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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

A Brahmin Misfit

Sunday 12 April 2015

by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

India is a huge country, and represents many ethnic groups. In spite of it, for the most part, someone like me is nearly always recognised as a Tamil Brahmin pretty quickly and pretty accurately.

So what?

The idea of a Tamil and Brahmin is an oxymoron according to a friend of mine, a rationalist and a Leftist historian, for whom the Tamils in the pure form are anything but Brahmin. Tamils are Dravidians, a people indigenous to the ancient land that is now called India. If I am a Tamil Brahmin, it is either because I am a product of the intermingling of races, or, for all I know, I might never have been a Tamil in the first place, and my ancestors just swooped down from the west and north of India, and settled down in the beautiful, green, rice-growing community near Tanjavur, where the river Kaveri makes the land fertile.

Interloper, mixed mongrel, whatever, I am a descendent of a line of Tamil-speaking Brahmins, and my name is pretty much a dead giveaway to other Tamil-speakers, not necessarily only to fellow-Brahmins.

When friends from abroad used to ask me how I could tell that someone is a Tamil Brahmin, I would slip into my parlour-game element and get all witty about our quirks, our ways, and our style. When I travel by train, for example, I pick out the external features of my fellow passengers—bronzed skin: Brahmin; dark skin: not a Brahmin. But that’s not always a reliable indicator. There are many Tamil Brahmins with deep dark skin. Next indicator, then. Everyone eats on Indian trains. How you eat your food, and even what you eat, is a sure fire way of telling if you are a Brahmin. Adult Brahmins never eat from the same plate. By and large they eat only vegetarian food. From the smells of the condiments, I can usually tell that someone is not a Brahmin—not for us the fragrant cinnamon barks and pods of garlic, certainly not for a train journey for which the set menu is idli, the steamed rice and dal dumplings, or rice with curds, even if we sometimes get adventurous in the privacy of our homes and cook a pulao with the flavours strictly forbidden in foods meant for religious offerings.

More than anything else, when the Tamil Brahmin begins to speak, everyone knows that the phonetic retroflex nasals and dentals (both sounds amply revealed when we say the English word “sounds”) can come only out of mouths south of the Vindhyas, the mountain range that lies sort of flat, because myth has it that it prostrated at the feet of the dwarf saint, Agastya, who, by the way, is said to have given the Tamils their grammar.

Appearance, cuisine, and speech. Telling markers.

All this used to be amusing talking points for me until recently. I used to cheerfully present myself as the best possible average Tamil Brahmin type, never mind that in my private life I eat non-veg (as we call it), consciously conceal retroflex consonants when I speak English, but then my skin tone and my name, as I said earlier, are pretty much enough to brand me.

Now I wish I didn’t look so Brahmin. I’d rather not come across as the most privileged of the majority community that seems to want to dominate society. I don’t want to be shunned by a person wearing a cross, a white crocheted skull cap, or a burkha, because a lot of people who look like me think it is okay to intimidate worshippers in churches and mosques, going to the extent of saying that mosques aren’t places of worship.

Disturbing as it is to be seen by India’s religious minorities as the dominating majority, it is even more unsettling to be aggressively and vigorously engaged in conversations by people of my ilk, who embrace me with fervour. Such conversations these days are boastful, claiming unquestioned superiority of the Hindu culture and traditions, rationalising everything from the move to ban the eating of beef in India to reviving the deification of widows who used to throw themselves into the funeral pyre with their deceased husbands. The mood and temper among the Hindus is one of unabashed supremacy, amplified by the free bandying about of random references to the Vedas, the ancient texts on which many current Hindu religious and social practices are based, never mind that very few of us know the first thing about the texts themselves.

All this excitement has taken over television time, newsprint, and social media to such an extent that a wild, fervent, and rambunctious mass of Hindus is out to ban books, movies, and paintings, often succeeding. I hear of apartment complexes in large cities that are so predominantly Hindu that Muslims and Christians are gradually converging into separate ghettos. With the attacks on churches growing daily, Christians are asking what the role of the Hindu majority is in this hate campaign. Muslims have long known Hindus, and upper-caste Hindus, to be the one threat to their security in India.

As a result, I don’t find my quirkiness and oddities funny anymore. I don’t want to be so very identifiable when I am in a bus or at a restaurant. I don’t want to be the symbol of the increasingly aggressive majority in India. I wish I didn’t feel as if my skin is a walking ad for the Unfair and Ugly Face Cream.