Few diasporans will today come to talk about how caste practices in regards to marriage respond to larger political dynamics and power relations. Endogamy, as the most common marriage practice amongst Hindus, necessarily leads to social exclusion and discrimination. Marriage is traditionally assumed to be the foundation of a political institution, the family. As people from South Asia and its diasporas, people who are non-caste or caste marked, our family lives and experiences are often political manifestations and reflections that have informed and enabled many of us to become who we are today. To talk about the family in political terms, however, remains often a taboo, especially in regards to caste. Marriage and family as a social process, event, and institution are nonetheless deeply political constructions that need to come into reflection. As we were taught to silence our personal and collective experiences around caste practices, and as many continue to consider intra-caste marriages to be unproblematic and normative in diaspora, let me help further break the silence on caste in diaspora. Here’s part of my journey.
33 years ago my parents married between caste lines, breaking centuries old social boundaries against the will of an entire society. My parents were, however, no revolutionaries, no Ambedkarites or Marxists. My parents were mere lovers. They didn’t know the consequences of their actions and married to escape the socially constructed boundaries that were imposed upon them by a Saiva Hindu dominated society. Only later would they find out the violence that was to follow a marriage between a Dalit man and an upper caste woman. Would they have married had they known the consequences? I’m certain not. Ambedkar said, “Castes have no mercy for a sinner who has the courage to violate the code. The penalty is excommunication and the result is a new caste.” My parents didn’t receive any mercy from anyone. As sinners, they were excommunicated, discriminated against and chased away. By giving birth to three children they created a new caste, an inbred caste, those who are untouchable and unacceptable by either side; those who grew up abandoned and denied by all families, left without cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents as well as those who have no community to associate with or place to call home.
Thirty years ago, less than a year after the war in Sri Lanka broke out, my family started to flee the island. They fled anti-Tamil discrimination and racial violence. But they also fled caste-based discrimination and oppression when leaving Jaffna behind. Our liberation was to be found in a different geography far from Sri Lanka, or Eelam, and in another religion far from Hinduism. I was born into a Christian sect, which my father joined to escape caste Hindu oppression. By joining them he also tried to negate our so-called polluted background. For the next 15 years of our lives we knew Jehova better than we knew anything about the war in Sri Lanka or Tamil culture, let alone Hindu culture. For many years, we had no family to call our own. We in fact had no concept of family to understand or any reference that went beyond the nuclear family. I didn’t know we had grandparents. I didn’t even know that our parents had siblings. I never got to meet any of my grandparents nor do I think would they have accepted me as a casteless child. I’m still left to wonder if they would have touched me or loved me had they known me. Had they wanted to know me.
Caste, or rather the lack thereof, has accompanied us for most of our lives. It has formed me more profoundly than did the genocide in Sri Lanka, the experience of being born a refugee, the torture of being raised in a radical Christian sect or growing up as a racial minority in an overtly racist environment in Germany. I gained a better understanding of my caste background before even coming to terms with my racial and ethnic difference in relation to whites. To be inter-caste, to be of part Dalit and part upper caste origin, accepted nowhere and by no one, has haunted me since I was six years old. It continued to terrorise me for most of my life in ways I still struggle to grasp. The fear of being exposed, to be humiliated and discriminated followed us like a shadow we were unable to leave behind when my family fled Sri Lanka. We were taught to be attentive and careful about who we speak to, what we speak about, and how to behave with others. We were taught how to deflect from it without being told what we are deflecting from. Our parents tried to protect, distance and divorce us from the pain and trauma created by caste and Vellalar hegemony in Eelam and diaspora. They tried to reprogram us in the belief that a new land will provide us new opportunities and will keep us at a safe distance from facing the discrimination and violence they faced. They thought that once abroad, they would be able to reimagine and remodel us as a family free of caste troubles, a family emulating and assimilating into the largely upper caste demography of the refugee and immigrant Tamil diaspora. They, however, didn’t know that the walls of asylum camps and social housing were thin enough for us to understand early on who we were. Long before they could realise it, we came to understand the concept of ‘untouchability’ and that caste had long been re-established in diaspora.
