While writing a paper about my own family history, I learned that my family of origin hails from a tiny coastal city in Kerala. I also learned that my ancestors were extremely poor fishermen, who converted to Catholicism to overcome upper caste oppression. This is the story that I know of, unfortunately or fortunately I have never experienced any discrimination based on my caste, simply because nobody cared.
Growing up in Bombay as a Catholic, caste system seemed something alien to me. The only time we talked about it was when it was time for college admissions. The most argued debate should there be a reservation or not! I studied Arts, so this debate never bothered me and I belonged to a generation of teenagers who were not bothered by the social evils around them. As long as we were able to graduate and find jobs we did not care about anything….
Before getting into that hornet’s nest called reservation I want to talk about some of the privileges that I enjoyed, which maybe my ancestors never did.
1) I was able to go to a place of worship
2) Friends and alike did not have a problem touching me or playing with me
3) Nobody ever thought twice about coming home
Would any of it have been different had my last name been something else? I don’t know how it feels to be like a person from a “low” caste and I will probably never know. I never thought about caste because like most people I felt “Why bother about something that does not affect you” but in 2010 I felt its pangs for the first time.
In 2010, I visited India, my father-in-law hails from Uttar Pradesh and his family lives around Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. I visited one of the families, in the kitchen a 15-year-old girl was cooking and cleaning. She seemed like the house help, soon she began to leave via the backdoor. The lady of the house called me and asked me to give left overs from lunch to the teenager, whose face I could not even see, because it was covered by a ragged ghoonghat. I walked towards the girl, and someone held me back and told me that I was not supposed to touch the girl because she was a “chamar.” It was explained to me that the girl would extend her shawl and I would throw two rotis into her shawl…. I was disgusted, and refused to do so, they said that as a new daughter-in-law I should not even be around such “unlucky” and “lowly” people. I wonder what these people wold say when they learn that I am as “unlucky” and as “lowly” as them…..
I come back to Bombay and tell my husband about it, he is equally disgusted….Circa 2013 and I tell my husband what if your extended family learn that in all probability I am “lowly” and an “untouchable” would they still continue to goad over me! He said that we cannot change certain people…. We watch a movie on untouchability in India, where it is revealed that the Catholics are equally guilty of it, I feel bad that why was I protected all these years? Why did I enjoy certain privileges and what can I do now? I don’t have any answers just more questions – which make me feel disillusioned….Joke of the century is that despite having a Masters in Sociology I never talked about it in class, and have never understood the layers associated with caste…. I have to give credit to my American professors for letting me be self-reflective. The other day a good friend told me that she always felt “Brahmins were extremely intelligent?” When I asked her if that could have any link that their ancestors had access to the best of food and living conditions she gave me a look, saying I did not know what I was talking about…
When one looks at race and racism, all evidence points out that the dominant White race benefited from the oppression of Blacks and other races. Did the same happen with caste system? And if that did happen, why does nobody acknowledge it? Why don’t people openly say that yes our ancestors were oppressive and they did oppress other castes for their personal benefit! Acknowledging one’s privilege is not going to make one small. Probably it will give one some perspective in life….Acknowledging my privileges has helped me see the world with more clarity, a lot of it makes me feel shitty but I think I am more at peace now.
In most of the debates around caste I have only heard people talk about reservation, not once, have I ever heard a conversation around caste and the oppression that it caused. Is such a conversation possible?