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A few thoughts about Caste from an Indian village


Even on my original visit to India, as a tourist, I had become aware of people who seemed to be excluded from society. It was not so much the hawkers and beggars that drew my attention. They interacted with other people, selling their trinkets or receiving alms. But there were others, low caste workers, who might have been a figment of my imagination for all the notice that was taken of them by the crowds around them.

I visited an elegant Moghul building, crowned by a great dome, with smaller domes and turrets on either side. Delicately inlaid panels, and the white stone outlining its arches, relieved the darkness of its red sandstone. Spread before and around it were beds filled with bright scarlet and white flowers, set between smooth green lawns.

Families out for the day wandered along the paths, the women in beautiful saris chatting to one another, while their children darted here and there in the sunshine. Smartly dressed businessmen hurried by to their appointments, and guides explained the building and its history to groups of tourists. Nobody took any notice of the woman in the faded green and yellow sari. She was bent double, sweeping the path with a broom made from long stems of stiff grass. The crowds passed by, ignoring her as though she did not exist.

In one of the great palaces, along one side of an open courtyard, a row of steps led up to an arched veranda. I gazed out, across a vista of ochre houses and narrow streets below the palace walls, to the desert stretching to the horizon beyond. A woman in a cheap sari squatted on the steps behind me, scrubbing them. She seemed invisible to those admiring the architecture and the view. Like the woman sweeping in the gardens, she was one of the many poor, low caste people, who traditionally perform necessary but menial work all over India.

Re-tyred book cover“Caste does not matter anymore in the cities,” said the speaker at one of the inaugural talks for volunteers in the city of Jaipur. “It is only in rural areas that it may still have some importance.” But as we left the lecture room I met a woman coming up the stairs, dressed in a shabby cotton sari and carrying a heavy load of building material. She and her husband were building a new room for the volunteer organisation. They were clearly of low caste, like the women I had seen sweeping the paths and cleaning the steps. Did they feel that caste was of no importance, I wondered. Did they have any option other than to take work that is traditionally allotted to those of low caste? I find it hard to see how caste can cease to be important until jobs such as sweeping the paths, cleaning and heavy labour are divorced from the caste of the worker.

When I mentioned what we had been told in Jaipur to Giri he was dismissive.

“Whatever these city people say, I would be willing to bet anything that they will not marry outside their own caste,” he said.

“Ninety per cent of marriages are within caste.”

He went on to give me a tutorial on the caste system: “In the Vedas, which are many thousands of years old, people’s occupations were classified into four groups. These are classifications, not castes, and each group, or varna, contains many castes and subcastes. Brahmin is the group of priestly castes which came out of the mouth of Brahma, Kshatriya the group of warrior and ruler castes which came from Brahma’s shoulders, Vaisya, the merchants and businessmen, were born from his stomach, and Chhudra, the servants and lower castes, originated in his feet.”

But originally a man’s family status did not restrict his trade or profession.

“Until about two and a half thousand years ago anyone could choose to become a merchant or a warrior or even a Brahmin,” Giri continued. “But the Brahmins did not like this, and restricted entry to the priesthood to those who came from priestly families.

From then on the caste into which one was born determined what one’s occupation would be. It was at this time, too, that those performing the most menial and dirty jobs were deemed untouchable – lower than the lowest of the Chhudra.”

“So, how many castes are there?”

“There are as many as fifty different castes, and each of them contains a very large number of subcastes. The status of each family is determined by their name, which indicates their caste and subcaste. The technical skills associated with a person’s traditional occupation are passed down through the family. My family were farmers until my father went into business. But he learnt about farming from my grandfather and has passed this knowledge on to my brother and me, even though neither of us intends to become a farmer.”

I had already come across families who passed their skills down from father to son: the people in Agra who created beautiful designs in inlaid marble, and the silk weavers in Varanasi.

On a tour in southern India our driver was extremely knowledgeable about local agriculture.

“That field of rice will be ready for harvest in ten days’ time,” he would tell us, or “These fields will be planted for a third rice crop later this year if the weather is good from now on. But it has
been cold, and this first crop is two weeks late.”

