Politics of the Intimate Pt. 1: The Brahmin Woman in the Brahmin Household

Of late, I have been prompted into thinking of how Brahminism is a kind of totalizing project, the kind that is decentered, deeply implicated in personal and intimate spaces, which despite lacking centralized institutional authority becomes the way through which the caste power is consolidated. I have been particularly impacted by reading Ann Stoler’s Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power, which analyzes how colonial empires controlled sexual access and formations of the white settler family in the colonies, and how empire was reproduced in the sexual, marital and familial spaces of the colonial homes.

As a result, I want to think about how the Brahmin household is central to the production of caste. The Brahmin household is centered around the authority of the Brahmin male (and for the purposes of this essay, this implicitly refers to cis-hetero Brahmin males), whose power is passed on to successive generations mainly through their male Brahmin offspring. Also essential to this household however, is gender inequality that enriches and reinforces the structure of male Brahmin authority. Sexual activity, reproduction and marriage are governed as a key part of the apparatus of Brahminical control, so that endogamy and bloodlines of caste “purity” can be strictly maintained by the Brahmin patriarchy. Nobody articulated this better than Ambedkar, who in his seminal essay Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development presented over 100 years ago, argued:

… it is absolutely necessary to maintain a numerical equality between the marriageable units of the two sexes within the group desirous of making itself into a Caste. It is only through the maintenance of such an equality that the necessary endogamy of the group can be kept intact, and a very large disparity is sure to break it.

[17] The problem of Caste, then, ultimately resolves itself into one of repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes within it. Left to nature, the much needed parity between the units can be realized only when a couple dies simultaneously. But this is a rare contingency. The husband may die before the wife and create a surplus woman, who must be disposed of, else through intermarriage she will violate the endogamy of the group. In like manner the husband may survive, his wife and be a surplus man, whom the group, while it may sympathise with him for the sad bereavement, has to dispose of, else he will marry outside the Caste and will break the endogamy. Thus both the surplus man and the surplus woman constitute a menace to the Caste if not taken care of, for not finding suitable partners inside their prescribed circle (and left to themselves they cannot find any, for if the matter be not regulated there can only be just enough pairs to go round) very likely they will transgress the boundary, marry outside and import offspring that is foreign to the Caste.

Preventing potential inter-caste marriages between men and women of different castes therefore, was of paramount importance to Brahminism. Through “the infection of imitation”, as Ambedkar terms it, other castes (particularly the upper-castes) also follow strict caste endogamy like the Brahmins. But the endogamy of other upper-castes principally still benefits the Brahmins as an entire class category, for it is their ritual purity that guarantees their monopoly over religious authority (as a priestly class), the material wealth of temples, and most significant of all, as producers and guardians of a sacred language, sacred knowledge, laws, rules, taboos, and entire genres of art, literatures and communication. All upper-castes exploit labour, but the Brahmins in particular control all knowledge production about systems of capital and labour, and there should be a focused analysis of what this means.

One critical aspect is that caste hierarchy is enabled through a strict governance of (cis-hetero) male and female sexualities, which has to suppress and thwart any sexual desire that is inimical to the cause of Brahminical hegemony. And so, women find themselves being constantly controlled and surveilled in their engagements with other castes in the personal and intimate spaces of the Brahmin household, such as the kitchen, the living areas, the bedroom and the grounds of their private property.

For instance, throughout my childhood, every single (non-Brahmin) maid or domestic helper my family employed came through a back gate and through the house’s backyard. In the landscaping design of the mostly-savarna college campus I grew up in, each row of houses prominently faced a main street which was well-lit, and maintained with tar, cement and gutters for rainwater, but which also had a narrower back alley for all the houses’ backyards, which were not lit at all, had poorly maintained roads, no gutters (meaning monstrous puddles during the monsoon), lots of weeds and snakes, and was often beset with rabid stray dogs who had made it their haunt. This spatial design already had Brahminism embedded in its imagination, most likely modeled on the old-school village agrahara or Brahmin-only locality. Now as a result, neither my mother, my grandmother, nor I ever approached the house through the backyard, which had a permanent air of “unsafeness” around it. The front gate, front door and front yard were our points of entry and exit. This also served a secondary purpose of surveillance, which is that our Brahmin neighbours knew which prominent neighbourhood figures were coming from and going to our house, while the predominantly Bahujan domestic labour that maintained the house — maids, gardeners, plumbers, masons, painters, repairmen — was relegated to its backspaces. The frontyard was visibility, respectability; the backyard was invisibility, disrespectability.

