth person, dear friend and collaborator, was my ma-ternal grandmother, Ammamma. We spent practically every weekend in our childhood and adolescence with her; my brother lived with her and visited us on weekends for a few years when he was very young; I would dip ever so frequently into her reser-voir of recipes, her wealth of connections with small but precious shopkeepers in General Bazaar each of whom she knew person-ally; she and my grandfather took care of my daughter when she was put in a school close to where they lived – supervising her lunch, taking her swimming, reading stories to her and caring for her till I returned from work every day for four years. AmmammaAmmamma was married as a child at 13, coped with an ex-tremely caring, alcoholic and abusive husband who threw her out of his house frequently. Thirty of the 60 odd years that she had lived with him, were married with the shame of having to cope with the common, public knowledge of her husband’s alcoholism and waiting endlessly for his sobriety while he lay senseless in other cities while on work and at home; a husband who was abusive and unpleasant to the extreme with the rest of the fam-ilyincluding his children; a man who sold his house without con-sulting her when she was 70 years old, forcing her to be utterly dependent on her children for the rest of her life, as he was too. Finally when she was 80, he assaulted her with a deadly weapon and left her for dead. It was in this condition that we brought her to my parents’ home where she lived for the last four years of her life. In a sense these were the times most filled with moments of joy, because there were always friends, family and great grand-children around her, but also the times most filled with dejection over a life laid waste. But she resolutely refused to despair. She laughingly recounted a conversation between her and her hus-band – “he would keep asking me to take off my thali. I listened for a while and finally told him: ‘I am not wearing this for your longevity. It is gold, and it will see me through my difficulties. That is why I will not take it off.’” She referred only rarely and fleetingly to her enormous hardship – “I have never had a home that belonged to me” – scribbling furiously inEnglish on scraps ofpaper when she felt overpowered by her memories, and dis-missed my ever present fury over the way she had been treated with an off hand click of the tongue. Somewhere along those years, she had quietly removed the thali (or was it taken away from her?) and wore a plain gold chain instead. When Ammamma died, the gold chain, a pair of bangles and a nose ring were her only assets. The money that her children had given her at different points in her turbulent life as financial support was locked into bank deposits that she left untouched.In all her conversations with so many people who recounted this when she died in January 2007, Ammamma never ever lost her interest in the people she met or their work, in seeing places, in teaching everyone around her – grandchildren, great grand-children, domestic workers and nurses especially – how to read, write, sing, cook, knit. If they knew Telugu, she would teach them English. If they knew both, she would teach them Tamil. If they learnt Hindustani music, she would teach them Carnatic music. She barely went to school, but was literate in English and Tamil and a voracious reader. She helped me with my doctoral and postdoctoralwork. She first translatedDasigal Mosavalai (‘Web of Deceit’) for me years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. She understood and identified with the struggle of the devadasis and their difficulties.9Ammamma read my work with interest, and was bothered that she could not always understand every-thing I wrote –“your standard is too high”, she would say with her characteristic laugh. 5 Food and LanguageWe were from my earliest memories, a meat eating family with notaboosonmeats that we could not eat. My father oftenjoked that once a brahmin crosses the boundary of food, it matters little whether he eats a goat or a buffalo.10 Even within meat consump-tion,however,therewere markers – utensils, culinary practices, daily diet – that set counter brahmin assertions apart. The poli-tics of food manifested itself in other ways as well. Kitta Thatha, I heard ever so many times, developed cirrhosis of the liver from eating too much of fermented rice, a diet he adopted in order to become one with the dock workers he lived and worked with. So, while it was the food, it was not really only the food. Never having lived in Tamil Nadu, my siblings and I had never learnt the distinction between brahmin Tamil and non-brahmin Tamil. The only Tamil we spoke was the Tamil spoken by brahmins. This was the language my first-born learnt to speak, because it was the language we spoke at home in Andhra – our mother tongue, surrounded as we were by Telugu and Urdu-speaking people. When she was two years old, at a meeting near Chennai, a Tamil dalit friend turned around and commented to me with a grimace – “My god! She speaks just like a brahmin!” My second

Identities are mapped on the dual axes of caste and dominance. Although theoretically, the caste system cannot accommodate hypogamous (pratiloma) unions and the progeny of such unions “fall” into the panchama category, the practical mapping of identities at an everyday level accommodates dominant strains through an erasure of the non-dominant ones, so that children with brahmin mothers and sudra fathers (mine for instance) are treated as quite properly brahmin, by brahmins. Eugenicist assumptions (of which the “merit” argument in anti-reservation debates is but a part) unabashedly draw a causal link between “brains” and brahmin ancestry.13 You can leave caste without caste leaving you.

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