Any reference to the girl Pramila who be longed to the general ref ibious group Hindu and the community Thandan had to begin with caste and end with caste. Pramila’s psychological and emotional problem was her casteism which had always been limited to columns everywhere.
Pramila’s tragedy was in having to live hiding her caste like her nakedness. Where casteism becomes subalternity and subalternity a disgrace—Pramila’s eyes filled with tears. How is a Thandan born? The history of Kerala or the system of chaturvarnya does not provide an adequate reply.
Hadn’t Pramila tried traveling from Volga to Ganges with Rahul Sankrtyayan? 1 Her mental urge to travel to unknown lands and be amidst strange people pointed to her sense of insecurity regarding her subaltern status, which lay exposed like her own nakedness. Pramila who grew up seeing sweet, soft, upper caste movies tried to attain a mental superiority by wearing silk skirts, with her hair in two plaits, sporting her curls. But Soudamini the Nair woman’s sneering comment ’Phaa . . . see how she pretends to be an akathamma 2 . She is only a Thandathi’, when Pramila hurried past her .shop on her way to the bus stop, reminded her again and again ot the depth and firmness ct her roots and humiliated her.
That was the time when she had scorned Sunil, of the Chettinayar community, calling him ‘broken pot’ (Sunil’s parents were traditional traders who used to deal in deep reddish-brown earthen pots with the burning chenthamizh 3 flush upon them. To his query as to the time of the day, she had rudely retorted that it was the same time as the previous day. Pramila’s family house was in an area monopolised by the Chettinayar community. There was a pond for the Chettys to bathe. A temple for them to pray in. There was the Chetty’s horse. While the Thandar family worried about a doit of space to live in a place where the Chetty community virtually fly lay entangled as symbols and systems, Pramila asked herself the questions, ‘How could castesim be prevented through love?’ ‘How could self confidence be boosted through love. The incongruity inherent in the foreigners settling in Kovalam 4, marrying native low caste women without the related problems of tradition, family, caste and thereby being made to love the ethnic arts, culture and natural beauty of Kerala, and their effort to search for the myth in the Puranas 5 by diving into the sea, relaxing in the catamarans eyeing the women dancing to the tune of ’veeraviradakumara vibho’ 6 and driving rough cars into the romanticism of Kerala, appeared to be a good reply to Pramila. It was thus that pushing aside the entire Nair, Chetty and Chekkalanair communities of the region, she started loving Mohammed Shah, the young Pathan who simply failed to understand caste.
Mohammed Shah was then a research student at the Akademi. His lips were reddened by the constant reading of Urdu poems and literature. His brown hair and beard were reddened by the use of henna. He had the aroma of cheese and dry teeth reminding one of the doppi variety rice.
Mohammed Shah dawned in Pramila through such powerful thunderbolts as Debre, Cheguera, and the philosophic questions of revolution. His complexion was that of ripened leaves. An Aryan demeanour. Pramila laughed. Thus sitting on either side and around the huge almarahs of the Akademi, they read a great deal. Discussed. Loved. There were huge bound volumes of magazines. Years were recorded on them in untidy letters — both had an amateurish look. (The work was all usually carried out in the binding section below. The multiple meanings inherent in the socialist outlook- ‘let them too survive’).
Even amidst the skies of love, Mohammed Shah had to record himself as Pathan and Pramila as Hindu Thandar, in the numerous forms which reincarnated identity in terms of caste. Caste and the poetic extract “Sister, I am not asking your caste” 7 too became an established system emphasised by such repeated recordings. What is this? Confusion. Confusion. When the woman who came to collect the census data three’ at her face the question, “lsn’t a Thandan one who climbs coconut trees to earn his livelihood’?” Pramila once again hit and fell against the word Thandathi. Is caste a villain who follows one everywhere? She looked at the trees. There was no river beyond the trees. Neither were there trees beyond the river. 8
Where love becomes the sky. where love becomes blood. where love becomes a deep understanding, everything else is irrelevant. Everything else. Everything.
