Will caste ever die?

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.

Get it right! Indian is a nationality…

A couple of days ago, I came across a facebook group telling people to get an atlas if they can’t recognise country names. And, I remembered my first experiences in France. The first time I told someone outside of Sciences Po that I was from India was at the residence where I live. This guy insisted on starting a conversation with me when I was doing my laundry. Wanting to be polite, I replied to his question on my nationality by saying I was Indian. And voila! He says, “Ah! Tu es indienne? Donc, tu parles indien?” To translate, asked me if I spoke Indian. It made me want to turn around and tell him to be a little more precise. Which one of the 21 official languages and more than 500 (I may be wrong here) unofficial ones is Indian? I refrained from unleashing my sarcasm on the unsuspecting character and decided to be polite. I explained that there were more languages in India than in the whole of Europe put together. Which one did he mean? To that he replies, with a tone of great sincerety, “But, all of them must be comprehensible to everyone right?”

Uh oh…problem here. Tell me, is French comprehensible to someone who speaks only Romanian? Or English to someone who speaks Norwegian exclusively? Then how the hell does he expect a native Bengali to understand Tamil? I dismissed the incident as a freak accident of fate. But no, I had overestimated the intelligence of some people in this place. Since then, I have met people who have asked me the same dumb questions. “Is there internet in India? Do you speak English? Do you have electricity?” Haven’t they heard of India ever? Haven’t they followed the furore that outsourcing created? Have they not ever heard of Amartya Sen? Do you have any idea how many Indians work at Microsoft? Do they even know that when they call Dell to troubleshoot your computer, they are probably talking to an Indian named Maragathavalli with the nickame Maggie, or one named Sambasivam a.k.a Sam?

For the last time guys, I am not from the tip of the world. I come from a country that is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is many times bigger than France or Germany and is home to one-sixth of humanity. And also for the last time, a language called Indian does not exist. It is Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Gujarati or even Tulu, but not Indian. Get it right! Indian is a nationality, not a language!

Of caste and democracy…

Yesterday, I was waiting in a long queue in the cafeteria of Sciences Po, when I ran into a friend who was before me in the queue. After a minute or two of small talk and Sciences Po bashing, as is normal with all students of the dratted college, I happened to mention that I have a dissertation on Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka to complete. She looked at me, rather strangely might I add, and then asked me why I did not consider doing my dissertation on the caste system and democracy in India. I replied, in no uncertain terms, that I was not interested in the topic, adding that the much-maligned system of castes cannot be studied by one who has grown up in it. At that comment, she told me that it would be an interesting thing to write about how castes can be abolished.

Now, let me make it clear that while I am no avid supporter of the caste system in India, I do not believe it can be abolished. It exists and will continue to exist for the next 500 years. Nobody wants to get rid of it, not even the “oppressed castes” themselves. There is an increasing affirmation of one’s caste identity within the framework of Indian democracy. And, I made the mistake of actually telling Miss. Know-it-all this in the belief that she would drop the topic and concentrate on getting her low-calorie sandwich and “yaourt nature” from the counter. But no, she was not to be outdone. In an irritatingly smug voice she declared, “Maistu sais que le sytème des castes va à l’encontre de la démocratie en Inde. Tu te rends compte que c’est l’oppression!!”

For those poor souls who know little or no French, she was basically trying to convince me that the system was against the concept of democracy and that it was oppression of the lower castes! Hello!! But who exactly is someone from an ex-Soviet republic that has no idea of freedom, and much less of democracy, to hector me on what it means to be democratic? It was, at best, frustrating. In fact, all I felt was a sense of outrage at being told that India was not democratic. At that moment, I felt like tearing her argument apart by pointing out that her country did not even remotely resemble a democracy and that people in glass houses must not throw stones.

