Monday, July 11, 2005

When Caste hit me

Almost without exception, we want to see a caste free Indian society, where no one is born "superior". Surprisingly, for most of my early life, caste was never something that segregated people. My upbringing was perhaps very sheltered from deeper concepts of caste. I didn't know what caste most of my classmates belonged to, and it DID NOT matter to us what we were. This is slowly becoming true in some larger Indian cities, and it certainly was true then in my school in Bangalore. I knew (from my parents) that I was brahmin, but they (though religious) are very broadminded for their times, and always stressed that all people are equal. In their head, caste was only some ancient division of labor and duties, not a way to look down upon as inferior or look up to as superior. I grew up with those values.

But since those days of childhood, caste has hit me hard a few times.


The first time was after my 12th standard exams. We all had to write the common entrance examinations (for Engineering and Medical colleges), and I started filling out the Karnataka CET forms. I filled out my marks in the subjects, name, age, sex, and then reached this column called caste, which asked me to also refer to a booklet. With a little bit of unease, I filled "forward caste/FC", and looked at this booklet, which was some twenty pages thick. I flipped the pages and found that it had a few hundred sub castes listed in it.

Yes, most of us have seen something like this. A few hundred subcastes.

On seeing that endless list, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. In utter disgust, I scratched out the "forward caste" on the form, and wrote "unknown" for both caste and sub caste.


This was now in college, and I was in Chennai. Of course, I followed the tradition of being ragged by any senior who could catch hold of me (my ragging stories are worth a post in themselves). One day, as usual, a bunch of seniors caught me. After deducing that I was from Bangalore, their tone changed a little bit, they shifted to speaking in Tamil (from English), calling me a "Peter" (still mostly in good humor). One of them asked "Tamil theriyuma?"(Do you know Tamil)? I nodded, and said I was Tamil. So, they insisted that I spoke in Tamil, and I patiently and politely answered all their questions in the Tamil I spoke. My dialect gave me away easily. One of them suddenly changed from being a ragging senior to outright aggressive. He sneered at me, and then snarled "Yenna, Iyer a?" (Are you a brahmin)?

There was true menace in his voice, and I can still see his eyes glaring at me.

It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I can still feel it when I think about that day.

Other friends and college mates have teased me many times over my dialect, and I laugh at the digs and Tambrahm jokes at my expense. But that one time, the viciousness that punched me still hurts.


The third time was also in college, during the first few weeks. I was chatting with a college mate (not in my major), and he was extremely curious to know every one's marks in the entrance exams and board exams. I told him mine, and conversation continued. Somewhere along the line, he pointed at someone in class and said "He's SC". "So what?" I asked. He continued, ignoring me, and randomly pointed to different people in class "He's BC, he's SC, he's MBC, he’s......”

This guy spent his time finding out people's "cut-off marks" (the marks obtained in the board exams and entrance exams). He knew what cut-off a person of a certain caste would need for admission for any specific major. He spent his time figuring out if a person was FC, BC, MBC, OBC, SC or ST. That was his "hobby" of sorts.

I felt sick. I felt like I had been hit on my solar plexus.


Three times, when caste hit me.


Charu said...

whoops! that is really something you've been thru - caste is a very strong mover in Tamilnadu- as everywhere else in India, I guess - altho I went to school and college in Madras, I never experienced any anti-brahmin sentiments firsthand - but yes, I went thru a lot of trouble getting admission in college - and I sat and watched as friend and classmates with way less marks than I sailed thru to colleges and courses of their choice, thanks to their OBC-whatever status (interestingly, the really backward people never get any kind of oppourunity / exposure but that is another long sad story)

another thing is that I find myself straining to talk "normal' tamil - non Brahminical tamil in public - except when I am with family or friends... now this dual language thing has become a habit....

gawker said...

