THE CASUAL CRUELTIES OF UPPERCASTE INDIA
Dear HT readers, ours has been a long dialogue sorting our immense cultural and spiritual baggage together, considering, as we go along, the bits we can honourably keep and what we must absolutely throw out.
This week, I encountered a few instances of ‘throw-away’ behaviour and, as always, I would like to know what you think.
I was invited to the birthday party of a friend’s son. Theirs is a very traditional clan. At the crucial moment of cake-cutting, the father and grandfather were called up to flank the birthday boy. The mother, who had given birth to him, brought him up, woke up early in the morning to singlehandedly do all the cooking, and had organised the party and the gigantic cake, stayed quietly in the background with other daughters-in-law of the extended family.
“Why aren’t you there?” I whispered to her, surprised. “My son belongs to them, not me,” she whispered back. Another daughter-in-law spoke up. “We show respect to our elders this way. Isn’t it better than those families that don’t care for grandparents?”
“I don’t know families like that,” I whispered back.
“One reads about them,” she said. “Respect only to grandfathers, not mothers,” remained unsaid.
I was a guest. They were kind, sweet women and their menfolk unfailingly polite to me, the ‘modern’ woman and outsider I loved my friend the mother very place to say more. But it bothered me that only two extremes were considered possible.
This was a hardcore North Indian Brahmin family. Another time, when travelling with a proudly ‘no onion, no garlic’ Bania housewife to a traditional function, she began to speak disparagingly about visiting Kanyakumari and how South Indians stuffed rice into their mouths.
I was sitting next to her and laughingly protested, “Excuse me, I’m South Indian”. She felt a bit awkward but instead of a polite cover-up or backtrack, responded aggressively, ‘It’s my habit to say what I think”.
My distaste for such low-level social confrontations kept me chatting faux normally, especially since we were in someone else’s car. I did fantasise, though, about getting out of the vehicle then and there, even if it meant galloping back to Delhi on a buffalo.
Worse was to follow at the function. As the large clan of daughters-in-law gathered to await a ceremonial arrival, an elder aunt of the family loudly said, “Those in saris look correctly dressed. Those in
look like maids.” I happened to be in a sari but a couple of daughters-in-law and a very smart, nice maid of the host family were in salwar-kameez. Everybody heard her; she clearly intended to be heard. All kept quiet. More respect for disrespectful elders?
I daresay other communities in India don’t lag in such casual cruelties, since we’re all cut from the same cloth. In my view, it’s anti-national behaviour. It’s time the enlightened younger generation spoke up politely but firmly against such talk, as in previous waves of Hindu social reform. And can’t religious channels preach some everyday respect instead of only furthering sectarian agendas?