Share |

In Search of My Brahmin Self …


The brahmin universe of my childhood came alive every year during the summer vacations I spent at Raichur with my grandmother and an extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. I know of Raichur today as a hot, dry and dirty town; as the center of one of the most underdeveloped districts in Karnataka. The Raichur of my childhood though was an enchanted place. Its very name conjured up for me a festive atmosphere of family gatherings, of carefree days filled with unending excitement. My closest friends at school knew what Raichur meant to me and for a very long time I wanted to take them along with me to the place I loved so much. But the thought that they would not fit in nagged at me. That they in turn might judge my Raichur family was not something which occurred to me then.


I grew up in the completely cosmopolitan setting of an industrial township in Andhra Pradesh where a close knit community had been constituted through diverse logics. In moving every year from this location to the Raichur with which I had such a strong affinity, I had to myself modify various aspects of my being. My parents never schooled me (or my brothers) into what was involved in making the shift; it was more a case of learning by imitation and practice, by trial and error. Much as the native speaker who navigates through her language without any self consciousness I had learnt how to inhabit the brahmin world of Raichur but felt I could not explain its grammar to those outside.


The first caste type I became aware of through my Raichur visits during the 1970s and 80s was not the brahmin but the holeya. My uncle’s house where we all congregated every summer was at the end of a cluster of brahmin houses and at the edge of the holeyara oni (basti). The holeyaru were very clearly regarded as a nuisance; they often broke the bamboo fencing, aimed stones at the almond tree that stood in the middle of the compound and at times tried to draw water from the well within. Many a times the stones that were flung missed the tree and broke the windowpanes instead. While most of this mischief was by the young boys of the oni and we shared in the exasperation of the adults, we were not overly concerned with them.


There was, however, one man in particular from the oni who we feared the most. He was a rickshawpuller called Raktham who stood outside our gate totally drunk, hurling loud obscenities in the growing darkness of most evenings.  His name, which obviously referred to raktha (blood), acquired even more ominous overtones for us in those terrifying moments. In the tense atmosphere of such nights my younger cousins were often threatened that they would be given over to Raktham if they didn’t sleep right away or heed some other such similar bidding. Later the next day, and day after day, when the audio cassette of the dialogues from Sholay blared interminably from this very oni, Gabbar Singh didn’t seem to us any different from the Raktham of the night before. We clung to this image of Raktham though we also often saw the adults talk to him during the day and even go by his rickshaw. But in all my visits to Raichur I don’t remember any of us turning right even once and going towards or into the holeyara oni. Quite simply our plans and destinations always lay in the other direction.


I don’t remember also Raktham or any other person from the oni ever being referred to as a holeya by my family members. And yet the word came up many times during a day, in different registers. Statements like “Ee holeyara kaalaaga saak saak agyada” (“These holeyaru have tired me out totally”) were as routinely made as “Paapa aa holeyaru. Aurarra yenn maadbahudu?” (“Those poor holeyaru, after all what can they do?”). As against these direct comments about a collective which were matter of fact and were received as such, the ones that evoked good-natured laughter or derision or even extreme rage depending on the context was when a non-holeya was referred to as a holeya. And this too occurred quite often -- from admonishing children with “Ada yenn adu?Holeyara hanga? Sariyagi oota maadu” (“What kind of behaviour is that? Like holeyaru? Eat properly”) to abusing some adult (who was most often not present) as “holeya rande ganda” (“husband of a holeya bitch / prostitute”) or “holeya sule magaa” (“son of a holeya bitch / prostitute”).


The term holeya thus seemed to carry more charge when it indicated a behavioural mode or characteristic rather than when it referred to a person or a group. Pride in being a brahmin was never articulated, perhaps it was taken for granted, but there was definite disgrace in behaving like, or associating with, a holeya. Occasionally, vokkalageru was substituted for holeyaru. But perhaps it wasn’t done often enough because it was only much later in life that I became aware of vokkaliggas as a caste group in Karnataka! Quite like some theories of caste which are based primarily on the distinction between the brahmins at one end and the shudras / ati-shudras at the other, caste knowledge impinged on my early consciousness in terms of the difference between brahmins and holeyas.




