Pariahs beat drums to attract attention

From ‘Avoid touchy word’, 25 June 2011, Mailbag, ST Life!

(Shanmuguam Kasinathan):…Firstly I think the playwright (Alfian Bin Sa’at) is myopic in the sense that there are so many issues to dramatise, but he has chosen this one to highlight. To me , he is immature and his play (Pariah) is not worth attending.

He was forgotten the controversy over this particular term, ‘pariah’, in Malaysia. ‘Pariah’ is misunderstood by many people, including the playwright. In India, the caste system has been in existence for thousands of years…the lowest caste, comprising those known as the ‘untouchables’, is divided into many castes.

Pariahs are people who went to villages to make announcements in the days when India had no newspapers or radio. They did this by beating their drums to attract attention. Over time, the word has become derogatory because it was the sub-caste of the untouchables who did all the menial jobs in India.

The playwright could have done something better than touch a raw nerve in the Tamil Community.

Pariah Pariah Sakura

Haven’t seen the play (probably not in my lifetime since the dialogue in Malay), I’ll leave it to the author and producers to defend against these sweeping allegations of discrimination, though based on the synopsis alone, it appears to me that Alfian’s work is merely addressing the controversy of the word rather than fanning the flames of class prejudice. It’s not clear from the letter if Mr Shanmugam has actually seen the play, but his rage appears to directed towards the appearance of  the word ‘pariah’ in the title of a local production, like the phrase ‘Naan the Nay’ appearing on a Breadtalk creation.

The exact role of ‘pariahs’ in the caste system, whether they’re drum beating postmen or peasants, is up to Indian sociologists and historians to debate over, though part of the reason why ‘pariah’ still offends certain Indians till this day could be its association with mongrel dogs (See below, Good points about the Pariah Dog, 6 July 1935, ST). According to this 1935 article, the pariah is the ‘outcast’, a ‘mountaineer or primitive inhabitant’, but modern etymology identifies its origin in the Tamil word ‘paraiyan’, or ‘drummer’, attributed to caste members who beat drums or ‘parai’ at festivals, though it’s unclear if beating drums on important occasions is all they do for a living. The ‘untouchable’ term refers to fear of contamination upon contact with members of their caste, epitomised by an old anecdote  that a higher caste mother would rather have her child drown in a well than allow a pariah sweeper to rescue him, in fear of polluting the village water supply, the ‘mongrel’ connection amplified by how pariahs are treated ‘worse-than-dogs’ (See below, India’s untouchables, 5 April 1913, ST). But whatever the original application of pariah, subversion of innocent words into offensive terms full of pejorative connotations happens all the time. Think words like ‘bitch’,  ‘pig’,  ‘dustbin man’,  ‘toilet cleaner’ and even ‘uncle and auntie‘, and you’ll know what I mean.

The word ‘Untouchable’ has also taken on an entirely different, though not so positive, meaning in today’s office culture (meaning someone with special privileges who escapes meagre assignments; ‘granted immunity’ in Survivor-speak, or in local parlance, ‘siams arrows’). Even ‘pariah’ in the context of mongrel dogs has become outdated, today euphemised to the more politically correct  sounding ‘strays’ or ‘hybrids’. Perhaps the playwright should have considered using less glaring ‘The Untouchables’ as the working title of his play instead to avoid the wrath of such complainants. They would probably think it’s just a harmless, musical version of a namesake movie about a bunch of cops and  Al Capone.

You can't touch them

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