(I owe this line of interrogation to U.R. Ananthamurthy who I once heard speak of the frontyard and backyard with reference to gender, and how his father and his male coterie would discuss politics and economics in the frontyard, while the backyard was the space where women would “gossip” and chat about joys and sorrows. His argument was that writers were created through the stories of the backyard, whereas the frontyard conversations produced academics and administrators — itself a highly sexist conclusion. But I have also been informed through the vehement critique of this line of thought by the Kannada critic and writer G. Rajshekhar, who pointed out that frontyard and backyard were themselves characteristic of the kinds of households a certain class of people can have in India, and that the metaphor had specific caste-class connotations that were highly limiting. I’m hoping to overcome this limitation by centering both caste and gender, but without falsely equating their positions in the power structure.)

Equally critical in the Brahmin household, is the training and education of each generation of Brahmins of their own role within the caste economy. The Brahmin household is where their men and women are taught their place in reinforcing caste society through a deliberate cultivation of ignorance as a knowledge structure. As much as Brahmins police and gate-keep knowledge, they also perfect methods of generating and sustaining ignorance as a legitimate way of knowing things. A Brahmin has to feign ignorance about the histories of violence of caste, ignorance about patriarchy, ignorance about capital and labour, ignorance about surnames, ignorance about how power structures operate within Brahminism, ignorance about political and cultural representation — ignorance about something as basic as reservations and affirmative action, which they are taught from their youngest days are the more “real” discrimination.

The creation of a lack of knowledge here — an epistemology of ignorance — involves structures and process that redefine what discrimination is, how it is historically constructed, perpetuated, and reinforced, so that in this new redefinition, it is Brahmins who are victims and an anti-Brahmin state that is punishing them for a long-forgotten past. It is through these “epistemologies of blindness” (as Charles Mills referred to white ignorance, and I will extend that to Brahmins here) that Brahmins shape ignorance as much as they control knowledge.

Brahmin authority thus deploys ignorance as a strategic method to reinforce the foundations of caste, but this ignorance also has to be two-fold. On the one hand, the next generation of Brahmins — both male and female — are to be educated into this ignorant supremacist self-knowledge that is anti-Dalit and anti-Bahujan, but on the other hand, the Brahmin women have to be additionally groomed into neutralizing their own individuality and agency, and become good wives and mothers whose labour will ultimately benefit only Brahmin men. Brahmin women therefore, receive a second-order epistemology of ignorance. This second-order epistemology requires a double distortion — negating the humanity of Dalit-Bahujans, as well as subordinating female Brahmin will to the larger male Brahmin project. I stress on the second-order quality of this epistemology to indicate something urgent — that upholding Brahminism takes daily effort, it is a labouring process, and managing gender, class and sexuality in domestic spaces, in personal and intimate spaces, is crucial to its logic. So, if we (particularly, we women) who claim to be anti-caste and committed to the annihilation of caste can expose and lay bare the labour that goes into it, we can fundamentally destabilize Brahminism.

This second-order epistemology I sincerely believe, also creates a real psychic turbulence in Brahmin women. All the Brahmin women I know in my life (including myself) demonstrate a split consciousness that often appears in the form of troubled mental health. We are constantly torn between an exalted sense of identity on the one hand, and lacerating self-doubt and insecurity on the other. The exalted sense of identity is deeply tied into Brahminical notions of respectability, honour, tradition, intelligence, heritage, and pride; the self-doubt emerges when their subordinate and convenient status within Brahminism is exposed. This split consciousness that I have witnessed (and experienced) often leaves us incapacitated in recognizing the power structure holding us captive, while also forcing us to choose the false consciousness of caste pride as a way to bolster our self-esteem. (Hence, Kangana Ranaut’s pride in her Rajput identity, or my own pride in my “intelligence” for the longest time.)

