Saturday, August 31, 2013

Speaking in silences

Ketaki Chowkhani reflects on her experiences teaching caste in an upper caste school on Round Table India.   An 18-year old, 12th grade student approached her to help him out with a project on caste.  According to Chowkhani, the student, who was from an upper caste community, went to a school with only upper caste, and mostly middle class, students and teachers. Chowkhani was familiar with the school and its politics since she had studied there herself. "No one ever talked to us about caste there," she says.  "There was a resounding silence around it."  Chowkhani explained to the student that no one talked about caste in the school spaces because everyone was upper caste.

"This was of course, because caste was believed to be ascribed to only lower castes and Dalits and not upper castes, and that they seemed strangely absolved of any caste identity. The middle class, upper caste idea of castelessness was the prevalent norm there."
While I like how she explains the upper castes' version of castelessness, I disagree that no one talks about caste in places where upper caste privilege dominates. I have a slightly different take, hearing as I do, unintended, ubiquitous caste talk on all sides. Such conversations, seemingly innocent, involve foods, culture, festivals, bhajans, favorite singers, beloved music genres, party invitations, temple matters, gods and goddesses, thread ceremonies, mantras, planet positions, auspicious days, saints, holy books, scriptures, modern pilgrimages, who's who, favorite colleges, cool schools, professorial uncles' experiences, mannerisms, dialects, writings, readings, love stories, marriage ceremonies, naming ceremonies, thread ceremonies, death ceremonies, ideas of humor, preferences in silk, taste in jewellery, concept of beauty, cousins with US visas, nieces with IIM degrees, aunts bringing marriage proposals, grandfathers earning PHDs -- all topics that simultaneously exclude me, my kind and many more.

So I assert that people engage in caste talk all the time without being aware that they engage in caste talk all the time.  "How?," you may ask.

I can explain but you have to promise to experience my world, to carry my baggage, whole-heartedly, in order to understand.

Let me put it this way:

Have you ever fasted?  When you are fasting, especially in the beginning when you are learning how to fast effectively, have you ever thought to yourself that there are too many references to foods, beverages, aromas, food rituals, eating practices and routines in a normal day? Have you ever wondered how it is that you did not pay attention earlier to how often food innocently confronts you in your everyday life?

If you are a vegan who obsessively tries to avoid animal products, do you not find animal-based ingredients in every food label, restaurant offering, and meat-eating culture's norms?

Caste is like that. 

Just as,
Atheists can tell that our societies rely on too many God-based cultural references;
People struggling economically can understand that middle-class lives are full of activities that are money-based and consumption-based; that middle-class worries revolve around issues that matter only for those with some money;
Orphans can see that too many stories are rooted in mother's love and father's care;
Rationalists notice the extent to which superstitions rule all our lives;
Girls recognize exactly when boys have it easy;
The homeless in the city see buildings galore and yet know which doorways are off-limits to them and which benches in which parks are safe to sleep in;
Street children of the perpetually hungry can find perfectly edible foods thrown into garbage bins, 
Only a person born not into upper caste can tell you how many cultural norms and expectations are unavailable to him or her.  

When you are lower caste but move in upper caste circles, caste tends to be talked about under the umbrella of culture.  Rarely do we seem to notice or pay attention to it, at least not until major life events such as college admissions, marriage, babies, in-law visits take over lives.  In fact, people seem to not even be aware of this social capital that they have been given, without asking. Yet caste culture is omnipresent to those on the outside, living in the margins, looking in from the fringes through walls that let you see, watch, observe. But not touch, mingle, blend.

Walls. Glass walls. Fragile glass walls.  Yet, walls.

1 comment:

ketaki said...

Thank you so much Malathi for your response. I agree with you that we talk about caste without realising it.