“How do you know so much about farming?” I asked him.

“My father is a farmer, like my grandfather and his father before him,” he explained. “He grows rice and aubergines commercially, and he taught me all about farming.”

Re-tyred book coverThe book I had been reading on Rajasthani folklore and tradition suggested that the caste system will endure so long as there is no way of acquiring the training for one’s trade other than through members of one’s own family or caste. Though some castes may train people from outside their group, others restrict training to their own members. If they could obtain training from another caste, those of lower caste might take the opportunity of moving up in the system. It seemed to me that the provision of training in crafts and trades, open to anyone irrespective of their caste, should be as important as giving everyone a basic education.

At home I talked about this to an Irish man who had been a teacher at a good private school in Darjeeling.

“That is not a problem now,” he declared. “There are lots of technical colleges in small towns where any young man can be trained in the trade of his choice.”

But I thought of the tiny villages I had visited, with no shops, and some with no school. How could a young man from a family living in such a village afford such training? He would have to leave home to go to a town where there was a college, and how would he survive while he was there? His family would lose an important member of their workforce and might not support his desire to learn a different trade from their own. And what about the young women? They are destined to be wives and mothers, and education for them is not a priority in many rural areas. To go away from the village on their own to learn a trade would be unthinkable.

One of my Irish colleagues returned from a visit to an Indian university and told me that his host there was paying for the education of the son of his servants, who was a very bright boy. A good education can provide opportunities for those from the lower echelons of society. In a city they may, if they are lucky, find employment in offces or businesses and improve their social status. The state offers free education to all children up to the age of fourteen, but the standard of education in government schools is variable, and the village schools where I taught had few resources.

“Caste prejudice remains, in the cities as well as in rural areas,” my colleague told me. “My host was able to get a good private school to accept the boy without too much diffculty. But he also insisted that the child’s name must be changed. If he used his real family name he would inevitably have been recognised as low caste and discriminated against by his peers and even by some of the teachers.”

Discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal under the Indian Constitution, and the government, through reverse discrimination laws, tries to make it possible for those of lower caste to improve their lives. There is a quota system, which reserves places in higher education and government employment for people from the ‘scheduled castes’. These include dalits (those who were once untouchable), tribal people and ‘other backward classes’. Some dalits have risen to high offce in local governments. But I saw no evidence that the higher castes are prepared to take on traditionally low caste jobs.

While reverse discrimination may seem a laudable attempt to help those from the lower sections of society, not everyone is happy with the system. The Brahmin brothers running the hotel where I stayed in Jaisalmer had opened their haveli as a hotel because they felt that their own opportunities for employment were reduced.

Others complain that access to higher education and jobs should be based on merit, and that people from higher castes have been turned down in favour of less qualified members of the scheduled castes. But it is not only people of high caste who discriminate against those of lower caste. An executive from the volunteer group’s camp in Himachal Pradesh visited Lalsot and was taken to one of the farming villages where I taught.

“I was very offended,” she exclaimed. “When we went to a house to meet the family of one of the children, they asked my caste. They would not invite me to sit down until they knew I was not lower in caste than themselves.”

* * *

Giri had simplified his information about the caste system for me. It is an incredibly complex subject, and there are variations in practice between different groups of people and between the north and the south of the country. What Giri referred to as subcastes are gotras, which identify people through their lineage. In the north a person’s gotra traces their direct patrilineal line of descent. Both men and women inherit their gotra from their father. But for some groups in the south descent is matrilineal, and one’s gotra is that of one’s mother.

“The maharaja could not pass on the title to any of his sons,” my guide explained as I wandered round the palace in Kochi, in the southern state of Kerala. “When a maharaja died, the title passed to the eldest son of one of his sisters.”

“What happened if he had no sisters, or none of them had sons?”

“One of his brothers, with the same mother as himself, could succeed. Otherwise succession would be through his maternal aunts.”

Re-tyred book coverAlthough the succession was through the female line, the maharaja was always a man.

