When will we ever hear the end of vellaikaran?
Hardly a day goes by without somebody calling me ‘white man’. Even the clinic where I work is referred to as ‘Vellaikaran Hospital’ because two of us are vellaikara doctors. I’ve gone through different stages of reactions to this name-calling. As a kid I used to retort and call my detractors ‘black man black man’. That never worked. In our own village when children call me vellaikara as I drive my bicycle to work, I often stop and explain that they should call me Doctor or Maamaa (uncle) or Aiyaah (sir). That often helps and I’ve made a few little friends that way. Usually the offenders are little children for whom seeing white people is still a novelty. I don’t really mind. They’re just describing what they see. One kid even referred to me as segapuukaran or ‘pink man’. I suppose that color descriptor is more accurate. ‘Pink man! Pink man!’
In our clinic, I enjoy reading the father’s names on our patient registration cards. Many of the older generation still use the caste terms: Ramasamy Pillai, Otcha Thevar, Suruli Goundar, Appi Nayakkar, and Rangaiah Chetti. I have an old reprint of a scholarly set of encyclopedias written in the late 19th century called The Tribes of South India. What I especially love are the black and white photos of the different groups as they looked before modern society gave everybody a uniform look. There they are all, the S.C. or Scheduled Caste, ie Dalits or Harijans with their subgroups: the Pallar’s traditional occupation was working the rice fields or ‘pallams’ and carrying people in dooli chairs, the Chakaliyar made leather shoes, and the Paraiyar drummed at weddings and funerals and often had to clean up after higher caste groups. From the Paraiyar comes the English loan word ‘pariah’, an unfortunate appellation considering that these handsome people were originally the ‘Adhi Drividar’ or among the original inhabitants of India, perhaps even the proud people who built the Indus Valley Civilization.
In our area, we also have the Thevars and their three subgroups of Maruvar, Kallar, and Mugamudiyor. There’s an old photo of a Maravar with a traditional hunting boomerang. Imagine that, a boomerang, just like those of the Australian aborigines. Thevar boys go through a circumcision ceremony. Traditionally a warrior caste with a reputation of being the hired thugs and thieves of the British Raj, Thevars now have a large presence in the police force and do everything from drive taxis to sit as judges and perform specialist surgery.
The Goundars in our village all speak Kanada, the language of Karnatika. They traditionally were pastoralists who migrated with their herds to our sequestered valley hundreds of years ago in order to escape various invaders and marauders. Although they have since become the dominant land-owners, many still wander the country side with their herds of goats which stream across the road like so many baaing, butting fish. Most of the other groups in our valley have also learned Kannada because of having grown up with Goundar playmates.
We also have a number of Nayakar villages where people speak a variant of Telegu that is somewhat different from the mother tongue of the state of Andhra. They have lived here for hundreds of years and are thought to have come into the region when the Nayak dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Madurai. Very traditional, the older men wear heavy silver bracelets around their upper arms and earrings, the women tie their hair to the side in the old-fashioned way and adorn themselves with strings of beads. Many women still don’t wear blouse tops in the way of South India before Queen Victoria, covering themselves simply with their saree palu. Nayakars still go around the country-side with their highly trained dogs and hunt rabbits, birds, and other small game. Their large herds of thin white cows are kept in thorny kraals that remind one of Africa. The cows are used mostly for their manure; the people don’t eat beef. Many Nayakars refuse to use tractors when they plough, sticking to oxen. They often don’t buy seed or chemical fertilizer and live simply, eating red millet and minding their own business.
One of our health workers was a Nayakar who fell in love with and married an S.C. girl. His family and community held a katta panchayat where he was forced to sign away all his land rights. They then took an empty coffin which bore his name and buried it. He was dead to them, so important was the maintainance of their caste identity. This same ostracizing happened to our head nurse. She was from the Ayyar Brahmin caste and decided to marry a man who was from the somewhat lower Pillaiyar caste. Her family and clan cut her off and set her adrift. This painful exclusion reached its worst when her husband died from a stroke. After spending many years with no family, she recently arranged for her son to marry a lovely Pillaiyar girl and she is now part of a new extended family.
Modern caste groups appear to have developed from tribal groups which each had their own history and traditions. It is similar to what one sees in Africa. Or in the rural American Midwest where clusters of vellaikara Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Dane, German Catholic, German Lutheran, Mennonites of German Russian descent, and Amish have settled. These groups each had their own ethnicity and traditions. In the not so distant past, these vellaikara caste groups would never have dared to intermarry.
Tamar’s Norwegian Lutheran grandmother warned her daughters about ‘them’. “If you don’t want to marry one of those Catholics, never date a Catholic.” Tamar’s Norwegian Catholic uncle was excommunicated from his church communion when he had a ‘love marriage’ with a woman from the Norwegian Lutheran community. And in that inimitable way time twists and turns, he later found out that his wife of many years had been adopted and that her birth mother was German and her birth father was a Native American of the Sioux tribe!
I realize that living in India for the better part of my fifty years will never change the color of my skin. I know that nothing will change the fact that I was born into the vellaikara caste, sub-caste Dutch American, sub-sub-caste Indian of American origin, just as nothing will change the fact that my fellow villagers are Kurumba Goundars, Kapila Goundars, Pallar, Thevar, Nayakar, Vellalar, Vannar, Chettiar, and Aasari. I must admit it often stings to be singled out every day by the color of my skin. In Europe or America, nobody would get away with shouting, ‘Hey Look! Black man, red man, here comes a yellow man!’ And yet in our village as we all get to know each other by name and personal quirk, caste and color have diminished the way white coconut, yellow turmeric, red chillis, and black mustard seeds blend into the mouth watering cuisine of Tamilagam, my home, for better or for worse.