Draped across washed pink walls is a large brown curtain, stiffened at the ends. A garish light peeks through it, revealing a man reciting a legal document in hushed tones while a blushing couple stands across him.
This is the office of Pannerselvam, an advocate who practises law by day, and conducts marriages by evening. In a pristine white shirt, he greets Kalpana, the bride of the day. She runs her finger through the pins that hold her plain red saree in place. “Did you bring sweets?” she asks Murthy, her fiancé, and now to be her husband in a few minutes.
Panneerselvam has conducted 1000 self-respect marriages over a period of 7 years, and clears his voice to administer his 1001th. Pioneered by EV Ramasamy (Periyar), a rationalist thinker in Tamil Nadu, a self-respect marriage is a challenge to Brahminical and traditional ritualistic marriages.
Solemnised by friends or family, and followed by exchanging garlands, the Suyamariyathai Thirumanam, as it is known in Tamil, was declared legal by an amendment to The Hindu Marriage Act in 1967 by the Tamil Nadu government. The self-respect marriage also provides a safe option for inter-caste marriages.
Kalpana is a Paraiyar woman, and Murthy is an Arunthathiyar man. Both are sub-castes of Dalits, and both faced opposition from their families for their marriage. Paraiyars have a social and economic stronghold over the Arunthathiyars, and are far likely to oppose marriages with a ‘lower’ sub-caste.
“I remember the first thing that was burnt in my house – my green chappals I loved so much,” says Kalpana. Widowed and a mother of two at 26, Kalpana was married off at 15 to an abusive man who lost his life to liver cancer 4 years into their marriage. After years of struggling with two jobs and taking care of both families, she met Murthy. “I met him at a friend’s wedding, and we hit it off immediately,” she recalls, waiting on her husband to bring the garlands.
Kalpana and Murthy eloped after she was disowned by her family, and set up house in Coimbatore. But their troubles did not end there. Her family sent spies, who later pulled her out of the apartment and destroyed their belongings. “We thought moving from the village to the city would help us, but the village followed us. Two kids and nowhere to go. What would we do?” says Murthy.
Both then met Paneerselvam, and asked him to give them shelter and food. Paneerselvam was ready to help, but on one condition – that they be married. At first, Kalpana was terrified of facing more backlash because it would be her second marriage. But she warmed up to the idea when Murthy supported her. “Murthy is my love, my strength, he is all I have,” she says, teary eyed.
The wedding is done with swiftly, Murthy’s friend as a witness. “I wore a simple saree, because a marriage should be simple and understated. It is between two people, not between two families. What is the point of a big show?” she says.
“The thing I love the most about Murthy is that he bought me a new set of green chappals,” she says, smiling at her husband.
“Well, it is time to start afresh. I am your family now,” he says, pulling her in for a hug.
No Honour In Friendship
Neither are inter-caste marriages easy, nor are those friends and close family who help the couple. Any supporter of such couples is sure to be caught in the cross-fire of bloodthirsty families. Neighbours have it just as hard.
Senthil* is a young man in a pristine white shirt and pants. A man of few words, he lost his brother to an honour killing in Salem.
He waits a moment to begin his story, looking around, conscious of his surroundings. “I hope you can hear me,” he says. Senthil’s brother fell in love with a Gounder woman, who would meet her at the outhouse of her home. They were 20, and she was ready to be married to another man her parents had chosen. Soon after they found out, Senthil immediately chose to take his brother’s side, turning against his parents and other relatives.
“One morning, I was sitting at the nearby tea stall, while my friends knocked me out with a steel rod. These were the friends I loved and grew up with, the friends I went to school with, and the friends who taught me what it was like to be loved,” he says. But his friends were her brothers.
While Senthil lay concussed and on the way to a hospital, his brother was killed by the same men. “I do not know how men turn into monsters just because of caste,” he says.
Rarely, A Fragile Peace
But there are successes, in a sense. Take the case of Ramesh and Revathi, a couple who has not faced as many odds as many others, but still encounter a muted, subtle discrimination from their family and neighbours.
Under an asbestos roof, two children play with their parents’ phones. Their mother cooks a meal, while their father has just returned back from giving his daughter and wife a ride from school. Both are tired, but happy when they see each other.
Ramesh adjusts his plaid shirt and offers a snack, while Revathi shoos her children from the cot. “We have no problems,” he says when asked if their life has been tough so far.
