19 Nov 2017 16:17 IST

Caste in a mould

Khilawar has internalised caste identities and dynamics in such a manner that it is the only way of life

Tum kaunse jaat ke ho (which caste do you belong to)?”

Her voice boomed across the front yard into the night and an uncomfortable silence settled over the porch for what seemed like an hour. Every conversation around her was suspended momentarily.

Everyone — there were around three households — tried to return to their respective conversations but they were distracted. They too wanted to know the answer.

“I... I don’t make such distinctions,” said my friend, her voice strained.

I surreptitiously looked up from the book I was pretending to read and saw her squirm on the coir bed she was sitting on.

“Tumhara poora naam kya hai (what is your full name)?”

I felt sorry for Prajna. The woman had been trying to coax our caste out of us for the last 20 minutes. My poor knowledge of Hindi spared me the interrogation. And Prajna’s attempts to divert the conversation had failed so far.

“I don’t have a full name,” she replied, hoping that would end the conversation but, alas!

“Oh, Patel log!” exclaimed the woman, a mixture of shock and disgust on her face.

Yeh humare log hi hai, dalit log (they are our people, dalits)!” said 30-year-old Prabha, a tad defensively. I couldn’t help but smile with affection.

Down the road

I found out about Khilawar from a friend who spent time there during the Una uprising of 2016. When I mentioned planning a trip to Gujarat he insisted I visit Madhubhai Sarvaiya and his family. He said if we were lucky we’d see the lions that frequent the area. So we went, about 12 km down a serpentine path from Una, past fields of groundnut and bajra, to a tiny village that doubles as playground for jungle cats.

Madhubhai wasn’t home; instead, two of his sisters — Prabha and Kamala (in her late 20s) — welcomed us. The first thing I noticed about the house was a tile with Ambedkar’s portrait fitted on a wall, facing off with Hindu gods and goddesses on the adjacent wall. Here, on display, were India’s secular idiosyncrasies — a mosaic of faiths, beliefs and practices unifying, yet dividing.

Una and its surrounding villages exemplify this irony: despite being a hotbed for caste politics in recent times, and witnessing severe oppression of dalits, people’s faith in Vedic Hinduism thrives. Its continued hegemony over other philosophies that might grant release from the shackles of caste is a source of much of the violence. Prabha acknowledges this irony, adding that she finds comfort in the photos of the gods.

At the time of our visit, the weather was pleasant and we could sleep in the open without worrying about rain or sun. The first floor of their house was under construction. From the top we could see fields all around. On one side the land was lush green and on the other, where the Sarvaiya field was, it was dry as dirt. Knowing the answer, I asked why this was so. “Woh (the green fields) Koli ke khet hain (these are the Koli fields),” said Prabha, resigned to the overarching powers the dominant castes have over dalit families. In fact, the further one travels from Ahmedabad, on roads that don’t show on Google Maps, the clearer this oppressive structure gets.

In Khilawar, though the dalit families are economically better-off than ones elsewhere, they are mostly dependent on the rains for irrigation. Their lands lie parched under the harsh sun for many months, waiting for the erratic weather to ease. The Kolis, who are a dominant caste in this equation since they are OBCs, get water throughout the year. Depending on the season, the colour of a field provides the most accurate explanation of the caste system.

In the days we were there, Prajna and I grew close to Prabha and her extended family. I was reminded of JC Pura, my village in Karnataka, where, as a kid, I’d roam around from house to house, feeling at home in each. One night, Kamala and Prabha whipped up a massive meal for us: rice, dal, two types of rotis, peas and potato sabzi, methi and chilli pakodas, and sooji ka halwa. They heaped food onto our plates until every inch of steel was covered.

Nonetheless, they were apologetic that they couldn’t serve meat. Ever since four dalit youth were flogged in Una by gau rakshaks for allegedly slaughtering cows in 2016, dalits in Gujarat have been more cautious about buying meat. “We don’t even slaughter chickens these days; we go to Muslim butchers and secretly get the meat,” explains Prabha. The fear of being beaten up or worse, keeps them from consuming meat often, reinforcing the misconception that Gujarat is a ‘vegetarian State’ by choice.

The other side

On the second day, Prajna and I drove to Diu for beer, with Prabha and Bharath, her cousin who lives in the house behind, in tow. At first, Prabha was hesitant to drink anything. “My brother, who is in the army, gets us alcohol but I have it in secret,” she said, a shy laugh escaping her lips. But her resolve broke when she saw Prajna and I empty a Kingfisher bottle into our glasses. “Okay, I’ll have, too, but please don’t tell my father!” she said.

Four bottles and a couple of drunk calls later, we headed to Nagoa beach, where, after more hesitation, Prabha jumped into the waves with me. As one wave after another tried to push us back, we fought and moved a step closer until we were soaked head to toe. We ran carefree on the beach, laughing and hugging each other. I saw a new side to Prabha that day: she is a fiercely independent and passionate woman filled with hopes, dreams and optimism for taking on a life that hasn’t been too kind to her.

While driving back, Bharath opened up about their lives as dalits in Gujarat. “We hate Patels,” he said as we passed caste-Hindu houses. A strong sense of ‘the other’ resonated in him as he told us how he left to work in Junagadh to escape the persecution that comes with owning land among dominant castes. “We vote for Congress... Maybe this time we will vote for Mayawati’s party,” he said, without even considering the BJP as an option. “They’ve done nothing for us.”

At some point that evening, I asked Bharath what happens if a dalit and a Koli or Patel fall in love. He said it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the couple has to either elope or face torture or death. Lalji Sarvaiya’s murder five years ago comes to mind. I stopped romanticising forbidden romances then.

When Prabha first referred to us as ‘humare log’ it struck me as odd. I had a privileged upbringing where I didn’t know what caste really meant until college. I wondered what ‘humara’ meant here.

Bharath clarified what it meant when he, in passing, asked us “You are our people — dalit, right?” Before we could answer Prabha repeated firmly, “ Haan, humare log.” And I didn’t have it in me to correct her.

Neither of us could summon the courage to tell them that we were from dominant castes. While I had the privilege of not knowing what the caste system was for a long time, Prajna had a different kind of privilege: she grew up in a proud brahmin household. We weren’t sure which was worse.

There were other worrying thoughts: what if they think I’m showing off when I tell them I’m from a dominant caste? What if they think I’m someone who takes pride in caste? Is it better to not talk about caste at all? No, that would mean I’m hiding it and deceiving them. Among these confusing thoughts was some clarity: I felt shame.

I loved being “their people”; for selfish reasons I didn’t want that to change. In less than two days the people of Khilawar had become family. While Prajna communicated fluently with them, mine was a mimetic relationship, nourished with love and affection.

When I asked Prajna why she was hesitant about revealing her caste, she said, “I didn’t want them to treat me as an outcast. I want to be one of them. I thought they would dislike me if I said I was brahmin.” Once we got past the irony of it all, we decided to be honest.

“Aye, Brahmin?” exclaimed the overbearing neighbour, again, eyes almost popping out of sockets. Once she got over the shock, the woman left the house in a huff.

Everyone else, though visibly disconcerted, stayed.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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