India’s Eternal Inequality

Aatish Taseer in the New York Times:

13Taseer-blog427It is one thing to have a theoretical knowledge of caste. It is quite another to see it in action. A few months ago, I was given a small, relatively benign glimpse into how this idea of spiritual purity actually affects people’s lives inIndia.

I was in Varanasi, India’s most sacred city, conducting research for a book about Brahmins, the priestly caste at the top of the Hindu hierarchy. I was speaking at length to a young student who, like his Brahmin ancestors, was steeped in the study of Sanskrit and the Veda. One day, we drove together to the village where he came from. Our driver on this five-hour journey was a voluble man from the neighboring state of Bihar. Along the way, the driver, the student and I chatted amicably, but as we neared the Brahmin village, our dynamics swiftly changed.

My father was Muslim, and since religion in India is patrilineal, my presence in the Brahmin household should have been an unspeakable defilement. But it wasn’t. I belong to India’s English-speaking upper class and, in the eyes of my host, I was exempt from the rules of caste. As we approached the village, he did make one small adjustment: He stopped calling me by my conspicuously Muslim name, and rechristened me Nitish, a Hindu name.

More here.