Monday, May 13, 2013

Traveling to (I)ndia!! via books - Part 1

INDIA!            INDIA!            INDIA!

Classes (varnas)General dutiesItems of interest
Brahmana (Brahmin) instructors of Hindu religiondedicated to Hindu religionJawaharlal Nehru, 1st PM of India
Kshatriyawarriors and rulersHow to wear a dhoti Kshatriya style
Vaishayafarmers, artisans and merchantsVaishaya matrimony site
Shudrasemi-skilled, unskilled laborShudra - the Rising movie preview
Harijan (untouchables)"polluted" laborers, outcastes"The Untouchable" You Tube documentary

When I selected India as my subject for "I" reading in my alphabet challenge, it was with the idea that I would explore the differences in the four castes, Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishaya and Shudra. This seemed reasonable until I started reading about them! I soon found out that there are no black and white rules for any caste, but variations amongst the different subcastes. In fact, I found the same holds true in regards to the caste system in general. Upon beginning this project, I picked up a book entitled Homo Heirarchus: The Caste System and Its Implications assuming I would read what scholars from the first part of the 20th century thought about India's caste system. Unfortunately, I was only able to wade through a limited amount of material because it was written in such a patronizing style with few appealing tidbits of information. However, Homo Heirarchicus did offer one useful insight: scholars couldn't agree on whether religion drove caste, caste drove religion or some other variation of either/both. This proved interesting as I went on to read a couple of fiction books centering on the Brahmin caste as well as a memoir from a Kshatriya-caste member and discovered that there are no absolutes within the castes either and there are multitudes of opinions swirling around about application of traditions and religious activities. More research proved that there is debate whether heredity was a factor in determining caste, or if it is solely based on occupation. One site even proclaimed that personality played a role in caste determination. Blogs fought about whether leaders and famous figures really belonged to certain castes. I soon came to the conclusion that nothing appears to be "caste" in stone. With this in mind, along with the multitude of subjects to discuss surrounding this topic, I made the decision to make this a recurring topic that I will come back to throughout this year of blogging. This particular blog will focus on some caste traditions
This instrument, a veena, makes appearances throughout the book, the Toss of a Lemon.
and a short discussion of the growth out of the caste system since India's birth as an independent nation based on the books I read in preparation for this blog.
Brahmin widow requisites:  white sari and shaved head

Tradition: Twice Born

Twice born refers to the sacrament of initiation undergone by members of the Brahmins, Kshatriya and Vaishayas regarded as a second or spiritual birth. Male caste members wear a sacred thread loop, next to the skin over the left shoulder and across the right hip.

In the book, The Toss of a Lemon, this ceremony is called a "poonal" and signified that a boy was ready to begin learning. This is how it is described: On an auspicious day, at an auspicious hour, seven little boys gather shivering before dawn, oiled and clean, in new silk dhotis and shoulder cloths.....They are told, by the wise and kindly priest heading the morning's events, that this is the day of their birth. Anyone can be born from a mother, he tells them, but what sets us apart as Brahmins is this second birth into caste, into knowledge. Each boy huddles beneath a cloth with his parents, who reveal to him the prayer with which, each daybreak, he will petition the sun for illumination. He is given the three intertwined poonal threads that will signal to the world his special status: his right and obligation to knowledge, his right and obligation to poverty (except, not really).

Tradition: Banishment of women from society once they are widowed

The idea behind this tradition is stated thus in The Toss of a Lemon: A woman whose husband dies before her is, in some cosmic, karmic way, responsible for his death, and must be contained. The best way to do this is to make her unattractive: no vermillion dot to draw attention to the eyes, no turmeric to rub on the skin for brightness, no incense to suffuse the hair, no jasmine bunches to ornament it. No hair to suffuse, but that comes later......Sivakami accepts the two white cotton saris that will be her only garments and her badge. Here are some of the requirements of Brahmin widowhood that I gleaned from reading The Keeping Corner and The Toss of a Lemon:

               -Wears a white sari of lesser quality fabric
               -Shaves head and continues to have head shaved frequently
               -Shuns weddings and festivities
                - Does not appear in public
                - Does not touch others even small children barring her from affection

Keeping Corner describes the life of a young virgin espoused to a local boy who is tragically killed shortly before the time they are to become a couple. She is required to "keep corner" which entails remaining in a certain section of her parents home for the course of one year. Her beautiful glass bangles that were given to her by family members in celebration of her  "married" state must be broken and she is not allowed to wear jewelry again.

Through the course of both these books, progress is made by some of the main characters in regards to adherence to new values that improve their lives while others choose to cling to prejudices and destructive values and traditions. This is not to label all traditions as "destructive". Not in the least. It was clear that the origins of many Indian traditions did have value or at least did at the time they were constructed. However, in the case of the widow traditions it is difficult to find value. Fortunately, in Keeping Corner, young Leela is not willing to throw her life away to widowhood and embraces Gandhi's doctrines and progressiveness. But sadly, Sivakami of The Toss of a Lemon starts her life progressive because of the influence of her husband but changes little afterward except when pressed by her family. Sivakami finds that her son, Vairum, is disgusted with her lack of adaptation to the new culture growing in India creating a chasm between the two. Vairum represents the new Indian who is class-tolerant, eating with members of lower castes and eschewing castes while Sivakami clings to the traditions of the old India. Much like real life, members of her family fall at about all points in-between, some more willing to accept change, others less. The book offered an excellent look at the evolution of Indian culture.