I do not know what caste I am. I never knew. My parents never told me for reasons unknown. I am not a brahmin, I know that for sure. But beyond that, I never even felt the need to ask, or my parents to tell me what caste I am. In fact, it was quite a guessing game for my school friends to try find out what my caste is from my lifestyle. They were more curious than I was about my caste. (Not in a casteist way, but just like how boys will be curious about any idiotic thing).

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Interesting post.
Oh you're an Iyer? I can't have anything to do with you because my wife is an Ayengar, (just kidding).

It is remarkable just how many people from the brahmin community do so well in academia.

I'm curious about this: you said your parents are very broadminded but didn't caste come up when you got married or did you not do the Indian roulette thing. My wife (before she married me) began going through the interview process. Her parents only looked at Tamil Ayengar's and they even had to satisfy some other constraints I cannot remember. Your parents didn't feel the same way?

My wife said that times were really bad for brahmins during the DMK regime. But, of course, that was only in Tamil Nadu.

Like Charu, my wife had trouble getting into college at first despite fantastic grades. I think it ironic that a program to help "backwards caste" only perpetuates the notion of caste and perpetuates the bad feeling between people of different castes.

Kesava Mallela said...


Is somebody not going to make fun of your dialect in the name of something else, even if 'caste' disappears? OR did you mean that the differences in things like dialect itself should disappear? Because I am not very interested in one billion chinese speaking the same dialect, when a whole industry like tailoring thrives on differences between us.

Sunil said...

Charu...anti-brahmin sentiments are not really that common.....and most people don't really care thaaaat much....but that one incident remains in my head. I dont believe in caste, I only believe in people. But i'm surprised at how much my friends still think it's important. I never asked my friends what caste they belonged to.....they are just my friends......
It's something I don't understand..'ve lead a good life......perhaps some day most people might be like you.

Michael....I think I can't have any thing to do with my own wife....she's Aiyangar! :-))
Anyway...caste didn't come up in my marriage. I found my wife (or rather, she found me), and for many months I was actually under the opinion that she was North Indian :-)
My parents didn't mind. My sister herself is married to a Kannadiga. Many of my cousins have married into a broad variety of the diverse Indian spectrum.
Just as an aside, Iyers and Aiyangars belong to the same caste, only a different sub-caste (that differs on philosophy....with Aiyangars being more entrenched in a Vaishnavite philosophy. Vishist-advaita vedanta, while Iyers (though mistaken to be Saivite) don't differentiate between Siva and Vishnu in their advaita vedanta philosophy).

Sunil said...

Kesava....I think I pointed out in my post that i don't mind people making fun of my dialect at all. I usually laugh with them, and I think dialects only make languages more beautiful. I've grown to identify easily the Tirunevelli, Coimbatore, Madurai, Selam, Chennai, Iyengar, Iyer, whatever else Tamil dialects, and love them all. So too with the Uttara Kannada, Daksin Kannada, Mysore, Belgaum, Bangalore, Shimoga, Bhant, whatever else Kannada dialects, and love them all. On a broader level, it's easy for me to distinguish a hindi speaker from MP, or Bihar, or UP, or Uttaranchal, or Jharkhand.......

I think dialects are beautiful, and can lead to nice jesting, and learning a lot. But picking on someone for the accent, out of spite for what that person is, is in my mind wrong.

Kesava Mallela said...

Agreed. what I was trying to point out is...the guy had something against Iyers and so he was spitting out venom at you. If he had something against Madurai? And if you were speaking Madurai's dialect? I think the broader problem is in "having something against something" and not letting the steam off thru a proper channel.

amr said...

Interesting. I grew up in Bangalore, went to Jesuit school and junior college and was shielded from this whole caste thing until the Mandal riots during VP Singh's rule. It was then that caste went from meaningless to vague notion.

And then like Charu and Michael's wife, I ran into it during Engineering college admissions, where my 87% was barely good enough to make it to computer science, while acquaintances with 50's and 60's made it in easily. I remember an uncle calling it "the price of being brahmin these days!".

