It’s time to do away with belittling Tam-Brahms

A response to Ms. Sharanya Mannivannan’s article in the Indian Express titled It’s Time to Do Away With ‘Tam-Brahm’”.

In the Indian Express article titled “It’s Time to Do Away With ‘Tam-Brahm”, the author Ms. Sharanya Manivannan, rants about an incident from her mid-twenties when an inebriated person in a night-club asked her if she was a “Tam-Brahm”. She uses this incident to launch into a tirade about the audacity of Tamil Brahmins to refer to themselves as “Tam-Brahm”. In short she asks, how dare Tamil Brahmins use a term that reminds people that we have not been stamped out of existence? Especially, when people in Tamilnadu have worked so hard to do just that?

It is important to note that when this inebriated woman asked the author if she was Tam-Brahm, she did not follow it up with any words that implied that she was disappointed that the author was not Tam-Brahm. There is no indication that this question rose because the woman thought Tamil Brahmins are “upper-caste” or superior in any way.

Now let us imagine a similar scenario. An intoxicated Christian asks someone with a name like “Akila” if she is a Christian. Before Akila responds, someone else says, “No, her name is Akila Malik, Christians do not use names like Malik”. Such an incident would have been forgotten and never thought of again. Akila would not be outraged and would not construe the innocent question to be “a subtle act of aggression”. That’s because admitting that you belong to a group whose identity is Christian is alright and you are even allowed to be proud of it. But God forbid someone admits to an identity of being Brahmin! So many people believe that Brahmins do not even have that right. We Brahmins are secondary citizens because of the sins of our fathers. Our ancestors did bad things and so we should quietly subject to being belittled, degraded and ripped of our identity for all eternity.

As a Tam-Brahm, I and many like me have been treated with this contemptuous attitude all of our lives. We have been ridiculed and bullied all through our lives because we were born in a Brahmin family. Like the author mentions, I did nothing to earn being called a Brahmin, just like she did nothing to earn her surname. Yet, it is fine for her to use her surname to identify herself, but she self-righteously condemns my use of my identity as a Tam-Brahm.

She says that she was struck that “a young person in a casual, urban social setting, that too in a state of intoxication, had maintained such a sound grip on how to peg people quickly”. I think the key word here is “intoxication” and the implication is that Brahmins shouldn’t even admit to their identity in a state of intoxication. Can you imagine the outrage if the person wasn’t intoxicated?

Personally, I have noticed that many of the young people (in urban social settings) who riot that Brahmins should be eternally ashamed of their heritage are those who did not grow up in Tamilnadu during the last 50 years. They were raised abroad and are lucky to have been brought up “caste-oblivious”. Brahmins like me who grew up in Tamilnadu in the last 50 years never had that luxury. We were constantly reminded that we belonged to the caste-that-should-not-be-named; the caste that is constantly picked-on; the caste that is freely made fun of in movies, songs, and dramas. This is because we are the caste that doesn’t retaliate and, we are the caste that does not have the right to retaliate. We were forced to grow up feeling ashamed of our heritage and downright scared to reveal our identity as a Brahmin. I grew up hating my first name because it revealed that I am a Brahmin, as if just being born a Brahmin was an unforgivable sin. It took me years to become comfortable in my identity as a Brahmin and stop worrying about my name. I wrote a blog post about that more than a year ago.

Tam-Brahms are derogatorily called “thayir sadam, namam, pattai, parpan, pappathi, mamis” and so on. If we were ever to use such word for a person based on their caste, we could face criminal procedures. I recall an incident from my early teen years where a stranger threatened to report my father to the police for calling him “lower-caste” when all my father did was to tell him not to touch me. So, I would like to know who really keeps casteism alive?

The author says that it is not incidental that “the artsy, alternative, more affluent circles” that she moves in is dominated by Brahmins. She does not know how many Brahmins are poor because she has not moved in those circles. It is also not incidental that she moves in circles dominated by Brahmins if she grew up abroad. That’s because most of us have been chased out of our homeland to earn a living just because we are Brahmins. I have heard it said that only those who have sinned have to leave their homeland and seek a living in other lands. So, this is another way by which we continue to pay for the sins of our ancestors. But, when does this debt end? Never, apparently. Most of us that leave the blessed shores of Tamilnadu for other countries end up staying abroad. Why? because in other countries we are not constantly judged by our names or our caste or our diet or our dialect or our other day-to-day practices and religious beliefs.

So, the next time you hear the term “Tam-Brahm”, please realize that we do not use it to subtly aggravate or make history more palatable. We do not use it to clarify our rank in a hierarchy of your imagination or to defend the caste system. We certainly do not say it to negate centuries of bigotry or embrace the same. Instead, we use it to feel solidarity in our oppression. We ask about it to find out if we can feel comfortable and safe in a group. We use to tell each other that we understand and to know that we have some things in common. We even use it to make fun ourselves. (Please feel free to peruse some of the Tam-Brahm communities on Facebook. You will find that the predominant theme is making fun of ourselves.) So, please stop attributing malice where there is none. We all use terms like Indians, Tamils, Chennaites and many such other names to identify ourselves in various circumstances and Tam-Brahm is just one other way.

We are so much more than what our ancestors did to others. That is exactly why it’s time to stop deriding us. Usually, all we ask is to live and let live. But this time, instead of choosing to remain invisible, I shall step up and say no. I am done paying the debt of my ancestors. I refuse to be stomped on for sins that I did not commit. I am Tam-Brahm and I am proud of it, because what the term means to me is not what it meant to my ancestors. So, start getting used to it; we Tam-Brahms are here to stay.

