It’s dangerous for an American to write about caste in Indian society, but I hope I will be forgiven for taking a stab at it. We all have a stake in India, one-sixth of the world’s population, and one of the most dynamic economies in the world. And for most of us, it’s a mysterious world.
Until my visit in January I thought of caste as a fading relic of India’s past, almost quaint and mostly harmless. No more. On this trip I sought out Dalits, members of the untouchable castes, and heard that caste is alive and well in Indian villages, which comprise two thirds of the population. And even in the cities, among the educated elite, many Indians told me that caste remains a dominant social force. It permeates social relations, it permeates business and politics, and it’s highly oppressive. According to Pavan Varma in Being Indian, caste explains how a democratic country can be largely untroubled by such a stark divide between the fabulously rich and the destitute.
Caste prejudice is unique to India, but it has close relatives elsewhere. There’s ethnic prejudice based on your gene pool, or race prejudice based on the color of your skin. Class prejudice is based on your family’s income, and also the culture associated with manual work.
Caste has elements of all these. The lower castes are often darker in skin and poorer in income, and they do specific kinds of menial work, such as cleaning up crap. (There are few toilets in Indian villages. Dalits form the Indian sewage system.)
But caste is fundamentally metaphysical. It derives its legitimacy, I am told, from some of the oldest Hindu writings. If you are on top, a Brahmin, you did something in a previous life to deserve it; if you are on the bottom, a Dalit, you too deserve your fate. One’s caste always embodies justice, by this Brahminical understanding.
And caste is indelible. You can bleach your skin, get a PhD and make a million dollars as a physicist, but you will always be a Dalit, as will your children. One can ascend in the metaphysical realm of reincarnation, but for life as we observe it on planet Earth, one can neither ascend nor descend. One is what one is, world without end Amen. And so are your grandchildren.
In modern, urban India, even while caste endures (most educated Indians would not marry outside their caste, or let their sister do so) caste is being shaken up hard. People still live by it, but they don’t necessarily believe in it. On my trip I checked out Indian newspapers and magazines every chance I got. I found articles critical of caste in nearly every one. That wasn’t so a few years ago.
Why now? The most barefaced explanation is that global economics enable so many to gain wealth by other means. Varma claims that Indians, far from being naturally otherworldly and simple in lifestyle, are intensely materialistic. The upper castes used caste as a primary way to acquire and retain wealth. Now other ways have trumped caste.
This is the theme of the Booker-Prize-winning The White Tiger. The story is told through a series of letters addressed by a young Bangalore entrepreneur to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on the occasion of his visit to India. Jiabao wants to learn about Indian entrepreneurship. Balram, aka The White Tiger, offers himself as a primary example. He tells his simple story: how he was a poor orphan boy in the village, destined for poverty, when he managed to get a job as the driver to one of the area’s elite families. From the driver’s seat Balram carefully studied the ways of his masters. Then, when the time was right, he murdered his master in cold blood, taking the satchel of cash that his master was carrying to bribe a government minister. Armed with this cash Balram fled to Bangalore, where he bribed the police to put another taxi service out of business and install him in its place. This, Balram says, is the proud story of Indian entrepreneurship. It is not a story of merit or education or reform. It is not a story of democracy in action. It is a story of simple men using duplicity and murder to replace others who used duplicity and murder to win their positions.
Surely this is a twisted version of success in modern India. The point is, caste has become irrelevant, almost as irrelevant as morality (symbolized in the novel by ubiquitous statues of Gandhi).
According to The White Tiger, India hasn’t necessarily become a better place. It’s just that the old social bonds have been loosened, and things are busting out all over. One change I witnessed, though, seems good to me. In every place I visited, I found people becoming Christians at an unheard of rate. India has had Christian witness for thousands of years, without much penetration. Now, at least for the time being, change has come. And it seems to relate closely to the breakdown in caste. It’s a new thing to think that an individual can decide what he wants to be. Destiny is not written at birth. You can conceive of other options.