Tag Archives: parayan

Controversy at the Bangalore Book Launch

February 18th; “When the Lotus Blooms,”  launched in Bangalore City at the CrosswordBook Store in Mantri Mall.

Those that have read the book know about Velandi the parayan. I blogged about it earlier, connecting it to ‘The Help” by Katherine Stockett. My editor warned me against inserting this piece as she felt it would give international audiences the wrong pictiure about India, but I felt compelled to include it because of my belief that in the life of the bramin, the parayan was important and to some extent their existence defined brahmin culture, taboos and caste rules. It was a practice I abhorred, yet I was filled with compassion for them and needed to highlight the importance of their role in society, something they themeselves were scarcely aware of. This section covers about 10 pages and is not in any way the main theme in the story, so I was very surprised when Vaasanthi brought up the use of the word Parayan in context of the current political arena in Tamil Nadu.To my horror a whole can of worms was opened.

The audience became very vocal, giving their reasons for the inclusion or exclusion of this term. I watched awestruck as the converstaion turned to antibrahmin sentiment, DMK ethos, Dalits and then boomeranged with vociferous calls for author’s license and freedom of expression.  ”Words banned today were common in the 1930?s and therefore had historical perspective,” they insisted. Vaasanthi warned that certain sections of Chennai society might find the use of this word objectionable and I should not be surprised if the book ends up being banned in the state. In my defense, I had no idea that the use of the word parayan was banned by law. It is considered as objectionable as the “N” word in the US and rightly so. Untouchability is reprehensible and their treatment abhorrent, which why I have tried to apologize in some way for this distasteful practice which exists in some parts of the country even today.

On a more positive note, the most incredible part of the Bangalore Launch was that it took place in the presence of my mother, Kamu Ayyar, who inspired me to write the book in the first place. It was really special because my sister Dammu, (Dharma Kannan) introduced me and I had my father-in-law and my brothers-in- law Mahendra and Kannan present as well.

My mother had been calling everyone she knew over the last month and  was terribly excited and anxious that everything should go as scheduled. We were expecting her friends to arrive in a string of wheelchairs and walkers!  The Chief Guest, Vaasanthi is a renowned author in Tamil language whom my mother recommended. My Publisher , Mr. Udayan Singh, has a strong presence in the north, but I was on my own in the south, and thankfully my sister Lakshmi had spoken to the store owner Mr. Pasha who was very helpful in arranging the launch at his store. In fact my book was the inaugural launch for this store. So really this event was the culmination of family effort.

After my sister completed the introductions Vaasanthi read out a very well scripted analysis of the book, after which we began a conversation. No matter how hard we tired to steer the conversation away the audience kept bringing it back to the topic of parayans. I was  not really worried. All it meant was that in addition to being my official photographer, my husband Rajiv would have to take on the ominous task of bodyguard as well, at the Chennai Book Launch.

All in all, several books were sold and many friends attended and supported me including celebrity Vani Ganpathy. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a good thing that there was no Press at the event.

Velandi -The Parayan (Untouchable)

Posted: October 26, 2011

I saw ‘The Help’ last week with my daughter. As I watched the movie unfold, I was amazed at how they focused on the help using an outside bathroom, and how distasteful and demeaning it was to them as human beings. In India, this practice is commonplace. Even today, the servants have a separate toilet if any; the open countryside or side of the road suffices, and they sit on the floor and eat in separate dishes. Even the rice bought for them is of an inferior quality. No servant would dare sit on a chair in the presence of the family. This is something we live with, and though my sensibilities were offended by the ‘bathroom issue’ in The Help, I know that on returning to India I will not bat an eyelid at the treatment of servants in my home. And to be truthful in our home we respect and treat them well. If you look at the lives of the lowest caste in India thesudras, or untouchables, their condition is pathetic, and even hearing about it makes your blood boil. From beatings to burning and ostracism, the list goes on. In many parts of rural India this is still a way of life, where people belonging to this caste simply accept their lot and don’t ask for more. Of course there has been an effort to uplift the classes through reservation and education, but the effort is too small to impact society at the level of the village. This is why I introduced Velandi into my book to demonstrate the contrast between the classes and the sheer injustice of it all. This is an extract from When the Lotus Blooms

She stopped just outside as she heard the noise of water. The parayan had come early to clean the latrine. Nagamma was not going to be too happy about that. No one had used the toilet as yet, and smell would become unbearable by tomorrow when he returned once again to clean. The latrine sat on a raised platform with three steps leading to it. Every morning the parayan crawled through a small side door and scooped away the stinking remains that lay underneath. Rajam watched in silence as he poured water and washed out the filth. As he crept out from the aperture beneath the toilet, he gave her a toothless grin. He wore a dirty undershirt and had his veshti tied almost like a loin cloth. His hands and clothes were covered in the muck that he worked with all day.

Rajam felt repulsed and sorry at the same time. What a job! All day he toiled in the filth and dirt, making the world a cleaner place to live in. She wondered if he realized how important his job was to them. If he missed coming to clean even one day, it became impossible to use the toilet without gagging. Still, she could not bring herself to come anywhere near him and stayed rooted to the same spot till he finished collecting the garbage and exited through the back door into the street that only parayans could use. He, too, sensed how his presence revolted her and left the house as quickly as he could. She was a brahmin woman, and he was a parayan, an untouchable. He knew his place and did not want to transgress the strict rules governing his presence in the brahmin quarter.

He had absolutely no clue that his life or his job was of any value to anyone.