Of all the narrative forms, the autobiography seems to provide the most direct and authentic access to the self. Its tone encourages the belief that in the process of narration the layered nature of existence can be gradually peeled off to first reach and then reveal a core where the self resides. One of the pleasures the autobiographical narration offers is the moment when the speaking subject realizes his or her self and presents it as such to the reader. That the self however does not exist as essence but is carefully and contextually constituted is by now a widely accepted theoretical stance. Along with this critical insight other aspects of the autobiographical genre have, over a period of time, undergone significant changes. Until recently for instance an ideal autobiography was thought to be one that was written by a person of eminence. A person who had shaped the times in which he lived and provided a detailed account of how he did it. In such autobiographies the individual protagonist was the representative of a type that was then held up for emulation. For the longest time autobiographies that were taken seriously by readers and critics belonged to this particular category. The continued popularity of M.K.Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, for instance, illustrates the persistence of that viewpoint.


The form of the autobiography was subsequently appropriated into alternative trajectories closely linked to the emergence of socio-political movements that challenged hierarchies of power. In this its other, and more recent, function the autobiographical genre has been used by a range of people: the working class, women, blacks, dalits, sexual and other minorities. The subjects of these autobiographies have narrativized their lives in powerful but counter-hegemonic ways. While these narratives have drawn upon some of the basic tenets of the genre, they have also gone on to recast the very perception of what comprises the field of autobiographical writing. These works are counter-hegemonic because they have not only challenged the dominant understanding of what is culturally significant but have proceeded to change it. More often than not the narratives have dealt with the stigma of the explicit or implicit illegitimacy associated with their identity, their social and cultural being. In the process of thematising this “illegitimacy,” the autobiographical narratives have sought to recuperate a self by dignifying it even while consolidating it in the process of narrating it. In the context of our discussion of caste related identities Arjun Dangle edited The Poisoned Bread, and more recently Bama’s Karakku and Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi, provide an instance of such writings.


In a field that has been redefined by such interventions what does it mean for a brahmin to use the autobiographical mode to self consciously assert the beingness of being a brahmin? How does one narrate a life experience and an identity that has over the last century in particular been deemed politically incorrect as against illegitimate? The best of dalit autobiographical writings for instance, and as mentioned above, move from illegitimacy to legitimacy. The pain and humiliation suffered by the dalit subjects is often transformed into resistance by bringing into sharp relief the very structuring of power. The extant autobiographical writings by brahmins, especially those written in English, on the other hand provide a study in contrast. Based on a close reading of some of the autobiographies written in the last century M.S.S.Pandian has argued that the overwhelming legitimacy accorded to the brahmin identity within the society has served to naturalize it to the extent that in speaking about himself, the brahmin writer does not necessarily feel the need to highlight his caste. In other words, the brahmin voice and presence in these autobiographies is a self evident one, requiring no pause or self-reflexivity.


A related but differently nuanced picture emerges from Ramesh Bairy’s important and perceptive study of brahmins in contemporary Karnataka. Through a multipronged approach that involves reading the discussions generated by the non-brahmin movement, the study of brahmin associations and extended interviews with some brahmins, Bairy tracks the conditions that historically impacted the formation of the brahmin subject within Karnataka. A critical point that emerges from his study is the ambivalence expressed by brahmins towards their caste identity, their sense of being under siege and of in fact experiencing caste as a burden that has been unfairly imposed on the self.  Underscoring the sense of discomfort the modern day brahmin experiences in speaking of the caste self, Bairy observes that the “… invocation of a caste identity as a representation of the self is not a given … they [the brahmins] have to be in a manner of speaking, coerced into enunciating from that standpoint since the relationship they share with their “Brahminness” is constitutively ambivalent and even contradictory.” Bairy’s study makes it clear that this felt ambivalence is far from related to any empathy that the brahmin might feel for the lower caste subject. In most cases it is instead linked to impatience with the processes of othering that the non-Brahmin movement initiates as well as the contemporary brahmin’s inability to identify with the present day discourse on caste. As such, contrary to the assumption that the brahmin is at home in the modern world, Bairy points out that most of his brahmin interviewees attempted to outline a “fundamental mismatch between the logic of the times and an inexorable ethics of the self.”


