Why Does Caste Matter to US?

I think I found this after reading an email sent out on the ASATA listserv; it asked for participants for a survey on caste and Sikhism. Since I’m interested in both, I decided to take a quick look. The first notes wafted tentatively through my iBook’s wee speakers and I smiled: Van Halen. I knew exactly what kind of video this would be. We used to make ones just like it for JSA‘s Fall and Spring “State”, usually to open the conference. Well, it was either that or we’d blare Public Enemy‘s “Fight the Power“…

After watching it, I was moved, because I felt like so much of it was applicable to all of us, not just Sikhs. Someone Malayalee needs to make one of these, stat, I muttered…and then I realized that they didn’t. Maybe they should just watch this, I thought and that’s when I knew it belonged here, in a space where it would get the attention it rightly deserves.

Ravidasia // Khatri // Jatt // Tarkhan…The labels that divide us are endless. Caste, gender, class, and power tear apart our Qaum, our Gurdwaras, and our Pariwars. How do we overcome? How do we forge unity without silencing voices? [Jakara]

My closest friend in college was a Sikh girl from Fremont, who happened to be Tarkhan. My boyfriend from Freshman through Junior year was Jatt. So were all of his friends. They made fun of her when she wasn’t around and ignored her when she was. This baffled coconut-flavored me. “Why are you so mean to her?” I’d ask him, over and over. “She’s nice.”

“Because she’s…Tarkhan. They’re lower class. And so backwards– didn’t you say her parents tried to get her married when she was 17, that they didn’t even want to send her to college? Who the hell does that?”
“That’s not her fault, why are you taking it out on her?”
“Look, it’s a Sikh thing…it’s probably difficult to understand. Don’t you have a sorority thing to go to?”

::

I’m amazed at how often caste shows up on our comment threads, among second gen kids who should know better. Then I am humbled as I remember that I’m complicit in this too, when I tease my best friend about doing TamBrahm stuff or when I embroider stories from bygone UC Davis days with an extra adjective which probably isn’t necessary:

“Well a lot of students were from the Central Valley or Yuba City…so a good number of the desis I befriended were Jatt Sikh.”

It’s so insidious, the way this need to inform others of where we are in some dated hierarchy persists. Right now, we need to ask ourselves…why?

582 thoughts on “Why Does Caste Matter to US?

  1. this thread has become a madi thread now? :) we use madi as a more generic term: basically kick the kids out of everywhere they can create trouble. don’t touch this without bathing, etc etc.

    i don’t know what the term we use for what you call “madi”. in any case, i know how it can go on to the next generation—if at all. my situation is a classic example. i can see my mom create problems for my (in the really distant future) wife. well, i can shield my wife to some extent. and that to my mom will be a personal affront and my support for my wife will be seen as me betraying her trust. you know the arguments. add to it the opinion of all other women who do not have daughters in the neighborhood.

    and ppl frown at me when i say i don’t want to be in a 1000 mile radius of anywhere my parents are. well, and for fairness sake, my wife’s parents as well.

  2. HMF and Milli, I happen to know Mani Varadarajan too and sent him a link to this thread. I’m pretty sure I’ve not met either of you in person, though. Somehow, I find it bizarre we would discover a common person on this thread!

  3. Since much has been made of reservations in university admissions, let me provide some quantitative information.

    When I took the Tamil Nadu professional colleges entrance exam, the cut off (last score to make it in) for Anna University, the top engineering school was 288.1/300 (if I remember right) for open competition (OC) which is 96.03%, the category that contains all forward caste people as a strict subset. The cutoff for backward castes was 286.4/300 (95.47%). Scores for medicine tend to be higher either because of even greater scarcity or because the biology portion yielded higher scores than the math portion.

    The upper caste person who got 287 would feel that they had outstanding grades (no joke getting that much) but did not get admission because of reservation. But the UC dude who got 285 would also feel the same way. Some people who got 270 would also sometimes blame reservation and their caste for not getting in.

