He sat down in the crammed living room of a flat in a low-income suburb in Toronto, Canada. Every weekend he would travel to the other end of the city to enter the 12th floor of a high rise complex in the immigrant area. He would arrive at 11 AM and sit down at the corner of the worn out table to tutor a mid-aged Tamil mother’s two children in Maths and English. Every now and then when she opened the kitchen door to see if her sons were paying attention to their tutor, the scent of curries and brown rice would waft into the small room and remind him of his own mother’s cooking. He would call her ‘aunty’ even if they weren’t related nor were they family friends. In fact, their entire relationship was a coincidence.
A common friend, who studied with him at university, told him about a Tamil mother looking for a tutor. The few weeks he has known her, he never learnt anything about her family or their story. Usually he would leave a little later than 1 pm, having taught the children for longer than he charged for. That Saturday, he had been sitting on the wooden chair for more than two hours and started to pack his books to leave when ‘aunty’ entered the room with plates and dishes. With a soft smile on her lips, she tenderly asked him to stay and join them for lunch. He looked up to her in remorse and affection to apologize and tell her he just couldn’t, unfortunately. Her facial expression changed from one moment to another as she froze. Irritated with his response, she looked at him with guilt, replying ‘Oh…it’s because of that…’. He was puzzled and felt forced to ask ‘What do you mean, aunty?’ ‘It’s because of our jāti, I know’, she replied.
As she uttered these words, her eyes filled with sadness. She didn’t bear to look at her children who were born in Canada, not Sri Lanka. It took him a few seconds to understand the term jāti’. Having grown up in the diaspora, his Tamil was neither perfectly fluent nor was he as culturally astute as others. He insisted ‘No, aunty, of course that’s not it, that’s silly…!’ But the guilt had already settled in and the emotional harm he had caused and could read from ‘aunty’s’ face and sense by the atmosphere made him put down his bag to show her that he wasn’t like ‘that’. That he wasn’t like ‘them’. He let her serve the curries and rice on a plate before he ate her carefully cooked food with tremendous joy. The unsettled feeling that has caught the room ever since was, however, never to be erased, nor was he ever to forget his first conscious encounter with ‘jāti’ culture.
He looked up to her in remorse and affection
The mid-aged Tamil woman articulated the word ‘jāti’ with hesitation. She articulated it against her own fears. She brought it back from its constructed invisibility by unspeaking it 8500 miles away from her place of origin, a place supposedly free from caste behaviours, away from caste geographies. A place where racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of oppression are fought against by anti-oppressive groups, including South Asian ones, but where caste has no place in their analysis. Was she ‘hypersensitive’?, some will ask with curiosity and an equally accusatory tone. Did she see caste where it was not? No, she didn’t.
‘Jāthi’ culture, or caste culture, is rarely ever pronounced in diasporas. It is reluctantly spoken about and almost never uttered by its name. In diaspora we have learnt to carefully dance around the words caste and untouchability. We waltz around them, step around them and beat around them. We live in the delusion that not articulating these words erases the issues – as if silencing them helps us to unsee them. Articulating them, on the other hand, will somehow magically return us to some imagined past we have abandoned when we left the subcontinent and its adjunct islands behind. Removed from our homelands, we have found basements to store them, archives to hide them, maps to distance them and words to replace them. We have cleansed our eyes and tongues from the barbarism that is caste inequalities and violence while denying that our travel bags were filled with clothes, food, passports and the social capital of caste.
The illusion of post-casteism
If you listen to the majority of South Asian diasporans speak, you’d be quick to believe that we have reached the age of post-casteism and post-untouchability abroad. An age where talking about caste abroad is regressive, archaic, even counterproductive to the progress of society. An age in which we stand accused of enabling and implicating us in the racist colonial gaze of white people by talking about caste and untouchability in public. An age in which we have artfully removed ourselves from the responsibility to introspect, reflect and begin sincere and meaningful conversations about caste. We, however, didn’t even need to remove ourselves for this as we never had any conversations to begin with – whether in our homelands or abroad. Whether in the planes, boats and vehicles that took us into distant lands or the schools that we were later enrolled in abroad.
