Friday, January 27, 2006

The question

Last fortnight, traveling to Makrana, while I struggled to read on the berth above, the three other people in the compartment discussed the 'great function' in Lucknow - the kayastha mahasabha.
A lady who was apparently a local district leader for kayastha ladies kept insisting that it was time to make the world sit up and take notice... "ke hum bhi kuch hain!"
Her husband kept repeating that the kayasthas controlled Raipur. "Doctors, engineers, IAS.... sab kuch humare haath mein hai."
The lady kept saying, "Jab tak hum sarkar ko dikha nahin dete, ke hum bhi sangathit ho gaye hain, hume kuch nahin milega."
The gentleman across her kept saying, "Bilkul theek kaha aapne. kayasth bhi sampann hain... ab dikha dena chahiye."

I was burning to ask a few questions - like what they want to show, and to whom? Why did they want the world to pay attention? Of what? What was the government doing to upset them? If 'they' controlled all of Raipur, clearly they must not know want; what else did they want from the government?

But I do not ask. There is a simmering anger in my head and I know my voice will betray it.


In Makrana, my contact-activist asks me, "What are you?"

I said, "Journalist."

He said, "Yes, yes... but what are you? Where are you from?"

I said, "Delhi."

"Delhi... proper?"

I sighed deeply. "Proper."

The question is more improper than my half-lies.


On the road, the driver asks me, "What are you?"

"I'm a journalist."

"Yes, but what are you?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"What caste?"

Deep sigh. I say, "I don't know what caste. My family never told me."

"What? You don't know."

"No, I don't know."

"You never asked?"

"No, I never asked."

It is not a lie, but it is not the whole truth. My whole truth is too large to fit into the front seat of this jeep.


In Jodhpur, an activist asks me, "You... are from Delhi?"

"Yes, and no. I live there now."

"Ah... and you... are?"

"A journalist."

"No, I mean... your surname is... what are you?"

I shrug. I do not want to answer the question.

But the question insistently poses itself. "You are Muslim?"

I smile. But I really meant to flinch.


In the train, in the general dabba, beteeen Jodhpur and Makrana, I try to read. The dabba is almost empty but a young man takes the seat directly opposite mine. He waits to catch my eye and begins conversation.

"Excuse me, madam, you are going to Jodhpur?"


"What caste yours?"

"No caste."

"But how can that be?"

I look at him for a cold, silent minute, before saying. "No caste."

"You are christian?"

"I am nothing."

He subsides. My eyes scan the page, not reading. The guilt of having been rude to a curious stranger hangs heavy on me. But sometimes, enough is just enough.


neha vish said...

Does it make it easier for people? To be able to stick labels on foreheads? Assumptions easily made on some categories of information?

Married/ Still father's name/ What fluent Hindi/ You speak Tamil/ Your aunt/ Your mother?/ She works/ Love/ Marriage?/ Boyfriend/ Partner?/ Caste/ Meat?/ Smoke?/ Child/ Family Way?/ Marks/ Bangles?/ Toe rings?/ What?/ Why?/ Where?/ Brahmin?/ Alchohol?

R. said...

just going to be the devil's advocate on this issue. people are the way they are, for some, the basis of a conversation is on caste lines or religious lines, thats the only way they know how to talk. Actually a lot of them don't know any different.

In Kerala during my first visit, I felt that everyone was too nosey, then I realised that these questions did not contain any ulterior motive but just curiosity that is a part and parcel of the state.

A lot of us moved have moved away conventional labels and barriers but a few of us haven't, just because they were brought up that way. Not saying that such questions be entertained but just giving my two bits on where the questions come from.

I remember my school days when the wife of my tuition master would sprinkle water around the water glass I used before she took it. She did this was because she had to 'purify' the water glass, for obvious reasons. After the first couple of times, i stopped taking water at their house.

Now thinking back, I hold no grudge, I'm just glad she gave me water when I needed it. I guess thats the only way she knew how to react.

smriti said...

read it and felt your anger. i wish things weren't the way they are.
love you ~ smriti

Anonymous said...

Maintain this anger. Let it flourish.

Dr. Gonzo said...

My dad's surname is Jha. I had that surgically extracted from my name.

In Bihar,caste has turned itself upside down so much that one doesn't even know which side brings more riches.

I had a childhood friend, supposedly one from the scheduled tribes by birth(and me being born in a brahmin family, was one whole frowned but not much talked about friendship in the colony) who discovered his caste in the middle of growing up, when he found out that he made quite a neat killing with the extra dough doled out to him during college.

