perspectives Caste

The “P” Word

The dark history of the word “pariah”

By gopu mohan | 1 January 2018

On 20 October, D Ravikumar, the general secretary of the political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, sent Time magazine a strongly worded email objecting to its cover that month, which had gone viral on social media even before the magazine hit the stands. It featured the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and the caption read, “Producer. Predator. Pariah.” More than 80 women in the media have accused Weinstein of sexual assault and misconduct, setting in motion similar allegations against high-profile men all over the world. Ravikumar’s objection concerned a very specific aspect of the cover—the usage of the word “pariah.” “There are more than 10 million people living in India who have been and continue to be called as ‘pariah’,” he wrote in his email. “Their descendants live in many countries of the world. The word is used by others in a derogatory and insulting manner not unlike the ‘N’ word in your country.” In an attempt to be alliterative, the magazine had unthinkingly deployed a term loaded with casteist prejudice.

In its broadest sense, the term indicates an outcast. It is often used to describe “rogue” states and their leaders. In the case of figures such as Weinstein, it evokes deviance or villainy. In mathematics, a Pariah Group is an outlier set of numbers that refuses to be part of the rest—incidentally also called a Monster Group. And with respect to animals, the word is often used to refer to a mongrel or feral dog, and a type of black kite found in India.

Its historical connotations, however, have been almost forgotten—except by those the term was, and is, used to denigrate. The Oxford English Dictionary contains an anodyne description of its origin: “Early 17th century: from Tamil paraiyar, plural of paraiyan ‘(hereditary) drummer’, from parai ‘a drum.’” It also provides a historical definition: “A member of an indigenous people of southern India originally functioning as ceremonial drummers but later having a low caste.” Many Dalit scholars have contested this, arguing that the word has a more complicated history, and that the definitions do not reflect the centuries of hurt and humiliation suffered by the people it is meant to describe. Just as the “n” word evokes the dark history of slavery and racial prejudice, so should “pariah” be recognised as carrying the brutal legacy of the caste system.

According to the French scholar Eleni Varikas, the Portuguese military navigator Duarte Barbosa, who was based in India from 1500 to 1517, recorded the word for the first time in his travel writing. “There is another inferior group of pagans called Pareas,” he wrote. “They do not come in contact with anyone, are considered worse than the devil and shunned by all; just looking at them is enough to be contaminated and excommunicated.” About a century later, around 1613, “pariah” entered the English lexicon, and that of other European languages.

The earliest known inscription of the Tamil word “paraya” is found in a Sangam-era text, Purananuru, composed between the second and third centuries. In his essay “Waiting to lose their patience,” Ravikumar noted that when the first modern edition of Purananuru was published in 1894, many historians claimed that the presence of the word “parayan” in Song 335 implied that a caste system existed 1,800 years ago. “Nondalit commentators understand this to mean that the discrimination and oppression of the parayars/dalits is not of recent origin,” he wrote, “and they derive solace in believing that untouchability is as old as the Sangam period.” The pioneering Dalit intellectual Iyothee Thass questioned the very authenticity of the text in his 1908 article “Is there a book called Purananuru?” According to Ravikumar, there is no way to verify whether the song exists in its original form, or whether it was added in later centuries. The second-oldest inscription of the word is from the thirteenth century, during the Chola period. In this case, Ravikumar writes, there are references to both paraya cheri, or paraya settlement, and theenda cheri, or untouchables’ settlement, indicating that the two were not the same. The conflation of untouchability with “paraya” had not yet occurred.

Many Dalit scholars believe the prejudice associated with the word solidified soon after Vedic Brahminism took hold over south India. The Dravidian Buddhists and Jains, who resided in large numbers in the region and whose religions were dominant until the fifteenth century, were driven away or slaughtered, excluded from social activities and denied rights to property or livelihood. Brahmins dubbed them lower-caste Parayas, or outcasts—the panchama, or fifth group, not even fit to be in the four varnas of the caste system. They were made to perform “unhygienic” tasks such as digging graves or disposing of animal carcasses, and were treated as “untouchables” for performing those very tasks. “The stigma surrounding the word paraya was introduced as part of this vast and continuous process of subjugation,” the Dalit academic Stalin Rajangam told me.

