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Caste In My Family – II

 My parents come from culturally different brahmin families. It is only much later, after school and sometime during college, that conversations centered around caste entered my life.

I was brought up in a family where procuring social and financial status and academic achievement was everything. There was the constant pressure of performing well owing to the fear of the societal gaze, which was an ever-present force radiating in the background of our lives. This also directed most of my focus on excelling in school, or anywhere, without leaving any room for me to look closely at the environment I inhabited.

The pressure partly comes from my parents’ struggles with poverty and building their own lives from scratch.

The aspiration for wealth and status continues endlessly and enables occupying of more and more resources and capital as a symbol of power among fellow upper caste members and in the society at large.

My parents wanted to start a family and needed money to keep the marriage going and to feed the family. So, everything sort of became about money and ways to climb up the ladder.

My mother carries trauma invoked by poverty during her childhood. Her father lost all family assets and that affected her access to education, food, and basic facilities from when she was 9-10 years old.

So, she learned that having to constantly earn was the only way out and it meant that she did not spend much time with me as a child. My memories of her from when I was a child are very few. I would pull her by her saree to grab her attention, annoy her to help me with homework, and watch her come home late from work and leave for work in the morning. I felt some relief when I heard her say last month, ‘I entirely missed seeing my children grow up.’

At one point my mother wanted to leave the marriage but felt she couldn’t do that with a child. Also, financially there was no backing for her (her parents were dependent on her and her siblings were not doing well either). She wanted her child to have a ‘good life’ with education and basic needs fulfilled.

My family also carries an ‘insecurity’ which reflects in their Islamophobic sentiments based on the notion that Muslims would overpopulate and eradicate the Hindus. They are also against the policies of reservation, which, for them, implies that ‘their rights are being snatched’ and that ‘the other castes have taken it all’.

My family’s casteist obsession with status and money affected my mental health gravely. It invisibilised all mental health concerns while growing up. The relationship dynamics with my father are determined to a great extent by money and professional/social status in society.

There was also a sense of entitlement when engaging with domestic workers and blue-collar workers, which shows up in gloating over offering decency and kindness. There is also a tendency to bargain unnecessarily which makes it difficult for the workers. I was often scolded for not ‘bargaining properly’ with fruit sellers, rikshawalas, or when street shopping.

From my father, I’ve seen his disdain manifest in a general lack of regard in the tone of communication, ordering the workers around, and picking excessive faults in their work.

This behaviour is harsher when it comes to female domestic workers as opposed to male workers. My mother complains about how my father talks to female domestic workers in a crass way. We (my sister, my mother and me)  notice that he complains more about the female workers and orders them around.

Once I dropped some sweets and was putting them away when he suggested I give the box to the domestic worker.

Shocked, I questioned him, ‘What? It’s gone bad. Why would we do that?’ To which he said, ‘it’ll all go to waste.’ I said if it was me or you, we wouldn’t eat it, so how can you suggest giving it to them? He walked away without responding to my question. I often see my mother being more courteous and having long chats with the domestic workers who come to cook and clean but this is mostly a friendly female bonding, not an equalizing gesture.

My family pretends that untouchability is wrong and that it doesn’t exist anymore and therefore caste is not a problem today. They also believe that their resources will be snatched away owing to the reservation system, which was supposed to exist ‘only for a while.’

They find any gesture of charity or empathy to be progressive while they prefer separate furniture and utensils for the domestic workers and give away food to domestic workers that the family wouldn’t eat.

As per my father, one’s lower caste status is all due to karma and because ‘they don’t work hard enough’. Similar archaic ideas, coming from ancient Hindu principles, extend to considering women in general as the weaker sex. He once quoted from what must be a Whatsapp forward: ‘women have smaller feet, women have fragile bodies, god has designed them this way’. He attributed it to ‘god’ and nature’s design, which is similar to how Hinduism talks about varna and jati, and he considers himself to be a devout Hindu. It is like how some Hindu priests/sadhus talk about women in a primitive sense.

Growing up in brahmin-dominated schools and colleges, anti-caste education, friendships, and conversations were made invisible for the longest time. They were absent unless one actively reached out, read, and participated in getting to know the world more clearly.

 My sister and I were often told to not marry someone from a ‘lower caste’ or a Muslim. My parents continue to be uncomfortable with the idea of us going beyond their given criteria.

When inter-caste love marriage happened in my family, it happened on the condition that to marry publicly, the groom would hide his ‘real’ caste.

My family was not comfortable disclosing that my cousin (the bride) was marrying someone from the SC caste and so the bride’s family (relatives from my paternal side) asked the groom to lie about his caste identity. One way in which this was demanded was by asking him to not introduce his parents as his parents because then people (my extended family) would be able to ‘tell’ because of factors like complexion, mannerisms, and the fact that they were not educated. This happened when I was very young, about 3-4 years old. But it is a very painful and disgusting event I got to know after growing up. The idea was to hide the inter-caste aspect because it would be a ‘big deal’ and people from the (extended) family would ‘talk’. The marriage broke off in a few years.

My sister and I have not been able to step out of our socialization in massive ways and it remains a journey.

Something that I try to remind myself of is to actively seek out and listen in friendships, through books and lived narratives, and visibilise caste in conversations with upper caste peers and in upper caste settings I inhabit.

An important aspect has also been to build internal resources to withstand such conversations, i.e., working with the body to understand triggers and slowly building the capacity to hold difficult conversations around me. Accepting that anti-caste awareness will grow gradually, which means that there would be times when I would be an imperfect ally. This understanding has allowed me to show up honestly for this journey while staying open to learning.

*Note: The author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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