The Venus Flytrap: The Casual Casteism Of The Term ‘TamBrahm’

It was a night like so many others in my mid-twenties. My friends were already at the dimly-lit club, along with a very young couple, new to the clique. I was the last to arrive, and much inebriation had already taken place. “You must be a Tam-Brahm too, right?” asked the cheerful girl, shortly after we’d been introduced. Before I could launch into the response that my friends could expect of me, her boyfriend piped up: “No, she’s not. Brahmins don’t keep names like Manivannan.”

This is true – my surname comes from the Tamil bhakti movement; it’s in the verses of the Azhwars, including the foxy and mysterious Andal’s. Do I like my father’s name? Sure, I do. Am I proud of it? No, because pride is about achievement. I did nothing to achieve a poetic surname, just as my companions that evening had done nothing (not even karmically!) to be ranked upper caste. I was struck that a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly. And the infuriating, ugly question thus raised: what could my caste background possibly mean to that setting?

Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice evening. But it was also an encounter that in many ways exemplified how caste still holds its gridlock in the minds of otherwise cosmopolitan – and even very lovely – people. I was raised abroad, of mixed heritage and caste-oblivious; I never encountered it as a personal marker until I tried to apply to college in India, at almost 20. This too was a privilege. Once I moved to Chennai, I found that almost all my friends came from atop the caste pyramid. This was not incidental: it spoke to the fact that the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles (what a Venn diagram; why aren’t our associations more diverse?) that I moved in were thus dominated. I was among the very few odd ones out, and was made, suddenly, very aware. Even if I hadn’t chosen to educate myself, there were countless slips, suggestions and jabs that reinforced the need.

I can relate several more of them to prove my point, but instead I’ll make a request: it’s time to retire the term “Tam-Brahm”. Don’t try to make a horrible thing sound hip. That it rhymes doesn’t make the history – or the present – it references any cooler, or more palatable.

When you sit with me – or to put a fine point on it, anyone who is not like you – in a conversation and cavalierly place the words “Tam-Brahm” on the table, it is more than just an uncomfortable allusion. It is a subtle act of aggression. Through this ID, what you make clear to me (perhaps unconsciously) are your rank in a hierarchy versus mine, your defensiveness about the caste system, your negating of centuries of violence, oppression and inhumanity, and most of all, your unapologetic embrace of all the same.

Casteism will not die until caste does. And you are so much more than what your ancestors did to other people – including, perhaps, to mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 17th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Nothing To Laugh About

It was the middle-aged waiter’s sweetly apologetic tone and awkward phrasing that gave him away. Clearly, he was not the one with the objection. He was only the messenger.

This is what he said: “You have independence. But please, laugh a little quietly?” Sudhandhiram – the Tamil word for independence; he knew he was infringing on our rights, and he wanted us to know that he was sorry. We were two women who had finished a long lunch, eaten three types of dessert, and paid the bill. We were loitering, already considered a suspect activity for women. Ladies loitering while laughing loudly. Someone – patron or staff or management – had found this worthy of reprimand.

I have a big laugh. People recognise me by it in crowded auditoriums. Strangers turn to look upon hearing it (possibly to check they haven’t wandered into the set of a horror movie). I do not cover my mouth with a dupatta when I laugh. I do not usually wear a dupatta, in fact, because I don’t believe that anything should be covered unless in the interest of weather or aesthetics, rather than decorum.

I’ve jumped ahead a few paces because there’s something you and I, and everyone in this uncomfortable status quo, knows axiomatically. No one would have dared to go up to a chuckling man about to leave a restaurant and told him (politely or otherwise) to can it.

A woman who makes her presence felt – merely through function, existence or expression – in a public space is a public nuisance. And a woman who does not invisibilise herself makes her presence felt. Anywhere. Women who breastfeed on overnight buses. Girls who sweat through their football jerseys until their coloured sports bras show. Women who have to buy three movie tickets just so that no one sits on either side of them. Women who scream for help through thin walls while the neighbours turn the TV up louder.

I believe in silence in libraries and in meditation halls. I believe public walls should not be pissed against, and bhajans shouldn’t be played on loudspeakers. These are courtesies. They affect large numbers of people as they study, reflect, commute, sleep. They are intersections at which personal liberties can infringe on others. They are not gendered. Not even the open urination thing.

In conversations about women in public spaces, the topic we discuss the most is safety. In this painfully unequal world of ours, it is a concern. But a group of four women will still be asked, “Are you out alone?” (“No, each of us is out with three other people for company”). This is because the conversation has yet to extend to the notion of rights to public space. To be there, basically. To step into a public space should not mean giving up one’s autonomy over one’s body, voice or mobility. It should not mean adjusting (that delightful term used for everything from marriages to train bunks to bra straps) one’s very presence so that it looks, sounds and seems more like an absence.

In a world that makes one weep, we must take every chance to laugh out loud.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.