Sweltering heat, narrow lanes, half-heard snatches of Tamil, and bustling traffic greeted me as our autorickshaw dropped us at Mint street in Sowcarpet, in the heart of Chennai city. I was part of a group of three undergraduates on their first fieldwork assignment for an Urban Studies course, armed with a smattering of Tamil, newly purchased mini-notebooks, and with explicit instructions to ‘go and get lost in the city’. We had to pick a site and a topic, rooted in what we experienced, interviewed, observed as we walked around the city for our final paper. With two-thirds of the group only comfortable with a ‘sorry Anna, Tamil illa’ level of fluency, we made the choice to go to Sowcarpet - a predominantly Marwari and ‘North Indian’ locale. As we started to walk around the neighbourhood, I could sense a very noticeable, marked difference in the experience of Sowcarpet and other parts of Chennai.
My notes say: The Tamil signs and shop hoardings melt into Hindi ones - names like Rajasthan Emporium and Roop Rani Textiles become commonplace. Hindi flyers can be found stuck on posts and the walls, advertising everything from part-time jobs to hair loss cures. Hindi, Marwari, and Gujarati phrases of conversation hit the ear, and a sense of familiarity descends. While a majority hail from Rajasthan, migrants from all over the Hindi belt have made a home here. The narrow streets of this neighbourhood alternate between jewellers and gold merchants, textile shops, and of course, chaat and mithai places. Notably, all the food found here is vegetarian, or as one shopkeeper claims proudly, “All the restaurants in Sowcarpet serve pure vegetarian food - no meat here!”...
In retrospect, this should have been one of the first obvious signs that I was entering a dominantly elite, upper-caste neighbourhood - traditionally out of bounds for someone like myself. However, the heady familiarity of seeing chaat stalls and pav bhaaji shops, of hawkers selling lassi, paani puri, and Irani chai, took over the senses instead. Interspersed with these food stalls, temples and Jain meditation centres also dot the streets of Sowcarpet. The white edifice of a large multistoried Jain temple casts a long shadow over smaller, less prominent Hindu temples on one such street. A world within itself, Sowcarpet engulfed us into its fold.
Over the course of the day, we talked to several people - shopkeepers, traders, temple patrons. A peculiar pattern emerged - the people we approached were most comfortable speaking to the group member who was the most obviously ‘North Indian’, fluent in Hindi, and male. Less fluent, our third teammate and I took notes. I kept a lookout for women I could speak to, who might be more comfortable speaking to another woman, but the shop fronts I could see were all helmed by men. Two particular interactions stood out from that day in Sowcarpet. The first of these took place at a small, roadside Shiva Hindu temple. The temple was damp and dark, cerulean paint gradually peeling off the walls. We encountered a large, imposing moustachioed man inside, who looked at us with suspicious, yet curious, eyes
We shared a quick glance amongst us and with a quick head gesture, fell into our tried and tested routine.
I started to look around the temple, carefully noting the deities and the temple structure. Introducing ourselves as students studying Sowcarpet and its history, we asked if we could talk to him. The man was hesitant at first, but slowly opened up when asked about his hometown and his experience in Chennai. Language became important here. Conversing in fluent Hindi seemed to put him at ease. Caste became another important qualifier. As the conversation turned to place of origin or ‘native place,’ the man asked us about ours as well. Following up, the man inquired after our last names and families. My group mate offered up his identity, and satisfied with his upper-casteness, the interviewee spoke more freely, an implicit mark of trustworthiness established and an ‘in-group’ accounted for. My non-upper caste last name, darker skin, and woman-ness - the antithetical ‘other’ - were overlooked in this encounter, and I chose not to bring attention to it as well.
My silence was a split-second, instinctive decision; in retrospect, it became quite a heavy, loaded one. At that moment, I found comfort in being in the background. The pressure was taken off me, and I did not have to scramble for answers about my identity - either true or false. I knew revealing my Dalit identity would mark me out, and might push the interviewee to be more reticent. Being asked to leave the temple premises was another possibility. A remote possibility, but a possibility nonetheless. My sheltered, middle-class, cosmopolitan upbringing had shielded me from direct encounters with casteism so far, and I was unwilling to put myself in a position where that became a reality. The token identity of just being a ‘North Indian in Chennai’ was shattered, along with my naivete.
The second set of interactions was also similar. We approached a family business of diamond traders who agreed to talk to us on that particularly slow afternoon, and our group fell into the same roles as earlier. The shop seemed to be restricted to the ground floor, while the family - of which we conversed with the old patriarch, and his two sons - lived upstairs in the same structure.
Like the last time, the first marker of language was accounted for, the second marker of caste was sought to be established. Last name, family, and place of origin were again interrogated, and they enquired after the gotra and family lineage as well, only giving up after we confessed ignorance. This was followed by a hurried declaration of how everyone is equal, and how traders never differentiate based on caste and religion - a pointed glance at me, who had not volunteered my last name during this exchange. Again, an ‘in-group’-ness accounted for, the trader offered up information about their migration and history of business in Sowcarpet. They claimed to have moved from Nagore to Chennai in 1910, five generations ago. They seemed to know all the ‘original’ merchants of Sowcarpet and claimed that while their family was not the very first to migrate, they were definitely a part of the first wave, so to say. In the course of our conversation, one merchant, in particular, most probably the younger of the two sons, went on a tirade of sorts - complaining about the government, the newer migrants, the educational system, and even globalization. It made for rich material, and we hurriedly wrote everything down.
Again, I chose to keep quiet about my identity. I had brushed off the earlier temple incident as a one-off, an unfortunate occurrence. Why would caste come up in conversation with diamond traders about their business, I wondered naively. I was wrong of course, and I froze again.
I did not want to become a liability to the team, and more importantly, I wanted to protect myself from potential humiliation and discrimination. This inevitably meant keeping quiet about my identity, and as an untested undergrad and Dalit researcher still struggling to find her place in the world, I made peace with that decision then. Looking back, would the present me be braver? I question the relevance of revealing my identity in the first place, and the unjustified expectation to do so. Inadvertently getting a front-row seat to this performance of backstage castesim was a lesson in itself. Is the refusal to reveal myself an act of resistance in this case? A weapon of the weak? An accidental, yet deliberate subversion? Is this application of the language of theory to my actions just an excuse for my cowardice? I continue to reflect on and struggle with these questions.
On our way back to campus - with full notebooks, empty water bottles, and tired feet - I wondered how different the experience would have been if I had gone with a different group. Would the respondents still be as enthusiastic if I had revealed my caste location? What if my group had consisted of all women? Would it have been possible to establish rapport and trust with the same set of individuals? I ruminated on the complicity of my own identity in this, and the identities of my groupmates and how it had invariably become the locus of what information we had the potential to be privy to, thus directly affecting our field and focus. The materiality of the field had become reflexive.
I wrote my final paper on place-making and identity formation of Marwari migrants in Sowcarpet. I kept my own identity a footnote.
Sharayu Shejale is a final year student pursuing her integrated MA in Development Studies at IIT Madras. An aspiring academic, she is interested in gender, sustainability, transnationalism, and their intersections.
7th September 2021