PERIYAR & THE CASTE SYSTEM
In my childhood days in Kasiapuram I used to find one odd thing. It was the visit of some poor people in the late hours of evenings with their bowls to every house in the village. They were the dhobis and barbers of the village. They would come by the back door and very humbly announce themselves. Ladies of the houses would give them a chunk of old maize-choru or kazhi as it was known. For this they used to make this kazhi once a week. There were so many questions in my mind then. Why not they could be given freshly prepared kazhi and why always week-old kazhi? Why should they come so humbly and ask for alms? Why were these people treated differently from our other relatives? Even as a child I was tutored to call or talk to them with least respect. Even aged people were called by even children in such language? So many questions. But I never dared to ask anyone about it since it was part of that village life. Whether I liked it or not, I too called them in the usual disrespectful way as everyone. This habit came to an end only when I was around 9 – 10 years old. By that time I hade moved to Madurai.
We had a hair-cutting salon near my house and that is where my appa used to take me for my monthly hair cut – those days I had really thick hair on my present bald head! The owner’s name was Thangam and his salon was entirely of a different type unlike other salons of those days. Salons of those days used to have an array of mirrors and lot of pictures of pin-up girls. I still don’t understand the psychology of those decorated salons of yester years. Was it because it was out and out a male domain and they had the privilege of drooling over such sexy pictures? I still don’t know. Nevertheless Thangam’s salon was not of that type. His shop was quite above the road level without any proper steps; just some stone blocks served as the steps. Whenever I went there I had to be hauled up by Thangam into the shop from the ‘steps’ which were so low. He had just two large mirrors opposite two salon-chairs. There were no pictures; no blaring radio; no unnecessary crowd discussing national and international politics. In any such a salon you could find every minute somebody dropping in to give ’final touches’ to their hairdo, using the comb and mirror of the salon for free. I never knew whether they were all regular customers or regular intruders. Walls of the salon would be very clean. But there used to be only one picture occupying a prominent place in the salon. At that time I did know whose photograph was that. I thought it could be somebody related to Thangam. I used to go there for the regular cutting only with my appa and here too I found appa talking to Thangam in the same parlance as they did in village to those who used to come for the kazhi late in the evenings.
Probably I was doing fourth or fifth standard when for the first time appa sent me to salon alone. He gave instructions as to how my hair dressing should be done and asked me to pass those instructions to Thangam. When I got into the chair in the salon I started reeling out the instructions given by appa. I addressed him using the same disrespectful language. Thangam listened to my instructions. Then very calmly in a soothing tone he asked me which class I was doing. I told him. The next question was very pointed. Did your teacher teach you like this to address elders in this disrespectful language? I was stunned. The question whacked me right on my face. Mr. Thangam appeared to me growing into a colossal figure right in front of my eyes. I mumbled my apology. From that minute I always addressed my elders with respect irrespective of any other factor.
Latter I came to know the photograph that adorned the walls of Mr. Thangam’s salon was the portrait of E.V.R. Periyar !