All this is rendered visible most prominently in Bollywood, and as always, I come back to the pedagogic potential of Hindi cinema that illustrates Brahminism so conveniently. In English Vinglish (2012), Shashi Godbole, a Marathi Brahmin home-entrepreneur is constantly put down by her husband and children, seemingly for her inability to grasp English (but the implied subtext is that this is clearly about the utmost devaluation of the Brahmin wife’s labour in the household). Shashi goes to visit her sister in New York to assist with her niece’s wedding to a white American. Marvelling at the kind of independence that both her widowed sister and her nieces have in New York, Shashi joins English classes to conquer the means through which she is humiliated — her inability to learn English — but the larger conquest is her ability to learn whatever it is she sets her mind to. Shashi proves her mettle by giving a full speech in English at her niece’s wedding reception in front of her shocked husband and children, earning a new respect in their eyes.

There is a lot going on this film I cannot possibly touch upon, so let me focus on a few specific things. First, what does English stand for here? Why is it the means through which Shashi can constantly be humiliated? The history of English language learning in India — particularly among Marathi Brahmins — has been historically documented as a Brahminical enterprise (see Shefali Chandra (2012)). Specifically, Marathi Brahmin men in colonial India — such as M.G. Ranade — undertook the task of teaching their wives English, transforming the status of the Brahmin wife in a Brahmin household. Teaching English primarily enabled Brahmin men to fulfill a reformatory pedagogic role within their own households, consolidate their patriarchal authority over their wives, while also making claims to modernity in anticipating a postcolonial identity. However, this at once generated new intimacies between husband and wife, while also posing a direct threat to the older female Brahmin authority within the household who did not speak English and were becoming subordinate to the new bride. Ranade’s pedagogic project is thus loaded with the significant connotations of “modernity” that English was bringing to the Brahmin marriage, specifically as Chandra notes, the “incorporation of the female into the new native masculinity” (p. 149).

My argument here aligns with Chandra’s in that women were further Brahminized upon their entry into the English language in their conjugal spaces, permitted to share power in what had always been male Brahmin authority. This adjustment of patriarchal norms is aimed specifically at consolidating Brahmin power — by educating Brahmin women into English, Brahmin men were enabling the full formation of an English-speaking Brahmin class that would become the principal figures in a newly postcolonial India. This is how Brahmins become a shifting, contingent, self-correcting, “modern” class in post-independence India, but managing the domestic is integral to how their power was never relinquished. Shashi’s desire to learn English is therefore reflective of the regional history of Maharashtra, where the English-speaking wife came to symbolize a new Brahmin modernity and nationalism.

Secondly, Shashi is curiously undisturbed and uninterested in the romantic attentions of Laurent, the French chef in her English class. When her niece overhears his declaration of love to her on the phone and asks her about it, she responds saying, “I don’t need love, what I need is a little respect.” English is a means to earn that respect, as explained in the previous point, but what seems appalling in this line is that the presence or absence of love is immaterial within her marriage. Sure, Shashi is responding directly to Laurent’s declaration of love, but her emphasis on respect is within the dimensions of another relationship, her marriage, and it is conjugal respect that takes precedence over conjugal love. Shashi craves respect far more than love because the Brahmin wife-mother is reduced to being an unpaid worker in her own home. And the implicit devaluation of the Brahmin female within her own household is inscribed in Shashi’s relationship with her entire family, not just the husband.

