The complexities of caste

January 12, 2019

From my reading this year:

The North Indian summers are extreme. One afternoon, when I was sitting under the banyan tree, a labourer digging on the other side of the temple walked past the Jain dharmashala carrying water in an earthen vessel. I asked him to pour some water into my small water pot but he humbly said, ‘Sir, I cannot do what you ask.’ I assumed the reason for his refusal was that by parting with a little water en route he would annoy the other labourers. So I said, ‘Don’t give me water if it is going to cause you any trouble.’ He put down the water vessel, bowed down at my feet, and said, ‘Sir, what trouble can be caused by giving away a little water? But the truth is that I belong to the Chambhar caste. I have no wish to sin by giving water to an upper-caste man such as yourself.’ I said, ‘Rohidas was also a Chambar; even so, people of all castes revered him. Besides, I don’t believe in caste discriminations. I have no wish to know your caste. All I want is water, and it would be enough if you give me some.’ I admonished him a lot in this vein. He made no response. He bowed down at my feet once again and said, ‘Admonish me as much as you want. Or, if you think I’m guilty, cut my throat right here. But do not ask me to commit this sin!’ In the end I was compelled to go to the well in the garden of the Jain temple and get water from the priest there.

– Nivedan: The Autobiography of Dharmanand Kosambi (translated by Meera Kosambi)


For Ramanathan…the thought that he had committed a great sin was gnawing at him. Karuppan’s daughter felt contented that she had gained the affections of the young landlord. Ramanathan promised to marry her. “How is it possible, saami” she giggled.

He met Karuppan, confessed to him and expressed his wish to marry her. How will Karuppan know the new ideals? “That will be a great sin. Young master, you shouldn’t do this.” Ramanathan was thunderstruck.

The New Nandan – Pudumai Pithan (from my translation for the Anthology of Tamil works on Gandhi)

Travelling into the past

January 12, 2019

We have been reading about the casual, and sometimes vigorous, dismissals of people, we otherwise respect, for holding what we consider with hindsight to be racist or other incompatible views.

This brilliant essay by Brian Morton in the New York Times talks about how to travel into the past.

Some excerpts:

/I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.


If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.

To take an example almost at random: Most of us rely on technology that can be traced to child labor or even slave labor. We know this — or we should know this — but we don’t think about it much. When we’re texting or using social media, we don’t tend to be troubled by the thought that the cobalt in our phones may have been extracted by 10-year-olds in Katanga working 12-hour shifts for a dollar a day. We don’t stop short, seized by the realization that taking part in the fight against global inequality is more urgent than anything else we could possibly be doing. We finish the text or the tweet or the email and go on with our lives.

If you or I were to write a novel with a passage in which someone takes a casual glance at his phone, how might this strike a reader from the future — someone whose understanding of human interconnectedness is far more acute than our own? I’m guessing that readers from the future might find our callousness almost unbearable, and might have to remind themselves that despite the monstrousness into which we could descend in passages like this, some of what we were saying might be worth listening to.

If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do./