The Acceptable Madness of Being (Brahmin)
Disclaimer: This article indulges in some amount of idle conjecture and does not intend to be an ‘expert’s opinion’ on diagnosable mental illnesses. It works with the author’s limited experience in the field of mental health and some curiosity regarding communities and their ideas about madness and illness.
Madness as a concept allows for the diagnostic classifications of mental illness, the pain and stigma associated with said illnesses, the limits of ‘being’ in society as well as the creative ways in which some of these very limits may be pushed to accommodate for peripheral experiences. Therefore, the usage of the term ‘madness’ in this article plays with all these meanings and combines with others in graded ways.
This essay also takes recourse to personal events and experiences in the hope of understanding how conceptual categories are entirely invisibilised in the everyday. Many of the sections will work with personal examples that complicate or enlighten social processes.
This essay comes from lived experience in two of the most orthodox Brahmin communities in India, the Tamil and Telugu Brahmins and this informs many responses to current political crises. But more importantly, it forces me to constantly come to terms with the ‘normal’ I have come to take for granted. By interacting with various communities with very different understandings of ‘normal’, I am pushed to constantly rework my understanding of environment, culture and politics.
When I say Brahmin, caste is implied. Caste is not a category to be used only to identify the most dispossessed. It refers also to the ways in which communities that enjoy social and political power do so only by making normal their own identity and marking the other as negatively different. It is the structure of caste that allows a recognisable Brahmin like me the space to live in the ‘normalized’, i.e. space and environments entirely normalized in keeping with the requirements of Brahmanism.
The home plays a crucial part in the continuing of prevalent caste structures. While caste in ‘public’ (such as places of education, work etc) might still find a mention, the early training in caste differentiation begins at home. Many Brahmin children grow up accepting how certain people are to be treated differently. This is sensory knowledge; one that need not be verbalised. It is understood; it is communicated emotionally through responses and gestures.
In many homes in my community, wage workers such as electricians, plumbers, masons etc. are not seated in chairs or sofas when they are called to work. It is a given that they are not meant to be treated on par with other workers, for example insurance salespeople. This has mainly to do with caste and not class; mainly because those that communicate aspiration through manner or dress may pass the exacting Brahmanic radar. To give them tea is considered an act of great benevolence.
It is also surprising when if chairs are offered, they are inevitably made of plastic. It is meant to mark the high sensitivity to touch and ritual hygiene that is integral to a Brahmin household. An unhygienic touch can apparently be passed through cloth; the same unhygienic touch cannot pass through a ‘modern, mass-produced’ object like plastic. It is interesting that early use of disposable plastic glasses in corporate workspaces was meant as a neutralizing object (with respect to identity) as compared to personalized steel tumblers; however, in homes this very relationship is inverted. Plastic glasses very clearly mark someone from outside, not likely to gain access to Brahmin interiors. Interestingly, this sense of ‘pure’ touch could sometimes extend to members of the same caste, for example a menstruating woman.
In a parallel setting, domestic workers at home have to walk a wide path in order to avoid the seated ritually pure Brahmin masters of the household. Touching them is not warranted. Even when food is shared, it is dropped from a height into outstretched palms. There are many subtle ways in which Brahmanic beliefs in touch, hygiene, purity link to disgust to form a major part of the affective register of ideology.
Orthodox/ conservative societies make certain functional limits very obvious to those who grow up in them. There are prescriptive structures so settled and evident that questioning them seems like a great aberration not just to others but also sometimes to oneself.
The strict food taboos (mainly vegetarianism) and sexuality taboos, both which involve bodily pleasures, have an undeniable link to madness and disease in Brahmin imagination. The ideational emphasis of the community is on order, discipline and strict adherence to structures apparently maintained from the past. The offshoot of defiance to these practices is the inevitable descent into madness and disease, which according to the Brahmin sense of history, shows in the way other communities have “disintegrated” compared to the ritually pure Brahmins.
Disgust is one of the most powerful affective regimes operating in Brahmin households. Most norms are maintained through reaching out to disgust and the ways in which it binds people in shared unities. The role of disgust and its accompanying emotions of fear, guilt, uncertainty, shame and isolation through madness/ disease are vital to build an understanding of how ideology operates in the everyday.