Famous chef & author, Madhur Jaffrey

Tradition: Arranged marriage based on horoscope readings

I don't think there exists any literature in the world that uses the word "auspicious" as much as Indian literature. Every time I've seen the word its been used in conjunction with comparing horoscopes of potential brides and grooms for the purpose of an arranged marriage. From as early an age as 2 years old, parents would start looking for potential marriage partners for their children. (The actual marriage didn't take place until they were older.) If a child had a inauspicious horoscope he/she could be shunned or have difficulty in finding a marriage partner. In The Toss of a Lemon this happens when Hanumarathnam mentions to Sivakami's parents perhaps you have already heard: the weakest quadrant of my horoscope has a small faintly suggests I will die in my ninth year of marriage. Hanumarathnam was a wealthy, respected healer/seer, normally a good catch. Later in

the book Sivakami's oldest son faces the prospect of marriage. He refuses to be bound by convention and chooses his own wife much to the chagrin of Sivakami. In Keeping Corner, Leela's marriage was arranged from a very early age. She approves of her bridegroom, but has friends who find the tradition stifling.

There is no mention of arranged marriage in the memoir by the Kshatriya caste member, Madhur Jaffrey, Climbing the Mango Trees. Probably, because the memoir is about her childhood and her father and uncles lived liberally compared to their fellow countrymen. Jaffrey's grandfather was proud of his heritage, but his sons while maintaining the communal living of the extended family embraced new ideas and
rubbed shoulders with Muslims and British alike. Jaffrey was exposed to the latest

Gandhi influences in Keeping Corner
drama, music, clothing and culture available. Even though she lived in India during a time that would have overlapped with both of the fiction books I read, hers was a different India much I'm sure in part because she didn't reside in rural areas (except during non-school months) and due to her father's liberalism. All the same, her story fascinates with the description of food, holidays, school experiences. She offers the reader a rare glimpse into family tradition and her subcaste, Kayasthas, lifestyle. While the book doesn't offer much contrast between the Kayasthas and other castes/subcastes it does give a glimpse of the hypocrisy that

A water buffalo has a role in Keeping Corner
took place between races during Partition. As mentioned earlier, Jaffrey and her family embraced other cultures (and their foods). Almost overnight, their friendship was rebuffed by Muslims fighting for Partition - they had become the enemy even though they never endorsed either side of the issue. I found her account of this historical occasion enlightening and reconfirming of what is so often true, there rarely is a "good side" or "bad side" in any conflict.

Throughout my reading with a focus on castes, I have found that same thought to be true. The caste system overall was brutal to so many, particularly women, but even so it did provide a sense of order and community that appears to be lost today. Does that justify the harm it did (does)? Not in the least! But it is worth mentioning in the hope that the said community will be one day restored in a healthy way creating a more unified India.

*I will pay a visit to John Steinbeck's books circa 1932-1937.
*The May Edition of reviews for 2013 publications


  1. Very interesting reviews, Judy. Thanks.

  2. Thank-you, Chelsea. Do you have a favorite India book?

  3. Hi Judy,

    That was absolutely fascinating. I was particularly interested in what you wrote about the status of widows, and the video on untouchables was hugely interesting.

    I was also interested to hear that the origin of caste is a moot and debated point. It does seem a strong part of Indian culture though, particularly in the rural areas.

    Thanks for giving us so much to think about!

    Caroline (Goodreads)

  4. Thank-you, Caroline! I know you have read about India recently, too. Did any of what you learned intersect with this topic? If so, I would love to hear about it!

  5. Hi Judy,

    Yes, there were relevant bits to this topic in the book "In Spite of The Gods - the strange rise of modern India", by Edward Luce, which I read recently. He mentioned the following....

    * Problems between castes are not just about high level castes treating low level castes badly. A lot of the different untouchable castes have issues between themselves too. If the untouchable castes could all vote for the same political party they would be the strongest party in India, but instead they all vote for individual politicians representing their different factions.

    *Caste prejudices are much more common in rural areas than in the cities, but even in urban areas there are barriers - eg people seldom marry outside their caste.

    *In an effort to counteract caste prejudice, a large number of government jobs have been given to untouchables via a process of positive discrimination. eg In the Tamil Nadu district 69% of government jobs are given to Dalits. (Many argue though that this positive discrimination had led to a bloated bureaucracy, and a lack of meritocracy.)

    * Every week in the news you hear reports of people attacked or killed as a result of caste violence.

    And one other mention Jawaharlal Nehru as the first prime minister of independent India. In fact he was the founder of a political dynasty, all members of The Congress Party. His daughter,Indira Nehru, was a famous (some would say notorious) prime minister too. Then her son Rajir Gandhi became prime minister. He was assisinated, and shortly after that his widow Sonia Gandhi became prime minister. And now their son, Rahul Gandhi is very much emerging as the next heir in the dynasty. He too may well become prime minister. What an amazing family....

    Anyway, that is my tuppence worth!

    All the best,

  6. Thanks, Caroline. Very appropriate information. Until I had read the comments on your review of the book you mentioned, I never realized that the caste system still existed (even if it is unsanctioned and informally practiced). Since then I have done a little bit more research and that is how I came across the dating site that I linked for the Vaishaya caste. That shocked me that it is still so important to marry within the caste for many. I will definitely be adding the book you mentioned to my survey of India!

  7. Yes, your link to the matrimony site was very interesting. Not least because the people advertising there seemed highly educated - and yet still caste was obviously of major importance to them when seeking a partner.


  8. "The Toss of a Lemon" sounds like a really interesting book, and I will have to look into that.

    I like your last thought. There is often something good in ideas that are hugely problematic as a whole concept. It will be a long time before we will see a healthier India though I think. Such huge social changes take a lot of time.

  9. "It will be a long time before we will see a healthier India though I think. Such huge social changes take a lot of time."

    I believe you are right, SR. America is a good example of how long it takes to overcome prejudices.