Last month, celebrated author Perumal Murugan’s son got married. It was an inter-caste love marriage. The girl is brahmin. The ceremony — though modulated and infused with Tamil chants on the request of the bridegroom, bride and Murugan — was, on the whole, brahmin, with a brahmin priest officiating. When photos were shared on social media, many asked how an anti-caste literary warrior could allow this. Though the questions were specific to Murugan’s choices, they bring up the more complicated discussions on the choices we make, on rituals and the intersection between the religious and the social. I would like to address them, and not this case in particular.
When two people from different castes want to get married, they know that they are going against the grain. Both families — or at least one — will have reservations and objections. I am certain there would be many conversations between the lovers on how to tackle the various challenges that might crop up. Their priority would be to convince the respective families and ensure that nothing stops the wedding from happening. Not everyone would have the gumption to fight and elope. If the families willingly agree to an inter-caste wedding, the bride and bridegroom may not want the choice of ritual or priest to tilt the boat. This then allows dominant caste-related rituals to be performed. If I was to take an absolutist position, I would be critical of it. But would that be right? All of us make compromises on certain short-term issues in view of the larger picture.
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Brides and bridegrooms are young lovers filled with romance and passion, just starting their life together. Even if their homes are politically charged, their socio-political moorings are just evolving. They need time to struggle with ideas and reach certain realisations. I got married in a traditional brahmin way. At that time, Sangeetha, my wife, at least wanted to know what each ritual meant. I, on the other hand, did not care. I just wanted to get done with it. Today, in retrospect, wiser by the years and more aware, we wonder about how we could have done it differently. But at that moment, only the celebration mattered, not its manner.
If the priest at the Murugan family wedding had been from the Gounder caste, it would have been seen as a challenge to brahmin supremacy. But rituals practiced in the Gounder system are also casteist. We also conveniently forget Ezhil, Murugan’s wife, and her community’s rituals? But the problem is that almost all traditional rituals are trapped within caste and sub-caste models. When they are performed, someone is always being ‘othered’.
The alternative is either a civil wedding or something like a self-respect wedding that the Dravidian movement established. Traditional weddings are social gatherings in which everyone has some role to play and participate in the happy occasion. Within the design exists merriment, arguments and accommodations. Hence, they are memorable.
Modern alternatives are dry and boring affairs. Signing a document in a dowdy old building in the presence of an arbitrary government official and exchanging garlands is not everybody’s cup of tea. Neither is a distant and staged self-respect marriage where the family has no role. The urban elite may think the after-party is the celebration but, for the rest of the country, ceremonial events are the coming together. If we are to break away from caste-infused ritualistic weddings, we need to evolve new rituals. Non-discriminatory ones that can creatively traverse language, gesture, music, movement, colour, and bring families and friends together. Above everything else, they must be collective fun. We need to choreograph inspiring habits and rituals in order to build non-exclusive communities.
If someone who is anti-caste consciously chooses a traditional ceremony, does that dilute his politics? I am unable to say yes unequivocally. There is something about ritual that connects with a deep-seated feeling of belonging. Of course, built into that word ‘belonging’ is caste. But it is difficult to shake it off because rituals also tap into memories of home, parents, siblings and friends. In the smells, choice of food, decoration and the prayers, there is inner warmth and nostalgia. Just damning such individuals as hypocrites will not help. It requires calm engagement that gives them the strength to disengage and undergo an emotional catharsis.
Before I leave you, let me venture into even more dangerous territory. Can a janeu-wearing brahmin be anti-caste? A friend of mine who is a rabid rationalist and atheist still wears the janeu. When I ask him why, he hems and haws, unable to give me a sane response. He is fully aware of how deeply disturbing and oppressive it is, and knows that it cannot be justified as a personal cultural practice. Yet, he is unable to give it up. On the other side of the spectrum is another brahmin friend, a good person who treats everyone well. He grew up in a deeply religious home where ritual was everything. He wears the janeu and performs rituals on an everyday basis. When I ask him why he wears the janeu, he says, “I understand everything you say and I am uncomfortable with many rituals, but I am unable to give up certain things because they are ingrained in me, intertwined with my identity.” How and where do we slot such people?
We have to engage in these muddy conversations with courage and forthrightness. Sitting on a high horse and dismissing people because they do not fall in line with our position gives the charlatans and Machiavellians a field day.
(The mind questions, the music moves, the mountains beckon. @tmkrishna)