In the meantime, we grew up being told to lie about our origins, to lie about who we belong to in order to create the impression of being touchable children. We were told to work hard in school, to show white folks that we are not inherently unintelligent and born to clean houses. We were also told that only through education will we gain respect from our own families and the society we belonged to yet fled from. In a recent discussion with one of my upper caste cousins I was told that it’s my parents’ fault for having raised us so caste conscious, for having made us aware and suspicious of society and their own families. Her caste privilege made her unsee and negate the fact that my parents negotiated the violence of caste that my upper caste cousin was benefiting and guarded from. She was never able to acknowledge that my parents were victims of the casteism and Vellalar supremacy she practiced, protected and made invisible in the everyday. She didn’t understand that we weren’t educated about caste, but our lives were built around it and hijacked by it.
It is truly strange being born inter-caste, to have caste conflicts not just play outside of your home, but right at the centre of what should be your safe space: your own family. To have a family you aren’t allowed to know, a family forcefully erased from your memory and history, and to have family who tell you that they love you but hate what you are, what runs through your blood. A family who touches you yet thinks you are polluting, who kiss you yet try to isolate you. Who negate you when you are inconvenient for their mobility and who praise you when you have material and academic success that informs their mobility. Who drop you when it’s dangerous and who pick you up when their guilt asks them to. It’s strange to sit with them and listen to them deny their casteism when it’s omnipresent. It’s strange to see them care for you when you know they wouldn’t marry their children to someone like you or to know that they’d “rather” want their children to marry a white person than a Dalit or someone from a lower caste. It’s difficult to negotiate them, to love them and hate them all at the same time. To feel detached and attached, to feel anger and tenderness, pain and love, resignation and resilience towards them. What does it mean to not have a caste, to not have a home and to be told and made to feel like you are not human enough? And what does it then mean to have a caste, family and community?
As a child I wanted to be touched by them for me to feel human. I wanted them to hug me, kiss me, and caress me. To feel that we are wanted, that we are touchable. I craved for their love, for their acceptance so much that I wished to be like them. I wished they could see through our imperfections, our half-humanity. I wished they would talk to us and make us feel like we were normal children, that we weren’t sinners or polluters and that they weren’t only God’s wanted. We were children after all. The terror of caste followed us into these new geographies where we lived in hiding, isolation and under constant psychological pressure. The weight of caste crushed our family and broke us apart, leaving fragments of normalcy and humanity. Against dominant narratives, we were able to be caste broken despite being thousands of miles away from caste-stratified geographies, and despite living in the absence of a large-scale Tamil community.
Unable to relate to people, unable to narrate our experiences, we started to silence our struggles, to pretend to be normative although our experiences were anything but normative. They distinguished us from all the upper caste families around us. As a 13-year-old I thought I could teach casteist society and my own family a lesson by laying my life to rest. I thought by violating my own body and taking my own life I could make them realize what caste does to humans, even to children. Even if we never talked about caste at home, so much of our lives, our words, whispers and tears were infused by the pain exacerbated by caste. The diaspora offers no safe space if you are of Dalit, lower caste or inter-caste origin. There was only silence and censorship left as a resort and space for articulation. Not even our own home could serve as a space to breathe out. Silence was the language chosen to approach casteism. Assimilation and integration was our response to structural inequalities. We chose to become invisible to avoid being hurt by anyone. We chose to negate ourselves to protect each other. To survive, we didn’t have many choices left.
