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.