When I wrote my piece for Round Table India, “Politicising the personal: Who am I, Who are ‘we’ as people?”, I wasn’t really sure what the repercussions will be of coming out as an inter-caste/Dalit to the outside. Of course I expected personal attacks and libel, which indeed followed in all predictable ways and manners enunciated by multiple actors from multiple directions. I also feared the exposure towards a society and people, who even in their second or third generation abroad often replicate the same forms of social and discursive violence as at home. In the wake of it, I felt the need to block, restrict and unfriend people from my Facebook, including family members and friends of family. It was an emotive period that left me reluctant to even open my Twitter or Gmail account for days. For the most part I was in damage control and defence mode. But more than any attacks by strangers, I feared for my family’s reaction and the repercussions that may follow for them, and between us.
Although casteism and caste discrimination have followed me for almost all my life, I didn’t have the conceptual tools to understand, talk and write about in public until a few years ago. I was further, and more importantly, also conditioned to believe that we had to erase our footsteps and remain invisible in order to become socially acceptable. My parents after all put tremendous labour into assimilating and integrating us from the social and geographic margins into the centres of this transnational and diasporic community. It took them decades to somewhat successfully erase our past and train us on how to not leave any traces behind ourselves. It, however, didn’t take long to make this creative social project, a pyramid built with lies and deceptions, our lives till then, crumble. No, it sometimes took just a few seconds. It sometimes just needed a complete stranger to remember them, and the so-called ‘sin’ they committed in a far-off geography ruled by a social contract, a diktat, that I thought to have been freed of in exile. Our lives were after all built upon fragile foundations, quick to be destabilized by anyone, even complete strangers.
For years I had the desire to write and talk about caste, to problematise the status quo, but I never felt knowledgeable and resourceful enough to do so. During my Masters at the LSE, I finally felt that I had gained enough conceptual knowledge to tackle the question of caste in a purely academic surrounding after failing to successfully challenge it in private spheres. I initially planned to research and write upon the Dalit Panthers and their relationship to the Black Power movement in the US. It was a topic that was of personal interest, greater relevance, but also personal distance. The topic allowed for my own caste background to remain anonymous, for myself to remain invisible. Months before registering my dissertation topic, I submitted an abstract to the University of Toronto’s annual Tamil Studies Conference entitled “Memories of social belonging: caste in the Tamil diaspora”. The paper was accepted and later to replace my initial dissertation topic on the Dalit Panthers and become my Master’s thesis.
As part of my research methodology, I conducted a public, online-based survey in 2012 that was promoted in various diasporic online outlets, including social media and newspapers. Prior to initiating this survey’s public call for participation, I felt the need to ask my brothers if they are okay with the exposure it may give us as a result. It was after all a collective trial we were about to go onto. I followed through only after both reassured me about their support, after I knew they were aware of the possible ramifications following such an endeavour. Unlike many upper caste or white researchers who study caste, I didn’t hold the privilege of being geographically and socially removed and unaffected by the potential negative consequences of thematising caste in spaces where it’s invisibilized and silenced. I expected a push back to occur as a result, but the wave of resentment and character assassinations that followed surpassed my wildest imaginations. Almost every second comment directed at me started or ended with the phrase, “what caste is he from to write about this?” It was precisely what my parents warned me off, feared and argued with me about.
Researching, talking and writing about caste while brown often preconditions you to justify your interest in this particularly persuasive, and in diaspora invisible, form of descent-based discrimination. It forces you to shed an often guarded identity in the face of a majority upper caste audience that easily reveals a tendency to feel entitled to not just judge your work and you as a person, but also question your very intentions. It’s hardly ever about what you do or say but really about who you are. What you are implicitly being told by these forms of social policing is to beware of working on caste when you are part of the oppressed groups. More so, beware of wanting to challenge the status-quo when you aren’t one of us.
Altogether, it was an emotionally draining period, which often brought me close to the point of wanting to halt my research. Tired by the many attempts to mute critical engagement with the caste status quo and its configurations abroad, I was close to resign from engaging and associating with the predominantly upper-caste diasporic community. But, then there were always the odd words and calls of support, belief, love and encouragement by friends and siblings that helped me believe in the importance of my work. What was, however, harder than public and private slander was the impact my academic work had on my relationship with my parents. In fear of their son ruining their decades old labour of erasing our collective past, my parents and I inevitably drifted apart. There was little that connected us politically, socially, intellectually or emotionally. Unable to communicate for the next two and a half months without arguments, without tears and without hanging up the phone on each other, our relationship soured. There was a pattern to our conversations, to our arguments and to what was being said and left unsaid. Our relationship started to normalise, months later, after they heard me talk about caste in a very depersonalised, distanced, social researcher manner on a Canadian Tamil television program. Although we are all implicated and affected by caste, we remained prohibited from speaking about ourselves and our own status within this oppressive form of social organisation. My parents learned to tolerate my work on caste as long as it was publically divorced from us. But it never was to begin with.
