Caste in Jaffna: Mirage by K. Daniel. Translated by Subramaniam Jebanesan; edited, introduced and annotated by Richard Fox Young. Kumaran Book House, Colombo, 2016.
This novel depicts and indicts caste among the Tamils of Sri Lanka as Daniel (1927-1986), an apostate or a “convert” from (religious) Catholicism to (secular) Marxism, observed and experienced it. “This particular novel takes place in the village where I was born and grew up… All the characters who pass through it were people I saw with my own eyes. Some are still living. Each incident that occurs in the novel actually happened” (p. xiv): it’s an instance of the novelist as witness and testifier.
If racism means the subordination and oppression by one group of another group or groups, then casteism can be seen as another manifestation of racism. I would suggest that Tamils who don’t protest Tamil casteism in Sri Lanka lose the moral right to protest Sinhalese racism. One cannot claim from others what one denies to one’s own. Some Tamils, both Hindu and Christian, may be upset by what I write but I hope, very much, that displeasure will lead to honest, detached, thought rather than to emotional, “knee-jerk”, denial and rejection.
Caste is not simply an upper-class lower-class dichotomy for there are gradations, sub-divisions, particularly enforced on the latter. If one speaks of the Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’, then Daniel belonged to what I would ironically call the caste of the “unseeables”: upper-caste people considered it a bad omen even to see a member of this caste, and would sometimes strike them for daring to appear in their sight (p. 304). Even their shadow was deemed polluting. They were the lowest of the low, the washer folk, the “dhobis” of the washer folk. Teased and bullied at his Catholic school by upper-caste pupils, Daniel dropped out. (The UK Observer of 2 July 2017, reporting on the suicide of a Dalit student at a university in India, comments that for Dalit students university is a place of constant insult and abuse.)
The translator, Dr S. Jebanesan, was Bishop of Jaffna until his retirement. Richard Fox Young, a Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, provides a wealth of anthropological and historical information, drawing attention to detail that an uninitiated reader may miss. “I doubt that Thampappillaiyan will keep quiet” (p. 48) is glossed as: Until now Nanniyan had always referred to him as Thampappillaiyar. The minor change of the “ar” ending to “an” signals in the original Tamil the casting aside of an undeserved respect (p. 249). On page 51, a woman refers to her husband as “that man” and Young clarifies that in traditional Tamil society (and in Sinhalese society, I’d add) a wife didn’t mention the name of her husband. So too, it was customary and polite not to say, “I’ll go now” but, “I’ll go now and come (return)”. Shortened and contradictorily, on leaving one would simply say, “I’m coming”. A boat shaped like a toddy cup would be understood by Jaffna readers because toddy was “served in cups made out of green Palmyra leaves shaped to resemble this very kind of boat. What that actually looks like, Daniel does not need to say” to his original Tamil readers (p. 255). The characters in the novel refer to incidents and figures drawn from the Tamil Makaparatam, and Professor Young relates and clarifies significance. His contribution heightens understanding and interest, and enhances the value of the book.
The maltreatment of the dalits ranges from the gross to the casual. In the name of religion and ancient time-honoured practice, power and privilege are preserved on the one side; exploitation and suffering perpetuated on the other. One could reformulate the title of Bloke Modisane’s autobiography, Blame Me On History, to read, self-exculpatingly: “Blame fate or the gods – not us”. Truly, the gods have their uses! The key in vellalar (upper caste, land owning) control is economic: they own the land; can give or withhold work. The pitiful dalit huts are built on upper-caste land. “The Palmyra tree we make our living from, belongs to them… the well belongs to them. We live off their soil” (p. 48). Everybody who is somebody belongs to their caste (ibid). “We’re like animals caught in a trap” (p.50). Resistance can lead to an entire village being burnt down. Rape and murder are not investigated because the police and the law are with the upper castes. In the novel, provoked beyond endurance, a dalit kills a vellalar. Seizing the opportunity, evidence is fabricated and three dalits charged with the murder. Often the poor go without food. What is most painful to adults is helplessly to see and hear their little children crying in hunger. A Sinhalese word, learnt by a dalit while incarcerated, is most apt. It consists of “bada” (stomach) and “gini” (fire): extreme hunger, close to starvation, is a self-consuming “fire in the stomach”.
I cite from Professor Young’s explanatory notes (pp. 269-70): Dalits were forbidden to enter or live near temples, to draw water from wells owned by the higher castes, to enter cafes, keep their women in seclusion, wear shoes, sit on bus seats, attend school. The list of prohibitions is very long indeed. “Dalits were customarily prohibited from enhancing the external appearance of their dwellings in ways that the higher castes reserved to themselves” (p. 271). Various semiotic signs immediately established caste identity and, with it, status. For example, low-caste women were not allowed to wear the traditional “sari” nor clothes white in colour. (In a Middle-East country where I once taught, housemaids were not allowed to wear the abhaya, thus immediately and visually distinguishing them from their female employers.)
Names play a major role in this semiotic symbolism. Converting to Christianity, “Cinni” becomes “Tireci”, that is, “Teresa”. “The names you heard along our streets would really surprise you. People’s baptismal names… were one thing; the names we used in the street were quite another”: quoted by Professor Young, p. 237. Lines from Nadine Gordimer’s short story, ‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’, come to mind: “Here I’m Jack because Mpanza Makiwane is not a name, and there I’m Mpanza Makiwane because Jack is not a name, but I’m the one who knows who I am wherever I am.” On a personal note, none of my relations has ever called me Charles.