Aargh!! Honestly, some people believe they have exclusive sovereignty over concepts like freedom, democracy and liberty. A cursory glance at the Freedom House index of liberty in the world will reveal that India is one of the few developing countries in the world that is completely free. Also note that most countries of the ex-Soviet Union are considered not free. Need I say more? I admit that India is not the best country in the world when it concerns corruption, human development and primary education. But, to say that India is not democratic infuriates me like no other comment can. I may be wrong in saying this, but ask the man on the street in India if caste must be abolished. He/she will say no. Caste, like a family name is an identity. It is a symbol of belonging to a particular group. So much so that many people are beginning to adopt their caste names as surnames in South India. Who is a western-educated Kyrgyz student of International Relations to hector the people of India to get rid of that one symbol that gives them security? It is true that the “oppressed” castes must be given basic rights. But, to say that the system must be abolished is both unrealistic and patronising.

Let me make one thing clear. Ridding India of the problem of caste is not, as Kipling would have claimed, the white man’s burden. It is not even the black, brown or yellow man’s burden. The people of India will get rid of it when they feel that it has lost its utility and relevance in the modern world. Until then, the world would do well to step aside and let us rule ourselves the way we think fit. We elect our leaders in free and fair elections every 5 years, sometimes even more frequently. We are capable of deciding who should rule us and what the rulers should do. Like all other democracies, we have our failings. We elect people who are not worth it. We make mistakes and so find that politics is increasingly corrupt and criminalised. But, let us deal with it in our own way. Through democracy. It has served us well over the last 60 years. And I believe it will continue to do so for many decades to come. Until then, western-educated know-it-all snobs would do well to refrain from commenting on things they neither know nor understand.

Three weeks… and then?

Here I am, this beautiful evening of May, alternating between freaking out over term papers to finish and stressing over the rest of my life. After a solid seven years of university education, I am finally finishing in three weeks’ time. I feel a sense of elation and accomplishment at having come so far. When I stepped into WCC in June 2000, I was a timid and entirely unsure 17-year old. Over the next three years, I made friends, learnt my way around college, had my share of disappointments and failures, drove our beloved head of department up the wall with every rule broken, and above all, learnt the importance of humility. And, I said I learnt the importance of humility, not that I learnt to be humble. I am still struggling with that one. Then came my days at the University of Madras, as a post-graduate student of French literature. I learnt more than just French. I learnt to walk on eggshells around fragile egos, and to juggle work with school. At the end of it, I was happy to leave. I will not pretend to feel sorry about it. It seems like yesterday I landed in Paris, armed only with my knowledge of French and 200 euros in cash. Yes, you read that right. 200 euros. Every minute until I finally got into the Egide office here was an adventure. There, I got my scholarship money and my accommodation. It was scary.

Suddenly, I find myself nearing the end of my stay in Paris. I still have trouble believing that in three weeks, I will no longer be a student. That I step out of student life forever and into the world of work. It is both exhilarating and terrifying; exhilarating because it is a new way of life and a new world, and terrifying because I have never been anything other than a student in my life, even when I was a teacher at the Alliance Française. It is extremely difficult to imagine myself in a position of responsibility. And, as I said before, it is positively terrifying. At this point, half drowning in the interminable exposes and term papers, I find that I am on the threshold. I am at the threshold of a different life. And this is a life I will be living for the next 40 years. All this makes me wonder if I should have taken the plunge into the world of work at age 20 when I was young, naïve and idealistic. Four years later, I am more pragmatic, and as a result, more pessimistic. I retain none of the post-teen idealism of the perfect job. And that is not very reassuring. At this point in my life, I simply wait. I wait because I don’t know what else I can do. And I hope everything will turn out fine.

Some clarifications…and a bit more

Now…let me start with the clarifications. Someone, who calls himself “Tamizh Lover” left a comment on my post on music yesterday. Thanks for the vote of confidence, if you are reading this sir. But, I would like to clarify that I do read, write and speak Tamil as well as someone who has learnt it in school does. There is no question of learning it now. I did live in Chennai for all but 18 months of my life. It’s a little difficult to not learn Tamil in all this time.

Ok…now on to the next. A friend of mine posted a really nice article on her profile in Facebook. I am pasting it here because having to read it will mean having to sign up on Facebook and adding Julie as friend. In short, it’s easier this way.


