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Updated: August 31, 2009 17:25 IST

Pervasive realities

P. J. RAO
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Some recollections from the 1930s The first of an occasional series by retired bureaucrat P.J. RAO

Right from my early student days, I hated the caste system and the prejudices and abuses it involved. I was seven years old when some houses in my sister's village, Tamvada, were washed away when the adjoining river flooded in heavy rain. The scheduled-caste settlement which was outside the village proper was completely washed away and the affected people had naturally come into the main village to seek shelter. Instead of taking pity on their wretched plight and helping them, my sister's mother-in-law, a superstitious widow, shouted at them as she considered their physical proximity defiled her and the neighbourhood's purity. I could not stand this cruelty and even though I was a small boy, I shouted back at her, to everyone's consternation. I was chided, of course, but finally the more sensible men decided to arrange food and shelter to the affected people.

Strong hold

Instances of the strength of caste prejudice are many. As a young boy I had once visited the village where I was born. I stayed with the family of the main landlord of the place with whom my late father had worked. As evening approached, a lady of the family whom I knew well led me into a room that was prepared as a makeshift kitchen with an oven made up of three stones placed in the form of a triangle with firewood placed therein and some cooking pots and washed rice placed nearby. She said there was no Brahmin family in the village and they could not get a Brahmin cook for me at short notice. She said she would sit just outside the kitchen door and would guide me how to cook rice in case I needed guidance. I said there was no need for all this trouble and I would gladly take cooked rice from their kitchen. I further said that I knew nothing about cooking and expressed my inability to cook the rice. She said I was a Brahmin but too young to realise the caste implications and that my family would never approve of my taking food cooked by non-Brahmins. On her insistence, I tried to cook the rice and the effort resulted in producing a thin rice paste. I refused to eat it. Finally I ate a couple of mangoes for my dinner. The next morning, as planned, I left the village.

On another occasion, while I was studying for my B.A. degree in 1943, a close friend and classmate invited me to spend a few days at his house in a nearby town called Bobbili. He belonged to the Velama caste. The Velamas are in most respects similar to Kshatriyas. They were proud and their ladies observed purdah, which meant that they neither appeared in public nor showed their faces to men other than close relatives. I was treated with great respect in their house where there was plenty of domestic help and I was provided with all facilities. My friend got my breakfast from a hotel. At lunch time, however, he suggested that we both, accompanied by his assistant, go for a walk. After a short walk, we stopped at a clean little house with a thatched roof. My friend asked me to go inside and said that he and his assistant would go for a little shopping. They would collect me in 30 to 40 minutes. I did not understand why I too could not go with them for the shopping. However, I went inside and found that the house holder, a Brahmin widow, had prepared my lunch and started serving. I then understood that my friend had arranged all this to enable me to have Brahmin-cooked food and led me to this place to play the host without violating the norms of respectability. In those days it was usual for some Brahmin widows to earn their living by running a modest dining facility. When I offered to pay for my lunch she would not accept any money from me and said it was already paid for. When I asked my friend why he had taken all this trouble when I had accepted his invitation on the premise that I would be eating along with him in his house, he said he knew my liberal views on the caste system but his mother had overruled him saying that my family elders would not approve of my eating in their house and it would amount to their exploiting my youthful ignorance.

Vicious circle

Well, there it is. Even when I was prepared to eat in a non-Brahmin house the hosts would not let me. The caste system is so ingrained in India that every caste including the lowest has a stake in it. Even among the so-called untouchables, there are gradations. In Andhra, a Mala considers himself superior to other sections of scheduled castes. He would not eat with a Madiga or a Relli, and neither would he enter into a marital alliance with families of other sections. Similarly among the OBCs (Other Backward Classes), the caste divisions are many and caste loyalties are strong. With the seeming perpetuation of reservations for OBCs and scheduled castes in government jobs and placement in educational institutions, caste barriers and multiplication of sub-castes have increased. More and more people clamour for inclusion in the OBC category to claim reservation quota. Even after conversion to Islam or Christianity some of the members do not lose sight of their pre-conversion caste in their dealings and life style.

P.J. Rao is the author of Anecdotes from a Diplomat's Life, East West Books, 2007.

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