My feet welcomed the cool touch of marble after several hours of shopping in the merciless, Indian heat. I flopped down, exhausted, onto the beige-coloured chaise longue beside my uncle, while my mother sat down on the opposite lounger. Shakuntala, the eternally dutiful maid, brought in glasses of ice-cold water on a tray to quench our Saharan throats. I noted her simple, cotton sari; bright yellow as if the oppressive sun itself had exploded all over it.
After a few gratuitous gulps my mother and uncle started droning on about the wedding we’d come to attend – the venue, the attendees, the groom-to-be. I swallowed my final gulp of water, stood up and allowed the following words to erupt from my mouth, “I can’t stand your idiotic, backward thinking!”
We’ll take a pause from this scene and come back to it later. Let me, instead, introduce myself a bit more.
I’m an Indian woman living in the UK, London to be more precise. It truly is a bustling hub of multi-ethnicity and cultural exuberance, which I love. My inherited origin means I belong to one of Britain’s largest ethnic groups but, of course, that doesn’t mean I’m immune to discrimination. I’ve experienced
first-hand racism once when I was a teenager and a band of youths spat racial slurs at me on the bus. Despite that intimidating ordeal, however, I still count myself lucky.
But luck makes me uncomfortable.
‘Why?’ you ask.
My Indian heritage leaves me tethered to a caste system I didn’t choose to be a part of. It was pure fate-driven, accidental happenstance.
If you’re wondering what the caste system is it’s precisely what you’d imagine it to be; a feudal system of stratification, division and discrimination. It segments occupational roles. Here is a breakdown of this so-called ‘system’:
Brahmins – Priests / Academics
Kshatriyas – Warriors / Kings
Vaishyas – Merchants / Landowners
Sudra – Commoners / Peasants / Servants / Farmers
Untouchables – Outcastes / Street Sweepers / Latrine Cleaners
The Brahmins are considered to hold the ‘noblest’ jobs within Indian culture, whilst the Untouchables possess what are considered to be the ‘dirtiest’ professions.
So, which of these groups did destiny tie me to? I’m a Kshatriya.
My descendants were ruthless rulers and worthy warriors who, around 650 – 1,200 CE, fought off multiple invasions from the Turks, Arabs, Afghans and Mughals. Their bravery and commitment is highly commendable. I say this with the utmost sincerity as it is human nature to defend what we believe is ours.
To further complicate things though, these castes are further broken down into sub-castes, or jat. Mine is Rajput. My surname is Jethwa. My mother’s maiden name was Jadeja. My paternal ancestors were one of the 36 royal dynasties who ruled over Gujarat. My maternal ancestors were part of a clan rumoured to have links to an Iranian dynasty. I belong to the Rajput tribe. All of this is, in a way, something to be admired.
What my explanation of the caste system makes excruciatingly clear, though, is that Kshatriyas are close to the peak of a stratified ‘pyramid’. I’m privileged within Indian society. However, the factions ‘below’ aren’t, particularly the Untouchables or, to use their other name, Dalits (meaning broken or divided). Somewhere in the tumultuous narrative of Indian history these faultless souls were excluded from mainstream society.
There are many Rajputs who are immensely proud of their caste. I can’t feel the same way. I must clarify, however, that I’m proud of those who defended India and fought with courage, but they were ancestors from long ago. Not me. Harbouring pride feels a bit like accepting and keeping an award meant for someone else. Something I cannot do. The very nature of ‘belonging’ to a caste paradoxically alienates and isolates me, even though this alienation is something I wilfully choose.
What I find harder to grapple with is a conscious awareness that Dalits face unscrupulous violence, discrimination and human rights infringements on a daily basis both in the UK and in India, despite both places having anti-discrimination legislation.
Take, for example, Vijay Begraj, a solicitor, who ‘had been assaulted by relatives of one of the firm’s partners’ because of his caste. He was also told that if he were in India he’d have been nothing more than a cleaner; a remark that achingly reveals the societal barriers that are pushed up against Dalits. The tribunal was dropped. Or consider what happened to Abhishank Pal, a young man who was set alight for being in a relationship with an upper caste woman in Hardoi, India. Or contemplate the appaling Hathras gang rape where four men abused a 19-year-old Dalit woman. Unfortunately, heart-wrenching stories like these are common and casteism is very much prevalent.
Although I’m physically removed from India, the epicentre of casteism (for the most part) it’s clear to see how its diaspora ideologies have been scattered globally.
We have a fervent Rajput community here. My father reminds me of my Rajput blood every time my depression hits and forcefully informs me of people’s jat. All of which, I must admit, I have no interest in, nor take to heart. I simply find it all insignificant.
When I’ve travelled to India I’ve experienced the deep-seated divisions of this hierarchy in practice.
Remember that scene I opened with? My mother and uncle were talking about my cousin’s wedding. He’d renounced her for marrying out of caste; it didn’t matter that the man she married was a Brahmin (an upper caste). The only thing that mattered was that he wasn’t ‘our’ caste. He didn’t ‘belong’ to ‘us’. It was my uncle’s way of thinking that got me hot-headed enough to shout, “I can’t stand your idiotic, backward thinking!” His English isn’t great, so the meaning of my words were oblivious to him, but my anger was palpable enough.
In hindsight his views could, partly, be the fault of a lack of education, exposure and awareness, all of which prevent the crucial paradigm shifts needed to instigate change. After all, my uncle didn’t have the best education. But it’s not all gloomy. I do have faith in the current generation and in generations to come. I’m sure these paradigm shifts will occur, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace.
If you split the noun ‘belonging’ you have ‘be’, meaning ‘to exist’ and ‘longing’, pertaining to a ‘yearning desire’. My relationship with the caste system is a complete inversion; a strong (un)belonging. All of these instances, along with the more horrific ones I mentioned earlier, fuel my desire to cast off my caste or, better still, my desire for the system not ‘to be’ at all. Wishful thinking. I know the world doesn’t work like that. I’ve accepted that I can’t ‘cast off’ my caste. I can’t cut the cord that tethers me to my identity, an identity created by history.
I can, nevertheless, step down from the pedestal my lineage placed me upon and call out against caste supremacy. I can be an ally who strives for more equality, compassion and kindness. I can educate others and try to chip away at the ancient, conservative traditions that no longer serve Indian society and only besmirches it. I can recommend phenomenal works of fiction that amplify Dalit voices and experiences. Read Seasons of the Palm by Perumal Murugan. Read Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand. Read Karukku by Bama. I can do all this, and a lot more.