Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On Havyaka Brahmins, in Himal Southasian

When I first heard that Havyaka Brahmins were contemplating bringing brides from amongst the Kashmiri Pandits, I burst out laughing. After I was done mocking them, I realized it was a serious issue. The shortage of girls of marriageable age, due to many reasons, is a story I hear all the time in family gatherings. (Did I mention that I was born a Havyaka Brahmin myself?) When I started to research for the first person account, I was faced again with the supremacy attitude that I am repulsed with. What came out was nothing short of a rant against the prejudices and rigidity of the community. I half-jokingly told ma that I hoped the article would get me ex-communicated!

So Himal Southasian, among my favourite places to read, and to write for, decided to publish the story. Read it here. And because I would like people to also read the original, here below is the complete, unedited rant.



On the day that the Mayans prophesized the world would end this December, my little

cousin got married. He is 23, going on 24. He still likes sleeping on his mother’s lap and enjoys being pampered by us older cousins. He is still a kid, even if he is legally allowed to marry. I could predict the pattern; he will get married and within two years, be a father.

The family is very well off, the lineage a respected one in the region. But the urgency
springs from the fact that he lives with his parents and looks after the vast family estate about 20 kilometers from the nearest big town. Even one of these was enough to keep him off the eligible bachelors’ list; all combined was a disaster that was mitigated by a frantic search for a bride high and low. His mother started looking the day he turned 21. His now wife is two years younger.

This is the latest, albeit rare, triumph that I am hearing about in my community. Here
is my full disclosure: I was born into the Havyaka Brahmin community, the coastal
Karnataka wing of a sub-caste of Brahmins that is, supposedly, perched on the top rung of an already tall order. The Havyakas have their own dialect, a version of old world Kannada. The cuisine is distinctive from those from the kitchens of other sections of Brahmins, with coconut shreds in nearly everything- a regional influence that- and an array of traditional recipes for jackfruit, raw banana and breadfruit. Again, cultures are different; the Havyakas of central Karnataka have another dialect, different cuisines and lesser rigid practices. The Havyakas are Rama worshippers and owe allegiance to a religious order in central Karnataka, headed by a portly guru who has his share of corruption charges and illicit relationships whispered about from the hallowed halls of many a rumour mill. Ideally, the Havyakas wouldn’t inter-marry with other Brahmins, everyone else is a “step down”; though the liberals would go as far as to seek, forge alliances with the Trimathasthas, in which the Havyakas, along with the Shivalli Brahmins and the Kota Brahmins, make up the trinity of Brahmin elitedom.

This rigidity, apart from attitude shifts, is what is giving the community much grief, I observe, perversely, I have no shame in admitting. My grouse arises from the regressive ideas about women that the community I was born into has, so rooted that the dialect assigns only a neuter ‘it’ to the female gender. This from those of the learned class! I mock the irony every time an uncle or the son he is bringing up to be just like him makes a flippant comment on women. Sometimes social obligations stifle my urge to let loose some feministic outcry. I hate that.

So the point is that a very large number of Havyaka boys and men remained unmarried, for reasons such as these: not in glamorous enough professions, a skewed sex ratio and if they still live with their parents, girls these days couldn’t be bothered to put up with the in-laws, referred to in certain circles as Rahu-Ketu, the inauspicious ones.

Though in keeping with several Indian communities a son would be the apple of his parents’ eyes, daughters are well loved too. There has never been a known case of female foeticide or infanticide. So I couldn’t explain the reason for the skewed sex ratio. Though traditional professions were agriculture, the culinary sector and priesthood, the silicon valleys of the world are where you would find more Havyaka people these days. The ones who continued family traditions and became farmers, chefs and priests and scholars in temples have the hardest time finding girls willing to marry them. If the prospective groom lives in a village, then he might as well sign away his dreams of a family. And so a race, a pure Aryan one at that, is on the verge of extinction, says M G Sathyanarayana.

M G Sathyanarayana is a man on a mission to almost singlehandedly “save” the community from going the Parsi way. When I call him, he is in Varanasi, sourcing girls to bring back to Sullia, some 4,000 kilometres and 43 hours by train away, in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada, Karnataka. I don’t tell him of my connection with the community, though half way through I sense that he is desperate to ask me which caste I belong to. He proceeds to give me an introduction to the Havyakas and I pretend to make notes. The economics of the trade follow. And I near bristle with indignation and outrage at how matter-of-factly he explains the whole business of sourcing the brides for the boys back home. Though I want to smirk at the state of those that were intolerably chauvinistic, who I grew up watching at every community gathering, as a woman, it offends me to be made part of the purchase deed.