    The scarcity of seats makes these scores obscenely high. MOST people miss out on seats because of this scarcity.

    What would happen if there were no reservations? The cut off would be lowered to 287.1 or something. Many many more upper caste people would get in and so would some BC’s and almost no one from any other caste would get in. So yes, to the university’s composition, it would make a big difference. But most forward caste people, just like most people in general would not get in.

    I quote from

    http://yfechennai.blogspot.com/2006/05/press-release-pre-protest-22052006.html

    ” this year the cut off scores for MBBS entrance in the government colleges were (including the TNPCEE scores) – OC-295.74; BC -294.26; MBC-292.13; SC-287.56; and ST-274.00.”. Numbers have gone up since my time!

  4. kurma, the sequel to the story that i hear from most in tn is that the exams are required to be borderline trivial. apparently when the reservations first increased (beyond what is in the rest of india), the difference in cut offs was too high. the exams were made simpler to reduce the difference.

    no idea how much of the above is true, i didn’t write those exams. but no exam should have such high cutoffs, that much i agree.

  5. Hmmmm… that explains it those razor thin margins. It’s not that trivial to get 280+. While the TNPCEE is certainly easy, it only accounted for 100 of the 300. The remaining 200 came from the board exams. While you don’t need very much intelligence, you still need to work like crazy to get top grades. Many kids did nothing but work their entire senior year (XII std).

    Anyway, one point difference or 3 point difference, my point in the previous post remains.

    I agree with you that no exam should have such ridiculously high points. Much prefer the JEE style “65% !! You’re a genius!” papers where there was genuine room for differentiation. One odd thing I felt was that JEE types generally seemed to be more relaxed in their XII std than the TNPCEE types.

  6. Since this thread has discussed such diverse topics as:

    • Thengalai
    • Vadagalai
    • Gothram
    • Madi

    I shall make two other critical contributions to the vocabulary:

    Abhishtu Badava Rascal

    I will now go back to my scheduled viewing of Vietnam Veedu. Also, Iyers, Represent!

  7. Milli and others who are willing to go along with “madi”,
    I wonder if you have considered the fact that madi is a practice that discriminates against women.
    Though I never had to follow madi in my parental home, holidays at ‘patti’s’ home were different. When I had to ‘sit out’ the first ( and only !) time I traveled to my grandma’s place during ‘those days’

    For crying out loud, the practise all you folks are referring to is called “theetu” in TamBram speak. A woman during period is considered just one kind of “theetu”, other kinds (for both women and men) are during death of a close relative etc. In general it means ‘unclean’. And it is not exclusively a brahmin thing either. Fyi, “madi” means a kind of opposite thing, i.e. the person is ritually pure, and shouldn’t touch others before completing puja or preparing special food etc.

    this thread has become a madi thread now? :) we use madi as a more generic term: basically kick the kids out of everywhere they can create trouble. don’t touch this without bathing, etc etc. i don’t know what the term we use for what you call “madi”.

    Bytewords was the only one who realized something was amiss in ur terminology ;-)

    I can’t believe u all got these 2 terms mixed up. I think it goes to show how far removed you people are from these kinda practises in real life. Good for u!

  8. All these rituals probably originated because of hygienic reasons and then got stuck in the rut. Anyways it is mostly an “upper caste’ phenomena. Women who have to work to support the family (in the fields etc..) have no time to spend in seclusion. I have never heard about this practice until one of my Brahmin friends asked me about who cooks in your home for those “three days” in my school… And almost all cases these regressive practices pertain only to women. Are men labelled “unclean” after they mastrubate (that’s another bodily fluid) and kept out of the household?. :-)

  9. For crying out loud, the practise all you folks are referring to is called “theetu” in TamBram speak

    I thought it was called “dooram”. But at any rate, “madi” is just a convenient term, because it carries with it the notion of “don’t touch anything or anyone”, which works for both madi-aacharam, and theetu.

