With the shock of the rape and murder of a female Dalit law student reverberating through the fabric of Keralan society, the issue of caste in Kerala has resurfaced. The lethargic pace of the initial investigation coupled with the mishandling of evidence by police and lack of solid leads so far has starkly highlighted the status of Dalits in the state.
Kerala, well-known for its high performance and narrow gender gaps in socio-economic and health indicators, still struggles with issues of gender and caste. And that should come as little surprise considering that honest discussions about tough topics like these remain outside the purview of the general public.
What I can offer are personal experiences of caste, and while anecdotal, they can be powerful in building practical comprehension of problems that are often abstracted. I find they provide a small, helpful window into the intricacies of caste in everyday life. Within these, I have found the truth of greater systemic problems which beg to be addressed. I hope in sharing that those conversations can widen and deepen as a result – that you too will feel empowered to share your lived experiences.
We’re all sitting at lunch, and my co-worker is talking about her mother-in-law. She’s telling us about a trip they’d taken and how they’d needed to stop at a household for some reason or other.
As she tells us what time they left to head home, the women at the table ask in surprise how they managed to drive down those windy, dark roads all the way back. Couldn’t they have stayed at that house for the night? My co-worker grimaces as she answers because she hates where this is going next – but it’s the truth and so she continues.
“Well, you know, my husband’s mother… well, she refuses to stay the night under the roof of a lower-caste household.”
She shrugs in a way that communicates the uselessness in trying to change the prejudices of an older generation and licks the curry off her fingers.
At the first Hindu wedding I attended during my research grant, I met a young man who was bursting at the seams with happiness – he was shortly to be engaged to a beautiful girl. He proudly showed me a photo of her and with a laugh said, “When I saw her, I knew I liked her. I asked her first ‘Are you a Nair?’ She said yes and I knew I would marry her.”
He says this so lightheartedly that it breaks my heart. He can see the disappointment flit across my face and he hurries to tell me, “Oh, I have no problem with caste. I asked for my parents. They would be devastated if I married outside of caste. I could never do that to them.” I pushed him, questioning this logic: must we follow our parents even if we know they are wrong? He smiles uneasily at me and repeats one more time that he owes everything to his parents and to concede to marry within his caste does not seem a bad compromise. Besides, wasn’t she beautiful?
He’s clearly emotional. “No, I really want to say sorry. I know it happened years ago, but I want you to know it still bothers me and that I am sorry.”
He looks over at me and tells me how he had invited my father to meet his parents and to eat lunch at his house. He tells me how my father had brought his brother and his cousin, wishing to introduce his friend’s family to his own. He tells me how his family had laid out the food to eat and how his father had ‘offhandedly’ noted that in his day, people of my father’s caste would not even be allowed into the house, let alone eat together. He tells me how my father, hurt and humiliated, had immediately stood and left with his brother and cousin.
He reaches out for my father’s hand and says, “I’m sorry, da. Listen, my father was not even like that. He was a good man. I know he didn’t mean it in that way.”
My father is looking off into the distance, a little up and to the right to avoid eye contact, because he is uncomfortable and it’s very clear that this still bothers him and that he does not agree that the man was ‘not even like that’. But he loves his friend so he hugs him goodbye and we leave. We get into the elevator in silence as he soothes his old wounds and I wonder how small of a scratch at the surface of caste discrimination does this represent.
Ambedkar in his well-known and never-delivered speech likewise presents cases of caste discrimination ranging from small humiliations to inhumane violence. After very neatly presenting the ideological roots of caste, Ambedkar concludes with the not-so-popular opinion that there must be revolution – both within religion and within society as a whole.
From what I have experienced, Kerala is still waiting for that revolution. For every story I have told, there are hundreds and thousands that remain unwritten and unspoken. There is power in sharing these experiences, in knowing that we are not alone, that this is a problem of our society.
So, share your stories – with us, with your peers, with your neighbours. While caste discrimination continues to perpetuate itself in our daily lives, perhaps there is hope for the next generation to break free of the chains of caste.