Claims to inherent group-superiority, be it on grounds of ‘race’ (Sinhalese-Tamil), caste (vellalar-dalit), colour (white-black) or sex (male-female) are invariably contradictory, hollow and hypocritical. The dalits build wells for the vellalars but, thereafter, dare not draw water from them. The low-caste nalavar tapped toddy and were therefore deemed to be impure but much of that toddy was consumed by vellalars. The dalits were permitted to sponsor one day of a religious festival but were not allowed to enter temple precincts.
It’s not surprising that many dalits turned to Christianity, not necessarily through religious conviction but as an escape from casteism. Being a pre-Vatican 11 novel, prayers are not in the vernacular: they are learned by rote, without comprehension. There’s segregation on caste lines during prayers and church attendance. A little dalit boy is “thrashed” by a catechist for stepping into a pond normally reserved for the upper castes (p. 204). Dalits who have converted to Christianity mercilessly exploit their fellow dalits – with the knowledge of church leaders. There are several mirages in Mirage, and Christianity (the church is named ‘Our Lady of Refuge’) proving to be a mirage and a disillusionment to Daniel, he turned to Marxism. However, Thomas More in Utopia (1516) comments that there cannot be a perfect system until there are perfect people to administer it. Similarly, it’s finally not the religion nor the ideology but the human interpretation and expression of it. Daniel turned to Marxism but, as Bookchin observes in his The Ecology of Freedom, hierarchy can exist in an (alleged) classless society. To alter words from the novel, whatever the god(s) or ideology, the poor end up in the same place (p. 7). However, the novel is not defeatist; rather, it’s more in the spirit of the revolutionary rallying cry: “A luta continua!”.
Being scrupulously just, and perhaps to save the work from pessimism, Daniel introduces a vellalar who breaks from his group, prompted by principle and compassion: even in that devilish group, there are a few good people (p. 190). Professor Young draws attention (p. 273) to Vituran in the Makaparatam who had the moral courage to change sides and oppose his own. I am reminded of Adrian Wijemanne, branded as a traitor to the ‘race’ by Sinhalese racists incapable of understanding his unswerving and courageous commitment to principle; his placing of justice and humanity above ‘race’. Similarly, rather than examine their own values, thinking and attitudes, whites in America and in apartheid South Africa branded fellow whites who spoke out for equal rights as “Nigger lovers”. I have written elsewhere that had the Sinhalese been oppressed by the Tamils, Adrian Wijemanne, a gentleman in every sense of the word, would have fought with equal courage, clarity and eloquence.
Justice is indivisible and Daniel’s attack on casteism is part of the universal struggle against injustice and exploitation, be it on grounds of caste, skin-colour, ‘race’, sex or religion: as it has been observed, the human species doesn’t stand much inspection. Leaning on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy Of The Oppressed, to the degree that an individual is deprived of freedom, to that degree she or he is made less than human.
Marxist Daniel would have rejected “Art for art’s sake”; that the Arts should be autotelic, separate from any didactic or moral function. Art, he maintains, is subordinate to, and must serve, humanity. But some readers may wonder why the novel, published in 1986, makes no mention of the horrific anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. Why didn’t Daniel even refer to other factors such as the denial of equal (human and civic) rights to Tamils? The omission attests to Daniel’s artistic judgement and control; to his sensitivity to and mastery of the novel as a literary form. The text now retains its focus and, therefore, its force. This is not the place, nor does space permit me to deal with the novel as a literary text but to cite one example, Chapter 32 describes the staging by the folk of a play, ‘The Golden Rosary’, and Daniel evokes it in vivid detail; capturing and communicating something of the atmosphere; the effort and the excitement.
There’s no doubt that those Sinhalese incurably infected with ugly racism will gleefully grab this novel as a bludgeon with which to beat the Tamils, pretending to a moral outrage and a compassion of which they are completely devoid. To change the metaphor, casteism among Tamils can be used as a red herring to divert attention away from racist acts. Racists can come before their victims clothed in the garment of solicitous saviours. There is also the implication: “If Tamils can do this to fellow Tamils, why can’t we?” Shabby hypocrisy is revealed when one looks at the end of the Eelam War. I quote from a report: “Until the final months of the war, the death toll for more than 25 years of conflict on both sides was estimated to be about 70,000. But during the final phase, when thousands of civilians were hemmed in to a tiny strip of land on the north-eastern coast, thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. Some estimates are as high as 75,000; a government reckoning at about 9,000.” Whatever the number, many among the thousands killed; many among the thousands traumatised, maimed for life in body or mind (or both), must have been dalits: “out of the frying pot and into the fire” is a very cruel expression. I think Sinhalese racists, for all their opportunistic outrage at Tamil casteism, now see the dalits as Tamil – and treat them as such. For their part, having been disappointed with Christianity, will some dalits now turn to (dominant) Buddhism?
Not falsely and meanly to withhold credit where credit is due, it must be acknowledged that the Tamil Tigers eradicated casteism in areas under their control – as they also did the discrimination and maltreatment of women. I don’t know whether eradication also meant a mental extirpation: in other words, I don’t know whether casteism has returned and, if so, to what degree.
Finally, I thank Suseenthiran Nadarajah of Belin for lending me a copy of this book. His kindness, and that of his wife, to me over several years has not been a mirage.