There is thus a double bind involved in the process of inscribing the brahmin self. This present attempt at narrativising my brahmin self here too then has to take place through the awareness of contradictory pulls: the simultaneous existence of a presumptive knowledge of who the brahmin is on the one hand and the absence of a complete fit between this description and the diverse ways of experiencing the caste self. Of the many caste groups that exist, the brahmin and the dalit seem the most familiar. As a result of historical reasons, including the manner in which colonial ethnography proceeded in the past and the dalit movement emerged in the present, information and knowledge of caste types has been largely collected at the two ends of the caste system, for the dalits and the brahmins. Literature and films too have presented vivid images of characters from these castes rendering the figure of the brahmin in particular even more familiar. And it is to this extent that though the category of the brahmin belongs to the upper caste spectrum, it carries a semantic weight and history that surpasses the generic upper caste. Thus the familiar tropes of brahminism as well as the inevitable and attendant disjunctures in relation to the known determine the account I provide here -- not so much of a general upper caste self but more narrowly and specifically of my brahmin self.




Slipping into what I’m now naming and describing as the brahmin world of Raichur required that I and my brothers be alert to a range of prohibitions. The seemingly inflexible rules of the Raichur house were not a part of our life away from it. They had not been as thoroughly integrated into the routine of our nuclear family life. My brothers and I had therefore learnt to make the distinction between the two sites. We were aware that the prohibitions would be as much a part of our Raichur experiences as the abundant affection we had come to expect as our share every vacation. As long as we knew and were mindful of the difference between madi and mailigi, it was smooth sailing since all prohibitions were primarily associated with these two concepts.


Madi and mailigi were temporary states of being that applied as much to individuals as to objects. They conferred a certain status, which again was a temporary one, implying a purified state in the case of the former (madi)and a defiled one in relation to the latter (mailigi). The distinction between them therefore was fundamental. Ironically though they were both governed by the principle of non-touchability and we were prohibited from touching everything that was marked as madi or mailigi. As a result these very same objects / persons held the greatest fascination for us as children, especially the fact that adults routinely moved in and out of these states. When we noticed that someone who was in madi a while ago was suddenly out of it, it seemed almost magical. We kept asking whether we could in fact touch that person and went on to test their affirmation by reaching out and touching her / him.


Some aspects of madi and mailigi were obvious and required only a one-time introduction to the concept. Others were much more complex. As with most processes of socialization, we were just provided with a series of dos and don’ts. The implication of many of these injunctions had to be figured out over a period of time. In some cases, even the bare details of the process unfolded but gradually. For instance, the details of who could or could not move into the state of madi. All men who had gone through the thread ceremony, married women (when not menstruating) and widows with shaved heads could enter into madi. Today when I recognize signs of madi being practiced in some households, it brings back several memories. The moment of recognition is one in which nostalgia for the old world of my childhood is tinged with a horror that derives from a latter day comprehension of the disciplining and discriminatory effects of those organizational modes.


Mailigi was very simply the obverseof madi. Everything that was not madi was to be regarded as mailigi, of course with fine gradations. There were exceptions that transcended these distinctions. But there were also some definitive forms that exemplified madi andmailigi in their very state of being. The menstruating woman for instance personified mailigi. The onus of avoiding all contact with people or things was primarily placed on her. I recall vividly even today the images of my aunts and older cousins cringing and retreating into themselves when in mailigi to avoid contact of any sort with people in the house, especially the children running about recklessly. As distinct are the memories of their outstretched hands receiving most things as they were dropped from a safe height above. Their seclusion was “voluntary” as they took a total break from housework. But quite clearly they represented defiled bodies.