  10. All these rituals probably originated because of hygienic reasons and then got stuck in the rut. Anyways it is mostly an “upper caste’ phenomena. Women who have to work to support the family (in the fields etc..) have no time to spend in seclusion. I have never heard about this practice until one of my Brahmin friends asked me about who cooks in your home for those “three days” in my school… And almost all cases these regressive practices pertain only to women. Are men labelled “unclean” after they mastrubate (that’s another bodily fluid) and kept out of the household?. :-)

    The difference is that after masterbating you can thoroughly cleanse that off of you and wash your sheets or whatever. During menstruation there is more or less a constant flow. In temples men are also not allowed to serve the Deity if they have a sore with constantly flowing pus, at least according to rules I have read in archan books.

    I agree that all these rules developed during a time when it was harder to keep clean than it is nowadays, and out of that – “traditions” developed.

  11. at my parents’ house, i am only not allowed to go into the puja room, but everything else, including the kitchen, is now fair game
    This is pretty how it is with my parents (and my extended family and my in-laws as well). My mother is a super-traditional woman, but in this one respect, I give her a world of credit for being practical instead of superstitious. She always said she thought the whole ritual isolation business was so wrong, because there was no need for every random visitor to a house in the south to know what was happening with the women of the house. I do think the practice probably originated with the need to give women a decent three days of rest. Plus, personal hygiene being what it was back in the day, isolation prevented any potential embarassment from clothing “accidents”, I suppose. Some families take it too far though.

    I need alot of rest during that time and usually don’t feel like going anywhere or doing much and I feel that it may have developed in ancient times from that need as well, including ancient hygenic issues. However, I disagree with Moor Nam that a woman should stay away from visiting a temple during that time, if she wants to. Afterall, it’s nobodys business if she’s on her period or not.

    When I lived in India I learned to lie about the condition. Don’t ask, don’t tell. But when I did get asked if it was my time, I learned to say “no” so that I could continue to go anywhere I wanted, if I did want to go to temple or whatever. And at the temple I was living in there was no prohibition from entering the temple room at that time. Afterall, I was wearing pads that contained the flow. No blood was dripping down my legs onto the floor so what’s the big deal?

    I’ve eaten food cooked by myself and others during that time and my head has not yet fallen off of my body.

  12. A remark on #554, bytewords. The numbers being so high and the “triviality” of it all (it certainly is trivial to cross 250) also weakens the “I had excellent grades” thing. It’s not exactly superhuman to do that.

  13. Finally someone (the garbage dude) told him it was a ‘Dom’s’ job, and the ‘Dom’ would have to be called.

    Was that in the north somewhere, DQ? Does ‘Dom’ refer to a tribal? Because I have read somewhere that the ‘Rom’ or Romany Gypsies are thought to have originated from a tribe called the ‘Dom’ in Punjab area.

    For crying out loud, the practise all you folks are referring to is called “theetu” in TamBram speak.

    In my relatives’ households, even in India, it’s always called “madi.” But we are not from Tamil Nadu.

  14. Dom as far as I know is a sect ( maybe a caste/sub-caste) that traditionally deals with dead bodies. I remember reading an article about them in India – they are responsible for removal of dead bodies ( sorry to be gross: but these are partially burnt bodies) from the Ganga etc .I vaguely remember a belief that they are destined for heaven because of the important work they do and that they face a lot of discrmination etc

  15. Dom as far as I know is a sect ( maybe a caste/sub-caste) that traditionally deals with dead bodies.

    Thanks, Runa, I should go do some more reading to see if they are the same, though it doesn’t sound like it…the “Dom” I was reading about supposedly practice some trades which are similar to traditional Rom trades (like copper-working).

    I vaguely remember a belief that they are destined for heaven because of the important work they do and that they face a lot of discrmination etc

    That’s like the way that plantation owners would have the white preachers selectively quote Bible texts in services for the Negro slaves…”Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

  16. iABD, Evidently the word Dom is used for an entire ethnic group in India per wikipedia which is probably the Doms that you were speaking of So looks like the same word is used for two distinct groups of people.Huh.Interesting!