From Kashmir to Karnataka
A body of ‘social service’ people, called Kashyap Yuva Brahmin Vedike in Sullia, led by Sathyanarayana, arrived at this idea that since both Havyakas and the Kashmir Pandits were “pure races”, what better way to “save them from their refugee plight” than to buy the fair, beautiful Kashmiri Pandit girls as brides for the boys and men back home! The idea was mooted in March but took off only a few months later. Families that had unmarried boys could register with the association and they would bring in Kashmiri girls to match with the boys. The association was in for a surprise. Sathyanarayana tells me that they discovered some 3000 men between the ages of 22 and 45 who wanted to get married. There are many others who wouldn’t openly admit their inability to find wives. Where the association expected up to 50 registrations, there were 300 that attended the meeting and 180 who registered. “As of now we have 384 men ready to get married to any girl as long as she is a vegetarian. We have stopped taking on more names now until we finish a trial round of marriages,” Sathyanarayana tells me, proudly. In an instant, he manages to objectify women and trivialize marriages, reducing the whole thing to something that reeks of condescension and chauvinism coated with the arrogance of being a superior race that is making great sacrifices to uplift and protect other pure blood.
There is something fundamentally wrong when you approach the act of marriage as a business transaction. And trade it is, when I hear of the economics at play here.

The numbers game
There are approximately 4.5-5 lakh Havyaka families out there, Sathyanarayana tells me. They live primarily along the Konkan coast, from Karwar to Kannur in Kerala, apart from in parts of central Karnataka. He vehemently denies that the sex ratio is skewed, claiming that there are 93 girls for every 100 boys. I cannot prove either ways, the census figures don’t account for this sub-caste. He blames attitude shifts, holding girls responsible for being educated and making their own decisions and thus leaving the cooks and the priests unmarried. I am reminded of a girl who, amidst the theatrics of meeting boys in an arranged alliance, refused to marry my cousin and was condemned far and wide for doing so – imagine a girl saying no!

The Jammu and Kashmir government is promising to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits and give them their land and houses back. So now they are a little hesitant to take up our offer, says Sathyanarayana. “But when has the government ever done anything it has promised? We are still hopeful,” he adds, not willing to let go of the Aryans just yet.

Meanwhile he is in Varanasi, getting the papers ready to bring down ten families to meet boys. The train charges for a girl and her parents plus other expenses will come up to Rs 45,000. Each girl will meet at least three boys. Once the match is fixed, the boy’s family has to pay all the expenses.. The other two need not despair, “they will get another chance to see a girl,” Sathyanarayana says, rather benevolently. The idea is to get more than a few girls to marry local boys, so that they wouldn’t miss their hometowns all too much.

But isn’t culture, food habits, language, wholly different? I ask. Sathyanarayana, I imagine, is shaking his head vigorously as he tells me to look at history. “Over 600 years ago, we all came from the same Sindhu Valley, the Kashmiri Pandits and us
Havyakas. We came down to the south with Shankaracharya. We all have the same religious beliefs and customs,” he insists. And the girls will learn and adjust, is the obvious assumption, regardless of lifestyles so different they might as well be from another country. It isn’t that women over the years haven’t adjusted drastically in marriages, but the natural assumption that these women ought to be grateful for getting the chance to do so is what angers me.

His view and that of several, several others in the community is the same. They believe that integration with the other pure Aryan races will help develop the communities and preserve purity. “Brahmins are known for cleanliness, for discipline and intelligence. We have to ensure that the community does not disappear,” he tells me.

Though a Havyaka Brahmin by default of birth, I have no sympathy for the perils that my community perceives itself to be facing. For the slights I have seen passed around by the male elders, for every time I have been referred to as an ‘it’, I want to feel vindictive. But more than that, at a fundamental level, as a woman, I hate the way these dealings are conducted. The buying of brides isn’t uncommon in other parts of the country, the world. It has been happening for generations, in one form or the other. But when you hear the stories from inside the house, listen in on the business dealings and hear of the furtive attempts at clever matchmaking, you cannot help but feel the blow. Of being the perpetrator, and the victim, of the derision of womankind.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Life sure does look incredibly good at 4 am on a cold December morning in Bangalore! :)
*Touch wood*

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Elephant Talkies

I miss the old days of real cinema, when computers were not part of the film making process.

I am getting a little tired of being asked to enjoy the graphics in a movie. Sure, they are amazing, what you see in 3D these days. The graphics will keep getting better. But give me old world cinema with much dialogue, the montages, the simple editing and smart camera angles any day. The more technology advances, the more I realize how much old world I am.