Wrote about him here(in a totally different context),


1conoclast said...

I must have been 9 when I went to buy vegetables from the one & only local vendor.
Tekchand, after asking me whether I was new around here, asked me "Kaun Jaat?". My angered response was "Usse Faraq Padta Hai Tumko?". I'd never seen a grown up fumble for words before. It gave me an immense thrill. I thrill I enjoy till today.
The "Tumko Matlab?" response I can trace back to when I was 7 years old in Lucknow, the casteism heartland. In a park playing with kids my age, I was asked, "What are you?". I didn't know and went home to ask. I can still see the drawing room that reverberated in shock at my relating the incident that had taken place barely 5 minutes back in the park. I was told to treat all such petty, illiterate people with a disdainful "Tumko Matlab". And that has stuck.
People aren't used to this response and they flinch. It gives me an immense thrill. I thrill I enjoy till today. It's just that I don't embarass people so directly now. I let the embarassment creep up on them. That way it lasts longer.

Pareshaan said...

People will always label. The sad part is that things being what they are, labels are still uncomfortable.
They still mean a lot of things they should never have meant. I sincerely hope that one day we will all be comfortable and proud of whatever labels society plasters us with.

Shobha said...

I can relate so well with this post. It always happens with me too. In Mumbai people have this penchant to ask surnames, that's how they guage which caste you belong to. Off late when they ask me my name, I just say Shobha. and then, there will be a blank look on their face as in Shobha What? I reply by saying I am just Shobha, nothing more to it and they usually shut up....most of the times.

Shilpa Bhatnagar said...

I have ancestral roots in Lucknow. I am a kayastha by virtue of my surname. And I have been subjected to the all-too-self-important kayastha declarations at times. Uncles and aunts would smile triumphantly when the director of the TV show whose credits were rolling was a Kayastha - more so, if it's one of the supposedly 'higher' kayastha clans. At inter-caste weddings, fat bejewelled women would huddle in groups and turn up their noses at the 'lowliness' of the other 'side'. Bewildered me as a kid, sickened me as I grew up. I do snub people of a particular 'caste' now - my own.

It's a mask for insecurity. Where they use surnames and 'castes' to hide basic mental inadequacies.

Asmita said...

We all label people. Some on the basis of caste, some on the basis of the money they control, the influence they have or even how well read they are, or the way they speak a language.

Have been subject to all these labels, have even practiced a few. Yes they all incite anger when I am the recepient. And shames me when I recognise that I have practiced it.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about these sick questions, so came up with these which might help:

Q) What (caste) are you?
A) We don't have any castes on Mars.

Q) What is your lastname/middle name (indirect question to identify you) ?
1A) The bludy thing had grown long and become heavy, so I chopped it off!
2A) Oh, I lost it when crossing the Sahara, please let me know if you find it.

Q) What is your salary?
A) Why, do I owe you any money?

david raphael israel said...

a riveting tale.

Coincidentally, while reading your story, my ears were half taking in [via radio] the voice of Coretta Scott King (just deceased widow of Martin Luther King Jr.) . . . and some sense of synchornicity kicks in, though not through a simple equation.
Not happening to know anything about this "mahasabha" in Lucknow (nor indeed anything about caste or communitarian politics & developments as relates to that place), the gestalt of the experience you relate seeps in still.


david raphael israel said...

belatedly reading above Comments more particularly, here's two inter-Commentbox questions (out of curiousity), if I may:

Opinionated: what's the meaning of "Tumko Matlab"?

Shilpa: this business about "Kayastha" is a curiousity; I'm unfamiliar with the word; a subdivision of some sort? Wait, I've googled it: I see (i) some Kayastha-specific matrimonial ads, and (ii) an interesting Wilipedia article. Which in fact clears it up now.

I was also about to ask a dumb question (that confused me in reading Annie's tale) -- but now realize it's because I'd mixed up Lucknow with Lahore. ;-)


david raphael israel said...

ps Annie--
reading Neha's "rant" on a related cultural trait of asking questions that serve to identify nuances of genealogical history (and noting how this same urge flourishes WITHIN a given caste group), one can conclude that an urge (related to historical / social antecedents attached like rolling pedigrees to current players on the stage of the day) to ask certain kinds of questions, may include but also may transcend this matter of identifying distinctions among (& distinguishing between) caste categories &/or religion groupings...

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