I later continued thinking, speaking and writing about caste in private circles, isolated from the intrusive and judging eyes of the public. Two years later, when I felt ready to write and talk about my personal experiences of caste in the public realm, I felt the need to consult my brothers again. I sent them my essay to hear their thoughts and receive their ‘blessings’ for it. I didn’t even try to ask my parents knowing that there is an ocean between us which neither of us seemed to be able to bridge over, or overcome when it comes to the question of caste. Following years of experience, I, to some extent, had resigned from the idea of attempting to reform, decastefy, decolonise and liberate them together with us. Having been born in diaspora, socialised and educated abroad, I was provided with opportunities they simply didn’t enjoy. It was a reality I increasingly came to accept.
My liberation was simply not theirs.
When they later, by coincidence, discovered the article on social media, both were, as expected, hurt, in anger and tears. The firewalls I built around my parents were somehow outsmarted by the intrusive gaze of Mark Zuckerberg’s machinery. We later fought over Skype before ceasing communications for days to come. I ignored their many calls and messages, removed them off Facebook and pretended to not be hurt by their reaction. Later we pretended, as per usual, that everything was okay again, that neither of us was hurt by each other. We fell back into our routine of speaking past issues, ignoring them and ourselves. When I returned to Germany weeks later, I was hesitant about facing my parents and the conversation, for this topic to flare up at some point again. To my joy it eventually never did. They acted as if everything was okay, and so did I. We somehow, over the years, have become trained to live in pretence: that we were as normative, as problem-free as anyone else; as any other caste endogamous and upper caste diasporic Tamil family. It was a game we played all life-long. Something we were so used to and trained in that it was extremely habitual, normative and almost unquestionable. To deceive yourself was an art we acquired to not just survive but also excel at what we do.
Days after, I sat on the kitchen table reading the news when my father entered the room. He randomly started talking about a popular Eelam Tamil poet who had recently written a defaming post on Facebook about me in relation to my work on caste. When mentioning it to my father he was shocked but I could also, and to my surprise, read anger from his eyes. I expected his anger to be directed at me, for him to reiterate his previous criticism against raising the topic of caste in public all together. He didn’t though. His anger was instead, and for the first time in my presence, directed at someone else. “That’s how they are”, he said. I knew who he meant, who they are.
He then sat down and started to talk about my essay. For the first time we were about to have this conversation in person, face to face without hiding behind phone lines and laptop screens. His eyes were watery as were mine. More than anything, it was painful to look into the eyes of the pain exacerbated by caste. Swallowing became increasingly difficult. My defence mode was still up, awaiting the usual pattern of dialogue, awaiting my anger to find release. He slowly started to fill the gaps, to narrate what happened after we stopped speaking. After they found my essay published in RTI. After I started ignoring their calls, messages and deleted them off Facebook. After I destroyed, at least in their eyes, our facade. Decades-worth of physical, intellectual and emotional labour. Of course he was hurt, he said. But he later sat down to talk about my essay and work with his wife, my mother. He came to understand that there was nothing we need to be ashamed of. That there was nothing that we need to hide from anyone. That they shouldn’t be scared of their son speaking out. That they shouldn’t be scared of speaking truth to power. What’s wrong in speaking the truth?, he asked.
What is wrong in speaking the truth?
I didn’t know how to react. I was profoundly relieved, even proud but I needed to contextualise this emotion. By the time, my essay was already widely shared on social media and, albeit there were plenty of negative responses, it was also appreciated by many; even by some of the Tamil writers’ circles my parents were more familiar with. In face of the positive reactions of some, my parents incrementally came to understand that talking about caste, talking from personal experiences, including encounters of socially stigma, doesn’t necessarily and exclusively provoke negative responses, as well as further discrimination. They came to realise that there was also something positive, something encouraging as well as supportive to gain from it. It gave them comfort for what I was doing. Suddenly they started to realize that I didn’t just destroy something, but also built and created something anew, for them, for us.
My parents needed the outside to recognize and value the act of speaking before they themselves could ever come to terms with the exposure and revelations I created by problematising caste as an oppressive and transnational system via our own bodily experiences. This is how profound the effects of caste are, how deeply destabilising they can be. How much self-doubt and self-hatred they can produce amongst all of us. This is how deeply caste has transformed our bodies, minds, spirits and relationships. This is how complex caste is not just on a collective but also individual level.
I looked at my father. He looked as if he wasn’t sure whether he was doing the right thing by telling me all of this. Seconds later, he overcame his doubts and continued. He revealed that he had sent the essay to his brother as well, my uncle, whom I’ve never met, never allowed to meet. I was touched and clearly unable to hide my smile. Although it wasn’t, it still felt revolutionary – of sorts. Yet he said it with such hesitation that it seemed like he was almost scared to loudly admit his implicit endorsement of what I expressed through writing. I looked at him and asked what my uncle thought of it. He was sad and hurt of course, but he was also happy you wrote it, he said.
He then walked off to do the laundry.
I sat there, almost paralysed with a smile, trying to grasp what just happened.
Do parents change?
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.