It was here that the early colonialists—missionaries, traders and voyagers—played a role in cementing the caste system. In trying to make sense of the new world they had just discovered and begun documenting, they needed guides and translators. Knowledge was by then a Brahminical preserve, and carried Brahminical bias. The inevitable “misunderstandings and confusions” that were part of the exchange between the British and the native elite, Varikas wrote, were “symptomatic of the processes by which Europeans—initially the Portuguese and the Dutch and then the French and the English—came to know the ‘discovered’ populations, their civilisations and their social organization.”

According to the academic Rupa Vishwanath, the first public statement of what was called the “pariah problem” was published in 1891 in The Hindu, the Madras presidency’s leading daily at the time. It stated, “The Hindus do not recognize them as part of their community and nothing can be more humiliating and intolerable than the treatment that the Pariahs … receive from the Hindus of higher castes.” Vishwanath argues, “The Pariah Problem, then, marks the recognition, in public debate and in the halls of government, not only of that subpopulation as particularly abject, but also of Pariahs as a group whose improvement was the responsibility of others.” By this time the name “Paraiyar”—which denoted one caste group among many—was used to refer to all Dalits by colonial officials. The British administration had little reason to overhaul the prevailing social organisation. The bonded labour that Dalits provided was needed by both feudal landlords and their colonial overseers. By the time India became a colony, then, the assumed wisdom was that it was a vast land connected by Hinduism, which remained stable due to a rigid but pragmatic caste structure.

The deep caste association the word had, and continues to have, seems to have been lost to the Western world. At the same time the term was evolving to signify the most abject caste communities in the subcontinent, the figure of the pariah entered European literature, distanced from its original context, and idealised in new ways. As Varikas argues, in adopting this figure to highlight inequality in societies supposedly founded on egalitarian ideals, both great and average works gave the term pariah a “‘Western’ uniqueness, its own historicity and perhaps its perennial nature.” “Pariah” entered into the political vocabulary to describe the disaffected in France.

The 1791 book The Indian Cottage by James Henry Bernardin de Saint-Pierre provides a significant example. An English doctor travels to India as a colonial emissary to find answers to questions prepared by the Royal Society of London, aiming to build “the most superb encyclopaedical structure ever reared by any nation to the progress of human knowledge.” The questions cover wide-ranging subjects, such as the “ancient religion of the Bramins” and “state of the people of India.”

Among the people the doctor encounters on his journey across Europe and the Indian subcontinent is an unnamed pariah, and the grand priest of Puri, supposedly the wisest of all pundits. To the doctor’s dismay, he finds the priest, and the sect he belongs to, ignorant and vain. The priest argues that all knowledge is comprised in the “four Beths (vedas), written a hundred and twenty thousand years ago in the Schanscrit language, which the Bramins alone understand.” This truth should be concealed from the rest of mankind, but “it is an indispensible duty to disclose it to the Bramins,” says this “Oracle of India.” The pariah, on the other hand, argues that the pursuit of truth, the very essence of Enlightenment values, is the prerogative of all individuals. “I consider every man as laid under an obligation to search after truth, for the sake of his individual happiness; otherwise, he will be a miser, ambitious, superstitious, mischievous, nay a cannibal, according to the prejudices or the interests of the persons who may have brought him up,” the pariah says.

The pariah’s wife is a Brahmin, who at a young age, was almost sacrificed at the funeral pyre, after the death of her first husband. The pariah wins her over not with his valour, but with compassion. They find a natural solidarity: he, a man but a pariah, and she, a Brahmin woman but a widow—both outcasts in a casteist patriarchy. “How have the Bramins been able to persuade the Nations of India to adopt a folly so very gross,” cries the Englishman. “By inculcating it upon them from infancy,” replies the pariah, “and by incessantly repeating it: men are taught like parrots.”