Ironically, the people who benefit most from the reservation policy in India are the well-to-do children of government officials etc. who live in the metros. The economically weak folks who really need the help remain exactly where they were a hundred or two hundred years ago. To this day, I don't understand why reservations aren't based on financial situation and not caste.

Something else interesting: My girlfriend (who grew up in the US) tells me that caste plays quite a central role in many Indian-American social and cultural organizations. The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Srikanth said...

>>Oh you're an Iyer? I can't have anything to do with you
>>because my wife is an Ayengar.

Btw, Michael (if I may ask this question) did your in-laws have any hesitation regarding your marriage?

Michael Higgins said...

Srikanth: My father-in-law was initially less than thrilled, but he has no issues today. I think he wanted his daughter to marry a nice brahmin boy. But her parents have been very nice.

Sunil: you forgot a very important difference between Iyers and Aiyangars: Aiyangar men have a V on their forheads when they visit the temple and the Iyers have three horrizonatal lines. This is important for reasons I haven't yet figured out. Also soup is called different names: Iyers call it rasam and Aiyangars call it korhumbu (or something like that).

I never could understand why Iyers could only marry other Iyers and so on. Is it just the Potato-Potahto thing or what?

Sunil said...'s the cultural story of Iyers and Iyengars....Iyengars wear the V on their foreheads...that is the Vaishnavite namam....symbolizing the mark of Vishnu. Many Iyers wear the horizontal namam...of Vibhuthi...which is Saivite, but not all. For example, my own family (fathers side, not mother's) wears a gopi-chandanam, which is more similar to the V you're talking about :-). This comes from the fact that Iyengars are staunch Vaishnavites, while Iyers, though seemingly Saivite, are not really either. This also comes from names in Iyengar households. Male names would be Srinivasan, Ramanujam, Ranganathan, Rangan etc, while female names would be Sita, Lakshmi, Jayalakshmi, Geeta (all Vaishnavite names). Iyer names (male) would be Mahadevan, Sadasivam, Subramanian (saivite) or Gopalakrishnan, Sreenivasan (vaishnavite) or Shivaramakrishnan, Shankaranarayanan (both Shiva and Vishnu). Clear there??

Rasam and kozhambu are different. But Iyers and all other tamilians call Rasam rasam, while Iyengars call it saru and other such names.

Why each can't marry the other? Well.....there is actually NO rule saying you cant...just became custom. This comes from a difference in philosophy of the Iyengars and Iyers. This deals with the nature of self and the universe and realization, and in the name of God (Vishnu for Iyengars, nameless for Iyers). But, the funniest part is that a majority of both communities don't have the slightest clue about the philosophies, but in typical indian nature, bicker :-)

It isn't the end of it. There are internal divisions even here (just like with every Indian caste). Iyengars have vadanganai (largely based in Kumbakonam) and tenganai (largely in Srirangam). Iyers have Vadamas, Brihacharanams, Ashtasahasrams.....'s not a potato-potato thing. Its a potato from this field only-potato from this field only thing :-)

It can be hillarious at times.

Vishnu said...

Quick question: why is it 'V'? Did it come from English, or is the Tamizh equivalent similar?

Sunil said...'re just being a troublemaker, I can see.....

The "V" shaped namam that Aiyangars wear is technically called a thiruman-sricharanam, to replicate the Vishnu namam (as seen in Tirupathi). I call it white thingy on head.

Vishnu said...

I didn't mean to cause any trouble, I was just curious!

Sunil said...

and I was just kidding :-))))

Charu said...

Michael, things were really bad for brahmins under th DNK regime - but now with Jayalalitha her self being a brahmin, things are no better there :)

and yes, I am frequently surprised by how often I meet people - my age and my background - for whom knowing your caste, and caste itself is very important.

