Three Books That Convey The Complexity Of Caste
by Miranda Kennedy
As India has embraced its economic successes, it still grapples with
October 3, 2011
There's been a glut of India books in recent years, most of them
excitable narratives with titles like Billions of Entrepreneurs that
look at how the country's fast-changing economy is revolutionizing
global business and the Indian lifestyle.
Fewer and further between are those that acknowledge that the
country's progress toward social change has been stuttering and
uneven. And it's even more unusual to find authors willing to admit
that the ancient Hindu caste hierarchy still defines much about modern
country. But these three don't shy away.
My Family's Triumphant Escape from India's Caste System
by Narendra Jadhav
Paperback, 307 pages
The subtitle of this memoir makes the journey sound easier than it
was for Narendra Jadhav's family to escape the oppressive expectations
of caste. Jadhav is one of India's 165 million Dalits, or
"untouchables" — the group of Indians who were literally outcaste from
society for centuries. In some ways, little has changed: Dalits are
still disproportionately impoverished, malnourished and illiterate.
Jadhav's father, Damu, makes his living guarding the bodies of the
dead, hauling away animal carcasses and cleaning the village toilets.
But Damu's political awakening takes him out of his backwater village
to the teeming metropolis of Mumbai. There, his son, Narendra, not
only attends college but becomes chief economist at the Reserve Bank
of India. In this, Narendra's telling of his family tale, we see just
how much mettle it takes to transcend the lines of caste in today's
The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Hardcover, 276 pages
The rustic hero of Adiga's Booker Prize-winning novel, Balram,
shares something with Jadhav's father, Damu. He is an uneducated,
low-caste villager determined to find his way out of "the Darkness,"
as he calls rural India. In Delhi, he sheds the restrictions of his
caste and lands a well-paying job as a chauffeur for a rich man.
Here's where the similarity to Damu ends, however: In the name of what
Balram calls "social entrepreneurship," he murders his boss and takes
off for Bangalore, the tech capital of India, hoping to start his own
business and get rich. But joining the new economy doesn't mean he
overcomes his grudge against rural India — ruled by a corrupt elite.
"In the old days," he says, "there were one thousand castes and
destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes — Men with
Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat —
or get eaten up."
In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
by William Dalrymple
Hardcover, 275 pages
William Dalrymple, who has been chronicling life in India for 20
years as a travel writer and historian, sets out here to show us the
deeply religious rural population. One of Dalrymple's strengths is his
refusal to render judgment, but when it comes to the question of
caste, he throws in the towel. In a section about a sacred dance form
called theyyam, he tells us that the performers who take on the aspect
of the gods are "the shunned and insulted Dalits." When the performers
remove their costumes, he tells us, they're no longer treated like
gods but, once again, like untouchables: "In the presence of persons
of the upper castes," he writes, "Dalits are still expected to bow
their heads and stand at a respectful distance."
Although Adiga's gutsy portrayal of the ugly inner lobes of modern-day
Indian life won him great acclaim, for the most part the image of a
caste-ridden society still goes against the popular narrative of a
booming India. But these three books show us an India still committed
to its religious traditions, even as it surges ahead to join the
Miranda Kennedy is an editor for Morning Edition and the author of
Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production
assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.
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