Where crossing the streets is concerned, I could by now fall within the category that could be understood as semi-Parisian. Depending mostly on my mood, I either join a crowd of scurrying locals and pray that I will not end up a cripple, or wait good-naturedly on the curb with the other Germans (what? did I say Germans? I meant to say foreigners, of course) and take pride in the fact that I am contributing to saving the world from a spiteful, anarchic end. So far, all this is well. That is, all this WAS well, until a recent event, which fell upon me near the Boulevard Saint Germain, left me very much perplexed. I was walking down the street and I came to a crossing. And the red man was signaling a halt. And a steady flow of Parisians was nonetheless boldly advancing forward despite a rapidly approaching white mini-van. (Don’t panic, this is not the account of a horrible car accident full of blood and guts that will make you never want to jaywalk again – actually, whether you will or not, it may have quite the contrary effect.) Now then, since I was in a law-abiding mood that particular day, I quite naturally stopped on the curb, intending to delay my crossing until the appropriate colour signal rendered it feasible. In the meantime, the white mini-van definitely approached the crossing and, the flow of jaywalkers having not declined, had to stop to let them pass, despite the persistence of red at the other end of the zebra. And then, to my great astonishment, the hairy, greasy driver of the vehicle in question leaned out of the window and shouted at ME, angrily gesturing with his chubby arm:

“Bouge, la vache! Vas-y!”

I was so stunned I actually complied with the crude request, making an effort to cross quickly and glancing up at the lights on the way to confirm that they were still red. Sure as the the Sun, I am not colour-blind… but then again, Paris is a world of its own colours… Who knows, maybe one day some Parisian will force me ahead in a cue! Hoping is believing… “

What can I say about this? It is perfect. I mean…I can relate to it perfectly well. And that is saying something because I come from India where the only freaking way you can get to the other side of the road is by jaywalking. I landed in Paris, and was so thrilled that pedestrian crossings actually existed, that I started being a law-abiding resident. All this, only to discover a few days later that you cannot be Parisian if you wait patiently for the light to turn green. I still do, because it is so much easier to cross a road when you are supposed to. But, I do elicit strange, uncomprehending looks from passers-by, who almost expect you to stop them and ask them for directions in Chinese…ok, not Chinese, maybe Indian English. Sigh! What can I say? Paris is a crazy city, and Parisians…are impatient. So, Julie, I concur!

Words, comforting in their familiarity

As I sit in my chair before the computer, sipping a cup of hot tea, many thoughts and ideas attack me from all sides. Half of them concern my virtually non-existent talents in Spanish, and the other half concern the comfort a familiar voice can offer. The language barrier is something that has always concerned and baffled me. I never had to face it when I arrived in Paris, seeing as I spoke French perfectly well. But, it hit me on the face when my Senegalese neighbour started speaking in rapid-fire Senegalese. This was quickly followed by an overheard conversation between two of my Chinese neighbours. And suddenly, I felt surrounded. I almost wished that I could speak in Tamil or Hindi with someone who would understand. I understand that feeling claustrophobic about incomprehensible languages is slightly crazy, but it made me realise the importance of the spoken word. I almost took my language skills for granted. I automatically assumed that I could manage because I spoke 5 languages and understood two others rather well. Apparently, that is not enough. Probably because 3 of the 5 languages are Indian languages. Words that I can understand are almost comforting in their familiarity. A simple ‘thank you’ can communicate so much to one who understands the meaning.

But then, I am in a rather crazy, philosophical mood, pondering the meaning of love and life, of words and meanings, of music and melody. They are all indications that there is still sense in living this life we so desperately seek to control. But, I suppose the very same words, that held so much meaning, can become meaningless and irrelevant if overused. I learnt this the hard way. But this said, I will always love words. After all, there is a reason for doing a masters in literature…

The joys of cooking

Earlier this evening, I was looking for a recipe and I stumbled on this very interesting article. The author speaks of the pleasures of cookng the old-fashioned way and vents against the western-centric, restaurant-style, efficient cooking. What can I say? I couldn’t agree more. I have been cooking since age 12 and I find that the more time and effort you put into the cooking, the better it turns out. I enjoy the task because it is both interesting and relaxing. What could be better than taking an hour off to patiently chop vegetables into exactly equal pieces, making rice with exactly the right texture, grinding freshly roasted spices and cooking the way you have always seen your mother and grandmother cook? I might sound crazy when I say this, but I really and truly enjoy the task. Half the satisfaction comes from cooking right. Eating is just an extension of the pleasure.

