Wednesday, April 25, 2007

From Crib to Caste - A Personal Story

The formation of my ethnic and religious identities undertook a rather amusing process. I grew up in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of North York in Toronto, Canada. My family was one of the few Indian (East Indian) families on the block; which was fine by us. I must have been in kindergarten when I learned that I am, in fact, a second-generation Indian. My teacher curiously asked my mother where our family was from. I overheard ‘mummy’ blurt out “India”. Cool! I had no clue. As far as I had known, my siblings and I were Canadians from North York General Hospital.
Down the street lived my childhood companion who was also Indian; though her family had a much darker complexion than our family’s, they spoke an entirely different non-English language, and ate food that was foreign to our family’s plates. It was then that I learned I was North Indian and that my friend was South Indian.
I realized I was a Hindu in grade one when I noticed that none of my friends came to class with a red ‘tikka’ on their foreheads; symbolizing that I had received blessings at the temple. I eventually took pride in being the sole class authority on Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali. I even performed at the multicultural evening in grade four! Haha! I was a cute kid.
Fast forward seven years to grade eight when a friend informed me that I am Punjabi and that she is Bengali. Punjabi? My parents are not from Punjab. They are from New Delhi. When I inquired further with my parents, I learned that India is deeply divided both culturally and linguistically according to state. Apparently, my family is ancestrally from Punjab. What?? Ok Rahul, breathe.
In grade 11, I was instilled with a final and, frankly, somewhat offensive, component of my ethnic identity. An Indian buddy of mine asked me: “What caste are you? My family is Brahmin.” All I said in response was: “WTF?” My buddy informed me that one’s caste informs one’s occupation and, by extension, one's social status. Not at home, not at school, and neither in my community had I ever talked about or been asked about caste. For my parents, caste was a non-issue and as kids in my family, caste was unknown.
Note: The terms Indian, North Indian, and Punjabi refer to one's ethnicity/culture. The terms Hindu and one's caste title refers to one's religious tradition.
What I Learned Was Not Pretty
When I started University, I was keen to learn more about religion and, more specifically, about caste. Throughout my undergraduate years, I completed a few religious studies electives. Specific to caste in Hindu society, I regret to inform that what I learned was not pretty. The Hindu caste system socioeconomically divides society and largely denies lower castes and outcastes, such as Dalits, from social and economic mobility. Because the caste system is endowed as sacred, it remains unquestioned and ingrained as the status quo (mostly in rural India and not in urban India). Ironically, the issue of caste was very closely tied to the degree I was concurrently completing in social justice studies (BHS, Specializing in Health Policy).
My next blog posting combines this notion of caste with my academic and professional interests in social justice and human rights. The results are disconcertingly harmonious.
*image courtesy of
http://www.silkepics.com/Punjabiwomen.htm

20 comments:

My name is Rahul Mediratta. said...

my mom read this posting and was upset that i used the acronym 'WTF'. I was shocked that my mom even knew what 'WTF' stands for. I was both freaked out and impressed.

Vulgar-Vulva said...

Your mom be pimp!
It's kinda like, how freaked out and impressed I was, when my mom discovered my vibrator.

Anonymous said...

hi rahul...so what exactly does a low caste entail? Servants????? or menial jobS? i dont quite get it ? and im quite perplexed as to why people accept such a system... do people in india not have ambitions and individuality?

My name is Rahul Mediratta. said...

hey anonymous,

thanks for your question. i will talk about caste alot more in my next posting. but i will briefly answer your question here.

a caste system is a society that is stratified along the lines of status, class, and party. society is socioecononmically divided according to 4 occupations:
>Brahimins (priests, educators)
>Kshatriyas (atristocrats, warriors)
>Vaishyas (merchants, traders)
>Shudras (manual labour, peasants)

Then there are the Dalits (servants, sweepers) who are considered outcastes and untouchables.

Why do people accept such a system?
Let us look at Canada. Why do we accept a society with classes? Why do immigrants, the children of lone-parent/lone-mother families, and the children of poor households grow up to accept low paying jobs? How do the children of wealthy parents always grow up to achieve well paying jobs? There are always exceptions to the rule (eg. the almighty Oprah, who I love!! blech!!). Caste is a non-issue in urban India (300 million people) but persists in rural India (700 million people). People have no choice but to accept the 'caste'/situation they are born into because of the barriers that limit upward mobility (eg. discrimination in entering university, in securing a job, in buying a home in a non-Dalit neighbourhood). One can loosely compare the plight of Dalits to Black America (think of gated communities in the States).

I hope this response provides some insight...

Mitra said...

You've given ur mom ur blog website? lol...ur sweet. By the way, I'm Hindu-Punjabi too and didnt even know it until I went to India 3 years ago and all my friends at Uni started using that word. When I was in elementary school, I would tell ppl I was Hindu but spoke Punjabi...they'd be like, then ur Punjabi right? lol...huh, the lives of CBCDs. Whether u admit it or not...we are CBCDs.

My name is Rahul Mediratta. said...

CBCD?? CBCD ka matlab kya hai? (What does CBCD mean?)

Canadian Born Confused Desi? Haha. I prefer to think of myself as a CBD. A Canadian Born Desi (period). I am not confused - - others are :)

Thanks for the comment, Mitra. Do you have a blog?

GVK said...

