There was a piece in the New York Times, written by an NRI, which I believe evoked a considerable worldwide reaction. I myself reacted strongly to it, and I did want to write on it. I may yet, some day - there was a tone, almost a mocking one, which I did not appreciate in that individual’s depiction of this country and its norms. I’m not (just) being the patriot here - I just believe it’s a mix of the wrongs of generalisation, and the easier-said-than-done in the piece which I do not appreciate.
That is, however, for later. What I talk of here is something tiny, yet something very large - our surnames.
I did not know, till college, that there was actually a thought process which still exists, which puts you in a box the moment you say your full name. I did not know how to respond to questions about my caste, from educated colleagues, that too. They were not aspersions, mind you - they were discussions, a passing matter, but they were yet a topic. I did not know how to respond to a rather interesting discussion we had in class about if our parents would let us marry into a ‘lower caste’ (I remember I went back to my hostel and called my mother to ask her.)
That said, I have never faced any difficulty, or gained any advantage, because of my name. I have never felt any belonging to any class or caste. I have never consciously felt that a friend was a lower, or a higher caste - I have never even known it, unless expressly mentioned. That had made me decide that the system is a thing of the past.
Yet, I’m here, writing on the topic. What brought me here was a discussion which I very recently overheard. A replacement cook was the topic of concern - I was not aware of the woman’s ‘roots’, but she came from a ‘lower caste’ background. Now while this did not prevent the progressive family from utilising her services, it was frowned upon by other workers, who did not agree that the woman was ‘fit for the job’.
What irked me was when the permanent cook’s origins from a ‘good family’ were discussed. She, as a ‘high caste’ individual who had fallen on hard times, was ‘cleaner’ by disposition. The replacement woman, on the other hand, was not pre-disposed to cleanliness, due to her roots.
I’m trying to come to grips with this. I’m not simply dismissing it as the banter of the unevolved, because this was a discussion amongst the most educated people I know. I am not condemning them as narrow-minded, for like I said, they did not stop the replacement cook from cooking, nor are they the sort who give these matters heed.
What bothers me is that despite all this, the clean-unclean paradigm seemed to be taken as a fact of nature. We may be accepting people from all castes and classes, but their ‘inherent’ characteristics hold fast in the minds of the masses.
What then, of the collapse of the caste system? Are we really ready to live without reservations? Can ‘society’, that all-seeing, all-knowing omnipotent demigod, be trusted?
I am one of those people who do NOT believe that India lives in a hole. I would fight out any stereotypes about my country, and I would praise it to whosoever may try to put it down. I would put faith into a lot to do with the country, but I would do none of the above blindly. Whenever I do any of it, I really believe in what I say. I do not believe that India is forever condemned to be regressive, that Indians are inherently flawed in certain ways, that something about the air takes away from who we are and turns us into people we cannot feel proud of being.
Why then, do the best of people continue to think in a way which emulates a system which is one of the most shameful in our history? Is it something built into us, as members of certain castes? Are you scrolling down to my surname, to see why I’m harping on about this?
For once, I cannot propose a solution. I wonder if there is a base to this seemingly mindless categorisation, and if there is a way to rip it out. For we may not be