How to worship caste in India and get away with it

Our savarna-led lives are contrary to popular claims of a casteless society.

 |  6-minute read |   06-08-2016
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My mother's best friend is a "Brahmin". They met when my mother, a newly-wed 19-year-old, came to Delhi from Katwa, a municipality in Burdwan district of West Bengal. She could speak neither Hindi nor English. She was the first friend my mother made.

Both of them gave each other company during their pregnancies, saw each other's children almost in the first hour of their births, when either was sick, one sent in food for the other's family, wiped each other's tears when one poured her heart out to the other about some domestic strife, et al.

I still remember playing with her sons, while they talked and shared intimate details of their married life, financial constraints, nosy relatives, children's struggles and difficult husbands.

I distinctly remember the day of the janeu ceremony of her two sons. I must have been 12 or so. Ma left home the previous night to help her friend. She had been shopping with Mashi (aunty) for puja samagri, new clothes, et al for days.

Ma was so excited, almost like there was a wedding in the family. She worked through the night cutting vegetables for the bhog (ceremonial food), decorating the house and cleaning it, attending on relatives who had come from Kolkata, it was almost like her own sons were getting the janeu (the string of the Brahmin).

We came back from school and reached there around the time the puja was coming to an end, I saw the two boys with their shaved heads and their strand of hair hanging from the back of their bald heads, their "tikis", I remember making a face at the younger one who was closer to my age, teasing him for his tiki. I was not allowed to go in.

Ma was standing in a corner. When the last leg of the ceremony started, the boys held a part of their dhoti in front them (outstretched) and proceeded to ask the elders for "bhiksha" (alms) and blessings. Everyone was ready with a fistful of rice to give as alms, except for Ma. I asked her where her fistful was, but she wouldn't answer.

The boys went from one elder to another, came to Ma and just skipped her! As if she did not exist! I was furious...Ma, who was like their mother, who had fed them when they dropped in hungry at our home, and worked day and night for their special day was treated like that!

Ma asked me to shut up when she saw angry questions in my eyes. On our way back home she told me, they didn't seek her blessing because we are "Kayastha" a lower caste than Brahmin. They would become impure if they sought the blessings of a woman who loved them like a Mother! Even her best friend did not insist.

That was my first experience with caste. I am a so-called "savarna" (upper caste). I wonder what kind of pathetic discriminatory treatment the "avarnas" (Dalits) go through every day of their lives - what humiliation!

Since then, I started noticing caste all around me. During Vijaya Dashami - the last day of Durga Puja - when all of us kids touched the feet of elders, some would selectively seek blessings.

Brahmin kids would touch the feet of Brahmin elders alone. I noticed that at home there were separate utensils for the maid; the occasional mason, or the cobbler who wanted water while repairing our shoes at the doorstep were served in a separate glass.

There were strict instructions to us kids to never let our fingers come into contact with that of the garbage collector when we handed him the bin, or his monthly wages.

A Dalit who worked in my grandfather's house shared a striking story. His father, a farmer, had once gone to talk to the landlord. A relatively progressive man, the landlord asked him to sit on the bench that he was sitting on, in his courtyard.

The poor man, after much insistence, sat gingerly on the edge of the bench while they discussed some issues. The landlord's elder brother suddenly came running at full speed from behind and kicked the man off the bench.

He fell on his face metres away from the bench, broke several of his teeth in the process, and his backbone was permanently damaged. His fault was that he dared to sit at the same level - on the same bench - as his "Brahmin master".

Friends tell me they have witnessed that, at marriage ceremonies, Dalits are not allowed to touch the food till Savarnas have had their meals.

A friend once had to hear a rant about how Dalits/SCs were so disgusting that one couldn't even touch them. The person ranting had no idea that my friend was a Dalit too.

Another friend shared that, in his father's village, the Mappilas (the largest Muslim group in Kerala) would address other Mappilas (older than them), Hindu upper castes, or Christians, regardless of their social or economic standing with a suffix indicating the seniority of the person. However, the Mappilas - regardless of age or economic well-being - address the Dalits by their given names. This demonstrates how Muslims are also part of the regressive caste structure and how they treat the Dalits.

Anti-reservation rants are so common that people actually believe that merit runs in Savarna blood and that they are all Newtons stopped in their tracks due to the reservation policy. I have heard colleagues say "Yeh reserved waale log" in their signature savarna insensitivity. I have seen these rants happen in front of colleagues from the reserved category, and I have seen them cringe and swallow the insult in silence.

Why is it that people who won't cease to complain about reservations, never raise their voice against capitation fees and private colleges where you can buy engineering/medical seats? I often hear pro-meritocracy arguments along the lines of "how nervous will you be when you come to know that the doctor operating upon you got into medical college through reservation?".

Here's my answer: a lot less than the situation in which I come to know that my doctor went to medical school by paying capitation fees, or was serving at the hospital because his/her rich parent had contacts. 

I have heard of Dalit kids who have had to face stone pelting attacks to become engineers from IIT, of "reserved category" doctor who had to battle poverty, lack of resources and discrimination just to get an education, of the "ST"civil engineer who had to struggle with language issues and a sub-standard education and yet made it, to build my bridges.

Caste narratives are very important. They highlight that we live contrary to popular claims of a casteless society.

Caste exists and thrives all around us: it strips people of their dignity, the perpetrators often partake in that stripping as a way of life without even noticing what they have done - for most people in the Indian society Dalit dignity does not exist.

It is high time people questioned "tradition" and discrimination, and sat up and took notice. Caste is all around us and only this realisation will trigger change.


Monami Basu Monami Basu

The writer is assistant professor, University of Delhi.

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