Accepting the definite nature of stigma around (pathologised) mental illness is the first step to working with it. This essay, however, works from a different premise. What if certain forms of madness are socially acceptable? What if particular forms of megalomania are considered a prerequisite for extremely masculine state politics? What if particular forms of madness serve a social function of regulating beliefs and behaviour? Can there be such a thing as communities being susceptible to particular (acceptable) illnesses?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a diagnosable mental illness but could its existence be entirely regularised in Brahmin families? It has become my pet theory: for a community that is obsessed with moral purity, piety and physical hygiene, the outlets for such strident expression have to be made free of stigma. Therefore, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) forms the perfect acceptable form of madness for the Brahmins. Even language sometimes creates space to accommodate ideological structures: there is a particular term in Telugu that addresses difficult, repetitive behaviour: chaadastam. If and when this term is used for a particular individual, it is understood that change is impossible. The person concerned has difficult habits, mainly of a recurring/tedious nature and is unlikely to be able to change them.
This is regularly used for those who insist on ritualistically performing certain acts that have no more than a symbolic purpose. It may also be used for those adamant about certain routines. This investment in the same act, repeatedly, over days builds a larger culture of emphasis around certain ideas mainly of order, rules and hygiene.
From my experience, an aunt I am very fond of, repeatedly checks the door even after having locked it. She would go back over and over again to tug at the lock. A cousin would constantly pull out his wallet and check the money and cards and stare at the wallet till his eyes were ready to burst. When dissatisfied, he would pull out the wallet again and stare at his money and cards.
In another example, my grandmothers (and I have many: sisters of grandmothers, cousins of these grandmothers, aunts of aunts by marriage) have a very elaborate morning routine that involves cleaning and worshipping the many gods in the ‘puja room’, making food for the many gods in said room before feeding themselves, and other acts of ritual piety that are performed, irrespective of advancing age. This is continued even in the face of poor health, since the pull of routine and ritual is so powerful. It involved scrubbing the same silver gods that had been scrubbed many times in the previous week and who did not need a wash, really. The ritual served a purpose known only to those who performed them.
Interestingly, for many of these actions, ritual purity is also to be maintained which means these women cannot be touched as they perform these morning actions. Not even by mistake, not even by their family members. Any attempt to defile is generally followed by baths. If I touched any elder who hadn’t yet performed their puja, after a bath, not only would I get a scolding but also perhaps force them to bathe another time or pour another mug of water to clean themselves of my touch.
I would always be a little hesitant before approaching my elders to kiss or hug them, since I wasn’t sure if I was ever clean enough to touch or be touched. Being unclean equals being rejected and the true nature of the ‘unclean’ could only be decided by the other. One can then imagine where the menstruation taboo fits.
The family that I have grown up in has always maintained great disdain for ‘English’ medicine. Since I was little, my brother and I visited a range of Ayurveda practitioners for small ailments ranging from fevers and bowel syndromes to Reiki practitioners for tonsils and energy healing. The cow’s refuse was also part of many medicating strategies in my community (though of course my brother and I couldn’t be pushed that far).
The ‘English’/ Allopathic system of medicine was the very last option, meant to save our pitiable lives if nothing else worked. Somewhere, it was perhaps believed that disease and illness should be regulated within the community and any attempt to find outside solutions might introduce a new range of elements that indigenous systems may find difficult to account for.
One of my aunts was diagnosed with a disorder at a young age that made it difficult for her to be out in society. She had many eruptions on her skin, which entirely covered the surface from head to toe. I saw her a couple of times when she came to meet my grandmother and found her very lively and excited to talk. Yet, she never attended weddings, birthdays or other events. She lived with her family and one day, we learnt of her death. In trying to find out the nature of the illness she had, I realised very few had an idea what it was and what it meant for her to have it. Needless to say, she had never found a companion.
Diseases that have physical manifestations that are deemed ‘ugly’, ‘inappropriate’ and emotionally weigh heavily in shame, guilt and lack of self-worth are rarely ever discussed in homes. These were inevitably considered one-off cases that had not much to do with our sense of ‘normal’.
The concept of yengili among Telugu Brahmins is also very interesting. Since I was little, I was told that to share another’s food, plate, spoons and forks while eating was disgusting; it meant sharing of saliva and other possible disease causing agents. As children we would scream yengili at each other at the slightest chance of mixing and then we would have none of it. It served multiple purposes, of course: my brother would make sure to lick entirely an extra helping of something I liked so I would never be tempted to steal from his plate.
This meant I would think twice before accepting a friend’s spoon to eat from during school lunch, or not drink from a friend’s water bottle because I saw that their lips touched the rim of the bottle. What if this boy or girl had some unnamed disease that could be communicated through their saliva?
The smell and senses associated with the body is something that the Brahmin community has great fear of. There is so much that is unknown about an alien body, alien because it is not one’s own. Hidden histories of illnesses, personal habits, choice of food, other vices- these are believed to be attacks on the body’s integrity. Distrust and suspicion run deep in some strands of Brahmin thinking.
As any Brahmin worth their salt will tell you, the emphasis on vegetarian food is not merely ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ (morals and ethics extend to animals and not so much to people trapped in the caste system), but also linked to indigenous systems of medicine. They will tell you that in so-and-so book, it is clearly mentioned that this balance of fluids and humours leads to certain imbalances. Some types of vegetarian food (because it has been mapped over Brahmin history) will equalize the doshas (irregularities) or help create harmony and/ or nullify the excess presence of some other strain. Any attempt to break from the norm shall obviously cause disease, and a disease that the Brahmin community does not have the answers to, especially if it involves food from outside the community.
When we travelled, my extended family would be very particular to not eat from a ‘Veg/Non-Veg’ Restaurant. No amount of persuasion could convince them to trust that food would be cooked separately, the chefs were separate and the sections were separate. It was entirely likely, they would say, that while washing utensils, everything got mixed up. We would then be eating from dishes in which meat was cooked! The very idea was intolerable
This explains the need many restaurant owners in parts of majority-vegetarian food areas have for specifying that their food is ‘pure vegetarian’. Now, vegetarian should be good enough, why pure? Because ‘pure’ caters to the Brahmin sense of ‘morality’, one that ensures (perhaps?) that the cooks come from acceptable castes, hygiene of a particular kind is maintained where mixing is next to nil and that other kinds of food do not find entry. As an extended joke, some restaurants in Tamil Nadu stress on ‘pure non-vegetarian’ food.
Some of the practices around food in the Brahmin community are very elaborate. For example, cooks in Brahmin families had to use separate stoves: one for ritually pure food and the other for the food regular folk ate. After meals, there is obsessive cleaning. During meals, if you’ve dropped food and an elder has spotted it, you had to hold up that section of your dress so you could remember to rub it down with water later. At the table, if you stretch out for a glass of water, then the hand has to be stationed at the table. If you use the hand for other activities such as rubbing your face or pushing a strand of hair back, then those parts would have to be rubbed down with water as well. There was no question of reaching out to another’s plate; the look you would be given could make you squirm as only the guilty do.
There is a deep sense of ‘knowing’, of understanding the necessity to be free from ignominious diseases (read: sexually transmitted diseases) and specifically from others caused by bodily exchange of fluids. The stigma around diseases of transference, especially if linked to pleasure, is unbelievably deep-seated.
In my own experience, I have rarely heard of disavowed sexual practices in the immediate Brahmin community. Either these are buried so deep as to never see the light of day or they simply do not happen. In conversations with various other friends and acquaintances from other communities, I find that the Brahmin community does not acknowledge sexuality in any way (not even via the heteronormative) and maintains the moral high ground. Since the norms of Brahmin orthodoxy are unforgiving, transgressions are viewed very seriously. Similarly, there are very few examples of marriages outside the community; those who do are generally and only Brahmin men.
It is thus interesting that I have rarely heard of people from the LGBTQI community from the Telugu Brahmin community. It is almost unthinkable, since Telugu popular culture (also Brahmanical, though run by powerful intermediate castes; ex: insistence on fair-skinned actresses) builds aggressive masculinist ideals by constantly pitting the binary feminine in opposition and only fully achieving its goal through the complete symbolic (and other) subjugation of women and other sexual minorities. It does not help that the streets of Hyderabad are zones of aggressive sexism.
goal through the complete symbolic (and other) subjugation of women and other sexual minorities. It does not help that the streets of Hyderabad are zones of aggressive sexism.
This is a community well known for keeping its cards very close to its chest. Secrecy and mystery are important to the maintaining of the norms. Emotions such as guilt, shame, isolation and fear thrive in societies where secrecy and mystery serve structural purposes, and continue status quo in the lack of conversations around these themes.
Masculinity via Patriarchy
Finally, this essay shall discuss the role that acceptable forms of madness play in the construction of gender roles and masculinities. The links between gender and caste are important to unpack how power really operates: in the joint family household, the Brahmin women maintain order. It is not merely a question of being a comprador to existing structures; these structures are renewed by their agency and intentionality.
Brahmin women, more often than not, insist on caste purity. It is in the rituals of everyday living that caste difference is constantly asserted, especially in the relations with workers of household economy. The early lessons in caste are taught here; which then follow into the outside world for the schooled Brahmin child. The outside world has meat-eaters, alcohol-drinkers and people from varied castes who might never see the kind of lives the Brahmins and other important intermediate castes take for granted.
What the morally upright woman accomplishes in the house, the man has to, in the outside world. Many of us might be used to the idea of men in our communities being stoic, unemotional and instructed to be unresponsive in emotional crises. This comes perhaps from the lack of emotional outlets that patriarchy normalises for men but also increases the risk of emotional abuse upon oneself and the people around.
Mental illness as a diagnosable, bio-medical condition has only now gained ground in some sections. It is because of the space that mental illness-as-disease-capable-of-being-cured-by-medicine has gained that some have started to acknowledge that perhaps the men they grew up around suffered some symptoms of depression. Depression as an illness that forces disengagement, guilt, fear, lack of self-worth, silence and the inability to share ‘weakness’ has become the terrain for accepted masculine behaviour. Little does one realize how many male members of families suppress issues of mental health in the name of stoic responses and adherence to the norms of masculinity. Statistics also present how men are the most susceptible to suicide due to the complete lack of space to discuss the physical-psychical condition of ‘weakness’ that depression forces upon struggling people. This may not be a condition restricted to upper-caste families, not by any means. In fact, this is a community with enough privilege to be able to make a serious dent in the understanding regarding mental illnesses. But, as we know, conservatism breeds more conservatism.
Such men were called ‘secretive’, incapable of building emotional relationships with their spouses or children, always withdrawn. As children, when we would skip around the older quieter figures, we were told this was how men of a certain generation grew up. The cult of masculinity ensured that serious emotional problems were swept under the carpet, resentful women family members were being ‘gossipy women’ when they complained and quite significantly, male children grew up imitating older forms of behaviour.
In such ways, communities have a way of trivialising/ minimising the serious emotional and behavioural problems of its members. I would hear stories of how one particular uncle had spent his entire life in a peevish mood and would snap at anyone who tried to make conversation with him. He was well known to walk off in fits of rage and come back very late. He went off on his own leaving his slightly confused family members behind. He had also received education only until pre-school, so many wrote off his behaviour as a consequence of not being exposed to ‘modern education’. I had asked if he liked reading and was told he couldn’t stand looking at words on paper and was known to get frustrated in school. I now wonder if this could have been avoided if only he had been diagnosed in time with a learning disability. He had never earned a penny in his lifetime.
This essay does not mean to be indulgent in the ways and ‘quirks’ of a particular community. It flags (through some amount of conjecture) certain social ways of thinking and feeling which normalise the intersection of ideas around madness/disease, caste, hygiene and their affective responses. This community has the cultural capital to suitably engage with unsustainable ideas and oppressive structures, but chooses to take the familiar route of ‘tradition vs. modernity’, a false debate with false premises in order to glide over the problems that it has made entirely its own.
Written by: Aprameya Manthena
Edited by: Pallab Deb
Aprameya has studied at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU and has worked with TISS, BALM campus, Kovalam.