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)

Isolation of the poor

May 28, 2014

I didn’t expect to come across this sharp observation, when I started reading ‘The Montessori Method’ by Mari Montessori:

Such spectacles of extreme brutality are possible here at the very gate of a cosmopolitan city, the mother of civilisation and queen of the fine arts, because of a new fact which was unknown to past centuries, namely, the isolation of the masses of the poor. 

In the Middle Ages, leprosy was isolated: the Catholics isolated the Hebrews in the Ghetto; but poverty was never considered a peril and aninfamy so great that it must be isolated. The homes of the poor were scattered among those of the rich and the contrast between these was a commonplace in literature up to our own times. Indeed, when I was a child in school, teachers, for the purpose of moral education, frequently resorted to the illustration of the kind princess who sends help to the poor cottage next door, or of the good children from the great house who carry food to the sick woman in the neighbouring attic.

To-day all this would be as unreal and artificial as a fairy tale. The poor may no longer learn from their more fortunate neighbours lessons in courtesy and good breeding, they no longer have the hope of help from them in cases of extreme need. We have herded them together far from us, without the walls, leaving them to learn of each other, in the abandon of desperation, the cruel lessons of brutality and vice. Anyone in whom the social conscience is awake must see that we have thus created infected regions that threaten with deadly peril the city which, wishing to make all beautiful and shining according to an aesthetic and aristocratic ideal, has thrust without its walls whatever is ugly or diseased. 


September 26, 2013

I can see the absurdity of even recounting an act that should be considered routine. However, today is the day, when I feel reassured that it is possible to get a task done in a government office, renowned to be amongst the worst, without paying a single paise bribe. Yes, it has taken time. Yes, there were some helpful souls at the Bangalore and Coimbatore offices. Yes, there were moments of doubt. Yes, I hated the experience throughout. Yes, my wife had more persistence and tact than me. Yes, the process is unnecessarily (or deliberately?) tedious, manual and convoluted. Yes, I did encounter some real crooks, cruelly poking holes at every turn but who shrivel when you fight back.

After 1.5 years, the transfer of registration of our car from Bangalore to Coimbatore is completed, with no bribes paid – directly or indirectly. While the re-registration was a 4-5 month long process, the refund of the road tax has happened today.

I know, I personally might not have done this without shunning the corporate life – I might possibly have outsourced the act of corruption to a middleman. Now that I don’t place a premium on my time, or rather know how to utilize my time while waiting endlessly, anywhere, I can play the game at their pace. We haven’t even drawn out the RTI weapon yet – then we can possibly challenge and change the pace as well. Gained confidence for more such battles. I hope, this resolve won’t wilt under more pressing circumstances.

And I hope, there will come a time, when I don’t ever have to boastfully recount what should be a routine act, and a bunch of 16-year old girls, accustomed to hardships, will not offer a rousing ovation for such a routine act, like they did today.

For that wee bit of freedom

September 19, 2013

As I walked my daughter to school and came out, I heard a few instructions being given to older kids during their morning assembly.

Avoid talking to strangers. Do not accept anything from them. Be alert.
AVOID going out ALONE.

All sane advices, I should think, as a modern day urban parent. But damn it. What kind of a world have we created for our kids; a world, where they can not go out alone – and chase butterflies; fly kites, and run after the cut ones; spin tops, and split those of your opponents; play cricket on the streets; surreptitiously jump into the backyards of locked houses to retrieve the ball hit there by an aspiring Srikanth, alright, Shikhar; climb trees, and pluck fruits, or gather neem leaves for Bhogi, or just sleep on a cushy intersection of branches; go to the library; cycle; explore; discover; learn. Alone.

And we dare to deride this generation as loners, couch potatoes, computer game freaks and nerds.

Of course, I can hear you – they can do some of it and a lot more…within the protected walls of your posh apartment complex, if you stay in one: under the watchful eyes of security guards and caretakers. Of course, they have their private swimming pools. Of course, they travel to one new country every year; and they have their Disney Worlds. Stuff, many of us couldn’t have dreamt of.

But I dare say, a child will trade all these for that wee bit of freedom, if she knows of its existence.

Festering Remnants of Brahminic segregation

March 1, 2012

Are you a vegetarian?

This fairly innocuous-sounding question greets you, when you start hunting for a house to rent in Chennai. Skim the surface off the question, and you wish you never decided to come to Chennai. Its intent is plain. Are you a Brahmin?

Some of them may be genuinely looking only for vegetarians (and not necessarily Brahmins) to occupy their houses. Some of them are bold enough to specify “for Brahmins only!” on the advertisements or to their brokers. Many of them do not have the courage to be open about it and hide behind the vegetarian-question. But you can always sense their discomfort, in knowing that you are a non-Brahmin Vegetarian.

Of course, the story that we cook only vegetarian food at home, and I occasionally eat meat in hotels, complicates the picture. I told my wife not to bother narrating this tale after listening to her the first time. So, we were just vegetarians, and I insisted that the brokers tell the landlords that we are non-Brahmin-vegetarians to avoid questions, later, on the missing thread or the non-Brahmin dialect.

Though many of my closest friends, since school days, have been (and still are) Brahmins, I have never felt excluded from their company. The first time, I was exposed to this exclusivity of the Chennai Brahmin club was when I went to a few carnatic music kutcheris alone, ten years back. Now this rude shock…the blatant display of casteism in the heart of the capital city, amongst, probably, the most educated elite of Tamilnadu…100 years after the Dalit Kanagalingam was bestowed with the Brahminic thread, by the Brahmin-born reformist-poet Bharati (who himself had forsaken the thread) in obstinate, sacrilegious defiance of the orthodoxy of that era.

This, sadly, is enough fodder to keep the crass anti-brahmin rhetoric of the Dravidian movement alive.

P.S. : We are finally going to be in a small apartment complex, as tenants to a generous Brahmin family. In the words of the broker, who was confused to hear that we are vegetarians but not Brahmins, “it is a nice apartment with only brahmin residents”.

A small sample of ads from Google search:


Enemies of the state

July 20, 2010

The head-on collision of trains in West Bengal, again, proves that the Government is barking up the wrong trees, in treating Maoists and terrorists as the biggest enemies of the state. It should stop pooling all its resources and non-existent intelligence in fighting only these enemies, however real they are.

Can we wake up and launch a war on inefficiency, callousness and corruption?

$700 billion bailout plan in US Vs. Farm Loan waiver in India

September 30, 2008

There was a hue and cry from the corporate world and business media about the farm loan waiver. I found it amusing then. It looks even more amusing now, in the wake of the $700 billion bailout plan (now aborted) in that, presumptive, most capitalist of capitalist countries, the US. There was a muted response to this plan in the mainstream media; most debates were about how best to finetune this plan. 

P.Sainath ridicules this plan, in The Hindu, contrasting these reactions against the earlier rage over the “historic farm loan waiver for $16 billion”. (Sainath belongs to those rare breed of journalists, who slog it out in the vast rural hinterland to unearth the real truths, while his more elitist counterparts hog the limelight with lazy-sleazy sting operations and Arushi sagas. His apparent Socialist leanings notwithstanding, it is the existence of honest contrarian-journalists like him, which will make democracy and ‘free markets’ work and evolve).

Whether we like it or not, for those of us who were waiting for the crash, the developments are interesting, to say the least. This is definitely a serious test for capitalism and at the end of it, hopefully, we will evolve to a higher, humane form of capitalism (or whatever new -ism) and not find recluse in retrograde initiatives. The real danger is not the impending recession or a repeat of the ‘Great Depression’ with ripples across the world, but a reactionary withdrawal of heads into an excessive-regulatory shell. A temporary recession, which doesn’t hinder future growth, is more welcome than a few more decades of decadent licence-raj.

Ethics of a sting operation

April 22, 2008

Sting operations have become the favoured tool of journalists in India, thanks to the rapid rise to fame of Tehelka through a string of sting operations. Sting operations raise a serious moral question. What is right and what is wrong? What do we expect from people in positions of influence – do they have to be infallible?

Take the recent case of Jothikumaran of Indian Hockey Federation. Money is offered deliberately to this person and the reporters, the audience along with them, are expecting him to refuse it. This stretches the thread of morality to the extreme. I am not trying to pass judgement on whether Jothikumaran has committed such commissions in the past or not. But in this specific case, not many people in his position would have come out clean, when someone insists on them taking a bribe for committing a ‘not-so-harmful’ crime.

The purpose of investigative journalism should be to investigate and expose ‘crimes’ that have ‘occurred’ or are in the process of ‘occurring’. It is not to tease and induce a person to commit an error and then trash him for that.

Before commissioning a sting operation, the editor has to ask himself a few questions:

  1. Does the reporter have any personal vendetta or other external motivation for doing this operation (the Delhi school teacher case)?
  2. Is this operation going to expose a crime that has already happened (like the Gujarat pogrom) or is it going to induce a crime and then expose it (like the IHF case)?
  3. Is it merely going to test the moral fabric of a person? How many normal honest people will be able to resist the temptation of risk-free money thrown at them or a good-looking girl knocking at their doors voluntarily?

I dont think it is the duty of media or anybody to test how a person will react to a situation, by creating a situation. We have every right to demand the highest order of integrity from everybody, when a real ‘situation’ arises. But that does not give us the right to infringe on the lives of unsuspecting ‘victims’ and make them ‘guilty’.

Every person has his or her fallibilities. By trying to exploit these fallibilities, let not the journalists take the lazy route to reform the society. Trying to expose people in the process of committing real crimes is a tough task. But that is what we expect from our journalists.

The Hindi factor

April 9, 2008

There used to be a perception in the eighties and early nineties as to how the anti-Hindi movement in Tamilnadu had spoiled the prospective growth of young Tamils. This was largely based on the assumption that ‘growth’ meant getting a government job; success meant becoming an IAS officer, all of which demanded knowledge of Hindi. Those were the monopoly days of Akashavani and Doordarshan, when even decent entertainment(if you could call it so) was denied if you don’t know Hindi. Little did we realise then that Hindi will lose its relevance so abruptly and so completely.

Today, the much maligned and ridiculed Madarasis (South Indians in general and Tamils in particular) have made real significant progress in many fields with Software industry leading the way. Though parts of North India, have kept pace, South has largely steamed ahead. The reasons are clear:

  1. We did not waste time learning one more language (Hindi). Instead we could focus on Maths and Science.
  2. We became fairly proficient in English, which has helped us in our global aspirations and business dealings. What if we could not sell our Tiruppur made hosieries in North India; we could sell them overseas. Our IT programers could speak and code in English.
  3. Because of lack of opportunities in India, many Tamils migrated abroad and some indirect benefits have been ploughed back to India
  4. A strong network of colleges cropped up to cater to a large population who did not want to move to other parts of India; this has helped build a strong pipeline of engineers and other graduates, feeding the IT and BPO industries now.
  5. Strong entertainment, media and literature came up in Tamil, to counter the dependence on the dominant Hindi counterparts. We learnt to make movies with superior technology; music blending the international and local flavours; writers like Sujatha wrote in popular media about computers, much before any other region in India even heard about those. Scientists like Abdul Kalam were revered. A generation grew up knowing possibilites of science, computers, graphics, satellites et al.

Thanks to all of these and more, Hindi has quietly slipped out of the collective conscience and memory of Tamils. Sun network has wiped off Doordarshan and AIR, and Hindi along with it. Now Tamils learn Hindi, purely on a need-basis, whenever required, like any other language, and not out of compulsion.

Anti-Hindi movement, which was termed as anti-India at that time, has on the contrary, in spite of its political exploitation, helped preserve the Indian identity, by ensuring that the Tamil identity is not challenged. Being a Tamil or Kannadiga or Maratha is the core identity; being an Indian is a derived identity. As long as the core identity is retained, the derived identity is safe. While, a Bangalore and Mumbai call for expulsion of Tamils or Biharis from their soil, Chennai is now not confronted with regional hatred unless seriously provoked. Bangalore has failed to preserve its Kannada identity and therefore feels threatened. Mumbai has lost its Maratha identity and therefore feels threatened. Chennai has a thriving Tamil identity and therefore its Indianness remains intact.

The race row – both sides of the coin stink

February 6, 2008

The Harbhajan-Symonds race row has turned out to be more than just about cricket. It has thrown open a huge Pandora’s box and can now be regarded as an excellent case study on a plethora of issues – culture, diplomacy, management, racism, power and capitalism.

First, let me wash off the Indian linen, so that my arguments, at no point, are not construed as biased. The entire string of the actual incidents can only be viewed through a stream of probabilities due to the lack of legally acceptable evidence.

Did Harbhajan call Symonds, a monkey? Probably yes. I think he must have; I dont think Aussies will stoop so low to frame a false case (outside the cricket field).

