C.K. Meena is a columnist in The Hindu, one of India´s biggest news papers. She was my teacher when I took up a certificate course in Journalism and we soon became friends. We keep in touch and she sends me her features by email. Her writing is a real piece of Bangalore and makes me feel like I might, just for a few minutes, be there. She has kindly given me permission to share her latest feature article on my blog. This particular article reminds me that my blog post on the Indian caste system is long overdue.
A domestic worker was entering the gates of an apartment block when a resident motorcyclist almost crashed into her. It is a blind corner, and the pedestrian doesn’t always catch sight of oncoming vehicles in the large, strategically-placed convex mirror. Two security guards lounged at either side of the gate; neither bothered to warn her of the biker.
“Bhayya,” she told a guard politely, “you should have stopped either me or the bike.” He barked at her: “That’s not my job.” She knew it was a lie. If a vehicle had entered and another had simultaneously exited he would have snapped to attention and directed them. Had she been a resident, he would have forced the bike to halt. Seething quietly, she signed in the register, as all workers are supposed to. As she walked away she heard him tell the other guard in Hindi, “As if I should stop a gaadi for some dishwashing female!” Koi bartan-dhone-wali was the exact expression used.
I can almost hear the devastating contempt in the guard’s voice, and I feel like bombarding him with curses, but how can I blame him? In his village in Bihar, he grew up accepting his lowly place on the caste ladder. Here, although he doesn’t know the domestic worker’s caste (she happens to be a Muslim who converted after marrying a Hindu!), he automatically treats her as ‘lower’ because she has ‘dirt’ on her hands. Probably, in his view, the gardener’s caste is higher than hers though lower than his own because the dirt he handles is ‘clean’ whereas she touches the remains of what others have eaten. I would love to peek into his mind to learn in what order he would rank a dhobi, a postman, a delivery man and a lift operator.
They say the city weakens caste boundaries, but this is only partially true. When people of the same class chop themselves up into infinite slivers of higher and lower, we may as well call them castes. I’m no sociologist but I think new castes are constantly being improvised in the city — nameless castes with shifting shapes, which everyone recognises almost instinctively. Urban dwellers have no qualms about asking you to your face which caste you were born in, but even if they don’t, they are experts at speedily weighing you up and pigeonholing you. A complex calculation based on your name, class, skin colour, nature of work and countless other factors helps them pinpoint your status. Status is merely caste by another name.
Manual labour, as everyone knows, is lower than mental labour. And within the manual, indoor is higher than outdoor: that’s why everyone hankers after an office kelsa. But in the office, sitting is higher than standing, and sitting behind a desk is, of course, top notch. Within the indoor, house is lower than factory, which is lower than office. The domestic worker steps out in high-heels, with a handbag slung on her shoulder, and tells her neighbours she’s doing factory kelsa. She tells the mothers at her daughter’s English-medium school that she is a housewife like them. The rule of outdoor manual: the dirtier your hands the lower your caste. The nature of the dirt determines how low you’ve stooped: the grease on the mechanic’s hands accords him a higher caste than that of the sweeper of roads, who is lower than the sweeper of houses but higher than the cleaner of manholes.
The driver caste is divided into sub-castes. The taxi-driver is lower than the chauffeur but higher than the tempo-driver or the auto-driver. The bus-driver is a curiosity, brazening his way past everyone through sheer might. You and I can attain driver caste if we make our friends sit in the back seat of our cars. You and I can switch castes at will by deciding which edge of the pavement we walk on: we’re higher if we choose the side closest to the road. In this respect I find that women, by and large, are low caste. They shrink towards the wall when a man approaches them head-on. They sidle past clusters of men blocking the pavement — not me, I break them up, I cut right through them.
And so it goes, on and on. Many among you don’t like the way I use the word ‘caste’. You, vigorous young champion of meritocracy, hate the very sound of it. You, who claim “I don’t even know what caste I belong to” discover it with remarkable swiftness when your parents arrange a match for you. You, who say “Honour-killing and segregated wells happen only in the villages” are jolted when the local papers report an inter-caste murder right under your nose. You may teach your children to call your driver ‘uncle’ and you may clothe the ayah in your best hand-me-downs when you take her to the mall, but would you seat them at your dining table? Sadly, they would be the first to refuse the ‘honour’.
Everybody has somebody higher or lower than them, except the highest and the lowest. The highest have the world at their feet, the lowest are at the feet of the world. But the Dalit reminds us, “My feet husk the rice you eat.” I wonder how many more centuries it will take for us to stand shoulder to shoulder instead of one behind the other.