Saturday, January 28, 2017
Tamil identity: A telephone conversation with a jallikattu aficionado
‘Identity,’ he repeated. There was an air of finality in his voice.
The speaker was an old college buddy, a Madras-bred sexagenarian, and the subject of the telephone conversation was the mass movement for jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. I had asked him to explain the phenomenon of almost the whole of Tamil Nadu coming together on the issue of jallikattu. ‘A sense of identity’ was his explanation.
Bull-taming being a mark of Tamil identity! I was amused. ‘Come on, don’t try to bullshit me!’ I protested. ‘Jallikattu is by no means a pan-Tamil-Nadu sport. It’s, in fact, a regional, all-male sporting event, confined to just a few places like Alanganallur, Aavaniapuram and Kandupatti. And a seasonal one at that. If this is a mark of identity, then it doesn’t make sense to me how the gangs of youth fighting for a revocation of the ban on the sport share this identity. Aren’t they, by and large, urban youth unacquainted with country life and pastoral practices, let alone jallikattu?’
I could hear snorting through my BSNL landline followed by a torrent of grunting. Then he bellowed like the Kangayam bull. ‘Listen, the problem with you is that you are a cultural cringe – a philistine, as a matter of fact, lacking in cultural values. It’s a pity that you are a Tamil. Coming to your question, yes, of course, the whole of Tamil Nadu doesn’t take part in jallikattu. So what? Every one of us, true Tamils, Tamils who are truly Tamils at heart, shares the spirit of the sport – the spirit of valour which is the spirit behind jallikattu. In that sense, it’s indeed pan-Tamil. Is that clear?’
‘Not quite,’ I said. I wouldn’t expect the Tamil Dalits, who form over 20% of the population of Tamil Nadu, to share this so-called identity. Let’s face it, the Dalits are not allowed to take part in jallikattu; they can’t even watch it standing with the caste Hindus. They can only stand at a distance – at a place earmarked for them – and watch the game. At the most, they can beat drums – that’s the only kind of participation they are allowed; they just can’t touch the bulls in the jallikattu arena. When the sport is so casteist, when it excludes a huge section of the Tamil population, where is the question of its representing a pan-Tamil identity? I do agree that the sport with all its violence and cruelty to the hapless jallikattu bulls is indeed part of Tamil culture, but the problem is that the Dalits don’t seem to be part of this cultural landscape.’
‘This is cultural ignorance,’ he said. His voice, however, sounded subdued and bovine now. ‘It’s common knowledge that even those who enjoy a popular culture are part of that culture.’
‘Isn’t that a construct rather than reality?’ I persisted.
‘The pan-Tamil identity,’ he started off on a scholarly note ignoring my question, ‘lies in the spirit of valour we all share, irrespective of our caste. This spirit is as old as Sangam literature itself.’
‘But my question…’
‘No true Tamil,’ he continued, raising his voice, ‘will remain uninspired when he reads Kapilar’s description of jallikattu in Kalithogai: எழுந்தது துகள்; ஏற்றனர் மார்பு; கவிழ்ந்தன மருப்பு; கலங்கினர் பலர் (Vaadivasal is thrown open, and the bulls come leaping out with heads down, charging at the tamers. Dust rises, so do the chests of the young tamers, and the spectators scamper out of their way, terror-stricken). Again, கொல்லேற்றுக் கோடஞ்சுவானை மறுமையும் புல்லாளே ஆயமகள் (Valour was valued so high that not even in her next birth would a herdswoman take the hand of a man who dreaded the killer horns of the bull).’
‘Isn’t this glorifying and romanticizing an anachronistic, if not a primitive, practice and misleading young people? Don’t you think we live in a world vastly different from the hyperbolized one presented in imaginative literature of yore? The reality is that even as you are fighting for what you call honour and valour and identity, the Tamil land is experiencing the worst-ever rainfall in 140 years, so much so all the 32 districts have been declared drought-hit and 17 farmers have committed suicide. The reality is that we are living in dishonourable times when the majority of the elected representatives of the Tamil people, who claim to be ready to lay down their lives for honour and valour, are busy prostrating themselves before their political Ammas and Chinnammas. Or, are you saying that Tamil culture is so complex that it also recognizes discretion as the better part of valour?... Hello, are you there?’
He had hung up.