BOOK EXCERPT

A ritual of rooftop meetings led to Perumal Murugan’s anthology of Tamil writing on caste

It wasn’t easy to persuade contributors, some of whom who feared retribution.

It is eight years since the Koodu meetings have begun. We don’t feel compelled to have a meeting every month. So there have been small gaps and sometimes a long time lapse between meetings. In all, 49 meetings have been held in eight years. The next was the 50th one. We decided to make it a special meeting. We thought bringing out a book would be something special and that is how this book has been written.

In one of the editorial board meetings of Kalachuvadu, when we were discussing future plans, I had suggested a series under the title “Caste and I”. We wondered if it would be feasible to commission such articles from individuals. My friends asked me to write the first one. I thought I would write and start the series but it kept getting postponed. But the thought that many must write on the subject kept simmering in my mind. There were many titles suggested for the book to be published, associated with the 50th meeting. I put forward the title “Caste and I” and everyone unanimously accepted it.

It is very easy to structure how many essays could be written on one subject. The essay has to be experiential. It has to detail incidents. That was all that was needed. This sounds very simple. But there were so many problems we had to face before the essay reached us.

First, we had to prepare ourselves mentally.

In one’s mind one always thinks that talking about caste is akin to using abusive language with swear words that centre around women’s body and society’s notion of morality of women. But in everyday life we think of caste at some moment or the other; talk about it. And incidents related to it do happen. But there is a certain hesitation in speaking about it in the public sphere.

We had to make a lot of effort to make people overcome that hesitation. As a result, the first essay we received was that of Nallusamy. To me it appeared to be a good beginning. All this trouble was for people to open up and write with no holds barred.

Despite all these efforts, some could not write. It was not that they did not know how to write. But there was that hesitation – the fear that writing about caste may lead to this or that problem. Even though they were told not to be afraid even before they had begun to write – to write whatever came to their mind and that, wherever they felt a particular point may lead to trouble, that portion could be removed – some could not allay the fear.

Those who exorcised the fear of retribution submitted good essays. There were some who, after writing the essays, said that they would use a pen name. So, there is a lot of fear in talking about caste in the public sphere. We were very clear in our minds when we decided that no essay would be published under a pseudonym. The notes on the author of each essay have hence been given perspicuously. These are also aspects of being open.

Experiences of caste differ in nature. In the book, different aspects of caste domination have been spoken about. Some take the form of complaints and some others are filled with guilt and regret for having had the mentality that accepted caste and having gone along with it. Some said that they felt light after writing it. There are essays which have tried to find consolation in writing about caste; there are others which have tried to justify various actions. There are some which have turned first-person accounts into third-person accounts, out of timidity or fear, and the authors have hidden themselves in these third-person accounts.

There are some which are like testimonies. Some are autobiographical in style. Some are incomplete because of lack of training in writing. What I feel greatly relieved about is that although given total freedom, there is not a single essay that supports the caste system. This gives me, at least, a little hope for the future.

The locales and the incidents in the essays are different. They made me cry, sigh and laugh when I read them. My intention is not to categorise these various incidents and put them under scrutiny. I think this would be a useful documented source for researchers and those who are active in the eradication of caste since nowhere has caste been spoken about in the public sphere with such explicitness as in this book.

The book does not deal with all the castes but there are significant records of different castes. There are different pictures in the essays about Dalits, other minority castes which keep themselves aloof, and about dominant castes. The views of the authors regarding caste have been brilliantly expressed.

But one is still left with the feeling that there is so much more to say. People of different castes must speak. They must talk in the public sphere about their feelings, talk about incidents in their life, being true to their own conscience. I hope this book will provide the inspiration for it.

I had the illusion at first that putting together the essays would be easy.

But more than the difficulty of getting the essays were the difficulties of time and energy connected with editing them. Only a few essays which seemed rough-hewn have been rejected. Otherwise each essay, when it arrived, brought the joy of excavating some buried treasure. The person with whom I shared this joy and also exchanged ideas with was my wife P Ezhilarasi. My dear students Pa Nallusamy, Re Mahendiran and Pa Kumaresan were always available to deeply discuss the essays and also type them in to create a soft copy. Another good student who showed great interest in the project was A Chinnadurai.

My friend A Ira Venkatachalapathy read some of the essays and opined that this would be an important book. Poet and fiction writer and the present editor of Kalachuvadu, Sukumaran, encouraged me saying that caste has not been spoken about so openly anywhere else. Their many suggestions were very useful. To Kannan of Kalachuvadu Publications, who agreed to publish it when I mentioned such a book and Thanga Akila and others of the Kalachuvadu office team who took a lot of interest in bringing out the book, my thanks are due.

Namakkal 19 October 2013.

Excerpted with permission from “Introduction: The Buried Treasure I found” from Black Coffee in a Coconut Shell, edited by Perumal Murugan, and C S Lakshmi, SAGE Yoda Press.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.