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
. 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 “ Toronto, Canada ”. Cool! I had no clue. As far as I had known, my siblings and I were Canadians from India . 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 . When I inquired further with my parents, I learned that New Delhi 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