The film’s climax then is less about a feminist assertion of empowerment built on rejecting culture, traditions and societal norms and constructs, and more about the Brahmin woman’s assertion of her value within the Brahmin family. English affords Shashi a Brahminical self-worth, not a transformative feminist one, and certainly not any notion of self-worth built on a radical, liberatory love with her partner. Shashi’s resistance therefore only goes so far as what Brahminism will allow her to change, and that cannot involve a challenge to Brahminism itself. Her learning of English therefore, upholds the epistemology of ignorance she has grown up with.

This brings me to my last point — the role of a globalized multi-racial modernity where the Brahmin constructs a new role for herself. That English Vinglish was celebrated as a feminist film comes through a very specific realignment of caste with race in film, which the Brahmin woman engineers. Shashi’s English class is a veritable rainbow in its racial diversity, but something interesting happens in the realm of social/class dynamics. Be it a Mexican nanny, a Pakistani cab driver, a Chinese hairdresser, a French chef, or the African-Caribbean man whose job isn’t specified, the English classroom is predominantly dominated by working-class people of colour (POC). The exceptions to this are a Tamil software engineer, Ramamurthy, and Shashi herself. The two Indians in the room are both savarnas (if not Brahmins, as Ramamurthy is an ambiguous enough caste-surname). Learning English thus becomes a cultural ground on which certain unities are fashioned, but that of savarna-bourgeois Indians and working-class POC is an unusual one indeed. The orthodox Brahmin response to such labourers, as well as racial hierarchies, would be one of judgment and rejection — Brahmins have always looked down upon labouring classes without exception. However, Shashi’s position as a devalued Brahmin woman (and Ramamurthy’s as a non-English speaking brown immigrant), as well as the “modern-in-the-making” Brahmin requires her to have a far more open-minded response.

And so be it the white gay teacher, or in accepting the value of everyone’s working-class labour, Shashi’s attitude is one of universal acceptance of the other, while also defining the self dialectically through the other. This is an important strategy of contemporary Brahmins in the diaspora particularly, suggesting that the Brahmin has become a protean category among castes. S/he has to be produced and reproduced constantly — in reference to other castes, other faiths, others communities, other genders, all the Others. So for Shashi, this comes about when we see her English project is about self-validation in the domestic space, while for the rest of the class, it is about material, professional benefits in the public sphere; for Shashi, English is about respect within the home, for the rest of the class, it is about social capital in the workplace. And the globalized unities built across these differences of private and public, is a temporary accommodation the Brahmin woman is able to make to actualize her own needs. The Brahmin woman today can therefore temporarily suspend or regulate caste norms based on his/her own vulnerabilities and for his/her immediate benefit, underscoring the fluctuating protean nature of these norms themselves. To deconstruct Brahminism, we then have to find these specific points of rupture, of disruption, where the Brahmin breaks pattern and role. Annihilating caste is thus a process that requires constant vigilance in noting the moments of rupture.

There can be more readings that can be made of the narratives in English-Vinglish: what the desire of the white Frenchman Laurent signifies for Shashi, the role that the mother-in-law plays in encouraging Shashi’s brief escapes from the domestic, the significance of Shashi’s savarna American nieces as a contrast to her own position, etc., and they should be scrutinized through the caste-race-gender lens. But I will stop, and only emphasize that Bollywood reviewers confuse savarna female-centric films with feminist filmmaking, particularly in the cases of films like English Vinglish and Queen. The ideological landscape of Bollywood is so arid, that any attention to the female worldview can feel radical. But Shashi and Rani are very specific instances of the protected upper-caste woman whose freedom is constantly negotiated and compromised within the dominant structures of the caste-patriarchal Hindu family, and never in defiance of them. The interesting thing is however, that the personal identity seems to be reworked through the public — a Euro-American white public — and that is changing how Brahmins, particularly Brahmin women are reshaping caste power to claim a female-centric space for themselves.

In the next part of this series, I zoom in more in the intimate space of sex, love, and marriage… with more popular cinema.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

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Media. Literature. Art. Culture. Ideology. India/America. This space is a writing experiment, feedback welcome.

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Pallavi R

Media. Literature. Art. Culture. Ideology. India/America. This space is a writing experiment, feedback welcome.