Your Caste, Please?

Ninety per cent of Indians are idiots who can easily be taken for a ride in the name of caste and religion.
Just about anyone can set off a caste or religious riot here.
 – Markandeya Katju (Former Supreme Court Judge and current Chairman, Press Council of India)

‘Caste comes with birth; it can never be abolished’, ‘Caste is a concept that is accepted by everyone in our society’,  ‘Caste is very important, it tells everyone his true place in society and what he should do in this life’ are among quite a few pronouncements on caste in India . More than the caste fanatics, it is the so-called intellectuals who put forward such justifications for caste. It is these people who have no doubt that, particular castes have particular characteristics from which they cannot free themselves even many generations later!

If you suggest that caste fanaticism is a phenomenon only among people of Indian subcontinent and those nations where migrants from Indian subcontinent are dominant, they will tell you that there are castes even among nations of Europe like France and Spain. They will tell you that even among white men there are castes like Anglo-Saxons and Hispanics. None of these can be compared to the caste fanaticism that is prevalent in India.

Here, when a young man and a woman hailing from different castes fall in love, an entire village is set on fire! Some members of both the families are either killed or ‘commit’ suicide or are maimed for life! If the lovers run away to live elsewhere, they are ostracized and banned for life from the community. The community’s consuming goal, abetted by powers that be, is to hunt and haunt the lovers, till their death. Think for a moment. Does love and sexual attraction between a young man and woman happen after verifying their caste or religion? A smile and a wink, and a man falls hopelessly in love with a woman he had not known before. Men and women get attracted to each other by the way a gesture is made and by the way a look beckons them! Even the guardians of caste virtues will go to anyone to fulfill their sexual desires, if they are sure of making it a secret affair! It is the biological instinct that guides here. The caste and religious distinctions created by man entirely for selfish reasons cannot stand in the way of a biological instinct.

Divisive factors like race, language, regionalism and nationalism work virulently and efficiently to divide man from man, to dominate men and to work their ways to achieve nefarious political goals. You can see in them a fanaticism that is in no way less than casteism. My intention is to narrate here how these things confronted me in my forty years of life and how I made the effort to face them. These are all my personal evaluations and opinions. You might even say that these are a kind of personal memoirs.

It is said that castes arose and were then followed from one’s calling or trade. But in my childhood, spent in the hill villages of Idukki district in Kerala, the experience was totally different. There, people of all castes and religions whether Brahmins, Nairs, Muslims, Higher caste Christians or Dalits had agriculture as their calling. Traders in the village markets were people belonging to different castes. Some of them were traders as well as farmers.

Bhaskaran, a barber by caste’s trade, worked on his field till lunch and opened his saloon only in the afternoon. His eldest son ran a provisions shop. Bhaskaran’s wife, Savitri, was the dance teacher to our village children. She taught dancing to the girls of all castes, high or low. No function at our school will be complete without the dance of her younger son, Salim Kumar, who was my childhood friend. Savitri was the only celebrity and fine arts centre of those villages!

Oanachan, who sold both vegetables and dry fish in his shop, was a Dalit. Mynakunjootti, who sold household goods on installment payment basis, was a Dalit, too. The Brahmins and Nairs of our place cooked their food on the vessels bought from him! I have seen daily wage labourers from all castes in our place. Our place was full of people of all castes doing all kinds of jobs.  Jose and Thangachan, higher caste Christians climbed coconut trees and betel nut trees. Ramanan Nair, the head load carrier in the village junction or Vasu Namboodiri who watered our paddy fields.

Chenda, the traditional drum of Kerala, is played by a caste called Marar. But in our villages and towns, Karappattu Kutty Asan and his relatives have been playing Chenda for generations. They are from the Dalit caste s called Sambava. There are no temples in our area where their Chenda had not resounded. That tradition still continues. I still remember the grand function to honour Karappattu Kutty Asan organized by the villagers when he returned after winning the Special Award of Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy. He is not alive today. But his relations and children play Chenda not only in Kerala but are also in the temples of Tamilnadu.

I do not recollect Brahmins being either the priests or administrators of temples in our area. A few Nairs knowing the rudiments of rituals and even some Ezhavas, considered low caste, had officiated as Priests! They were called ‘Santhis’ in Malayalam. There was one ‘Santhi’ in our neighbouring village. He officiated as priest in many temples and was known as extremely devoted. But one day when he attempted to rape his teenage daughter, she had cut off his penis with a sickle. He escaped somehow and ran away from the village. He must still be working as a temple priest wherever he is, since he knows no other trade!

As a child and as a teenager, I had close friends across all castes. I used to congregate with friends like Salim Kumar, Kaniappan, Achan Kunju, Priyan and Sunny in our friend Srinivasan Nair’s house to play and pass time. When Srinivasan Nair’s parents were not at home, we used to get into their kitchen to cook and eat whatever caught our fancy. It, then, never occurred to us to regard a Barber, a Muslim, a Dalit, a Christian, an Ezhava or a Nair as persons belonging to different castes. It is only now; when I sit down to write this article, I remember that we were supposedly born into different castes! I do not think that the Nair household came to any harm because of the ‘low caste brats’ entering their house! Today, Srinivasan Nair is a happy man, settled in Dubai as a top executive of a huge corporate.