Though in theory one’s gotra is traced back through the generations, and can be authenticated by priests in Varanasi, this is not always possible in practice. Over hundreds of years the population has grown and changed, there have been influxes across borders or through trade, and direct lineal descent is not always easy to identify or prove.

In the countryside, groups of people following the same trade often lived together in the same village. Some still do today. The tiny village where I taught in the desert was named ‘the village of the carpenters’. Most of the men in the village were carpenters, and the young wife I met there was married to a carpenter from another village. In the towns and cities there might be a weavers’ quarter or a potters’ quarter, and the untouchables would cluster together in a slum. For such a group of people, with the same trade or way of living, it was easier to take as their gotra the name of their local group or village.

The school near Lalsot was in a relatively large village, and many of the children I taught came from much smaller villages in the neighbourhood. I was given a list of all the children in my class and noticed that the family name recorded for each of them was the name of one of these little villages or of the village in which the school stood.

So their gotra was the name of the village in which they lived.

* * *

B’ful, fair, well educated girl, from hi status family only, requ’d for h’some boy, 30, 5’10’’, IT eng., good salary, father ret’d Gov’t servant.

I was fascinated to read advertisements like this every Sunday in the weekly matrimonial supplement to the Times of India. There are two main sections: ‘Wanted brides’ and ‘Wanted grooms’. The advertisements are arranged under subheadings denoting caste or family background, such as Brahmin, Kshatriya, Yadav, Agrawal, Sikh, Punjabi, Muslim, and occasionally Christian. A few advertisements say ‘Caste no bar’, though they are listed under a caste heading.

Of course, the readers of this English-language newspaper are educated and city based. Many of the families are looking for educated wives for their sons and may expect the girl to have a job or profession. Others want her to be ‘homely’. Some parents advertise in the newspaper for a wife from home for a son working in America or Europe.

Often the advertisement gives the profession of the potential groom’s father as well as his own qualifications, professional status and salary. Some give his date of birth, as astrology is important in deciding if a couple is suitably matched.

In the ‘Wanted grooms’ column the majority of women have good jobs, and the preferred profession of the required groom may be specified:

Well settled tall h’some boy reqd for c’vent educated b’ful slim girl, MBA wkg IT, from hi status fmly. Pref software eng/bank offcial.

Attendance at a convent school implies that the girl has received an excellent education, but does not mean that she or her family are Christian. Often the boy must be ‘well settled’, and the minimum height or salary of potential applicants may be specified.

In all these advertisements most of the men are handsome, and the women are beautiful and sometimes slim as well. In this northern Indian edition of the paper, brides are often required to be fair, and both men and women may advertise themselves as fair-skinned.

“We in the north are Aryans, and our skin is much fairer than that of the Dravidians from the south,” Giri had told me.

In the north at least, a pale skin seems to be a status symbol.

Many face creams I saw in chemist shops claimed to whiten the skin.

* * *

The strict caste laws that determine a man’s occupation also restrict marriage and may account for the relatively sudden end to the mixing between southern and northern Indian genes (mentioned in chapter 4). These laws only permit marriage between couples from the same caste. But things are much more complicated than that, as Giri explained to me.

Re-tyred book cover“I may only marry within my own caste,” he said, “but I may not marry within my own gotra (which I inherit from my father). Nor may I marry within the gotra of my mother or either of my grandmothers (which they inherited from their fathers).”

Restrictions such as these control marriage throughout the caste system, though not all are exactly the same in detail as those which Giri explained to me.

Clearly these rules must have been introduced to prevent incest and marriage between close relatives, which would be a risk for people obliged to marry within their own caste. But with the enormous increase in India’s population, has the number of gotras grown in proportion? Do rules now ban marriage between people much more distantly related than first or second cousins? During my time in India the Times of India carried several reports of the murder of young couples by their families. Each couple was of the same caste but was related more closely than traditional marriage laws allowed. They had run away together, bringing shame to their families, and incurred a traditional punishment.

Extracted from Sara McMurry’s thoughtful and fascinating book ‘Re-tyred’, her account of several teaching stints in rural India. Find out more here.

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