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.

According to the French scholar Eleni Varikas, the Portuguese military navigator Duarte Barbosa, who was based in India from 1500 to 1517, recorded the word for the first time in his travel writing. “There is another inferior group of pagans called Pareas,” he wrote. “They do not come in contact with anyone, are considered worse than the devil and shunned by all; just looking at them is enough to be contaminated and excommunicated.” About a century later, around 1613, “pariah” entered the English lexicon, and that of other European languages.

The earliest known inscription of the Tamil word “paraya” is found in a Sangam-era text, Purananuru, composed between the second and third centuries. In his essay “Waiting to lose their patience,” Ravikumar noted that when the first modern edition of Purananuru was published in 1894, many historians claimed that the presence of the word “parayan” in Song 335 implied that a caste system existed 1,800 years ago. “Nondalit commentators understand this to mean that the discrimination and oppression of the parayars/dalits is not of recent origin,” he wrote, “and they derive solace in believing that untouchability is as old as the Sangam period.” The pioneering Dalit intellectual Iyothee Thass questioned the very authenticity of the text in his 1908 article “Is there a book called Purananuru?” According to Ravikumar, there is no way to verify whether the song exists in its original form, or whether it was added in later centuries. The second-oldest inscription of the word is from the thirteenth century, during the Chola period. In this case, Ravikumar writes, there are references to both paraya cheri, or paraya settlement, and theenda cheri, or untouchables’ settlement, indicating that the two were not the same. The conflation of untouchability with “paraya” had not yet occurred.

Gopu Mohan is a journalist based in Chennai.