‘We crossed the boundaries of caste even before we met’

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By Shahina Kk

NOTHING COMES on a silver platter for Dalits in this country. Certainly not love,” says Kathir, managing director of Evidence, an organisation working for the political and civil rights of Dalits. His wife Tilakam, who belongs to the Thevar community — a dominant caste in Tamil Nadu — endorses this view but points out, “Marrying for love is a challenge for an upper-caste girl too.”

Kathir and Tilakam, brought up in liberal families, one poor, one rich, met in 1999 when working in Madurai for People’s Watch, an NGO. Politics and political correctness is never far from the minds of the couple.

A fourth-generation Christian, Kathir does not use his given name Vincent Raj at work. As he says, he prefers using Kathir to “overcome limitations of religious identity in communications”. Kathir and Tilakam admit that no relationship is free from stereotyping. As 37-year-old Kathir puts it, “The gender issues come on and off, but we think we are educated enough to address them ourselves. We have to democratise relationships within families as much as possible.”

Recalling the early days, 36-year-old Tilakam says, “We had common interests, shared the same concerns, and had spent several hours together everyday in field work.” For them, the relationship was inevitable — there was no room for doubt. But as is usual there was an abundance of (what the NGO world calls) stakeholders. “It took a lot of time to convince everyone. That was the first occasion in my life when I realised how strong are caste and community ties!” Tilakam says. Conservative neighbours added to the tension, but it helped that Tilakam’s brother had also married a Dalit converted to Christianity.

“There was a lot of tension and friction on both sides which were not very explicit,” says Tilakam. In a departure from how these narratives usually play out, her father, a Leftist, insisted that the wedding be a no-frills civil ceremony under the Special Marriage Act. Though Kathir’s parents — his father works in the forest department — wanted a church ceremony, the couple decided against it, opting for a quiet tea party instead.

BOTH TILAKAM and Kathir have been schooled in the ideal of liberation from caste, but there is no getting away from some differences. “We crossed the boundaries of caste even before we met, but our ways were fundamentally different. I try to shrug off caste while he asserts it,” Tilakam articulates. Kathir’s childhood experiences of discrimination have had the inevitable effect of underlining his identity. Their son Kavin is five. The couple say that when he grows older he will be free to form relationships with any girl —or boy — regardless of caste or religion.

At work, thoughts of relationships like theirs is never far away. Too often their organisation encounters couples persecuted, beaten and killed for crossing the caste line. But they say, “Love is beyond definition. Love gives you enormous strength to cross all frontiers.”

Photo: Ramasamy

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