Questions about my surname though rare are still expected considering its uncommonness. For years, I tried not to dwell on the underlying reason behind their curiosity. As I child, I would proudly reply that I was a descendant of Vishwakarma, the Hindu God who constructed the city of Dwarka. But years later, when a certain classmate matter-of-factly pointed out that I was someone from a ‘lower caste’, I was a little abashed but more than that, taken aback at their orthodox mindset.
While I know times have changed and we have important national figures to disprove the theory of casteism, at a more elementary level, there are instances which prove we still have a long way to go when it comes to dismantling the three-thousand-year-old practice of the caste system.
While researching for this article I talked to, or rather grilled, every member of my family about their views and their experiences with ‘casteism.’ The first question they asked me after a brief silence was, ‘Why do you want to write about this?’ whose veiled translation was, ‘Why do you want everyone to know who you are?’
This strengthened my slightly wavering resolve and intensified my will to learn everything I could about myself. At the same time, it made me wonder if we were as untouched by casteism as I liked to believe.
I am a Suthar, a caste whose traditional occupation is carpentry, and history has identified us as the first engineers and architects of the country.
Growing up, I never felt the brunt of casteism and if I ever did, I never equated it with my surname. Perhaps because I wasn’t raised to think like that. Caste was not a topic discussed in my home because we weren’t directly affected by it. My family never had to go through ostracization nor had a politician ever made us a part of his campaign. We lived as normally as any other middle-class family.
But sometimes, I wonder if I should have called out my third-grade teacher for picking my classmates over me for every minor task, despite my better grades and conduct. If I should’ve asked the fifth-grade teacher why he always called me by my surname. And who was indeed the ‘inferior’ one, me because of my birth or the person who still equates caste with capability.
Having grown up watching films and TV shows, and being heavily influenced by the same, the time-honoured portrayal of caste in popular culture, especially Hindi movies, irked me.
Be it Swades or Article 15 or even Aarakshan, why is the ‘messiah’ of all ‘backward castes’ himself an educated, upper-caste man? It’s his coming-of-age story, about how he has matured after seeing the atrocities faced by that ill-fated section of society. There are a few exceptions but the above-mentioned rule applies for the majority of the time.
My simple question is why the hero can’t be one of us. Why is someone who hasn’t been in our shoes, might have even snubbed us at some point, given the status of our ‘hero’? What is the reason behind the ‘caste-washing’ of the lead character?
Perhaps it’s the same reason which made filmmakers change a heart-rendering Marathi love story about casteism and inter-caste romance into a trite, commercial Hindi film dealing with economic disparity.
Casteism, in the present world, has shifted to another level due to the emergence of reservations. There remains a divided opinion about reservations, and it has given birth to several debates about ‘unfair advantage’. I find myself at odds when asked to choose my stance thereon because I’m not qualified to pass judgement. I study in a private medical college; my father qualified a non-reserved chartered accountancy examination and my grandfather never benefited from the Mandal Commission. My only opinion on reservations is that while it was introduced to bring equality and provide well-deserved protection, it ended up creating a stir for the wrong reasons. Only this time, it’s resentment at the benefits and not scorn for the lack of them.
I don’t speak for anyone but myself. Not for my ‘caste’ and definitely not for communities which have been under subjugation since the Aryan invasion, because I’m not competent enough to speak for them.
I write this not to erase the stigma associated with my lineage. Nor do I criticise or laud anyone. I write this for myself. For the inferiority I felt when asked about my ‘caste.’ For the discomfort I felt when I answered them.
For the catharsis, I feel after finally accepting my identity.
Written by Sneha Jangid for MTTN
Edited by Mihika Antonia Dean for MTTN
Featured image by www.feminisminindia.com