We feel entitled to believe that the mere physical removal from caste stratified spaces somehow, without any kind of collective or individual labour involved, removed the ideology behind the oppressive system from our bodies and cultures. As if our customs and traditions are cleansed from caste and untouchability the moment we crossed the great ‘kala paani’, the moment we dived into possibilities and opportunities often denied at home. But they don’t.
‘(…) where a Hindu goes, he will take his caste system with him.’ – Ambedkar
With the migration of predominantly caste Hindus, but also caste Sikhs, Christians and Muslims, caste and untouchability have indeed successfully crossed over time over natural and human boundaries. They remain a mobile modus operandi, able to migrate as long as humans are mobile – as long as caste practicers, casteists, are mobile. Caste, however, is no passive apparatus nor are Dalits and lower castes absent from the pool of diaspora demographies. Caste privilege informed and enabled the migration of millions of people, while the lack of caste privilege often enforced the outward migration of many Dalits and other lower castes through, for instance, bonded labour systems.
When millions of South Asians forcibly or voluntarily migrated to new geographies over the centuries, caste culture began to invade formerly untouched shores and territories. With the crossing of religiously sanctioned boundaries, caste and untouchability transformed and settled together with South Asian immigrant and refugee communities in places like Berlin, Maryland, Durban or Kuala Lumpur. While caste practices transformed in diaspora over time and while caste geographies were renegotiated, caste and untouchability, however, never disappeared from the social landscape. Instead, they were invisibilized, rendered unspoken and unseen whilst still operative. They were denied while still existent. Caste was an issue ‘back home’ but never ‘back here’.
Whether in academia, in activist groups or other political or social surroundings, caste largely remains a non-topic amongst diasporans. A topic to not address, a topic to never mention: neither in our analysis of our own status quo nor those of our homelands. While caste often remains completely absent or misrepresented in our ethnic community school curriculums abroad, we cringe when white majorities are familiarised with the same topic in social sciences, geography and religious classes about Hinduism and India. The colonial gaze embedded in the spectacle of learning about other peoples and cultures doesn’t go unmissed, of course. As a result, we quickly come to defend the system, to justify it, to whitewash and embellish it. We come to absolve it from its inhumanity and by doing so come to free ourselves from personal implications and complicities with it. We defend ourselves, our cultures, our histories, our worldviews and our inhumanities. Yet we remain vocal that caste is not ours, it has never been, it is theirs. It is there but never here.
I’ve been complicit myself.
The limits of imagination
Growing up as the son of Tamil refugees, the son of a shunned inter-caste marriage between a caste Hindu woman and Dalit man, I learnt about caste through the absence of relatives, the fights between my parents, the accusations, rejections, lies and hurt we carried along our paths, along our lives. When I was six I started to imagine how life could be free of caste issues, free of caste discrimination. All along, my mother would tell me I was a ‘Vellalar’: I belonged to her family not my father’s. I told myself the same although I knew I wasn’t like my ‘Vellalar’ cousins or acquaintances. I knew I had a secret to guide. A secret we guided with our lives, at all costs, at all times. I tried to convince myself day in and day out, sometimes more successfully than others. It wasn’t as hard as I never knew my father’s family to begin with. I was never meant to get to know them. I still don’t. I thought I could reimagine myself in these new geographies. I thought I could rewrite our history, rewrite our present and presence. I thought we could be creative, exploring and inventing ourselves while erasing ourselves: our history and legacy, like hundreds of Dalits and lower castes did when they were taken as indentured labourers, de-facto slaves, to the Caribbean’s and elsewhere.
We grew up apart from a large Tamil community in a white German area where no one knew us – no one could have known us. Our past couldn’t have haunted us the way it would have in Eelam. The few friends I had were all white who often projected their parents’ racist views on us. We grew up isolated, in self isolation from the rest of the small Tamil community. For many white people we were impoverished, uneducated, black or brown Third World refugees, eligible to state aid, benevolence, charity and pity. In diaspora, my father became a factory worker and my mother a cleaner. We tried hard to uplift ourselves, to remember ourselves before our flight from Sri Lanka. To remind others that we aren’t just ‘this’, to remember we were more than just ‘this’. We tried hard to resist their racist gaze that essentialized us and rendered us vulnerable to racist abuse, subjugation and control. Every single day, I invented myself in front of my friends, in front of my classmates, in front of my teachers and society. I was creative and artistic like many of us immigrant and refugee children had to be. We fought our struggles on the streets, at home and with ourselves.
