Despite the fact that vacations to dad’s village always aroused a whole lot of curiosities, the most pronounced one among them was the unreasonable pride of the much strong headed Nairs. Although caste system was not visibly strong, every other Nair in the village was considered themselves elite and superior way above the others or precisely the Ezhavas, Christian, or the Pulayas. This very baseless and imprudent notion was immovably strong, particularly the grownups.
An unpardonable injustice that existed decades before my birth, an unjustifiable and unfair tagging that I would never agree on, the dislike towards people from the lower caste was profound in my dad’s village until a couple of years back. As a child, I was totally new to the idea of caste differences, while the natives including my cousins strongly believed in the so called age-old segregation. I found it quite strange to gulp down the oddity of indescribable discrimination that the snotty upper caste, or the Nairs, showed towards the supposedly lower castes.
There was this Ezhava family close by our ancestral home, with Kunjiraman and Sumathy and their kids who were our immediate neighbors. While Sumathy helped my aunt with household chores, Kunjiraman was the trusted aid to my uncle, and managed our paddy fields, along with rearing and taking care of the cows that we had. Growing up hearing everyone addresses them by name, the entire clan of children at home, except me, too started aping the elders. Much to my disbelief, both Kunjiraman and Sumathy were absolutely fine with this, and never showed any sign of uneasiness. But I couldn’t agree on this gross disrespect and indecency, and addressed them as Kunjiraman cheettan (brother) and Sumathy chechi (sister). Their children too were much elder to me and I addressed them as cheettan (brother) and chechi (sister), for which I was relentlessly mocked by everyone. I never knew my sense of respectfulness would irk people around, but the worst was yet to come. Needless to say, regardless of being right, I became the butt of the jokes for defying the indigenous beliefs by respecting the ‘sub humans’, and giving the rightful dignity they deserved.
Being born to parents who have always been uncompromising when it comes to respecting elders, I knew I was not wrong, however, was badly ridiculed consistently for being respectful to Kunjiraman and family. I was called an outcaste and people left no stones unturned to make a mockery of my innocence and frankness.
Humiliations heaped upon me and I burst in to tears on several occasions. Yet my dad kept asserting that I must address them as cheettan (brother) and chechi (sister), as they were elder to me. I knew my dad was right, and I knew I was right too, but there was no way out to prove myself. It was hard to be a one man army and win over a dominant number of boorish and big-headed people on the other end, who never stopped bullying me for being respectful, not just to Kunjiraman and Sumathy alone, but to everyone whom they called low caste.
Years passed by and with a hectic work life that drains out a whole lot of time from my life, I almost stopped visiting my ancestral village. Yet these memories flashed through my mind the other day, when I read the story ‘Charlis and I”, a stellar piece of writing by Shashi Tharoor. I could very well relate to Neel, the protagonist, as I underwent the same shock and disbelief, when I was scorned for respecting someone who was elder to me, just because he /she belonged to a supposedly lower caste.