Notes on my Brahmin Self
I was born a Tamil-brahmin (of the iyengar caste) and had my upbringing mostly in Hyderabad and other parts of Andhra Pradesh. My early upbringing was under the totalizing spell of the Tamil-brahmin sub-culture—in terms of language, food, circle of friends, aesthetics—so much that my access to other social worlds was cut off by sheer prejudice nurtured by the family. An extended spell of hostel life since graduation helped me escape familial colonialism, but I carried with me all the unearned privileges and the earned prejudices of a brahmin birth. College and university life (1990-1997) exposed me to a burgeoning student dalit movement in the post-Ambedkar centenary phase, though I did not make immediate sense of Mandal or the Ambedkarite movement. While working on my M.Phil. With the English Department of University of Hyderabad, I took up my first journalistic job—as a subeditor—with Deccan Chronicle, Hyderabad, in 1996. I literally walked into the job, unalive to the fact of how brahmin privilege works in unstated ways. While on my first job, I acquired some political and cultural perspective on the several ‘caste issues’ I faced in university life, and in my own life, on reading Kancha Ilaiah’s Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva, Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (Samya, 1996). I wrote a full-page review of the work in Deccan Chronicle, which I began by introducing myself as a brahmin, quite like Ilaiah foregrounds his shudra-OBC identity. I then discovered the writings of Ambedkar. Around the time, my marriage to my non-brahmin partner also caused a rupture in my caste self, and forced a rethink on my own undying brahminism. I began writing occasionally on caste in Deccan Chronicle, and also commissioned others to write, and this did not necessarily mean writing about dalits. The fact that I was a born-brahmin enabled me to express a few anti-brahmin ideas with ease.
Starting 1998, I was with the copydesk of The Indian Express, Chennai, for a year where I did manage a few analytical pieces on caste against several odds. I was still not a reporter. In 1999, I joined the brahmin-dominated desk of The Hindu. I had always considered The Hindu as my last option since my grandmother used to say after I completed my M.A., “Wear a namam [a caste mark worn on the forehead], and tell them you belong to such and such iyengar subcaste; who knows we may be related to The Hindu editors! They will certainly give you a job.” I was utterly embarrassed by this frank advice, but also knew that there was truth in this claim since The Hindu had a fair share of namam journalists. After circumstances forced me to quit The (New) Indian Express, when I did seek employment with The Hindu, I did not use the caste card like my grandmother would have wanted me to, but I do realize one’s brahmin-ness is not necessarily or always inscribed on one’s forehead or caste tag (which I did not bear). The advantages of being born in the ‘right caste’, I think, equally helped me with my other jobs, as also in other spheres in my life, sometimes without my even being aware of these advantages.
Since mid-2001 I have been working as the Chennai correspondent of the weekly Outlook—my first reporting job. Here, to my own surprise, I have had greater success in writing occasional analytical articles and news-reports on brahmin hegemony than in writing about oppression of dalits. Again, my being a non-dalit, a born-brahmin, has, I think, enabled me in several invisible ways. Perhaps this has partly enabled a tolerant reception to some views extremely critical of brahmins in a mainstream media forum.
After marriage, I moved away from my parents in Hyderabad, to Chennai in 1998 and exposure to the mostly debrahminised (yet strangely anti-dalit) Tamil political and intellectual cultures heightened my brahminical guilt and pressured me to seriously rescript my sense of the ‘personal’—this was almost a conversion sans a formal change of religion. This primarily involved two issues.
i) Unlearning the brahminised variation of Tamil that I spoke: Tamil-brahmins speak a Tamil that is markedly different from that of nonbrahmins; it carries a heavy dose of sanskritic influence. I speak, read and write Telugu as well; and though Telugu brahmins sometimes have a stylistic inflection distinct from nonbrahmin Telugus, they do not attempt to fundamentally change the language like Tamil brahmins tend to do. Within Tamil Nadu, given the penetrative thrust of the periyarite nonbrahmin movement, some brahmins self-consciously use a slightly debrahminised variation in their public sphere–usage while relapsing into the unselfconscious comfort of a brahminical register in the domestic sphere. Several brahmins do not even bother to effect such a switchover and unabashedly speak a brahminised Tamil all the time. However, increasingly in Tamil Nadu today, with the nonbrahmins seeking to imitate the brahminical register, certain brahminical modes of expression have crept into the nonbrahminised mode of speaking.
