Caste Away

Katha Kartiki, PMRDF at Balaghat

“Aapka naam kya hai?” Innocuous smile.

I politely offer my first name. This is never satisfactory.

“Nahin aap last name kya likhti hain?” I comply. This hasn’t helped either. Not only are they not wiser about my caste now they are also confused about my geographical origin.

The Pursuer-of-Knowledge is relentless. The smile gets wider. “Toh aap South Indian hain?” I dispassionately demur. “Phir kahan sey?” I name a north Indian state.

While some are kind enough to follow this circuitous route to unearth my caste others are far more direct – often aided by their position of power over me. Depending upon my audience (and whether I can get away with it) I make a turtle-face and shrug in helplessness professing ignorance.  I see their crestfallen faces, their disappointment at my deliberate obtuseness. I am not humouring them. I am not being a sport.

I have a curious last name deliberately curated by my parents to confound such queries. I have played this game very often, more often than I would have liked in the past one year. From the Sarpanch to the Collector everyone wants to know your caste. It is peculiarly one of the first things you are asked when you come to work at the district. This is usually followed by unabashed queries about whether or not you are “single” – the impoverished substitute to “unmarried”.

After much fuming and morally indignant rants I reached the conclusion that they are not always being malicious when they do this. Of course there are those attempting to locate you in the hierarchy of beings, figuring out how much respect you are entitled to, and there are those who are trying to piece together how you landed this job. However, often it is simply a benign, albeit tactless, attempt to bond.

By placing your curious presence in relatable boxes – SC/ST/OBC/General, Married/Single, North Indian/South Indian they are trying to make you –a foreign element of unknown properties – one of their own. It is not the slick, urban dance of  “Where did you go to grad school?” and therefore easy to misjudge, but it is not always polluted.

***********

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6 thoughts on “Caste Away

  1. nice…I enjoyed reading a blog post after a while =). Felt like those short stories I like to cosy up with on a jobless afternoon

  2. It’s not always polluted yet it’s a judgement..it’s judgement u’re making somewhere in your mind. I remember a smile of acceptance coming alive whenever my grandmother met punjabi friends of mine. Invariably you’ll be compared — and they might not verbalize it but you know you are! It could also be interpreted as a conversation starter but dont we have enough in the world to use as tools to start conversations? we’re social beings and still, we get inflicted by such restrictive & judgmental mannerisms! Kartiki medam — well written 🙂

    • Priyanka, thanks for the comment. I personally believe all interaction is judgmental – whether undertaken subconsciously or expressed more overtly. But keeping aside the philosophical debate for a moment – the point I wanted to make in the end was about urban and rural biases. We (the urban-bred) are far more accepting and tolerant of economic associations (such as where you went to school/college; which colony you live in etc.) almost to the point of oblivion. And, are happy to use these as aids in social bonding without compunction.
      The bonding-rituals in rural areas are different and actually there aren’t very many ‘inoffensive’ conversation starters. For instance, another favourite conversation starter is “Aapko salary kitni milti hai?” 🙂
      So I am learning to adjust my urban lenses and recalibrate terms of social engagement.

  3. This is a great piece of writing Katha. I completely relate to it, although I am not a hindu and have never been part of the caste system. And thanks to your parents for giving birth to such a great idea while naming you.

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