"It isn't the end of it. There are internal divisions even here (just like with every Indian caste)" - Sunil, wow - when people used to ask me what kind of Iyengar I was, I used to think deeply and say, we wear a U (as opposed to a V)- not that anyone in my immediate family did - but I never could remember
the name!

and of course, each catse, sub caste usually considers itself superior to all others. So, the 'iyer you go, the iyengar you become :)

(whew! that was enough about caste for the next few years)

Suhail said...

and this post ends up with so many smileys :-))))) even though it started with a painful hit in the solar plexus.

I think, I have more to say on this.

Srikanth said...

When in doubt, (as always) turn to Wikipedia: Iyer | Iyengar.

Interestingly, till recently, there was much antagonism even between tenkalai and vadakali Iyengars, marriage between them was not very common. Rajaji (in one of his short stories) described one such "inter-marriage."

To add more details about Iyers, their external marks are that of Siva (the sacred ash smeared on the body - vibhuti), their daily prayers (Sandhyavandanam) starts with the names of Vishnu, but their philosophy is neither Saivite or Vaishnavite - its advaitic. They are free to choose any God of their personal choice to worship (Ishta-devata).

Sunil said...

I think we should keep out references to any type of brahmin for the rest of the discussion, though it makes interesting conversation. We'll save it all for a later post on the subject. :-)

The objective of the post was really to point out that caste continues to matter to a large majority of highly educated Indians. It should not, and cannot be eliminated as long as people continue to consider it in their daily lives. Some day, I believe no one will ask for a person's caste, and if at all a discussion on this happens, it will be jovial, and the kind of jesting I laugh at. Not sarcastic, or caustic, or vicious.

Having lead a sheltered childhood, when caste hit me, it hit me a little hard. I was under the foolish illusion that it was slowly disappearing from society. Clearly, it is not.

Anonymous said...

I am from Tamilnadu; things were not much better in the seventies.Not being a brahmin, but part of a vegetarian community, I had been classed as a FC fellow which forced me to get loans to finish my BSc and DMIT.
I think people in Karnataka are comparatively broad minded, which I could figure out during my IISc years.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
I appreciate that you took the time to explain carefully the whole V vs. three horizontal lines thing.

I looked it up, the Iyengar word for rasam is...
paruppu sathumadhu.

I never could pronounce this and my wife, in exasperation, started calling it rasam and complained that I was making her into an Iyer. :)


That's one thing I have been fortunate not to have encountered in my Kolkata college days---caste.

The Comic Project said...

I got married to a tamilian, her family being from Tamil Nadu, mine from Kerala. My biggest concern was how much "parupu" would the "sambar" have.I was never able to handle the amount of "parupu" they put in their sambars, so had to tweak my wife's cooking accordingly.Not very relevant maybe, but I think caste/religion/dialect/background come to the fore more so when there are differences in eating habits.

The Comic Project said...

I got married to a tamilian, her family being from Tamil Nadu, mine from Kerala. My biggest concern was how much "parupu" would the "sambar" have.I was never able to handle the amount of "parupu" they put in their sambars, so had to tweak my wife's cooking accordingly.Not very relevant maybe, but I think caste/religion/dialect/background come to the fore more so when there are differences in eating habits.

Anil said...

In AP the caste system is extended to watching films as well. The aggressive rivalry between fans of leading film stars are caste wars in disguise. By and large fans owe allegiance to a particular film star based on his caste.

Sunil said...

Anonymous.....i found caste equations surprisingly sharp in Tamil Nadu when I went there after years of growing up in Bangalore (where caste isn't of importance to most people), so it was a shocker to me. of the few things the left did manage to do right.....they got rid of caste polarizations. When it comes to marriages and stuff like that, Bengalis still look at caste, but their day to day life isn't affected one bit by it.

The comic project.....that's an interesting observation.....perhaps there's something in it, perhaps there isn't.

Anil......i'm greatly saddened to hear that. Especially since I actually occationally watch telugu movies. :-(

Anonymous said...