  17. After the pineapple juice post I got to ask…….

    what about oral sex amongst these peeps (tam-brahms) – do they do it or not????

  18. what about oral sex amongst these peeps (tam-brahms) – do they do it or not????

    And sex during pregnancy……….???

  19. I see this as being completely irrelevant to the caste question. Sex has absolutely nothing to do with caste.

  20. I see this as being completely irrelevant to the caste question. Sex has absolutely nothing to do with caste.

    Really? You don’t think certain cleanliness standards and/or taboos within a caste might reflect on their sexual habits?

    If a woman is off-limits during her menstrual cycle for certain castes, then that means no sex during that time too, right? So right there is just one small example.

    Another might be a caste’s customs in regards to sexual activity during pregnancy.

  21. My uber-TamBram consort loves diving. But I don’t think that has anything to do with his caste, I think he’s just pervy. I agree with Hema.

  22. My uber-TamBram consort loves diving. But I don’t think that has anything to do with his caste, I think he’s just pervy. I agree with Hema.

    That statement reflects more on your mentality than his. Since when is diving pervy?

  23. You know, yoni-freak, I don’t know why I bothered. You asked and asked and asked about TBs and sex and I answered. Of course, you had to be obnoxious about it. Pervy doesn’t mean what you apparently think it does, but feel free to insult my “mentality” anyway. It will really inspire others to open up to you and your incessant questions.

  24. You know, yoni-freak

    Actually I’m a linga-pujari, not a yoni freak.

    Don’t take things so seriously, lest the ego be easily offended and mukti remain a far distant dream, dear.

  25. Please don’t talk down to me by “dearing” me. You are not older than me. Do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor and consider why some of us react the way we do to you and why some of us choose not to react at all– you’re telling me what to do with my ego when yours is huge regarding how holy and devout and super-Indian you are compared to the rest of us. That’s rich.

  26. I guess I’m just not sure how or why I would ignore my caste, when it is what describes, or even dictates, my spiritual practice.

    I came very late to this thread, but I wanted to weigh in anyway. The reason to ignore caste, in my opinion, is because it is perpetuating an oppressive tradition. You can practice your religion any way you want to, and call it a family tradition, while still ignoring caste. Until I was ten, my parents refused to tell me what our caste was. When I was ten, they finally explained it. We don’t really have one because: My dad’s mother is a brahmin, who married a sudra; my mother’s family are technically sudras but belong to a hindu reformist tradition that rejects caste. So whether it’s a result of technically being casteless, being from a family that somewhat rejected caste, or because I was entirely innocent of my caste until later in life, I don’t think it influences my beliefs in any way. Any religious traditions I think of as family traditions, not caste traditions. When people ask me my caste, I usually say I don’t have one. I don’t know the caste of most of my cousins’ spouses, or most of my Indian friends in India.

  27. In regard to the people discussing brahmin hegemony, It would be important to note that in Sri Lanka (amongst Northern Tamils anyway), the Brahmins are not considered to be above anyone else, and are instead pretty much ordinary, other than them being priests and all. However the “vellalar” caste is still the dominant one, probably because like 40% of people are from that caste, and its also basically the farming caste (not as in the labourer caste, but actual farm owners), so they have the most money. I think it is a more equitable system that dates back to when the Tamils first came to Sri Lanka (200AD?? whenever the Cholas decided to invade..) that for some reason hasnt reached the levels that the Indian caste system has.

  28. Caste system in India is not at all good. Basically these caste system is started in olden days according to the people’s culture, status, and thier works. But, now a day’s every thing is changing in that literacy rate is increasing rapidly and the culture’s and living style were also changed alot. Now it is a time to remove this caste system completely. Every individual of India should have a responsibility to make other Indian as equal as them.