One of the things I was looking forward to, when I applied for India Fellow, was the possibility of working with a grassroot organisation at rural level. As much as it sounded adventurous, there was an irrational fear in me that made me question my decision everyday. It was probably because my experience in the rural setup has been limited or rather non-existent. During our initial training in Udaipur, we were told that some of our days would include visits to villages, as it would help us get an idea of the rural environment. I was both excited and anxious, thinking that if I can handle it now and here, then probably I can do a fair job over the next year.
Before heading out, we were shown India Untouched, a documentary which subtly touches upon issues like caste discrimination across our country. It was an exercise preparing us with possible challenges we may face while visiting the assigned villages. My team had to go to Sagari ka Guda. Four of us set out to test all stereotypes we had around rural India.
As we reached, Rashmi (a co-fellow) and I noticed the women sitting around in a group, offering prayers to “Dassa Mata”. We had never heard of this and didn’t know what they were reciting or chanting. I decided to smile the whole time, trying to figure out what they were doing. A quick realization was that I will have to work on my Mewari language if I ever get to work in Rajasthan.
Within a minute, I could sense the women staring at me from top to bottom. Finally, one of the older ladies asked why am I not wearing a nose ring. An honest answer would have been that I don’t like it. Instead, I chose to say “Humare yahan nahi pehente” (we don’t wear).
It started a discussion among them, subsequent to which I was asked, “Kaun jaati ke ho?” (which caste?).
Even though our program team at India Fellow had been mentally preparing us to be ready for such questions, I did not have an answer. To tackle the situation (or so I thought), I said, “We wear nose rings only after getting married”.
Another internal discussion later, her next question was about the two guys accompanying us, “Wo dono kaun hai?” (Who are they?)
Maybe, they were curious to know why 2 unmarried girls are with 2 boys. Or they simply wanted to know who they were. I told her that we are students from the same college and have come to visit the village.
Even though, in the back of my mind, I had thought of experiencing some kind of caste talk, I was not expecting it to be discussed so casually in the beginning of a conversation. Having said that, once I started discussing my experience with my co-fellows, they saw this episode as a case of Caste Discrimination. I looked up the meaning of discrimination on Google which defines it as, “The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex” and/or ” Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.”
This structured definition made me rethink the whole situation. I feel the intention of women was not to demean me or behave unjustly based on my caste. I highly doubt that I would’ve been asked to leave or they would’ve taken away my cup of tea, if I had told them I belong to an upper caste or even a lower one. Of course their questions, attitude and stories involved repeatedly mentioning their own castes and that of others but I don’t know if it is really important to them now, as it would have been a few years ago. If that would be the case, why would they offer us food, water and all the love and affection without knowing anything about us.
Does all the hospitality fade away simply because one belongs to a particular caste?
Or is it just a conversation starter for them?
Going back to the definition of discrimination, I will tell you something about Mumbai. There, the first thing we ask someone new is “Where do you live here?”. Although, the question seems innocent and straightforward, we often make a mental note of it and discriminate them based on whether they belong to the suburban parts of the city or to SoBo (South Bombay). It could be a conversation starter too but being judged in our day to day lives based on our age, gender, income or location happens in the urban set-ups as well.
Why is it then that the questions village folk ask us feel discriminating but what we ask others do not? Is it because we don’t consider them as equals? If so, isn’t that the first thing we need to focus on, when we talk about eliminating caste structure from our country? The next time someone asks me, “Kaun Jaati ke ho“, I won’t get offended. They may just be trying to start talking.
Image source: Free images