Friday, July 14, 2017

Caste In Jaffna: Mirage By K. Daniel

Prof. Charles Sarvan
logoCaste in Jaffna: Mirage by K. Daniel. Translated by Subramaniam Jebanesan; edited, introduced and annotated by Richard Fox Young. Kumaran Book House, Colombo, 2016.
This novel depicts and indicts caste among the Tamils of Sri Lanka as Daniel (1927-1986), an apostate or a “convert” from (religious) Catholicism to (secular) Marxism, observed and experienced it. “This particular novel takes place in the village where I was born and grew up… All the characters who pass through it were people I saw with my own eyes. Some are still living. Each incident that occurs in the novel actually happened” (p. xiv):  it’s an instance of the novelist as witness and testifier.
If racism means the subordination and oppression by one group of another group or groups, then casteism can be seen as another manifestation of racism. I would suggest that Tamils who don’t protest Tamil casteism in Sri Lanka lose the moral right to protest Sinhalese racism. One cannot claim from others what one denies to one’s own. Some Tamils, both Hindu and Christian, may be upset by what I write but I hope, very much, that displeasure will lead to honest, detached, thought rather than to emotional, “knee-jerk”, denial and rejection.
Caste is not simply an upper-class lower-class dichotomy for there are gradations, sub-divisions, particularly enforced on the latter. If one speaks of the Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’, then Daniel belonged to what I would ironically call the caste of the “unseeables”: upper-caste people considered it a bad omen even to see a member of this caste, and would sometimes strike them for daring to appear in their sight (p. 304). Even their shadow was deemed polluting. They were the lowest of the low, the washer folk, the “dhobis” of the washer folk. Teased and bullied at his Catholic school by upper-caste pupils, Daniel dropped out. (The UK Observer of 2 July 2017, reporting on the suicide of a Dalit student at a university in India, comments that for Dalit students university is a place of constant insult and abuse.)

Caste in Jaffna: Mirage by K. Daniel. Translated by Subramaniam Jebanesan; edited, introduced and annotated by Richard Fox Young. Kumaran Book House, Colombo, 2016.
The translator, Dr S. Jebanesan, was Bishop of Jaffna until his retirement. Richard Fox Young, a Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, provides a wealth of anthropological and historical information, drawing attention to detail that an uninitiated reader may miss. “I doubt that Thampappillaiyan will keep quiet” (p. 48) is glossed as: Until now Nanniyan had always referred to him as Thampappillaiyar. The minor change of the “ar” ending to “an” signals in the original Tamil the casting aside of an undeserved respect (p. 249). On page 51, a woman refers to her husband as “that man” and Young clarifies that in traditional Tamil society (and in Sinhalese society, I’d add) a wife didn’t mention the name of her husband. So too, it was customary and polite not to say, “I’ll go now” but, “I’ll go now and come (return)”. Shortened and contradictorily, on leaving one would simply say, “I’m coming”.  A boat shaped like a toddy cup would be understood by Jaffna readers because toddy was “served in cups made out of green Palmyra leaves shaped to resemble this very kind of boat. What that actually looks like, Daniel does not need to say” to his original Tamil readers (p. 255). The characters in the novel refer to incidents and figures drawn from the Tamil Makaparatam, and Professor Young relates and clarifies significance. His contribution heightens understanding and interest, and enhances the value of the book.

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