Pa. Ranjith is the director I admire the most in mainstream Tamil Cinema. His ability to infuse this commercial medium with the messaging of an ascendant Dalit consciousness, as he did in Kabali and Kaala, while maintaining box-office success, is astounding. Ranjith is a fearless activist and provocateur. Ranjith hails from a cheri (ghetto) in Karalapakkam, Tamil Nadu and, according to wikipedia, he is from the Paraiyar community.
Pariah has become a slur and a derisive word in English and in Malay and Indians get upset and enraged when they hear this word. Why? Well, this name comes from the cast order that is Indian and Hindu. Attitudes towards it reflect the worst racial prejudice that is innate to Indian culture. The Pariyar are a community that is categorized as outside of the Brahmanical social order. While I deplore the use of the name of this community as a slur in English and Malay, I suggest that it is more important that Indians stop flinching when they hear this word, as that reaction comes from their own racist impulse.
Although the Paraiyan community serves various important functions in Tamil village society, their name is associated with the lowest of the low in village life – the stray dog. I have personally heard the phrase ‘para naieh’ or ‘lowly stray dog’ used in my childhood. Edgar Thurston lists some Tamil proverbs that refer to Paraiyans —
(1) If a Paraiyan boils rice, will it not reach God? meaning God will notice all piety, even that of a lowly Paraiyan.
(2) When a Paraiya woman eats betel, her ten fingers will be daubed with lime, meaning the Paraiya woman is a slut.
(3) Though a Paraiya woman’s child be put to school, it will still say Ayyē, where Ayyē is vulgar for Aiyar or Sir.
(4) The palmyra palm has no shadow: the Paraiyan has no regard for seemliness, meaning the Paraiya has ne decorum.
(5) The gourd flower and the Paraiyan’s song have no savour, sadly the Paraiyans use this saying themsleves.
(6) Though seventy years of age, a Paraiyan will only do what he is compelled, perhaps infantilizing the Paraiyan.
(7) You may believe a Paraiyan, even in ten ways; you cannot believe a Brāhman, using the Parayian as the low mark.
(8) Is the sepoy who massacred a thousand horse now living in disgrace with the dogs of the parachēri? the Paraiyan settlement as a place of shame.
(9) Paraiyan’s talk is half-talk., perhaps a reference to Paraiya uncouthness.
(10) Like Paraiya and Brāhman, meaning a vast chasm of difference.
(11) Not even a Paraiyan will plough on a full moon day, perhaps a reference to the unclean or unholy aspect of the Paraiyan.
(12) Parachēri manure gives a better yield than any other manure, referring to the lowliness and the exploitation of the Paraiyan.
(13) The drum is beaten at weddings, and also at funerals, meaning a double-dealing unreliable character.
(14) The harvest of the Paraiya never comes home, meaning wastefulness or perhaps irresponsibility?
Before the Malaysian Indian community reacts to the pejorative connotations of the word Keling in Malay language and idiomatic expressions, we should look at our own prejudices and racism towards our own Tamil brothers and sisters.
Indians should be proud to be called Pariah! The fact that the term is offensive to Indians, both in India and in the diaspora, is really a symptom of our own horrendous internal racism or catseism. Pariah is the name of one of the oppressed Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and, according to devendrakulam.org, the English language the use of the word ‘pariah’, meaning ‘social outcast’ was first recorded in 1613. Devendrakulam.org also notes that Paraiyan is mentioned in the Classical Tamil Sangam literature in the Puram text – “Without the following four – Thudian, Panan, Parayan, Kadamban the citizens’ Categorization is not complete” . These are all categories of music workers – Thudian is a player of the Thudi drum, Panan is a singer Singer, Parayan is a player of the Parai drum, and Kadamban is a player of the instrument named Kadambu which I think might be a katam (கடம்), the clay water pot vessel that is used as a drum (I stand to be corrected).
Devendrakulam.org offers a speculative narrative of the descent of the community as Bhramanism rose in South India through the centuries. Among the intriguing possibilities offered here are the idea that the Paraiyar were Buddhists who held out against the ascendant Bhramanism and that some of the Shudra casts of the contemporary South like my own Jaffna Vellala caste emerged from the Paraiyar in a process of assimilation. The Paraiyar community has, despite millennia of oppression within the entrenched Brahmanical order, produced significant figures in Indian social, political and cultural life including, M. C. Rajah, R. Srinivasan, Thol. Thirumavalavan, Illayaraja and Pa. Ranjith. I repeat, Indians (I include Jaffna Tamils) should be proud to be called Pariah!
This is a super exposition on the Keling word on A Daview Originals. Although there are errors, for example, according to the Malay Concordance Project, in the 1963 edition of Cherita Jenaka, orang Keling was changed to orang India and not, as the presenter claims, the other way around. Sorry lah it is in Tamil!
With reference to the recurrent controversies around the use of the term ‘keling’, and with particular reference to the recent Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) inclusion of the word “keling” in its definition of “tambi,“ there is no need for hysterical reaction from Indians about the presence of the word Keling in the Malay lexicon and publications in the Malay Language. After all if Indians think about it carefully, ‘thambi’ itself is problematic, as it can reflect status, class and cast when used to refer to adults. In fact it is far more troubling that we use the word ‘pariah‘ as a put-down in English as well as in Malay with scant criticism. However, it reveals an extremely poor standard of scholarship and professionalism on the part of the DBP that they have used the term ‘keling’ as an index for ‘Indian’ in the contemporary setting. Yes, this failure to recognize that the main contemporary usage of of the term is to put Indians down, might even reflect a systemic (unconscious) racism in the esteemed authority in whose care we have put the future of the Malay Language.
Telinga Keling (1999) is in the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery in KL. It is currently (oct 15 2019) on display again in a selection from the collection. ‘Keling’ is a today taken as a derogatory term for ‘Indian’ although, from its etymology, it is clear that this was not always so. The items obscuring my ears in the image are Malay sweets which are colloquially referred to as ‘Telinga Keling’ (Indian Ears). More formally and publicly, given our multi-racial Malaysian society, these cakes are referred to as ‘penyaram’ or ‘denderam’. Ironically, this Telinga Keling sweet is quite likely to be of Indian origin. My mother used to make something that tastes exactly the same that we call it ‘athirasam’
The idea of the piece is that I can engage the Malay viewers regarding this juncture of ‘sweetness’ and ‘derision’ while excluding the others, who would likely be unfamiliar with the cake’s colloquial name. Of course, there’ll be some Indians who know, particularly those from Kelantan where the sweet is prevalent, but empirically speaking, during the opening of its inaugural exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the Indians had no idea and kept asking, ‘Why did you insult yourself in this work? ’, The Malays, however, smiled at me in and nodded in awkward acknowledgement.
You must be logged in to post a comment.