In Bihar, cast matters, a lot! Thus my family, changed our surnames from a easily identifiable Brahmin title to our "gotra" which confuses almost everybody (and I like it more).
That said, I agree that only people who get any advantage from reservation are the so called "creamy layer" (that's a legal term in India).

Bigsurs said...

Reservation is such a complicated issue that a simple solution like reservation based on economic prosperity may not be the answer. Lets say that Mr.X who belongs to a traditionally underprivileged caste moved to a city 20 yrs ago and built a middle class life for himself. Mr. X's struggles for the better part of his life to put his son, Mr. Y, through the best school in town. Now Mr. Y gets the same education that one Mr.Z, from a traditionally priviliged caste. Arguably, making a broad and unjust generalization, the typical Mr.Z comes from an educated lineage - his great great grandfather was a lawyer, for example. For no fault of Mr Y's, he has been endowed with genes that are better tuned for manual labor in the fields than for studying the intricacies of Shakespeare's work.

How do you right a societal wrong committed generations ago? Agreed that caste-based reservation is not efficient, but is economic prosperity-based reservation efficient? Are there other solutions? The solution adopted by US Universities is black box admission decisions with absolutely no transparency will probably not work in India.

Sunil said...

Bigsurs...I agree with you.

I don't have any solutions, but believe something needs to be done. You might want to read an earlier post of mine.

But here I was just musing on the fact that you cannot escape caste even if you want to. It is so entrenched in the system that people often cannot think beyond it.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, it’s “vadakalai” and “tenkalai” not “vadanganai” and “tenganai”.

Also, rasam is most often called Sathamudhu by iyengars, which am assuming is saatham (rice)+ amudhu (honey). Most things end with “amudhu” like kariamudhu (curry), sathamudhu (rasam), thirukannamudhu (payasam).


Aswin said...

Hi Sunil,
U were lucky to be in Chennai!
Caste Politics runs the show further south in the state and our great 'rationalists' also depend heavily on the caste-based parties for electoral success. It is a growing trend in TN politics and a dangerous sign!

Anonymous said...


Lalitha said...

You ignorant anonymous.... why ever ur anonymous for? Let me tell you this, caste system was not bought in by brahmins, it was the mughals and later the british who used this to create unrest among us so that they could rule us. In ancient India (according to vedas) everybody was a brahman and was only segregated based on the kind of work they did.

Anonymous said...

thats dumb

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog....
I have been researching for a film on ragging. I found your point views on ragging- and he comment on your caste very pertinent.
A lot of people are ragged along the lines of thier cast and region they hail from...
do you have any friends back in india who would be keen to talk about ragging...


Anonymous said...

It is a given that Brahmins are endowed with intelligence. But the science behind it is that, somatic changes happen to genes depending on the type of work one does. These genetics get carried over the generation making a certain caste people intelligent, other more aggressive while still other physically strong. So people of other castes have to work in intellectual fields for centuries to come up to a Brahmin intellect. So society has to give them reservation. Take a population breakup, 4% brahmins should get 4% seats. But it is not like that. While everytime there has been increase in % reservation, there has been commensurate increase of seat. So net effect there has been no lose of seat. Historically, states where Brahmins have exploited the most, are socially and financially backward as of now. Take Gujarat or Punjab, Brahmins did not dominate due to reform religion. Look where they are and look at TamilNadu. My two cents. Not a Brahmin.

Krishna said...

I have had similar experience as gawker. I knew my caste ( I am a Kamma from Andhra, had schooling in chennai , Nagpur and Varanasi) but I chose to keep silent about it as I vowed never to ask anybodys caste and never tell my caste to anyone.
You would be surprised to know how many people tried to find out my caste. Both in TamilNadu and in US ( where I lived for a while ).
I had a friend hinting to another friend that I was SC because I am silent about my caste. After they came to know my high marks in PCM ( 95 % ) they thought I am a Brahmin. Then some other caste. I even had a manager of mine in US ( he was Tamil Non-Brahmin ) touch me in the back repeatedly to see if I was wearing a thread. That really disgusted me.
I think Chennai has become more casteistic gradually than other metros ( like Bangalore where caste is playing a less and less role ), thanks for DMK etc.

