ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste in a Tamil Family

On Purity and Pollution in Post-war Jaffna

Caste in a Tamil Family

Written using the voice of Zehra Hashmi, an ethnographic narrative examines caste in transition in Jaffna, centred around a Vel.l.āl.ar family that lived in the peninsula throughout the duration of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which came to an end in May 2009. Based on field research and interviews conducted between 2011 and 2013, the authors find that interlocutors struggle to make meaning of post-war changes.

Seetha and Yasodha1 are sisters in their mid- to late-50s. They are of the Vel.l.āl.ar2 caste. They reside in an upper-middle-class ward of ūr (village) in Valikamam, Jaffna in Sri Lanka with Seetha’s teenage son, Mayuran. Their parents, now deceased, had built the house. Seetha is a divorcee and Yasodha never married. By Jaffna standards, Seetha has a reasonably well-paying clerical job and is the primary breadwinner for the family. Yasodha takes care of most of the household duties and does not work outside the home. She earns extra income for the family by selling packed tea leaves, gingelly oil, and fruit cake out of her kitchen. Mayuran attends a prominent Jaffna school and was preparing for his A-level exams when this article was written. The family is not wealthy, but enjoys a comfortable standard of living.

Thousands fled the Jaffna peninsula when the civil war began in Sri Lanka. This family, however, stayed there throughout. They did not have the financial means to emigrate, neither did they have a close kin abroad who could sponsor them. Seetha’s place of employment was in operation for most of the war period, so the choice to remain in Jaffna was one between living in a rent-free home with a stable income as against moving to Colombo—(as many other Jaffna Tamils did)—and facing additional costs of living with no guarantee of employment.

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Updated On : 18th Apr, 2021

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