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Finding your place in India’s caste system


It’s 85 degrees F in the shade and I’m seated next to a benevolent looking white-haired Indian man dressed in white garb that gives him a somewhat ethereal glow. It’s a Monday afternoon in Trivandrum, a city close to the southern most tip of India. We’re seated outside one of the oldest Hindu temples in the world, as I have just been informed by my new companion. As the zoo was not open on Mondays, I’d asked the auto rickshaw driver to take me to the temple instead. Upon arriving at my destination, I found out that foreigners are not allowed in the temple unless they sign something to the effect that they’ve converted to Hinduism

As I sat on the steps facing the temple drinking a bottle of Pepsi and figuring out my next plan of action, my seatmate had motioned me over to sit out of the sun in the shade. He is wearing a name tag and I ask him if he’s a priest from the temple. He explains that he’s a guide. “We’re one level below the Brahmin Priests,” he says and goes on to say that the caste system is nonexistent in India. “No one cares about that anymore.” I want to talk more about that, “Is that a good thing?” I ask. “Of course,” he says almost impatiently “We’re all the same.” When I tell him that my father was a Brahmin who was cut off by his family when he married my mother, an American of European descent, he falls silent. I hasten to add, “but that was the late ‘50s, I’m sure things have changed since then.” He apparently doesn’t want to talk about caste and religion anymore and asks me who I think will win the Democratic primary, Clinton or Obama, a topic that seems to be uppermost on the minds of people I meet whether they are Indian or European.

A few days later, I’m in the New Delhi airport waiting for my flight back to Newark and then on to Chicago, OHare, my final destination after a day of frantic sightseeing with a driver provided by the two-star hotel I had stayed at overnight. Since I had inexplicably scheduled my flight for 11:55 p.m. thinking it was afternoon and not closer to midnight, I am required to pay 30 rupees (the equivalent of .50 cents) to sit in the lounge area with hundreds of other passengers who I assume to be in the same predicament. The term lounge is rather expansive for a large room consisting of rows of chairs all facing the same direction until a group of what appear to be eastern Europeans arrives and start moving some of the furniture around so they can play a card game. They obviously plan on being in the lounge for a long time as well.

A few moments later, young Indian man sits down beside me. He is tall and lanky and wearing jeans and gym shoes and wheeling a luggage cart with two huge suitcases on it, which seems to be the norm for many of the travelers surrounding me. At some point, we start talking and I find out that his flight leaves at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, which is somewhat comforting to me. He is a Patent Specialist based in Bangalore who is traveling to the company headquarters in Helsinki, Finland for a three-month training stint. Thus, the heavy duty luggage. “I needed to bring a lot of sweaters and jackets for the cold weather,” he says with a smile.

At some point in our conversation I find out that he is also a Brahmin. I tell him I am half Indian and tell him my name. He informs me that Gita is a very common female name in north India. He can tell immediately from my last name that my father was a Brahmin. I repeat what the Priest/Guide has told me about the caste system being nonexistent and add that I’ve heard about a backlash against Brahmins in recent years. In contrast to the temple guide, he says “But the Brahmins still have the temples.” I tell him that I’m aware that my status of being half-Indian would make me an untouchable in most Brahmin’s eyes, along with anyone else who’s not Brahman, and he disputes that. He reassures me that I would be considered a Brahmin because my father was a Brahmin. I am surprisingly touched by this new piece of information although I remain somewhat dubious about my newfound status.

My three-week stay in India began in New Delhi for an overnight stay before taking a four-hour flight to Trivandrum on Air Deccan to my ultimate destination, the Sivananda ashram at Neyar Dam. I lasted at the ashram for ten days until I found that I needed a break from the grueling schedule of yoga, meditation, chanting and vegetarian food, and escaped to a lodge in Trivandrum for five days.

Throughout my travels in India, the family myths that I have regarded as truths carved in stone have slowly been crumbling into thin air. While planning my trip with enthusiasm and some trepidation, I had wondered how I would be treated by Indians once I told them my name and explained to them that I was half Indian. What has surprised me the most was that the Indians I met didn’t think I even looked Indian. This was entirely unexpected as I have always been the one who looked the most foreign or ethnic in our family. Back home in the U.S. I have often been asked if I’m Greek, Italian, Hispanic, Assyrian, Armenian, Iranian even Turkish. Even at the ashram, a Lebanese yoga instructor tells me that he would have sworn I was Lebanese, but no one at the ashram thinks I look remotely Indian.

My friend Asha who grew up in Bangalore is obviously better informed. She tells me in a conversation we have before I leave for India that Indians still have some holdovers from their colonial past. One of these includes treating westerners better than Indians. “Whenever Lou and I go back to visit my mom, he feels bad because they fawn all over him and pretty much ignore me,” she says with a laugh. I say that I will probably viewed as Indian and it’s fine with me if I don’t get fawned over and she says, “They’ll see you as a Westerner” and for the most part I find that to be the case, which is somewhat disconcerting to me. I try to neutralize this by telling everyone I meet, Indian and European alike that I am half Indian, but most people really don’t seem that interested in that piece of information.

For the most part, I am taken at face value and I mean that literally. Because I appear to be “western,” I end up hanging around with more Europeans than Indians at the ashram, and I am more identified with the few Americans wandering around the ashram. These developments are a surprise to someone who has become accustomed to being viewed as “foreign” and different all their life. A woman from Newfoundland actually tells me that she though I looked like I could have been from California when she first met me, which I find almost laughable.

Initially, I’m disappointed that I don’t appear more Indian, but once it becomes apparent that my gene pool is of little interest to anyone but myself, I begin to shed some of these ideas and beliefs that I’ve held about myself for so long – that I am somehow unique and different from everyone else, but not necessarily in the easiest way. For most of my life, I’ve constantly had to explain the pronunciation and origin of my name to people, but in India, my name is as common as Mary is back home. What a relief. After 45 years of living on this planet, I discover how nice it is to be just like everyone else and almost mainstream for once!

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