I was 22 when I for the first time wrote about caste. It was my first ever poem written. Putting these words together was difficult and emotionally exhausting. I handed its Tamil translation to my parents after returning from Paris. I didn’t disclose the author’s name. It was a late afternoon of a warm summer day when we sat together on my brother’s bed, my head resting on my mother’s legs. She slowly recited my poem in her typical radio broadcast voice. After coming to an end, they both looked up, emotionally taken and confused and kept on asking me who the author was. My mother insisted on telling her and started dropping names of all kind of Tamil poets. Minutes later I revealed that I wrote it. Both returned to look at the sheet of paper and started crying. It seemed like an endless moment before my father hesitantly asked me with a broken voice: so it affected you.
It did affect me, Appa.
After 22 years, my parents realised it for the first time in their lives. Their fears became reality. Caste was not just their reality, but also ours. Our silence was for the first time internally broken. We were never taught to give our pain a voice, to share it and find solace. We were never allowed to. They hugged me and cried on my shoulders. Later my mother would proudly read the poem to her upper-caste family and friends who would then ask, ‘why does this boy write about caste?’ Today, my father still cries about me breaking open what they’ve been hiding for so long. I try to explain to him that I made it a habit to tell new Tamil friends of my intercaste, non-caste origin soon after meeting them to avoid being hurt later on. He asks me why I’m doing this, why I’m hurting all of us and all I’m left to say, in spite of the guilt I feel towards them, is that I’m tired of being ashamed of something we shouldn’t be ashamed of but what caste Hindus should be ashamed of. I’m tired of being made to feel guilty for speaking out about what is uncomfortable and painful, to upset the status quo and provide a mirror for society to see what caste does to humans here, even in diaspora.
When growing up I never met anyone like us, with a story like ours. It was a lonely path to walk. Sometimes I wondered if any of this was real. If we were real. Then I saw my parent’s fights and tears and I quickly knew it was. Caste left us ruptured. It left us feeling unwanted and wounded. I often thought neither society nor our parents accepted us. Often did I think they wished to undo this marriage and our lives all together. Sometimes my mother would say in hurt that she shouldn’t have married my father. Each time I felt tears filling my eyes, unable to tell her how she made us feel. I would just walk off, silencing my own pain. For a long time I felt like a sin, an anomaly that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. There was no comfort left for us, no society to cling to or group to associate with except for ourselves. My father always said, we only have ourselves to hold onto.
We were never allowed to have caste issues, for our experiences to be real. We were prevented from articulating our own experiences, to give them a voice and acknowledge them to be part of this culture, which people praise but never critique. The Tamil people’s fate at home hijacked our bodies and made us its pawns, even if we lived 9000 km away. The community’s need to re-establish its war losses abroad made us feel too guilty to problematise what they cherished and yearned for. Their war tears made us feel remorse. As they re-established themselves they, however, also quickly re-established caste. While political agents continued to deny our existence and our grief, we were forced to silence our experiences and limit our imaginations. Our stories were only ours, but never those of a community. The issue was always my family, but never society. Our families were never products or mirrors of larger societal dynamics. Our families were vilified and problematised, but society itself was left unexamined. Our bodies and our grief were isolated. They never reflected the violence embedded in what many uncritically adhere to and practice, Tamil Saiva Hindu culture. We were never reckoned with as a reality. Instead, we were forced to stay united in our grief, forced to show solidarity with our own internal oppressors. There’s a genocide going on after all. Who am I to speak when our people are dying? Who am I to grieve when they have lost all?
We were broken by caste yet we also remained resilient in our own ways. We all have found our own ways to confront or forget our origins. While my parents continue to erase themselves and eradicate all physical and immaterial traces of our past, I today struggle to reclaim what we have been denied: humanity, dignity and self-respect. For a long time, I was too scared to term myself, to define myself. I was scared to find a home and then be violently rejected from it. To be considered not authentic enough and then be told to no more be welcome in that space of comfort. I thought that was part of our refugee experience, to be uprooted from everything, even possibilities of self-identification. I knew I wasn’t Vellalar, but was I Dalit?