Being born and bred outside Tamil Nadu, I had never really been exposed to the nonbrahmin way(s) of speaking Tamil. The only Tamil I knew was what my parents and circle of relatives made available to me. In Chennai, with active support from my wife, who belongs to the land-owing Tamil shudra community of gounders (classified as OBC), and a few other friends, I gradually weeded out the brahminical expressions I was prone to. After six months of conscious efforts, I could speak a decent, nonbrahminised Tamil. Even then, the brahminical Tamil embedded in my subconscious would occasionally slip out and cause me embarrassment. This continues to happen, but rather infrequently these days since my interaction with the brahmin community now is almost negligible, given that I am estranged from my family and relations.
ii) The second crucial change effected in my personal self was with respect to food habits. The family I was born into ate only vegetarian food. Egg, boiled, was a rare indulgence, that too as a dietary supplement since I played tennis during my childhood. This too had to be done secretively by my mother without my grandparents coming to know of it. I knew how to cook, partly because I helped my mother, and handled kitchen duties whenever she menstruated. After marriage, it was I who cooked and was in charge of the kitchen. In our early days in Chennai, when my partner sought to eat meat, mostly chicken, she would buy it from hotels. At her behest, I used to try it occasionally, but did not enjoy the taste. Since I approached the issue politically, I understood that my inability to appreciate the taste of meat owed not to an inherent, ‘natural’ repugnance to it, but rather to the fact of my lack of exposure to its taste. For the first eighteen years of my life, my tongue had been colonised by vegetarian home food. In my six years of hostel life, I was too conservative and brahminical to have tried meat. Most crucially, I was not politically conscious those days. Not liking the idea of my partner having to buy oily meat from hotels, I decided that I would at least cook it at home. Soon, I began tasting it. Over the years, I have come to really enjoy it and realise what I had been missing all these years. What really got me hooked to the taste of meat was my liking for kebabs—burnt mutton. (In 2003, I also savoured succulent beef kebabs at Bade Miyan in Mumbai thanks to my friend Sharmila.) Since 2001, I have turned quite a decent meat-eater. Yet, nonbrahmin friends would point to how I am a bit clumsy in my inability to clean up the bones dry. Today, we cook mutton, beef, all kinds of seafood and chicken at home. I have not yet conquered pork, though I love bacon the way it is served continental style.
Eating meat should hardly be considered a means of running away from one’s brahminic identity. Historically, the brahmins consumed all kinds of meat—including beef. Pulao made of veal (tender calf) was a delicacy served to the guests during the vedic period. It was only Buddhism that forced the brahmins to swing to the other extreme and give up on meat altogether. Just as my dalit friends who rediscover and revert to Buddhism, and hence turn vegetarian, are not ceasing to be dalits by refusing to eat meat, I would not cease to be a brahmin my merely eating meat. It is not a certificate of progressiveness or regressiveness. But when the choice of not eating or not eating certain foods is not based on self-made decisions but based on irrationally inherited caste culture, then as rational human beings we need to rethink and question the same.
Why this conscious effort at making, and now marking, these changes in my personal self? Do I want to pass for a nonbrahmin? Does one cease to be a brahmin just by speaking a different register and by eating different kinds of food? I have seen several brahmins in the modern, urban context assuming progressive postures—as liberals, marxists, feminists, poststructuralists, radicals of various hues. These are largely public postures. In the private sphere, they tend to remain true to their castes. They tend to marry within caste (even accidentally falling in love with a person of the same caste), sometimes even go through traditional marriage rituals and justify it as meant to satisfy parents/ relations, they even indulge in some rituals for the dead, they continue to eat what they have been used to eating. In the personal sphere, the language of modernity takes a backseat and the premodern caste self is allowed a free reign. In other words, not much changes in their personal lives. My fundamental problem was: how can one don a progressive hat in public and continue to indulge in practices inflected by one’s caste in the personal realm? How can one be modern and feudal at the same time? I was convinced that the personal and political had to be made compatible and complementary. I could not be someone who keenly engaged with Ambedkar’s ideas, interacted with the dalit movement, benefited a lot intellectually from my interactions with dalit and nonbrahmin friends, and yet keep intact a brahminical core.
Not that a conscious rescripting of the ‘personal’ makes me cease to be a brahmin. For all effective purposes, I shall remain one. I cannot erase the unearned privileges being born in this caste have given me. I believe caste will continue to function for me not as an originary identity but as a social location that I cannot often exit. Since both the identitarian and hierarchical aspects of caste function in a relational, relative sense, I cannot individually cease to be a brahmin. I cannot annihilate my identity as a brahmin unless all individuals belonging to all castes begin to do so. Who I am will continue to be defined in relation to what others are.
