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I wanted to prove a point. Too many inquisitive foreigners – mean-minded people, in my opinion – had delighted in quizzing me about the caste system. A Japanese man told me everyone was equal in Japanese society. “Well what about the burakumin?” I countered. He hastily replied that was all in the past. Well, much of what you know is no more there in India too, I said.

In Manhattan, I was determined to prove that the homeground of battle-hardened liberals was full of castes and the left-liberals needed to look no further to find them, certainly not as far as India. So, when my journalism class assignment was “Above and Below New York City”, I jumped at the idea. Here was my chance to sock it to those Americans who sought to put me in the dock by talking about the caste system in India.

To me, Above and Below was not about how high or how low New Yorkers lived, but income and social disparities – in other words, the caste system in a city that is often held up as the world’s melting pot where the most diverse peoples could fuse and thrive. And I decided to look up income data pertaining to New York City.

Even as early as 2002, one could get block-level Census figures in CSV files, which meant one could work on them and draw inferences.( A block in New York City is a small, rectangular area bound by two avenues and two streets). I found that almost all the highest-income folks, nearly all white people, lived in secluded neighbourhoods, abutting the sea or some vast green expanse. Across East 96th Street, however, in the borough of Manhattan  – not far from where leftwing playwright Arthur Miller once lived – rich, white folk were face to face with much poorer people of a different ethnicity. But geology, mysteriously enough, provided the necessary sociological separation. At East 96th Street, the island of Manhattan seemed to take a dive down into Spanish Harlem where Latinos lived. The street marked the beginning of a descent.

At East 96th Street, the island of Manhattan seemed to take a dive down into Spanish Harlem where Latinos lived. The street marked the beginning of a descent.

While the New York City winter was bleeding me, forcing me to stay in my heated students accommodation, my partner assigned for the story, Sean Alfano, went down to East 96th Street. He was from Buffalo and the cold didn’t seem to bother him too much. Through reportage, he fleshed out the barriers that ruled the lives of the people there. The crack reporter that he showed himself to be, Sean now works as Senior Staff Editor in The New York Times.

I had won! Manhattan was just like the village where my ancestors came from. Karungulam, in the Tirunelveli region of Tamil Nadu, had a temple on a hill, and as one strode down one encountered various caste groups. The agraharam – the brahmin street in Tamil villages — was right on top. One had to walk down a steep path – mysteriously called kottaivasal, the entrance to a fort, although there was no fort there – to step into that part of the village where the majority of the people lived.

Barriers fall
In the 1980s, as the brahmins vacated the agraharam and moved to cities elsewhere in TN and beyond, members of other caste groups bought their houses and moved in. Today, the Karungulam agraharam looks like a mixed neighbourhood while Spanish Harlem remains Spanish and the block south of East 96th Street remains exclusively white.

The blemish on my picture-postcard native village had been removed. Or so I thought during my recent visit.

I had won! Manhattan was just like the village where my ancestors came from.

My earliest memories of Karungulam were to do with sitting near the temple, on the hill, and enjoying the evening breeze. The silvery waters of Tamirabarani River on the left glistened in the moonlight and the occasional bus horn pierced the quiet. On the right, one could see the Tirunelvelli-Tiruchendur train emerge from the horizon and chug along the flat terrain and disappear into the other horizon. There were no buildings to mar the view.

That view is still there. The Tamirabarani still lives up to its tag of being a perennial river and the Tiruchendur train can still be seen chugging along under the open sky.

Among the changes in Karungulam is a marriage hall that has come up just at the entrance to the village. It looks remarkably similar to the scene in the recent movie Pariyerum Perumal in which the college student who is invited by his classmate to her family wedding is humiliated for daring to come there, unmindful of his social status. He had broken a social contract and had to be shown his place. In the shocking scene that jolts the viewer, he is urinated upon.

The scene marks a turning point in the movie when the ugly reality of caste starts dominating the narration – although the word caste or any reference to particular castes is not made. From then on, the film portrays the vicious and dehumanizing inequalities in village life in the area – Puliyankulam, Karungulam, Seithinganallur and so on.

Puliyankulam, google maps shows, is located just south-east of Karungulam. It’s where the film’s director Marri Selvaraj comes from – the fictional Pariyerum Perumal too comes from there.

Among the remarkably vicious practices observed in these parts was the settling of dalits south-east of the village, says A Sivasubramanian, a folklorist and author from Tuticorin. Early Tamil literature has given poetic names to winds that blow from each direction, he informs. None of the winds should caress the dalit before coming to the village, so south-east was the best direction for a dalit settlement, he says.

Puliyankulam may now be dry and dead-beat, especially in the eyes of the film. But it is the site of one of the most remarkable civilizations ever excavated in Tamil country. Burial urns dating back to thousands of years ago have been dug up in Adichanallur, abutting Puliyankulam. Adichanallur was the rage among tomb raiders and treasure hunters of Europe in the 19th century. German ethnologist Fedor Jagor took away thousands of antiques, among them jewellery, utensils and weapons, from Adichanallur and the artefacts are still lying uncatalogued at the Berlin Ethnological Museum.

The skeletons unearthed from the burial urns have confounded experts.  The bone structures didn’t quite look like that of the contemporary Tamil population. Many thought they were the original, ancestral race of Dravidians who established Indus Valley civilization. P Raghavan, a skeletal biologist who applied recent scientific methods, has however concluded that the skeletons did not belong to pre-history but likely to the early Sangam period, circa 500 BC. And they were skeletons of seafaring foreigners who came in through the nearby Pandyan port of Korkai.

So Adichanallur, as far as Raghavan was concerned, was likely a settlement, if not a burial place, of foreigners. Thousands of years ago, the area was home to a rather cosmopolitan civilization, a la Manhattan, where foreigners could live and die. How could the story of Adichanallur reconcile with that of Pariyerum Perumal’s Puliyankulam?

Many scholars say that social groups were turned into castes by brahmin settlers from Andhra and northern India. The brahmins created a rigid, walled-in system that provided stability and ensured their position and the position of others in the hierarchy. The settlers were given prime lands. Across Tamil Nadu, brahmin settlements are typically found along river banks where farmlands are fertile and well-irrigated, just like in Karungulam.

Marri Selvaraj has, however, insisted that the film should not be seen as telling the story of Karungulam or Puliyankulam, but as a chronicle of inequality in Tamil society.

Today, konar and thevar families live in Venkatesa Agraharam in Karungulam. But, what about pallars, the dalit caste group numerous in southern Tamil Nadu? Have they moved into the street just below the temple in Karungulam?

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