Day 25: I’ll be your friend, only if..

One of the things you get used to living in Western countries, I shouldn’t probably generalize, but this has been my experience so far, is smiling at people you see around you.

When we first relocated to Bangalore, I found that I was becoming an embarrassment to myself. I would smile at people in lifts in the apartment, and then find myself being completely ignored. People would just look through you. However, some were very curious. Now, they might not smile at you, but they would ask you if you were renting. If you said you were an owner, the next question would be when you bought the property. In due course I came to understand that all that was part of the hierarchy of the apartment ecosystem. Sigh. The different types of categorization which would then dictate how they would be with you. You might get a few friendly nods if you were owners, may be not if you were tenants. I’ve heard that even maids are more likely to come to you for work if you were owners rather than tenants..

Although not everybody was like this, but I met plenty to realize that it might not be the norm, but there was more than a few to be called an exception.

In the UK, one of the places, I meet new people is at Daughter’s school. When she started Year 3, she moved from infant school to Junior school. Some schools are divided into sections like that. And all infant schools feed into certain junior schools. In case of daughter’s school, two feeder schools fed into this junior school. Before school started, we had certain sessions and were given information packs. This included the list of children in each class. We glanced through it to figure out which of Daughter’s classmates would be in her new class, and that was it.

On the first day of school, we were walking back to the bus stop(this was in the days before I got my manual driving license), and I smiled at another mother with her child, who was walking near us. She didn’t smile back or anything. Daughter waved bye to the little girl and I asked her if they were in the same class, and daughter confirmed that they were.
Suddenly, the lady turns to me and asks, ‘What is your daughter’s name?’.

When I replied, she says, ‘Oh you are ‘x’ caste, aren’t you?’

Well, you see, my daughter has my husband’s surname, which is also the same as his caste.

‘We are also the same caste’, she went on to say,excitedly, and smiling for the first time, ‘ I saw in that information pack!’.

I was flabbergasted to hear that! People still look for their ‘castes’ before deciding to be friendly. This lady did not even smile, before she figured out the caste equation!

Needless to say, I don’t have much to say to this lady. I still smile and give her a friendly nod, when I do run across her, but that is about it.

This whole caste thingy annoys me. I have been brought up in an environment where my parents always stressed on how things like caste are of no importance. My grandfathers, both of them, had different ideas for not naming their children with the caste names. My paternal grandfather was a Gandhian and felt strongly about equality of all sections of society. My maternal grandfather was a communist, who again believed in equality of all castes. The combined effect has been for us to grow up literally blissfully ignorant of the caste equation around us. It helped that we lived in a wonderfully cosmopolitan place where I’ve never heard of caste based divisions while growing up.

So I find this diffucult to come to terms with this slotting of people into ‘castes’ for various reasons. I have heard people assume that because some people of a particular caste is successful, ‘it must be because of reservation’. Or people trying to find out my caste because my surname doesn’t give a clue. But this was the first time, a person completely ignored me, showed no signs of being friendly, suddenly was bursting with friendliness as soon as she realized that we might be of the same caste!

Is it any wonder that caste based politics works so well in India? I could have understood this reaction had it been from a person in some village with no access to a different value system, but when you see this sort of attitude in someone who ought to know better, someone, who I assume is educated( or may be not), I feel sad. Just sad.