I had a class on democracy in South Asia with Sumit Ganguly, Rabindranath Tagore Chair Professor, Indiana University. And I must say that he gave me enough material for not one, but many posts. He spoke about democracy in India, its successes, its failures, the caste system, and the utter neglect of primary education, among other things. But, before all that, I would like to say that I was simply astounded when I discovered that I knew all the people he mentioned as acquaintances in Chennai. Well, it’s a small world. We are about a billion people, and growing everyday, but we seem to know everyone else. So, that said, on to what I really want to say.
First, about Indian democracy. It is alive, vibrant and fully functional. It may have its problems and setbacks, it may fail in many ways, but it still survives. In that I agree with Ganguly. I have nothing more to add. However, I do have something about to add to the comments that he made about the caste system. Let me warn you, I am going to launch a frontal attack on the caste system and all that it represents. I know I will probably draw criticism because just a few days ago I raved and ranted about how people passed value judgements without understanding the system. But hey! I am an insider. I can say what I want to and I have grown up in it. I face criticism everyday because I have unconventional views on the subject.
Without further ado, let me say that the caste system is simply untenable in the modern world. Ganguly pointed out that one’s caste doesn’t matter in any field except one. And that one field untouched by modernisation is marriage. I could not agree more. I was always told that it is bad to discriminate against someone because of caste or religion. I was told that religion was merely a way of self-realisation. I believed in something, but that did not necessarily mean that everyone else had to. The Muslim way of self-realisation was just as good as the Christian way, which in turn was just as good as mine. But, imagine my surprise, or worse still, my utter disillusion, when the same people told me I could never marry Anand because he was of a different caste. Where did notions of equality go? Is equality merely in words and not in action? Why is it that we have broken the atom, but refuse to break our prejudices? (Thanks to Tamanna for that line. It was very appropriate in this context.) Will caste ever die? Well-educated, upper-class Indians who are egalitarian in every other way suddenly become convinced that endogamy is the best thing in the world when it comes to their daughter’s marriage. Why can’t we, as Indians, break out of our shells and learn to accept people for who they are without asking irrelevant questions of caste and race?
The second aspect of this question is that of gender inequality. It is somehow always accepted that the prodigal son in the US bring home an American wife. But, let the post-doc, 20-something daughter mention that she has an American friend she rather likes and the parents immediately persuade her to come home so that she can get married to a “suitable boy” (Vikram Seth got it right.) she has never met. Even young Indian men are no better in their attitude. It is all very nice when they date a dozen sexy American women, but mention marriage and they want the traditional Indian girl who is “homely, caring, slim, fair and pretty”. Not to mention that this “homely”, whatever that means, Indian girl should be a perfect daughter-in-law, a loving and loyal wife, a doting aunt and a caring mother of the three kids she will have in 4 years. What the hell? Are we living in the 17th century? While I have nothing against kids or parents-in-law, no woman can be everything a standard matrimonial ad asks for. It is impossible.
But well, whoever said life was fair? Whatever we do, we must get our hearts and minds out of the 17th century. There is no point in talking about equality if it doesn’t exist in the everyday lives of people. Equality before the law or equal voting rights does not give you happiness. Wholesome and happy relationships with other human beings do.