INDIA! INDIA! INDIA!
|Classes (varnas)||General duties||Items of interest|
|Brahmana (Brahmin) instructors of Hindu religion||dedicated to Hindu religion||Jawaharlal Nehru, 1st PM of India|
|Kshatriya||warriors and rulers||How to wear a dhoti Kshatriya style|
|Vaishaya||farmers, artisans and merchants||Vaishaya matrimony site|
|Shudra||semi-skilled, unskilled labor||Shudra - the Rising movie preview|
|Harijan (untouchables)||"polluted" laborers, outcastes||"The Untouchable" You Tube documentary|
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.|
|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).
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 shadow...It...it faintly suggests I will die in my ninth year of marriage. Hanumarathnam was a wealthy, respected healer/seer, normally a good catch. Later in
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|
|A water buffalo has a role in Keeping Corner|
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