Reply Sat 11 Jun, 2011 08:47 am

The existence of caste system often announces itself to me in an unwelcome jarring fashion, much like random dissonance wakes me up from the trance I lose myself in when listening to a beautiful symphony. Having been brought up in a home where caste wasn't mentioned much, I grew up mostly unaware of the reality of caste system. Yes, I did read about it in the social science textbooks and such, but it wasn't information I readily connected to my everyday existence.

But, as I said, the issue has a way of announcing itself when I least expect it. I once called a classmate of mine (in 7th standard, I think) 'dharidhruda' (which roughly translated means degenerate) when he cheated me at one game or another. Until that point in the argument I was the wronged party, and had the force of righteous indignation on my side, but as soon as I said the word, he was hitting me with angry blows that caught me by surprise; the issue of cheating was all but forgotten. I could see that he was truly hurt and offended, but I was clueless as to the reason why. It was only after I was home that it was explained to me that it was an offensive word to those of the scheduled castes, and that they react very badly to it: I hadn't even known that he was from a scheduled caste.

Last year my grandmother was dissatisfied with the woman who washed her clothes, so she fired her. Then when she tried to get someone else to do the job for her, she couldn't: she was told that she needed the approval of the previous washerwoman to hire anyone else from the caste to do the job, and that anyone from another caste trying to do the job would be stopped. It took her months to get her washerwoman to agree to be replaced, in addition to a nice severance gift. And I didn't even know until then that there existed a caste for people who washed clothes.

My apathy aside, there is another reason for my lack of societal awareness on this issue. I grew up in an urban environment thinking that caste had become a non-issue, that it was a thing of the past, and given that we all now have the opportunity to do whatever we want it was unimportant. That enquiring after the nuances of the caste system, and identifying people by their caste was not just impolite, but backward and unethical: it just was not fashionable to do it.

It is only recently that I began realising that while legally caste system as a social structure was abolished decades ago, mindsets entrenched for millennia don't just vanish. Insecurity and complacency associated with various castes, camaraderie and kinsmanship shared with people of same caste, and antagonism towards those of other castes, self-perception and perception of identity based on caste, all are probably there to stay for a few more decades. I have realised that it is foolish not to take caste into account just because I wish for a world where it does not exist.
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Reply Sat 11 Jun, 2011 01:24 pm
That's interesting. I've never heard the term "scheduled castes" before. Can you explain it a bit?
Reply Sat 11 Jun, 2011 01:31 pm
I can relate; not so much about caste, exactly, as I haven't been to India, though I've read a number of books set there, but to issues about class. When class comes up in commentary I am always a bit disconcerted. I wasn't raised with class being important, only hearing of it from family born in the early part of the twentieth century, those being from the east coast of the US.
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Reply Sat 11 Jun, 2011 08:20 pm
The 'scheduled castes' are mostly castes from the lowest rung of the caste system, those castes that the Indian government, right after independence, recognised as exploited over the millennia by the system. The constitution provides for positive discrimination in terms of reservations in public sector, education, even parliament for scheduled castes (and others), in the hope that over time the disparity caused by the oppression of the past might disappear.
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