Several years ago I went to India on a research trip for my now forthcoming novel Ghost in the Tamarind. The novel is set against the background of anti-caste politics in South India, and I was interested in visiting some of the places in which I meant to locate the story. Amongst these places was my mother’s ancestral village in Thirunelveli. I know this village well because I have been visiting it since I was a child. Just across the border from Kerala, the village nestles under the peaks of the Western Ghats and is surrounded by verdant rice fields. This is prosperous country, with the kind of settled beauty filled with history that represents the best kind of riposte to the crude truths of Orientalism—the kind of truths that are all about the “timelessness” and “stagnation” of the Indian village. (You can see the pictures from that research trip here on my website.)
It would be easy to get sentimental about my mother’s ancestral village, especially for someone like me, who has never lived there but has been raised to think of it as “home.” The seductions of roots are more real than one imagines; at the same time, as an incident during my research trip conveyed to me unmistakably, when it comes to history there is nothing more dangerous than sentimentality.
The incident occurred on the second day of my visit, as I wandered my way through the village to the sandy bend of the river that flows past. Arriving at the bend, I encountered the village’s washerman—a small lean man who with his wife was laundering clothes in the flowing river. Drying garments were spread out on the sand. A little distance away his donkey—the beast of burden on which he carried clothes back and forth—was tethered to a bush.
I stopped to talk to this man, and soon learned that he had inherited his job from his father, and that it was becoming less and less feasible for him to continue in his trade. My sons, he said, no longer do what I do. They have moved away from here, this village. I will be the last man to serve as washerman in this village.
I nodded, thinking to myself, yes, a modernizing society shatters traditional caste roles. I asked, wondering about his sons, What do they do?
And then he said the thing that to me encapsulates beautifully—horrifically—the conundrums of caste. The answer was startling, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled. One of the sons, it turned out, worked in the laundry room of a naval base in Kerala; and the other in a similar facility in a hospital in Chennai! They worked, my friend the washerman told me with pride, in a modern workplace with washing machines and driers.
You can leave your caste profession, I observed to myself, amending my previous thought. But your caste profession it seems won’t leave you.
What should one make of this? Of course, in one sense both my first and subsequent responses to what the washerman said to me are equally flawed. It would be a mistake to draw grand conclusions from one brief encounter. Still, this episode from years ago has always stuck in my mind. I was reminded of it again when I read the recent sad news from Hyderabad regarding Rohith Vemula, the Dalit PhD student who committed suicide because of the discrimination he experienced. In both Vemula’s tragic death and in the story of the washerman’s sons there is something worth thinking about, unsentimentally, regarding the tenacity of caste identities—the washerman’s two sons avail themselves of the opportunities of a modernizing society to travel far away, only to end up in the same profession as their father; Rohith Vemula embraces higher education as a pathway to a better life, only to find, as he writes devastatingly in his suicide note, that “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”
Rohith Vemula’s suicide note is enough to break your heart. I am tempted to say that in it, just as in the story of the washerman and his sons, we see the unstoppable force of a modernizing society encountering the immovable rock of caste—but of course that is only a smart sounding half-truth. There are no unstoppable forces or immovable rocks in history. India may have its deeply rooted structures, but it cannot be reduced to the timeless fantasy of Orientalism.
When it comes to caste, there are only heartbreakingly difficult realities; and the unavoidable, unsentimental truth that India’s future depends on a sincere, democratic, inclusive—indeed, revolutionary—solution to the conundrum of caste. That solution is possible but it will be hard fought.