By Lavanya Narayan Oct. 18, 2016
My parents liberally use the phrase nalla Brahmana ponnu (well-behaved Tamil Brahmin girl) to describe me. But I knock back beers and I’m queer. So I don’t qualify.
Last year, my sweet, well-intentioned Tamil Brahmin parents asked me whether I was ready for marriage. All my cousins, who are women, have been “married off” and social convention dictates that my parents should do the same. Since I was not dating anyone at the time and had some friends who met their spouses through an arranged marriage setup, I did not object.
Before I knew it, my profile was up on Bharat Matrimony. Proposals came pouring in because my parents had liberally used the phrase nalla Brahmana ponnu to describe me. Loosely translated, nalla Brahmana ponnu means a good, well-behaved girl born in a family that identifies itself as Tamil Brahmin. Coming from such a family against your will is like being the Michael of the Corleone family. Between the two, Michael is the one who gets the better deal. The choice of whether he wants to be a part of the “family business” is his choice and his alone. His father Vito echoes this sentiment, but either way, the choice rests with Michael. Since I have been educated in what is considered one of India’s top schools for journalism, I used to work in a respected and renowned organisation, and am believed to be conventionally good-looking, I am, my parents believe, the epitome of nalla Brahmana ponnu.
Except I’m not.
I knock back beers and rum with coke like I’m downing water. I light up and smoke with boys just as I would with my girls. I wolf down bacon-cheese sandwiches and fried chicken like I’ve been on a fast. I am a huge fan of tattoos and piercings, I have short hair, and I like wearing clothes that help me flaunt my curves, no matter how revealing. I have had sex before marriage, and not just with the person I am going to marry. I am queer and identify myself as gender-fluid. In short, I am not “good material” for matrimony websites in southern India.
N Panchapakesan, who runs a matrimonial website called Chennai Sai Sankara Matrimonials, has made that amply clear. The said gentleman shot to celebrity status when he published a post on how Brahmin women are meant to behave and conduct themselves. The fact that he did so using a brutally murdered woman is what, according to him, made him particularly endearing.
S Swathi, an unfortunate woman murdered in broad daylight by a stalker, was born into a Brahmin family and Panchapakesan thought it would be an opportune time to remind other young Brahmin women out there, how to avoid meeting a fate like that of Swathi’s. He began the post first exonerating the murderer with pressing questions like, “Is the culprit alone to be blamed?” Thereafter, he continued to blame the movies, culture, cellphones, TV serials, internet, and Facebook, as if they had all personally come and wielded the sickle on that miserable day in July.
Panchapakesan’s post went on to make references to how women belonging to Brahmin families were getting more spoilt than men by consuming alcohol and meat, by having romantic relationships before getting married (“loving someone for fun and marrying somebody else as per parents’s wish later, is also becoming more common in a few cases”), and by opining that divorce is an excuse to return to a former relationship. He ended the post with the rallying cry of Brahamism to be served as a warning to all “non-Brahmanical” girls like Swathi: “To be born as a human being is a rarity, to be born as a Brahmin is still more a rarity.”
The men I met through Bharat Matrimony, however, were very interested in my nalla Brahmana ponnu status. As were their mothers.
What Panchapakesan was doing was asking all of Chennai’s ovulating population to stand up and be nalla Brahmana ponnu or risk being slaughtered on railway platforms. Thankfully, the post had to be pulled down due to the outrage it caused on social media, but not before it shone a brief and ugly light upon misogyny that screeches out loud in my land of quiet kanjeevarams.
Unfortunately, being a “Tam Brahm” (the outwardly cute nickname the community has gotten in recent times, but has just about as much cuteness as Ravana’s face) is not a matter of choice. Thanks to this tag, a woman is raised with enough pressure to explode a kitchen full of rice-cookers. The pressure is derived from the idea that she has done a lot of punyam (Tamil for karmic good) to be born in a Brahmin household and for that she must be eternally grateful. From birth, she is raised with very pointed ideals and parameters upon which she should base her actions, hence making for a nalla Brahmana ponnu. The phrase is a not-so-subtle way of describing an individual of marriageable worth.
There are many things that go into the making of this marriageable nalla Brahmana ponnu. You can identify her from a mile away. She is the one who has studied with and maintained social relationships exclusively with women all her life. She may interact with men, but they are usually brothers, friends of her father or said brother(s), or male cousins, and uncles. If she must speak to men, it can only be within a professional capacity. Male friends, if any, in a nalla Brahmana ponnu’s life, must be vetted by her family, before she can spend time with him in a social setting. She must be well-educated, but not more educated than the suitors presented to her. She must have a good career, but must be willing to give it up the minute she gives birth to a child. She must be ambitious, but not so ambitious that it interferes with her husband’s career. She must be respectful toward her elders, be trained in either a form of Indian dance or music, and wear only “ethnic” clothes.
I have made my distinctly non-nalla Brahmana ponnu status apparent to my family, but they choose to turn a blind eye to it, hoping that it will go away one day, like a bad case of flu. The men I met through Bharat Matrimony, however, were very interested in my nalla Brahmana ponnu status. As were their mothers. One of them (a prospective match who had done his masters in Amreeka) had his mother have a few conversations with me, before he could speak to me himself. The other made it clear that the fact that he’d never had any kind of platonic relationship with women, let alone a romantic one, was a virtue.
It took mediation by multiple third parties (including understanding relatives and a psychologist), for my parents to give up on the matrimony profile and accept that their daughter is not and will never be a nalla Brahmana ponnu.
This year as the marriage season rolls around, Panchapakesan and other matrimony websites will play host to millions of profiles. The women behind this suffocating phrase will be bright and beautiful with a wicked sense of humour and maybe a naughty rendezvous or two behind them. But nobody will be told that. They will be pitched as nalla Brahmana ponnus and with those three magic words, the sale will be made.
Lavanya is a wayward gender-bending writer and actor who deals with boozing, being culturally confused and hugging her cat and dog on a daily basis. If not for this, she would have been Meryl Streep's butt double.