Try as I might to recreate the dishes I cook at home with industrial vegetables from the local supermarket in Paris, or tinned vegetables that I buy for the sake of convenience, I fail every single time. My spinach sambar that turns out so delicious back home in India is an absolute disaster by my standards here. Is it the variety of spinach, the heat of the electric hot-plates, the quality of spices or my cooking style? I don’t know. I can honestly say that packets of instant rasam are no match to the rasam mum makes in a vessel made of tin over a burning coal stove. My grandmother’s sambar always turned out best on a similar coal stove in a stone vessel. I recognise that cooking that way is both time-consuming and energy-inefficient. But the taste makes up for the inconvenience.

The article discusses the pleasures of eating with the fingers. I still do when I eat at home. I enjoy feeling the food on my fingers. I would abandon the fork and the spoon any day for a hearty meal on a banana leaf. But well, that’s just me. Maybe I am an obsessed food-lover. But, reading that article has made me hungry. And it’s 1 AM. Not a good thing! So, I am going to try to sleep, all the while planning out the menu for tomorrow. I only wish there was someone other than me to eat what I cook. It is kind of boring to eat alone.

The Sound of Music and the Power of Language

I was listening to A R Rahman’s song “New York Nagaram Urangum Neram” from Sillunu Oru Kaadal this afternoon. Seeing as I was slightly free and wanted to relax, this seemed a good choice. Now, this is not the first time I am hearing this song, nor is it the first time I actually paid attention to the lyrics. But, today was different. Feeling slightly depressed as I was, thanks to the rain in Paris, the lyrics got an entirely new feel. I had never before noticed the astounding complexity of sounds in the song. Rahman is known for using many layers of sound to create his truly unique music, but this one takes the cake. The song, about a young husband spending time away from his wife in faraway New York, touched a chord. The sheer pain of separation and the desire to get back as soon as possible came through every word of the song. How did I miss this one? Given that it is the ringtone of my phone, I get to hear it quite often. But it never touched my heart the way it did today.

That set me thinking. How many songs have I heard that makes me want to cry, laugh, feel nostalgic or express some emotion in some way? Well, the answer is clear. Not too many. The ones that do are few and far between. One song that never fails to elicit some kind of reaction from me is the song Mettuppodu from the movie Duet. It really is beautiful. I reacted with confusion when I first heard it. I was quite young, still a teen. I had no idea language could mean so much to someone. And I frankly could not understand why someone would want to sing about the Tamil language of all things. Today, I have come a long way. And I do agree that the language has a beauty that none other can really match. I am not an expert in Tamil. Indeed, my first attempt at reading anything more than road signs in the language came when I was 17. But, as I discovered the world of Tamil literature, I realised that it is a language that was more beautiful than Milton’s English or Racine’s French. However, my primary languages remain English and French. I would not want to torture my poor readers by writing anything in Tamil. Today, I hear the same song, and I feel a sense of nostalgia. I wish I could abandon clumsy attempts at explaining Indian cuisine in French and English and just revert to Tamil. With the nostalgia comes a sense of shame. Shame that I know English, French or even Tamil better than my own mother tongue, Kannada. Hell, I can even speak, read and write Hindi. But I cannot distinguish between Kannada and Telugu. Some Kannadiga I am!

Anyway, with that observation, I go back to listening to music. And yes, much as many find it difficult to believe, I prefer Indian music any day to anything western. Maybe it is just me, but I need to feel the words, understand them with my heart and not my brain, and above all, relate to it. Indian music lets me do that. Pop, rock or jazz do not. It is as simple as that. I prefer the beautiful and melodious voice of Nithyashree Mahadevan supported by only a tambura, or the Instrumental theme music of the film Bombay to Britney Spears singing in an accent that is as alien to me as Swedish is to the average Indian. Music, poetry, literature and language can all heal the soul and make one happy.