In an insightful article on the power of touch, Gopal Guru draws attention to the distinctive understanding developed within our society in relation to touch. He points out that it is the “moral economy” built around the idea of touch within the frame of the caste system that enables maximal exercise of power over bodies with minimal investments.  The ideology of touch, according to him, has the “power to fragment, discipline, segregate and quarantine large chunks of humanity.” He is referring here in particular to the modes of segregation and insulation through which the discourse of untouchability develops. Based on my experience of brahminism I would want to add to Gopal Guru’s critique that as far as brahmins are concerned, the power and economy of touch is deployed on a regular basis even within their own household as well as the community and not only in relation to other castes. The axis of madi and mailigi ensures a preoccupation with touch at all times. Added to this there is also the notion of musuri, which referred to all edible things that were cooked, and around which too an elaborate protocol of touch was laid down. The remedy for touching musuri though was rectified far more easily than if there was any transgression in relation to madi or mailigi. Presented thus, it would seem that the triple trap of madi, mailigi and musuri was severely inhibiting. In fact it would not be difficult to picture us gingerly picking our way about that brahmin household even as shouts of “don’t touch that” invariably rang out from some corner or the other. Such a picture is far from exaggerated. And yet my predominant memory of that Raichur time is of unbounded energy and unconstrained joy!


Contradictory memories and emotions come crowding when I think back to the women who were in mailigi. Certain defilement was associated with them and my first reaction on learning that my mother or a favourite aunt or cousin had to “seclude” herself was to experience a sense of loss. But it was also precisely during such periods that we could get their undivided attention in a context where there were too many claimants for it. When in mailigi they had all the time for us children. They then entertained us with stories or joined us in games that did not require contact. In turn we were indispensable for them, acting as their messengers or catering to their requests. This special bond notwithstanding, the relief of having them returned to us after their purificatory bath at the end of three days was immense. Of course they were soon lost to us as they were coopted by the community of adults into the endless household tasks and their endless sessions of talk and more talk.


Mailigi as personified by the menstruating women seemed to have, rather paradoxically, an aura about it. The aloof, beyond your reach, aspect of these women seemed to hold a certain allure producing a sense of heightened awareness of them in everyone around. As a child mailigi seemed to me to be a far more interesting state than madi ever did. It seemed to hold some mysteries of adulthood that made it even more desirable. (In thinking back to that time, I am struck by the fact that the Raichur world characterized by a fine criss-crossing of sexual undercurrents was nothing like the agrahara of U.R.Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.) Since neither madi nor mailigi was a part of our nuclear family life (though some minor proscriptions were), this latter state in particular seemed to me even more fascinating. However the actual experience of being in a state of mailigi myself in Raichur at a later date wiped out once and for all any fancies I may have had about its mystique. Perhaps it also marked the beginning of my discomfort with Raichur and its brahmin world. I had all the years before involuntarily and successfully managed to switch codes and enter the universe of Raichur but this was one translation that failed miserably. Ironically it is this failed transformation that reminds me the most of my being a brahmin -- that even today I catch myself considering the matter and turning it over in my head several times before entering a temple or attending a family function when I am menstruating. The awareness of my brahmin lineage is the strongest as I repudiate the injunction to isolate myself and place myself outside the span of touch. The attempt to transgress a form I understand as representative of brahminism seems to reinforce at times my association with it. And at moments such as these if I extend my imagination I fancy myself understanding what temple entry must mean for the castes that are denied it. I also sense that I understand better then the appeal of modernity for these castes / for myself.




