So, for the longest time, I never knew what to answer when someone, anyone, asked me, “Are you Brahmin?”
I started out being stunned. I was naive enough to think that because caste didn’t matter to me, it didn’t matter to anyone.
After a while, I moved on to being judgmental. I always looked down on people who asked about “caste” as people unworthy of my attention. But then, I realized there were people right in my (extended) family who I liked to whom caste mattered a great deal. This didn’t seem right. How could ordinary sane, rational, “good” people care about something as silly as caste?
When I turned seventeen, I identified myself as “OC” for the first time. Suddenly, it started to seem unfair that there were people who attended the same school as mine who were in no way “backward” who would be chosen over me. The system didn’t seem right. But more importantly, it didn’t seem right that there were people who didn’t mind lying about being “backward” just because it meant they received additional benefits.
I went through college with a kind of resentment for those who managed to get to where “they didn’t deserve to be” just because of their caste. Looking back, it seems very hypocritical to me. After all, I benefited from the “women’s quota” reservation myself!
With time, judgment gave way to curiosity. I dabbled with the shadier sides of Orkut and joined quite a few of the “brahmins unite” groups just to see what the fuss was about. The larger groups were more of a symbol on someone’s profile. The smaller, regional groups played the same role as telugumatrimony.com. Overall, the experiment was a failure. I learned nothing new.
When I moved to the US I thought caste wouldn’t matter given it doesn’t matter to anyone around. But I’ve heard the question on occasion, “Are you vegetarian? Is it by choice or…” Granted, not everyone who asks the question is interested in knowing your caste. But you can tell when the person is interested in learning about more than your dietary choices.
Last semester, I talked about India in my International Business class. The biggest question everyone had was about caste. “How does it feel”, a woman asked, “when you look at each other and know the difference in caste, but we can’t tell the difference?” Something cleared up in my mind after that. I replied, “All societies find ways to classify people. Caste just happens to be the Indian way. ‘Upward mobility’ and ‘financial success’ are not a function of your caste. Caste is just something you’re born with and you choose what you want to do with it.”
What made me think of this today? I just finished checking the “I am not Hispanic” box on all my grad school applications.