On a totally unrelated note, I just wish people would stop associating Tamil with the LTTE. I speak Tamil, live in Tamil Nadu, and love the sound of the language. It doesn’t make me a terrorist!! Argh! I just wish they would stop.

End of the Socialist dream?

The results are in. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s right-wing, hardliner presidential candidate is on his way to the Elysée Palace to take charge as the country’s new president. The results, declared a short while ago, confirmed what psephologists have been saying since the beginning of the electoral campaign. Sarkozy won the elections with 53% of votes in the second round, compared to Ségolène Royal’s 47. What do these results signify? Where does the Parti Socialiste go from here? Royal was the first woman to come this close to be elected president of the republic in the history of France. But, what happens next? Will she rise to the occasion and succeed in revamping the party to make it more appealing to the voting masses? Or will she disappear beneath the rubble of wannabe presidents who never actually managed to do anything in life?

Analysts suggested that Sarkozy’s pro-American, capitalist stance contributed to the success of leftist candidates in the first round. From my personal experience with the French, I know that this is a country that obsesses with job security unlike any other western democracy I know. I followed the election campaign with interest, and I must say both Sarkozy and Royal were extremely convincing in their arguments. If I had not been a convinced liberal, believing in the law of the markets, I would probably have voted for Royal. However, one of the proposals in her election manifesto caught my interest. She promised to raise the minimum salary, or the SMIC as it is called here, to 1500 euros a month. That would mean a proportionate increase in all salaries, because one can obviously not raise the SMIC and leave the pay of someone who was earning a lot more than the old rate unchanged. And it left me wondering how she proposed to raise the money needed for the endeavour. But I suppose one can dream.

Next comes Sarkozy. With his promise to tighten immigration rules, fight economic stagnation and ensure better pay for longer hours, he caught the imagination of many people in the country. The promise to tighten immigration rules and make regularisation of illegal migrants more difficult certainly strikes fear in the heart of many an immigrant, illegal or not. Unpleasant reminders of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his campaign of La France pour les français, and its similarity to the Sarkozy agenda is scary to most people. However, I cannot but support his endeavour to abolish the ridiculous 35-hour work week law established by Martine Aubry in 1998. To me, it is inconceivable that the Indian government promulgate a law establishing a cap on working hours. In such matters, the law of the markets should apply. At the very least, the law should be flexible. If I want to work more to earn more money, I should be able to without my employer cribbing about having to pay more for every hour beyond the 35th hour.

Anyway, these are just the rants of an obsessed libertarian who firmly believes that the government must govern because that’s its job, while letting the markets peacefully generate wealth. Many of the French would disagree. But hey, we live in a democracy. And dissent is healthy!

Confessions of an obsessed anglophile

These are, as the title suggests, the confessions of an obsessed freak. I am totally and completely fed up of people using the words then and than interchangeably. I am also fed up of people forgetting that good is an adjective, and well is an adverb. One cannot do good in studies. He/she can only do well. Is it really that difficult to remember some basic rules of English grammar? I am a stickler for good grammar. So, shoot me! The French would not take kindly to someone speaking their language badly. They will and do correct glaring mistakes in language. While I acknowledge that writing in e-mail lingo is both quicker and easier, there must be some ground rules on writing in serious columns and blogs. I agree that your blog is your own personal way of saying what you feel like. But, that doesn’t mean you render yourself totally incomprehensible to the unsuspecting reader who stumbles on your home page.

I was looking for some maps on the Indian Ocean region a few days ago and I stumbled on a blog that supplied great maps, but was written in atrociously ungrammatical English. I was curious enough to look up the name and location of the owner of the site on www.dnsstuff.com. And voila! I find that the site is owned by someone in California, United States. My reasoning that it must be a work of a person who was not a native speaker went flying out of the window. This business makes me think that George Bernard Shaw was right when he lamented the state of the English language in the play Pygmalion. Why can’t people just take the effort to learn the language they use every day?