The Impertinence of My Intercaste Identity

I come from an intercaste family of Dalits and Iyengars. At home, I was taught to look beyond caste as an identity. I did. For many years, I deluded myself into thinking that I was casteless.

However, my bubble burst when I realised that it’s impossible to live without caste in casteist India. Since caste determines the company one keeps and ascertains one’s cultural privileges, or lack thereof, my intercaste identity made me persona non grata.

My blood was ‘impure’, you see. I was tainted. I did not belong anywhere.

To say that caste is dead, or that you don’t believe in caste, is naivety at best, or cultural hypocrisy at worst. In a country where identities determine one’s politics, everyone carries casteist prejudice. To annihilate caste, it isn’t enough to deny it, or blindly rage against it. You must consciously work to dismantle it. Look the beast of caste in the eye and ask yourself the hard questions. How does caste manifest itself in your life?

Crisis of identity

A living oxymoron, a Dalit-Iyengar hybrid, I was seen as the embodiment of libidinous impurity growing up. To Brahmin zealots obsessed with perpetuating mythical Aryan bloodlines, I was ritual pollution incarnate. Most loathed me, for I proudly spoke of my Adi Dravida ancestry, vehemently supported reservation quotas and mocked Brahmin superiority. On the other hand, my Iyengar ancestry made me a suspect among Dalit hardliners. For how could they trust me to be an anti-caste Ambedkarite, when I’m seemingly socialised into Brahmanism? I’m not radical enough because I celebrate Golu and like eating my Iyengar grandmother’s puliyodharai.

Also read: What It’s Like Being Half-Dalit and Half-Brahmin

I’ve encountered hate from both sides. Being intercaste, I naively thought I was entitled to both my heritages. However, the gatekeepers of caste proffered otherwise. I was told to pick one or the other. But why must I? I am the inheritor of a complex history. My Dalit ancestors fought against all odds to live lives of dignity and self-respect. My Iyengar ancestors defied strict social norms to marry for love. My family history fascinates me, because ours is a story of hope and reconciliation. Yet, in society we’ve constantly had to deal with the supercilious judgement of others. This furiously got me thinking about the historical ills of caste and its repercussions in contemporary society. I even wrote a novel about it.

Caste politics

In present-day India, caste is a contentious issue. Hindutva ideologues are out propagating the benefits of Chaturvarna (four varna system). They are rewriting history to paper over the inhumanity of caste, erasing Dalit and Bahujan pasts, thereby marginalising our stories of resistance. India’s (leftist) savarna intelligentsia believes that caste is secondary, that we should all be talking about class first. Woke people happily consider themselves to be outside the influence of caste altogether. This, despite the fact that casteist bigotry is becoming commonplace in educational, professional and social spaces. Increasingly, violence against Dalits is condoned by those in power. In civil society meanwhile, the conversation about caste is confined to the matter of reservation – there is no discourse about the cruelty of caste.

This comes as no surprise in a nation built on caste. After all, even the father of this country, Mahatma Gandhi, believed that, “Hindu society has been able to stand… because it is founded on the caste system… To change it is to create disorder.”

Clearly, Gandhi sought to preserve the toxic hierarchy of caste. If it wasn’t for Dr B.R. Ambedkar, millions in India would not have had civil rights. Yet, even today, Dr Ambedkar is hardly touted as a national icon of freedom. He is only seen as a Dalit icon. That speaks loads about the casteist bigotry of India. On the other hand, certain sections of Dalit-Bahujan politics has tipped over from anti-Brahmanism to outright odium for the entire Brahmin community. Hate versus hate.

Love is the cure

In the Annihilation of Caste, Dr Ambedkar wrote that:

“The real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling… created by caste will not vanish.”

In fact, Dr Ambedkar himself married a Marathi Brahmin woman, Dr Savita (née Sharada Kabir). We may all agree in theory that all castes are equal, but unless we break the purity of bloodlines, we’re still living within the antiquated bounds of caste. This is not to say that everyone who marries within their caste is part of some elaborate conspiracy. It is only to say that if we are to imagine an egalitarian India that is truly casteless, we must intermarry impertinently.

Also read: There’s Something Wrong in the Way We Love

My family has intermarried for three generations now. We are an amalgam of cultures, castes and communities. Mind you, casteist prejudice doesn’t vanish once two people marry – it is dismantled piece by piece over several years of togetherness. Intercaste families constantly question intergenerational caste practices and confront their own inherent bias on a daily basis. They prompt one another to let go of all that’s regressive. Together, they take forward culture and tradition that bonds, not discriminates.

The casteist patriarchs (and politicians) of India know that intermarriage will end hierarchies of all kinds. This is why they vigilantly guard the borders. Across India, intercaste and interfaith marriages are frowned upon. Those who dare to make those marriages are persecuted, ostracised, even killed. But love perseveres despite the challenges. Romantic as it may sound, love is the most potent and everlasting way to end hate – to end caste. Tamil poet and social reformer Subramaniya Bharathi once wrote:

“Kadhalinal manudarku kalaviundam… kavidhaiundam, kanamundam… adhalinar kadhal seivir, ulagathire!”

Love bestows everlasting union… it inspires us to recite poetry and make music… So, make love intensely! (And indiscriminately).

Sindhu Rajasekaran is an Indian womxn with a master’s in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. She has published a novel titled Kaleidoscopic Reflections (nominated for the Crossword Book Award) and a collection of short stories, So I Let It Be. Currently, she is researching and writing a book of non-fiction on Indian feminisms for Aleph Book Company, set to be published in mid-2021. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty