Are you a vegetarian?
This fairly innocuous-sounding question greets you, when you start hunting for a house to rent in Chennai. Skim the surface off the question, and you wish you never decided to come to Chennai. Its intent is plain. Are you a Brahmin?
Some of them may be genuinely looking only for vegetarians (and not necessarily Brahmins) to occupy their houses. Some of them are bold enough to specify “for Brahmins only!” on the advertisements or to their brokers. Many of them do not have the courage to be open about it and hide behind the vegetarian-question. But you can always sense their discomfort, in knowing that you are a non-Brahmin Vegetarian.
Of course, the story that we cook only vegetarian food at home, and I occasionally eat meat in hotels, complicates the picture. I told my wife not to bother narrating this tale after listening to her the first time. So, we were just vegetarians, and I insisted that the brokers tell the landlords that we are non-Brahmin-vegetarians to avoid questions, later, on the missing thread or the non-Brahmin dialect.
Though many of my closest friends, since school days, have been (and still are) Brahmins, I have never felt excluded from their company. The first time, I was exposed to this exclusivity of the Chennai Brahmin club was when I went to a few carnatic music kutcheris alone, ten years back. Now this rude shock…the blatant display of casteism in the heart of the capital city, amongst, probably, the most educated elite of Tamilnadu…100 years after the Dalit Kanagalingam was bestowed with the Brahminic thread, by the Brahmin-born reformist-poet Bharati (who himself had forsaken the thread) in obstinate, sacrilegious defiance of the orthodoxy of that era.
This, sadly, is enough fodder to keep the crass anti-brahmin rhetoric of the Dravidian movement alive.
P.S. : We are finally going to be in a small apartment complex, as tenants to a generous Brahmin family. In the words of the broker, who was confused to hear that we are vegetarians but not Brahmins, “it is a nice apartment with only brahmin residents”.
A small sample of ads from Google search: