Growing up in cosmopolitan Mumbai we lived very closely with neighbors from various communities, sharing our struggles, our celebrations, our resources, our cooking ingredients, our food and sometimes even clothes & accessories.
While accepting the gracious gifts of snack plates or mithais from neighbors, no one ever enquired about the caste or community of the giver. We just reveled in their gifts that delighted the tongue and enjoyed discussing the recipes wholeheartedly.
At school, one run by missionaries, again there was no distinction amongst us beyond the catholic / non-catholic divide. And that divide too was limited to the religious classes we attended – the non-catholics took a maroal science class while the catholics went to a catechism class. So among the non-catholics I did not know who belonged to which state or which community or caste.
As I grew up and stepped into the broader world, I learned to identify the person’s state of origin based on the surname. But caste & community still elude me.
Moving outside India rendered blurred the already-unclear distinctions even further and the mention of caste would always surprise me and remind me that the different layers of my world lived in different time zones. The range extended from Singapore with its focus on hi-tech lifestyles to Goa with its alternate ideology of ‘let’s enjoy life’ to a dozen other orthogonal ideologies practiced by the different rural & urban groups of people in my life. And every time I encountered one of these groups again after a significant gap, I am reminded that while I share the same space-time points with them, our minds are living out worlds from different years.
For example, my maid in Goa is living out a life that I identify as one from the ’50s that my grandma would talk about and a schoolmate who rarely socialises with the world outside her own is stuck in the ’70s. Just as the folks in Rajasthan were still stuck in the era where Caste ruled supreme, an era that to me is a ‘bygone’ era but to them is an era that is their current life.
The caste fortress in which every individual exists in rural Rajasthan is a strong one. It is the security and defense and a social code that is greater than the law. It defines the life, the career success, the living arrangements, the marriage possibilities and the political fate of its occupants. It determines who the world will see you as, before they lay their eyes on you.
There may have been some merit in this system – as ‘memes’ – the mental counterparts of genes that are inherited from the family – definitely play a role in how the person behaves. But it obviously is also a prison.
Every dealer, every taxi driver, during the course of the conversation asked me my caste. Softly, sweetly, non-aggressively. But this was a question that they did not fail to ask.
It so happened that I have a Brahmin surname so I did not see reactions that might have been more interesting. Maybe because I was a tourist and an outsider. Maybe because I would be spending tourism money and the Goddess of Cash is always welcome no matter the caste of the shoulders she rides on.
By the time the realisation that this question was being slipped in to 100% of the conversations with locals dawned upon me, it was time to leave. Otherwise I would have purely out of interest mentioned some other surnames and lower castes – just to see what might happen!
Today, back in the metropolis, I have stepped back into the era that I myself live in. And marvel that I have just returned not only from another space, but also from another era. I marvel that I hardly know India – for every single time I travel to explore her, she always throws a new fact in my face as if to mock me and say “So? You love India? What do you really know about India??”. and with every subsequent travel I am more and more convinced that it is simply impossible to know this country in one lifetime.
(Maybe that is why the Hindus came up with the idea of re-incarnation? to buy enough time to know the country? JK!)