Friday, 4 April 2014

What's in a name?

I was born with a short fuse apparently, I told one of my senior relatives "amake ragiyo na, raagle ami chandaal"*, at an age so tender that I have no recollection of that actual event.  My relative reportedly roared with laughter, ROTFL as they put it now. That is where I must have picked up the notion that laughter is an appropriate reaction to anger.  I find any rage, including my own, funny. I mean, I can be in the middle of a satisfying marital spat, with guns blazing on both sides, me ahead on point-scoring by miles, and then completely ruin everything by bursting out with a laugh at the wrong moment. I never manage a clear cut victory.  Story of my life.

However inconvenient that reaction might be, what strikes me now about that childhood episode is the cool acceptance of caste-ism in everyday language and life. Obviously, a young child would not know what a "chandaal" was, I was parroting an adult, overheard in a conversation around me, or perhaps, as I prefer to think, on my grandfather's radio. In all the telling and retelling and the accompanying mirth of that gaffe, no-one ever mentioned it was wrong to conflate viciousness and brutality with a group of people, with caste stereotypes.   

A few years down the line, I brought home a school report in Delhi, where a single letter of my family name had been omitted. My grandfather who was with us at the time, was extremely upset. I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about. I was used to my name being misspelled, long Bengali, Sanskritised names were uncommon outside Bengal still; so I didn't understand what he was so annoyed about. He told me that one omission changed the family caste from the highest to a rung lower on the scale, intolerable in his view.  Caste? What's that, grandfather? And so I got my first lesson in it. I remember. I was seven.

Slicing the world  

Of course there's a lot in a name, and not one should ever be misspelled. Especially not on a school report and other important documents.  My grandfather did more than just teach me about castes that day.  He taught me a lesson in respect. Respect the work enough to want to do it error-free, respect the person you address enough to know their name correctly, above all respect yourself, know your roots without which pride and self-respect and respect for pretty much everything else is impossible.  Those long, heavy words weren't articulated, but were part of his message that day.  I have no issues with that, all good lessons and one is never too young to learn them. What bothered me vaguely is this way of slicing the world into us and them, where the last names of my friends were more important than the first. Really? You mean Renuka's perfect 10 at spellings didn't make her better than me? It was baffling.

A year or so later, my family moved to West Africa, where whole new ways to slice worlds into us and them opened up.  I learnt that every society has them, whichever cultural divides you straddle, whichever lines you use.  Being an outsider everywhere gives a kind of unique perspective, I was exposed to other bases of discrimination, and I was sheltered by the great distances from the ones in my own.

I came back to settle in Bengal almost twenty years after I left it.  India and the wider world had changed a huge amount in those years, humans had been to the Moon and back, our own Rakesh Sharma had confirmed that India looked saare jahan se achchha even from Space.  My grandfather's leisure was now spent in front of a colour TV, his radio had fallen silent.  His views on caste remained unchanged of course; that didn't surprise me in the slightest. Treat everyone with due respect, but marry within your caste, employ only Brahmin cooks.

Old people often hold onto the ideas of their youth as a last straw of reassurance against the avalanche of exponential, unfathomable changes they experience.  His generation had seen too much, felt too much for one lifetime to contain and adapt seamlessly - two world wars, the first aeroplane flight, the Independence, the bloodbath of the Partition, the uprooting of his family from the centuries old homestead, the famines, the 1961 and 1971 wars, the nuclear programme, the space programme, satellite TV, women's right to their father's property being made into law, my god just listing them here makes my head spin.  So naturally he held onto anything that felt immutable and stable, the ancient laws given by the scriptures. I could understand that clutching at straws, I didn't grudge him the comfort and stability of the status quo.

Everyday amazing

But what surprised me was the encounters I faced at my workplace, among my peers and younger people. Nothing very offensive or remarkable, nothing tangible that anybody could object to.  A remark about some particular double-barrel surname being part of a "shrewd" community, another one being "devious", an offhand joke cracked here, a smiling reference there.  It took me time to figure them out, because of my upbringing elsewhere I was unaware of the significance of the names, how each family name is linked irrevocably to caste, and sometimes to birthplace. A Tamil colleague  casually pointed out how he wouldn't be allowed to sit at the same table and eat lunch with me back at his own village.  A close friend mentioned drawing back from a relationship because the potential partner was from a different caste.  Even people years younger than me asked "what caste is that?" when they came across a surname they hadn't heard before.  I was gobsmacked how prevalent this caste business was, how insidiously common the slicing still remained.

That was several years ago, things have changed further. My grandfather is no longer with us, his radio, his wall clock and his house itself have passed out of my life.  Liberalisation, globalisation, the Internet, multinationals, pride in heritage coupled with greater openness, Indians leading global corporations, the rise and rise of the middle class.  More and more young people travel the world, work abroad, and also come back from abroad to settle back in India. Many old traditions have blurred, many have been discarded. The world has not yet become India's oyster, but perhaps we have got a finger under the lip of the shell.  

Last year on annual home leave, I got talking to a group of people informally  - and was surprised to come across the same caste associations, stick to your own class/caste/faith when it comes to socialising and relationships; you can't really socialise with the so called "lower" castes, the chasm is too wide. No-one was prepared to accept that this "chasm" was more a function of education and economic backwardness rather than caste. Our bases for slicing the world haven't changed all that much. My grandfather may have passed on, but everyday caste-isms are alive still, sadly; finding strange homes in hearts and minds much younger.  

* Loosely translated that means don't mess with me, I'm a Chandaal when angry.  Chandaals are traditionally associated with the cremation rites and death, and the word/caste is used negatively to mean vicious, mean, fiery tempered and a person of uncontrolled appetites.