On Caste and Questions

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Sitting in the office, having finished a couple of techie articles, waiting for either work or lunch, whichever comes first. There’s a niggle in the dip under my shoulder blade- a memory of a Bio class tells me it’s the scapula. Flexing it, I decide to create my own work.

I just shared an article about caste on Facebook. It picks at a thread that I’ve often worried, but been a little afraid to pull at. You see, in India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. Makes it hard to take a stand.

I lived in Pune for a while as a kid. When I was about seven, we had a bai (maidservant) called Kusum.  Kusum aunty, I called her. She was the sweetest bai we’ve ever had, as far as I can remember. When my father had surgery and mom stayed nights at the hospital, she stayed with us for hours at a time, sometimes at night, leaving only once my brother and I had slept. Until my aunt came down from Chennai, she made sure we had food in the morning, and after school, packed lunch for us, and made sure we ate our dinner properly. It was only a few days, but it was everything.

Kusum aunty had a daughter, or maybe a niece. I don’t remember now, but her name was Guddi. It means ‘doll’. She smiled a lot. We used to play together whenever Kusum aunty brought her home, to wait while she worked. I liked Guddi. We used to throw cushions at each other from across the living room, and one time I threw a bolster, and Kusum aunty gave us the tongue-lashing of the year.

Guddi had long hair that was parted, braided, then doubled up and tied with red ribbons. I’ve forgotten her face, but I remember thinking she was pretty. I loved her hair because it was long and easily braided, while mine was wild and curly and mom nearly wept at the prospect of having to tame it every morning. I remember liking Guddi very much. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw her, and I suppose she’s married now, with a couple of children. She was older than me, so she must be.

I remember that we never ate together, at the table. Not once. Kusum aunty used to give me my food when I sat on a chair at the table, and she and Guddi would sit cross-legged on the floor with their plates in their hands. No one objected- not Guddi, not me. I would eat quickly, as though if I ate and left the table, the ants under my skin would disappear too.

We had another maid, Hansi aunty, in Delhi. She was always sad- my mother told me her story, in bits and pieces, over the course of a month.

Her husband was old, had taken to drinking, had lost his job, had taken to beating. Her son demanded a bike as a precondition for getting a job. Her daughter was in school and refused to help around the house. After 30 years of marriage, with their savings almost gone, she was forced to work as a domestic help. She worked hard in two houses- ours and her own. “Mujhse isse zyada nai hota.” She said to mom. (“I am not capable of (here, strong enough for) more than this.”)

She usually came to work after drinking a cup of chai, and eating- nothing, she shrugged and said. She refused mom’s shocked offers (often with accompanying scolds) of breakfast. But mom refused point-blank to let her leave without eating something. One time, mom wasn’t home when I got back from college. Aunty was.  Mom had left a ton of dosa batter in the fridge.

“Make some for Hansi aunty also, okay. Don’t let her go without leaving. She’ll leave at 5- 5.30, so make food before that.”

Well, okay. I can make dosas. Generally, pretty good ones. And there was chutney and something else I can’t remember- maybe sambar, or aloo ka jhol.

So I made dosas. I set the table for two, heated the sambar/jhol, and began to make dosas. Like, okay, normal type of cooking.

Except that Hansi aunty brought her plate and a stool into the kitchen and ate there. She ate with a shaky smile and watery eyes, telling me (and later mom) that she felt like her own mother was making food for her again, and how nice it felt. And that was nice. I felt good, maybe like I was a little less of a heedless brat.

But I ate at the table and she ate on a stool in the kitchen, and she washed both our plates before leaving.

She was the help, so she washed the plates- all in the job description. But there’s nothing to prevent her from eating at the table.

But of course there is. Just as Kusum aunty and Guddi would never have dreamt of joining my seven year old self at the table. Caste and class are interwoven at many levels in India, and the former is old, older than religion, really. Caste acted on my ancestors and their ancestors and theirs too, telling them that this person can be touched and this touch is polluting and this person should not be seen and if you do, go have a bath and become pure again. Caste told Kusum aunty and Guddi’s ancestors that you sit down and look up all the time, be it a seventy year old man or a seven year old child, because you were born here and they were born higher. They did good things in their past life, and you might have killed someone even if you don’t remember, so take the punishment for a crime that you don’t know that of course you’ve committed.

I’ve written emotionally. It was emotional; it was a response to being brought face to face with the fact that I may not believe in caste, I may speak against it in my drawing room and online, but again and again, when I eat at the table and they eat on the floor or on a stool in the kitchen, I am practising the teachings of caste and the system that grinds down innumerable people, and has done so for centuries. I am part and parcel of a system that operates in all arenas of life- social, economic, political, and cultural- to dehumanise human beings, and erase them and their contributions altogether.

The filmmaker Anand Patwardhan visited our school and screened his documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, once.I have very little memory of the film itself, though I remember being rather disturbed. What I do remember is that Anand Patwardhan asked how many Dalit students there were in the student body. We all looked around, and towards the end of a ten-second wait, I was mentally begging someone, anyone, to put up their hand and scrape off at least a little of the shame I could suddenly feel crusting my spine.

(No such luck)

(The crust is still there)

How many Dalit students did I know in college? None. Did I go out of my way to find any Dalit students and befriend them? No. How many friends do I have whose caste can be said to be significantly ‘lower’ than mine? None.

“I don’t believe in caste”, for me, is a passive thing. The whole truth is that I ignore caste, and the way it plays out in everyone’s life. I say everyone, because no one lives outside the caste system yet. You are either an active participant or a passive one- an enabler. I’ve been the latter for far too long, I think.

I read once that racism and sexism cannot be examined separately. In India, we have a third axis: that of caste. The relationship of any Hindu person to power in India is first a function of their sex, then of their caste, and then of their race (because yes, racism exists in India- it always has), and then of any newer variables such as class and income.

Caste complicates things. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin woman have very different relationships to power. A Dalit woman and a Brahmin man, two Dalits- a man and a woman, a Brahmin trans man and a Dalit man, a Brahmin trans woman and a Dalit man, two trans women- one Dalit and one Brahmin- all different.

Confusing, isn’t it? I’ve used Dalits and Brahmins because it’s probably the biggest polarisation in the caste system, and also perhaps the biggest ongoing re-negotiation of power and relationship in Indian society.

Like I said, caste is confusing. It’s also controversial; it’s not only a social conversation, but also a political one. I also said, though, that I’ve been passive for far too long. So these are conversations that need to take place, at all levels, in order to re-negotiate relationships, and to make the distribution of power as equitable as possible.

One day, that crust might vanish. A seven-year old child might not feel ants crawling under her skin as her friend eats on the floor, while her own legs don’t quite touch the ground  as she sits at a table. One day there might be a Dalit child at Rishi Valley. There could be a girl sitting with the maid at the table, eating dosa as the maid cries.

In India, you never know when you could lose your head over what you say. But you take a stand anyway.