Caste: The elephant in the room we refuse to see even though it’s killing our ability to love
The priest sat on a wooden low stool, in the outer courtyard of the temple. “Of the 6 million species of living beings on our planet, you were born human. Not a pig. Not a dog. A human being. …”, he said to my parents. I watched on listlessly. I was as interested in the priest’s words as the next kid, which is to say not very much.
“... And of the 6 billion human beings…,” the priest continued, “you were born a brahmin.”
Suddenly, my ears perked up. I had vaguely known we were “brahmin”. I didn’t think much of it.
What I didn’t know was that we were apparently statistically special.
Being raised brahmin is a funny thing. The stories of brahmins are everywhere. In TV shows, bed-time stories, mythology, folk-lore, and even school books. But I didn’t know what it meant to be brahmin. When I think of it now, it reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s story of the two fish. An old fish swam by and greeted them “Morning fellas, how’s the water?” The little fish swam on and then later paused to wonder, “What the hell is the water?”
That story the priest told us at the temple is my first memory of discovering “the water”.
“What that means is...”, the priest lilted on, like he was telling us the moral of the story, “... your karma in your past lives was so good that it saw you through your rebirth in this life as a brahmin.”
We had done good on some kind of inter-life assessment of our deeds from before we existed? The suggestion was thrilling and enigmatic and also too big for my small brain of 8 years to question.
And so the story took root in my head.
Everyone around me must have been brahmin. (I had no idea because we never needed to talk about who wasn’t).
Behind us were many lifetimes of doing good. (If the priest says so, it must be true).
But not everyone in the world was brahmin. (Or so the school books said).
Piously, I set out to live up to the apparently predestined judgement of my character. I would try to continue to do and be good.
A few years later, I began to understand the water.
My family was hosting the “sacred thread” ceremony for my little brother. The day began with a puja - a ceremony of initiation into brahminical schooling, comprising vedic literature, philosophy and rituals.
By now, I was 12. I had learned in school that caste was a benign system of division of labour comprising the priestly class, the rulers, the traders and the labourers.* No doubt, it used to be a bad thing in the days of yore. Back then, the brahmins and other “high castes” refused to mix and mingle with the so-called “lower castes” because they were seen as “impure”. But this practice of “untouchability” was abolished in free India.
Obviously - I concluded privately - the priest had it all wrong. We were not statistically special. We only had our own special cultural beliefs, and my brother had just been initiated into ours.
I went about the day in wide-eyed wonder.
During the puja, my 9-ish year old brother was given a ceremonial hair-cut, and then a cold-water bath. After the bath, he was told he was now madi; he’d been ritually made “pure.” He could touch no one, least of all the barber who just gave him a haircut. He then had to go and seek alms, as a symbol of committing to a life of abstinence before heading off to commence his schooling.
The evening ended bright and happy, with all of us sitting around as my brother unwrapped his presents. As I went to bed that night, my little heart felt a twinge of sadness. I wasn’t getting any presents that day.
For the first time in my perceptible memory, my brother and I had been treated differently.
I didn’t think much of it and life went on.
Some months after, I had my first period. I was in the fitting-room of a store. I rushed out, my face hot and flushed. Somehow I was so mortified at the prospect of puberty that I couldn’t even find the words to tell my mom what was up.
The next day, my dad’s sisters came home. It turned out it was my turn to get some presents. I was now, apparently, a woman.
I felt a red-hot fever of embarrassment set fire to my body when I heard this. Everyone knew what was happening to me. It didn’t help that I couldn’t trust this new and abrasive wedge of cellulose and plastic in my panty. I was sure I’d bleed through my pants and onto the couch any moment now.
I heard some talk about whether I could sit in the prayer room before the pantheon of Hindu gods when I was bleeding. I burned in fear and shame. If I had questions about all this, I didn’t know how to ask them.
Mercifully, my dad was quick to dismiss them. Menstruation made nobody less “pure” than anyone else, he declared. I was shepherded in before the gods, and handed two envelopes with cash in them. A pretty penny to my 13 year old mind.
My brother got presents for committing to his education. I got presents for becoming a woman.
I told myself this was no big deal. After all, my parents moved mountains to open doors for me. I never stopped hearing how I should follow my heart, dream big and go places. I had also learned in school that free India was a republic, that all Indians enjoyed equal recognition and status in the eyes of law. Discrimination was forbidden, and my parents truly and genuinely loved us both equally.
Yet somehow, my quiet, unquestioning teenage soul knew something was amiss.
This was my water.
When the water is all around you everywhere, you don’t see the inevitable. The water makes you. You have gills and fins, you viscerally love the other fish in it, and you don’t know what parts of you are you, and what parts of you are by force of a life in the water.