The ethnography of my caste self has thus far drawn mainly upon my Raichur experiences suggesting perhaps in the process that it did not / does not have a life beyond that location. This is quite akin to the assumption that caste exists only in rural India and not in the metropolis. Caste matters were not entirely absent though from my childhood life away from Raichur. They were enmeshed with a range of factors and did not present themselves as directly related to caste in particular. There were, as I mentioned before, almost no caste related prohibitions imposed on us in the setting of our nuclear family. And yet, even without being told, we were aware of the permissible boundaries related to caste by living within and reproducing the organizational modes of the household.


In terms of the urban – non-urban divide though it is however also true that the presence of, and interaction within, a more or less homogenous brahmin community in Raichur enabled an apprenticeship into brahminism in a manner that the other location did not.

Caste was at the center of the Raichur life whereas it was but one element in the life of the township where class, region, language, residence, the formation of play and study groups etc. cross cut each other in ways that more often than not defied easy equations. Speaking specifically in terms of the brahmin self, I don’t retrospectively recall having a single friend from that phase who was a brahmin. Significantly though as I began gathering my degrees for higher education I also acquired more friends who were brahmins. This however did little to refurbish my brahmin identity raising thereby the intriguing question of how variously a caste self develops. The question is also about where exactly one locates the caste identity – in birth, in conformity to certain practices, in the structures of thought and emotions or in the socio-cultural and economic networks?


As far as ritual practices of brahminism were concerned they were far more visible and an everyday part of the Raichur life. In fact, the self-identification among the brahmins too was largely in terms of these ritual practices. They provided a ready and easy means of measuring orthodoxy, with the more orthodox of the brahmins being held in higher esteem. The more exacting the fasts that were to be maintained or the more inflexible the rules that governed a brahmin life, greater was the admiration for that person or the household that conformed to the stipulations. The Raichur brahmins in fact looked down upon the brahmins of Bangalore and of south Karnataka in general because they felt that there was an unforgivable laxness in their adherence to the code of brahminism. Ironically their felt superiority on this count underscored the deep connection between provincialism and relatively unchanging modes of living out caste lives.


The manner in which marriages were conducted, festivals marked, feasts organized, thread ceremonies timed, thithis observed and shraddhas performed were all of utmost importance. The specificities of the customs and practices associated with these occasions helped consolidate the brahmin community even as the variations within were in evidence at such times and were commented upon. In fact statements asserting difference within the fold seemed a more important way of establishing brahmin identity than listing out similarities. Comparisons were often based on the different brahmin sub-castes, mathas or gotras to which families belonged. The preoccupation with internal distinctions had the effect of creating a self-contained universe that did not require us to take cognizance of other castes. The self sufficient nature of this brahmin world is perhaps best indexed by the fact that the term “brahmin” was never used by itself. It was invariably qualified by the sub caste or the gotra.


In thinking back to the Raichur time, the ritual aspect of its brahmin life stands out clearly. Admittedly, the dominance exerted by an anthropological frame when discussing caste matters has influenced the description here too of the brahmin consciousness. The question of a brahmin subjectivity outside of the ritual centred frame remains. Sociologists of contemporary caste matters have pointed out that the focus on ritual status of caste has weakened to a large extent. Even commensality and untouchability is increasingly delinked from definitions of brahminism. Stress on endogamy however continues and is regarded as the most critical means of ensuring caste purity. The dilution of emphasis on ritual matters is widely understood as an effect of modernity. In fact modernity seems to generate a sense of embarrassment vis-à-vis the ritual framework in which brahminism has been conventionally defined. This embarrassment has increasingly produced responses from brahmins that has sought to identify the essence of brahminism in an abstraction. The notion of the Ideal Brahmin whose brahminness lies in his thought processes and his worldly actions rather than his birth is now a regular part of how brahminism is defined.


