Trying to understand caste

OK Kanmani has released and everyone has expressed their opinions (encompassing “Mani Ratnam…return to form” and “Good but something is missing” and “Better than Kadal and thank God for that”), I am curious as to why nobody thought of it as some kind of science fiction. Did you laugh reading that? No, really. The characters could be anybody I know, even myself (except I am no architect), but I do not personally know of even one couple living together (in India). Now you may say, “but in this day and age…”. Surely I must be knowing someone. Then I think, is it because I live in Chennai? Any of my male friends would now like to add: When a man finds it difficult enough to rent an apartment for himself, imagine if he showed up with a girl. No amount of Carnatic music knowledge would make a Bhavani Aunty approve of such a thing under her watch.

It is fairly evident to everyone that the Adi character in OK Kanmani is a Brahmin. We know this from his father’s name, his brother’s name, the fact that he is from West Mambalam and studied at PSBB. Everyone seems to have caught this and discussed it. (One of my friends even thought: Was he allowed to stay with the old couple because he was a Brahmin and they were too? What if he was not? Would he have been given room? This is an interesting point, and one I did not think of.) I feel prompted to ask, what about Tara? It appears as though her character is meant to be a Gounder (from my limited trawling-the-internet-skills, I understand that this has not been spoken about much). Keeping this detail in mind, we can now read into the movie a little differently. For instance, she is the one who is shown to appreciate Carnatic music, while he falls asleep in a concert. When her mother wants to discuss marriage, the concern is class, and not caste.

Now you may be one of the many people saying, “But why are you talking about caste? This is 2015!” and “This cannot still be an issue!”. Maybe you think issues pertaining to caste belong in a village where the literacy percentage is less than thirty.

This is the point where you feel lucky you do not know me, because I went around asking friends what their opinions about caste were, if they believed it still existed, and if it would play a role in their marriage (since we know that is the ultimate obsession for every Indian family). A small sample is presented here, and all respondents are people I know, from urban areas and upwardly mobile middle class or upper middle class.

  • Nadar Christian (F)

“I don’t really believe in all this.”

Me: Would you be able to marry someone outside your caste?

“My parents wouldn’t accept a love marriage to begin with. The only way I stand a chance is if I fall in love with a Nadar Christian boy.”

  • Saiva Pillai (M)

“What can I say? I wished to marry someone from another caste. My family agreed after some resistance, but hers didn’t. We had to separate.”

  • Veera Saiva Vellalar (M)

“Of course it exists. Even if I manage to convince my parents, they are still worried as to what those around them might think.”

  • Iyer (F)

“No I don’t think caste is a problem anymore.”

Me: Would you be able to marry someone who is not a Brahmin?

“Hmm. It is better if he is a Brahmin. I mean, even for my own sake. Our practices would be the same then.”

  • Iyengar (M)

“Haha. My father would disown me if I so much as mention something about liking a woman belonging to a different caste.”

A pause.

“Actually, my sister would disown me too.”

  • Gounder (F)

“I don’t believe in all this.”

Me: Would you want your life partner to be Gounder too?

“I honestly don’t care. My parents used to, but they have finally come around. Maybe they got tired trying to fight me.”

I believe caste is everywhere, we just choose to pretend it does not exist. We want to think it does not shape us, but we are equipped with the exact prejudices our parents grew up with, unless we make an attempt to break out of it. To be honest, sometimes I am a bit scared to bring up this topic for discussion. What if someone takes offence? Not because they are above this, but mostly because they are uncomfortable giving voice to their views.

So you have read all that I have to say and you do not hate me. In that case, I would like to suggest a video for you to watch: The Invisible Other: Caste in Tamil Cinema.

It might be a little rude if I do not acknowledge my friends here: you know who you are, special mention to A for being as interested in Tamil cinema as I am, and for discovering this video; and to everyone else for answering my (almost impertinent) questions, for indulging me every time I wished to analyze and interpret and explain, or maybe just vent.


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