I knew I was considered polluted, unacceptable by the upper caste, but was I unaccepted enough by them to be accepted by others? I knew I was casteless, a bastard if you like, but was there a place somewhere for someone like me? 28 years after I was born untouchable I was called a Dalit for the first time in my life by someone else, another Dalit. It strangely felt like a relief. It’s hard to put it into words, maybe even impossible. It felt deeply emotional and therapeutic. It still does in retrospect. I felt I was, for the first time, becoming someone. I was no more alone, but accepted by someone. At least in one single person’s eyes I was human enough to be someone. It mattered. At least to me. For the first time I realized that my story isn’t just mine, that our pain isn’t just ours. That we aren’t alone. It felt profoundly cathartic. I felt embraced and as part of a larger group, as part of a larger struggle. And yet it continues to feel painful to articulate these words and put them into writing. It feels haunting to share them with strangers, especially people of upper caste origin whose eyes and tongues will judge. I’m taught to feel insecure about us, about ourselves, about our truths being heard and seen. About our grief finding a translatable form and shape, about us moving from invisibility to hypervisibility. The stigma of constructed ideas on pollution isn’t something you overcome overnight. It’s a process. I’m going through this process right now. I’ve been going through it for many years now. I’m trying to unlearn and relearn but it’s a long road to go. I’m learning to accept myself.
What does it then mean to utter these words in public? That you are a Dalit or an inter-caste Dalit? How will it affect my parents if we choose to identify with what we were taught to deny? How will it affect the people around us? How will it affect us?
I fear the consequences, but even more so I fear our self-denials. My urge to exhale is larger than my fears. I was scared for much of my life. I’m learning to no more be.
Negotiating multiple identities can be an exhausting experience. As an inter-caste family we were always told to authenticate and essentialise ourselves. To what though? Making decisions for ourselves wasn’t a privilege we were given. Decisions were always made for us by others. We never had the choice to reject our caste or to be caste-blind. We were left to pick up what was left. We were broken enough to be insecure about all, to be uncertain about everything, to question what is taken for granted and to fear what we have come to get used to. I’m still anxious to call myself Dalit, or anything else for that matter, because our lives are messy and under constant negotiation, because we are made to feel uncomfortable wherever we start to feel comfort. Maybe it isn’t for me to wait for others to name me but for me to embrace what I was taught to deny and unlearn? Is there even a clear cut solution to all of this? Amongst black communities the idea of blackness is negotiated according to self-identification and heritage, independent of the degree of blood percentage. Blackness is as much a racial, cultural and political identity. Is the same possible amongst Dalits? Who am I then allowed to be?
Maybe I would have been a different person would I have grown up amongst Dalit families rather than upper caste families. Maybe I wouldn’t have been as broken as I feel today. Maybe I would have felt the acceptance that I yearned for had they been around me, had they come out and shared our mutual pain. Maybe. The word Dalit means oppressed or broken people. It’s a term removed from our own language and geography, but a term I can identify better with as a diasporic person than the term Panchamar. My family was indeed broken by caste. In many ways we remain to be broken. Dalit is a term that other Panchamars may object to, but it is also a term that I have grown to feel accustomed to in diaspora, where our lives are set between translations. Unlike older generations, I’m not a son of Eelam, I’m a son of its diasporas. I’m a product of geographic, but also political and linguistic shifts and displacements.
Writing all of this is difficult and painful. I, however, write in the stern belief that we need to write to express ourselves and make ourselves visible as well as audible. Writing feels deeply therapeutic. Yet I’m scared of hearing my own echo while narrating our experiences, which may not necessarily respond to Indian-centric experiences, but are yet valid and seek their spaces of articulation. With the absence or silence of a community of island Panchamars (Dalits), lower castes and intercastes, the act of writing and speaking in English continues to feel like a lonely exercise. I can hear my own echo, I can hear my own voice break the surface and diminish. I’m well aware that I’m carving out space against the wishes of many. I know I’m upsetting the social status quo, but I need to create this space if only for myself to not suffocate under the overwhelming weight of upper caste narratives dominating our lives. My family may today tell me I act selfishly by writing this, but we were never allowed to be selfish in the first place. We were never allowed to breathe, to feel complete. We were never allowed to feel like full humans. We were never allowed to make decisions for ourselves. To respect and love ourselves.
