Caste Is What You Do, Not What You Are


Jug Suraiya

A popular story which has long been doing the rounds in the corporate world concerns a top executive of a multinational firm who was asked by someone as to what he did. The executive replied that he was a sales director, and named the company which dealt in a well-known brand of confectionery. His interlocutor corrected him, saying, “I didn’t ask you what you are, I asked you what you do. And what you do is sell toffee.”

Caste, which is as conspicuous in the corporate sector as in other areas of India’s variegated social landscape, is very much in the news yet again as the 2019 general election looms on the horizon.

Despite repeated pious injunctions by the election authorities to voters to cast their vote, and not vote their caste, this form of social classification plays a crucial role not only in our political realm but in almost all aspects of our lives, including matrimony.

Like the sales director of the MNC, we tend to see our caste as a designation, a label which seeks to define what we are. We seldom, if ever, see our caste as what we do. “You’ll never get rid of caste in India,” pronounce our sociologists and political pundits. In this view caste is seen as an immutable state, unchanging and unchangeable.

But what if instead of being the pre-determined destiny we’re born with, caste is a dynamic which can change from day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour?

This is one of the many thought-provoking ideas American author Jonah Blank comes up with in his philosophical and spiritual travelogue which covers the length and breadth of India, ‘The Arrow of the Blue-skinned God’.

Blank, a student of Valmiki’s epic, travels through contemporary India, following the narrative of the Ramayana and attempting to interpret mythology through the prism of the present.

He meets sadhus and swamis, former maharajas and mendicants, soldiers and militants. One encounter is particularly memorable for the new light it throws on caste. The writer talks to a scion of a princely family who has converted his palace into a heritage hotel.

The conversation turns to caste, and the ex-royal tells the American that he belongs not to a single caste but to several, depending on the situation.

By birth he is a kshatriya, descended from a long line of warrior-kings. However, a history scholar, he is also a brahmin, the high priest of Saraswati, goddess of learning. Then again, as he runs a commercial enterprise in his palace hotel, he considers himself a vaishya, a tradesman. And lastly, as a keen horseman who regularly mucks out his stables, he also plays the part of the shudra, the sweeper of dirt.

Caste, according to the ex-royal, is not what you are – a former raja, a sales director – but what you do, soldier, scholar, businessman, sweeper.

This reinterpretation of caste can have many ramifications which go far beyond the outcome of elections. It frees us from a pre-ordained part we must play in the scheme of things, it liberates us from a set script. We are the author of our own narrative, our own dramatis personae, playing different roles at different times.

Why restrict ourselves to one caste, when we can cast ourselves to play many parts in the Ram Lila of our own life?