Of late, I have come to be deeply skeptical about my brahminhood as an originary identity. Castes are essentially maintained by patriarchy. My father and grandfather (father’s father) claimed that we belong(ed) to the ‘Kousika gotra’. Kousika is another name for Vishwamitra, the mythical sage who figures in the Hindu myth Ramayana. Vishwamitra, a kshatriya by birth, aspires to be a brahmin, a brahma-rishi (super-brahmin) in fact. The brahmins, led by brahma-rishi Vashishta, resent Vishwamitra’s aspirations. Today, I see the entire Vishwamitra story in the light of my reading of Ambedkar, especially his ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India’ (see Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writing and Speeches, Vol. 3, pp 151–440, especially Chapter 15 titles ‘Brahmins Versus Kshatriyas’ pp. 392–415). Ambedkar describes Vishwamitra as someone who was ‘anxious to become a brahmin’. Vishwamitra was probably someone who was the first to question the birthright of the brahmins to be the interpreters of the vedas and sanskritic knowledge that the brahmins monopolised. He goes on to overcome the various obstacles that Vashishta and other brahmins throw in his path and finally becomes brahma-rishi. If my father, grandfather, great grandfather and so on trace their lineage—their gotra—from this mythical Vishwamitra, then by default they are admitting to having had nonbrahmin origins. The Vishwamitra story is of course myth, not history, but since most Indian history is spiked with a heavy dose of myths, we have to give such myths some credence, especially since identities claimed today are based on sustaining and believing in such myths.
What I am saying here could of course be interpreted a clever, brahminical way of trying to claim a ‘nonbrahmin’ origin for myself! Far from it. The myth/story has not been completely told. If Vishwamitra is being discussed, how can Menaka be forgotten? This dancer from heaven should have been the devadasi equivalent of those mythical days. Vashishta and his cohorts are supposed to have sent Menaka to distract Vishwamitra from the meditation/ penance he had undertaken to become brahma-rishi. In what comes in storybooks, and even TV serial interpretations, Menaka dances an ‘item number’ and seduces Vishwamitra (on TV Meenakshi Seshadri as Menaka seduced N.T. Rama Rao who played Vishwamitra’s character). Menaka bears Vishwamitra’s child as well. What is the guarantee that the patriarchal lineage that my father traces does not lead to Menaka? I could well claim to be a Menaka-putra! If Vishwamitra could be ‘tempted’ by Menaka, how many men, over several generations, in such a patriarchal clan, might not have been tempted by various women? Similarly, brahmin women could have had affairs with nonbrahmins. What about my mother’s gotra? Before she married my father she claimed to belong to ‘Koundinya gotra’ of her father. But the patriarchal marriage system changed her gotra to my father’s. What about my father’s mother’s originary gotra? If women have to always lose their father’s gotra with marriage, how reliable can these gotra lineages be? Besides, when we can be definitive only about motherhood and since patriarchy is largely inferential, why should we believe patriarchal lineages? Where would all this lead brahmins? How far should we dig?
My contention is that all stories/ myths/ beliefs about caste identities can similarly be interrogated and demolished. Caste—and the caste system—sustains itself not because there has not been enough miscegenation. There should have been several intercaste affairs and marriages in history; yet the newly emergent miscegenated groups are fitted into some caste or the other. Sometimes, new castes were created, new myths/stories woven. While Vishwamitra, a nonbrahmin, upgraded himself, some castes would have been degraded. After all, Ambedkar, and before him Iyothee Thass in Tamil Nadu, had argued that today’s untouchables were former Buddhists. From brahmin to dalit, there cannot be any ‘pure’ castes. Yet, in the given moment, caste identity operates strongly and effectively as a social category. Therefore, I could theoretically have had nonbrahmin origins, but what matters today is my brahmin identity and the benefits and privileges that have accrued to me from it. My brahmin identity today is as real as a dalit’s identity is.
In November 2003, my friend Ravikumar, a leading dalit intellectual based in Pondicherry, and I started a publishing house called Navayana. We focus on caste as an issue, not just on dalits. One of the forthcoming titles from Navayana is called ‘Narrating the Brahmin Self’ where I have invited several brahmins from across the world to talk about their brahmin selves. Several brahmins are uneasy indulging in such a reflective exercise. Many pretend that caste does not matter for them. Some see no point in such an exercise. Some think they have risen beyond caste. In the contemporary context, dalits and other ‘lower’ castes are being made to bear the burden of caste; as if caste exists only in them. It is time brahmins and other privileged castes started reflecting upon their own caste selves.
[S. Anand is the Chennai-based Special Correspondent of Outlook newsmagazine. He is also the cofounder of Navayana Publishing.]