-Ambuja Bharadwaj

PS: Those who know me know that I am not one to air my personal views on controversial topics in public. But I did so this time, because the original article in the Indian Express upset me greatly. Thanks for all your support, friends.








12 comments on “It’s time to do away with belittling Tam-Brahms

  1. “Now let us imagine a similar scenario. An intoxicated Christian asks someone with a name like “Akila” if she is a Christian. Before Akila responds, someone else says, “No, her name is Akila Malik, Christians do not use names like Malik”. Such an incident would have been forgotten and never thought of again. ”

    I am a Tamil Brahmin myself and I often have this question, “Why in the first place even talk about religion/caste at this age and time? Why would someone ask somebody if they were a Christian/Muslim? What does it have to do with anything?” You say, ”We ask about it to find out if we can feel comfortable and safe in a group. We use to tell each other that we understand and to know that we have some things in common.” Don’t you think those things in common can be with anyone else who drinks filter coffee or eats Thayir Saadham(which is not rare among non Tamil Brahmins) Also,things we do (that only we do) can be so trivial for a discussion( and if absolutely required, can be casually discussed upon discovering someday that this friend of yours is Tam Brahm) and doesn’t really warrant asking the question “Are you a Tam-Brahm?” which might indeed promote Caste-ism. There are things beyond Tam Brahm practices and culture to relate to somebody, in my humble opinion.

    • I agree with you Monisha, there are other things that could be used to relate to somebody. That said, here are the points I was trying to make:
      1. Why is it that in the case of my hypothetical scenario with Christian/Muslim, the exchange would be forgotten? Why is it that they jump on such things only when it comes to Tam Brahms? In the former case, some people might think it weird, some may even be a little put off, but it would never warrant an extreme reaction such as this: publishing an article in a leading newspaper calling to do away with the term that they use to call themselves! how ridiculous! If you were equally offended in the former scenario, would you say Christians should stop calling themselves Christians or whatever the case may be? No, but this author had no qualms about applying this double standard to Brahmins. Why? (this is a long discussion in itself). The author wrote it in the smug confidence that Brahmins would never defend themselves. For whatever reason that is true: some people carry Brahmin guilt, some just don’t feel strongly enough, some just don’t want to get involved. I felt it was time to stand up and say we are not going to sit around and be trampled anymore.
      2. In this particular case the author mentions, the person who asked this question was drunk. It is likely that the same person might have not asked it when sober. But again, they are not given the benefit of the doubt merely because they are Brahmin.
      3. When I talked about why we use the term, I was making the point that promoting caste-ism is NOT the reason. They need to stop imagining insults and prejudice where there isn’t any. In support to this point, I would like you to ask yourself, as a Tam-Brahm if you have ever looked at any of your non-Brahmin friends as inferior or lower in some ancient hierarchy? I am willing to bet the answer is no. I know the answer is no for me. Heck, I would be hard pressed to list what “castes” were considered lower-caste. I don’t know because that prejudice does not enter my mind. So, why should I be ashamed of my identity when it does not mean to me what they think it means to me? Muslims are commonly associated with violence, but others and Muslims themselves stand up for the non-violent ones and say “don’t label us all like that”. That is precisely what I am saying too. Why is it okay when Muslims say it, but wrong when a Brahmin says it?
      4. I am not denying that my ancestors did wrong. I am even accepting that its only natural that we got blamed for it. The sins of the fathers do fall on their sons/daughters. But, where and when does it end? Christians slaughtered thousands in Europe in the middle ages. Both Christians and Muslims committed atrocities in India too. But we don’t still shun them for it. People are willing to forgive and forget and move on. But not so with Brahmins. They don’t ever forgive or forget, they keep bringing it up and on top of that they say we are the one promoting caste-ism even now. Why should I continue to be publically shunned and ostracized for no fault of mine? I felt it was time to say that I am done paying for sins that I did not commit.
      5. The things that we do, that we only do, those trivial things tend to bring us together precisely because they are things that are constantly picked-on by them. So much so, that we edit our dialect, our choice of Tamil words when we speak to them. We consider them outsiders because they peg us as different. We feel compelled to hide our identity to protect ourselves from ridicule. Many Brahmin men don’t wear a namam/pattai or even accidentally let their poonal show in public. We feel safer letting our guard down with other Tam Brahms. Yes, there are other ways to relate to people like you say, but does that mean we should not relate to someone with whom we share day-to-day practices? They won’t even allow us the solace of our own community. Would anyone ever think of saying that to people of any other group? be it caste or religion or anything? No, they will only do it to us and more specifically it happens more in Tamilnadu than the rest of India. It is a product of years of political propaganda and brainwashing that continues generation after generation. It is time we talk about our side of the story. That’s the point I was trying to make.
      Thanks, Ambuja

  2. what can one comment ? Tamil brahmins at least most of them are very poor but how many affluent brahmins who earn huge sums,think of helping out these persons.No use getting angry,Tamil brahmins are the one and only community which has no sense of unity,see where we are today and I shudder to think where we would be in future

    • I completely agree. We don’t even look out for each other. I hope that the youth will change all that for the better.

  3. I am also a Tambaram….as u rightly pointed out saying so in no way means belittling other castes…. If we really want to do away with casteism we must do away with the caste certificates issued and should do away with caste related sections in all government forms….

    • True. My late grandfather, who passed away last year, was involved in such work in Kumbakonam. I will find out if some other family member has taken over the task. If not I will do something to carry his work forward.

  4. Three cheers for you Ambuja !!! You took the guts to break this hell out. When I read this article the other day which apparently was shared in a Tam-Brahm group in FB, I lost my patience and I wanted to write something but then I thought its better to ignore as we always had been doing and are doing now. Your post made my day !!!

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