Since October 2012 Meena Kandasamy has been visiting Dalit settlements in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, where an inter-caste marriage resulted in horrifying violence. Excerpts from a work in progress
Caste is a constant state of war. Depends how you define war, I suppose.
Let me try again.
War is about borders and boundaries, war is waged in their defence. War is the destruction of homes, villages, towns, cities. War results in the creation of makeshift camps. War makes people refugees in their own motherland. War is the permanent loss of precious belongings and property. War pushes men to use any means necessary. War lacks sympathy, war is an act of cowardice, war exults in the elimination of the other, war entails bloodbaths. War is accompanied by loot and pillage. War leaves wounds that last forever. War is someone suffering for someone else stepping out of line. War is mindless. War is not just the absence of peace, or love, sometimes it is just hate.
These are not the extended metaphors that a poet retrieved after a stroll in the forest. I remember my first visit to Dharmapuri as the day of unending tears. The Dalit colonies that had been attacked resembled villages scarred by invading armies.
Everything said about war, I try to rethink in terms of caste, to see if it comes alive. You can try that too—right now, right here.
Wars are aimed to teach a lesson. So is caste-Hindu violence.
I show my pictures to a friend, an elderly British man, because I want to know what to do with them. I cannot have them in a gallery, I know next to nothing about exhibiting. I’m not an artist, I’m not a photographer, I’m just a writer—but, I fail myself because this is a story that I cannot fashion only from words. We spend more than an hour going over the hundreds of photographs of my visits—I tell him that enough of them would be usable if I was going to do a long essay, or a short book. He looks at them with sadness, with shame, with eyes that seem to reflect nothing. This is horrible, he says. We discuss what happened in Dharmapuri. I have now learnt to present stories in user-friendly form. A man and a woman fell in love, got married. He was Dalit, she was caste-Hindu, backward in the hierarchy, rife with untouchability nevertheless. This angered the caste-Hindus, this burning was the retaliation for the couple’s transgression. Three Dalit villages, 268 homes, were torched in a single day by a casteHindu mob. The police were passive bystanders. Politicians blamed the victims, casting aspersions on them, alleging that perhaps they had set fire to their own homes.
He is aware of my work, so his question catches me off guard. Like in Kilvenmani, he asks? Yes, I say. But, but. That was a wage struggle, this is a love story. A love story that burns villages, isolates people, endangers lives, and changes the history of a place in a way in which no one could have anticipated. Here, the young man is driven to death—a suicide that is a murder. Here, in a struggle to learn the truth, his corpse is allowed to fester for 11 days and is subjected to two autopsies. I go on. This is grand, this is heart-breaking. They resemble each other, he says, and I think he is trying to hint that I am constantly telling the same story over and over again. Arson apart, I can see how it looks to outsider eyes. Caste shows its disapproval, caste kills, caste burns, caste destroys, caste terrorises, caste skins the bodies of those it has just murdered. Caste as gatekeeper. Caste as hate machine. I cannot bring anything new to this story. I cannot offer fresh eyes. Endless iterations drain the lifeblood out of storytelling. In the end, I choose a form that remains formless.
What can be seen? Bureaus, lockers broken with stones and crowbars. Homes charred and covered in soot from the petrol bombings. The walls of rooms blasted away—and the belongings inside them, molten, broken, and staying in place as if they wait for the wall to sprout around them any minute. Fans with wings that all point downwards, perpendicular to the ceiling. Motorcycles torched, and still left standing. The metallic grills of what must have been refrigerators. A child’s school identity card, blackened around the edges, as if someone wanted a vignette effect and took it too far. Televisions with their screens smashed in. Plastic chairs, plastic water pots, plastic wall-clocks—all in a symbolic molten, ex-flaming state.
(Note to self: Look away from objects, look at people.)
The smell of smoke lingers, days later. Another story emerges.
Young men of the villages run a communal kitchen so that everyone gets a decent meal. In a perfect inversion of roles, women queue up to pick up their lunches. An open-air shop: a makeshift clothesline that sells essential sachets of everything anyone would need. Victims who appoint themselves volunteers, who make sure that visiting journalists and photographers are greeted with politeness, and taken from one home to another, escorted around the village. Take pictures, tell our story to the world. Suffering is no longer in the private realm, confined to the domain of silence. The story of the firebird, the phoenix, that comes to life arising out of its own ashes, is beyond myth and fable. Here, it is a story that you witness wherever you look.
It does not end there—in the silent applause, in the careful chronicle of their bravery. Spontaneously, the writer-visitor learns to take solace from the infinite strength of the Dalit women she meets.
On one of my subsequent visits, I stayed in P’s home. On my last day there, aware of my long drive back home to Chennai, Mrs P prepares a dish of beef and ground spices, dusts it with ground coriander, and packs it for me in a tiffin box. I carry the weight of the food as if I carry a broken heart. I tell myself often enough to take distance, to stand apart, to watch from the margins, to avoid getting entangled. I see that become impossible. Sleeping on their mattresses, eating out of their plates, taking lunches for the road, these are acts of intimate kindness that I have only associated with my romantic idea of family. It is a kindness that I cannot take for granted, a kindness that seeks nothing in return—and precisely why it becomes inconceivable to imagine a payback.
These are love lessons one learns in a place that is still healing.
And you hear them speak, and between their lines the unmistakable echo of better days, not now, not among these ruins, but in the once-upon-a-time, in the days long before this tragedy unfolded, always the narrative of how they built their homes brick by single brick, how they toiled, how their families were torn apart, how the men in their homes went to Bangalore, went there to build other people’s mansions and bungalows and high-rises and homes so they could save enough money to build their own home back in the village. There is a palpable pride in their voices, a pride in their eyes, a pride only drowned out by their love. The home not something they merely moved in to, or rented out after checking with their real estate agent, but a home that rose up around them, a home like a tree that grows up to give shade, a home crafted with their hands, a home where the man of the house could look at a wall and tell you how many bricks went into making it, who could look at the roof and tell you how many tiles are there. It was a home that came to be in the place of a mud-plastered hut, a home that spoke of hard work and sweat and strategy. These were homes that spoke of sacrifice, of wives who looked after themselves, who looked after children, who looked after the ageing, who ran the village in the absence of the men, who knew to wait, to hold out the promise of love until the evening of their man’s return, and all this while, look after each other
Watch the place where the roof slopes and its inside touches the wall and finds a resting place and forms an angle there, acute, accessible, at arm’s length. Once, I learnt from Ravikumar, a poet-historian who writes in Tamil, that it is called eravaanam. I was struggling to translate him, and to find this word in six dictionaries and the standard lexicon, and no, none of these big books had this word. I would later track it down, telling my father how the common usage was a corruption of the grammatically correct iravaanam. I did not know what it meant when I encountered it in the friend’s poem. Just as when I looked at huts, I did not know that there could be a word for this place. It was a word of the village, a word of the poor, a word of the Dalits, a word that had not entered the neat little middle-class lives that dictionaries love to describe. The eravaanam holds a special place—this is where women tuck in precious papers wrapped in plastic sheets, this eave of the roof, like everything else in India, becomes a storage space. This is where my aunt in the village would place a comb, anything she really needed, anything she was afraid of misplacing. With a broken roof, an eravaanam becomes an obsolete feature.
Also, now, in place of a tiled roof that let in no light, the torn open mocking sky. As elemental as caste, the voice of nature speaking: You cannot find the shelter you seek. You cannot run away in the end.
This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2017 issue of the Indian Quarterly magazine.