Castes, in today's context, means privileges over the so-called forward castes; it means reservation of seats in colleges and jobs in government and some public sector undertakings. A caste certificate can be one's passport to higher education, entry into government jobs, quicker promotions. You supercede those candidates with more merit, but with the wrong caste tab.
Caste is a divisive factor in politics; and a caste vote has often been the determining factor in the success or defeat of candidates in elections.
Caste is empowering for a section of Indians; and it can be a disabling factor for others, in terms missed college admissions and lost. opportunities. .

My name is Rahul Mediratta. said...

hi GVK,

thank you for your comments. Based on what you said, I am trying to figure out if you allege that caste certification is advantageous for dalits or for brahmins (I am guessing that you mean the former). Affirmative action policies definitely reserve spots for Dalits in government/universities. But studies demonstrate that while affirmative policies provide Dalits with better access to income, they do not secure Dalits with wealth (i.e. assets, land, property) and thus, economic disparities persist between the castes. I will talk about this more in my following posting.

Anonymous said...

Hey!

I honestly didn't know there was a difference between us until High school/University. I didn't know there was a Gujarat and a Punjab etc. I thought we were both "Indian" - period. And then I slowly realized that North Indians are so different than South Indians and we could almost be different nations. But the caste thing angers me so much. I learned about it in high school when my dad explained it to me. I asked about it because my mom sometimes refers to a group of our family friends by their caste - not with a negative connotation at all. It was strange because my family friends are actually divided into groups by caste. I don't think it was of natural consequence but I know for sure that people don't look down on others because of caste, which I am so glad for. On the other hand, there's my family in India who are still engrained with the concept of caste. My uncle told me that if I don't marry within my caste that he won't come to my wedding!!! Yikes! It is a big problem and I'm glad that you are voicing it out there.

-Your Indian friend down da block ;)

My name is Rahul Mediratta. said...

hello childhood campanion!

i really really enjoyed your comments...mostly because i share the same sentiments about being ignorant to the whole north vs. south india and caste issues.

you bring a really cool personal story and show how the consideration of caste in diaspora is not necessarily a status symbol but does serve to seperate communities of indians through another dimension (i.e. in addition to being punjabi vs. tamil, speaking hindi vs. telegu, being hindu vs. muslim etc etc).

Anonymous said...

Its actually weird, but I understood the basics of the caste system when I was really young, i think mostly due to foga lol (this gujarti dance competition essentially between different castes). I also think it is very ingrained in gujarati mind-set, in comparison to other indian nationalities. what do you think?

i took this really cool class about the indenture system in the caribbean. Basically, dalits from India were imported into the Caribbean as slaves - and overtime created and adopted an "indo-caribbean" culture - which is this incredible bridge and fusion of both cultures. One of the main changes was the abolition of the caste system. The belief was, that if a Brahim even came into contact with a Dalit - they lost their caste. On the boat ride over to the caribbean, it was a mixed crowd (brahims recruited to supervise, dalits as slaves). So, when they arrived and settled - the caste system was abolished, and hindu/muslim relations were not an issue anymore. That is why you see a lot of hindu/muslim weddings in the caribbean, they didnt differentiate.

-Hima

Anonymous said...

ps. id like a post on your views on oprah :P

My name is Rahul Mediratta. said...

hey hima,

I am not very well versed with Gujurati culture/history. Thanks for sharing your insight about foga. It's interesting how an art form can reflect society and, I guess, in many ways, shows the relationship between art and life (in the words of Aishwarya Rai: Art reflects life and vice versa...hehe).

The history of the Caribbean sounds so interesting. It's like a case study of how caste in diaspora can break down and meld into something entirely new and, in the case of indo-carribeans, how caste in diaspora can turn into something better.

I have a question: I have heard the term 'coolie'. And I know that the origin of this word comes from the word 'coolie' that refers to porters who carry luggage at train stations in India. Where do the 'coolies' that I know in Toronto come from? Trinidad? I feel so dumb not knowing this...

p.s.: why are you curious about my thoughts on oprah? has someone tipped you off on how much I adore angel lane? haha

Mitra said...

CBD...ha ha ha....you must be so confident in your Indianness then. *lol* What's January 26 in India? And dont look it up on Wikepedia or anything...I'm looking for a REAL answer!!!! If you dont know it...say it. *lol* I have to admit I'm a CBCD (yes...Canadian born confused desi)...I mean, girls in Canada want independence, girls in India live with their in-laws and LIKE it! lol... great blog keep it up...no I dont have a blog but everyone tells me to get one...I dunno maybe u'll tempt me...lol

Hima Bohima fe fi Fohima? said...

you're right!

it came from that era, during the indenture period. the british use to call the slaves "coolies" - because they were essentially laborers from India - which is the hindi translation - so even though we use it commonly today, it is, and has derogatory roots.

because i love her, and i just want to know why people don't lol.

Anonymous said...

Punjabis were also called coolies when they were taken to africa in the late 1800's. It was a term tagged to them by the british. During that era(1800's) most indians were considered 'coolies'. We were all coolies to them because they were the British Raj (ruler of india, and indians were their slave workers).

Anonymous said...

Noticed all indians during the 1800's that left India and went to different parts of the world were called 'coolies', it didn't matter where they came from, i.e., punjab, gujrat, up, bihar, south india. The term coolie was dropped somewhat during the mid 1900's when the indian government took somewhat of a stance against their British rajs at the time.

Anonymous said...

Hima,

Not all Indo Carribbeans were of dalits caste. I think you need to read about their histroy. Majority were farmers like most of India's population back in the 1800's.

spartan said...

hi ! Rahul, please send me your personal email id. I wish to speak with you !!
mine is -kant1@rediffmail.com

-Cheers mate

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