Religions play a big role in controlling and institutionalizing caste. I have always seen religion as far more complex than caste and quite active in creating confusions. As an example, let us suppose somebody wants to know my religion and I respond to them saying that I am a Muslim, it does not end there. I have to say whether I am a Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiya, Ibadi, Qurani, Sufi or belong to Nation of Islam! Alright, take me as a Sunni. Then am I confessing to Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Humblee, Tauheed or Wahabi! If I am, on the other hand a Shia, then do I belong to Twelvers or Ismaili or Zaidiyya or Bohra? Let us look at what the Islamic web site ‘Fundamentals of Islam’ has to say: “Muslim world remains divided into countless sects and sub sects. Every sect has its own laws and disciplinary rules.”

It may require many articles like this to write about the divisions, sects and sub sects of Christianity. Christianity has thousands of sects and sub sects in its many important versions like Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Non Trinity, New Thought, Jewish Christianity, Esoteric and Syncretistic. You might have heard of Catholic churches like Roman Catholic, Latin Catholic and Syrian Catholic and Protestant churches like Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Brethren, Baptist and Pentecost. There are ‘Orthodox’ Christian Churches native only to Kerala like Jacobites, Catholicate and Marthoma. Like this there are endless numbers of churches counting as sub sects in each and every part of the world that follows Christianity!

In Hinduism they say that the four varnas of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras said to have been born from different parts of the creator god Brahma. Chandalas are said to have been born from the dust of Brahma’s feet. But under the sects like Vaishnava, Saiva, Shaktha, Saura, Smartha, etc., there are thousands of divisions and subdivisions in Hinduism. Many know that Iyers are Smartha Brahmins following the line prescribed by Adi Shankara. But how many know of Smartha Brahmin sects like Kanyakubja, Sarayubarene, Saraswat, Utkala, Maithili, Gauda, Garhade, Deshastha, Konkanastha, Devarukke, Gauda Saraswat, Chitrapur, Rajapur, Havyaka, Vaidiki Mulakanadu, Vaidiki Velanadu, Vaidiki Veginadu, Badaganadu, Hoysala Kannada, Koda, Babbur Kamme, Arvel Neogi, Vaishya Vani, etc….etc…

Among Brahmins of Kerala there are many sub sects like Pushpaka, Nambisan, Unni, Brahmani, Daivampati, Pilappalli and so on. There are countless Gotras and Pravaras as well. Brahmins are only a small percentage of Hindus. Just imagine the mind-boggling number of sects and sub sects in the other castes of Hindus. Chettiars, who are another of smaller castes alone are supposed to have 24 sub sects! All these countless divisions among different religions and castes seek to prop up differences, deviations and contradictions. Even among the people of the outwardly same caste there is hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. They prescribe different levels of untouchability among themselves!
Does human life that lasts a short span of 70, 80 years need these countless castes and religions and the contradictions of their separate laws and rules that create most of the social frictions, sorrows and losses? Many still believe that caste is being preserved to maintain racial purity and sacredness! What importance can be accorded to such remnants of superstitions that bedeviled man during his cave dwelling days? Have not we heard that ‘Mother is truth but father is faith’? Is it possible all such faiths of us are true? Do we realize that only a mother knows about the degree of ‘racial purity’ of her children?

What will happen when two persons hailing from different castes inter-marry? Will the sky fall down? I have only one sister. In the gap between her graduation and preparations for her wedding, she temporarily joined an organisation for work. There she happened to fall in love. The boy was a Dalit Christian! He came home and asked for the hand of my sister. My father, who was into social service and was regarded as one who ignored caste and religion, was beside himself with anger. He exploded in rage. When it came home, his social inclusiveness and social responsibility went out of the window! The news reached me in Karnataka where I was working. My father and my maternal uncles were preparing to create a real ruckus. My sister remained silent.

She made one thing plain to me when I talked to her. “If you say no, I will stay away from this love. But I can never break away from it in my heart. I will spend my entire life in this house. But please do not ever run away with the impression that I will change with time and that you can thrust on me a marriage of your choice.” The suggestions that I could have made vanished before her determination. I stood by her in that wedding. I had a tough time getting my father to agree to the wedding which took place braving the opposition of our relatives and family friends. My brothers and I bade our sister a tearful send-off.

Her husband rose from ranks in his job. Till my father’s death, he maintained a very close relation with him. I felt that my father, who had more or less disowned me, accepted him as his own son! My sister is now mother of two children. Her daughter is seventeen and studying well, standing first in the district. She has even won a few state-level prizes for her poems. My 13 years old nephew reads a lot and writing short stories. My sister is happy. And as I write this, the new house she is constructing is taking shape in our home town.

A young boy and a girl from two permanently warring castes fell in love. The girl got pregnant. When she became aware of the pregnancy, it was too late. Frightened of the threat to her life if it became known, she took some potentially harmful medicines to abort her pregnancy. But the foetus refused to abort. The girl child saw the light of the day hurdling over all the death traps set for her. She was born with physical handicaps and many brain deficiencies. My caste is the same caste of that child, condemned to live her entire life in tears.