My First Encounter With Caste, And How It Made Me Extremely Uneasy
From the moment I stepped into Rajasthan to kick start my fellowship, I was greeted with the most (in) famous tagline of the state, not “Padharo mahre desh” as one would expect but “Kaunnu jaati ke ho” (which caste are you from)? From the cab driver who picked me up from the airport to the hotel receptionist and even someone I just exchanged a smile with, this question always seemed to surface, very casually, at the beginning of the conversation, leaving me speechless and awkward.
Now, being a Catholic, from the northern part of Mumbai, and attending Catholic educational institutions throughout my life, caste was something I did not encounter on a daily basis. I heard about it, read about it but never faced it. The only time I and my friends and family spoke about caste was during college admissions and entrance exam results. And boy, like every other ignorant student, we made a huge hue and cry about reservation.
From the cab driver who picked me up from the airport to the hotel receptionist and even someone I just exchanged a smile with, this question always seemed to surface, very casually, at the beginning of the conversation, leaving me speechless and awkward.
In Mumbai you spend most of your time travelling, wading through crowds composed of different people of different castes and religions from all parts of India. Questions like where do you live or what do you do, would make up for conversational starters in normal circumstances. But this was something new. People deciding to continue the conversation based on my caste was pretty amusing and I will not deny, disappointing, because it always managed to put me for a loss of words.
So even though I felt ill-equipped to deal with such a question, I played trial and error. First, I acted like I didn’t understand the Marwari they were speaking. Second, I fumbled and mumbled something, so they wouldn’t understand what I said and would let me go. And third, I told them I did not believe in these caste equations, which always seemed to backfire, and was ultimately coerced to answer.
Having realized that running away from the question would not work, I decided to face it. And the opportunity came through when an elderly lady, on the pretext of asking me the time, started a conversation with me. She then put me into an uncomfortable space by asking me the very question I did not feel the need to answer. I did, however, say Christian, in the end, after enough coercion. Having misheard my so-called caste or due to her apparent lack of knowledge, she ended up equating me a certain caste and told me about all the temples I could visit in and around Jaipur, along with the timings and the days when it would be easier to get a darshan. I couldn’t help but keep mum and smile about it.
People deciding to continue the conversation based on my caste was pretty amusing and I will not deny, disappointing, because it always managed to put me for a loss of words.
However, not all conversations went the funny way. A certain lady at a bus stop near Jhadla village, Jaipur, seemed disinterested to speak to me when I told her about my religion. It was altogether a strange new feeling of rejection, which seemed to hurt even more than all my failures in life combined.
But there was also the time, where, during an SHG meet, all the women gathered there were keenly listening to me describe a Catholic wedding with all the festivities involved while overfeeding me with farsaan, tea and all things milk. This was the India I had heard about, heartwarming and welcoming.
As I reflected on these incidents, I realized that India is a land of great ironies. Hospitality and welcome co-exist with judgment and rebuff. Sometimes caste does not matter when you’re high up on the social ladder, but sometimes you’re reminded of the caste that gave you that ladder. Everything works according to our convenience and well, inconvenience. Especially, in this era of rising bigotry, where incidents like the Zomato order being called off due to a non-Hindu delivery guy can cause national outrage, it is important to think, reflect, reduce our everyday prejudice and have discussions and conversations with people who are willing to understand and of course voice our opinion, just like the CEO of Zomato did. Because if change has to begin, strong moral stands have to be taken.
And now that I think of it, though the question was a conversation starter, and the people involved did not mean to demean me, it was a manifestation of the deeply entrenched caste system that we are still part of, both in villages and cities. Although I had a very superficial encounter with caste, the normalization of the question, making it part of daily conversation, made me extremely uneasy. But this was also the India I had read about in Sociology and History books and watched in news channels.
Image Credit: Milaap
The article was first published on Milaap.org and was written by Gizel Menezes. Milaap is India’s largest crowdfunding platform for personal and social causes. the views expressed are the author’s own.