The Death of Freedom
the death of freedom
is the murder of love in a caste society, the death of freedom
is the pigeon’s wings flapping
against the walls of a mosque
minutes before the molotov cocktail hit
Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu (India), 2012
Caste is a constant state of war. It depends how you define war, I suppose.
Let me try again.
War is about borders and boundaries; war is waged in their defence. War is the destruction of homes, villages, towns, cities. War results in the creation of makeshift camps. War makes people refugees in their own motherland. War is the permanent loss of precious belongings and property. War pushes men to use any means necessary. War lacks sympathy; war is an act of cowardice; war exults in the elimination of the other; war results in bloodbaths. War is accompanied by looting and pillaging. War leaves wounds that last forever. War is someone suffering for someone else stepping out of line. War is mindless. War is not just the absence of peace or love; sometimes, it is just hate.
These are not the extended metaphors that a poet retrieves after a stroll in the forest. I remember my first visit to Dharmapuri as the day of unending tears. The Dalit colonies that had been attacked resembled villages scarred by invading armies.
I try to rethink everything described about war in terms of caste, to see if it comes alive.
You can try that, too ‒ right now, right here.
Wars aim to teach a lesson. So does caste-Hindu violence.
– –x– –
I showed these pictures to a friend, an elderly British man, because I wanted to know what to do with them. This is horrible, he said. We discussed what happened in Dharmapuri. A man and a woman fell in love and got married. He was Dalit, deemed untouchable; she was not. She was Vanniyar, a caste Hindu, backward in the hierarchy, rife with untouchability nevertheless. This angered the caste Hindus. The fires were retaliation for their transgression. Three Dalit villages, 268 homes, were torched on one single day by a Vanniyar mob. The police were passive bystanders. Politicians blamed the victims, making false accusations, alleging that perhaps they had set fire to their own homes.
Like in Kilvenmani, he asked, referring to my first novel? Yes, I said. But, but. That was a wage struggle; this is a love story. A love story that burned villages, isolated people, endangered lives, and changed the history of a place in a way in which no one would have anticipated. Here, the young man was driven to death ‒ a suicide that was murder. Here, in a struggle to learn the truth, his corpse was allowed to fester for 11 days and was subjected to three autopsies. I went on. This was grand; this was heart-breaking. They resemble each other, he said, and I think he is trying to hint that I am continually retelling the same story over and over again. Apart from the arson, I can see how it looks to an outsider.
Caste shows its disapproval ‒ caste kills, burns, destroys, and terrorizes. Caste skins the bodies of those it has just murdered. Caste is a gatekeeper. Caste is a hate machine. I cannot bring anything new to this story. I cannot offer fresh eyes. Endless iterations drain the life-blood out of storytelling. In the end, I choose a form that remains formless.
– –x– –
Following a romance spread over two years ‒ “over shared bus rides and furtive meetings in juice shops”, according to media reports ‒ Divya and Ilavarasan got married on 8 October 2012. Twenty-one-year-old Divya from Sellankottai belonged to the Vanniyar caste. This dominant backward community fashioned its power and ascent on caste and political hierarchy through systemic violence against Dalit people that took place over the last few decades. Ilavarasan was a 23-year-old Dalit man from a nearby village. After they married, they gave themselves up to the police, seeking protection. Both families were summoned; both families decided to stand by the marriage and their children. However, this breach of caste was not tolerated by the Vanniyars. They set up a kangaroo court that on 5 November 2012 demanded that Divya should be taken from her husband and returned to her family. Her father was present. He did not say a word. Grief-stricken, he committed suicide around 2 pm on 7 November 2012. Almost as if they were ready and prepared for such an eventuality, Vanniyar mobs descended on Dalit homes in three colonies of Naikkankottai (Natham Colony, Anna Nagar, and Kondampatti) and began destroying homes, looting valuables, throwing petrol bombs.
– –x– –
What can be seen in the images? Desks, lockers broken with stones and crowbars. Homes charred and covered in soot from the petrol bombings. The walls of rooms blasted away ‒ and the belongings inside them, molten, broken, and lingering in place as if they are waiting for the wall to sprout around them any minute. Fans with wings that all point downwards, perpendicular to the ceiling. Motorcycles torched, but still standing. The metallic grill grids of what must have been refrigerators. A schoolchild’s identity card, blackened around the edges, as if someone wanted a vignette effect and took it too far. Televisions with their screens smashed in. Plastic chairs, plastic water pots, plastic wall clocks ‒ all in a symbolic molten, charred, post-arson state.
