I sat with Mrs. Chandaram in the poorly ventilated, 107 degree Foreign Registration Office at the Madurai District Police Station for more than four hours. As US citizens who spent more than 180 consecutive days in India, we were required to get a signature – a single squiggle of a pen – on our exit permits by the Superintendant of Police. After the first two, oddly silent hours of our wait, the stout, grey-haired woman decided to strike up a conversation with me. (However, in retrospect, it felt more like an interview.) She asked why I was in Madurai. She wanted to know more about the type of work I was doing. She enquired where I learned Tamil and what food I usually ate for dinner. She even convinced me to describe the layout of my flat. (Although I refrained from revealing the amount of rent I pay.)
Within twenty minutes of our conversation, she asked if I had any relatives in Madurai. I replied honestly, telling her that I did not. Upon hearing my response, she cocked her head and widened her eyes, gazing at me with a sense of concern. Under her breath, she uttered, paavum (poor thing).
Mrs. Chandaram did not feel bad for me because I was drenched in sweat. She didn’t seem perturbed that I had to wait four hours to get a simple signature. (After all, she was in the exact same situation.) But the idea of me not having relatives nearby – no loved ones to feed me, house me, or take care of me when I fall sick – made her feel pity toward me.
I never considered myself one to be pitied here in India. I lead a good life. I have good friends, food to eat, clean water to drink, a roof over my head, and – when the power grid remains stable – an air conditioner in my room to combat severe temperatures. And, despite the considerable distance between us, I keep in good touch with my immediate family in the US and my extended family in other Indian cities. But when I tried to explain all of this to Mrs. Chandaram, she seemed unconvinced. My family was far away and therefore I was, to a certain degree, paavum.
Over the years, I have gained an acute understanding of the centrality of family – both nuclear and extended – to Tamil society. Having studied various aspects of South Indian life in college and graduate school, I am familiar with the critical role that the family unit plays in structuring social interaction and economic exchange. Having grown up in an extended family household in the United States, I understand, on the deepest personal level, how a Tamil family is a forum for everything from emotional support to the dissemination of ideological beliefs. However, in the final weeks of this fellowship experience, I’ve begun to reflect on the crucial and sometimes heartbreaking role that “the family” can play in the human rights arena.
Families are a source of protection. But in the past nine months, I’ve witnessed parents and relatives haunted by the fact that they could not save their kin from harm. Parents have buried children who committed suicide due to extreme physical and mental abuse by teachers. Eyewitnesses to murders have seen relatives harassed, siblings attacked, and children kidnapped – all threats to prevent them from testifying in court. Wives have worked tirelessly to prove their husbands’ innocence, only to see them unjustly incarcerated and, far too frequently, physically tortured by jail officials. These families did their best to act as a source of refuge for loved ones. But, in the end, they were rendered helpless against oppressive forces and powerful people that actively sustained their marginalization and suffering.
Families work together to ensure that basic necessities – food, water, clothing, and shelter – are met. Before starting this fellowship, I was well aware that, due to vastly differing levels of access and privilege, some families are more equipped than others to ensure that these needs are met. However, after traveling to three Dalit villages Dharmapuri – which, just one month prior to my visit, witnessed the worst caste riots that northern Tamil Nadu has seen in decades – I met dozens of hardworking families who had each of these basic life requirements violently ripped away from them. The damage from the riots was unreal. Roofs were caved in and walls destroyed by homemade petrol bombs. Food stores were completely ransacked and destroyed. Money was stolen and even burned. Families were left with nothing. A generation that had just begun to foster this marginalized community’s economic advancement through arduous wage labor was now burdened with having to rebuild homes and lives. And they had to do so with sparse resources to care for their children or elders.
Families can provide the care, mentorship, and financial support needed for young men or women to embark upon adulthood. But, having conducted advocacy work with members of Tamil Nadu’s Thirunangai (transgender) community, I’ve heard countless stories of young non-gender conforming teenagers actively seeking approval and support from families, only to be outright rejected and disowned. Without emotional and economic support, many young transgenders have been forced to enter sex work in order to survive. And while Thirunangais have deep-seated traditions of constructing non-biological, intercommunal support networks, some members of the community have found relationships within these networks to be overtly hierarchical and outright abusive. And while the development arena in Tamil Nadu is saturated with programs to assist the socioeconomic and medical rehabilitation of adult Thirunangais, few address the root cause of their vulnerability to poverty and abuse. Few directly address familial rejection.
In the past nine months, I’ve learned that human rights in Tamil Nadu can rarely be viewed separately from various ideas, fantasies, and realities associated with “the family.” The abuses and atrocities I’ve witnessed and researched hardly ever affect a single individual. They have a profound impact on spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and countless other members of a victim’s kinship network. Though the family unit is often praised by ancient Tamil literature and contemporary Kollywood cinema for its strength and resilience, there are times when I cannot imagine how certain families (and individuals who have been altogether rejected by their kin) will be able to persevere through the immense challenges placed before them.
As depressing as some of these realities are, they have helped shape the way I conceptualize effective human rights work. Since I’ve begun working at People’s Watch, I’ve recognized my organization’s subtle, yet strategic family-centered approach to conducting human rights rehabilitation. This approach is not carried out in a way where narrow-minded notions of “the family” are imposed upon victims. People’s Watch simply recognizes that holistic rehabilitation – which accounts for legal, medical, economic, and psychological needs – must, at the very least, thoroughly consider the complex ways that family relationships, obligations, and support mechanisms are ingrained into the very core of victims’ psyches. Since People’s Watch’s inception, efforts toward the protection and rehabilitation of victims have always included rigorous assessments of the needs of the victims’ spouses, parents, siblings, and children. All curricula for Human Rights Education initiatives have recognized and addressed the importance of the family unit within Tamil Society. And, during times when victims were unable to rely on family for emotional or economic support, various people associated with People’s Watch – including staff, allies, and other former victims – served as a network of care and encouragement.
Human Rights work is complicated. It can be difficult enough to account for victims alone, much less the multifaceted networks with which they are a part. But complex challenges cannot be fixed by simplistic, one-dimensional interventions. To address human rights, one has to consider more than just the direct victims and overt perpetrators. There are reverberations to these abuses and atrocities, which are felt by entire communities. Even regions. But they are felt most starkly by families.
I never had the chance to share any of these thoughts with Mrs. Chandaram. In fact, I may have never even reflected on these themes if she hadn’t struck up that initial conversation. Her simple evaluation – that almost inaudible utterance, “paavum” – has challenged me to reconceptualize the way I view family in the context of human rights. In the end, I truly appreciate Mrs. Chandaram’s interest in my life and well being. But as long as I am lucky enough to navigate life with a supportive family that is free from the burden of overt marginalization, I hope she can focus her concern on more important matters.