Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some caste-related queries and thoughts

An elderly person who had moved into one of the flats in the apartment block in which I live came to see me.  After a few brief preliminaries, he became silent.  "I guess", he soon resumed with his voice dropping to a low whisper, "most people in this block are our people."  I knew what he meant by "our people", so I asked him, "What is your caste?"  Caught off his guard, he didn't know what to say for a moment.  Then he mentioned his caste.  "You're right", I said to him.  "Almost all the people in this block are your people.  But I am an outsider."  After sitting in embarrassed silence for a few minutes, he scrambled awkwardly to his feet and went out – perhaps to seek the company of an in-group man to regain his composure.

It looks as though nothing can shake caste – not even a hundred Gandhis.  Caste survived the vigorous campaign of the Mahatma whose ingenious methods included temple entry by the so-called untouchables, and upper caste men cleaning night soil.  Next, a more serious threat to caste came in the form of radically changing lifestyles brought about by people living in metropolitan cities and foreign countries; these involved the abandoning of some traditional caste rules.  But caste has assimilated the changes without losing its hold over the minds of people.  The matrimonial columns in our newspapers are a triumphant assertion of this living institution.  Caste – and even sub-castes – continues to be a significant factor in marriages.  Even if mixed marriages take place, the "mixed" populations either get accepted into one or other of the caste groupings or form themselves into separate castes or caste-like groups.  Even some atheists believe in caste: they may deny God, but they swear by caste!  Their marriages are still endogamous.

That reminds me of a Marxist friend of mine, reputed to be a socially committed writer in Telugu.  He once asked me to suggest a translator for his stories.  I suggested one, a young woman, good at both Telugu and English.  After her meeting with the socially committed writer, the woman spoke to me, throwing significant light on his ideology in practice.  During the meeting, he had tried in vain to find out her caste through indirect means.  Finally, he had asked her in exasperation, "Are you a Brahmin?"  "He is a socially committed Brahmin", the lady commented.

I spent four years in a small town in Andhra Pradesh where caste-related queries and talks were pointed and refreshingly unhypocritical.  In the town lived a college lecturer, a 45-year-old bachelor, who had, however, only one complaint in life: that he, a Brahmin, had to teach for his livelihood students the majority of whom were Shudras.  Perhaps to atone for the "sin" of teaching Shudra children for two decades, he resigned the job and went to Thiruvannamalai to spend the rest of his life at Ramanashram.  A few years ago, when I went to Ramanashram, I ran into him.  It was lunch time at the Ashram, and I was about to walk into the dining hall when someone stopped me.  I looked back.  It was my old friend, looking more otherworldly than before.  "Come here", he said grabbing my hand and dragging me out.  "There is a separate dining hall for Brahmins."

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