Saint-Pierre’s commentary about the arrogance of the elite and the attendant inequalities of society was not lost on European readers.

The 1821 play Le Paria, by the French dramatist Casimir Delavigne, tells the story of Idamore, the chief of the local military, who saves the city of Benares but is sentenced to death after his compatriots discover his caste. It has the following description of the state of the pariah:

It is the shore of a withered race
A foreign race in its homeland
Without a protective roof, without a hospitable temple
Abominable, rebellious, horrible to the entire lot of people
The pariahs.

Such stories of heroic but ultimately tragic outcasts romanticised the idea of alienation. Scholars have argued that this conceptualisation of the pariah influenced the creation of the Byronic hero—an outlier in open conflict with social norms and institutions.

Even starker was the German-Jewish poet Michael Beer’s play Der Paria, which had the persecution of Jews as its subtext. The hero, Gadhi, and his “upper-caste” wife, Maja, choose to commit suicide rather than be separated. Before he dies, Gadhi says, defiantly, “all, all… equal.” Staged first in 1823 in Berlin, the play won accolades, including from the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A year later, Goethe wrote the poem “The Paria’s Legend,” about a Brahmin wife beheaded by her husband for having momentarily fantasised about a handsome pariah man. After being resurrected by her son, albeit with the torso of another decapitated woman, the woman tells the boy that a leper, an outcast, a Brahmin and a pariah are all equal before Brahma, who, ironically, is the god who supposedly made these laws and distinctions used against them in the first place.

A more recent incident instructive of the different perceptions of the word in Europe and India came when President KR Narayanan went to France in 2000. The French newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde welcomed him as the “untouchable president,” and provoked a furious response from India. But the French feminist and philosopher Catherine Clement—Narayan’s personal friend—explained that there were few other words available to the French press to describe a person who had overcome insurmountable hurdles: the term “pariah” had by then been used pejoratively to refer to the presidents of Libya and North Korea; “Dalit” was too foreign for the average French reader; while “untouchable,” which to the French carried no stigma, made the necessary idea clear. The row in India surprised the French. To them, “untouchable president” captured the man’s great journey, full of hardships.

In India, however, where terrible caste atrocities continue till date, the term carries no such life-affirming meaning, nor does “pariah.” It only evokes shame and humiliation. For instance, in 1995, Subramanian Swamy caused a furore by calling the Tamil Tigers leader V Prabhakaran an “international pariah.” The then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, who considered Swamy a political rival, filed a case against him under the Protection of Civil Rights Act for using a derogatory slur. This was widely understood as a political move rather than a genuine attempt to fight casteist bigotry, but the degrading connotations the term carried were still clear.

In the past two decades, both the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court have repeatedly ruled that calling a Scheduled Caste person by his caste name is an offence under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Among the words the courts have found offensive are not just “paraya,” “pulaya” and “chamar,” but also “harijan,” commonly translated as “children of god,” which Gandhi himself had popularised. For Dalit intellectuals, the word “harijan” communicated not just condescension but a tacit acceptance of the caste system.

Though the Western media has come to understand the term differently, it should refrain from calling every person or state it deems a deviant a pariah.

Time acknowledged Ravikumar’s email, but he has not yet received a reply from its editorial team. The English language has a dozen other words to describe the toxic masculinity of figures such as Weinstein. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias in all languages should not merely refer to the word as having originated from the name of a drum in Tamil Nadu, but also explain its history and context of its evolution. The largely powerless masses that suffer the tyrannies of a casteist social order could do with an act of grace from Western nations founded on ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. More importantly, perhaps if their counterparts in the West take the lead, Indian writers and journalists may also shed the criminal ignorance or apathy that allows them to continue using the word, as if the horrors of caste are lost on them. (This magazine has also been guilty of using the word uncritically.)

However, renegotiating the use of the word pariah should be undertaken carefully, so as to ensure a greater sensitivity in language, and not the sanitisation of history. We must preserve the memories. We have to remember.

Gopu Mohan is a journalist based in Chennai.

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