Monday, September 25, 2006

Caste away

Trickling down
Kathmandu, Nepal

It's raining, it's pouring. Normally the monsoon is history at this point in the Nepali year, but a new low pressure front from the Bay of Bengal has put a real damper on the Hindu Dasain festival, which began with the new moon on Saturday (along with the Muslim Ramadan).

Lots of friends in America write and ask me questions like, "Does the caste system still exist in India?" It's sort of like asking, "does racism still exist in America?" (In case you didn't guess, the answer is "yes."

Some very well-meaning middle class Indians have solemnly proclaimed to me that "the caste system is illegal here now." Sure, that explains why you're tall and light coffee coloured and all your servants are short and dark brown.

Like everything in India, there are exceptions. Sort of like seeing black people at Vanderbilt University. Ninety percent of the time, they were sanitation workers. The occasional black professor or physician was a real contrast, and surprise.

This article gives a very brief overview of the situation (which is vast and complex). I am just giving
this article as a backdrop to the situation, so don't yell at me in Comments if you don't agree with every little thing it says. (For one thing, from what I can see with my own eyes, Brahmins are not "in an abysmal state" in most places.) If 49% reservation sounds like a lot, remember that lower castes are about 70% of the Indian population.

An additional factor is that poverty and low caste don't always coincide, leading some to demand reservations on the basis of income rather than caste.

Also contrary to this article, caste is determined by looks an amazing amount of the time. I have a Nepali friend who was an orphan (he was left at an orphanage
as an infant). They had no idea what his caste actually should be. As he grew older, it turned out he had a big they dubbed him officially Brahmin!

Here in Nepal, the caste system is very much a reality. The owner of my hotel is Chhetri (the second "highest" caste after Brahmin); his marriage to a Newar girl just four years ago sparked a schism in both families. The Brahmin waiter in our restaurant assumes an air of automatic seniority and bosses around his Tamang colleagues (and also reserves the right to pre-emptorily snatch tips off the tables).

Marriage ads in the paper are listed "top down" - that is, Brahmin first; then Chhetri; Newar; and "other." And just last week, there was a huge riot at Shaileshwor temple when Hindu Dalits (outcastes) attempted to enter the place of worship and were violently turned back by those of higher castes.

I applaud the Maoists' attempts to forcibly break down caste barriers (forcing high-caste people to accept water, for instance, from a Dalit - this in a place where Dalits can still get beaten for taking water from a high-caste well), but wonder whether there will be an inevitable backlash.

NEW DELHI -- Years of affirmative action have upended India's caste system to the point where some upper-caste Brahmins are reduced to working as porters and pedaling rickshaws, while almost half the places in universities will soon be reserved for lower castes and tribal people. Source: The Washington Times

1 comment:

Bernie Quigley said...

Continually fascinating. I can understand about the big nose and the Brahmin - my daughter hs big ears and I swear she's an elf. Hope you bring your thoughts back to Vanderbilt some day.