For my understanding of what comprises brahminism I have for the most part taken my cue from my extended family, where too such arguments are now not uncommon. While rituals continue to be important there is an attempt to move away from the ritual centred definitions of brahminism. In this, my father and uncles’ long standing investment in Madhwacharya’s philosophy becomes pertinent. As Madhwa brahmins they had long and involved discussions on Madhwa’s dwaita philosophy at most family gatherings. Most often these discussions ended with the lament that this important school of thought had not received the recognition that was due to it. The regret in this regard was for them underscored by their perception that there was in contrast a more easy and popular acceptance of Shankara’s adwaita philosophy. However, even while desiring a more widespread acknowledgment of its relevance, the entire discussion was based on the assumption of a one to one link between Madhwa’s philosophy and brahminism even though nothing in the philosophy itself suggested such a link. In claiming an entire philosophy for themselves, the specificity of their brahmin being was reinforced.


While in this rarefied realm of philosophical discussions brahmin particularity was retained, the politics of every day life dissolved such specificities in an amorphous mass of upper caste sensibilities and prejudices. For instance, my brahmin family is perhaps undistinguished from several other upper caste families in being virulently opposed to caste based reservations and in their recently developed but strong hatred of religious minorities. Their articulation of this stance is at odds with some of their other acts and associations. For example, one of my uncles totally surprised me by extending the water connection available to them by installing a tap right outside his house for the use of the residents of Ambedkarnagar close by who had no supply of their own. In the searing heat of Raichur where water is such a scarce commodity, this was undoubtedly a generous act. Additionally, to not be bothered by the regular presence of bodies that within his own framework were ritually impure was quite astounding. I was struck also by the distance we had traveled from not allowing the holeyaru the use of our well to actually arranging water supply for them. The two glass system within the house however stayed.




The life of a certain form of brahminism was thus a given to me. The more difficult issue was about establishing correspondence. That is, of comprehending the link between caste on the one hand and forms and structures of thinking that could be ascribed solely to the fact of belonging to this caste. And in this I have quite often found myself stumped. There have been many times when attributes that I thought were brahminical were in greater evidence among non-brahmins (both the upper and lower castes). The fetish about cleanliness for instance is one such. One of my aunts who is an Anesthetist was categorical in her conviction that notions of medical hygiene could be grasped much more easily by us because we were already used to madi. Imagine then my shock when much later in my life one of my non-brahmin friends told me that among them they regarded brahmins as being the most unclean among all castes!


Whether the statement was true or false was not so much the issue as the unfamiliarity of the description. By then I was aware that other caste groups had their own accounts of brahmins including colorful proverbs involving the brahmin persona. I knew also that the reference to the brahmin was more often than not, negative. Brahmins being referred to as greedy, gluttonous, cunning, opportunistic, exploitative or power hungry was also routine in the various public meetings I attended on caste related matters. I was then, as a research scholar in the 1990s in a metropolitan University, aligned with groups that supported dalit-bahujan issues. I did not feel personally implicated by these negative descriptions of brahmins or of the brahminical order. For one, I understood them as a critique of power structures rather than of individuals. Occasionally when the picture of a brahmin individual was indeed held up, I could not match it with members of my immediate family even after I had adjusted it for the necessary rhetoric of public speeches. I felt also that my own discomfort with my family’s caste beliefs or attitudes was not always captured in these public statements. Of course I did know individual brahmins who seemed to fit the bill. Secondly my close involvement with my family notwithstanding I had no investments whatsoever in brahminism either as a philosophy or as a lived reality. Third, the standpoint of the speakers was important at that point because they made available analyses that were at the same time critical and new.


These forms of address however must have had some effect because during this period when I felt particularly self-conscious about my brahmin identity and was not inclined to advertise it in any manner I took comfort in my family name. In a context where surnames are a sure sign of caste categories I thought mine was ambiguous enough and did not indicate caste status. I realized however that contrary to my knowledge of such matters my surname was a dead give away. Not only did the name signify the brahmin caste but I realized that I in fact shared the same family name with some well known and public figures from Andhra, all brahmins. This seemed ironic to say the least because neither was I remotely related to these figures nor was I from these parts. But the fact that I now lived in this culture meant that I was a part of its signifying systems. Therefore once the connections were made and clarified I could not at the level at which the question was posed deny that I was a brahmin, albeit from the Hyderabad-Karnataka region.


Curiously though and around the same time my vegetarianism did not bother me. A public acknowledgement of which in south India would immediately and incontrovertibly establish my status as a brahmin. Precisely because of this association and the fact that the brahminical culture held meat eaters in contempt, many brahmins turned to non-vegetarianism in a show of solidarity with the other castes. Meat eating was beyond any doubt regarded as an effective mode by which brahminism could be defied. It was suspect to not endorse or adopt or at least pay lip service to this strategy. But why this mode held no appeal for me is not something I can rationalize. It was not because I loved animals (which is not to say that meat-eaters do not love animals). Either, flying in the face of all evidence to the contrary, the link between brahminism and vegetarianism did not seem an intrinsic one to me. Or I did not think I would cease to be a brahmin by eating meat. Also there were enough meat eating brahmins who continued to be casteist. Or I did not care for endorsement of my political credentials. Or I wanted my commitment to the issues to be accepted on its own terms, delinked from what I ate! Or brahminism had already claimed my system -- each time I made an attempt to eat non-vegetarian food I recalled the time when early on I had inadvertently eaten meat and had almost immediately thrown up. The arguments therefore that I was losing out on a whole lot of gastronomic delights did not hold much appeal for me either. In any case food matters did not quite constitute my brahmin self in spite of my awareness of the normative association between the two.


Also as mentioned above my caste self was further defined in the context of the University. The first major caste related case in which almost the entire University participated did not in any way provoke my brahmin identity. This was the large procession taken out in the campus in protest against the massacre of dalits by the caste Reddys in the village of Karamchedu, Andhra Pradesh in 1989. Though an atrocity that was directly related to caste, it must have been possible then to have responded to it in generic terms as violation of human rights. When the agitation around the implementation of the Mandal Report (providing for 27% reservations for Other Backward Classes in public sector jobs and education) began in 1990 too I did not think I was protesting it as a brahmin or as a member of a caste group. It seemed to me that my stance was an objective one and I could therefore carry on as part of the anti-Mandal group while continuing personal friendships with members of the pro-Mandal group within the campus.


The realization that caste interests played a critical role in the entire agitation came about through various rounds of discussions leading to a process of self reflection. These also led to the realization that caste matters are not restricted to the private realm but in fact circulate in the public sphere contributing actively to creating and maintaining networks of power and institution. In fact, the protests and counter protests in the wake of the Mandal report made it strikingly clear that while caste selves may be experienced differently at the individual and subjective levels, there was an undeniable pattern at the structural level in terms of upper castes enjoying privileges of various kinds and lower castes being consistently deprived of them. 


Extending the analysis further it became increasingly clear that caste matters impacted on a greater range of issues than I had apprehended earlier. Peer group formation, networks, access, activities, desire, taste, aesthetics etc. began to reveal themselves as being determined as much by caste as by class. While in this phase the primacy of caste in the organization of our society became obvious I today believe that this period also had the effect of diluting my specific identity of brahminism to the extent that it attached to me and of inaugurating a stronger sense of being a generic upper caste person. The inherent paradox lies in the fact that the mitigation of the brahmin identity in fact took place at a time when the figure of the brahmin and the metaphor of the brahminical was being constantly invoked to refer to upper caste groups. It now seems to me that within the metropolitan urban context, caste exclusivity does not matter as much as the broad division of upper and lower castes. Caste is seemingly absent in urban locations because it does not depend on ritual practices and the many fine distinctions that characterizes its presence in non-urban contexts. Instead in combination with class, caste in the urban areas has reproduced itself along two polarities – the upper and the lower; those to whom the provision of reservations applies and those to whom it does not. Furthermore, the trend is in terms of homogenization of the former and differentiation among the latter, especially in response to administrative requirements.