In 6th grade India appeared on our German grammar school curriculum. I dreaded the class and read the textbook’s content beforehand in fear of what was ahead – to be prepared for all occasions. We talked about the green revolution and India’s poverty issues. The male white teacher then started to draw the caste pyramid and name it according to its Sanskrit names, which appeared strange to me as a Tamil. I saw the Brahmins, I saw the Kshatriya and I saw untouchables. In my head I had to translate these terms into Tamil to render them understandable for myself. Although I wasn’t Indian, although I never saw myself as Indian, we became in an Indian-centric discourse Indians by default. Whenever it suited them, we sometimes also became Africans. We were never understood or seen as ourselves. What was Sri Lanka after all? Who were Tamils? Was that a type of biscuit, were you a kind of tribe?
I watched the disbelief of my white peers when they slowly understood the violence and weight of the caste system. I was scared of them, their realizations. I was scared of their shock, their gaze. Their heads then turned around to ask me: so what caste are you? I stumbled. Although I thought I was prepared for this, although I already imagined for this moment to occur, I frankly wasn’t and couldn’t have ever been. I told myself to lie. This was the moment of declaration for me, the first time I took a public position in relation to caste. The moment of truth, my coming out. I told myself to not expose myself, to not expose my parents to more hurt. I told myself society had already hurt us enough, to not amplify their pain and ours. I told myself to believe in what my mother tried to convince me of.
I said I’m a Kshatriya of sorts.
What difference did it make for my white peers that Vellalars aren’t Kshatriyas after all? That it wasn’t the Brahmins but the Vellalars who hold sway over resources and powers in Jaffna, where my family hails from? That we have different terms and languages to describe caste ideology? That the caste pyramid stands upside down where we are from? That the war in Sri Lanka had sometimes renegotiated caste lines of separation?
What difference did it make that I wasn’t Vellalar?
The moment the word Kshatriya left my lips, I felt profoundly relieved – at first. I saw my white peers’ astonishment realizing the weight of what I just told them. The lie that I came from a warrior caste, from a touchable caste. In their faces I could read the amazement that this chubby brown boy isn’t just the child of poor, uneducated Third World refugees. He has a reputable history, a story to be told, to be heard. He has a loss to bear by now living here, in exile, where they have become ‘niemand’ (no one). Inside I felt eaten up. Within a few seconds I understood the weight of what I just did. How I made myself complicit.
How I denied my father and myself. I still feel guilty to this date.
Centres of power, centres of marginality
Living abroad often further complicates our lives and renders us complicit and vulnerable to additional forms and dynamics of oppression. No matter where we live however, our partaking and complicity in oppressions, whether conscious or not, exists. Caste is one parameter of oppression some of us face while others don’t. Caste intersects in diaspora in amplified ways with race, gender, sexuality, class and able-bodiedness. It operates on similar yet different levels than at home. Some of us thereby feel the need to hierarchise these forms of oppression according to visibility to the detriment of other forms of oppression. Some of us believe that responding to one or few of these is sufficient to cleanse ourselves of our own guilt, complicity and personal gains. Some of us believe that what doesn’t personally concern us isn’t our struggle to fight. But we are all complicit in one way or another with most forms of oppression, including caste and untouchability. I was complicit in 6th grade by silencing my father’s background. South Asian academics are complicit by, for instance, silencing the question of caste in sociological, ethnographic, anthropological, political and economic analysis of South Asian diasporic communities.