So the other day I had a bad mood day and went to watch Life of Pi, because everyone said I just had to watch it. One of the lenses of my 3D glasses had fallen off. Even if they hadn’t, I would still have gotten bored. I got thoroughly bored watching that movie. There, I said it. I haven’t read the book, so it isn’t my traditional dislike of movies that are based on books. Richard Parker is good, no doubt. But to me, the movie was way too artificial for it to stay on in my mind after I left the theatres. Sure, I agree that without the help of technical wizardry, the film couldn’t have been made, not with that kind of story. But there is nothing moving about computer generated shipwrecks and struggling tigers. No sir, that don’t impress me much. I am happy to be in the era of The Artist and Cinema Paradiso.

Today, being in another of those many moods, I decided I had to see mountains and animals. Having heard the Tamil film Kumki was good, I bought myself a ticket and settled in, nearly squealing with joy that there were no screaming kids in the entire row! (A whole different post on kids in public places, I must write.) There was a couple eating popcorn noisily, but that was ok. Given my jinxed histories, as long as I cannot see a kid in my immediate line of sight, I shall be happy.

So Kumki was a film I had heard the songs of and quite liked. The story is of a mahout and his elephant going to a village to deal with a lone tusker that is causing havoc in the fields and killing people. The mahout, a handsome Vikram Prabhu, falls in love with the headman’s daughter and stays on, even though his elephant isn’t trained to be the kinds that can chase away a wild lone tusker. So the story goes on.

I thought the cinematography was pretty good. But then, show me green dense forests and many shots of tall mountains and I will love the whole film. The village is planted in a valley and is surrounded by the most gorgeous mountains. The shots of the forests are picture postcard perfect, with sunbeams falling in through the trees and the water in little streams glistening like silver fish. Shots of the skies are shot in HD format, I thought. I don’t care much for those kinds of photographs, the colours are too enhanced for my taste.

Kumki is quite a good film, overall. The hero is nice eye candy and the little village love story is rather cute. Unlike most Tamil films, there is no separate comedy track, which is a relief. The pace is rather slow; but the songs are catchy. Towards the end, it falters and stumbles. SPOILER ALERT: The whole movie builds up to an event where the tame city elephant is supposed to drive away or kill the lone tusker. The fight, when it happens, last all of less than five minutes and is computer generated. Which is fine, I wouldn’t have wanted them to hurt a real elephant but the graphics aren’t exactly the best in the market. After the lush green fields and clouds kissing mountains, the fight, with swift editing and on slippery mud, provides a very jarring effect. That spoiled it for me.

I am the sort of person that bawls at the slightest hint of an animal being hurt in a film. I never watch dog movies, because the dogs always die and I weep endlessly. I like my animals alive and happy at the end of stories. Which is never the case. Which is why I never watch animal movies. With Kumki, though the animal-human bonding is shown beautifully, when the killer fight does take place, there isn’t any time to feel sorry for the hurt animal. Plus with the graphics in place, I wasn’t moved at all. SPOILER ALERT: So when the lone tusker is pushed off the edge and then Manickam, the tame one, extends a hand to the mahout before it falls on its side, shedding a few tears before it dies, I was not touched. I did not even get misty eyed.

It must have been the graphics. The movie stops short of being really good. I would watch it again for the mountains, the Jog Falls and sunbeams spilling in through the trees. But to hand it to the director, the ending didn’t have the threads neatly tied up and presented to the audience as a going away gift. I quite liked that.

Now I am thinking of mahouts and their relationship with their elephants. Sometimes, they grow up together, I hear. The Jenu Kuruba tribe in Kodagu is good at this. The last time I was home, there was a sports day for the elephants at the Dubare camp. Before every command, I saw the mahout and his helper repeatedly touch the elephant’s forehead and legs, respectively, and say a quick, silent prayer. The elephants are mild creatures, most times, but the men are always in danger. I found the mutual trust and respect heartwarming.

That leads me to another story. But that is for another day now.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome
Some day --- very soon. I promise.
You hang in there for me.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Shout Out to My Lovelies

Typing this in a taxi en route to that little space called home after a flight that threw the baggage of too many thoughts into my head, I am more grateful than I have ever been for my women friends and how important they have become for me. Thank you my lovelies, especially S, B. Thank you for understanding my insanities.
And I must add a hug of gratitude each to L, A, S for being not-normal. Thank you for being you, for loving me for being me.