At the end of my childhood in brahminism, I came out with a head full of stories. We had to aspire to do and be good. Hygiene was essential. We don’t eat meat. Others are free to. Sharing food was unhygienic. Bathing often was hygienic. The ultimate blessing is education. The ultimate virtue is abstinence. We don’t believe menstruation is impure. We believe all Indians are equal. We don’t ask about anyone’s caste. We don’t need to know about anyone’s caste. We do not practise caste.
Everything seemed to add up. I felt lucky to be loved, to have a progressive family, to get a shot to finally be someone, as I went off to university.
Yet, I had a visceral revulsion for meat - something about the texture made me shudder. I recoiled at the sight of my period blood - something about it felt inexplicably gross. I didn’t try to dance - it felt much too suggestive and forward. I never hugged anyone other than my parents and brother - touch was taboo (or maybe it was unhygienic?). I was repulsed by my body - it represented the possibilities of attraction and its inexplicable physicalness. Brahminism was written into me corporeally.
So I struggled to make friends. (I didn’t know why.)
I loathed others’ ideas of fun. (I couldn’t feel sane when everyone around me was drinking or dancing.)
I judged everyone. (People only felt safe if they were above my bar of good and virtuous.)
My mind and body became enveloped in a rigid casing of shame and isolation held together entirely by its stories. If any of this felt dissonant, I didn’t know how to recognise it.
This was my water.
When you’ve been in the water your whole life, you don’t realise only you have the gills and the fins. Others have lungs and nostrils.
I knew no other world other than mine, growing up. And so I believed my world was the world. The water was, quite literally, a world of my own making.
The water that was brahminism - the caste system India never left behind - formed the core of everything I was. The caste system because of which the priest could say to us, unironically, that our (and his) birth as brahmins meant that we were god’s special children. The caste system which celebrates a young boy’s studentship because he would now be a true brahmin. The caste system in which the first lesson of that studentship taught by a priest is a lesson in untouchability against a barber. The caste system which celebrates a 13 year old girl’s womanhood because she is now marriageable, but isolates a menstruating woman because she is impure. The caste-system which afforded me the option of being caste-blind. The caste system which had me living an unembodied life, because every caste story that filled my head forced me to disconnect from my body.
The caste system is everything, everywhere, all at once in Indian culture. It’s the elephant in the room that we refuse to see, even though it is killing our ability to accept and love ourselves, each other, and the world.
*If you’re reading about caste in modern India for the first time, the water looks something like this from the outside.
Caste is a hereditary status that is accorded by birth. School books teach us that the varna system or the caste system comprises brahmins, the priests and the educated class, kshatriyas, the ruling or military class, vaishyas, the trading class, and shudras, the labouring glass. But caste is practised as jaati, by which thousands of endogamous groups or “jaatis” practise caste against all the jaatis below them. All jaatis that are within the varna system (termed savarna or “with caste”) continue to oppress or otherwise reap the benefits of exploiting the labours of those outside of it (avarna or “outcaste”, comprising Dalits and adivasis).
Some of the defining practices of caste are a prohibition on marriage outside of one’s jaati, and a prohibition on eating with people from other jaatis. Doing so risks expulsion from the jaati. But these sanitised and jargon-heavy descriptions elide the brutalities that are unleashed by savarna individuals in the name of caste. The caste-system has killed Dalits for daring to fall in love with a so-called “high caste” woman, entering a “high-caste” person’s property, or drinking water from a “high-caste” person’s water pot. Yes, even though the Constitution of free India prohibits untouchability and recognises all Indians as equal before law.
As Kuffir writes, caste is no ordinary story of privilege or “unearned advantage”. Access to education and therefore the job market could be assured to savarna individuals only because it excluded those from avarna communities in myriad ways. The Indian university system is built on assumptions that are only true for caste-privileged students, in the name of meritocracy. It then forces out, even kills Dalit students. Once in the job market, we build our careers on the backs of the vastly under-compensated labour of domestic workers, drivers, cooks and so on from avarna communities. A statistical minority of caste-privileged individuals then end up holding a bulk of the wealth and a majority of the positions of leadership in India. So savarna lives and dreams are literally paid for by the lives and dreams of avarna folks.
If you’d like to learn more, please explore Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Round Table India, Velivada, and Equality Labs.
Thank you for reading these reflections on growing up caste-privileged in India. Feedback is the greatest love language. Thank you to , , , and for reading this piece and giving it their time, attention and love. Unlearning and understanding caste is a lifetime’s work. To those on the journey with me, a lifetime of gratitude and solidarity.
This is so fascinating, Malavika. You lay out your messages very clearly and at the same time fill the story with interesting information and historical perspective. Thank you :)
What a wonderful essay Malavika. Like great books and movies, it is so specific that becomes universally relatable.
In Mexico we have an unspoken skin color system, with many unspoken rules (such as talking to people that help around your house in the formal tense, denoting differentiation) that as I grew up I began to find repulsive, but so many people around me don't see, or at least choose not to see.
You capture all this beautifully and tie it perfectly with the simple yet profound This Is Water.
Another powerful, needed article. Thank you for writing this.