Do Indians use the word monkey as a racist term? No. Except for a few educated Indians, well versed with Western culture, monkey is not known to be a derogatory term in the western racist sense. Anybody, who ‘looks’ or behaves like a monkey is called a monkey. Sometimes, children and husbands are affectionately or irritantly called as monkeys. Indians will object to someone being called, say, a Pariah (remember the plight of Subramanium Swamy)  but not to monkey. Some sections of people, though not all, will take strong offense to someone being called a bastard or even a fucker (this is the first time ever I am using these words publicly in speech or writing). During school days, a gang of about 20 students, marched to the house of a friend who called another friend a bastard in Tamil (not many of us even knew the full meaning of the Tamil word then). We were all intent on complaining to his mother, who happenned to be a teacher in our primary school long back and finally gave up as the guy broke into tears and appologised profusely. The whole incident took on an ultra-sentimental angle, as the victim of the word, had lost his father at an early age.

There was another incident during college, when I was subjected to the first rites of ragging, a guy repeatedly called me fucker in Tamil (again, I was not too sure what the Tamil word meant at that time, but I knew it was something ‘vulgar’) and I was almost moved to tears. I never spoke to that guy again. Later on, after getting polished through the grind of B-school, I have grown totally immune to any kind of profanity as long as it is not directed at me.

But, again, not all Indians take offense to the same set of words. There are huge cultural discrepancies and North-South divide even within India. Hindi boasts of a wholesome vocabulary of vulgar words than a South Indian language like Tamil. Mother and sister commonly feature in profanities in North, while they are largely non-existent in South. 

So, it all boils down to saying that words do not have same connotations in all cultures, even within a country. Therefore, when Symonds was called a monkey for the first time in India, I dont believe that there were racist intentions. It was more of a harmless jabber.  But, when Symonds was called a monkey the second time in Mumbai, I think the crowd knew of the racist undertone. Symmonds made a mountain of the monkey the first time and the monkey stuck onto his back afterwards.

By denying the racist undertone in the Mumbai incident, we were setting the stage for the repeat of the incident. Which is what has happenned in Sydney, thanks to Harbhajan and not without help from Symonds himself. Having muttered the word under provocation and aware of the consequences, Harbhajan had to go into a denial mode. As long as he, himself, was denying it, the Indian team had to back him up.

Aussies could have resolved it diplomatically by bringing it up with Kumble behind closed doors and then Harbhajan may have even admitted and apologised. The Aussies chose to complain publicly. Not a crime, they definitely had the right to do it, but not a smart move either. It has set in motion a very complex game.

I am afraid that Indian crowds will latch on to this and keep doing the monkey chants everytime Symonds is in action. Such is the nature of crowd mentality. It is very unlikely that monkey will immediately become  a racist term and be used against all black players. It would just become a special word reserved for Symmonds. Over a period of time, it might evolve to be racially used against a broader set of people.

Are Indians racist? Not in a Western sense, but in many other ways, yes. We are a deeply casteist society. Caste, I believe, is a localised surrogate for race. There are deep biases ingrained in the Indian society on basis of caste. We have not got enough opportunities to become a ‘racist’ society but when we do get the opportunity we might become one because of the inherent Indian bias and reverence for fair skin.

Did BCCI do the right thing in supporting Harbhajan? Yes, they were right in supporting him, in the lack of any serious evidence against him but they were horribly wrong in the way they supported him. They had no business in taking up an aggressive posture, which was almost tantamount to blackmailing, before the judgement was spelled out. This was a clear sign of a ‘new’ rich man throwing his weight around unduly. The entire thought process behind this act that money gives them power and this power could be exercised for any cause is disgusting.

Are Aussies (and many English) justified in cribbing about the power wielded by BCCI? No. It was not long back when English and Aussies were ruling the game, they still do in many ways than is obvious. Now they are not ready to let go of the position of power to a strong challenger.

Are Aussies or Whites, in general, upholders of the fight against racism? Oh, yes, as much as Bush is the messiah against terrorism. If we think, racism is exorcised by not calling a Black as a Negro or as a monkey, we can’t be farther away from the truth. If we call all American blacks as African-Americans should we not call all whites as European-Americans? How many white countries have had a black head of state? US is close but still not there and Obama is not fully black anyway.  Can the Aussies nominate Symmonds as their captain-in-waiting, instead of Clarke? Is throwing eggs at Murali, any less a crime than monkey-chants?

Only one thing is certain. It is time that we acknowledged that humans are deeply divided across various parameters and strong biases exist all across – religion, race, colour, caste, wealth, education, gender, language and many more. It is time that we make sincere efforts to bridge these divides rather than resorting to lip service.

It is an ultimate indictment of western and human hypocrisy that one can be punished for calling someone a monkey but not for abusing his mother. Did your mother congratulate you on saving the nation’s honour, Mr. Singh?