Each of us has a caste profile, whether it’s privileged or non-privileged, whether it’s the mid-aged Tamil refugee mother from above or the young Tamil student born abroad, whether it’s my father or yours. The degree of visibility and stake in them differs, but the hypervisibility of some doesn’t lead to the invisibility or complete removal of other caste identities. The extent to how much questions of caste and untouchability concern us in our day to day interactions and the degree to how often caste emerges in our social navigations is intrinsically linked to how much privilege we hold. To be ‘caste-blind’ is more often than not the prerogative of the high castes, those who benefit the most from the process of rhetorically invisibilising and trivialising existing inequalities.
Our positions here, our lives here are informed and often built around caste while we slyly never pronounce the term itself. South Asian societies, including the Eelam Tamil one, continue to dance in different speeds around the words caste and untouchability for different reasons. Sometimes more crudely, sometimes in rhythm and sometimes out of it. I’m told to dance along, I’m told to beat around, to never mention, to never talk about it by either strangers, friends, family or even my own parents. Sometimes by all at the same time. When I do, I’m demagogically told of the obscurity of caste in diaspora and accused of my personal desire to revoke what has been removed from these landscapes. Simultaneously, I’m always told of my complicity in making us vulnerable to racist gazes and political calculations by outsiders, such as in the Eelam Tamil case, the Sri Lankan/Sinhalese state apparatus. But caste and untouchability have never disappeared as seen in the example of the mid-aged Tamil woman at the beginning. They have never become oblivious. We have never disremembered caste. Maybe misconstrued, but never disremembered or forgotten all together.
Our memories of a place we left under force, a social order that has protected some and hurt others continue to haunt us, continue to inform us and continue to design and reproduce similar structures, mentalities and geographies. In diaspora we have removed caste from the public into the private while the public is invisibly still constructed around caste allegiances, differences and prejudices. Today, the majority of marriages in diaspora are still negotiated along caste lines, the majority of friends circles are situated along caste sameness and the majority of South Asian political, social, cultural and economic spaces and centres of power are in the hands of those who have traditionally spoken, explained, observed, analysed and written caste away. Those, who essentially connect us in our physical remoteness from South Asia via the violent act of social silencing inequalities and discrimination to our distant, sometimes forgotten homelands. As long as these ‘purity lines’ are still maintained, as long as social exclusion is practiced in diaspora, caste discrimination will continue to exist abroad and affect the lives of Dalits, lower castes but also the upper castes.
We, too, exist
Similar to my father, the Tamil refugee mother mentioned above is a member of a so-called Panchamar caste from Eelam, which in the Indian-centric discourse would be translated as Dalit. The emancipator and revolutionary term Dalit, however, remains widely untranslated in the island Tamil context. Discussions on practices of caste and untouchability outside of India often remain untranslated, silenced and marginalized. Both, the Tamil refugee mother and my father remain forgotten in mainstream analysis of caste and untouchability which privileges Indian discussions while sidelining non-Indian ones.
My first public proclamation of caste in 6th grade was on the basis of studying India in terms and languages that aren’t mine. I had to translate them to make sense of it and ourselves. I still have to translate to explain us and our experiences – not just to non-South Asians but also South Asians, particularly North Indians. There is little space for narrations and experiences of caste practices and prejudice in non-Indian contexts, for narrations of difference (yet similarity) to emerge. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have therefore gained little attention for their casteist cultures. They escaped the scrutiny they should have been put under. This has always been convenient for those who prefer to silence and deny the existence and proliferation of caste practices and discrimination in different contexts. It is however not just the lack of outsider focus that has derailed any possible discussion on caste elsewhere. It is also, and most importantly so, our own.
Discussions about caste conveniently forget us non-subcontinental people. This is further amplified when we find ourselves displaced outside of South Asia, displaced out of languages and geographies that connect, remember and value us. Today I’m writing this piece for #dalithistorymonth, thousands of miles away from the homeland we have left. I write this while I still find myself under negotiation and construction. I write this piece while I am still conditioned to fear the reactions of others and the pain of my parents. I write this piece against the wishes of many, including my own family. But I write this in memory of the struggles we fight, the burdens we overcame and the setbacks we face every single day. I write this to remove myself from the shadows of oppression that have defined our lives and I write this to retract the position I took in 6th grade, to reclaim what I have been taught to deny, meant to forget and promised to never say.
We, too, exist.
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.