Caste and other invisible problems

I have had one tab open on my phone for the longest time now¬† because I wanted to think more and perhaps write about it. When I picked up my phone after sending the kids off to school today morning, Youtube suggested I watch this (brilliant) interview of Trevor Noah’s with Oprah and then I finally picked up my laptop to do this.

Around the 14:20 mark, Trevor speaks about how sometimes his white friends don’t get why black people feel so oppressed. That they understand that his parents or grandparents might have been oppressed but he is an equal now. How he, and later Oprah explain this is, if your mother or your grandmother were never allowed to be anything but a maid, would that not impact you? Would there not be a dearth of ideas, thoughts, family culture that would then flow down generations.

This conversation is mirrored in a sense, in the outrage around the caste blindness in the reviews of Pa. Ranjith’s latest movie Kaala.

Caste blindness, or race blindness comes from a place of privilege and you don’t even know it. I never knew it! I have been caste blind all my life and if I thought about it at all, I’d have thought it was a good thing. But here’s the thing, you cannot be blind to something that still exists and manifests, even if in less obvious ways.

And it does not help that we don’t know that much about the caste history of India. The only thing they taught us in school about caste was the four basic caste groups and that the caste system has now been abolished. B.R. Ambedkar. What do we know about him? That he drafted the constitution. And later worked towards the upliftment of Dalits. Were we ever told how he did this? Not that I can remember.

We learned about Raja Ram Mohan Roy and other social and religious reformers but nothing at all about the Dalit movement. So it is not at all surprising that no one gets that Kaala’s car registration plate bears the number 1956 in reference to the year that Ambedkar led a mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism. While I was reading things on the internet about all this, I read about a movie(and I cannot find the article again so I don’t know the name) where a Dalit girl is questioned by someone in authority. She is asked which place she comes from and she defiantly answers¬†– Kilvenmani.

Watching the movie, you could probably tell at this point that she had said something significant. But would you know what?

Here’s the story our history books left out. A group of Dalit farm labourers struck work demanding higher wages and protesting working conditions. For this crime, they were attacked by their landlord and his men. The women and children hid in a thatch roof hut to escape the violence and the hut was set on fire. When one desperate mother threw her baby out of the burning hut in the hope that someone would have the humanity to save the child, the baby was chopped into pieces and thrown back into the burning hut. 44 women and children died in all. The site of this horrific massacre was the village of Kilvenmani and it was a major flash point in the history of caste conflict in Tamil Nadu.

The thing is, we don’t know these stories. Forget the big ones that we can look up on the net. Do we know the smaller stories? A million tiny bits of humiliation and injustice that end not in violence and news stories but just a little sandpapering of the soul, an edge taken off someone’s dignity.

I met a girl once. An NRI from America, affluent, educated, well read. She told me how a friend’s mother would not let her into their kitchen because she was a Dalit. Unclean by fact of birth.

An upper-caste commentor on Baradwaj Rangan’s amazingly civilized blog wrote about how having moved out of Tamil Nadu to go to college, she had sought out other Tamil students to hang with. But then she realized that caste identity and caste hatred were so fundamental a part of them that she could never fit in.

I was added by an acquaintance to a Facebook group for Tamil Iyers and Iyengars that had memes and stories highlighting Tamil upper caste customs and habits. I left because I didn’t get the page’s reason for existing. But it was probably the same as the group I spoke of just now.

One of my cousins chose to not marry while her younger sisters did so in quick succession. Once they were done, she went on to marry a Dalit boy because to have done so before would have left her sisters un-marryable.

A boy at college with me who got in on caste based reservation, but who had studied in a posher school than my parents could have afforded, came to my lab to admire the new state-of-the-art hardware and concluded by deciding to get his father to buy him the same machines.

I needed to put that story in because that is a reality of our times too. Rich folks who misuse the affirmative action taken by our government.

And we need to hear all these stories and more, because what we have just now is a recipe for disaster. We insist that there is no such thing as caste even though, obviously, there is! Then in an attempt to compensate, we put in place massive reservations. How do you explain to a seventeen year old that he cannot go to the college he wants, not because he didn’t score enough marks, but because we need to compensate a group that we just said did not exist? That his father thinks should no longer count themselves oppressed.

It’s a dreadful muddle but on the whole, I am just glad that we have people like Pa. Ranjith and Nagraj Manjule making these movies that call out this situation. That don’t try to hide what’s right there. And I’m glad that those movies are so good.