Sunday, September 13, 2015

Love means never having to say you're sorry

Events in India, or essays that I read, often compel me to spend time thinking about India's atrocious caste system.  Because I don't spend enough time thinking about this, I approach this topic with a great deal of hesitation.  A worry lingers that I could end up writing something that can be easily misinterpreted only because I have not thought through the topic.  Yet, I venture--like in this post from a while ago, for instance.

There is so much of who I am that is a result of the caste into which I was born.  It has been a conscious struggle sifting through the baggage that was hoisted on my shoulders from the very minute of my birth, looking to see if there is anything that I should retain before I throw out the proverbial bathwater.  It was an awful realization early on that even the Carnatic music that was so adored by the family and which I naturally took to was structurally not merely religious but awfully caste-based too--issues that the musician TM Krishna discusses in detail in his polemical A Southern Music.  

Sometimes, the weight of the baggage is simply unbearable.  So much so that I want to convey my most sincere apologies.  But then, to whom should I apologize for the system that, according to B.R. Ambedkar, was (is?) worse than the slavery in America?  What good will my apology be?  

I referred to Ambedkar because reading an essay that is a review of a new annotated edition of his Annihilation of Caste was the trigger this time.  

The book-review essay is by one of my favorite contemporary intellectuals--Martha Nussbaum.  Now, she is an academic.  She is a thinker.  It is a shame that the world grants idiots like me also an academic status!  Nussbaum notes that Ambedkar--a "remarkable human being" and one of the "distinguished founders" of modern India--needs an introduction to people outside India.  I suspect that even a vast majority in India need an introduction to Ambedkar; people there might have heard of the name, but nothing beyond that:
The palm of unjustified obscurity, however, goes to a man who was very likely the greatest intellect of all the Founders, and one of the most impressive legal minds of the twentieth or any other century, B. R. (Bhimrao Ramji) Ambedkar (1891-1956), who, as Nehru’s Law Minister, became the primary architect of the Indian Constitution. 
Nussbaum then gives a quick intro that starts with "B. R. Ambedkar was born in 1891 into the untouchable Mahar caste, traditionally sweepers."  (emphasis mine.)  What did it mean to be an untouchable?  How about this:
He was forced to sit on a piece of gunny sack that no other child would touch, and he was forbidden to drink from the common tap.  ...  If the school servant was present, that servant could pour the water down to him from a height.  If the servant was absent, as he often was, then no water. 
My grandfathers, who were only a few years younger than Ambedkar, did not have to suffer through those tortures in school.  After all, they were brahmins!  At least Ambedkar was allowed to go to school; most untouchable kids during my grandfathers' school going years were never even taught to read and write and they died as illiterates.  The fact that my grandfathers went to school, and then to college, made it easy for me to work my way to the United States.  Had my ancestors been untouchables ... ?

Bob Dylan commented a couple of years ago that "This country is just too fucked up about color."  If that is the case here in the US, then one can easily imagine how fucked up life is in the old country where, according to Ambedkar, "slavery was not as bad as untouchability."

Sometimes I wish that I had the ability to slip into denial and not even acknowledge my own brahminical origins.  But then a life of introspection and the pursuit of truth means that there is no place for denial.  I can't wait for the day that the baggage will be lifted off.


Ramesh said...

The caste system has morphed into a different animal in today's India. In urban India, it does not matter which caste you are born into. In rural India, the situation is different in different states - in the North and the East untouchability in some form is still practiced.

Because of affirmative action, there is now a clamour for being classified as a backward caste. We must be the only country in the world where people fight to be labelled backward.

While caste as a factor determining success in life has largely disappeared from urban India, it is still an important part of the social fabric. Marriages are still predominantly "in caste" and religious and social practices are still determined by caste. Here it is probably less "caste" and more "community" - in such a diverse country such as India, the way you live is determined much by birth and the association of persons you move with.

As for Ambedkar not being known very much, that is less a caste problem and more a problem of ignorance of history. I am sure he is no worse known than say Vallabhai Patel or Rajaji, or many other luminaries of early India.

Gowrisankar Namasivayam said...

Ramesh in today's urban India it is not just marriages but also offices and organizations have a strong under current of caste biase. Many IT companies that I am aware of are still headed by Brahmins and hold highest percentage of top positions, this is not just accidental or only because of their capacity.

As Sriram has mentioned on Karnatic music... I know cases where young children with eagerness to learn, Karnatic music(vocal), Mrithangam or for that matter Bhagavathgita were denied as they were not Brahmins in our very same town we all lived our childhood days (Neyveli).

Today there are a few (lesser %) non Brahmins in the corporates' top positions as well as working in developed countries like US is primarily due to some of the social justice actions that many states like Tamilnadu that had taken in the past 5 to 6 decades, thanks to Ambedhkar and the like past leaders.

It is these affirmative actions and quotas that have bought the necessary changes that is today making the demographic an advantage for India, else there would have been more illiterates and more social and other crimes.

IP-MD said...

One could indeed argue that Ambedkar may have been the greatest Indian thinker and activist of the modern era...yes, even greater than Gandhi or Nehru. A thinker who was far ahead of his time.

Sadly, untouchability is alive and well all over India. Check out the documentary, "India Untouched" by Stalin K. The film-makers deliberately visited all corners of the country to show that it is not just a problem in one area.

Anne in Salem said...

You cannot change your ancestry. To use your term, it is an accident of birth. You can change how you use that position. Some will use a lofty birth position to reinforce a superior attitude that is entirely inappropriate and unearned, and some will use that same position to raise up and empower others not born so fortunately. Others will far exceed their unfortunate birth, as Ambedkar seems to have. (In the US, he is entirely unknown.) Some will use their powers for good and some for inaction and some for evil. Where we each fall on that spectrum deserves a bit of introspection.

On a lighter note, I didn't know there existed any topics of importance on which you don't think enough.

Sriram Khé said...

Anne, I agree that we have no control over that singular aspect of who our parents are--we don't get to choose our parents. I would think that this alone should make us humble in our lives. Instead, the awful caste-based religion in India even offered narratives explaining how what we experience now is a result of what we did in our previous lives!

I write caste-based religion because that is what it is. The religion created the castes, the religion maintains the caste. I thought it was only the sociopolitical explanation of Periyar that offered this argument. I had no idea that Ambedkar wanted to nuke Hinduism for those very reasons. And, as Wendy Doniger pointed out, the modern Hinduism and its gods have completely eliminated the diverse streaks that were not Brahmin-based and, thus, the religion hold the Brahmin in the front and center and on top of everybody else.

Ramesh's comments are opposed by the other two. I agree with Gowri and IP-MD (are you the same person who tweeted this?)--caste is very much alive and well, in urban India too. Ramesh uses an euphemism of "community." It is caste all the way. "In urban India, it does not matter which caste you are born into" is a false claim, from everything that I have seen, read, and experienced.

Gowri refers to some of those experiences as well. The examples he provides are no "accidents."

The only aspect where I might agree with Ramesh? On the "ignorance of history" ... I have blogged in plenty about this--how I am shocked and disappointed with every instance of ignorance and apathy that most Indians--especially the educated ones--have when it comes to India's own history.