Silence and forgetting in Nair India
I've grown up in an extremely caste-silent family and extended social scene. By caste-silent I mean that what caste we were, what our neighbors' or friends' caste backgrounds were, differences in ritual or interactive aspects between various castes, general statements about 'caste oppression in rural areas', comments on news articles discussing caste, etc., rarely found a place in home conversations. Then, of course, there weren’t many occasions where there was enough interest for opinions or discussions around caste to emerge, mostly because we mixed and moved with others of our kind and didn’t stray too far.
Most of my school and college experience has also been similarly devoid of any interest or awareness viz-a-viz caste. Except for the mandatory four-fold caste-system classification I learnt in textbooks, and which signified discriminatory practices. So it was quite in order that I thought 'caste' existed in worlds other than mine, where people were tradition-bound and conservative. I knew I was a malayali nair, but I never knew what my caste meant socially. I was quite proud of the fact that I didn’t know any deeper than that; wasn't it proof that there was no caste in my modern life and outlook? I even remember being excited at one point when I figured out that in south India, we didn’t have the same caste system that was taught to us as 'the Indian caste system'! I remember feeling happy that the community divisions of us southies did not correspond to what was commonly understood and accepted as the four-varna caste system... which was a largely north and central India categorization. At that time, this for me was a subversion of the highest order!!!
This is not to say that attitudes/knowledge regarding caste haven’t operated at all in my making-unmaking. The silence is of a peculiar nature, it has its own codes and its own language of expression. Looking back now, I think it is characteristic of a well-settled middle class, 'high' caste family to inculcate this silence and disavowal about caste within its immediate social sphere; surnames of friends, fathers' names, people's hometowns, their food habits, these were regular conversation tidbits at home, but 'no, never caste'! Most of my relatives and friends who come from similar caste-class backgrounds share this peculiar silence. I say peculiar silence because it did not insist on intricate knowledge and visible observance of one's caste location and corresponding behaviours/attitudes (except, maybe, with marriage), but it was opinionated enough against challenges to the status quo (read, 'the general good') posed by struggles against caste hierarchy and oppression, like, say, with reservations.
Also, knowledge of or engagement with one's caste status/location is unimportant to those of us who are situated at the centre of things, and are socialized and treated like that. I remember a Malayali school friend of mine becoming extremely worried that we would stop talking to her after some exchange of school documents among us made us all aware of each other's caste and of her OBC status. I seriously couldn’t fathom at that time why she was so tensed that after 3 years of intense group bonding the rest of us would turn against her. I remember that the rest of us didn’t even know what OBC meant exactly and why it would come between us. But this friend knew; her caste status would not allow for that knowledge to be absent from her life.
Apart from my caste status, and my nearly homogenous social interactions, sometimes I think that being in a metro like Mumbai might have something to do with the silence around questions of caste in conversations and socializing, because the promise of this city is in the non-markedness of specifics and in the global oneness that it offers. When I learnt that technically nairs also belonged among the 'untouchable' castes in Kerala, I was initially shocked at how I had never known this from within my family space and had picked it up from an academic presentation. But on second thoughts, why would this information be relayed through and within nair families at all?! Identity marking at least among the one local nair community in Mumbai that I'm familiar with is heavily invested in situating the nairs' central presence in the religio-cultural history of not only Kerala, but also the nation (?) at large. Last year, for the first time, their annual Ayyappa procession took a longer detour through a Marathi-speaking community's fairly old wayside shrine dedicated to Gaondevi with walls plastered with photos of Durga, Kali and Shiva!
Of late, during our 'native place' visits to Thrissur, Kerala, I've been coming across several instances of coded caste practice, which because they didn’t seem open prohibitions to my eye I've never recognized earlier. It was only recently that I heard my grandmother lament that now even the lower castes are participating in the village temple's annual festival, and what's more, are collecting door-to-door funds as they want to be one of the many groups who sponsor firecrackers for the festival!!! This in a house where all the workers were lower caste and I as a child was never told to stay away or not hang out with them/their children. A visit to our neighbouring namboodiri (Brahmin) family saw everyone grieving at the loss of a high caste bathing/washing space (the temple pond), which of late had been taken over by workers and their families who bathed and washed their clothes and made the pond dirty. As we left their house, my father told me how years ago he and his family used to be served tea in separate tumblers in this house, which they had to wash and keep separately after their use, and how ironic it was that today time has brought them to include him their pond-loss lament!!!
These experiences of my socialization point out that identifying caste practice in only certain typical ways blinds the eye to a whole gamut of religio-cultural behavior and hierarchies that are actually deeply embedded in rules of caste difference. And this feeds the silence around caste, mine or another's, which then reiterates the belief that caste does not exist in our practices and outlooks.
[Lakshmi Kutty is a fellow at Sarai, Delhi and is currently assisting Forum Against Oppression of Women activists in the rapid survey on Working Women in Dance Bars of Mumbai]