“Brahmin” has thus been an identity that had to be learned, and learned anew each time. In such a context it would perhaps be possible to see the Raichur episodes of my life as the authentic experience of being a brahmin as against a latter day motivated meaning given to that identity. It could as easily be claimed that the latter day understanding and experiencing of brahminism as part of a hierarchical caste system provides a necessary corrective to my earlier mode of living out the caste status. However, the question is not so much about which of the two is more relevant but about the nature of the shift itself from one mode of being to the other.  Differently articulated, the question is: at what point does one realize that the unselfconscious living out of a certain life has a critical import vis-à-vis the existence of larger structural realities? The question itself would apply to several areas of our lives but in the context of the discussion here the issue is about the implications that such a realization has for the subjective experience of caste.


The question is in effect about the nature of the relationship between the structural and the subjective. While subjective experiences are undoubtedly determined by socio-cultural and economico-political structures, the structural dimension does not ever map on to subjective accounts in any neat and singular manner. Nor indeed does a grasp of the subjective account provide direct comprehension of structural configurations. (To use my case as an instance, the absence of a strong brahmin self or its presence in a weak form does not imply that the caste system and its a/effect do not exist). Yet both, analyses of the structure as well as accounts of the subjective, are important. What we have presently is skewed in favour of the former, i.e. rich discussions of caste in terms of structures. The subjective experiencing of the caste selves awaits further exploration. This however brings us back to an issue that I have been hinting at right through this particular account: providing a narrative of the caste self is not without its own set of problems.


For instance, as with most identity accounts that are immediately recognizable, the narration of the brahmin self too picks on familiar tropes such as of purity / pollution and also draws on typologies.  The modes of narrating the brahmin self in most cases could involve either an aggressive / defensive exposition of the truth of brahminism or recount a journey of defiance spurred by anger or guilt or self loathing. Between these extremes is the living out (within modernity) of the several incoherences that draw upon the caste system but are not reducible to it. The many possible combinations would perhaps comprise of contradictory feelings of affinity towards or abhorrence against certain aspects of the caste life or even complete absence of identification. Understanding the life of caste in all its incoherence would thus involve traversing through the available normative descriptions of caste, constrictive though they may be. Such narratives (of caste subjects) would provide a window to how, when and to whom the caste self is, or becomes, (un) important. Such accounts are likely to be marked by a great degree of fluidity since caste selves do not reside as fixed entities. It is perhaps in this flux that the possibility of the annihilation of caste lies.






I wish to thank S. Anand for persuading me in the first place to write this piece and then for his patience as I deliberated upon it. I am grateful to Shital Morjaria, Tejaswini Niranjana, Madhava Prasad, K. Satyanarayana, Veena Shatrugna and Susie Tharu who read through an earlier draft and responded to it. The feedback from my parents and brothers was important to me. However I remain solely responsible for the thoughts expressed here on caste selves!





Ananthamurthy, U.R. Samskara. Trans. A.K.Ramanujan. Delhi: OUP, 2000.


Bairy, Ramesh. Caste, Community and Association: A Study of the Dynamics of Brahmin

Identity in Contemporary Karnataka. Unpublished Ph.D Dissertation submitted to

the. University of Hyderabad, 2003.


Bama. Karakku. Trans. Lakshmi Holmstrom. Chennai: Macmillan, 2000.


Dangle, Arjun, ed. The Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit

Literature. Hyderabad: Orient Longman Limited, 1992.



Dirks, Nicholas. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Delhi:

Permanent Black, 2002


Gandhi, M.K. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans.

Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1927.


Guru, Gopal. “Power of Touch” in Frontline. Vol. 23, Issue 25, December 16 – 19, 2006.


Limbale, Sharankumar. Akkarmashi. New Delhi: Granth Academy, 1991.


Pandian, M.S.S, “One Step Outside Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public

Sphere” in Economic and Political Weekly, 37: 18, May 4 – 10, 2002, pp. 1735 –