The sun had begun to be visible from above the lush green fields. The winter crops in the few flat patches amidst the rugged countryside bathed in the sun, and the resulting golden-green hue set off in sharp, bright contrast against the deep blue of the sky. It was a perfect morning for a bike trip.
A canine popped its furry head out of the growth. It was a full, solid, muscular head with strong features and authoritative eyes. My eyes met those eyes for a fraction of a second as my Klashni* approached, and then left them behind at the side of that country road. I asked Parshuram, the guy sitting pillion behind me who I had befriended and given a lift in Etawah –
“Bhaiya, ye kya tha? Bhedia?” (What was that? Wolf?)
“Haan.” Came the nonchalant reply of the villager.
I had traveled some 15 km off the main road at the MP-UP border (at the horn of MP) into the hinterland of Etawah district of Uttar Pradesh. We reached Parshuram’s house in the village, and his Bhabhi made a fuss about me riding bike in such icy weather and so much away from home. But then she went away to arrange tea for me. Parshuram, meanwhile, was busy letting me in on the village.
“Vo dekhiye bhaiya, ve saamne wala kuan hamara hai, thakuron ka… vahaan tak hamari zameenein hain… aur us taraf brahmanon ka kuan hai, aur vo taraf neech jati walon ka.” (See brother, that well is ours, the Thakurs’. That well belongs to the Brahmins, and that to the lower castes.)
I was curious. “Sabhi jaation ke kuen alag alag hain? Aisa ab bhi hota hai?” (Different wells for each caste? This still happens?)
“Bilkul hota hai.” (like hell it does.)
“To, agar unke kuen mein paani khatam ho gaya, to aap log unhe apne kuen se paani nahi denge?” (so, if their well dries up, would you guys give them water from your well?)
“Vo pyaase mar jayenge, par is kuen ka pani unhe nahi milega.” (They can very well die of thirst, but they won’t get a drop out of this well.)
I was shocked. A similar scene has been etched in my mind ever since I had read it in a Premchand’s story some fifteen years ago. A scene written almost 100 years back was being played out in front of my eyes, in this day and age.
“Acchha, aur agar aapke kuen mein pani pehle khatam ho gaya to?” (What if your well dries up first?) I was curious if the system worked the other way as well.
“To hum log to tanker mangwa lenge”, came the reply, on an air of carelessness one normally reserves for talks with only those who one considers as so stupid that they are insignificant for you.
The rules of eating in different caste homes were no less bizarre. These days, anyone could go and eat in an upper caste’s house on marriages and other occasions, I was told. Which meant that Thakurs, and selected Dalit families could eat in Brahmin’s house, and dalits could eat in Thakur homes. But Brahmins would come and eat in Thakur homes only snack-type food (poori sabzi), and not drink water. They would never eat in a Dalit home. Thakurs, in turn, would eat only the kachcha (snack) food in Dalit homes.
Parshuram admitted that these rules were wrong, and were on decline as more and more people moved out, ate in dhabas and hostel messes where such shenanigans could not be afforded. This whole system of untouchability, he was of the opinion, was there only till the time “puraane buddhe mar nahi jaate”.
*Klashni == Name I have given to my beloved Pulsar 180.
“Sir, ye timer start ho gaya hai, main abhi campus ka round laga ke aata hoon!” I handed over my cellphone to the security guard sitting on the bench beside the temple complex in the campus. I was timing myseld for my quater-to-three km jog of the campus road.
I raced back to my starting point in less than 13 minutes, according to the timer. This was better than yesterday’s time and I happily started on my stretching routine in front of the Bajrang Bali temple. The guard looked at me with some curiosity.
“Aapka naam kya hai sir?” he finally asked me.
I stood straight and looked at him in the eye.
“Oh, to aap bhi Pandit hain! Hum dekhte hi pehchaan gaye the!” (Oh, so you’re a Pandit! I knew right away!)
“Ji, bilkul… Brahmin ka chehra sheeshe ki tarah damakta hai… saikdo ki bheed mein Brahman alag se nazar aa jaata hai.” (Yeah, a Brahmin face shines like a mirror… a Brahmin is so outstanding he can be identified in crowd of hundreds) he declared.
I recalled the curious incidence of the afternoon, when coming back from classes, I had seen the security guard sitting on his chair, his finger raised in typical Chaitanya Mahaprabhu fashion, while on the floor sat the hostel housekeeper, looking at him in awe, and listening in rapt attention.
So this guy was a preacher. Interesting.
“Achchha!” I stretched my shoulders. “Main bhi aapko dekhte hi samajh gaya tha ki aap bhi Brahman hogey.” (Really! I had also known right away that you were a Brahmin.)
“Dekhiye, yahaan campus mein sab galat ho raha hai”, the preacher had by now got into his flow. “Ye sab ladke ladkiyaan kaise galat galat kaam karte hain!” (See, all kinds of wrong things are happening in this campus. These boys and girls… they do such evil things!)
“Nahi, aisa to…” (No, that’s not…)
“Ye sab isliye ho raha hai, ki neech jaati wale adhikari aa gaye hain. 1 Lakh vo kama rahe hain, aur 10 hajaar hum. Isliye hamari sunte nahi. Paise ke nashe mein bhool gaye hain ki shreshtha kaun hai…” (All this is happening because lower caste people are running the administration now. They don’t listen to us. They’ve forgotten who is better.)
My heart skipped a few beats as I stood and looked at this curious creature. Till now, I had seen caste differences. Some, and increasingly dwindling number of, upper class people thought that they were superior to the so-called lower castes. But the reason for this superiority, I had concluded, was because it was more likely for an upper caste person to be more educated, more wealthy or more ‘cultured’. That is, that the superiority complex was due to cultural differences.
But this guy was different. He actually believed that he was superior to others, on the basis of his birth, on the basis of his genes.
And recalling the way the housekeeper had sat on the floor, listening to his preachings in the way he was, the same was probably true in the reverse as well.
The lower caste person probably actually believed that he was inferior to the Brahman, on the basis of his birth.
I have tried to understand the caste phenomena for long. I must have read hundreds of articles on caste system in my lifetime. I never could understand how a system so unjust and detrimental could persist for long.
I think I have stumbled upon a good lead. Some more research on this would be in order as and when I get time. But this is my hypothesis.
For thousands of years, people have probably believed that they were superior or inferior, on the basis of which caste they were born into. It was this belief which was sustained by the unequal, rigidly hierarchical social system. And even as that system had been officially broken, and a semblance of meritocracy, and not heredity, was prevailing in India now, the belief still existed.
Although it took me 26 years of living as a Brahman in India, to come to experience and realize this. Which gives me the relief, that this belief now only exists only on a narrow, lunatic fringe.
*The Changing Landscape is my ongoing series of blog posts about life as I see it in Uttar Pradesh. Here is the link to the first post in this series https://simplyani.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/the-changing-landscape/)