The “P” Word

The dark history of “pariah”

01 January 2018

On 20 October, D Ravikumar, the general secretary of the political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, sent Time magazine a strongly worded email objecting to its cover that month, which had gone viral on social media even before the magazine hit the stands. It featured the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and the caption read, “Producer. Predator. Pariah.” More than 80 women in the media have accused Weinstein of sexual assault and misconduct, setting in motion similar allegations against high-profile men all over the world. Ravikumar’s objection concerned a very specific aspect of the cover—the usage of the word “pariah.” “There are more than 10 million people living in India who have been and continue to be called as ‘pariah’,” he wrote in his email. “Their descendants live in many countries of the world. The word is used by others in a derogatory and insulting manner not unlike the ‘N’ word in your country.” In an attempt to be alliterative, the magazine had unthinkingly deployed a term loaded with casteist prejudice.

In its broadest sense, the term indicates an outcast. It is often used to describe “rogue” states and their leaders. In the case of figures such as Weinstein, it evokes deviance or villainy. In mathematics, a Pariah Group is an outlier set of numbers that refuses to be part of the rest—incidentally also called a Monster Group. And with respect to animals, the word is often used to refer to a mongrel or feral dog, and a type of black kite found in India.

Its historical connotations, however, have been almost forgotten—except by those the term was, and is, used to denigrate. The Oxford English Dictionary contains an anodyne description of its origin: “Early 17th century: from Tamil paraiyar, plural of paraiyan ‘(hereditary) drummer’, from parai ‘a drum.’” It also provides a historical definition: “A member of an indigenous people of southern India originally functioning as ceremonial drummers but later having a low caste.” Many Dalit scholars have contested this, arguing that the word has a more complicated history, and that the definitions do not reflect the centuries of hurt and humiliation suffered by the people it is meant to describe. Just as the “n” word evokes the dark history of slavery and racial prejudice, so should “pariah” be recognised as carrying the brutal legacy of the caste system.

Gopu Mohan is a journalist based in Chennai.