Caste Schmaste

An old man, a member of the family which had come to finalise the rishta of their son with my sister, loosened his white turban, placed it carefully on his left knee, ran a hand through his greying, crew-cut hair and, almost casually, asked me: "What is your caste, beta?" "I don't really know or care" was my instant reaction. The man's face changed several shades at once. Composing his aggression, he tried again: "But we were told you are Rajputs. Just like us." I sensed the delicacy of the situation. The future of two human beings and their families was at stake. My deconstructive shots at all categories of human thought had to be checked here even though I was under the spell of Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' and Pinter's 'The Caretaker' in the second year of MA English those days. I quickly blurted, "Oh yes. That is right." The marriage went ahead. 

I wonder how we come to attach ourselves with something so random and then try to make it something fixed for all eternity. As far as our choosing selves are involved, our births in our parental families are entirely accidental. We cannot choose our castes before our birth. We spend the formative years of our lives seeking our elders' help, generosity (financial and emotional) and love. Somewhere along these years of helplessness and high school, some elder tells us what we are supposed to think about ourselves. Rajputs, Araeens, Pathans, Punjabis, Sunnis, Shias, Wahabis. 

Suspended in a sea of fleeting images of aggressive street dogs on the way to school and bickering, menacing teachers, we cling to all and any ideas that lift us from our everyday misery and transport us into a realm of imagined glory. Then this initial clutching at any rescuing idea, randomly handed to us as our lot, gets reified, and becomes something real -- 'real' in a social sense because our ideas of 'reality' have real consequences. 

Over the years, we try hard to become our imagined glorified selves. We like those who help us shine our idols of ourselves and we dislike those who try to destroy our only lottery draw of greatness. This acting out, after enough rehearsals, becomes our idea of our true self, our source of being different from others, our bonanza of identity. 

In normal circumstances, we try to use this childhood injection of greatness every now and then and in little doses as a source of ecstasy in moments of despair at our drag of a life. But, if extended to its logical limits, the same ideas of identity can produce mass murderers like Hitler, Pinochet, or the Ku Klux Klan members. It was because of this potential of our ideas of ourselves that Michel Foucault pointed out that there is "fascism in all of us, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power." Our childhood fascination with, say, armies of our headstrong ancestors marching into the sunset has the potential to unleash genocidal violence years later. 

Next time someone asks me about my caste, I am going to be ready with a better answer: "I was not consulted before I was assigned a label therefore I am not responsible for my maintaining it. And if it makes you happy, you can stick any label on me. But if a label is going to have personal and social consequences, keep it as benign as possible."

Published in The News on Sunday

dated June 01, 2008