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Brought Up Abroad, I Was Taught That Caste Doesn’t Exist. Then I Moved To India

Posted by Meera Kumar in Caste, Society, Staff Picks
June 14, 2017

Last month, my grandma recited a story to me that she had heard on the news: “Boy and girl love each other – but boy is from a lower caste. The families disapprove but they elope anyway. A few weeks later, the boy is found dead, killed by the girl’s father. The girl too commits suicide.

Ammama, I already heard this story,” I told her. “You read me the same article last week.” “No, no, that was a different case,” she said. The next day, a very similar incident was printed in the margins of the paper. These honour killings – retribution for daring to marry out-of-caste – aren’t anomalies; they occur frequently enough to no longer merit headlines.

When I moved to India last summer, I thought I knew what to expect. I had visited the subcontinent enough times as a child to remember enduring details: the stifling heat, juicy mangoes, warmhearted relatives, and congested roads. What I didn’t expect was recalibrating myself to digest a new and painful consciousness – that of caste.

Growing up in the States, I was taught that caste doesn’t exist. It’s a rhetoric employed by immigrant desi parents to push back against the history textbooks that can paint Indian society in a negative light. “It’s a thing of the past,” I was told. “Look, your father and I are from different castes and there was no problem with us getting married,” my mom liked to point out. After taking an anthropology class on Contemporary India, I began to realise that this wasn’t the case: caste was alive and well, not only in rural India – but in urban centres, as well as in the diaspora.

While I knew that caste existed, I lacked the vocabulary and intuition to identify it. I asked my cousins, “Could you tell caste from appearance?”  “We can tell from just a last name,” they replied. “And if you can’t deduce the caste from a last name, you can use dressing, ritual, food habits—sometimes even political party preference—to figure it out.” I was in shock—“Does my family name give away my caste?” I enquired. “Yes of course it does!” they laughed. “Why are you so surprised?

When visiting London last summer – en route to India – I stopped by the Gender Institute at LSE. I was interested in applying for a master’s and asked a professor, “What should I expect?” “Just know that you’ll be angry afterwards,” she said. “Once you become aware of just how gendered and unequal our world is, it permeates everything you come into contact with. You can’t unsee it.

I know exactly what she meant – now that I’ve gained awareness, I see caste and casteism everywhere: in the way that a peer might casually drop her Brahmin upbringing, in the way that friends are quick to blame reservations for their own inadequate test results, and especially in the coded conversation of relatives: “We have a renter staying with us right now. It’s okay – he’s from our community.” I hear the words ‘our community’ often nowadays. Because I am now ‘of marriageable age’, I am consistently asked about any forthcoming wedding plans—and then advised to marry within the caste as well.

Seeing caste, over the course of this year, became second nature to me. Unseeing, seems near impossible. Even tales from my childhood have taken on new meanings – for instance, the story of Ekalavya, a skilled tribal archer in the Mahabharata, who is rejected by Dronacharya and not allowed to train with the Kuru princes. He masters archery through self-study, practising next to a likeness of Dronacharya. When Drona hears of this, he demands a gurudakshina, a payment to one’s teacher, and has Ekalavya sacrifice his thumb – ensuring that he will never outperform the Kuru princes and therefore uphold caste hegemony. The story is marginal to the Mahabharata, told as an example of how a student should revere a teacher – dig a bit deeper, however, and it becomes apparent that the anecdote is not celebrating righteousness, but cruelty.

Casteism runs deep and I realise that it’s not going to disappear in a generation. The best I can do is educate myself, check my privilege, and have the tough conversation when needed. If someone uses casteist language – call them out; if you have the opportunity to drop a caste surname – take it; if you can bring attention to the works of activists like Jyotirao Phule or Babasaheb Ambedkar – do it. And maybe first of all – just accept it. Stop denying that casteism exists – accept it, accept that we have to change it, and get to work.