At first their love rained fiercely — against the background of the sea breeze that blew into the Akademi building situated 1285 feet above sea level, a few sea side songs (Periyare, Periyare), and the drunken songs of fishermen (Antikkadappurathu)9 Gradually Mohammed Shah started forgetting his promises—‘Neruda’s autobiography, almost half the book dealing with love. the rest with revolution. you should read it, I’ll bring it’ and ‘U.P. Jayaraj ’s new book, I bought it especially for you.’ Thrusting her down forcibly, other things grew up in him and effortlessly she was pushed out. It was during that time, thro ugly numerous debilitating frustrations, almost at the corner of self- destruction that Pramila came across the woman activist Sumana.
Sumana laughed saying ‘ I know that a woman will have to come into this room sometime or other.’ Then her legal advisor, Leena Philip with a characteristic gopi bindi 10 on her forehead, was not present there to give lectures on law. Pramila was relieved at Samana’s revelation that a woman who does not become conscious of her body can never be a woman. The body has no caste, neither has lust. The biological structure of a Thandar woman and a Chatty woman is the same. Pramila could now write about the rain forests and birds of the rainy season. She could raise her voice for the poor people. She could hold a placard. Kids speaking Urdu, Mohammed Shah’s eyes resembling an Urdu poem and his laugh like the rain cloud, sometimes echoed loudly in her, then fell down and shattered. She frequented tourist centers wearing rough textured sprees, with a shoulder bag, distributing pamphlets. She renounced all conforms. She gave up all her dreams too. Only the panting of pain — like the sea breeze — remained.
Sumana was busy completing her dream project ‘The Body, the Mind’. In it, in the column for low caste people, Pramila’s photo is included along with her biographical details. Pramila asked, with her her hand pressing down her heart tumultuous with many agonies, ‘ Madam, is caste such a crime?’ Sumatra lifted her head. Then with a slight smile took off her spectacles and put it on the table.
‘Read Ingersoll’s Mothergods my dear. It’ll be there in our library. We should learn to take pride in our caste, my child. Caste is one’s own blood, one’s tradition, and ancestral tribute. She panted. Her lips trembled. Drops of sweat collected on her forehead. How far was it now to nationality’? A slogan.
Translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair
1 Reference is to Rahul Sankrtyayati’s book From the Volga to the Ganges
2 A woman of the upper caste who is expected to step within the house.
3 A term signifying pure Tamil language anal tradition.
4 A popular seaside resort in Kerala
5 Legends, Mythology.
6 A popular song accompanying the traditional Kerala dance form Thiruvathira.
7 An extract from the poem.
‘Chandalabhikshuki’ by the famous Malayalam poet Kumaranasan. The line ‘jati chodikkunilla njan sodari’ (sister, I am not asking your caste) is spoken by a Buddhist monk to a woman of the low Chandala caste, who is reluctant to serve him drinking water out of fear of polluting him.
8 The line is inspired by the title of a Malayalam short story ‘Puzha kadannu marangalude idayiloltu ( Into the midst of trees, crossing the river) which is here used to suggest a place of refuge from the pursuing caste devil.
9 Both ‘periyare’ and ‘antikkadappurathu’ are popular Malayalam film songs.
10 A decorative mark worn on the forehead by Indian women.
K.R. Mallika is one of the most notable women short story writers in Malayalam. She is working in the editorial office Department office, Trivandrum.
Her short story ‘Concerning Caste’ is a sensitive study of the female protagonist who comes to terms with the galling reality of caste. She is both annoyed and ashamed of her caste identity. Her fascination for Mohammed Shah begins when she realises that she did not understand caste. However Shah found other interests and Pramila encounters the woman activist who tells her to take pride in caste! The tale thus explores the various perspectives on caste.
JAYASREE RAMAKRISHNAN NAIR. Freelance writer and translator. Is Senior Associate Editor, Samyukta. Has published articles and translated many works, including four plays of Shakespeare into Malayalam. Her doctoral work was on the ‘Translation of Shakespeare’s Plays into Malayalam.’