சாதியும் நானும்: Personal Essays on Caste

Perumal Murugan has been in the news recently for tragic reasons. He’s since moved jobs and cities. Analyses of the author’s struggle has been, justifiably, about the politics and not his literary output[1]. In the lead up to Murugan declaring himself dead and living in exile, he answered a few questions. The Streisand effect of this entire episode did make many pick a Tamil book for the first time in their adult lives. One that I did was a collection of personal essays that Perumal Murugan had edited, titled சாதியும் நானும் (Caste and I).

The essays are written mostly by former students and colleagues of Murugan, who now teach Tamil in various colleges across Tamil Nadu. They largely hail from the many middle and lower castes of central/western parts of the state. Each personal essay is short — only a few pages long — and often narrates a single or set of anecdotes. By their very definition, all of them are written in first person singular. They take us into the worlds of their castes and caste rituals that are strange even for those of us living in the state and think we know it reasonably well.

There are women who’re forced to bathe naked in the middle of the night in open air, men who’re forced to eat from the floor straight and students made to work in farms without pay. The cruelty of some practices and how they aim to dehumanize the person of lower caste on a consistent basis is an ugly window into mankind’s worst. And this caste hegemony, observed from such close proximity, isn’t merely aimed at other/lower castes; its notions of purity to mask the underlying misogyny against women of the same caste is heart breaking.

The essays themselves, however, are quite limited in their scope. They do not attempt to fork in the requisite distance between essayist and subject at any point in time. There isn’t a narrative arc even, to most essays. On the rare occasion some author attempts that, it ends up being a polemic that doesn’t seem honest. There’s a lack of an exploration of one’s own human condition; however pretentious that goal is, its absence appears far worse an alternative. The frustrating part is, one tends to agree with the polemic. And wishes the essays were written with greater emphasis on the craft of writing itself.

Perhaps this was what Perumal Murugan aimed to achieve and therefore forced the structure of a limited personal essay on the various authors. And first time readers of the personal essay in Tamil miss the whole point of it.

[1] – This gentle introduction to Perumal Murugan was an exception.