Writing so openly bears its consequences, of which many are painful. Many of these consequences are outside of my control. We can protect each other only to a certain degree. There are limits to everything, even to how much I can shield my parents from feeling more hurt. The pain of caste lingers on for years, decades and centuries and will continue to find ways to infiltrate our spheres of intimacies and comfort. Maybe I’ll even come to regret writing and publishing this essay. I can’t say for sure now. Maybe it will change me as a person. I don’t know. All I know is that the personal is deeply political and needs to find its form of articulation and dissemination.
Today I know our experiences are worthy to be heard. I know our eyes are valuable to be looked at. We are constantly told to resign to the fear of exposure, humiliation and discrimination. We are made to believe that denying ourselves is the way forward. I’m simply tired. I’m tired of abetting these socially violent dynamics and oppressive systems. I’m tired of upper caste voices muting ours. I’ve been muted by most people in life, including myself. Today, I’m resisting the denial of my own voice, and its validity.
I never felt comfortable sharing our stories because the pain of caste is a pain that lingers on right into the present. I still feel uncomfortable and will probably always feel uncomfortable sharing these experiences. Who are you after all to get to know these deeply personal experiences without sharing your own? Who are you to hear our pain? This is, however, a larger political and social process. This isn’t just about me as a person or my family. Today I’m unable to grasp the magnitude of what I’m part of, but I know my coming out is not just mine, it’s that of a generation. Our story isn’t just ours. It’s everyone’s and no one’s.
It’s a story among many.
My father is today 63 years old and continues to cry for what he thinks he has done to us, while my mother, who is 55 years old, still sings to us C. Rajagopalachari’s ‘Kurai ondrum illai’ (No grievances have I) in tears. Our brokenness isn’t solely located in our pasts, but continues to affect and haunt us in the present. I am broken by caste despite never having lived in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in South Asia. I continue to carry the weight, trauma and legacy of ancient caste cultures cultivated in far off geographies and imported right into our refugeehood abroad. I’m one child of a diaspora amongst many. Today, I continue to be told that our experiences aren’t real, that they aren’t representative and that our pain doesn’t exist. But it is here, it is real, embodied by us as a family and a people. I am here. The privilege of erasing, removing and silencing caste is not ours. Not knowing, and not feeling the pain and weight of caste is almost impossible for us. Caste is a social reality we have to acknowledge while others, those of privileged background, are able to dismiss and rhetorically undermine it. But it’s not just our bodies and lives that marked by caste, it is also those of the upper castes. What remains visible and detrimental for us, however, remains invisible and unproblematic for many of them. Our pain is equally not just embodied by us as people but also by those who have invisibilised their privilege. Those who continue to negate, belittle and displace our existence and grievances alike.
I know there are more of us out there who experience life in similar ways. I know that they have been similarly told to deny and negate themselves, to not exist and stop breathing. I know we aren’t the only ones who learned to make ourselves invisible. In the hope that you will read my work and in the hope that you will come out as I did to resist our negations and marginalisation, I continue to write and speak. I don’t speak for all of us, but I speak as one of us.
We are here to carve out safe spaces for us to exist in dignity and with self-respect.
We are here to unlearn feeling ashamed about who we are.
We are here to exhale.
My name is Sinthujan Varatharajah and I’m a diasporic Eelam Tamil-Dalit.
Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD candidate in Political Geography at the University College London and the Founder of Roots of Diaspora (www.facebook.com/rootsofdiaspora), a narrative project on refugees and migration of Tamils from Sri Lanka. He previously researched questions on caste in migration and diaspora for his master’s thesis at the London School of Economics and Political Science.You can follow him on Twitter @varathas
Pictures courtesy: Sinthujan Varatharajah.