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.