From a Gounder family, Revathi began her B Ed education in Thirumalampalayam near Madukkarai on the outskirts of Coimbatore. Ramesh lived in the opposite colony for Arunthathiyars and went to the same college. “Love knows no caste, no?” she says, smiling at her husband. Her parents had found her a boy, and Revathi introduced Ramesh shortly after. “As a friend,” she says, scoffing. Her parents liked him instantly, and suggested they marry. While praising him to a family friend, they informed him that he was Arunthathiyar. And that is when all hell broke loose.
“My family, as expected, disowned me,” says Revathi. Neighbours in the Gounder colony ganged up against them and called for their eviction. Revathi and Ramesh had had their first child after a self-respect marriage and moved to the Arunthathiyar colony by then. Shortly after they got married, a scuffle blown out of proportion hit their doorstep. “Gounders and Arunthathiyars began throwing stones at each other, slashing houses, burning clothes. It was a nightmare, and to date, we blame ourselves for it,” he says.
Life returned to normal, and both colonies remain stay in their areas. Sometimes, they cross paths. But when they do, the Gounders jaywalk, while the Arunthathiyars sprint.
“Our friends keep telling us to leave this village and go to the city, eke out a living by driving or domestic work,” she says. “But they don’t care about where we go, they just want us out of here.”
Though there have been no violent incidents 10 years in, Ramesh and Revathi have encountered moments of discrimination. “There may be no full-blown violence, but there is a sense of isolation we feel from the rest of the world,” he says.
In 2015, a wall came up across their house, and their house alone. The wall was tall enough to block their sight from the other side. “They tell us because it is some new construction,” she says, “but no construction has come up. The wall in fact fell during the rains, but they built it back.”
The wall that stands between their home and rest of the colony in Thirumalapalayam
It is instances like these that have raised an alarm for the family in the past few years. “We don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like. But what we do know, is that this is our home. We will not give in to caste pressures and leave our home,” she says.
Two years after the wedding, Revathi and Ramesh had gone to the nearby temple, where they ran into her mother and brother. She was stunned, but before she could say a word, her mother ran to hug her and her brother watched on with a grin. “I’m sorry,” her mother said.
For some, it is an endless battle against not just their marriages, families or friends. They have taken on the caste system itself, and regardless of whether they win or lose, they want to sleep peacefully, knowing they have tried.
The Pangs Of Failure
On a chilly evening at Gandhipuram bus stop in Coimbatore, Shekhar nervously shakes my hand. He has just come back from a wild day in court, where an important case has been dragging on for two years. Shekhar is the accused in a case where his wife’s family has filed a case against him, terming the marriage null and void.
Born into an Arunthathiyar family, Shekhar’s love for his wife Swathi knew no bounds. Swathi is from a Gounder family, and has since their marriage, been taken away by her parents back to her village. Shekhar remembers his best times with her.
For the first two years after 2015, the couple lived happily. They had a son, who was one at the time when she left. Her mother had threatened to disown her after marrying him, and took her back to her village. Swathi’s mother also filed an annulment, which Shekhar refused to sign. Swathi’s family promptly took him to court.
“One of the most striking moments of the court proceedings was when Swathi’s family shouted in court, “We will kill you if you don’t sign the annulment. Yes, honour killing, whatever you want to call it!” they said. But I was no longer fearful of their scare tactics,” he says.
What saddens Shekhar the most is how the woman he married has changed for the worse. “I know this is not her. These are not her words, not her actions. She is controlled, she is scared and she is unlike the strong woman I know her to be,” he says.
Shekhar has been threatened, intimidated and almost lost his life. A lorry had tried to hit the auto he was driving for a living, almost shattering the glass as the lorry followed him around. Making his way through a bylane, he narrowly managed to escape death.
He offers me an instance of his wife’s kindness and defiance of her caste. “When she crosses the road and sees a friend who belongs to the Arunthathiyar colony, she addresses them as Akka. Her parents would scold her, saying she should call her friend by her name, because she is Chakkiliyar, and calling them with respect is forbidden in their caste. But she would still call them Akka,” he says.
Today, Shekhar is strong. He has just received a judgment by the court, declaring his marriage legal, and allows him to bring his wife back. But the efforts to bring her back are in vain. Threats, violence and even guns await him at her house. One day, he feels, he will succeed.
“I have tried to kill myself, but whenever I have tried, I have always stopped myself and thought, “I want to live for my brother Sankar. My brother has died because of caste, and I want to make my brother Sankar proud. (Sankar was hacked to death in an honour killing in 2016) I want to make my sister Kausalya (Sankar’s wife) proud,” he says, his powerful words falling in the ears of the waiter of the restaurant we are sitting at.
The waiter instantly jumps up and claps. “You! You are the voice of us Dalits! Make us proud!” he squeals while patting Shekhar on the back.