On the night when cyclone Gaja stormed through Tamil Nadu on November 16, gruesome photographs of two decomposed bodies did the rounds on social media. A young couple had been killed and thrown into the Cauvery river.
The woman belonged to a community counted among the most backward castes. The man hailed from a Dalit community, which is considered lowest in the caste hierarchy. To punish the woman for defying the tradition and marrying outside her caste, her family had allegedly killed them both.
This was the third murder reported in six months in South India in which Dalit men had been killed for marrying women from higher castes.
In each case, journalists promptly reached the spot, interviewed the families, checked their caste identities and filed dispatches. The murders predictably made headlines: young love brutally snuffed out is a dramatic storyline.
What is less dramatic is the power of caste to reshape everyday life. To quietly breed hatred and mistrust, calmly dismantle families and scar minds, all without a drop of blood being shed. The quiet moments that nurture violence in a casteist society go unnoticed by journalists.
What would have happened if the man from the Dalit community was not murdered for marrying an upper caste girl? What if the woman’s family was impoverished and without the resources to plot and execute a murder? What if the couple survived the ostracism to live a life of love?
My parents survived – only to embark on a difficult journey, with the shadow of caste never leaving them.
My mother, a light-skinned, stout woman, belongs to a backward community of traditional weavers. Her father was a tailor. Despite financial constraints, the family sent her to Madras University in the late 1970s, with the hope that she find a job that could support her six younger siblings.
At the university, my mother met my father, a dark and sturdy man, hailing from a Dalit community. They fell in love and decided to get married. My mother’s family opposed this. The reason was obvious: a woman born into a higher caste cannot marry a man from the bottom of the caste hierarchy. In addition, they felt they would lose control over my mother and her future earnings.
To complicate matters, my father went on to face caste prejudice within the university – his professors refused to guide a Dalit student for a PhD in literature. He had to go back to his village to work in a cycle repair shop.
After they got married, despite opposition from my mother’s family, my parents decided to migrate to Karnataka to start a new life. They got married in Bengaluru and began teaching in a college on a part-time basis. Both of them were first-generation graduates and were acutely aware of the expectations of their families.
A few months after their wedding, both the families visited them. For my maternal uncles, my father was still a man from the lowest caste who did not deserve their respect. But they came home to demand their share of money for having paid for my mother’s education.
When my mother became pregnant with her first child, her brothers were once again at the door to ask for money. By the time I, the second child, was born, the pressure to earn money for both the families was so acute that my mother had to return to work within seven days of child birth.
This time, my maternal grandparents came visiting. Mortified to see a baby left to bed bugs while the parents went to work, they took me away to their home town in Tamil Nadu.
Two years after I was born, my parents found stable jobs with secure incomes. As their financial situation improved, the pressure to support their families increased and so did my maternal uncles’ contempt towards my father – for being from the lowest caste and marrying the only graduate in the family. Their superior caste identity was made clear time and again, which began to create a rift within the family. “You are a Dalit. We don’t have to listen to your words,” my maternal uncle said rudely, when my father tried to explain why they could not afford to send them more money.
My mother increasingly found herself torn between her husband and her brothers. When she defended them, my father flew into a rage. As their relationship came under strain, my mother decided to move to a separate house nearby. I was ten years old then. My brother and I continued to live with my father.
Both the families had different houses to visit now. As time passed, we saw less of our relatives. Our vacations were confined to our home, no festivals were spent with cousins, there were no family gatherings. Eventually, our world shrunk. Only deaths brought the relatives together.
My mother continued to live alone, visiting and taking care of us when my father was away. A few years later, their separation turned into divorce. There were no relatives to mediate and bring about a reconciliation. For my parents, the support structure a family ought to provide had collapsed even before it was built.
Parental strife leaves an impact on children. As the vacuum in my life grew, I began to experience persistent headaches and nausea, which have stayed with me into my adulthood. I struggle to make intimate friendships and communicate my thoughts and emotions clearly.
The spectre of caste never left me. Revealing my caste identities like a confessional statement before getting into a relationship was, for me, a cautious step to avoid listening to the conditions and demands to hide my Dalit identity. I am never surprised when inter-caste marriages, especially those involving a Dalit, are received with contempt. I am not even surprised when there is outright violence.
Culture of segregation
In the village in Hosur, where the dead couple lived after they got married, what caught my attention was the culture of tolerance that accepts and normalises segregation. Dalits said even during the annual village festival, they stood outside the temple to offer their prayers. Such discrimination has not changed much in our villages, definitely not in the last 10 years of my career as a journalist. But the media is attuned to record this intolerance only when it takes a violent form.
As journalists, we continue to report on incidents of violence but we seldom question the unwritten rules that treat a fellow human as inferior. Until this contempt towards the lower castes changes, I realise I have to be prepared to report on the loss of many more lives.
In my own life, I continue to see the tragic outcome of intercaste love.
Even while they live separately, in their old age, my parents have only each other to fall back on. Their relatives rarely show up, whether it is a moment of happiness or trouble.
Yet, the schism between them runs so deep that my mother expresses her frustrations by calling my father “cheri janagal” (colony people), a pejorative reference to Dalits. My father cringes with humiliation and says, “I will have to hear this as long as I am alive.”
In this series, Scroll.in reporters look back at their experiences while reporting a significant story in 2018.
Read more in this series here.
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