Note to self: Look away from objects, look at people.
The smell of smoke lingers, days later. Another story emerges. Young men run a communal kitchen so that everyone gets a meal. In a perfect inversion of roles, women queue up to pick up their lunches. An open-air shop: a makeshift clothesline that sells essential sachets of anything anyone would need. Victims who appoint themselves volunteers make sure that visiting journalists and photographers are greeted with politeness, and are taken from one home to another, escorted around the village. Please take pictures, tell our story to the world. Suffering is no longer in the private realm, confined to the domain of silence. The story of the firebird, the phoenix that comes to life by rising from its own ashes is beyond myth and fable. Here, it is a story that you witness wherever you look.
– –x– –
It does not end there ‒ in the silent applause, in the careful chronicle of their bravery. I learn to take solace from the infinite strength of the women I meet.
On one of my subsequent visits, I stayed at P’s home. On my last day there, aware of my long drive back home to Chennai, his wife prepared a dish of beef and ground spices, dusting it with powdered coriander, and packing it in a Tiffin box for me. I carried the weight of the food as if I had a broken heart. I often tell myself to keep my distance, to stand apart, to watch from the sidelines, to avoid getting entangled. I see that has become impossible. Sleeping on their mattresses, eating from their plates, taking lunches for the road ‒ these are acts of personal kindness that I can only associate with my romantic idea of family. It shows a kindness that I cannot take for granted, a kindness that seeks nothing in return ‒ and is precisely why it becomes inconceivable to imagine a payback.
These are love lessons you learn in a place that is still healing.
– –xx– –
Delhi, India, 2020
One atrocity inevitably leads you to think of another.
The summer I visited Cambodia and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, I could not help but think of its inevitable parallel to Auschwitz. The two acts of mass extermination lay superimposed on one another. And when I walked like a ghost through the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, what played through my mind were the Nazi concentration camps I had read about.
The inevitable tics of memory did not reduce the magnitude of atrocities. A hall of mirrors, one site of atrocity brought up memories of another; violence multiplied. The violence showed multiple angles, made you realise it reflects and reproduces infinitely.
That is what happened when I went to Delhi, two weeks after the deadly riots. I thought of Dharmapuri.
Fans bent out of shape.
Clocks on the floor, frozen in time.
Wreckage lying around, weeks later.
– –x– –
In 2019 the BJP-led Indian Government launched a three-pronged attack that would take India a step closer towards becoming a Hindu nation. They brought about a Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), paving the way for Hindu immigrants from all the neighbouring countries except Sri Lanka to be able to access Indian citizenship automatically. Deliberate omission of Muslims went against India’s secularism.
The second line of attack was to formalise a National Population Register (NPR), and only those who could prove their citizenship would be inducted into the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This process of “moving” people from the local population registry to the local citizenship registry would involve verification and was meant to filter out “doubtful” citizens. Proving that one is an Indian citizen is an exercise wrought with misery. Most women lack documents. My mother was not even born in India. My father belongs to a nomadic tribe that does not remember any original native place. For the poor, the Dalits, and the lower caste, this law was exclusionary. For Muslims, the dangers were even graver ‒ they could be portrayed as spies and infiltrators from hostile neighbouring countries. For Muslims, these laws meant disenfranchisement. Reports suggested that more than 32,000 detention camps were to be built to house these doubtful citizens.
People protested ‒ there were sit-ins by women in Muslim localities, student marches in universities, hashtag trends on social media. But the backlash was distilled violence. Paramilitary forces thrashed the students who sought shelter in a library. A BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, called for traitors to be shot. Hindu mobs accompanied by police forces razed mosques, set fire to Muslim-owned vehicles, murdered. More than 58 people were killed; the majority were Muslims.
Here, too, the aim was to teach a lesson.
Here, too, it was a state of war.
Here, too, it meant the death of freedom.
– –xx– –
*1984 in Tamil Nadu, lives in Tamil Nadu and London
Meena Kandasamy is a poet and novelist who was born in Chennai, India. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010). Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), tells the story of the 1968 Kilvenmani massacre. Her second novel, a work of autobiographical fiction, When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (2017) was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. Her latest novel, Exquisite Cadavers (2019), is a work of experimental fiction that investigates storytelling. She divides her time between London and Tamil Nadu.More about Meena Kandasamy