As for anonymous posting about the intelligence of Brahmins, I think it has to do with selective exclusion (of intellectually inclined individuals) and inclusion (of less intellectually inclined individuals) for a thousand years or so. Continuing in a profession does not change the genes, being a writer does not make the genes for writing any strong.

Krishna said...

About the states being backward, I do not see any difference between domination of any caste and financial health. Punjab, Gujarat and TN are all well off financially. It is Bihar and UP that are backward. Your logic does not make sense.

- Krisna

Anonymous said...

Hey Krishna, What I meant is, there is greater social and even financial equity in Gujarat and Punjab. It is not about the financial numbers alone thrown out by the census report. The prosperity in these two states is so obvious compared to Tamil Nadu. Even in Bihar & UP, there has been such a lot of caste oppression, initially by Brahmins who also became Bhumihar a.k.a Brahmins with land leaving nothing to the rest of society. I am no anti Brahmin, I respect them for their great intelligence. You name a field and there are more Brahmin poineers. Somatic gene change is a known science, where the genetic changes occur to improve the chances to doing well (darwinian concept) in the respective field, which are passed to the next generation.There is a process of selectivity towards passing genes which improve and enhance the chances of survival.In this day and age, people with the genetics which help them memorize and apply logic are the ones who shine and do well.Since Brahmins were engaged in the activity of memorizing veda and etal they have the genetic predisposition.The greatest fault of caste system was to make it caste by birth to the advantage of brahmins and to dispense the knowledge to brahmins only.But modern education (salute the British for this), has helped ameliorate this inequity and reservation is an important tool to help people affected by thousands of years of social oppression.Just a thought Krishna try going to the Udupi Krishna temple, they will not sit you among brahmins to eat.There are tons of such social discrimination even now.But why go there, where you are not wanted.Build your own temple.Did you know untill recently, all the money from Tirupatti was taken by brahmin priests of temple and invested in US(reported in India Today) instead of being spent on the local villages.So what will be the incentive for a non brahmin villager near the temple to save it from a marauding Muslim.But times are changing, I see a great future and everyone will become a Karma Brahmin.(Brahmin by Karm and not by birth).

Anonymous said...

Hi! i'm an american guy who discovered hinduism in college. i then read everything about it i could. i also read the gita daily. i do puja twice daily. i go to a mandir regularly, where i'm the only non-indian person. from my past reading,i know that traditionally, caste was an impotant part of one's dharma. the gita says: "it is far better to perform your own caste-duty imperfectly than to perform another's cast duty perfectly" i really think this is an out-moded way of thinking, and was meant to keep people from acheiving the status that the few in the ruling class had. here in america, no-one knows a thing about this caste system. we have nothing like it. years ago i would not have known a brahmin from a shudra. when i first laerned about it i was so ignorant i would ask indian poeple " what caste are you"? most were polite and probably understood that i was some ignorant american kid who really didn't understand the whole caste subject. i have seen the caste issue here among the members of my mandir. also, i've noticed there is a bias towards skin color. the darker people seem to be discriminated against. one woman was looking to introduce her daughter to a boy. i suggested one, and she said "he's too black". i didn't even think he was very dark. and it shouldn't matter. the girl should be doing the looking herself. i really think that this caste system is fading becuase society no longer has a need for it.

AM I A HINDU? Best Seller said...

I really wish there was no such thing as Caste in Hinduism.

A culture which teaches to treat a guest as God Atithi Devo Bhava is better of without caste system.

True it came as part of DIVISION OF LABOR in Rig Veda, but later it degenerated to air-tight divisions where one caste looked down upon another caste.

Let us hope and pray Caste syetem will become part of history in this century.

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