I was born in Kerala to a family belonging to the Ezhava caste. We were considered untouchables. My communist governed state once had a history of practicing extreme, excruciating untouchability. The Ezhava community was asked to keep a 32 feet distance from the Savarnas at all times. Touching or even approaching the upper castes (Namboothiri, Nair, Kshatriya) by a member of my caste was considered “polluting”. The women belonging to my caste were denied the right to wear a blouse because covering up your breast was considered a “privilege”. We were a middle-class family. This meant I had friends both from the marginalised castes as well the upper castes. And so did my parents.
I always knew we were from an oppressed caste, thanks to my well-read mother. She filled me in with the history of oppression and subjugation. However, 8-year-old me felt ashamed of belonging to this caste; the priestly castes and other higher castes seemed classier and were perceived as superior. As a kid, I felt everything was perfect in my life except my caste and I carried this feeling with me for a very long time. An 8-year-old had a bad case of internalised casteism.
My parents are ardent followers of Sree Narayana Guru, one of Kerala’s greatest social reformers from the Ezhava community. They always hung a photo of him on the wall, a common practice for most Ezhava families. As a teenager, I resented this. It was a constant reminder that I was different from my posh upper caste friends (most of them had their caste surnames). I wanted their surnames. Teenage me would see their Facebook names and wonder what a fulfilling life I would’ve led if I was born into a Savarna family. I grew up but I did not necessarily grow out of the casteism ingrained in my brain.
Even though my family had a lot of upper caste friends, there were plethora of instances where they would casually crack jokes with casteist undertones. A very vivid memory of one such incident was when we went over to our family friends’ home who belonged to the Nair caste. They had portraits of their ancestors hung up on the wall (guaranteed to give you an eerie feeling). During dinner, my mother joked about the portraits giving her the chills. This did not go well with them. Another woman belonging to the same Nair caste quickly jumped in and replied, “Well you need a family legacy for that, we all know where your family belongs.”
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My mother, being the sweet often docile person, remained quiet. Everyone else awkwardly laughed it off and brushed it aside. This was not subtle. This struck a chord with me. As I pursued higher education, I had still not completely come to terms with my caste identity. When people asked me what caste I belonged to, I felt a sense of humiliation and gave them the answer used by most of my Savarna liberal friends today, “I do not have a caste. I do not see it.”
Truth was, I did. I saw my caste as clear as day and I loathed it as much as I can and wanted to hide it from the world. Things did not change much when I started college except now my Nair friends thought I was Savarna just like they are. I never changed this false assumption. Isn’t this exactly what 8-year-old me wanted after all! Well, my “fairy-tale” didn’t last long as I realised this meant they would not filter their casteism, it wasn’t the subtle jokes anymore. My caste was made fun of, their blatant casteism was now straight on my face. This would range from my progressive Nair friends talking about how they are “lucky” their boyfriends were from the same caste to flagrantly making fun of our community and our past struggle against caste-based oppression and violation.
I want to apologise to the 8-year-old child, the teenager and the college student who felt like she belonged to a sub-class of human because of an extremely inhumane and oppressive man-made social hierarchy. Today, I am reclaiming the narrative. My ancestors did not fight caste with every fiber of their being so I could feel sorry for myself today. It took me almost 23 years to unlearn most of the casteism that was built into my DNA and shoved down my throat the minute I was born.
It took me 23 years to tell the world I’m an Ezhava without an iota of shame and resentment. I am writing this for the 8-year-old child feeling ashamed, the teenagers from marginalised castes casually changing the topic when they are asked about their caste, for women like my mother who made every effort possible to make her child understand the implications of belonging to an oppressed lower caste. I hope this article helps and it is not 23 years too late for you.
Archa is a final year law student keen on pursuing human rights law after graduation. She loves reading Ambedkar and drinking tea. You can find her on Instagram.
Featured Image Source: Governance Now