The Changing world of Tambarams

Tamil Brahmans: The making of a middle-class caste By C J Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan Social Science Press/Orient BlackSwan Rs 750
Tamil Brahmans: The making
of a middle-class caste
By C J Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan
Social Science Press/Orient
Rs 750

As is evident from my name, or should be, I am a Tamil Brahman. But I have lived 97 per cent of my life in Delhi where I have gone to school with post-partition Punjabi children and, later on, mingled with Jats and other assorted north Indians throughout my working life.

It was only towards the end of my career that I worked in an utterly Tamil Brahman organisation, The Hindu group of newspapers. I realised then that being a Tamil Brahman was serious business. It certainly was not like the funny series I wrote about them in the Times of India in the early 1990s. That series had popularised the term Tambram, much to the anguish of my aged relatives.

That aside, had Fuller and Haripriya not written this book, I would probably have attempted one on the subject. It is, after all, a low-hanging and fascinating fruit. But they have spared me the labour and produced a very scholarly study which not only shows Tambrams their place, but also the world the place that Tambrams now occupy in Indian society: down from high caste oppressors to middle class survivors in a hostile environment in their own State.

The authors say Tambram population of Tamil Nadu has declined hugely from 2.5 per cent in 1931 to just about 1.8 per cent now. A quarter of these live outside Tamil Nadu.

This is not a book for the frivolous reader looking for a quickie on a flight. It is a serious academic work that lays bare the mysteries of TamBramism because as social groups go, Tambrams are as distinct in their practices, customs, shibboleths and prejudices as, say, the Hassidic Jews. They cling to a mixture of piety and practicality that survival under difficult circumstances teaches. In doing so, they often appear as ridiculous as the Jews who have been known to debate whether electricity is fire, and if so whether it is all right to get into a lift on Sabbath.

Similar eccentricities can be laid at the doors of Tambrams. They were obsessed with auspiciousness. Whether it was time — rahukalam and yamagandam — or food — no tubers etc — or oil baths and castor oil, the Tambrams are a class apart.

The authors ably demonstrate the emergence of a bunch of professionals who have done very well for themselves. Their recent history is that for a hundred years from the 1870s they took to liberal arts education and law, thus becoming prominent in the fields of education and governance. Then when the Dravidian movement began to shove them aside in Tamil Nadu, they took to engineering and medicine, though less to the latter because of ritual purity reasons.

When in the 1990s the rest of India pushed on with affirmative action for the lower castes, they found themselves being edged out of both educational opportunities as well as government jobs in India. So they went big on the private sector. Many went off to the US and have done well there. Living outside their natural habitat they have started ­marrying outside their fold too.

In consequence, old edifices are crumbling. There used to be a time when a Vadagalai Iyengar would not marry a Tenkalai Iyengar and vice versa. That line was breached in the 1950s. Next the Iyers and the Iyengars started marrying each other, which was a clear watershed. Now everyone else has become fair game. So as endangered social groups go, Tamil Brahmans lead the way.

The book, however, fails to bring out adequately the gradual disappearance of a community that was always a curiosity. The end for the Tambram is in sight but the book doesn’t say so. Give it another 50 years and, as the Agatha Christie novel says, there will be none.

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